Archive for December, 2010

Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010 by virginia

We’re off to NJ for the next few days to spend some quality time with our families. We’re so excited that our nephew will be making the trip up from Charlotte! We hope everyone has a very happy and healthy holiday weekend. Here’s a little pic of the original two fat bellies who want to wish everyone a Merry Christmas!

Santa Claws (Rupert) and his little Elf (Stewie)


Zucchini Pancakes

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010 by virginia

I know I’m still not done with Peru posts yet but I’m mixing things up a bit because I haven’t had time to sort through our thousands of photos and pick out the few dozen that end up on our site. Going back to CSA recipes, our vegetable shares typically included some kind of squash every week, mostly zucchini and yellow squash. We ended up making zucchini pancakes a lot for breakfast/brunch because they were quick and easy to prepare.

Basically we would grate 2 or 3 medium sized zucchinis or squash and one small onion into a big mixing bowl. Using a clean dish towel, we would squeeze out as much liquid as we could from the grated mixture. Then we’d mix in a few tablespoons of flour, season the mixture with salt and pepper, and add a slightly beaten egg to help hold everything together. The mixture should be slightly sticky and you should be able to squeeze together a handful to form balls that will eventually be turned into pancakes.

Pancake mixture

To cook the pancakes, coat the bottom of a pan with some canola or vegetable oil and heat it on medium heat until it is shimmering. Then add in the balls of zucchini mixture, flattening them in the pan with the back of a spatula. Make sure you don’t crowd the pan with too many pancakes, otherwise they’ll stick together and make it hard to flip them. Once they’re browned on one side, flip them over and brown the other side. When they’re finished cooking, take them out of the pan and put them on paper towels to absorb any excess grease. Season immediately with more salt and pepper to taste.

Cooking the zucchini pancakes

Our favorite method of eating the pancakes was to top them with smoked salmon and poached eggs to make a sort of eggs benedict.

Smoked salmon eggs benedict with zucchini pancakes

The salmon gives the dish a nice smokey saltiness and the poached egg adds a layer of richness. We like our eggs to have super runny yolks.

Perfectly poached eggs

It’s a pretty easy dish to make and we enjoyed lots of champagne brunches at home with this meal over the course of our CSA share. While we’re no longer getting weekly vegetable deliveries, zucchinis are still routinely available at the supermarket so we can make it all year round.

Ralph’s Ristorante Italiano

Thursday, December 16th, 2010 by virginia

Ralph’s is another neighborhood restaurant that I’ve walked past many times and never got around to trying. One Saturday night we were looking for a new Italian restaurant to eat at with Josh’s family and we decided to check out Ralph’s. We looked at the menu and it looked like they served a lot of classic red sauce Italian dishes at pretty reasonable prices so we decided to give it a shot.

While we were looking at the menu trying to decide what to order, the bread guy came around and gave each of us a slice of warm rustic peasant bread. It had a nice crispy crust and a slight sourdough tang to it.

Slice of rustic Italian bread

Josh and I decided to split a caesar salad and crostini di mozzarella to start. The romaine in the caesar salad was nice and fresh, and it was tossed with just the right amount of creamy dressing. There was lots of parmesan, which I love, but it was still light and refreshing, not too rich or heavy.

Caesar salad

The crostini di mozzarella was fried wedges of breaded mozzarella cheese. Each wedge was pretty large so it was a generous portion. The cheese perfectly melted in the middle, with a gooey, chewy texture that I had been craving. The accompanying tomato sauce was slightly spicy, giving it a nice kick but wasn’t overwhelming in heat.

Crostini di mozzarella

I usually get chicken parmesan whenever we try out a new Italian restaurant but I wasn’t in the mood for it. Instead I tried my other standard dish, pasta with bolognese sauce. The pasta was rigatoni with lots of ridges, which helped the meaty sauce cling to it better. The bolognese had a rich, deep flavor, and even though the portion wasn’t super big, I had trouble getting through half the bowl. I thought it was really tasty, however, and took home the leftovers for lunch.

