Monday, August 24, 2009

Life

Something rather profound happened overnight.  I don't know what it was or how it happened or what caused it, but there's a sea-change in attitude that's been obvious since I awoke this morning.

Last week, yesterday -- and if I want to be brutally honest, for the last two weeks since I returned from my California trip -- I've been lackadaisacal and withdrawn, with little interest or motivation to do much of anything.  Yes, I went to Eureka to see a movie, and I've done a few other things, but for the most part I just haven't been able to bring myself to do much of anything or be interested in anything.

What happened overnight to change that?  I have no clue.  It's nothing I did.  Although I haven't done much over these two weeks, I have certainly been introspective to a large degree.  Nothing formal, no meditations.  I've simply been very aware of my thoughts and probably most importantly, I've questioned, questioned, questioned.  Probed those thoughts to trace their origins and meanings.  Still, not much changed.

This morning, as soon as I climbed out of bed, I felt a difference.  I answered an email I've been putting off because I had no interest, didn't even want to think about it.  I did my Monday morning weight routine with gusto and interest and even power.  And it's not an easy routine.  Last week I barely finished -- not because my body was weak, but because my attitude was weak. The changes are subtle.  I'm not bouncing off the walls.  But the difference is readily apparent.

We all do what we want to do in life.  We make room for what is important to us.  Not much has been important to me for awhile now. Today, I am important to me, and that feels terrific.  I'm fully aware that it may all change in a day or an hour, but right now, I'm going with it.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Spring Lamb and Flageolets

At 4am this morning I was wide awake in bed running through mental images of a kitchen task I dread over most others: cutting carrots and celery into perfect little squares for the classic mirepoix. I've never had much success with this. I mean, how do those chefs turn cylindrical objects into perfectly uniform matchsticks, from whence comes those perfect little squares? I can only surmise that the samples they show us in photographs are what's left over after discarding the less than perfect ends and edges. Actually, I've seen it done and they just cut away the sides of a carrot, leaving a perfectly squared shape that can then be cut into neat slices. It's not that I don't know how it's supposed to be done, or that I don't have a good knife. I just can't do it that perfectly and I refuse to waste the trimmings. Alas.

After an hour of mentally running through this, I got up, had my coffee, played a couple of Mah Jongg games and finally gave it up. I hadn't planned to prepare the recipe this early, but really, it was the only way to stop those mental games. As with most things in life, I found that the doing wasn't nearly as hard as the worrying. Maybe all that mental practice helped. At any rate, I ended up with a product that if not perfect, was close enough for me. The onion and garlic were easy.

This whole thing started down in Napa when I bought all those wonderful Rancho Gordo beans. I think I told you that I chose them based on color as much as anything, although with these gorgeous flageolet beans I have to admit that I was equally drawn by their fame as the base of that difficult but delicious French classic, Cassoulet. I wasn't ready to attack that again, but still, I knew there must be other uses that would be equally good. I found this recipe on the Rancho Gordo website, but since it wasn't spring and I didn't have a source of natural local lamb, I opted to look for something else. Long story short, I ended up ordering the Rancho Gordo bean cookbook, Heirloom Beans because I am right now a bit obsessed. These beans are expensive, relatively, but not as expensive as other forms of good protein, and I want to build a good repertoire for the various varieties. Last week down in Eureka the natural foods store had some perfect bone-in local lamb leg chops and I jumped at the chance to use the flageolets. Last night I put the beans on to soak and took the lamb out of the freezer. I was committed. Hence the early morning mental activity.

First step was to brown those lamb chops in olive oil. Julia would have been proud of me as I meticulously mopped the moisture away, using the rare paper towel. They look wonderful and smelled even better. But my friends, this is $15 worth of local natural lamb, so it damned well better smell good and taste even better! So much for this being an economy recipe. Did I mention I was obsessed? In actuality, when you add that $15 to the $5.50 for the beans and divide by 6, which is the number of servings in the recipe, the cost per serving is just under $3.00, which isn't all that bad. I just cringe at that $15!

Then those veggies hit the oil and browned bits and ohhhhhhh -- I can't even begin to describe the aromas that filled my kitchen! I hated to put a stop to it, but eventually all those browned bits were scraped up and it was time to add the beans, their soaking liquid, and the browned lamb to the pot. Then wait.

All this was before breakfast of course, and after all those good aromas I was practically frothing at the mouth for something to satisfy my tummy. Somehow, my blueberry-cottage cheese smoothie didn't quite fit the bill emotionally after all that, but it filled the tummy.

