My Portland Summer Vacation Notes

Waterfall at Portland's Japanese Gardens

Hot on the heels of an awesome birthday week, which involved much fine dining and an incredibly awesome bowling night, we packed up and headed to Portland for a few days. This was both L's and my first visit to a city many folks had described to me as "a little San Francisco."

We flew in to PDX and picked up a rental car and headed to our hotel, the Ace. My primary criteria for choosing a place to stay in Portland was I wanted a quirky boutique hotel that had a distinctly Portland feel to it. Given the skewering the Ace received in the Portlandia episode The Deuce, I think I chose wisely. I was tempted by the Jupiter Hotel (home to the Doug Fir Lounge), but given my being a light sleeper and every review of the place commenting on the noise, that didn't seem like a wise choice. We'd been hoping to spend at least one night at the Kennedy School, based on my friend Adrienne's rave reviews, but they were booked up. As it turns out, Portland was in the midst of a 90-degree plus heatwave, so we were glad we'd ended up at the Ace, with its arctic blasts of air conditioning.

Before moving on, I should note that all of the rooms at the Ace are decorated individually, with some sort of theme. I was hoping we'd end up in the room with the huge cat mural that I saw on their website. But instead we ended up in Room 420.  It had a funny little poem stenciled across the walls...

Location-wise, I couldn't have done much better either. The hotel was located on the line between downtown and the Pearl districts, and only a short block from Powell's Books. This meant that there were tons of places to eat and shop located within a reasonable walk from our hotel, even with the oppressive heat.

I was actually a little worried about being so close to Powell's. Our tiny San Francisco apartment is overflowing with books already (this is hy I have been trying to make as many of my book purchases as possible these days on the Kindle.) With that in mind, as well as what we could easily find at the fabulous independent bookstores in SF, we focused our attention on the Gold Room, Powell's auditorium-sized Fantasy and SciFi books room. I am honestly not sure how many hours we spent primarily in this room. All I can say is after we were done here, it was time for beer and dinner, in that order. Somehow, we managed to make it out of there with only 4 books, ruling out others as being too heavy to carry around, available for check out at the library and so on. My two books were  The Player of Games (Culture) by Iain M. Banks, and My Favorite Fangs: The Story of the Von Trapp Family Vampires. by Alan Goldsher. Now, don't judge me on the latter-- I wanted some frothy fun vacation reading, and it delivered just that.

Welcome to the Beercation 

Deschutes Brewery Portland Public House Having checked the weather before we left home, and seeing how hot it was going to be, combined with my love for Pacific Northwest microbrewed beers, I informally dubbed this vacation our "Beercation." So where did we have our first sip? At one of my favorite craft brewers, Deschutes. (NOTE: San Francisco peeps you can usually find Deschutes on tap at Toronado.) Both the Chainbreaker White and the Twilight Summer Ales I tried were perfect for a hot Summer day, and went well with the seriously great pub food. And the decor and atmosphere made it hands down one of the most inviting brew pubs I've been in.I highly recommend starting with a plate of the deviled eggs -- you'll thank me later.

Our second brew pub of the trip was Rogue Ales' Distillery and Public House, also downtown and within walking distance of our hotel. We ended up doing sampler sets of 4, which had a creative presentation. I tried Dead guy ale, Cap'n Sig's Northwestern ale (my favorite), Youngers Special Bitter, and American Amber. My big disappointment here was that the Voodoo Donuts Bacon Maple Ale was not available for tasting, though you could buy it--and any other of the many Rogue Ales-- in the bottle to take home with you.

Our third and final brewbup of the trip was McMenamins pub at the Kennedy School. It was a friendly and inviting pub, with good beer and american pub food. What made the trek out there worthwhile was getting to see the Kennedy School itself. It's such an indescribable feeling to be wandering the halls of what quite clearly was a school, and sitting in the cafeteria, drinking beer, at midday. If we'd been staying longer, I would have loved to have tried out even more brewpubs, having received some excellent suggestions from #pdxbeergeeks via twitter.

artisanal cocktail at the bar at Clyde Common in PortlandThings to Do, Places at Which to Eat

WIth my focus on dealing with the hot weather being the overriding theme for this vacation, I didn't make any reservations for this trip. I'll pause here for a moment. That's right, for the first time in years, I didn't make even 1 night's plan for eating out at a foodie destination. I decided instead we should play things a little more by ear. And guess what? It worked out famously. And I still got to eat some truly remarkable meals.

I'd heard great things about Clyde Common, the restaurant directly off our hotel's lobby, and we made sure to sample a few cocktails here over the course of our stay, and enjoy a leisurely long dinner in the upstairs balcony.The cocktail menu is inspired, with a number of spectacular house creations including several barrel-aged cocktails, and a daily punch special. This place gets packed, making a long wait the usual, but the time flies by quickly with one of the cocktails in hand, snacking on the french fries with harissa and crème fraîche.

The meat slicer on the counter in front of the woodfired brick pizza oven at Oven and Shaker in Portland.Although we had a great dinner at Clyde Common, my favorite meal of the vacation was at Oven and Shaker, which had not been on our radar at all. We'd peeked in the windows and perused the menu one afternoon as we'd walked around downtown, and made a note of it in case we found ourselves in the mood for some pizza or cocktails, since both sounded solid from the descriptions. We found our way in here on a day that had been swelteringly hot, and the only seats available in the packed house was at the counter in front of the pizza oven. Despite some trepidation at the thought I might keel over from the added heat, we settled in and started watching the team make pizzas as we looked over the menu. We decided upon the antipasto and a pizza. When the antipasto arrived we were intrigued -- the salami, mozzarella, provolone, iceberg letter and radicchio were roughly shredded and assembled with the chickpeas and dressed with the wild oregano vinaigrette in a stack much like a large bowl of coleslaw upended. It was delicious -- a really fresh take on the antipasto platter. The superstar of the meal however was the pizza. It was wafer-thin, blistered, and topped with just the right amount of goat cheese, leeks, chives, basil, and speck. It was on par with the pizzas at A-16 here in SF. It's going to be the one place I tell everyone I know who plans a trip to Portland to make sure they check out.

Most of our breakfasts during the trip were ad hoc, including grabbing some toast and coffee at the hotel's breakfast room. But we did have a hearty American breakfast at Kenny & Zuke's in the same block as our hotel. Pop in and grab a bagel and have a nosh.

Our day trips included a drive over the border into Washington to visit the offices of an agency I collaborate with a ton at work (/waves at the aha! peeps), plus significant visits to the Japanese Garden and Multnomah Falls. The Falls you see at the top of this post are one of the waterfalls at the Japanese Gardens. The partially shaded gardens were an ideal place for a long walk (the gardens take up 5.5 acres) even with the heat. Of course it helped that I had a huge sunhat on and L gifted me a handmade paper fan from their artisan shop. The only complaint I had was being bummed that they do not have a tea house, unlike our Japanese Garden in Golden Gate Park.. But the scale and beauty of the gardens mostly made up for that.

Multnomah Falls was another must-see, and involved a 30-minute drive outside of the city. I was one of the slackers who didn't make it much farther than the lower falls viewing area btw -- the trail was a little too steep and vertigo-inducing for me. But L made it to the top, dodging insanely motivated people pushing strollers up the trail of a million (or perhaps only 13) switchbacks.

We also found time to literally chill out over a beer and enjoy the latest Oliver Stone film Savages at Living Room Theater. After the show, we sat in the dining room, with the floor-to-ceiling windows open onto the street, and a jazz trio playing.

Despite the unexpectedly Summery weather for our Pacific Northwest trip, I still got why everyone told me I'd like the place, and why everyone mentions there being "so many trees." I hope to find a good reason for a return visit.

Portland Resources

Ace Hotel Portland
1022 SW Stark St., Portand
 (503) 228-2277

Clyde Common
1014 SW Stark St., Portland
(503) 228-3333
Open daily for dinner and other meals on selected days as noted on their website.

Deschutes Brewery Portland Public House
210 NW 11th Ave., Portland
(503) 296-4906
Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-midnight

Kenny & Zuke's
1038 SW Stark St, Portland
(503) 222-DELI (3354)
Open daily for breakfast and all day eats as noted on their website.