Rigatoni bolognese

Josh got the veal saltimbocca alla romana, which was veal covered with spinach and mozzarella in a brown sauce. I know that doesn’t sound appetizing, but it didn’t look that great either. The veal was nicely cooked but the dish lacked flavor and seasoning. It was surprisingly bland, and definitely needed more salt and acid to perk it up. Josh was pretty disappointed with his dish, as was his dad, who ordered the same thing.

Veal saltimbocca alla romana

Josh’s veal dish came with a side of pasta, which was spaghetti with marinara sauce. The spaghetti was al dente and the sauce was sweet and tangy.

Spaghetti with marinara sauce

Overall we were pleasantly surprised by both the food and ambiance at Ralph’s. The outside of the restaurant isn’t much to look at but the inside was surprisingly warm and cozy, with an understated decor. Food-wise, the red sauce is definitely the way to go. The only disappointing dish of the evening was the veal saltimbocca but all of the pasta dishes we had were really flavorful and well prepared. Josh’s mom ended up ordering the chicken parm so I did get to taste it and thought it was a pretty good version. Prices are very reasonable, portions pretty generous, and I definitely think it’s a viable option for our traditional Sunday night dinners with the family.

Ralph’s Ristorante Italiano
862 9th Ave. at 56th St.
New York, NY


Thursday, December 9th, 2010 by virginia

Kashkaval is a Mediterranean cheese market and wine bar that I had been meaning to try since we moved into our neighborhood but we never got around to it. We passed it all the time though and it always looked busy. One weeknight Josh and I were meeting our friends Shiraz and Nicole for an early dinner so I suggested Kashkaval, hoping that we’d be able to just walk in. Luckily they had one table available that wasn’t reserved until 9:30 pm so we had plenty of time to grab a bite to eat.

The front of the restaurant is the cheese market, and they sell assorted breads, meats, salads, and dips as well. The dining area is in the back and it’s quite cozy, with exposed brick walls and lots of wine bottles on display. Tables are packed in and close together but fortunately the table we got was actually a large booth tucked in the corner so we had plenty of space for the four of us.

We ordered a bottle of wine to share, an Argentinean malbec. It was one of the cheaper options on the menu but was perfectly drinkable. We decided to share a large sampler platter of cold Mediterranean tapas, which allowed us to choose up to six of the appetizers/dips/salads that were on the tapas list. We selected the spicy walnut pepper spread, stuffed grape leaves, baba ganoush, red pepper spread, lentil salad, and beet skordalia. It was hard to choose because there were so many options that looked appealing.

Stuffed grape leaves, lentil salad, baba ganoush, red pepper spread, beet skordalia, spicy walnut pepper spread

My favorite items on the platter were the stuffed grape leaves, which were soft and flavorful, the baba ganoush, which had a nice smokey eggplant flavor, and the spicy walnut pepper spread, which was an interesting spicy/tangy/nutty combination. The red pepper spread was pretty tasty as well, but the beet skordalia didn’t have enough beet or garlic flavor (I think I prefer potato skordalia), and the lentil salad was slightly bland. The menu said the large platter would serve 3-5 people, which is about right. They bring you baskets of of whole wheat pita bread to dip and spread with, and the carbs help to fill you up.

Whole wheat pita bread

Since this restaurant was also a cheese market, we definitely wanted to try out one of the cheese fondues. The special fondue of the day, made with Danish fontina and raclette, was our first choice but unfortunately they had run out of it. We settled instead for the kashkaval fondue, figuring that if the restaurant is named after this particular type of cheese, it must be pretty good. We decided to get an order for two instead of four, since we had ordered that large sampler platter. The fondue came with cubes of baguette for dipping.

Dipping pieces of baguette into kashkaval cheese fondue

The kashkaval cheese had a nice nutty flavor to it and a great, elastic stringy texture that made it fun to dip into. We were able swirl lots of cheese around each piece of baguette, which was a good thing. The fondue was slightly greasy, though I’m not sure if it was the cheese or the olive oil they mixed into it. It did soak into the bread but that just gave it a nice buttery flavor. Towards the end, however, the cheese definitely seized up and became super hard so we sadly had to stop dipping and leave behind a fair amount at the bottom of the pot.