The stew is meant to be served with Fay's Relish, which is mostly cilantro, along with garlic, shallot, lemon zest and juice, and olive oil.

As I said -- mostly cilantro.

Here it is, the finished product. Perfectly cooked, flavor-filled-delicious and yes, the relish adds a lot of dimension and layers. Since it's only about 10:15 it's a bit early for lunch so I only had a taste. Now I need to figure out how to divvy up and freeze 5 servings of the relish to go with the 5 servings of the beans. Not a bad problem to have.  On the other hand, I'm beginning to doubt that all of them will make it to the freezer.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Food and Other Obsessions

Yesterday I proved -- and fed -- more than one of my obsessions.

It's no secret that I've been a bit frustrated with certain lackings here in Brookings. I'm not a shopper, so I don't need malls or big box stores or much of anything else. I do need good food and on occasion, a good movie that I don't have to wait six months to hit Netflix.

A little research showed that the movie was available in either Grants Pass, OR or Eureka, CA. I knew there was at least one food store that carried natural meats in the Eureka area plus I'd rather drive to Eureka than Grants Pass. There are all those redwoods plus that big old ocean off to the side.

Sunday night, I decided that Monday was the day. I left here around 8am and admit that the 2.25 hour drive was less than fun -- too much traffic, too many delays for road work, too many snail-like RVs on the road. But hey -- once I reached Eureka I found both the theater and Pier One, which were my first two goals. I also found a big Natural Foods supermarket across the street from the theater and since I had time, I went in to check it out. Fabulous meat/seafood counter -- and that's what I was there for.

At noon I settled into my seat to watch 'Julie & Julia', and I have to say, that movie was worth every mile of the drive. It was warm, funny, touching -- I can't remember when I was so engrossed in a movie. Any movie. I laughed out loud more than once, and that's a rarity for me. I could have stayed and watched it again, but I had places to go.

With my Google map in hand I headed for a store in Arcata, a bit north of Eureka, that I'd heard advertised on the radio. I found it without too many wrong turns and went in filled with anticipation. Sadly, the meat/seafood counter was about half the size of the one in Eureka, and didn't have the same selection of natural meats. They particularly didn't have a cut I wanted in the natural beef. Seems they only carry select cuts -- steaks and roasts, mostly. Great stuff, but too pricey for my needs at the moment. Their whole natural chicken cost more, too. With a big sigh, I hopped back in the car and drove back to Eureka. I did say I was obsessed.

But, I got what I wanted. Some beef, some lamb, some chicken, all destined for the freezer and all destined for particular dishes I want to try.

And speaking of obsessions -- it's no secret that I have an obsession with food and cooking. It's a lifelong thing. For the umpteenth time in my life, I had a 'revelation' Sunday that I really need to be doing something with this passion. I keep looking for a direction, a purpose, some passion I can follow in this third stage of my life and I keep coming up empty-handed. Until I get into food and cooking. The question is, what do I do with it?

The movie couldn't have come at a better time. Nor could all that wonderful natural food in Eureka. Unfortunately, I still haven't figured out what to do with it, but hope that will come in time. Any ideas? I suppose writing would be a good part of it, but how? A blog would be great, but what kind of premise has something to offer? Something that I could do at the weekly Saturday Market would be great, but what? Aside from jams/jellies and other preserved food, a professional kitchen is required to sell cooked food to the public. Not sure what I'd want to cook anyway.

Wheels are turning nonetheless. Let's see where they lead.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Napa -- Part Two

After we left Chateau Montelena we drove down Highway 29 to St. Helena. There is not a foot of any road in the Napa Valley, or for the most part leading out of the Napa Valley, that I have not ridden on a bicycle, often many times, so wherever we go, memories abound. Much has changed since I moved away in 1986, of course, but I've been back several times since then so it's been incremental. Mostly, there is just more - more wineries, more vineyards, more shopping, more lodging, more restaurants -- more of everything. More traffic, as well, which is a major turn-off!

Our only goal for the afternoon was Beringer, where Sylvia, Walt and I all worked way back when. Well -- they stayed on and retired from there, I left, rather foolishly in retrospect. Much has changed here, too -- growing pains! The grand old Rhine House has thankfully changed very little -- mostly in how it is used. When I worked there, I was lucky enough to have that nice little upstairs corner office in the photo, with the balcony. Words really cannot describe what a wonderful place this was to work in those days. I'm sure it's also lovely now, but not in the same way because we were much smaller then, the employee family tight.