Living Room Theater Portland
341 SW Tenth Avenue, Portland
(971) 222-2010
Hours and showtimes vary but box office opens at 11:30. Seats are assigned first purchased-first pick, so buy your tickerts in advance to ensure a good seat.

McMenamins pub at the Kennedy School
5736 N.E. 33rd Ave., Portland
(503) 249-3983
Daily 7 a.m.-1 a.m.

Multnomah Falls
50000 Historic Columbia River Hwy, Corbett, OR
(503) 695-2376
Daily dawn-dusk

Oven and Shaker
1134 NW Everett St., Portland
(503) 241-1600
Daily 11:30 a.m.-midnight

Not sure what brew pubs should be on your must-visit list? This is the place to find out. Follow the hashtag on twitter, and check out the blog.

Portland Japanese Garden
11 SW Kingston Avenue, Portland
(503) 223-1321
Monday 12-7 p.m.
Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m.-7 p.m.

Powell's City of Books
1005 W Burnside
Portland, OR 97209
(503) 228-4651
Open daily 9:00 a.m.-11:00 p.m.

Rogue Distillery and Public House
1339 NW Flanders
Portland, OR 97209
(503) 222-5910
Sunday-Thursday: 11 a.m.-12 a.m.
Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m.-1 a.m.


Take Me Out to the Ballpark

SF Giants

I made it out to my first SF Giants baseball game of the season on Friday night, thanks to L's Stub Hub browsing. A nice big order of garlic fries was consumed, as was much local beer. And I rounded out my evening finally obtaining a panda hat, which was handy for the long cold bus ride home.

Most years I've gotten to go to 2 or 3 games, often thanks to work-related excursions or folks having additional tickets and taking me along. It's been the only sporting activity I like to watch for well over a decade now. I like the strategy -- and watching the runners on base psyching out the pitcher...adn getting in a nice long hard slide into base on a steal...good stuff. Of course having a gorgeous ballpark with Bay views and yummy food and microbrews also helps.

It's been a pretty quiet Summer so far. Well, other than the train wreck of a Jesus and Mary Chain show we went to a few weeks back. That was noisy and disappointing. Incredibly disappointing. At least I knew all of the words even though a certain someone else seemed to forget a number of the lyircs. Ahem.

Still trying to pin down dates and details for a small trip up to Portland in Mid-August after my birthday. I'd asked for PAX weekend off, but since we didn't get tickets for that after all, I need to revise my request. Plan is to stay at the Ace in downtown Portland since it appears to be an excellent area for walking around. It will be my first visit to Portland -- my only prior Pacific NorthWest experience having been a trip to Seattle a number of years ago for work and a mini vacation. So if you have Portland must-see and must-eat suggestions, leave 'em for me!

Speaking of August, I very briefly toyed with the idea of having a cocktail hour or some such social event for my birthday this year, but then decided against it. I can't fool myself into thinking I'd somehow love a big shindig if it were for me. I truly prefer having the opportunity to have more meaningful one-to-one conversation than is ever possible in a large group. I'm hoping instead for a fancy dinner at Jardiniere with my sweetie, and hopefully a number of individual lunches and post work cocktail hours with friends in addition instead. Yes, Bay Area peeps, THIS MEANS YOU!

And now, back to my Fortnum & Mason Royal Blend tea and playing on Pinterest.

March Mendocino Mini Vacation


Harbor House Inn, Oceansong Cottage, Highway 1, Elk
view from Harbor House Inn, Oceansong Cottage, Elk, March 27, 2012

Living in the City, you easily forget how dark night can be. Driving South on Highway 1, at 10 p.m., blasting the Cure’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me album and singing along…and realizing there are no lights other than those from your headlights. Back at the cottage, even standing out on the deck, the ocean is lost in the darkness. But the roar of the waves breaking against the rocks in the cove reminds you it’s there. Temporarily out of sight but still within reach, should you be so foolish as to try and brave the treacherous path down to the black sand beach in the pitch black dark.

The picture window that so perfectly framed the ocean view and the keyhole rock it crashes through is now a mirror. The reflected light from the glowing apple on my laptop illuminates my face as I type type type away.

waterfall next to our cabin in ElkThis is the escape from the every day I needed. No Internet. No television. And not too many people.

Our little cottage at Harbor House Inn, with the amazing view, was $100/night cheaper than its neighbor thanks to a slope to the floor. The ocean is trying to reclaim this patch of land or so it seems. But the pitch isn’t so steep that it’s a bother, so yeah us for getting a good deal. And in case you are wondering, the bed has been adjusted for the slope, so there won’t be any accidental rolling out of bed.

Since we were staying at the Inn during the off season, dinner was not included, thus our first night’s meal was at Ledford House, up Highway one just past the 128 junction. A pleasant ocean-facing dining room, with a piano player. The duck pate starter was very good, as was L’s leg of lamb. And I have no complaints about my steak au poivre with asparagus. About midway through dinner, I thought I heard a familiar pitiful wail. After hearing it a few more times, and determining that yes I was hearing a sorrowful cat lamenting how very hungry it was, I spotted the calico kitty at the door of our dining room. “She thinks she’s an indoor cat,” our waitress remarked after seeing we’d spotted the little beggar, then shooing her out the door. “And she’s not starving, either!” Clearly this was not the first time for these antics.

Exploring Mendocino County

Our first full day in Mendocino County started with complimentary breakfast at the inn (omelet with mushrooms, asparagus, and caramelized onions and a side of bacon), where to our dismay we started seeing raindrops spatter the picture windows. Undeterred by the light rain, however, we headed out to Ross Ranch where we’d reserved a couple of hours of horseback riding through the redwoods. This turn of weather reinforced my purchase of a new rainproof jacket and then some.

I should point out that the horseback riding was L’s idea. Those of you who know me personally IRL know that despite the many years I spent tearing around on my bicycle, I have had horrible balance for the past few years. So the idea of mounting a huge horse and tooling around steep backwoods inclines would not have been the first leisure activity that I would have suggested. Thus I bucked up, signed the waiver that pointed out all the ways in which horseback riding could be very dangerous and possibly maim me, and off we went.

My horse was a pro. What I mean by this is he figured out pretty quickly that he had a first time city slicker rider on his back. And thus, every time he saw some nommable greens—or some branches that were just above his head—he headed for them. After a while, I got the hang of reigning him in and reminding him that I was the dominant one in charge, thank you very much. I was faking it, mind you, but he seemed to buy it and was mostly well behaved. Other than trying to eat my shoe when we stopped for a break at the midway mark.

That’s when the rain started to get a little more aggressive, even within the protective redwood canopy, prompting me to pull up my hood, and we ended up getting back to the ranch a littler earlier than scheduled. Since my jeans were soaked, and I was pushing my luck as far as my ability to stay upright and in charge on this horse, that was OK by me. I should have taken a photo of our horses once we dismounted, but the moment escaped me. And clearly, there wasn’t any opportunity for me to take photos while we were riding.

After changing into dry clothes, we ventured back onto Highway 1, this time headed to Fort Bragg. More specifically, headed to North Coast Brewing Company. Because I definitely deserved some strong beer as a reward for my equestrian efforts. It had been more than a decade since I visited the tasting room, but the food was as tasty as I remembered, though the portions were even more hearty than I remembered. I should have done a tasting set like L (he did 4 tasters), but I wanted an entire goblet of the Brother Thelonious dark Belgian style ale all to myself. I have a real weakness for dark Belgian style beer (hello Maredsous!)

Finally giving in and accepting the fact that the rains were not going to abate, we headed back to the Inn, where we spent the evening drinking wine (picked up from wine tasting on Highway 128 on the way up on Wednesday) and playing Scrabble and Monopoly.

A Trip to Mendocino Proper

image from’s plan was to finally make it into the village of Mendocino. But first, we stopped at the Mendocino Botanical Gardens and spent a few hours walking through the gardens and out to the cliffs overlooking the ocean. Thanks to the persistent light rain, there was only one other couple out on the paths with us, so it felt as though we had the place to ourselves.  One item to note: we never did figure out why there were numbered metal quail all over the property. They weren’t map points or anything obvious. I imagined a secret, members-only audio tour might make use of them.

