Hidden gems – Matyson

If you grafted a French brasserie on to an American neighborhood restaurant you’d produce Matyson (37 South 19th Street).  Pronounced Madison, it’s a charming little eaterie in downtown Philadelphia.  The mood is French, and the tables are numerous and tightly packed.  Sure you’ll share your conversation with the couple seated next to you, but you’ll also get to gawk at what they ordered before you commit.

The menu is American with a twist.  We started with the gazpacho.  It was smooth, brightly colored and had a strong cucumber flavor.  Our second course was the fried pig’s tail appetizer.  This was the dish that caught my eye on the restaurant’s website, and I have to admit I expected curly tails to be laid before me.  What I got looked more like short ribs and tasted like a cross between pork belly and crispy fried chicken.  Yum.  Next came a coffee rubbed duck breast on a bed of brown butter spaetzel and rainbow chard.  It was cooked to perfection, just pink in the middle.  I hadn’t meant to eat the whole thing, but just couldn’t stop myself.  It was that good.  Didn’t get a chance to try dessert, too full.  But it’s on my list for a return visit the next time I’m in town.

p.s.  The restaurant is BYOB, a thing in Philly, so be sure to tuck your best bottle under your arm.  There’s no corkage fee.

Hidden gems – Alexandria Cupcake

With a staff as sweet and cheerful as the products they sell, Alexandria Cupcake is a great place to stop off for coffee and a tiny cakes.  The shop is located in the heart of Old Town a shopping district full of boutiques and restaurants.  You can walk from King Street metro station, though you will definitely need to refuel when you get there, it’s over a mile.  I stopped with a friend recently and sampled their wares.  The devils food cupcake with vanilla frosting was velvety smooth and not too sweet.  And much to my delight the frosting was evenly spread over my entire cupcake, a personal pet peeve of mine.  If you’re passing through Alexandria, VA put Alexandria Cupcake on your list of stops.  You’ll thank me.

Hidden Gems – 1886 (Charleston)

What I wanted for my birthday this year was a romantic dinner.  The Hollywood kind ~ cozy banquette, white table cloth, beautiful table setting and creative cuisine.  We were spending the day in Charleston, South Carolina, so I did a bit of research and came upon 1886.  It’s a charming little boite set in a carriage house behind the Wentworth Mansion, a grande dame of Southern houses.  Sure it’s off the beaten path of downtown, but as my husband pointed out it was full of natives the night were were there.  The cooking is Low Country cuisine focused on locally sourced ingredients.  We stopped for a cocktail at the bar before dinner and had a delicious grapefruit and basil martini.  Our meal was one delectable course after another.  From the cold pea soup starter to the asparagus appetizer with duck egg, and then the game entree it was a terrific meal.  My husband ordered the antelope loin simply because it’s something you don’t often see on a menu.  My dessert came complete with happy birthday written across my plate thanks to their thoughtful pastry chef.  On the whole it was a perfect night.  If you’re in Charleston I would definitely make a reservation and stop by.

Hidden gems – Lily

Remember your childhood visits to Grandma’s house?  Sneaking into her room, that inner sanctum of beautiful, untouchable things.  You’d play dress up for hours clomping around in her high heels.  Well if your Grandmother was a French woman with exquisite taste then Lily in Charleston, SC will make you feel right at home.  This artfully curated boutique is run by a husband and wife team who’ve assembled a jewel box of interesting and chic finds.  They have vintage jewelery, gorgeous scarves, and a plethora of other finds.  It’s girl heaven.  I was drawn in by the Bosom Buddy bags (left).  They remind me of the seagrass baskets that Charleston is famous for.  I took mine home as a souvenir.

Hidden gems – Huaca Pucllana

Lima, Peru is a sprawling and modern city.  When I was there I was fortunate to have  a native recommend a restaurant I don’t think I’ll ever forget.  It’s called Restaurant Huaca Pucllana and sits at the foot of some truly stunning Incan ruins.  What’s so surprising is that it’s in the heart of Miraflores.  The cuisine was world class.  I started with a mayacuya (passion fruit) pisco sour.  Then opted for a traditional appetizer featuring the large Andean corn I’d grown so fond of.  For my entree I ordered a beef tenderloin with roquefort sauce, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a finer or more perfectly cooked piece of meat in my life.  The meal, setting and service were all so divine I made my husband return the next day to tour the ruins and have lunch at Restaurant Huaca Pucllana before flying home.

