Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Elephant seals and the wilds of Manhattan

December 12, 2007

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My Brooklyn buddy Ronnie recently sent me an article published on Nurture New York’s Nature website about New York harbor as Henry Hudson first found it back in 1609. The area was rich with abundant and diverse wildlife—as the article puts it, “Bears and wolves and beavers and more. Packs of them. Millions of them. New York, primeval. Functional and healthy. Bountiful.”

What struck me most was not how different New York is today, but this statement that followed: “For Europeans coming from a nature-depleted Europe whose soils had already been over-exploited to the bone by millennia of intensive agriculture, such proliferation was a promise incarnate.” And this was speaking of Europe as it was in 1609.

I forget that about much of the Old World, how denuded so much of it is of significant wildlife and how it has been for so very long. Some years ago, we met a French couple living in St. Louis. They had a daughter about Claire’s age, so we got together with them from time to time, them speaking fairly good English and us making noble attempts at bad French. One beautiful Sunday, we went to the zoo. For the husband of the French couple, the exotic creatures—lions, elephants, tigers—held only passing interest. But he was fascinated by the American wildlife—partly, I think, because it was unfamiliar to him. Wolves, rattlesnakes, black bears, mountain lions… as we saw each of these creatures, we would have the same conversation: “Now, zees one, where does eet leev?” “Here. Well, in America.” “Oh, laaa!”

At the time, I thought he was impressed and alarmed that America was home to so many dangerous creatures. And I’m sure that was a little bit of it. But now, I realize that part of his response was pure wonder that these animals still existed in the wild at all in a place so overrun by civilization.

And that got me thinking about elephant seals. Our recent California trip was one long string of highlights, strung together like, well, a lot of really cool things happening one right after another. But even in that abundant milieu, one highlight that stands out was seeing elephant seals. Scores of them. Hundreds of them, in the wild, stretched out at their land-based rookery just north of San Simeon on California’s Central Coast.

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It. Was. Amazing. We had been seeing a fair amount of wildlife all along the way—sea otters, harbor seals, hawks galore and even some deer—but this was a whole different level of being reminded that, no matter how much we plow it under and pave it over, Earth is still first and foremost a natural place. These hundreds of creatures we saw lounging on the beach just yards away were merely the early arrivers of the 15,000 who return here twice a year. The ones we saw were all adult females and juveniles of both sexes. The massive breeding bulls—they can weigh 2-1/2 tons or more—would arrive later. According to the Friends of the Elephant Seal, “the Northern Elephant Seal… spends eight to ten months a year in the open ocean, diving 1,000 to 5,000 feet deep for periods of fifteen minutes to two hours, and migrating thousands of miles, twice a year, to its land based rookery for birthing, breeding, molting and rest.” When they are in the open ocean, the adult males live and feed near the Aleutian Islands. The females and juveniles live further south, as much as 5,000 miles offshore. Some females have been reported as far west as Hawaii. We count ourselves as very lucky getting to see these magnificent creatures up close, holding their own along the increasingly less wild Pacific Coast. Maybe a little less lucky getting to be downwind of them. Wow.

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Here in the Midwest, we get plenty of reminders that we share this planet with other species too. Too often, it’s as roadkill along the highway. But we also see hawks and other raptors along the highway, not just surviving, but actually thriving. And as human and animal territories collide, animals are becoming more urbanized, more adept at living with their human neighbors. Rabbits, raccoons and, unfortunately, skunks are doing quite well, thank you, in parts of the city and suburbs. The once endangered Canada Goose has become a nuisance on golf courses and in suburban office parks. A pair of peregrine falcons that nests on the fire escape of the Uptown Theater is just one of several that call Chicago home. And last spring, a young coyote wandered into a Quizno’s sandwich shop in the Loop downtown [it was captured and released unharmed].

Sharing space with wild creatures is not without its challenges. Just ask any suburban gardener about deer. And then there are bears. My brother lived on Kodiak Island for a while, where there are apparently more bears than people—Kodiak brown bears, to be precise, larger than grizzlies. The local newspaper would routinely report on any bear scat found around school playgrounds, and he said anytime you went camping or hiking, you always wore a side arm and you always sang or talked to yourself, because the last thing you wanted to do was surprise a bear.

But voracious deer and ferocious bears aside, there is something exciting, renewing and humbling about sharing living space with wild animals. I’m glad we do.