After the gardens, we drove in to Mendocino, parking in front of Café Beajoulais where we had a leisurely lunch. L had a lovely spring greens salad with a perfect mound of baked Laura Chenel goat cheese, and a burger with white cheddar and avocado. I started off with a duck leg confit, and had a baguette sandwich of brie, bacon, and chicken. Very tasty food, though everything from getting seated to having our orders taken seemed to take much longer than you would expect. Only later in the day did I realize that the somewhat harried state of our waitress was likely due to her acting as hostess, waitress, busperson and cashier for the entire restaurant, which had 8-9 tables active while we were there. Yikes!

Our walk through the tourist shops of Mendocino was over fairly quickly – it’s actually a pretty small area. I was tempted, very tempted, to purchase the Jedi’s Path at the bookstore (to better know the enemy since my allegiance goes to the Sith, in SWTOR at least.) But I remembered my vow to stop buying books, so I didn’t pick it up. I’ll wait until I sell a few books back to my local used bookstore and make room on the shelves.

Our final night’s dinner was at the Bridget Dolan's Public House in Elk, just up Highway 1 from the Inn, which was suggested to us by a tasting room person at Navarro. In addition to great service and a nice selection of local brews on tap, they had mini chimichangas on the appetizer menu. Can you imagine? Of course we had to have them and they were delish.

Overall, the rainy weather did but a damper on some of the hiking and exploring we had planned, but we did make the best of it. And I returned home relaxed and recharged and that was definitely the larger point of it all.

Mendocino County Resources


Harbor House Inn
5600 S. Highway One
Elk, CA
(800) 720 7474 

Food & Drink

Bridget Dolan's Pub
5910 S Highway 1
Elk, CA 95432
(707) 877-1820

Cafe Beajoulais
961 Ukiah St
Mendocino, CA 95460
(707) 937-5614

The Ledford House
3000 N. Highway One
Albion, CA 95410
(707) 937.0282

North Coast Brewing Company
55 North Main Street
Fort Bragg, CA 95437
(707) 964-BREW (2739)


Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens
18220 North Highway One
Fort Bragg, CA 95437
(707) 964.4352

Ross Ranch Horseback Riding
(707) 877-1834

My, What a Huge Bee Hive You Have

bee house, Sonoma, California

It's interesting what catches our eye from the street. I didn't notice this house when we passed on the opposite side of the street; I was too intent on trying to guess which tiny street we should go down on our way to the Bartholomew Park tasting room at the end of a maze of narrow roads in Sonoma.

On the way back past, we drove past initially as well, but I had L stop the car and back up. You see, the motion had caught my eye. What was the cloud in front of the house? As I was peering out the window, trying to decide if this was a plague of locusts or a swarm of bees, a local stopped to chat us up.

"$1.2 mil…" was how he started the conversation. After we'd all stopped laughing, I asked if the flying insects were bees, which he confirmed. "They live in the walls," he said. "This is the first warm day we've had so they've gotten all riled up."

The man went on to tells the place had been vacant since the 50's or 60's. It's always surprising to see that in wine country -- it feels like every piece of vacant land get planted with grapevines. But can you imagine what purchasing this house -- now a giant beehive -- would entail exactly? You'd need a bee expert to supervise the removal of the bees, and then would have to get permission to demolish the house (because you wouldn't want to inhabit a giant beehive and you can't exactly show the bees your deed of sale and ask them to please not come back into the walls/house.

And thus, this beautiful piece of property sits vacant, occasionally flaring up into a David Lynch-worthy piece of wonder like this, to enchant passers-by.

P.S. more pictures of the house in my Sonoma set on flickr.

Scotland Trip Part 2: Edinburgh


It was hard to pack up and leave Glasgow after having such a fabulous time there, but with our limited amount of time for this journey, and our desire to see Edinburgh as well, that's what we had to do.

We hopped on a train which got us to Edinburgh in about an hour or so. I can not express strongly enough how much more pleasant it is to travel by train from place-to-place, versus air travel these days. And the sightseeing from the windows is always interesting,e specially when you aren't able to do day trips, as was the case on this trip.

We stayed at another Radisson Blu, located a short walk from the train station, and in the midst of the Royal Mile. This made for an easy point of reference as first-time visitors to Edinburgh, but if I returned I'd probably pick a place not situated in the midst of the tourist area to have some more peace and quiet.

We unpacked and caught our breath, then headed out for a walk through New Town, on the way to dinner at Dusit. Located down a windy alley between Hanover Street and Frederick Street in New Town, Dusit was more upscale than SF's typical thai restaurant. Have I mentioned that one of my cardinal rules is I must live no farther than 2 blocks from good thai food? If I was moving to Edinburgh, this would be my thai food beacon, based on its rendering of my standard order: Satay Gai and Gaeng Massaman (beef). The Pad Kraprao with duck and the flatbread for soaking up the leftover massaman curry were also excellent. A very good start to this part of the journey.

As we meandered back to the hotel, I saw the perfect pair of ultra girlie fingerless gloves in the window at White Stuff, and made a mental note to stop back there to look at them first hand.

Day 1 of Sightseeing

We dutifully headed up the Royal Mile on our first day of sightseeing, stopping in at the Cathedral of St. Giles en route to Edinburgh Castle. I don't have any photos from that church as they required a 3.50 photography fee, and frankly, the interior was nowhere near as amazing as St. Mungo's.

They were setting up some sort of scaffolding for erecting bleachers in front of Edinburgh Castle, causing me to remark it was starting to remind me of our trip to Venice -- scaffolding and cranes everywhere! This made photo taking more difficult here than in Glasgow, and is reflected in the smaller number of photos in my Edinburgh flickr gallery.

I was somewhat expecting the exhibits at the Castle to be on par with the Tower of London, and thus was a little disappointed. There were very nice expansive views of the city at least, which partially made up for that. We did more walking around in Old Town, and then headed to the National Gallery of Scotland.We skipped the Impressionist Gardens special exhibit since we'd just seen an expansive Impressionist exhibit at the DeYoung and had plans to see its sequel upon our return.

We made it back to White Stuff where I snapped up the adorable fingerless gloves I'd seen in the window (they will be perfect for keeping my hands warm while typing at work.) Unfortunately they didn't have any of the too cool owl tea cozies from their window display for sale -- I definitely would have brought some back for Christmas gifts. Oh well.

The rain showers started after our shopping excursion, but we could see Harvey Nichols across the square so we made a break for it. As we sat and had a cocktail and a snack for a late lunch, the sun came out and gave us a great view from the Forth Floor restaurant. It eventually got to be so hot and sunny, in fact, that I had to have the shades pulled down. I think I may be the first visitor to Scotland to get some freckles from the sunshine! Haha. Somehow I managed to avoid the many temptations in the pantry displays, and headed back to the hotel empty handed.

Since L's birthday coincided with our journey back to London in the midst of this trip, I'd done some homework to find a great restaurant to celebrate in early. I decided upon The Grain Store since they were known for their use of local game and produce. Up a flight of stairs in a windy alley, the Grain Store was candle-lit with dark wood and heavy chairs giving a definitely romantic, old world feel. We shared a pork terrine starter, and I had a perfect venison main course, served with a fruity wine sauce that had a medley of berries and some thin apple slices. L's lamb was also impeccable. But I think the true star was L's dessert -- a peach tart composed of one perfectly ripe small peach half wrapped in a pastry shell. Simple and yet so tasty. Not that my cheese plate with homemade oat cakes wasn't good mind you, but his dessert was perfect.

Day 2 Sightseeing

Before heading out to Holyrood House, we stopped for breakfast at larder, around the corner from our hotel, on Blackfriars Street. Having slept in some, we were there in that strange time between and early lunch and a late breakfast, so I decided upon the special lamb burger. In addition to the cafe offerings, they also had a small deli and bakery selection to go. If our customs rules had allowed for it, I would have brought home some of the venison sausage and some cheese. Sigh. I forgot to write down the name of the producer of the phenomenal unfiltered pink lady apple juice I had with my meal. I wish we had more artisanal juice makers making unconventional apple choices here in Northern California. But at least we have Gravensteins.

On the way up the street to Holyrood House, L caught me gazing at a pretty blue kilt, and we agreed to check it out on the way back (On the way back past it I tried it on and L bought it for me as a present. This means I have to replace my black knee high leather boots sooner rather than later.) Given the shopkeepers on the street's distinctions about these things, I should note that this was an officially sanctioned tartan kilt by Locharron, not one of those silkscreen tourist kilts all kitted up with corset strings that we kept seeing everywhere.