Hidden gems – Five Guys Burgers & Fries

When Fall comes the one thing on my mind is comfort food.  A good old fashioned American cheeseburger and fries.  It fills me up, warms my heart and gives me that extra layer of padding to get through the cold, dark days of Winter ahead.  Believe it or not it’s hard to find a really satisfying burger these days.  I was spoiled by my time on the West Coast downing In & Out burgers.  Still when I discovered Lorton, VA based Five Guys Burgers & Fries here on the East Coast I felt a glimmer of hope.  They have the same comfy, clean dining rooms as I’m used to, fast service and a genuinely tasty burger.  In fact, they were voted Washington, D.C.’s #1 burger for the past 9 years, so they must be doing something right!  If you’re visiting the Capitol with your family this year, stop in for a fresh and affordable meal.

Hidden gems – Cuello de Luna

National Geographics Travel today tweeted about the haciendas of Ecuador. It being just about a year since I was there, this sparked a great memory for me.  My husband and I made the trek from Quito to Cotopaxi to see the volcano (right).  He took that photo just outside our room at Cuella de Luna, a local hacienda.  It sits on the edge of the national park, and provides not just spectacular views, but a real sense of Ecuadorian hospitality.  Rooms are rustic, but charming and meals are taken together in a communal dining room.  You can lounge by the fire and sip a cocktail or head outside to see the lamas and alpacas grazing in the front yard.  I’d suggest doing what we did, hiring a guide and hiking the Quilotoa Crater.  There is no place like it on Earth.

Hidden gems – Iwo Jima Memorial

Photo credit: Anne Dayton
Today being Veteran’s Day I thought it appropriate to pick a monument to U.S. service men and women.  One of my favorites is the Iwo Jima Marine Corps. Memorial just outside the walls of Arlington Cemetery.  The sight of those 6 men raising the U.S. flag never ceases to stir my soul.  What you don’t realize from photos is that it sits at the edge of the Arlington neighborhood and is surrounded by modern condos.  I like the idea of it being tucked away in some one’s backyard.  What a fitting tribute to the sacrifice soldiers make every day on our behalves.  If you go to see it, sunset is a perfect time for pictures.  If you’re lucky you can even capture the White House and Washington Monument in the background. 

Hidden gems – Graze

I’ve become a huge fan of the gastropub in recent months.  Graze, one of my new favorites, can be found in Madison, Wisconsin.  Haven’t been there?  Well you should make the trip.  You see Madison is a university town, so home to some tasty and pretty affordable pub grub.  I stopped by for happy hour and found some devilishly delicious small plates and a burger that would make you weep.  Try the sassy cheese curds in vodka batter served with a side of ranch.  Just remember you’re in the Midwest, so low-cal isn’t in the offing.  I ordered the Hook’s 10 year cheddar mac & cheese thinking this being Wisconsin, the cheese is going amazing.  And I wasn’t disappointed.  The small portion topped with pulled pork was rich enough to satisfy like a full entree and at just $8 was a serious bargain.

Hidden gems – Haandi

Have you ever had a favorite restaurant that you’ve gone back to years later and found that not only is it still there, but it’s better than ever.  I do.  Haandi is an Indian restaurant located in Falls Church, Virginia.  I first ate there about 15 years ago and they made the most delicious, creamy murgh tikka masala I’d ever had.  I recently got the chance to go back and order my favorite dish again and I discovered to my delight that it is as good as ever, but now healthier.  The cream has gone away, but it’s been replaced by a  cinnamon, tomato sauce.  So fabulous with naan and an order of somosas.  This one is off the beaten path, but if you’re in Northern Virginia or the D.C. area it’s really worth looking up.