MUSINGLY By Karen D'Or

Writing Portfolio, Travel Stories & Other Diversions

Tag: travel

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My Top Seven Writing Distractions

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I’ve neglected my musingly writing for months, and the reasons at first seem infuriatingly bland — the mechanics of my suburban life. So, this fall, I am making a public commitment to write more regularly — beginning with this cafeteria-style confessional of my top seven writing distractions*:

1) Thinking about food. I spend a lot of time ruminating about food (and drink). ­I particularly get focused on these two favorite hobbies just as I am about embark for — or am returning from —­­ New Orleans. Whole red fish drizzled in fresh herbs from Peche, fried oysters at Clancy’s, fresh oysters at Casamento’s, pretty much anything at Restaurant August. I continue to obsess about the New Orleans’ dining scene, and plan my restaurant runs months in advance. Closer to home, I’m always on the lookout for new and interesting Bay Area dining spots. Suggestions, anyone?

 2) Online shopping. Admit it: the ubiquitous Amazon ‘prime’ shopping is a great distraction for folks who work from home on a computer and like to pretend they are getting a good deal. I can find nearly instant gratification on prime, congratulate myself for saving money, and avoid traffic and fuel costs, all with just a few button clicks. Did I really need double-sided indoor carpet tape delivered in two days?

3) Family. Acute family problems derailed my writing earlier this year (see the Pins and Needles post) but I have only myself to blame. I continue to overthink family issues, get too emotionally involved, and become diverted away from more important matters such as my own creativity. I have an odd itch for an unattainable “normalcy” —and my family will never be normal. Thankfully, my family is an eccentric troupe that could inspire my writing, including: sassy urban teachers, aspiring artists, musicians, someone who has been mistaken for Martha Stewart, a couple of famous British authors, and a former Reagan appointee. My people are characters.

4) Pilates. I recently re-discovered my love for this rather rigorous form of body toning; Pilates is a particularly rewarding exercise for those of us who spend many hours hunched in front of a computer keyboard. This healthy distraction helped to inspire my summer blog post: Five Reasons Why I Love Being Curvy. 

ATT Park, San Francisco, California

ATT Park, San Francisco, California

5) Baseball. Although we are heading into December, it seems only yesterday that the San Francisco Giants won the World Series. Since it is the third time in six years, it should be par for the course around here; nevertheless, during Orange October, I was constantly interrupting my writing flow by jumping up to turn on the TV, or tuning into the pre-game warm-up show on the radio, or ordering the essential World Series pizza. Those magical men from the City by the Bay did it again this year, and I have no regrets for their joyous (and sometimes hunky) distractions.

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herbsaint dinner at the bar Nov. 2013

Eating Off Your Plate

herbsaint dinner at the bar Nov. 2013

herbsaint dinner at the bar Nov. 2013

Food loving friends and family contributed to my delicious and libationary 2013. Here are some of the highlights of a plentiful year:

Sharing Food.The joy of sharing food together reflects on the quality of the friendship. My daughter, Robyn, jokes that our family has a tendency to eat off of each other’s plates, uninvited. Perhaps that is odd, but the gracious and intentional sharing of food can deepen most relationships. I wrote about sharing a leisurely meal with a dear friend earlier this year in the Redd Meet post.

Sharing my love of New Orleans. The April 2013 trip (it was dear friend Liz’ first time in NOLA) was described in my previous post: Restaurant and Bar Reviews 2013. So much laugher, great music and delectable experiences during her inaugural visit. My second trip (Thanksgiving 2013) had a number of food and drink highlights, many of which I reported on chow.com NOLA board, one of my favorite online places with some of the best overall discussions about food anywhere. Chowhound NOLA is so entertaining and convivial that not one, but two, of my chow correspondents astutely “ambushed” me on the November trip.

Sharing success. My daughter’s dear friend, Carrie also has her own fun and informative blog Consumedbycarrie.com. She also makes an awesome chocolate chess pie!