I made an executive decision to *not* stop in at Unknown Pleasures. I was afraid of several things. Firstly, I am not sure I could have spent less than an hour there obsessively looking through all that vinyl, which can be very boring for the not-obsessed-with-records person with whom you are traveling. Secondly, I was worried I would find some must have records that I would then tote around for the rest of the day and then have to fret over through security and the overcrowded overhead bins. I'd done that my first trip to England and believe me it got to be tiresome for all involved parties to have me hissing "be careful! I have records up there!" every time they slung around their bags. I knew the chance of finding too much to carry home was high having ordered vinyl from them via mail order back in the day.

We arrived at the Palace of Holyroodhouse with muted expectations based upon our previous day's experience at Edinburgh Castle. We were very pleasantly surprised, however. Despite this palace being the Queen's official residence when she is in Scotland, there were quite a few public rooms you were able to tour. It was especially interesting to linger in the rooms of Mary Queen of Scots, and look at all the ephemera therein. But the real highlight for me was the ruined Abby, which comprises most of my Holyrood House flickr gallery.

Tired from all the walking around the Palace's grounds, we stopped at Clarinda's Tearoom for a pot of Lady Grey tea and a big fluffy slice of cake with whipped cream filling. The sideboard here was crowded with some amazing looking cakes, but I am sure we made the right choice.

We'd intended to see the surrealist exhibit in the late afternoon, but after walking over to the main galleries, we learned that the free shuttle to the modern art gallery from the primary National Gallery location had been suspended, and the city bus to and from was only running once per hour and decided to forgo it. Thus, we hailed a cab and headed to the Royal Edinburgh Botanical Gardens.

The Gardens were an excellent place to spend the afternoon. We saw many fat little squirrels (and a number of people feeding the little guys which explained their roundness). And we also came to see that this was kitty paradise. While making our way through the greenhouses, we came across an adorable black and white cat, who had apparently strolled in after some other patrons. "Hello there kitty!" I said to him, and he walked up and nuzzled my arm, with a big kitty smile, letting me know he was very pleased with his maneuvering inside. After some persuading, the couple who let him in were able to get him to go back outside. Personally, I thought to myself that this was a very clever cat, heading inside to the balmy 80-degree greenhouse to bird watch.

For our last dinner in Scotland, I decided I wanted some good old pub food. And thus we ended up parking ourselves at the Bank Bar pub next door to the hotel. I had a pint of Caledonian and some crispy and satisfying fish and chips, while L had a burger. Nice to have some comfort food after a day with so much walking.

Two days never seems like enough to explore a new city, but I do feel as though we got a definite taste of the flavor of Edinburgh regardless.

Scotland Trip Part 1: Glasgow


Typically, when I'm headed to a city I've never previously visited, I arm myself with travel books, and google searches for slow food suggested places to visit in that city. But for this part of our Scotland trip, I additionally had a secret weapon: I've been reading about things to do and see in Glasgow -- courtesy of friends who live there -- for a solid decade. Thus, our two full days of exploring Glasgow were a little off the beaten path. Thank you to Lis, Dave and Karina for having shared so many slivers of your city with me over the years.

 Day 1 of SIghtseeing

We hopped on the underground after a 5-minute walk from our hotel, Radisson Blu Glasgow, headed to the West End. We'd chosen the hotel based on its proximity to the Central train station, the underground, and the train station we'd be using to travel on to Edinburgh, and our having had a great stay at the Radisson SAS Blu in Rome a few years ago.

We exited the underground loop at Hillhead station where we met up with our friends Karina and Dave who proceeded to be our most outstanding tour guides for the day. Our first stop was one of my most anticipated sites to see in Glasgow, thanks to its frequent mentions on Facebook: Auntie M's Cake Lounge. Decked out with retro furnishings, Auntie M's is an ideal place to start a Sunday morning with some tea or coffee and a slice of some of the most decadent, delicious cake you can imagine. Both the chocolate orange and the brown sugar cake were excellent. As we prepared to leave, the proprietress asked where we lived, and turns out she's also from San Francisco! Which brings me back to the question I posed on Sunday: Why don't we have a cake lounge like Auntie M's in SF?

We poked our heads into some of the other shops in De Courcey's Arcade, then started our wander through the city. As per usual, I took many many photos of interesting architectural details as we walked around the university and over to the Kelvingrove museum. You can view those in my Glasgow album on flickr.


We spent several hours strolling through the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum's eclectic collections. And lucky for us we happened to be there during a choral and organ program, so we were able to see its impressive organ in the main hall in action.

After the museum, our walk took us up to a primary shopping street where I got to explore a Waitrose supermarket. Yes, I travelled for hours via airplane to Scotland and am publicly admitting to having been excited about having visited a supermarket. The foodie in me can't help it!

I'd read a few issues of their magazine thanks to Fog City News' amazing selection of imported cooking magazines, and had hoped to be able to take a look at one of their markets. It turns out they're sort of a combination of whole foods' gourmet and organic food and selection with a trader joes like emphasis on prepared and packaged foods for convenient meals. If I lived in the UK I can tell you I'd definitely be having them home delivered. No pix from the market, I'm afraid, as I can never tell where I can or can't take photos and have been previously chewed out for taking photos in shops in England.

We stopped to rest our weary feet at the Botanical Gardens, making sure to stop and see the remains of the overgrown undergrown rail line that ran through the area. We also poked our noses into quite possibly the most packed junk shop I've ever seen. I was glad I didn't have a large handbag with me, as I would have been afraid of braking something or starting an avalanche. We just don't have that sort of old school shopkeeping in the States.

This wander through a day in the life of Glasgow's West Ender made me feel a kinship with this city. I'd srt of expected it to remind me of San Francisco as far as being an active, vibrant city full of people going about their business, and that is pretty much how I felt by the time I got back to the hotel to call it a night.

Day 2 of Sightseeing

The other primary spot I wanted to visit, again based upon having heard so much about it and seen photos of it, was the Glasgow Necroplis and St. Mungo's cathedral. I took so many photos between the two places I created a separate flickr gallery for them.


We spent hours exploring the cathedral and the necropolis. I was struck by how much plant life perservered to grow in unlikely ledges in the Necropolis. Several photos show flowery weeds sprouted from the tiniest speck of dirt in a granite groove. As per usual, my favorite monuments were those with weather beaten statuary of some sort. But my favorite photo from the necropolis was of crosses against the bold cloudy sky.

I was truly impressed with St. Mungo's stained glass. On a whole it was some of the most visually interesting and modern feeling stained glass I've seen in a church. And some of it, such as the depictions of various family crests, unckuding a ship's mast on top of a knight's helm, were even quite humorous.

We wiled away the afternoon walking around the city center, stopping in at some vintage stores (L found a cool short sleeved shirt he bought). Our one record store excursion did yield some Jesus and Mary Chain records, but not ones I needed to complete my collection. Which is not surprising given that all I need to complete it at this point are a few limited edition 7" gatefold sleeve editions.

We headed back to the West End for dinner, stopping in at a bookshop with literally 2-deep stacks of books in front of each shelf. Not a place to go if you were looking for a specific book, but the kind of place you could easily spend several hours browsing through and coming home with things you'd never even thought about previously. I resisted the urge to buy some books on Roman architecture, reminding myself how heavy my bags were without lugging home picture books.

Our dinner destination was Stravaigin, a restaurant specializing in using Scottish produce and game, proponents of the "eat local" premise that makes me happy, but with a "think global" spin. I had an excellent mushroom and goat cheese ravioli starter and a main course of morroccan chicken. Unfortunately, I had to forego a cheese plate for dessert as I needed to save room for whiskey at Òran Mór, a bar and restaurant nearby that was housed in a former church. (We drank Isle of Jura if you are wondering.)

After two full days of walking the city, I felt as though I had seen everything on my must-visit list, and would efinitely need to plan another longer trip to spend some more time in the Glasgow, and to use it as a home base to explore the countryside.

Next up: Edinburgh.

Questions I Have Thanks to Recent Travel

  pond at the Edinburgh botanical gardens' greenhouse (but no frogs)

Whenever I travel, I come home with many many photos, tons of interesting experiences, and inevitably, all sorts of questions that occur to me. These are a few that got stuck in my brain during our trip to Scotland...