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Eating California

November 21, 2007

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Recently, we were out of the kitchen for more than a week. Instead, we were feasting on the abundant and varied wonders along California’s Pacific Coast Highway. Here are some of the highlights. These aren’t restaurant reviews, by any stretch of the imagination—just some nice memories of some great places and moments.

First, some lovely mornings were spent at the table of our hosts Cara and Jun in San Francisco, whether over pastries picked up at a bakery a few blocks away or omelets filled with cheese and enoki mushrooms, prepared by Jun and accompanied by much discussion of Japanese cooking. He sent us home with some dried kelp that will be central to future soup experiments.

And now on to restaurants:

Mandalay, 4344 California Street, San Francisco. This was the emergency back-up Burmese restaurant when it was determined our first choice would be too crowded. We were impressed. Chicago has, at last count, zero Burmese restaurants. Mandalay also offers some Chinese dishes, but we were there for Burmese. The spices are different from Chinese cuisine, and the food is less “saucy.” Jun guided us to the most distinctively Burmese dishes on the menu: the salads—rainbow, mango and green tealeaf. Tossed by hand by the waitstaff at the table, ingredients include roasted lentils, garlic, coconut, sesame seeds, crunchy fried garlic, sesame seeds and pickled green pepper. We had all three—all three were wonderful. As was everything else, six or seven dishes in all. And the pre-tip bill for six of us, including half a dozen drinks and one dessert [sweet-toothed Cara tried to share, but we were all happily full], was a whopping $109. Which leads me to ask, who do we have to talk to to get a Burmese place here in Chicago?

Fifi’s Bistro, 1188 Forest Avenue, Pacific Grove. This was a delightful Internet find by the always resourceful Marion. Pacific Grove is a small town [its own words] on the Monterey Peninsula, filled with wonderfully restored Victorian cottages. It was also the last community in California to give up temperance, not until 1969. So longtime resident and total non-teetotaler John Steinbeck had to leave town to get drunk. The name Fifi’s didn’t fill us with confidence, but a quick look at their website did. And the restaurant delivered: a lovely, relaxed setting and delicious food. Marion had a sea bass special; I had the Petrale Sole Piccata, with lemon butter sauce and capers, a regular offering. Both were excellent. And happily, Fifi’s has embraced the repeal of temperance with a great wine list. We embraced it too.

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Nepenthe, Highway 1, Big Sur. That’s about as much address as you get in Big Sur. Ask locals for more directions and you’ll get, “It’s about half a mile past the…” And when we asked at our hotel, the Glen Oaks Big Sur [address: “Highway 1, Big Sur”], at 4:30 in the afternoon when we should go to Nepenthe for dinner if we wanted to see the sunset, both locals in the room said, “Now.” They were right. This time of year, the sun drops like a shot ox.

Seated atop a cliff on the edge of America, with spectacular views down the coast and out across the Pacific Ocean hundreds of feet below, Nepenthe could get by on looks alone. We all know restaurants that do. It doesn’t. The wonderful food is every bit the match for the scenery. And Nepenthe is staffed with friendly, helpful people who genuinely want you to have a good time. When we bravely chose the terrace rather than the fireplace-heated dining room [it was chilly, but the view was so enticing], the busboy dragged one of the heat lamps over to our seats along the railing. [Except for one bartender in Santa Monica, we found this kind of attitude to be the case everywhere we went in California. And in the bartender’s defense, he probably thought he was supplying needed etiquette lessons to one hapless patron—not us, of course.] We both had the glazed duck, half a Maple Leaf duck generously and mysteriously equipped with an entire extra leg and topped with a mango glaze. It. Was. Incredible.

Olde Port Inn, the end of Avila Beach Drive, Avila Beach. No doubt about it—California has some interesting addresses. This restaurant is on the end of a working pier jutting into the Pacific, just north of Pismo Beach. That means much of their seafood is especially fresh. It is also quite good. We had the Fisherman’s Plate, a plentiful combination of grilled fresh fish, shrimp, scallops, clams and calamari. And no, we don’t always [or even usually] order the same thing. It just worked out that way.

As good as the food was, the entertainment was even better. California sea lions live in the waters around the pier, and at night, they congregate on a dock under the pier—and more to the point, directly beneath the restaurant. Their LOUD barking often drowned out the quiet jazz on the restaurant’s sound system. After dinner, we walked around on the pier a bit—again, a working pier, not a tourist attraction. At one point, Marion looked down a gated wooden staircase and saw several LARGE sea lions sitting there, conversing loudly.