Sharing skills. I went to our local Sur La Tableto get some new skills. “Wives with Knives” is an enactment-style TV show on ID, but mayhem was not my purpose in taking the basic knifing class. I am seeking additional confidence as a cook because, frankly, I think it will make be a fitter foodie. Although I was not very coordinated in the class, I have been more adventurous in the kitchen and have committed zero crimes with my new Kyocera ceramic chef’s knife.

Sharing hobbies. In 2013, my husband and I we realized we had made a great trade: I become a true baseball fan – hanging in there for an abysmal season – and my husband had opened his mind and stomach to fine food. Here are our a few of our new favorite spots around ATT Park in San Francisco.

Marlowe: http://marlowesf.com/  Wonderful post-game comfort food

Zare Fly Trap: Mediterranean cuisine with modern Persian influence. Delightful pre-game, had a great meal with Mimi this summer. http://www.zareflytrap.com/about_us.html 606 Folsom Street

83 Proof: A wonderful neighborhood bar http://www.83proof.com/ 83 First Street between Mission and Market.

With 2014 adventures in the planning stage, I hope to read the great food writers, get creative in my recipes –- and make sure to grab a few bites off of everyone’s plate!

 

Refreshing bourbon Buck at 1760

No Moldy Pillows: A Night in San Francisco

My husband and I were looking forward to our San Francisco date night – an early  celebration of my birthday — for a couple of weeks. Focused around my obsession with 1760, a new hot dining spot Polk Street, we wangled a 7:45 dinner reservation, nabbed an inexpensive Union Street hotel, and even scouted out a couple of street fairs featuring a plethora of local SF bands.

 As middle-agers with obligations, there are logistics in getting away from home – even for one night. Accordingly…

..the dog went to the kennel,

I packed an overnight bag,

made an egg-white omelet, and then….

…my dear Bob wobbled down the stairs in the throes of a very sore throat.

After he finished sipping a large mug of hot coffee and attempted to clear stubborn sinuses under a warm shower, he bravely decided to go forward with the Saturday night plans.

After a quick stop at the beauty store (where I got them to glue some fuzzy eyelashes on correctly) we headed straight for the Mission District, a thriving neighborhood that bustled intriguingly on a bright October afternoon. On Valencia Street we stumbled upon Bar Tartine. The bistro had been on my list of “to-dos” for a while, but I assumed we’d just grab a quick taco at the street fair. However, I was hungry, and Bar Tartine’s menu looked friendly and fun. The thoughtful hostess got us in quickly at the tail end of their Saturday brunch — and we were not disappointed.

Over drinks Bob recalls that, during the 1980s, he had success finding cheap apartments in the Mission. This luck scoring great living spaces was one of his prime attractions to San Francisco, and was in stark contract to his experience in Chicago, where, in spite of being a native, he couldn’t quite get launched.

And here we were, in a fancy lunch spot ordering a beet Mimosa and a Prickly Pear punch cocktail.

Well, Bob ordered the latter. My husband is one of the only people I know who picks a cocktail off a menu even when he does not recognize any of the multi-syllable ingredients. He sees the word “punch” and thinks a sweet pear-flavored party drink.  Not so with this prickly pear concoction. As I am quickly drinking my bright, pink, refreshing Mimosa, he grimaces after one gulp of his pale orange brew:

“Tastes like a moldy pillow that’s been in a basement for six months.”

The Bar at Bar Tartine San Francisco

The Bar at Bar Tartine
San Francisco

Because of his cold, and his vivid description, I did not try The Moldy Pillow cocktail—however, as I glanced over Bob’s shoulder, towards the bar, I saw a waitress toss the very same drink down the bar sink.

Nevertheless, Bar Tartine was wonderfully delicious in a welcoming spot in the heart of the Mission.  We split the Everything Sandwich, a hearty two-hander on freshly baked and toasted bread filled with lox, fancy cream cheese (quark), crisp lettuce, capers, fresh tomato and herbs.