  • Why would a group of Brits, with all the beer options available to them, bring a six pack of Budweiser on a train? Really, why? Fullers makes so much better beer. I will never understand this one. Note that of course they'd brought 2 other 6-packs of beer with them as well. But still.
  • Why does a self-proclaimed 4-star hotel tell you in its room guide to order off the room service menu, then not provide a menu in the room, then not answer the room service phone #? Right, because they are updating the room service menu but don't have new ones printed yet. Note that we also then played round robin phone tag until we finally got ahold of someone in the restaurant who brought us up... the old room service menu.
  • Why is it that I can't ever take a walk while traveling to any city type place without being stopped and asked for directions? I think it must be the international city dweller uniform of mostly black clothing. I'm usually able to do OK at providing the requested directions, but this time around I was not able to provide walking directions to the British Museum from Euston station, having only just arrived in that neighborhood for my first time a short time earlier.
  • Why are all the lifts perpetually unavailable, or non-existant? I take for granted that the ADA makes the US a very traveler-friendly place. But after a week of schlepping around via trains and having to haul my bags up and down countless flights of stairs, I shall never take a well-placed ramp or elevator for granted again.
  • Why do all the eggs have such rich orange yolks in the UK? And why do only our occasional farmers' market eggs in the States match them?
  • Why do countries issue blanket "terrorism alert" statements like this one? Can it help do anything other than give anxiety to those travelers already abroad?
  • Why is it that only in the UK do restaurants serve a reasonable amount of milk with my coffee and tea? I swear in the U.S. it's always thimbles full of milk, or those play tea set sized cream cups at best.
  • Why don't we have a cake lounge like Auntie M's in SF? You'd think we would by now. Loved its completely inviting, homey, laid-back 50s vibe. And the cake! The cake! Delish. I had a chocolate orange cake that was truly fabulous.
  • Why is it that in the U.S. we think the transportation solution for a greener environment is hybrid cars rather than green/extensive public transportation networks? You can easily live in a European city without a car, getting around from place to place via transit or longer haul trains. Ever time I try to fathom how to get from San Francisco to a conference in San Jose I wonder why we haven't invested in a comprehensive rail network that can get us around the Bay Area more easily. And please don't mention BART -- if you live in the Richmond or Sunset districts, you're looking at taking a half hour bus ride to get on BART, and still having to change to CalTrain and walk a mile to get somewhere. Blergh.
  • Who thought it was a good idea to place a noisy water heater in the wall next to the bed's headboard at the Radisson in Edinburgh? Ah the joy of staying in an old building. I think the solution to this, however, would have been to drink more whiskey, yes?
  • Where are all the cats? Italy has them everywhere. And I saw them in Paris too. But there were too few cats this trip. One in Glasgow at the junkshop door, a ginger, who was muddy and couldn't be bothered with us; the black kitty who got himself let into the greenhouse in Edinburgh; and the white and black tomcat stalking the squirrels at the Edinburgh botanical gardens. I bet it is some sort of conspiracy led by all the birders, nod.

What to Do With Spoiled Kitties When You Go on Vacation?

image from

Marcello and Bolvar are a year-and-a-half now, and thus old enough for us to not feel terribly bad about leaving them to go on vacation. Yes, a prime reason we didn't do any overnight travel for the past year was we simply didn't know what to do about the kitties.

That's a pretty unique POV for us to have, mind you. Mister Bill was a very well-behaved old man kitty, able to make do with a one per day visit from a favorite cat sitter, grazing at his dry food feeder, and only mildly annoyed that his kitty water fountain was not up to his usual standards of pristine cleanliness.

These two are a whole different story. In large part due to their age, but also their distinct personalities. Bolvar, in addition to waking me up at precisely 6:30 a.m. every morning (the time at which my alarm typically goes off for work) whines about wanting new dry food at precisely 9 :00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. And he and Marcello's play can get out of hand enough to warrant time outs in separate rooms. thus, leaving them at home largely unsupervised just doesn't seem to be a good fit.

 After asking around, I settled on Feline Wishes on the recommendation of my friend Sharon who had entrusted them with the care of her kitties on multiple occasions. Unlike some of the other places I looked into, Feline Wishes is cats-only, which is key to giving kitties not used to being around dogs a less stressful stay in my opinion. Their reviews on yelp were excellent, save for a few negative reviews that are hard to judge from a validity/truth standpoint (which is a frequently recurring issue I have with yelp reviews, since they don't give any way to vote down an invalid/incorrect/spurious review, unlike ePinions and other such review sites.) 

I took a look around the facilities and was impressed with the setup. Kitties have a good sized space (think a slightly deeper bedroom closet) with a climbing rack with multiple perches, and a top of the enclosure bump out that allows them to spy on the hallway (and any person or feline out and about). And contrary to one yelp review which posited that the purveyors lied about letting the kitties have free roam every day to get some exercise and explore, when we arrived there was a kitty on walkabout.

I was impressed by the depth of their pre-stay intake paperwork. It was on par with registering a child for camp -- asking about the pet's personality, favorite activities, quirks, etc., and allowing you to specify any special dietary needs. They even encourage you to bring in your cat's favorite toys and bedding to help them acclimate more quickly.

It remains to be seen how they actually *do* there on their first stay. But I'm hopeful that they'll have fun exploring, and that they'll play fetch with Marcello and give Bo many belly rubs, and become a place we can leave the kitty babies without worry.

Marin County Fair Recap

  Llamas at the Marin County Fair

For me, it's simply not summertime without at least one county fair visit. Typically, our fair of choice is the Sonoma County Fair, but this year we decided to mix things up a bit with a trek to the Marin County Fair instead.

Overall, the fair seemed a little bit smaller than the other ones I've attended, which probably makes sense given the cost of the land in Marin County versus everywhere else. But this fair had stormtroopers, courtesy pf being in ILM/Lucas Ranch's backyard. How many other fairs can boast that? I was also seriously impressed with their culinary competitions -- and I am inspired next year to enter some of my own creations. Specifically, some baked goods. Unlike many other fairs which limit entrants to the local county, Marin's are open to any California resident. Huzzah! Now to decide what to bake...

In addition to taking a gander at all the adorable farm animals, we did a serious once over of the food vendors, because fair food is serious business. As we entered, we saw a few small ubiquitous fair food vendors, including funnel cakes, but we kept moving through the crowds until we hit the permanent structure housing the "Marin Food Court." I had a hunch that much like the fairgrounds in the central valley, the permanent structures would house local ethnic and civic organizations for whom the fair was a primary annual fundraiser. And I was right!

Although there were some of the expected fair food staples, like hot dogs and hamburgers, this being Marin County, there was also a self-billed "healthy gourmet vegetarian" food stall as well. Which seemed to be where the Perry Farrell-lookalike had gotten his food from. We settled on the Greek orthodox church's gyros stand, and some lemonade from the lemonade stand. And I couldn't have been happier. Well, unless I'd had a Lagunitas Farmhouse Ale. But that's a Sonoma County Fair thing.

Overall, a nice way to pass a couple of hours. But I miss the Stanislaus County Fair's linguica. I think we may need to make that next year's fair pit stop.

You can see more pix of cute fair animals in my Marin County Fair flickr set.

Sonoma County Fair

Barring some sort of catastrophe (like the year the car died), I've gone to a county fair every year for as long as I can remember.

I love the funnel cakes, the regional ethinic foods, the livestock, and the exhibits. I can't explain why, but it's just an intrinsic part of summer for me.

Yesterday's trek to the Sonoma County Fair was my third trip to that particular fair. Last year, we weren't able to go until a weekend day midway through the fair, and missed out on most of the small animals. So this year, we planned ahead and went up on a weekday that coincided with some of the animal showing.

As my fair photo gallery shows, we saw lots and lots of cows and bunnies.

I had personally been excited about the fair's Sustainable Sonoma exhibit. As a slow food proponent, and frequenter of farmers markets, I was excited at the prospect of seeing some local growers and producers at the fair and giving folks some ideas on how to think more locally. Unfortunately, the reality of the exhibit however did not meet my expectations.

