Atop Camelback

I’ve enjoyed spending some time in Boise, Idaho, over the last few months.  It reminds me of Columbus in some ways — it’s a growing town with a good foodie scene and a significant college vibe, thanks to Boise State University — but of course it’s different in come ways, too.  One difference in the overall vibe is the foothills (in flat Columbus, we’d call them mountains) that are found very close to the downtown area.

We decided to hike up Camelback, which is only a few blocks from the core downtown area, up 8th Street through a very cool neighborhood.  Once you reach the trail head, you can walk straight up to the Camelback overlook, or vie with the mountain bikers, horseback riders, joggers, and dogwalkers on one of the main trails that fan out into the area.  We took one of the trails first, heading out into the sagebrush and arid scenery, then ended the excursion with the cool Camelback overlook and its nice view of downtown Boise and the Idaho Statehouse dome.

It’s amazing what a little elevation near downtown can do for you.  Of course, I’m not sure that many downtown officeworkers hike up dusty Camelback on their lunch hours.

Pocket Parks (Boise Edition)

I’ve written before about pocket parks — those small, quiet enclaves of green trees and grass and shade carved out from cityscapes that can brighten the lives of the people in the surrounding neighborhood — so I’ve got to call out Boise, Idaho for a pretty cool example of the pocket park concept.

The C.W. Moore park is just a few blocks from the core downtown area of Boise.  It’s a beautiful little park, and it’s got some features you don’t see in most parks.  For one thing, it’s got a functioning water wheel in one corner — and what person taking a break from the hurly-burly of life wouldn’t enjoy watching a slowly moving, mesmerizing water wheel and hearing the sound of the rushing water?  The water wheel is an important touchstone for the city’s history, too, because Boise is located in an arid region and water wheels and water systems helped to make Boise green and habitable.

The park also includes other links to Boise history.  Around the park you will see the name stones and date stones of former Boise schools and buildings — you can see part of the Central School name stone in the photo above — as well as a former building entrance arch, a carriage stone, a locally quarried limestone block, columns and streetlights from Boise’s past, and a building turret.  It’s all a pretty cool way of linking the park to Boise’s past in a tangible and interesting way.  Kudos to the Boise Park Department for taking the pocket park concept to the next level.

The Golden Age Of Pizza

I’m in Boise for work. Last night I felt like pizza for dinner, so I asked the desk clerk for a recommendation. She raved about the pizza at The Wylder, and particularly the Honey Badger. The Wylder had the advantage of being only a block away from my hotel on a rainy night, so my choice was an easy one.

The Wylder offers lots of interesting pizza options, but I felt I needed to go with the clerk’s enthusiastic endorsement– and I’m very glad I did. The Honey Badger is one of the best pizzas I’ve ever tasted. It’s a white pizza that starts with a crunchy sourdough crust and is topped with fennel Italian sausage, caramelized onion, ricotta cheese, and some kind of chili-infused honey and garlic oil. Taking a bite results in a flavor explosion in your mouth, and the combination of tastes and textures is incredible.

As I sat, happily munching away on slice after slice, I reflected on the development of pizza cuisine in my lifetime. My first pizza was a red sauce mozzarella cheese pizza, where the sauce probably came out of a can and the crust and cheese had zero flavor. Over the intervening years pizza has moved from a convenience food to a chance for chefs to strut their culinary skills with great concoctions like the Honey Badger.

I think we’re living in the Golden Age of Pizza.

Excited About Fries!

I passed this sign on the door of a Boise gyro shop yesterday and it made me laugh. When was the last time that French fries, long a staple of the American fast food diet, merited an exclamation point? 1948? And I’m in Idaho, for gosh sakes — the potato capital of the world, where you would expect every eatery to feature spuds galore. And it’s a gyro shop, to boot; gyros and fries have been linked since time immemorial.

So the Gyro Shack is just now adding fries to the menu? There’s a back story there somewhere.

Atop Table Rock

Boise is surrounded by mountains. Some are seen in the far distance; others are right next door. One of the nearby outcroppings is a huge, flat-topped butte called Table Rock that is a popular destination for hikers and tourists.

Table Rock is well worth a visit. It gives you a grand view of the Boise valley — that’s the city in the photo above, far below — and it reminds you that Boise gets its name from “bois,” the French word for tree. There are trees along the river, and trees have been planted all over town, but otherwise Boise is surrounded by desert conditions. Look in one direction from Table Rock and you see green; look in another and it’s dusty brown as far as the eye can see.

One other thing about Table Rock — there are no fences or guard rails. If you’re up there on a blustery day, as we were, you don’t want to get too close to the edge or you might just get blown off . . . and it’s a long way down. We maintained a prudent and respectful distance from the edge.