These wonderful stained-glass doors are hard to photograph with a hand-held camera, but you can tell how beautiful they are. When I worked there, and indeed until quite recently, these doors were never used. Now, they are fittingly being used once more for entry into the Rhine House. The house itself has always been lovingly maintained by its series of modern owners, and is always beautiful. Almost 3 years of my life were spent in this wonderful environment.

This beautiful staircase is closed off to the public, as it was during my tenure. For years, one of the larger offices upstairs was used as a tasting room for high-end wines, but no more. All of these interior shots are going to be less-than-perfect, but I can't resist using them.

Almost every room in the Rhine House features these wonderful, original stained-glass windows. If memory serves, some were broken in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, but thankfully many remain.

I believe this was the dining room in the original home, but would not swear to that. I include the photo to show the detailing of wood, including the floors. This is all original from the late 1800s (1881, going on memory here).

All the merchandising here is done with such flair, and such adherence to the age and elegance of the building. And those wonderful wines, of course.

After we left Beringer we went to the Sunshine Market. When I lived here, Sunshine was a smaller grocery store that competed for the burgeoning gourmet business with the local Safeway and such places as the Oakville Grocery. Because it was rather the ugly stepsister, I rarely went there. For some years now, things have changed in a big way. Sunshine now focuses on the gourmet tastes of the local residents and is swimming with customers. We bought a frozen pizza made in Italy, some Dulce de Leche ice cream, and I bought a bottle of old-fashioned Straus Family milk, from Tomales Bay. Organic, non-homogenized, packaged in an old-fashioned returnable glass bottle -- lovely! All that luscious cream rose to the top -- when I was a kid, I hated that. How times change!

Sylvia and I had a wonderful day, and then a wonderful evening. Walt had gone into San Francisco to a Giant's game so we had the house to ourselves. Rather excessive amounts of wine were consumed, before and with the pizza and ice cream, and lots of good girl-talk.

For Saturday, a pool-party was in the offing. We hit the pool area early to clean up and prepare that, then spent the rest of the morning making a variety of salads to go with the burgers (hamburgers, ahi tuna burgers, or Gardenburger). What a pleasure to cook in that kitchen, with its space, extra sink, and to-die-for commercial-style gas cooktop.

Sylvia had invited her two daughters, who live in Sacramento and Marin, along with others who had conflicting schedules. I knew the daughters when they were teenagers, have seen them since then but not for awhile. Both had their kids with them -- two were teenagers I haven't seen since they were toddlers, the others were 7 and 8 and this was my first meeting with them. Lovely children, all of them. We spent the afternoon lounging around in the shade, watching the kids in the pool, playing Trivial Pursuit, capped it off with burgers and all those salads -- plus lots of wine, of course!

I left early Sunday morning, after a stop for coffee in Napa with Walt and Sylvia. A Mocha for the road never hurt anyone! The visit was way too short -- and yes, to answer questions asked and unasked, I could happily live anywhere in that part of the world again. San Francisco, Marin, Point Richmond, Napa, Sonoma, even Mendocino would be lovely, but for me totally unaffordable. I'm grateful to have the opportunity to visit from time to time. I'm especially grateful that I have all these wonderful friends of so many years standing. I love all of you, and am so glad to have had this chance to visit.

I don't know why this trip turned out to be such a quest for memories and nostalgia, but that's certainly what it was. I had in mind driving over to Point Reyes Station and driving up the coast, just to cap off the memories, but decided that was a bit too much for this trip. I wanted lunch at a lovely old oyster company on Tomales Bay anyway, and I would have been way too early for that even if oysters are in season -- and I'm not sure they are. I lived over there for a year or two as well -- long before any of the rest of these places. I'll save that for another trip south.

I hope you've enjoyed this travelogue -- I've certainly had fun doing it.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Napa - Part One

Well this is, after all, what it's all about. These were display vines in a courtyard in downtown Napa but still -- grapes are grapes and I didn't wander off into any vineyards. No clue what variety these are, but they are clearly beginning to change color as they march towards harvest time.

Friday morning Sylvia and I headed out for the day in her sweet little convertible sports car with the top down. So fitting, and such a wonderful way to tool around the Valley or any place else. We began the day with a group from the local Audubon Society in a birdwalk. Not too many interesting birds, unfortunately, but we had a good hike in Skyline Park. I eventually pulled the plug after we'd walked up one long hill then started down it. I was tired after all my walking in San Francisco and didn't want to have to reclimb this hill from the other side. I know. Wimp.