Our tiny hotel was on Union Street not far from Van Ness Avenue, a great location for a low-key Russian Hill evening. Free parking in San Francisco is like manna from heaven, and $170 per night price tag is below average. So, although the hotel décor was shabby, and our wall heater inoperable, we rather liked the Pacific Heights Inn for its comfy bed, great location, and generous parking policy. Once in a safe spot in the Inn’s parking lot, our car stayed put until our ride home the next day!

Putting our feet up for a short respite, Bob quietly watches the World Series game while I read my novel about a pirate queen who kidnaps a gourmet chef.  Soon its time to walk the half-mile to 1760 Polk street, passing busy bars filled with baseball fans and Halloween revelers.

1760 has perfect modern ambiance with low-level lighting, plenty of brushed steel and well placed glass and mirrors. The restaurant is busy with a charming intimacy that comes from smooth operations and confident staff. The timing of the entire evening was impeccable, and our lovely Isabella had no trace of the San Francisco over cool wait attitude. She cared as did her fellow servers and bus-people.

1760 subscribes to the small (shared) plate model, and Isabella was quite clear explaining which were the larger and which were the smaller, appetizer-like plates on the menu. After ordering two great cocktails (Bob sanely ordered a mango/rum drink and I had chose the wonderful bourbon-based buck), we opted for two small plates, two large plates and one dessert. Soon an amuse bouche of celery topped with a pungent bleu cheese arrived and was quickly gobbled up.

Our favorite dish was next: Dungeness crab “siracha.” This artful salad of very fresh crab, tiny dots of siracha around the plate, with nuances of celery and yuzu fruit is a perfect starter, so perfect we nearly re-ordered prior to dessert.  Next out (timing was perfect) was Crispy Octopus and Squash Ravioli and both were excellent.

Refreshing bourbon Buck at 1760

Refreshing bourbon Buck at 1760

 I had my second bourbon Buck.

Knowing we wanted to finish this lovely evening off with the right sweet, we went back to the menu for warm pears and goat cheese friseé salad alongside a Milk Chocolate Ganache plated with hickory ice cream, bourbon caramel, and marshmallow. We certainly had enough food but 1760’s sweet finale was a complimentary Brown Butter Sponge Cake, apple-bourbon gelato and cheesecake mousse birthday dessert.

Our evening finished up at The Royal Oak bar for a nightcap. The Addams Family Values movie was playing on the big screen TV, and all around the young locals were dressed up as pirates and Wookies. Even the Pope was there.

Bob & A Pope

Bob & A Pope

 Glad the festivities culminated a few days prior to my birthday: with an ill husband, a rushed work project going sour, and the age of 57 hard for me to grasp, the rest of my birthday week has felt quite like a Moldy Pillow.

 

 

Cycling Back Through Nice

Cycling Back Through Nice

In the tiny Cote d’Azur town of Agay, the tired brown brick hut that was once the rail station is shuttered, and the single plastic overhang on the far side of the rails doesn’t offer much shelter as a soft rain begins. Bullet trains race past the platform. My husband and I find cover alongside well-dressed strangers, both of us hoping we haven’t missed the coastal train bound for Cannes, Antibes, and Nice. A little before eleven o’clock in the morning, second class tickets in hand, we embark the #3 TER (Transport Express Regional) train, settle in with a late-morning picnic of baguette and prosciutto, and watch out our window as the red ravine landscapes give way to famous port-filled colonies.

Red mountains above Agay, France

Red mountains above Agay, France

This is our second visit to Nice, and as the train nears the central station, I’m struck by the city’s urbanity: freeways, indistinguishable chain hotels, and gray apartment buildings congregate on the city’s outskirts before the train veers north and enters the downtown station. I know that Nice is France’s fifth largest city, and the country’s second most popular city for tourists, but this second entrance is startling, for I recall a very different arrival back in 1998: we arrived from Venice on a summer night train, with two teenagers– his son, my daughter. That first journey was only one year after I married Bob and our family was just forming, and still fragile.