Waiter’s Choice

Sometimes, after a long day of work on the road, I’ll get to a restaurant, review its lengthy menu, and just not feel like making tough decisions about what to order. In such circumstances, it’s nice to have a waiter who will make knowledgeable recommendations about the options, without mouthing platitudes about whatever happens to be the daily special.

So it was last night at Fork Restaurant in Boise, Idaho, an excellent bistro that advertises itself as being “loyal to local.” Our waiter was experienced and glad to offer candid suggestions after asking a few basic questions like whether I wanted red or white wine or meat, fish, or vegetable. I accepted his recommendations across the board and ended up with a very fine Syrah from the northwest and succulent, melt in your mouth beef short ribs — which you can’t really see in the photo above because they are covered in crunchy Idaho “potato hay.”

His recommendations were so good that when we were considering dessert we decided to blindly rely on his choice. He came through like a champ, bringing us a ridiculously moist butter cake topped with local ice cream and a coulis made from an assortment of berries. It was a sensational end to a very fine meal.

Being a waiter is not easy, especially if you want to do it right. Our experience at the Fork Restaurant last night showed how a really good waiter can complement a really fine meal.

Pre-Dawn Boise

My hotel room window looks out onto Capitol Boulevard, with the Idaho state capitol and its colossal dome in the background.

Boise is bustling. It’s one of the fastest growing places in the country, and people here report that many of the recent arrivals hail from California. Real estate prices have skyrocketed, and one of Boise’s suburbs is set to become the second-largest city in Idaho in its own right.

There always seems to be traffic on Capitol Boulevard, too.

Key Lime Pie

If you go to a steakhouse, there really are only three viable dessert options. Number 1 is the New York-style cheesecake, of course. And tied for second are a fruit cobbler and key lime pie — which must be made with a graham cracker crumb crust.

Tonight, at a very good steakhouse in Boise called Chandlers, I polished off an exceptional “cowboy cut” ribeye and some creamed spinach. I decided to top off my very traditional steakhouse meal with key lime pie. Sure, it was served in a round dish, and the graham cracker crust was chocolate, and there was no ultra-thin slice of lime, twisted and carefully placed on the whipped cream, but I was willing to overlook these departures from slavish adherence to the norm. And it tasted great, by the way.

That New Hotel Smell

I prefer the grand old hotels, with their special features and fixtures, but it’s nice to get a glimpse at the new hotel trends every once in a while, too. Last night I stayed in a Marriott Residence Inn in downtown Boise that the friendly woman who checked me in said had been open for all of two weeks.

The first thing I noticed when I got to my room was the smell. With all of the shiny new, just-out-of-the-delivery-box metal, plastic, fabric, and carpeting, the room had that familiar scent that made me feel like I was going to spend the night in a new Mustang on the local Ford dealer’s showroom floor.

There were some other signs of new hotel approaches, too. The room was a kind of mini-suite, with refrigerator and microwave (complete with a packet of microwave popcorn), and the Keurig coffee maker is definitely a welcome step in the right direction. The bathroom features an enormous, blindingly white walk-in shower that is guaranteed to blast the newly roused traveler into immediate wide-awake mode. And the room has two other features that go on the negative side of the ledger — heaps of those clunky, oversized “accent” pillows on the sofa that keep you from sitting down unless you throw them on the floor, and light fixtures that you have to carefully study to determine whether they are powered by a knob, a hanging cord, a wall switch, or a step-on device on the floor. Oh, for the days when every light could be turned on by a knob beneath the lampshade!

It’s a nice room and a nice hotel, but new or old, a hotel is always a hotel. I noticed that this one also has the loud, patterned carpeting that you seem to find only in hotel hallways and bowling alleys. Some things never change.

Heading Cross-Country

Tonight I began my overnight cross-country trip that will take me from Boise, Idaho to Salt Lake City, then to Boston, and finally to NYC.  Any experienced traveler will react to this wishful itinerary with the thought:  “Yeah, good luck with that!”  But sometimes you just have to try.

Boise was cloudless the whole time I was there, even when I boarded the plane, above — which I’ve got to say isn’t bad.  When I landed in Salt Lake City a few hours later I was horrified to see a few clouds in the sky, but the mountains that ring the airport, shown below, made up for it.

Now it’s time to fuel up on some great airport food, try to stay awake until my next flight boards, and then survive the red-eye. 

Yeah . . . good luck with that!

In The City Of Trees

I’m on a quick visit to Boise, Idaho.  It’s my first visit to a place that, according to a big signs at the airport, bills itself as the “City of Trees.”  The airport signs also make it clear that Idahoans are proud of their beef and their potatoes — so I savored some of each at dinner.

Although I didn’t notice anything remarkable about the trees of Boise, I did think the state capitol building, pictured above, was pretty cool, and I was really struck by what you see in the distance behind the capitol — i.e., cloudless blue sky.  Boise gets sunshine at least part of the day for a ridiculously large percentage of the year.  We could us some of that during our Columbus winters.