Overall I really liked the food and the atmosphere at Kashkaval. It did have a wine bar kind of vibe to it but was still low key, which I prefer. Tables were pretty tight together but it wasn’t overly loud; we were able to carry on a conversation fairly easily. There were a lot of choices with regard to tapas and cheese/meat platters but there weren’t too many main entrees available. I didn’t mind though because we just shared a bunch of stuff, which meant that we got to try a lot of different things. Prices are pretty reasonable, with the large sampler platter costing $18 and the fondue was $24 ($12 per serving). With wine, plus tax and tip, it came out to about $25 per person, which isn’t too bad. I definitely plan on going back so that I can try more items from the tapas list!

856 9th Ave. between 55th and 56th St.
New York, NY

Inka Wasi (Aguas Calientes, Peru)

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010 by virginia

By the time we got to our hotel after spending the day at Machu Picchu, we were pretty exhausted so we knew that if we settled in, we would probably fall asleep and end up not eating dinner. Because we had a grueling hike planned for the next day and would be leaving the hotel before breakfast, we knew that we couldn’t afford to skip another meal so we forced ourselves to leave our room. We stopped in at the hotel bar first to get our free welcome drink, a Pisco Sour. We hadn’t had any since Lima so I had forgotten that I actually really liked them. After chatting with the bartender, he told us to eat at Inka Wasi, the restaurant across the street from our hotel, because they had good pizzas.

When Josh and I saw pizzerias all over Peru, we were sort of confused but figured that they catered to tourists. Our guide in the Sacred Valley told us that Peruvian pizza was actually different from other pizzas because they are cooked over eucalyptus leaves, which impart a unique flavor to the crust. That actually sounded pretty interesting to us so we decided to try it out. Once again we weren’t too hungry so we decided to split a medium pizza (which was still pretty small) and a chicken entree. After we placed our order, they brought us some garlic bread to munch on while we waited for our food.

Garlic bread

The bread was pretty standard but tasty, and it was cooked in the same oven as the pizza so it had a nice crunch and smokey flavor to it. While we were enjoying the bread, someone set off firecrackers right outside the window where we were sitting, which scared the crap out of us. Turns out it was the start of a rally for someone who was running for mayor. A crowd of people were marching down the main street of the town carrying balloons and signs, playing drums, and generally just making a lot of noise by chanting and setting off more firecrackers. It was pretty intense and the parade of people walking by on their way to the main square lasted for a good 15 minutes.

Huge crowd of people headed to a political rally in the town square

After all the excitement passed, we turned our attention back to our food. The pizza we chose was the restaurant’s namesake, Inka Wasi. It was basically a meat lover’s pie, topped with ham, chorizo, pepperoni, and chicken.

Inka Wasi pizza topped with ham, chorizo, pepperoni, and chicken

There was a lot of cheese on the pizza I don’t think there was any sauce. If there was, it was undetectable. The toppings were pretty bountiful, with the chorizo and pepperoni adding some spice and tanginess to the pizza. There was also a lot of oregano sprinkled on top that gave it a distinctive taste.

Slice close up

The crust was pretty thin, almost cracker-like around the edges, though the middle was slightly chewier. The pizza oven was very close to where we were sitting so we watched the chef make them. The crusts were actually pre-made flatbreads that he would put the cheese and toppings on. I was worried about the crust being pre-made but I actually wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference because it wasn’t overcooked or dried out. The eucalyptus leaves burning in the oven did give it a slight floral flavor, but it was very subtle. If I hadn’t known beforehand I probably wouldn’t have guessed eucalyptus.

Underside shot

The chicken we got was pollo a la plancha, meaning it was grilled. I don’t know why we were expecting something exciting so we were pretty disappointed with what arrived, which was just a piece of plain chicken breast accompanied by some rice, potatoes, and sauteed veggies.

Grilled chicken breast with potatoes, rice, and veggies

Surprisingly, however, the chicken was pretty tasty – very flavorful and moist. I’m always astonished by how much better chicken tastes in other countries. It’s not just a boring white meat, it actually tastes like a bird. It was well prepared too; tender, juicy, and well seasoned. The sides were decent but plain. The potatoes were fried on the outside and soft on the inside, reminding me of fried yuca. The sauteed vegetables were buttery but standard.