Set in a tent off to the side of the main entry hall, it featured a lot of unmanned booths (like the Sierra Nevada table that had some brochures and some keychains on it), a table with a little bit of produce and some olive oil, and a gentleman giving out samples of hummus and veggie spreads, some art made from recycled items, a booth on sprinklers, and a few other booths selling various art.

I had expected a vibrant and fun expression of the eat local scene, yet this felt more like a green themed extension of the entry hall concessions. I mean, there wasn't even a copy of the Sonoma Farm Trails map! If we lived in the area, I would be looking around now to sign up as a volunteer to curate the tent for next year in a way that made folks proud of their local purveyors and help them understand how they can grow fruits and veggies at home, etc.

But that is a minor complaint from an otherwise lovely day at the fair.

Muir Woods -- Too Popular for its Own Good

Muir Woods

I'm taking this week off and again not leaving the City. So we thought it would be fun to recreate the Muir Woods portion of our April staycation. But it was not to be.

We arrived around 2:15 on Monday afternoon and parking was a good 3 mile hike in from the shoulder of the road to the park entrance. I forgot completely that Summer weekdays are a lot more crowded than Springtime weekdays. I've clearly been out of school for too long and don't have babies to remind me of what I am missing out on over Summer break.

So we did what any other intrepid city explorers would do -- we popped down onto the nearest trail by where we parked, on Muir Woods Road. that's one of the cool things about the Bay Area's park system-- there are always a bunch of trails heading off from any of the parks. In this case, we took the Redwood Creek Trail, to the Heather trail.

California's budget situation has been in the news a lot lately so it wasn't surprising to see that we had a trail closed for renovations that didn't seem to be happening (Miwok Trail), and that both the main trail we were on and the offshoots were overgrown to the point of being nearly obscured by the weeds. I was not prepared for that level of contact with weeds-- I lacked both an allergy pill and a walking stick (for pushing past the weeds without touching them). I will be sure to have both next time. And to keep our two excellent trail guidebooks (with maps) in the trunk: Moon California Hiking (Moon Handbooks) and Golden Gate Trailblazer: Where to Hike, Walk, Bike in San Francisco & Marin

If we close down dozens of state parks and cut back on staffing and services for the rest, as has been reported to be the outcome of today's budget agreement, I do wonder what is giong to happen to our trail system. Will it become overgrown and eventually warrant millions of dollars in restorative funds? Or will local citizens take it upon themselves to keep the trails clear? It will be interesting to see what happens.

Staycation Days 2 & 3: Sonoma Valley


Our major daytrip (is an overnighter technically a day trip?) was heading up to Sonoma for a relaxing massage and soak at the Fairmont Mission Sonoma Inn and Spa, and a little bit of wine tasting.

Thanks to the economic downturn, we got a great deal, via the Web, on a suite that had a jacuzzi tub and a balcony, giving us extra lounging possibilities. It was a great room but I have to say its $1500 rack rate (per the notice in the closet) is significantly higher than I would expect given the amenities. That said, thoroughly enjoyed the massage, and the rare treat of Food network on the tv while we ate room service breakfast. Loved Tony Bourdain's tour of Cleveland, including his stop at Lola, the only fine dining establishment I've been to in OH.

Last time we stayed here the mineral baths were nearly deserted. This time, despite it being off season, they were packed, making me doubly glad we had a tub of our own.

Wednesday morning, we packed up and got in the car and headed to Cline and Arrowood vineyards for some serious tasting. These are two of my favorite Sonoma wineries, so rather than hit up a bunch of places, we focused on these 2 for the sake of time and not becoming inebriated (in deference to lunch with my SO's grandma afterwards.)

A standout at Cline was their proprietary blend Oakley 5 Reds. Like the winery employee who poured for us, I wasn't taken with this blend prior to last year. Now I snap up a few bottles whenever I see it -- it's a great wine for under $10 most places. And lucky for us it was on sale at 25% off. Some old vine zinfandel and pinot gris also came home with us.

Our visit to Arrowood got off on the wrong foot. This has been my favorite all around winery for a solid decade. I try to make it up there about once a year to buy a case, including a few bottles of their amazing late harvest white dessert wines. There were 3 other couples tasting when we arrived, with only one employee pouring (while another stocked shelves and pored over paperwork behind the counter.)

The other couples had a decade or two on us and as a result, were getting more of our host's attention. When she asked us, towards the end of our tasting, if it was our first time visiting the winery, I told her "No, we come up at least once a year. And Arrowood is my favorite winery, atually." A few moments later, we were offered a taste of the dessert wines and what had been a lackliuster experience thus far was salvaged.

The show stopping wine at Arrowood was the luscious, thick, golden Select Late Harvest White Reisling from Saralee's Vineyard. No words I have can do this wine justice. We bought two bottles, with the intention of giving one as a gift, but we shall see if we are actually able to part with it...

More photos here.

Staycation Day 1: Muir Woods

IMG_0082 IMG_0085

Every year since I started working, I've taken a week or two off from work in April for vacation. I hate standing in long lines or visiting beautiful places overrun with other visitors, so this has been the best time of year to plan on a trip. I have this week off from work. But for a variety of reasons, including the craptastic economy and a sickly kitty cat, I'm not off on one of my more typical cross-continent vacations. Instead, it's a Bay Area staycation (a stay-at-home vacation).

Although my significant other was looking as though he might stay in bed 'til noon, I managed to hassle him into getting up and out the door for our Marin County trek today.Today's daytime plans were not too ambitious-- a leisurely drive up Highway 1 to Pelican Inn for lunch, then on to Muir Woods for a hike.

Thanks to this being a post-rush hour weekday morning, we were at Pelican Inn less than a half hour from leaving home, even with the inevitable Highway 1 roadwork lane closure. The fish and chips with non-mushy peas ( /cry) and the "english dip" roast beef sandwich weren't anything special, but you really could not ask for a place to eat that's any more convenient to the park. And the Fuller's London Pride on tap would have made it a must stop regardless imho.

Post-lunch, we made a short drive to the park's parking lot, then started the walk in. It's amazing how crowded Muir Woods can be even on a weekday. Then again, I suppose many of the families there were on Spring Break and trying to tire out their children...

We did the two-mile loop trail, then headed back into the city, via a leisurely Highway 1 drive.

I often forget just how close we live to Marin County and its myriad hiking trails. We just picked up a couple of comprehensive local hiking trail/day trip books: Moon California Hiking (Moon Handbooks) and Golden Gate Trailblazer: Where to Hike, Walk, Bike in San Francisco & Marin. This should provide  some encouragement to get out and about in the greater San Francisco Bay Area more often.


More photos here.

Not So Rustic Camping

Dutch OvenLast weekend, I went camping with my significant other's family. Although I am not a camping neophyte, I have never camped with them previously so I had no idea that I was in for a weekend of feasting in fresh air.

My normal camping larder includes soy milk and hot cocoa (usually fauchon cocoa packets), marshmallows, McCann's instant oatmeal, graham crackers and chocolate for sm'ores, hot dogs and buns, and some sort of salty snack, plus beer. This weekend went way past that.

Dutch Oven Peach CobblerThe key to eating well while camping, I've learned, is to bring a dutch oven, a camp stove and a big ice chest (or two). And to keep the fire going at a steady pace to act as a warming plate.

The dutch oven (which I will be asking Santa for) was used to bake cheddar biscuits (bisquick recipe+shredded cheese) and a yummy peach "cobbler." The cobbler topping was yellow cake mix rather than biscuit topping which I had never seen done before. The result was very tasty, and gave the camp an amazing aroma when the lid was lifted after dinner.

Dinner involved hot dogs for the kids, steaks for the grown ups, plus corn, salad, and ravioli with pesto sauce. Breakfast the next day involved scrambled eggs, sausage patties, and mimosas. Definitely not roughing it.

I don't know that I can commit to a big ice chest full of perishables, but this has given me some ideas for the next time we go car camping.

Birthday Travels

Birthday Travels

It’s my personal policy to avoid working on my birthday at all costs. The last birthday I worked on found me stuck at my desk late, working on cleaning up a crisis someone else created. It reinforces the importance of this rule. Ahem.

This year, with the birthday falling on a weekday, I thought it would be worth it to attempt a trip to Napa* for dinner with friends and some wine tasting. But a broken dishwasher and uncooperative property management, and my significant other’s last minute early next morning meeting conspired against that.