Since it was too early for lunch, we went into downtown Napa, which has changed beyond belief. When I moved to the Valley in 1979, and when I left in 1986, the city of Napa was drab, boring and completely uninteresting. No more! It has blossomed. Fabulous restaurants, ritzy hotels, super shopping complexes and a wonderful walking/cycling path along the river front that will eventually connect with some path that encompasses the entire Bay Area. As you can see below, they've turned wonderful old industrial areas into hotel and shopping areas, and done it with true Napa Valley flair and style. I was stunned.

My only quest for Napa was for some Rancho Gordo beans. This small but growing Napa company produces heirloom beans that will knock your socks off. I first read about them some months ago in the New York Times On-Line, promptly ordered 3 varieties and found them impossibly delicious. Beans are beans, right? Wrong. All I can say is, try them. Most of their business is done online, but they have a few outlets including a couple in the Napa Valley. I could have ordered more online, but as beans go these are on the pricey side and since I was here anyway -- why pay the shipping?

The Napa outlet is a small store called The Fatted Calf. I thought I took a photo of their bean display, but apparently not. But, here's their butcher case. Aside from some cheeses and a wall of packaged goods, there wasn't much more to the store than this, but there didn't need to be. Be sure to click on the photo to enlarge, read the blackboard and look at the fine foods.

And here are the four packages of beans I brought home with me. I admit that except for the Yellow Indian Woman beans I chose the rest as much for color as anything. There were simply too many to choose from, otherwise. Try them -- you'll like it!

Beans safely in hand, we continued around the corner into a large indoor market inside a reclaimed brick building from days of yore.

This is but a small sampling of both the market place and the area. Flowers were everywhere. Aside from the above items, the market place had seafood, meats, an oyster bar and naturally, a very large wine section. The cheese selection, above, was unbelievable.

After all this we opted for lunch at Taylor's Refresher, which was nearby. This place has a fascinating story. When I lived in the Valley, the only Taylor's Refresher was a small white wooden structure in St. Helena that was a basic old-time fast-food place. I never went there, and neither did most other people. A few years back a couple of brothers bought the place and transformed its menu into something extraordinary. It's been written up in Bon Appetit and lots of other places. There are now three locations, including the original in St. Helena. I love that kind of story. We ordered at the counter, found a seat outside in the shade with a glass of wine, and enjoyed the experience greatly.

The fish tacos were mine, the salad Sylvia's, and we shared the sweet potato fries. Luscious, and a great way to start our tour of the Valley.

I had no agenda for this visit, other than visiting with my dear friends (and the quest for beans), so we drove up the Silverado Trail and stopped here and there as the spirit moved us. We didn't do a bit of wine tasting, other than at Gustavo-Thrace, which was right across the street from the restaurant. Sylvia knew one of the owners, who pressed us to taste one of their reds. It was quite good. Gustavo was featured in the movie 'Bottle Shock', about the 1976 Paris tasting that really put Napa Valley wines on the map. This movie is really fun, if you get a chance to see it.

A highlight was a drive into and through Stag's Leap Winery, which always has been and remains closed to the public. Fortunately Sylvia has connections here, but nobody tried to stop us anyway. The place sits way off the road. I've driven through here once before with Sylvia, when they were renovating the place. This manor house is now used only for winery entertaining and special events, although the grand old stone winery is still in use. This is where the Cabernet Sauvignon that won its portion at the Paris Tasting was made. I would love to be able to walk around here, see the inside of the house and winery, but it was closed today. I'm happy just to see it.

Our next stop was Chateau Montelena in Calistoga, producer of the Chardonnay that won the Paris Tasting and also the focus of the movie. This has always been one of my favorite places, primarily because of Jade Lake, above. This beautiful lake with its lush plantings, its gazebos and islands and bridges and swans is so utterly peaceful, and particularly wonderful for picnics although they don't advertise it as such. Most people who visit the winery probably don't even see it, as it sits behind the place and is fairly well screened by greenery. We headed straight here, didn't even go inside the winery!

This lovely arched bridge leads to one of two islands and gazebos on the lake.

This gazebo is reached by an equally stunning zig-zag bridge.

After this we headed on towards Beringer, on Highway 29. But -- that and the rest of the visit must wait until tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Transitions

I arrived back in Brookings late this afternoon, after a pleasant enough trip north from Napa. Being home feels really strange, after the week I've had. It doesn't really seem like home, but I'm glad to be here if for no other reason than that it's a base. My stuff is here. I'll come back to earth in a day or two, I'm sure. I haven't had internet access the past few days, so the blog needs a bit of updating on my adventures. We'll start with my day leaving San Francisco en route to Napa, which was really fun. Napa itself is deserving of its own post, so stay tuned for that one soon.