Overall we were pretty happy with the food at Inka Wasi. The pizza was really tasty and the chicken was cooked perfectly. Service was super friendly and efficient. It’s no wonder the restaurant was hopping when we first arrived. There was a 30 minute wait for a table so we ended up taking a stroll and doing a little shopping to kill some time. Price-wise it was a bit expensive for Peru, more on par with NYC prices. The pizza, which was about the size of a large dinner plate, was 42 soles, or US$16. To be fair, there were a lot of toppings on it. The chicken was 33 soles, or US$12, which is not bad. We also had a few Cusquena beers so our total after tax and tip was S/129, or US$48. Certainly not a bargain but we enjoyed our meal thoroughly. I would definitely recommend checking it out if you’re in Aguas Calientes. The seats near the window are great for people watching!

Inka Wasi
Pachacutec 112
Aguas Calientes, Peru

Tinkuy Buffet at the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010 by virginia

There’s a hotel right next to the entrance of the Machu Picchu archaeological site called the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge. It’s the only hotel that’s actually on top of the mountain, not a bus ride away, and is therefore very expensive. We stayed in the town of Aguas Calientes below but our tour package did include a buffet lunch at the Sanctuary Lodge’s Tinkuy Buffet. We went to the buffet after the guided portion of our tour. Since we had been walking around the ruins all morning and into the early afternoon, we were starving and pretty happy that we didn’t have to go too far to get lunch.

The restaurant is huge, which is good because it was really busy but there were still plenty of tables. The buffet itself, however, isn’t really that extensive. There were two sides to the buffet but both seemed to be serving mostly the same thing, with maybe just a slight variation on side dishes.

The inside of the restaurant

We nabbed a table next to a window and Josh watched our stuff while I got on one of the lines. There were salad items in the front so I picked out a few things to try first. There were beets, which I always love, pasta salad, caprese salad, fish ceviche, and roast beef. While the pasta salad and roast beef were pretty standard, the ceviche was surprisingly delicious, especially for a buffet. It was  light and refreshing, with a nice acidic brightness. It may not have been as sophisticated as some of the ceviches we had at Alfresco but I enjoyed it a lot, even going back for seconds. The caprese salad was good too, even though it wasn’t made with fresh mozzarella, but there was plenty of fresh basil pesto on top.

Pasta salad, caprese salad, ceviche, roast beef, beets

For the main entrees, there was osso buco and roasted chicken. The osso buco was tender but a bit fatty, and the sauce was kind of bland. The chicken was a much better dish – moist, tender, and flavorful. We ate it with rice and some roasted potatoes on the side.

Osso buco, bread, roasted chicken, roasted potatoes, roast beef, rice

There were a few more salad options, and oddly enough, spaghetti with meat sauce, but that was basically the extent of the buffet. There was dessert too but we weren’t in the mood. While the food wasn’t bad overall, it wasn’t that great. The Tinkuy Buffet is definitely a convenient option, but I’m not sure it’s worth it. The cost is about US$35 per person, which is pretty steep. It does include unlimited soda though, which was a bonus. We were really thirsty from all of the walking so we definitely took advantage of the soda fountain. If it comes as part of your tour package, that’s great, you’ll enjoy it, but I don’t think you should go out of your way to eat there.

If you plan on spending the day at Machu Picchu, I suggest packing a light snack to tide you over until you go back down to the town where prices are more reasonable and the food is better. They say you can’t bring food or drinks into the archaeological site but that wasn’t really true. No one checked our bags, and you definitely need tons of water to get through the day. We saw lots of people just sitting down on some rocks and having a snack. The scenery is unmatched. Obviously just don’t litter, and whatever garbage you end up with you have to take back out with you because there are no garbage cans anywhere. We ended up eating some pound cake at the top of Huayna Picchu the next day and it was one of the best experiences of our lives. While the buffet was forgettable, that view definitely was not.

Tinkuy Buffet at Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge
Machu Picchu, Peru

Peru Day 10 – Machu Picchu

Sunday, December 5th, 2010 by virginia

The day that we had been waiting for finally arrived – we were heading to Machu Picchu! It was another early morning start since we had to drive about 45 minutes from our hotel in Urubamba to the train station in Ollantaytambo. Our driver picked us up at 6 am so I barely had time to grab some breakfast at the buffet, which opened at 5:30 am. It was so early that the eggs weren’t ready yet and I didn’t have time to wait around. Therefore, my only source of protein that morning was bacon. Not exactly nutritious, but I supplemented with some fruit and potatoes. Josh was running late, per usual, so I stashed some bananas in my backpack and grabbed a stack of bread for him to munch on in the car.