It was a steamy August night, on an express overnight train chugging through tiny countries that still had kings. I awoke early, exhausted from a sleep interrupted by Italian porters who roused Bob and I repeatedly to check our documents as our children slept. (Predictably, we hadn’t loaded enough lire on our family rail pass, but after handing over all the bills we had, we were allowed back to our sleeping car.) Disheveled and groggy, I snuck out of our compartment, and tiptoed down the corridor to the vestibule window to find one of those transcendental travel sights: an ochre-hued Mediterranean sunrise illuminated sandstone apartment buildings perched between the narrow sea cliffs and the rail tracks. I lingered there alone, as the train crawled slowly toward the edges of Nice, and caught intimate glimpses of lush backyard patios, and men in yellow hard-hats getting ready to start the work day.

On that long-ago trip, Nice welcomed us with butter-pastry mornings, afternoons watching pretty sunbathers while their children negotiated the waves, long evenings trying out exotic gelato flavors, and warm nights at the quirky Hotel Canada, a divey apartment-style hotel, just two blocks from the city’s rocky beach. Nice seemed to me manageable, family-friendly and quite middle class.

I am hoping to recapture the achingly beautiful memories of that summertime “grand tour” when our teens were obedient, and still curious about grown-up beverages like coffee and red wine. All these years later— our young adult children now off on their own exotic travels — Bob and I arrive in the same Nice Ville train depot, but this time the platform looks cavernous and unwelcoming. We each drag our bags through squeaky metal turnstiles, the rooftop rattling as the storm begins to intensify.

It is only noon and already we are arguing about the best way to get to our hotel.

Approaching an empty taxi, we interrupt the driver’s lunch break — he holds a fragrant plate of rice and lamb — asking hesitantly if he can take us the scant mile to our hotel. With the grace of an expert, our driver guides us through a harrowing twenty-minute trip, a scene of streets brimming with rainwater, erratic streetlights, and shopkeepers shuttering their doors. Paul tells us this is a particularly violent September storm. At the hotel, drenched tourists who were huddling in the doorway jump out to grab his cab, but our driver firmly turns them away to go home for the day, “You are my last customers, it’s not safe!” he tells us as I hand him our Euros, and Bob wrestles our still-damp luggage onto the curb.

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Inside Redd, Yountville California

Redd Meet

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series North Bay Everyday

“Oh they won’t mind, they’re pretty laid back,” said the half-naked lady about Redd, one of the throng of Yountville restaurants that have turned northern Napa valley into a food mecca.

During our annual day-spa trip, Bobbi (my best friend from college) and I tend to include post-treatment eating, drinking and shopping — often reversing spa-induced relaxation. We are both high energy; thirty years ago a man called us an “assault to the senses.” Each year we meet in Napa, get pampered, share travel stories, and express gratitude that we made it through the 80s intact.

Bobbi’s calling Redd to let them know we may arrive late, so the nice half-naked spa lady — a local — is sharing her impression. We are concerned Redd might be one of those stuffy gourmet places; it has a Michelin star and 28 Zagat points. Spa lady is right and the hostess seems surprised we would even call.

Inside Redd, Yountville California

Inside Redd, Yountville California

Luckily, our experience at Redd (named after chef Richard Reddington) is unhurried in spite of our late-lunch tardiness and concerns about a soon-to-close kitchen. We miss the last outdoor table since Redd is pleasantly crowded for a Saturday afternoon, but the interior is open, light, gleaming with shiny wood floors and pewter accents, and smiles light up our exfoliated faces as mellow hostess leads us to a corner booth.