After I pulled myself away from that fabulous Russian Hill studio, I drove to my next destination, the St. Francis Yacht Club (better known to those of us who love her as the St. Frannie). As you can see, above, she sits on a prime piece of San Francisco real estate a stone's throw from the Golden Gate Bridge. I spent many a good year of my life in and out of this club, and the memories are beyond description. Sailboat races, parties, sailboat races, parties, over and over again. Priceless. The building you see here is actually not the building I knew. After I moved to Reno in late 1976 I heard a news report that the St. Frannie had burned -- and I cried. The people I knew in Reno thought that was strange, but they didn't understand my association with this place. I have been inside since it was burned and rebuilt, and it just isn't the same. In a way, I'm glad my memories are of the old building and all that history, although the thought of all that burned with it is just too sad. Paintings, photographs, trophies -- on and on.

I remember an evening there, probably after a race or as a prime event that was part of a big race weekend, when we went upstairs for dinner and found several huge tables piled with food. One had cold items, mostly seafood or maybe all seafood. Huge bowls of crab, shrimp, and I don't even remember what else. Another table held hot entrees, including great slabs of beef waiting to be hand carved to your pleasure. I have no idea what was on the other table. I was so enamored of the seafood that I piled my plate high with crab and shrimp, probably other things, and that's all I ended up eating. Trouble is, I ate so much that I was physically uncomfortable not only for the rest of the evening, but all night as well. I don't think I've ever eaten so much at any one time. And it was lovely!

Sigh. I can't even start to relate memories of this place. It would take all night. The good news is that while the building is 'new', the rest of the place has changed very little. This is the harbor in front of the club. See what I mean about location? Could anything be more lovely than this? The sailboat in the foreground, Ragtime, looked and sounded really familiar, but I couldn't place her exactly. I could tell from several clues that she's been to sea for awhile. When I got to Point Richmond and talked to Jim, I asked him about her and he said that yes, she'd been on the Bay when I was here, and that she'd been refitted and recently won some major ocean race. I need to Google that and find out more.

This is something else I want to Google. I've hung around this and other snazzy yacht clubs quite a bit in my life, but this is by far the largest yacht I have ever seen at any of them. I'm guessing it's about 100', but I could be wrong. If you can't read it, her name is "Fighting Irish". Not my style of boat (doesn't have sails!), but impressive nonetheless. I actually wondered how she managed to get into that marina, turn around and back into this slip. The marina is not all that big! (Update) Mr. Google tells me she's actually 145', overall, and could have been yours for a mere $16,900,000. She holds 11,600 gallons of fuel -- how'd you like to pay for that fill-up? But, I guess if you can afford to buy this puppy, you aren't bothered by such details.

Here's another place that has and hasn't changed. Point Richmond is what it is -- an old town with lots of charm. The old buildings are still there and still have the charm, but I must say the mix of stores is a bit updated and more sizzling than when I lived there. Lots of places, like the market with the blue awning and the Hotel Mac, are still going strong. I had a wonderful reunion here with my friend Jim and his daughter Pam. We had lunch at a vegan Chinese restaurant, which was a first for me. It was tasty, actually, although I didn't photograph it. Just broccoli and shiitake mushrooms in a sauce and a great iced Chai tea.

From here, I backtracked across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge so I could drive to Napa the scenic way, through Sonoma County. The drive took about an hour, past more and more memories and more and more new vineyards and wineries until I found myself at the top of a hill safely esconced in the lap of luxury in the company of dear old friends. It had been a good day. More were to come. Stay tuned!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Some Things Never Change...

North Beach, Chinatown, Fisherman's Wharf -- and yes, even the sidewalk flower vendors downtown are as old as the City itself, it seems. Timeless. Others -- such as the financial district and South of Market, are all but unrecognizable to me.

When I first moved to San Francisco around 1968, I worked in this northwest corner of the Alcoa Building, on the 22nd floor (there are 25). Along with the new Embarcadero One next door, we were the only new skyscrapers in the district, and quite the tallest. We literally watched the Pyramid rise, from a deep hole in the ground to the final pinnacle. The big black Bank of America tower came along around the same time, perhaps a bit later. Memory fades. More Embarcadero Center towers, more of everything, until now we have this.

The Alcoa Building is so small, so surrounded by larger buildings, it's barely noticeable. Look on the left, a splotch of black with a taller building behind it, lower ones around. The Bank of America building is the one on the right -- much of its height comes from it's location on the hill, but it made quite a splash when it opened.