We arrived at the station and boarded the Vistadome train that would take us to Aguas Calientes, the town below Machu Picchu. The train had pretty comfortable seats and was much more reasonably priced than the Hiram Bingham train, so we were pretty happy about that. Josh and I were both assigned window seats on opposite sides of the train, which meant that we weren’t sitting next to one another so he ended up trading with another couple to take the seat next to me. It turned out to be a good decision because we ended up being on the “good” side of the train (the left side) that had the best scenery. The other side mostly faced the mountainside. The ride was about two hours and we just spent the whole time looking at the view outside the window.

We passed the start of the Inca Trail, where people hike for four days to Machu Picchu. While it was something that we thought would have been fun and interesting, we just didn’t have the time because we wanted to see so many other places in Peru.

The bridge that marks the start of the Inca Trail

While we were on the train, they fed us a snack consisting of a small sandwich, some fruit (assorted melon and kumquats), and some cookies. It was pretty tasty, especially since neither of us had a filling breakfast that morning.

Basket of snacks

A tomato, cheese, and basil sandwich

Corn cookies with chocolate chips

While we snacked, we continued to watch the scenery go by. As we got closer to Aguas Calientes, we could feel everyone’s excitement building on the train.

Inca terraces

Inca ruin

Almost there...

We've arrived! Getting off the train at Aguas Calientes station.

We were really eager to just get straight on the bus and head to Machu Picchu but our tour didn’t start for another hour so we first walked the short distance to our hotel and dropped our bags off at the front desk. After freshening up and slathering ourselves with sunscreen and spraying ourselves with bug repellent (the mosquitoes are supposed to be vicious at Machu Picchu), we headed back to the train station to meet up with our group.

Another train arrived shortly afterward and I think it may have been the pricey Hiram Bingham train. There was much fanfare with their arrival, as a marching band started playing music and locals greeted the new arrivals with confetti and little trinkets. We watched in amusement as people got confetti sprinkled directly onto their heads.

Confetti christening

After meeting up with the rest of our tour group for the day, we walked the short distance to the bus station and lined up. The wait wasn’t too bad and soon we were driving out of town and toward the mountains. I was so excited I could hardly contain myself, but as the bus started traversing the narrow switchbacks up the mountain, I started to get really nervous. When we looked out the window, we couldn’t even see the road on the side of the bus, just a long way down. I’m terrified of heights, and I had been worried that I would be too scared to enjoy the ruins at Machu Picchu. I tried to put those thoughts out of my mind and focused on the scenery instead, which was lovely green mountains peaks.

We were getting close to the top of the mountain and after we rounded one of the corners, we saw this:

Our first glimpse of Machu Picchu!

It was pretty far in the distance so it looked tiny but we were super excited to catch our first glimpse. Then Josh informed me that the huge peak right next to it, which was astonishingly tall from our vantage point (and we were already really high up at this point), was Huayna Picchu. Ever since we booked our Peru trip, we had been debating the entire time whether we would climb Huayna Picchu. Josh was all for it but I had mixed emotions because of my fear of heights. I had heard conflicting reports as to how steep and scary the climb was. Some people said it was a breeze, while a few testimonials I had read online called it incredibly dangerous, and that if you slipped you would fall to certain death. Yikes! Not exactly what I wanted to hear, so I told Josh that I would decide when I actually saw it. These first view was not promising.

There was a bit of chaos after we arrived at the entrance to Machu Picchu. Since buses run continuously, there were a lot of people getting dropped off at almost the same time, and we had to find our group. We made a quick pit stop since there are no facilities inside the archaeological site. Then we regrouped and waited in line to go through the ticket booth. Once inside, we walked a short ways and our guide stopped to explain some of the history to us. We were near some Inca structures but were not in sight of the main portion of Machu Picchu, and the whole time he was talking I kept thinking, c’mon already! Lets go!