Many phone calls ensued. Eventually, I ended up with part of my birthday free, and we hopped in the car, and sped up Highway 101 in time for lunch at Bouchon in Yountville.

I had been thinking Bouchon would be similar in food and vibe to Balthazar for some reason (presumably from the many write-ups I’d seen of Bouchon, and the many yummy lunches I’ve had at Balthazar.) But it was a lot more low key. And despite being full of tourists, in décor and service felt a lot more like a small town restaurant. The bathrooms under renovation that left a port-o-potty outside for the men, and a fairly unkempt men’s bathroom with a wet floor for use by the ladies, was a poor start to the meal.

We started off with creative and refreshing house cocktails that I didn’t think to write down (birthday girl was concentrating on her sparkling champagne cocktail). As a starter, the salt cod beignets were amazing. They looked just like their Café du Monde inspiration, and had the same textures when you bit into them. Their fried sage accompaniment was a nice touch but the tomato confit didn’t really enhance the crunchy morsels. Overall tho, they left me happily anticipating my entrée.

The boy on the other hand absolutely hated his chilled corn soup. It turns out he only heard the “corn” and “soup” portion of the special. So when he slurped up a large spoonful of the pureed cold soup…he was surprised. And not unexpectedly pleasantly surprised. Oh well.

After really loving my inventive starter, I was prepared to be wowed by my steak frites. It’s my typical comfort food dish, and I had figured they would have a great one. The herbed butter on top was delicious, but the cut of meat, a prime flatiron, was fatty and chewy and the French fries were unremarkable and not as crisp as I like them. I left as much on my plate as I ate. My boyfriend’s Croque Madame was a far better choice.

We finished with profiteroles doused with a not especially flavorful chocolate sauce, and a blueberry infused pot de crème.

Overall, I have to admit I was a little disappointed. For the prices and location, I expected more from Bouchon. After all, they have to compete with Bistro Jeanty right up the street, where I have many outstanding lunches over the years. Our waitress was difficult to obtain service from, and never inquired after the half-eaten dishes were taken from our tables. At most Bay Area restaurants, if you leave even a forkful of food on your plate, someone asks what was wrong with the food. But since the waitress never checked in while we were eating, and was not the one taking away the plates, apparently she did not get the message. And by the time we flagged her down for the dessert menus, I was over wanting to talk about it.

I do have to call out props for their bread. We went next door to Bouchon Bakery and bought an epi baguette to take home.

The rest of the day involved splurging on T Vine zinfandel, Mariage Freres tea and various cooking supplies at Dean and Deluca, plus wine tasting at St. Clement and Cline. Not a bad way to spend a birthday.

* Trying to drive through Napa on a weekend is nearly impossible due to all the traffic the tourism generates. Trying to wine taste at all on weekends is maddening.

The Joys of Food Shopping in Italy

On both my trips to Italy, I've primarily stayed in apartments. For me, that decision was made first and foremost to enable me to snatch up the delicious foods I come across over the course of my day. My boyfriend still has fond memories of the white bean pasta dish I threw together one night in Venice. That's why this Serious Eats post on the top things the writer loves about shopping in Italy caught my eye. Reading this post brought back many great memories, and left me smiling, and looking forward to my next trip...

Visiting Monterey Bay

If you're trying to get out of the heat, a Summertime trip to Monterey Bay is a great idea. Unfortunately it is one shared with throngs of tourists. This leads to hotels booked months in advance throughout the Summer. So whatever you do -- don't arrive in Monterey without a reservation, unless you can afford the last available suite at one of the resorts.

My recent trip to Monterey involved a stay at the Hotel Pacific, billed as a AAA 4-diamond property within walking distance of Fisherman's Wharf, Cannery Row, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Their website also promised "handcrafted tile bath features separate tub and shower, a second phone and a second television" and "French doors opening to a private balcony or patio."

Some of the above was a bit of a stretch of the truth. Although Fisherman's Wharf was nearby, the aquarium was only walking distance if you meant that you can pick up the free tram in front of the hotel to get there, or if you were accustomed to walking a few miles per day. Our bathroom had a shower with just a curtain -- no tub or even a raised area to keep the water from flooding the floor -- and a fold-down seat for the elderly or disabled. No TV, and not at all the luxurious or romantic accommodation we were expecting. The sink being in the main room -- not the bathroom -- was another odd choice. And that patio? Think an eye-level walled alleyway with only 1 lawn chair. All this at about the same price as staying at a truly luxurious room at the W in most cities. I'd also much rather be able to pay for room service than have to stand around, with children running to-and-fro, waiting for coffee urns to be refilled and the ransacked Continental Breakfast tables replenished. Live and learn. We won't be staying there again.

As a side note, how is it that a hotel that advertises itself as having conference and meeting facilities does not have a business center or even a computer that hotel guests can use? We forgot our pre-purchased Monterey Bay Aquarium tickets, and were directed to a Kinko's about a mile away. And that was after watching the desk person print another guest's airplane boarding passes. That's not the level of service I would expect from a self-proclaimed "luxury" property.

Once we had our pre-purchased tickets in hand, we parked in the hotel garage and took the free bus to the aquarium, avoiding the $20-$25 parking lot fees for the few available spaces. Having pre-purchased tickets also allowed us to avoid the line of several hundred people waiting to see if they would be able to buy tickets. As always, the facility's impressive aquariums, and their educational presentation on the deep sea research they are conducting with an affiliated non profit research arm, was well worth braving the crowds.

Next post will be on the glorious food, which was second only to the otters as a highlight of the trip.

Italy: Open for Renovations

Last time I was in Italy, in 2001, it seemed like the entire country was under renovation. From the Medici Chapel in Florence to the Doge's Palace in Venice, many of the sites I visited were shrouded in scaffolding. The same was true in my June travels through Italy.

But unlike such projects in the States, I was again struck by the fact that their scaffoldings (like the one here seen on the Grand Canal in Venice) were typically covered with colorful representations of what the restored building will look like (or what it looked like prior to the restoration), with a shout out to the corporate or civic entities that sponsored the project.

It came as a huge disappointment though when I walked into my favorite piece of civic architecture -- the Pantheon in Rome -- shifted my gaze up to the oculus, and saw...scaffolding. Boring utilitarian scaffolding obscuring about 1/8 of the interior, from wall to oculus. And associated roped off walls. All the visitors were basically coralled into the center of the building, unable to get up close to the gorgeous marble walls.

Turns out they spent a little over a year giving the interior dome a good scrubbing. Gone are the dark tobacco-colored splotches. The dome is now more of a glistening honey-sand color, with very few blemishes. It's gorgeous, if unexpected.


Like any good travel magazine addict, I knew that Ventana was one of Big Sur's most posh retreats. What I found out through my online sleuthing in preparation for a Big Sur camping trip is it's also home to one of the area's prettiest campgrounds.

The $30 a night price tag seemed pretty steep until I saw that many of the other Big Sur campgrounds amount to little more than large parking lots with small dirt patches and scrubby little bushes at little more than a $10 savings. Also, since this was one of the few campgrounds to promote that they had fire rings -- and I wanted to raost some marshmallows -- it was an easy choice to make.

Our camp site was at the midpoint of the campground (though due to rains the week before, it was pretty much at the far end of the available spaces). The site was large enough to hold our car at the far end, a picnic table and fire ring in the middle, and to leave a huge open space around our tent. Running water for washing dishes was at the edge of our space which was great except for when the neighbors spent a half hour after dark obsessively rinsing something. As a plus, the bathhouse was always empty, and was cleaner than most San Francisco public restrooms.

The campground was an excellent jumping off point for hiking at the local parks, wherein we ogled even more redwood trees, and a gorgeous waterfall.

PHOTOS: Scary XMAS continues

Perhaps one of the scariest elements of holiday decorating is gaining insight into the strange sense of humor lurking beneath the jolly surface of some Christmas Tree Lane residents.

What, exactly, inspired the above homeowners to use masking tape to attach a lone red bulb to a scary white and black reindeer's nose? And at first glance, the holiday lights wrapped around the bridle looks like barbed wire in the daylight.

If I recall, the people with the melted snowman were also host  to this gaudy plastic Precious Moments nativity scene.

It appears this household has decided Santa is best encased in a crippled helicopter, sans reindeer.

