Travels and Top Chefs

Duck egg raviolo at Juniper & Ivy


Top Chef is one of my favorite guilt pleasure shows, food TV meets reality TV. Between the professional chefs, quickfire challenges and destination finales, I find endless inspiration. Over the many seasons of the show, there were a few creative chefs that really caught my eye. And it only fuels my desire to travel to new cities, so I can dine at these chefs' restaurants. In the past year, I was had the opportunity to visit restaurants owned by my four favorite Top Chefs and I can say each of these restaurants is worth traveling for.

Juniper & Ivy
Ever since I watched Richard Blais on season four of Top Chef and then again as he won Top Chef All Stars, I have been inspired by his adventurous cooking style. And equally determined to try one of his restaurants. Blais has trained with some of the best chefs in the business, including Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud. But he's really forged his own way with his restaurants where he reinvents classic dishes often utilizing cutting edge cooking techniques like liquid nitrogen. For a while it seemed like I would have to wait to dine at The Spence or Flip Burger in Atlanta. That is until I saw Blais' announcement that he was opening a left-coast cookery in San Diego. Take my beloved west-coast regional cuisine, mix it with Blais' modernist signatures -- I knew it was sure to amaze.

And a chef who finds inspiration in both June gloom and Coachella dates, that's definitely something I can relate to. So I was determined to try Juniper and Ivy as soon as possible. Lucky for me, Blais opened Juniper and Ivy in March and I was headed to San Diego for a belated birthday celebration with my parents, so I didn't have to wait long at all. My mom and I delighted in trying the Coachella dates with lamb bacon for an appetizer, and then decided to order a variety of small plates so we could try more things. The smoked swordfish with gooseberries and mustard caviar was a must, as non-traditional caviar is a Blais signature. Our meal was ronded out with a refreshing asparagus panna cotta, duck egg raviolo and slow-roasted beets with ricotta. We finished with not one but three desserts, it was my birthday after all. I think my favorite was either the yodel, their take on the Hostess treat with a hot chocolate sauce or the citrus marshmallow sorbet that accompanied the pine needle meringue.

From the beautiful menu design to the high-energy design of the restaurant space to the plating of the food, this designer was in awe. The beauty of the restaurant matched the amazing flavors in our meal. As we talked with our waiter, he discovered how anxious I had been to try the restaurant, traveling from Phoenix for my birthday dinner, so he sent Richard Blais to the table! It was such a pleasure meeting him and talking about the food. It's definitely one of my more treasured memories and it left me with an even greater desire to go to Atlanta to try The Spence.

Bérnaise
Over Memorial Weekend, I took a trip to one of my favorite cities to visit a few close friends who had recently relocated. After studying in D.C. during a summer in college, it has come to hold a special place in my heart. I am fascinated by the history, the politics, the museums and the restaurant scene that has blossomed in the years since I lived there. Prior to my visit, I quite literally scheduled my meals, so I could try almost every restaurant on my list and see as many friends as possible. One such restaurant belongs to Spike Mendelsohn, my other favorite chef from what was obviously my favorite season, season four, and Top Chef All Stars. Bérnaise, Mendelsohn's most recent restaurant venture, opened last June and it's been on my D.C. list ever since I read it was opening. Mendelsohn grew up in Montreal and spent time working in France, and the restaurant embodies the French bistro experience I am sure Mendelsohn is familiar with.

A two-story walk up in Capitol Hill, the design is chic and the atmosphere is inviting. My trip fell not long after brunch service started at Bernaise, so I joined my friends Julia and Charlsy for my favorite meal of the day. We sat on the second floor beside a window overlooking the bustling street below. It seemed so quintessentially French in my mind, despite never having been to Paris. I was immediately drawn to the crème brûlée French toast. Toasted brioche soaked in a crème anglaise, it was so decadent and so delicious. I would eat it again and again. And we so enjoyed our meal at Bérnaise that upon another friend's trip to D.C., Julia introduced her to the bistro as well.

Milkwood
Last fall I had the opportunity to attend a design conference in Louisville. I love attending conferences because it usually takes me to a new city and it puts me in the same room with others who share my passion and drive. These past couple years I had the opportunity to meet some amazing people who I have looked up to, who inspire me and who I can now call friends. I usually go to new cities armed with at least a few restaurant ideas and recommendations (some cities that list is longer than the one for sightseeing). For Louisville, I knew one of my meals had to be at an Edward Lee restaurant, a competitor on Top Chef season nine. Milkwood was right around the corner from our hotel so I persuaded a few of my new friends to join me for dinner there.

In addition to it's southern meets global cuisine, the restaurant is known around town for great cocktails. The drink menu is uniquely arranged by flavor -- sour, salty, sweet, bitter and umami. Given we were in bourbon country, I opted for the "salty" Firth of Forth. It was an adventurous choice mixing Bulliet Rye, vanilla and worcestershire sauce. But it was my dinner, the slow-roasted miso chicken that really wowed. I am not exaggerating when I say it's probably the best chicken I've ever tasted, delicate, melt-in-your-mouth and bursting with flavor.

ink.sack
The Voltaggio brothers are perhaps two of the most talented chefs to ever compete on Top Chef, both making it to the finale of season six. Michael Voltaggio edged out his brother to win the competition and in 2011 he opened ink. in West Hollywood. I attended college in Los Angeles but graduated before Voltaggio left The Dining Room in Pasadena to open his own restaurant. However I frequently return to L.A. to visit college friends, so I made it a priority to make it to ink. or at the very least ink.sack, Voltaggio's gourmet sandwich shop.

Last summer, on my way out of town, I stopped for breakfast and a stroll on Melrose. It suddenly occurred to me that while I had not found time to dine at ink., I could quite easily grab something from ink.sack to enjoy on my ride back. Problem solved. The restaurant reflects the energy and spirit I saw of Michael Voltaggio on Top Chef. And while the sandwiches are quite affordable, that does not mean they skimp on flavor. After perusing the nearly two dozen options, I opted for a pastrami sandwich that came with horseradish cream and dijon mustard. I have a weakness for great sandwiches, like this one, so there's no doubt in my mind I'll return to ink.sack on future visits to L.A. And eventually I am going to have a meal at ink,, I am still determined.