So close, but some pesky Inca structures are in the way...

Finally, we were allowed to continue, walking down some stairs, around a corner, and then we saw this:

And this:

Basically, there was not a bad view anywhere we looked. Our guide walked us through the upper and lower sections of the site. We saw the temple of the sun and walked through some residential buildings. Most of it has been restored and is pretty immaculate, though that doesn’t take away from the sheer wonder of how the Incas managed to build this massive city on top of a huge mountain. There are lots of stairs involved but Machu Picchu was actually one of the lowest points on our trip at only about 2,500 meters above sea level (compared to Lake Titicaca, which was about 3,800) so we actually felt really good, stamina-wise. We covered a lot of ground and everything was just incredible, from how neat the stones all lined up to the angular trapezoid-shaped doorways and windows. I’m just going to let all the pictures speak for themselves. There are a lot of the iconic postcard view of Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, but from several different angles. Besides, we would never get tired of looking at that view.

This is pretty neat... if you click on this picture to see the larger version, look through the window. It lines up perfectly with the guard tower at the top of the ruins. The Incas apparently were really big on windows lining up with things.

See the little houses at the right hand side of the picture? That's by the start of the trail for Huayna Picchu.

At the conclusion of the guided part of our tour, we walked out to get lunch at the Sanctuary Lodge, which was included as part of our package. It was nice to take a break and refuel because we had done a lot of walking, and it was pretty hot being outside the whole time. After lunch we re-entered the site (you need your passport and your ticket to do that) and decided to take the hike to the Sun Gate, which is along the Inca Trail. The people who hike the trail usually time their arrival at the Sun Gate to coincide with the sunrise, and it’s supposed to be pretty spectacular. To get to the gate from Machu Picchu, you climb up several levels of stairs until you’re at the top of the site, then there is a long path carved into the side of a mountain that leads up to the gate.

The trail to the Sun Gate was probably about six feet wide, which is not too narrow, but there were several parts where it was a sheer drop off to one side. I was more terrified than I thought I would be and walked practically clinging to the mountain as we went along. My knees were shaking, which only made things worse because I felt unsteady on my feet. The only thing that kept me going was the view, which was of course spectacular.

Another iconic viewpoint

The trail to the Sun Gate

Looking back at Machu Picchu growing smaller in the distance. From this viewpoint you can see just how much taller and steeper Huayna Picchu is in comparison.

Passing by some Inca ruins along the way

Pretty mountain scenery

The path got more narrow and steep as we got closer to the top - yikes!

The Sun Gate

Terraces at the Sun Gate

We were pretty sweaty and gross by the time we reached the top so we rested for a bit before making our way back. Machu Picchu was small in the distance but still pretty impressive. We also had a good vantage point to see the switchbacks that the buses drive to get to and from Machu Picchu. They looked even more narrow and scarier from up high.

View of the switchbacks (those white lines going back and forth up the mountain)

Unfortunately, we had to go back the same way, which meant I had to walk along the narrow path once again. Surprisingly, it was harder the second time around. I actually had to stop a few times and give myself a quick pep talk to keep going. I think I was just tired at this point, and we were kind of rushing to make sure we didn’t miss the last bus back to Aguas Calientes, so the combination of all the factors made me feel even more nervous and shaky.

Narrow, and steep drop off to one side

We had a little time to spare so we walked up to the guard tower, which gave us yet another nice view of Machu Picchu.

We also ran into a group of llamas on one of the terraces. They basically wander around the ruins as they please.

Josh playing with his wide angle lens again

Afterward, we made our way back to the entrance to wait for the next bus. At this point I resigned myself to the fact that I had to climb Huayna Picchu. I kept staring at that peak all day long and psyching myself into and out of doing it. But I knew deep down that if I didn’t at least try, I would regret it. So we bought bus tickets for the next day, and when we got back to town we headed straight for the building where they sell entrance tickets to Machu Picchu (our tour package didn’t include tickets for the next day). On the bus ride down the mountain, we inhaled the now slightly smashed bananas that I had stashed in my backpack from breakfast (see top of post). I have to say, they were just what we needed.

Back in town we took a quick stroll through the main square in Aguas Calientes. As expected, there was a church.