Naturally, the street grid hasn't changed so while there are all these new buildings, I had no trouble finding my way around. As with all else I've encountered, I felt right at home.

Even after all these years, I find the Pyramid fascinating -- including this fabulous base. It's a wonderful landmark.

I was so glad to stumble across this bronze sculpture of laughing children in a tiny park next to the Pyramid -- I've seen a photo of it, but didn't know where it was. Isn't it charming?

I wandered through the area, down to the Ferry Terminal and then down Market Street in search of the MOMA. I knew about where it was and of course, refused to pull out my map and thus identify myself as a tourist. When I eventually found it, I learned that it is closed on Wednesdays! I was so devastated -- had I known, I could have easily done this any other day. Now, it's too late. O'Keefe, Adams, Avedon -- alas! I don't mind missing more traditional art, but photographs are my thing and O'Keefe, of course, is fabulous.

Thus deflated, I continued to wander South of Market to Dave and Karen's office at 2nd and Brannon. By the time I reached it, I'd walked about 2 hours. A quick tour of their offices, a little conversation, and off I was once more. Dave's secretary, who'd wanted to meet me, had been delayed at a doctor appointment so I missed her. South of Market is more noticeably changed than the Financial District, in ways. Not so many big buildings, but quite a few of them, including the MOMA. The best part is that it's not nearly as seedy as it has been traditionally. The Moscone Center is down here, as is the new Giants ballpark and much, much more.

For some reason I felt a need to walk through Union Square and the shopping district, although that was a fairly quick tour and I felt no urge to go inside any of those fabulous stores. By now, I was getting pretty tired plus it was about lunchtime. I had no more 'must do' food stops and I had to laugh at how suddenly cheap I became regarding lunch. I didn't care what the others cost -- but when it was 'just food', I cared. I walked back through Chinatown and into North Beach, where I finally stopped at a small Italian deli, where the wonderful, warm-hearted Italian men made me a half sandwich -- roasted red peppers, cheese, spicy meats and I don't know what else, on Ciabatta bread. I couldn't have eaten a whole one, but I needed sustenance to attack the hill once more plus there was no food at the studio. By now, I'd walked about 4 hours and the old body was feeling it. Once more, I spent the afternoon collapsed and recouping from my exertions. I'm still not as young as I used to be, but I'm doing OK.

Thank goodness the next few days will be restful -- no marathon walks, no hills to climb. I'll drive off toward Napa later this morning. AFTER I climb that hill once more!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Quiet Day with Dim Sum

Yesterday about all I did was relax, other than walking down the hill in the morning for coffee and internet service, and going to lunch with my friends Dave (birthday boy) and Karen. I had requested something I love but haven't had for countless years, which is the Chinese treat, Dim Sum. I think this loosely translates to something like dumplings, but they are basically a countless array of small dishes that you choose from roving carts, rather than a menu, and only served at lunch. When I worked with Dave at the ad agency all those years ago, this was something we did often, in large groups. Because of the nature of the service, it's hard for one person to do dim sum and get any variety. Three is a perfect number because most come with three pieces to an order.

As you can see, it is a fairly large restaurant, though smaller than the one we used to frequent. We were seated at a large round table with five Chinese. When Dave, who is an extraordinary Chinese cook and connoisseur, was telling a server what we wanted from her cart in Chinese, our table mates spoke up and complimented him on his Chinese. We hastened to assure them that he doesn't speak Chinese, merely Chinese food. Nonetheless, we were quickly accepted and when we left, they said goodbye in Chinese. At least, we assume that's what they were saying. Friendly people!

Aside from the noodles, which were served on a plate, the dishes are served in steamer baskets, 3 per basket, as in the upper right. These appear to be plastic, perhaps, but in the old days, they were bamboo. The noodles, lower right, were superb. Well, it was all superb. Once upon a time I could perhaps have told you what most of them were. As it is, the only name I know for sure is the white fluffy bun in the upper right and lower left photos. That is a Cha-Shiu Bow, a steamed pork bun that is mostly bun and a small amount of barbecue pork inside. One of my favorites. Aside from this one, the rest were shrimp and vegetable filled and each tasted quite different. Some steamed, some fried, all wonderful. I would have eaten more, but I was stuffed! And no, I was not hungry again an hour later!

Afterwards, I waddled back up the hill and didn't do much other than go out to a little park on the Vallejo steps and sit in the sunshine and read.