We meet our server, Ryan, who offers top-notch hospitality, knowledge, and not-too-intrusive congeniality. I share with Ryan (and Bobbi) my annoying new habit of ignoring the food menu until after I’ve ordered a cocktail. Because this habit emanates from my favorite new destination, New Orleans, I’ve adopted it wholeheartedly. Ryan promptly brings my Prohibition Tea cocktail and Bobbi’s glass of Baker Lane Vineyards rosé. We begin to relax, finally. I’ve convinced Bobbi to go to New Orleans with me someday.

2011217_Redd_0124Ryan tells us the only addition to the menu is an appetizer of squash blossom tempura. We ask for his menu recommendations. He confidently shares that his favorites are divers scallops and steamed pork belly buns. We start with the tempura, and a refreshing greens, citrus, goat cheese, mint, and walnut salad in citrus vinaigrette. Plenty of flavors creating a balanced blend of tart, crunch and creamy. The squash blossoms are battered and fried perfectly, but with very little flavor or spice, they are our least favorite dish.

Roadside Llama

Vertical Shift

Wearing tight jerseys announcing their most recent cycling event conquest, six petite women straddle their shiny carbon-framed bikes and cluster together inside a meager circle of sunlight in front of the Pink Box bakery in Santa Rosa.  They are the Hilly Jillies cycling club gathering on a chilly Saturday morning for their monthly beginning level bike tour through Sonoma County’s pot-holed wine roads. But the women’s pricy equipment and tight-lipped welcome leave me skeptical that this is the route for a novice athlete. Having started late in life, leisure cycling is a weekend sport I’ve grappled with for years, trying to find the right balance between leisure and cycling.

But the Hilly Jillies are serious, lean, and driven, and I am about to discover how they got their name.

vineyards With little ceremony or chitchat, the Jillies and I embark on a 37-mile trip east to Sonoma Valley. I quickly fall to the back of the queue, huffing and puffing just to keep up with the group that is easily flying up the first grade. Our terrain is renowned: Sonoma County is one of the top five bicycling destinations in the world, and cycling is the number two tourist draw. To me this morning the landscapes are indistinct. I’m so focused on keeping up that I barely see the new growth on the vines, and so intent on taking deep breaths that I don’t hear the robust grunts of the wild turkeys flushed out of oak groves. Already, before we even get to the steep grades that will summit this route, I’m getting discouraged as I see the entire pack of Jillies disappear around the bend.

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Maurepas Lunch

New Orleans Food and Drink Marathon

SoBou Delights

SoBou Delights

I posted this trip report on Chowhound after my most recent visit to New Orleans, and a local chowhounder commented that I was a great ambassador for his City. Here is the full report; I take my eating and drinking seriously!

     It was her first night in New Orleans. We arrived late but not too late to mosey over to Irv Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse in the elegant Royal Sonesta hotel. I had a delightful house version of the Dark n Stormy, Dear Friend had a bright pink Passionfruit cocktail. We were too tired to venture much farther so opted for Desire Bistro and Oyster Bar, next door, for salads and sweet potato fries — which arrived as cold as the salads. A glorified coffee shop. My earlier Dark N Stormy was prophetic as it started sprinkling, followed later that night by a scary April T-storm.

French Quarter Fest 2013

French Quarter Fest 2013

     The sun came out for Sunday morning, the last day of French Quarter Fest (FQF) 2013. We started at Cafe Beignet for hot beignets, cafe au lait, and the Royal Street location did not disappoint. Met Dear Daughter and her friends for FQF music and a leisurely food graze which included: crab sliders from Something Else cafe (hit the spot!), Abita Amber, Tropical Daiquiris from Organic Banana and a highly-anticipated early dinner at Killer Po Boys. We each chose a different Po Boy filling: pork, shrimp, veggie and beef. Not the raves I expected from companions, however I liked my veggie/coulis version and felt Killer’s lived up to the hype.