Main square


Later that night, there was a rally in the square for the upcoming elections. There was a band and lots of balloons, and people were really getting into it.

Unfortunately, the rally lasted well into the night. Our hotel was very close to the square so we heard all the speeches and fireworks that were going off. It was a bit annoying because we had gone to bed right after dinner at the Inka Wasi knowing that we needed to wake before dawn to catch one of the first buses up to Machu Picchu, since only 400 people are allowed to climb Huayna Picchu per day. The rallies I think ended around 2:30 am, and we had to get up at 3:30 am. So that, on top of my anxiety about climbing Huayna Picchu, did not make for a good night’s sleep. Regardless, I was pretty happy with how our day was, and Machu Picchu itself was even more impressive than I thought it would be. Hope you enjoyed all the photos!

Lobby Bar at Tambo del Inka

Saturday, December 4th, 2010 by virginia

After getting caught in the rain and rushing back to the hotel, we ended up staying in for dinner rather then venturing back out into the town of Urubamba. Our options were pretty limited, just the hotel restaurant, Hawa, or the Lobby Bar. We were pretty tired, not very hungry, and not feeling up for a formal dining experience so we opted for grabbing a casual bite to eat at the bar.

Grand mosaic behind the bar

The bar itself was really quite nice, with tall ceilings, interesting lighting pieces, and a beautiful mosaic art piece behind the bar.We had the option of sitting inside or outside but because it was kind of cold out we chose to stay inside where we settled in at one of the many open tables. While there were people drinking and smoking on the terrace, we had the indoor section to ourselves, which I kind of liked because we could chat without bothering anyone.

Cool lighting

We were in the mood for wine so Josh selected a bottle of red from Chile. We found that while wine was definitely not cheap in Peru, the South American wines provided more bang for our buck. We could usually get some sort of gran reserva wine for about US$40 a bottle, which isn’t too bad. We ended up drinking a lot of Argentinean malbecs on our trip, which is just fine by me. The Chilean wine we got that night was a variety we had never heard of, carmenere. Apparently it’s related to the cabernet grape family. This wine had a rich, deep flavor that was fruity but not sweet, and a velvety mouth feel. We both took a sip and looked at each other at the same time and said “wow!” While we love to drink wine, we’re not exactly wine connoisseurs (for example, my standard everyday drinking white wine is 3 buck chuck chardonnay). We just like to drink what tastes good, and this definitely fit the bill. Appropriately, it was a “max reserva”, and I took a picture of the bottle so we can look for it here. (Note to self: look for this wine).

Great wine

In terms of food, I was actually pretty shocked by how expensive the dishes were at this hotel. We looked at both the restaurant menu and the bar menu, and things were pretty much double the most expensive prices we had seen our trip. Lomo saltado, for example, which I found pricey at 35 soles in Puno, was over 70 soles here. I guess it’s understandable considering this was by far the most luxurious hotel we stayed at on our trip, but I found it kind of ironic that it was also the most expensive place even though we were in one of the poorest cities on our trip. The huge difference made me feel a bit guilty. I just hope that our tourist dollars are helping out the people in town!

We really weren’t that hungry so we ended up sharing a shrimp appetizer and a chicken sandwich. After we placed our order, we settled in to snack on the basket of potato chips they brought to us with our wine. Hands down, these were the best potato chips we’ve ever eaten. Freshly cut, sliced super thin, perfectly fried, and well seasoned, these chips were absolutely fantastic. We could see the skin still on the edges, and they were delicately crispy without being greasy. They had the intense potato flavor we found in most Peruvian potatoes, and we could not stop crunching on these awesome chips.

Awesome potato chips

The shrimp appetizer we got was shrimp in a curry, coconut, and cilantro sauce. The shrimp were served three to a skewer, and there were three skewers. We were intrigued by the sauce, which was a great blend of flavors. It was sweet and savory at the same time, and no one component overpowered the others. The shrimp were perfectly cooked so that they were delicate and tender, not tough or chewy. It didn’t seem like a big portion at first but the sauce was rich enough to satisfy our meager appetites.