Look carefully at the above tree lot snowman. Pay special attention to the yellow snow next to the smirking house pet.

Is Santa, lost in the desert, following the North Star under the watchful eye of the Precious Moments angels?

PHOTOS: Scary Xmas Snowmen

Snowmen seemed to be the non-denominational Christmas decor of choice this year. Dozens of houses had this same wire snowman:

Of course, not all of the snowman looked alike, despite their shared point of creation; some snowmen seemed a little more disheveled than others.

I personally liked this Cubist snowman, who appeared to be comprised of wire closet storage boxes covered with some sort of fake plastic snow:

But this next guy, is he a polar bear or a snowman? And why is he wearing a pink jacket and mittens with black combat boots?

And finally, isn't it a bit scary for the small children to have melted snowmen like this all over your front lawn? Why exactly did these folks move to Christmas Tree Lane anyhow?

PHOTOS: Scary XMAS Intro

No matter how pretty it may seem to drive past Christmas Tree Lane on a cold winter's night, those holiday lawn displays are pretty darn scary in the daylight. Some of them look like the aftermath of a wild party even, with the previously merry hosts slumped over a pile of presents.

Take this Santa for example. Face down in the front yard at 2 in the afternoon. Was it a result of too much egg nog, or something more sinister? The "Beware of Dog" sign makes it seem all too possible that it's the latter.

More photos to follow.

NYC Holiday Whirlwind

Two layers of cashmere sweaters, boots, fuzzy scarf and gloves, topped off with a three-quarters length leather jacket barely took the edge off the 20-something degree early morning temperature, as I briskly walked down Fifth Avenue last December, against the flow of the humming Midtown Manhattan morning commuters, sliding onto the sidewalks from the streets on the patches of ice which, still in the skyscrapers' shadows, had not yet thawed.

I ignored the cold, even though my cheeks were a garish shade of pink. I was a California girl on a unique mission: I was in search of a television-perfect Manhattan Holiday weekend, complete with extravagant holiday windows, gourmet delicacies flown in from Paris, and ice skating at Rockefeller Center.

I’d come into the city on a red eye flight, and dropped my bags at my Grand Central area hotel, grabbed a vanilla latte, and set out on my quest. The gleaming art deco Rockefeller Center was my first stop on my whirlwind holiday tour. Metal barriers kept tourists from cutting through the plaza, as the television crewmembers rushed around what would be the set for that evening’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony. I was lucky to still able to get in a few tranquil minutes of watching those more graceful than myself skate on the festively decorated, below-street level Rockefeller Center Skating Rink.

First opened on Christmas Day, 1936, the Rink has attracted over a quarter million people each year, and has been featured in countless movies, making it a must-see on my quest to take in NYC holiday traditions. The skaters, gliding around the rink in circles or figure eights, appeared to be blissfully unaware of the screech of the electrical tape and the sound checks going on amongst the crowd above them.

Rockefeller Center was a good launching point for my holiday windows tour. The holiday windows of Barney’s, Bergdorf Goodman, and Saks Fifth Avenue, noted by multiple friends as the most imaginative in years past, were my key stops. Simon Doonan’s “Sex in the City” inspired windows at Barney’s, were funny (comedy is always a key aspect of his window designs). But it was Linda Fargo’s "A Holiday Dream" window, with its opulent nighttime landscape of black and white swans, Swarovski chandelier, and huge baroque mirror at Bergdorf Goodman that really grabbed me.

A morning of window-shopping in windy cold conditions called for a lunchtime respite at Fauchon’s tea salon. After a short wait in the doorway, I was rewarded with perhaps the best table for people watching. While I waited for my my pot of Earl Grey with flowers tea and petite yet perfectly filling foie gras sandwich ($27 with tip), I leaned back in the reclining gilt-covered chair, with the signature Fauchon pink-and –white striped upholstery, to enjoy my unobstructed view of Madison Avenue’s lunchtime shoppers.

The narrow salon was packed with couples enjoying a romantic interlude in the middle of the workday or after some serious site seeing, plus several independent women enjoying pots of tea and an array of pastries. While I was halfway through my tea, an older woman was seated at a table in the corner, with her back to the storefront wall, facing my table. It became clear after her conversations with the waiter that she was a regular, and that I was seated at her regular table. Full of holiday spirit, and anxious to start my holiday shopping in the attached shop, I chose not to linger at the table, and flagged down the waiter for my check.

This Fauchon storefront had a comprehensive selection of the products the company markets in the United States. Contrary to what the store manager tried to convince me of, it does not, however, include the same range of products as the Paris shops. Most notably, the “potted duck” (duck rillettes in a pantry-ready glass jar) was absent. I snatched up a dozen small jars of unusual condiments (such as the mustard with cocoa), and the milk jams (vanilla, caramel, coffee), plus several pink tin canisters of individually wrapped madeleines (a treat I’d fallen in love with the previous Spring in Paris), and decided this year’s presents would have a culinary theme.

A nap back at the hotel was a necessary luxury before hopping on the Metro at Grand Central and heading to SoHo for additional window-shopping and dinner at Slow Food favorite Savoy. After a failed attempt at a meet-up with a local friend, I decided to still try for dinner at Savoy.

Savoy is a cozy, two-story jewel box of a restaurant on Prince at Crosby. Despite my lack of reservations, I was allowed to sit at a tiny round table next to the picture windows in the front of the downstairs bar. I ordered a glass of house red wine and the charcuterie plate ($12) to start, which featured a few paper-thin slices of Serrano ham, their own house cured sopressata, which was good, and their house cured mortadella, which was amazing. These treats were accompanied by house-made condiments (pickles and a scarlet colored mustard made with figs that was as attractive as it was delicious), and a tiny taste of a house-made pork rillette, and little toasted bread slices. They had also brought me a breadbasket with three presumably house-made breads) but it was mostly neglected due to the temptations provided by the charcuterie.

My entree decision was easy to make -- as soon as my affable waiter started to say that the night's special entree was venison ($28). Venison is one of my all-time favorite treats, and exemplifies the holidays to me. I was pleased he didn't ask me how I wanted it cooked; that small detail, on the heels of the impressive starter, gave me a certain level of certainty it was going to be marvelous, as well as instilling my faith in the chef and the restaurant.

The venison came out with dark edges and the requisite/desired non-bloody but still vibrant red-pink middle, surrounded by a light sauce of its own drippings, on a bed of roasted brussels sprouts and roasted chestnuts (for that perfect winter touch), and a big fluffy bed of pureed and whipped parsnips that looked exactly like a mound of mashed potatoes but had all the rich earthy taste I'd expect from parsnips. I savored the bites of this meal.

My final holiday “to do” was to meet up with a friend from home, Greg, who happened to be in town, so we could see the Christmas tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To beat the crowds, we met right as the museum opened, and made a beeline for the tree. For the past 35 years, the museum has decorated an immense tree with a unique and growing collection of eighteenth-century Neapolitan angels and cherubs scattered across its branches, and a colorful array of crèche figures flanking a Nativity scene at its base.

Standing in the Medieval Hall, looking up at the 50 large, individually decorated angels suspended from the tree, surrounded by the smiling faces of the tourists and locals alike who had made the pilgrimage to this shrine to the spirit of the holidays, I received my first gift of the season: Greg escorted me to the café overlooking the Central Park, where we enjoyed a cup of coffee, and a lively conversation about our childhood holiday traditions, which was an ideal way to wrap-up my holiday whirlwind tour of New York.

The Ice Skating Rink at Rockefeller Center is open October to April. See or call (212) 332-7654 for hours of operation and cost.

Holiday Windows. The major concentration of holiday windows with the most lavish decorations tends to be on Fifth from 53rd to E. 59th, and Madison from 57th to E 81st. For an armchair tour of NYC holiday windows past, visit the Fashion Planet website ( and choose the 2003/4 holiday windows link.

Fauchon, The Madison Avenue outpost has closed, but the Park Avenue location (442 Park Avenue at 56th Street, is still open.

Savoy, 70 Prince St. (Between Crosby and Lafayette Sts.) (212) 219-8570.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street. (212) 535-7710. Annual Christmas Tree and Neapolitan Baroque Crèche, November 23, 2004–January 7, 2005, Medieval Art, 1st floor .