     DF and I went to the famed Carousel Bar in Hotel Monteleone to find that  lightning from the prior night’s t-storm halted electricity so: a) the carousel was motionless, b) glasses were not cold, and c) no air conditioning. They closed the bar at 8 pm. DF took a sip of my sazerac; sadly it was warm. However, Monday was fantastic! Took the Confederacy of Cruisers “History of Drinking” tour with Lara the bartendress from R Bar. She led us all around the quarter on cruiser bikes with clipped-on moveable drink holders on drizzly Monday morning. First, she prepares island style (unblended) daiquiris before launching a multi-stop 3-hour French Quarter bike tour with stops for full size: 1) Finnegan’s Easy for local beer, 2) Napolean’s House for classic Pimm’s cups, stop 3) Roosevelt Hotel for Sazerac or Ramos Gin Fizz and 4) Erin Rose for frozen (or hot) Irish Coffees. At several other stops she tells the history of New Orleans relationship with alcohol. Rain was coming down as we cycled down Bourbon back to the Marigny, drinks in tow.
     A great morning followed by lunch at Maurepas Foods. After the tour we couldn’t conceive of a Maurepas cocktails, however hitting the spot were their Strawberry Salad, Arugula salad, Braised Broccoli — along with cheesy bread and their top-notch grits. Service was fantastic and everyone loved their dishes which warmed us up after the soggy bike ride.
Maurepas Lunch

     That night DF & I tried to get into Mr. B’s Bar: mobbed. Carousel was still out of power. Thank goodness we found French 75 which we loved. Why had I not been there before? Lovely bar and great drinks. DF enjoyed The Baroness cocktail x 2, and I had the very creative Caibiscus — a blend of a caipirinha with hibiscus tea. Chris Hannah is a legend and lives up to his reputation as a superb bartender.

Krewe of Barkus Great Dane

From No Cal to NOLA

It all changed when my daughter and her wild-eyed cat, Lucy, moved from Sonoma County to New Orleans last year. I became a foodie, I got hooked on accumulating hotel points and airline miles, and I even went to  “Da Track” on Thanksgiving day. My new love affair with vibrant, enchanting New Orleans — so very different from sedate, bucolic Sonoma County — woke up a slightly more tawdry, “laissez le bon temps” side of this native Californian.

With my expatriate child happily employed as a first grade teacher in New Orleans’ historic Tréme neighborhood, we explore great dining spots outside French Quarter. We venture out to many neighborhoods, and continue to find surprising gems: Bywater BBQ meccas; Marigny storefront spots with non-stop music; “Da Track” at the fairgrounds Mid-City – the place to be on Thanksgiving Day!

Ahh the bistros! Whether it’s French, American or New Louisianan, New Orleans know how to treat visitors right in a bistro setting; we enjoy Uptown’s Coquette, Patois, and Lillette. Not only are their dishes delicious, but each spot pulls off signature cocktails, upbeat service, and their own special take on beignets or bread pudding.

For my first February visit, I arrive well before Fat Tuesday hoping to avoid craziness.

Barkus Great Dane

Barkus Great Dane

I quickly learn that Mardi Gras is not a day but I season. So, I catch plenty of parades, and beads. Hint: when New Orleans gets the occasional cold rain and wind folks on the floats throw ENTIRE bags, not strands, of beads. No disrobing required: just plenty of wet, cold, bag-of-bead projectiles to be had.

Thankfully, in Armstrong Park on a warm Sunday afternoon, we find the annual Mystic Krewe of Barkus parade, a zany costume showcase of NOLA’s dogs… and their owners. 

Thank goodness we have portable camp chairs with drink holders: we warm up in the Louisiana sunshine, drink Bloody Marys, and watched the greyhounds, the sheepdogs, the poodles, and my favorite – the Great Dane with “jester” paws.

The Barkus krewe has a good heart. The newly-crowned Queen Maggie is stunning rescued retriever whose was left alone for two weeks after her owner passed away. Queen Maggie is success story from a city that has come back from the brink. I’ll return for Mystic Krewe of Barkus next year with the hopes of seeing more of New Orleans’ triumphs.

 

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