This is my last day here -- I can't waste another! I have vague plans of going to Dave and Karen's office, as his secretary wants to meet me. Then there is an Avedon exhibit at the MOMA, and from a poster I saw this morning, also a Georgia O'Keefe and Ansel Adams exhibit. The Avedon alone was drawing me -- don't know if I can resist all three. The MOMA is not too far from Dave and Karen's office, but it's a lot of walking. No hills, however, other than going home. There's also Chinatown and the financial district to visit, the farmer's market at the Ferry Building, and of course downtown. I can't do it all -- will walk back home after this and see where the day takes me.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Steps of San Francisco

Hidden from most tourists, a steep system of steps traverses most hills in this city. Streets simply stop, when the hill's too steep or it's solid rock, and steps continue up and over the hill until they meet up with the street somewhere on the other side. The studio I'm staying in, above, is at the end of Vallejo where it bumps up to Russian Hill, and the Vallejo steps continue upwards to Taylor, and beyond. The main lobby of the building fronts on the steps. They're a great way to get from place to place. Some are concrete, some stone, some wood. All take you through hidden gardens and fascinating nooks and crannies.

Filbert Street Steps, near the top of the hill.

I encountered quite a number of these yesterday, in my explorations of Telegraph Hill. Intentionally so, because after all, this is a journey of nostalgia and I love those steps and I couldn't miss any of it. You'll laugh -- I almost cried! -- but I actually climbed Telegraph Hill twice yesterday: once through the neighborhood streets until I was within spitting distance of Coit Tower, then I looped around to Montgomery, where one flight of steps took me a bit further up and to the Filbert Street Steps, which are my favorites. They were also made famous by the movie, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, so there were tourists here that one would never have seen in the old days. And the parrots? Yep, they are here, but they are also all over the city, or at least the part I've been in. They fly around in flocks, diving and swooping and chattering in an unmistakable voice. You never get a really good look at them, but they make themselves known.

This is one of many beautiful gardens that border these wonderful wooden steps. I've often thought this would be THE place I'd live in this city, if it were something I could afford. Forget the difficulties of moving in or out, or even getting groceries home down those steps. The charm is so incredible the inconvenience would be worth it.

This is the foot of the steps where they meet Sansome Street. Daunting, whether you climb up or down.

For some un-remembered reason I had a wild hair to walk both the Filbert and Greenwich Steps, on the eastern face of the hill. Once, when I worked at an ad agency downtown, I'd often walk up these steps to the top on my lunch hour. So -- I walked down the Filbert Steps, moved a block north on Sansome and went back up the Greenwich Steps. About halfway up I realized the foolishness of my thinking -- this was my 3rd big hill of the morning and the old body felt great resentment. I took my time, and of course I made it, but whew! Enough.

From the top of the hill, of course, one has a 360 view of the entire city, from various points around. I've never climbed the tower -- too many tourists! That ugly white arrow points to the condo complex where I'm staying -- zoomed in, so it's not as close as it seems.

This, of course, is the quintessential view from the top, and it's certainly one to be savored. My home on Russian Hill, featured in yesterday's post, was down the hill about one block from the tall white building on the left. You can see it -- the face of one large building and right in front of it a long grey building -- that grey one was ours. Lovely location.

Naturally, I didn't stop there. The walk to the top had only taken an hour, it was 11am and not time for lunch, so I wandered back down to the wharf for some wine and sourdough bread. The trip took me right past another wonderful place I once lived -- in fact, the last place I lived in this fair City. My apartment was on the inside, facing a courtyard, but no matter. It lies a block from the abomination called Pier 39, which thankfully did not exist back then, and a block from a cable car stop. I lived here while I worked on the Carter primary campaign in 1976, when I took my first backpacking trip (10 days in Yosemite!), when for two fabulous months I filled in as Catering Manager at the five-star Clift Hotel during a vacation absence, and where I worked for Ferrari of San Francisco, from whence I moved to Reno to work for Modern Classic Motors, Ferrari heaven. Lovely memories here.

By now, the body was saying rest me, feed me. So I walked on to North Beach and found what I was looking for on the menu at Volare, where I sat at a sidewalk table and watched North Beach flow past while I had a lovely lunch. Fried Calamari (my goal for that day), a Caesar salad, a glass of Pinot Grigio and some olives and bread courtesy of the restaurant. All was delicious and I lingered, but had a hard time finishing. The Calamari was perfect -- tender inside, crunchy outside. How may years has it been? Close to 25 since I've enjoyed that succulent treat that's hard to find most places.