Shrimp in curry, cocounut, and cilantro sauce

The chicken sandwich was sort of a random selection on our part but I was in the mood for something simple. Nothing else on the menu really appealed to me, plus it gave me an excuse to be able to eat french fries. The chicken was breaded in panko and served with avocado, lettuce, and tomato on a whole wheat roll. Certainly not very Peruvian or exciting, but it was perfectly cooked and perfectly tasty. The avocado added a nice creaminess and richness so that it didn’t need mayo. The fries on the side were made from assorted potatoes, some more starchy than others. I was super excited when I asked for ketchup and got Heinz. The ketchup I had on the trip so far, whenever I could find it, was always fluorescent pink and watery, not tasting very similar to the ketchup I’m used to. Josh laughed at me because I was so thrilled with the Heinz, but he just doesn’t understand the different nuances because he doesn’t eat ketchup. Personally, I don’t understand how anyone can get through life without eating ketchup. He’s just weird like that.

Panko crusted chicken sandwich on a whole wheat roll, with french fries

Overall we both liked the food we got at the Lobby Bar but it was definitely overpriced for what we got. Despite having just an appetizer, a sandwich, and a bottle of wine (albeit a really nice one), the bill was US$70 after tax and tip, or about 200 soles, which made it the third most expensive meal on our whole trip. The shrimp was really tasty though, and the sauce was really an intriguing combination that I wouldn’t mind trying again. The chicken sandwich was standard but well executed. I also loved the fries and potato chips, and the wine was superb. My favorite part though was the company, and the vibe of the bar. We were relaxed and at ease in the low key environment. They kept playing the same music over and over but we didn’t mind, since one of the songs was Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight”, which has special meaning for us. Service was attentive but not overbearing. It could have been easy for them to hover since we were the only people dining inside but they gave us our space and still came promptly whenever we needed anything. I would highly recommend staying at Tambo del Inka, though I’m not sure how expensive (or not) it really is, since everything was booked through our tour company. It’s definitely worth looking into if you plan on staying in the Sacred Valley.

Lobby Bar at Tambo del Inka
Av. Ferrocaril s/n, Valle Sagrado
Urubamba, Peru

Alhambra Hacienda Restaurant

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010 by virginia

After spending the morning and early afternoon in Pisac and Ollantaytambo taking in some Sacred Valley sights, we had lunch at Alhambra Hacienda Restaurant. I’m guessing the place caters mostly to tourists but the food was good, the grounds were beautiful, and there were lots of animals wandering around to keep us entertained. There was an indoor section of the restaurant but the weather was so nice that we sat outside under a large gazebo. The area that held the buffet items was sort of inside and outside, in a covered courtyard that was definitely built in the Spanish style.

An overview of the restaurant grounds with grazing animals, the gazebo we ate inside, and the main part of the restaurant in the back

Our lunch was included with our tour and was served buffet style. We walked around looking at all of the offerings before loading up our plates. We started off with bowls of vegetable soup that was simple but flavorful, and perfect for dunking with crusty bread.

Vegetable soup and bread

We basically both got a few “feeler” plates so that we could taste as many different things as we could fit in our stomachs:

Beets, roast beef, bean salad, baked pasta, causa (a layered casserole with potato, tuna, and avocado), and giant cancha (fried corn kernals)

Bread, lima beans, orange chicken, refried beans, beef, trout, pork, more bean salad in the middle

We didn’t really linger over our meal because we were eager to get up close with the animals that were grazing in the field behind us.

Shaggy llamas

Alpacas and a vicuna (Josh really wanted to pet it but didn't have the guts)

There were also a pair of colorful parrots hanging out in a tree.

Pretty birds

While Josh was playing around with his wide angle lens, I walked around and took some flower pics.

Overall the food at Alhambra was pretty simple and rustic but very hearty. Some of the meats were a bit tough but everything tasted pretty good, even the orange chicken, surprisingly. There was dessert too but we weren’t in the mood for sweets. The atmosphere is casual and laid back, and we kind of felt like we were at a picnic or barbecue. I’m not sure if the restaurant is always a buffet, or if they serve a la carte meals as well. It is close to a few major hotels in the area, so it might be something worth checking out if you’re there.

Alhambra Hacienda Restaurant
Carretera Urubamba-Ollantaytambo Rd.
Urubamba, Peru