From there, I waddled across the street to Washington Park, where I sat on the grass and soaked up the sun for awhile before tackling the hill. Of course, the views here are as exquisite as anyplace else in this city.


I collapsed the rest of the day -- the old girl is pushing the bod too hard! Today will be quiet, relatively speaking. Not sure what I'm going to do....

The view from home last night wasn't so bad, either -- if blurry from being hand held through glass once more.

Monday, August 3, 2009

MY Tales of the City

One thing that is painfully obvious is that I'm not as young as I used to be. I know, big newsflash on that one. The drive down rather did me in, for some reason. Possibly because I hadn't had much sleep either of the two previous nights. I left Brookings at 5 am, arrived in the city around 1pm, deliberately slowed down because I'd told my friends who own the studio that I would not arrive before noon. They were using the apartment. So, I stopped in Healdsburg for awhile to rest up -- man, has that town changed! The photo above is part of the view from the studio -- so hard to take!

The party was fun, although I was shaky with fatigue and only stayed for about 3 hours. Aside from the hosts, I only knew one person there but it was a good group of interesting folks, mostly advertising types, fittingly. This is the view from their home on Potrero Hill. There is no such thing as a bad view in this City -- I love every square foot of it.

On the other hand, I'm finding that walking the hills is no problem at all -- I think it's easier than when I lived here in my 20s and 30s. I know I'm in better condition now -- I did all my running and cycling and backpacking, etc., after I moved away. Yesterday, I walked up Russian Hill to my old digs, back down, and again up to the studio about five blocks away. No problemo!

I had to force myself out yesterday morning. I was really tired, but was not about to waste a day here. I began walking aimlessly, more or less, partly searching for a likely coffee shop with wireless, partly just scoping it all out with a vague destination of the Buena Vista Cafe for brunch. The studio is located on the lower edges of Russian Hill, in a tantalizing mixed area where Chinatown and North Beach overlap. In no time I was in the heart of North Beach, sussing out restaurants for potential lunches.

On to Fisherman's Wharf, where I partly played tourist then headed toward the BV. I wasn't hungry, but needed sustenance and after all, I've been lusting after this place for a couple of weeks now. As usual, it was packed, but I remembered a small backroom that tourists don't always find, so I found a seat right away and let the waitress know I didn't need a menu. I ordered a Ramos Gin Fizz, Eggs Benedict, and coffee. A Ramos is a fixture in this area, and the BV makes a great one. I guess it's the heavy cream that makes them so good. The coffee was organic and wonderful, and the eggs benedict -- as dreamy as I remembered. Perfectly poached eggs on Canadian bacon and an English muffin, slathered in incredibly good hollandaise sauce. To die for.

Afterwards, I wandered some more along the water and through part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area before heading back to the Wharf for a bit. Then I walked up to Chestnut and Leavenworth, where I lived for some of the best times of my life. Looks as if it's now condos, but at the time my roommate and I had the middle flat, 6 wonderful room with great views from each end. We had some parties there, I must say. Perhaps the most memorable was a Halloween costume party where the costumes were as creative as the ad agency people who wore them. Late in the evening a small group of stragglers wandered down the hill to be Buena Vista (me barefoot in a grass skirt and bikini top) where we eventually got thrown out because someone at the bar picked a fight with one of our guys who was wearing an arab headdress. Our claim to fame is that after that, costumes were not allowed in the BV, although thankfully we were not personally banned for life.



The flat was one block away from this. And yes, I hated joining the throngs of tourists to take this photo, but alas..... they didn't mind. Another tale -- one night I'd been in some bar down on Union Street and when I left in my red 240Z I realized I was being followed. I drove up Lombard from the Marina District and as I neared the top of the hill I began to get nervous. I didn't know who these people were or what they wanted. When I reached the top of the hill a Cable Car was bearing down on the intersection so I gunned the Z and barely made it across in front of the Cable Car. From there, I only had a block or so to go and the Cable Car effectively cut off the pursuers. It was a close call! I've also been known to take that Z down this twisty part as fast as possible, late at night. Fun.

The view from the studio is as good at night as in the daylight. Pardon the hand-held camera shot through glass, which is indeed a bit blurry.

This morning, I walked down Taylor Street 5 blocks to this coffee shop -- really steep! And now I have to walk back up to return this computer before heading out for the day. I'm thinking of finding the stairs up Telegraph Hill, which is another nostalgic point for me. Right now, I can't say I have the energy, but I know from yesterday that I feel fine when I'm walking -- it's only when I sit down that I turn to mush.