Café Angelica, 490 First Street, Solvang. Solvang calls itself the Danish Capital of America. It is, in letters five miles high. Just a brief walk down its relentlessly cute streets lined with shops relentlessly stuffed with all kinds of precious, fragile blue and white… what’s a polite word for crap… I was struck by the desire for an aluminum baseball bat. In my mind’s ear, I could hear the satisfying ping of aluminum contacting porcelain.

We got to the restaurant just in time. Café Angelica is a Cal/Italian oasis in a sea of kitsch. We were on our way to wineries near Los Olivos, but it sounded like our best shot at restaurants was Solvang. Fortunately, our guidebook pointed out this fabulous non-Danish option. One thing about just about everywhere we ate in California, by the way: Everything was incredibly fresh tasting. Café Angelica was no exception. I can’t even remember specifically what we ordered now, but it was delicious. If we ever have the misfortune to end up in this hyperquaint town again, you’ll find us holed up here.

Daikokuya, 327 E. First Street, Los Angeles. After a few days of breathtaking nature and out-of-the-way places, we were ready for big city fun in LA. We checked into The New Otani Hotel downtown and headed out for some gallery openings. A whole gallery district has opened up downtown since the last time we’d been there, and there were people galore trawling the scene. Then we headed for this amazing noodle shop around ten. Daikokuya is a narrow little place with booths along one wall and a handful of stools along a counter facing the open kitchen. Even at this hour, it was more than a half an hour before we got a couple of stools. One taste of the exquisite Daikuko Raumen told us why it was so popular—and why it had made L.A. Weekly’s 99 Essential Restaurants: The Metropolitan Palate list. While they do serve other dishes, the raumen is the reason to go. The soup is made from pork bones boiled for almost a full day. It is then topped with [stuffed with, actually] noodles, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, green onions, slices of tender kurobuta pork and an entire boiled egg. The place was loud, bustling and lively—the perfect change of pace from the laid back meals of the past few days. We ended the evening with a set of jazz at 2nd Street Jazz Bar & Grill. All these places were walking distance from our hotel, a rare treat in LA.

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Chez Jay, 1657 Ocean Avenue, Santa Monica. When Chicago transplant friends Lou and Marie suggested we meet in this nondescript little dive near the Santa Monica Pier, one look at the menu online was enough to sell Marion. They had Sand Dabs. Pacific Sand Dabs [also sanddabs, depending on whose spelling you believe] are smallish relatives of halibut and other flatfish. Marion had read that they are also hard to find, and that when you do, you should order them. Period. So what makes a flatfish a flatfish? They start out looking fairly standard issue, but as they mature, one eye migrates to the other side of their heads, right alongside the other [see the photo, cadged from Wikipedia, as I recall—God knows where they got it]. They then spend much of their lives lying on the sandy ocean bottom, nicely disguised as they wait for prey to move within range. Some of them are then caught and become the amazing, delicate fillets served at Chez Jay.

As a place, Chez Jay is reliably, comfortably divey. Great bar [with the aforementioned bartender the night we were there], checkered oil cloth on the tables and a great history. Hard-drinking celebs like Robert Mitchum used to hang out there because Jay knew how to keep his mouth shut when gossip columnists called. Even today, they frown on cameras in the place.

Frying Fish Restaurant, 120 Japanese Village Plaza Mall, Los Angeles. Chicago expat Lou also turned us on to this place, a lively little sushi joint in Little Tokyo, also walking distance from our hotel [I think we perplexed some California friends with our propensity for walking in LA]. There are a few tables, as I recall, but the action is centered on the stools and narrow counter in the middle of the room. A conveyor belt travels the edge of this island, carrying individual small plates of sushi. A sushi chef works continuously inside this loop, creating new dishes and adding them to the conveyor belt. As the small plates pass by, you grab what you want—the plates are color coded by price, and at the end, the cashier counts up your plates and charges you accordingly [the prices are quite reasonable, by the way].

Everything is fresh and delicious, and the chef keeps an interesting variety coming. And if you have a special request, you just call it out and the chef prepares it, sometimes with a side of editorial comment. Someone called for California rolls, and he let out a big sigh and said, “Ohhhh, okayyyy.”

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Grand Central Market, 317 S. Broadway, Los Angeles. This landmark market in downtown LA dates back to 1917. Its produce stands and restaurants—mostly Asian and Latino food vendors with narrow counters around their booths—are always bustling. On this visit, a mariachi band was roaming the huge hall. The food we had here was mostly just filling—an important factor before we headed for LAX—but the atmosphere was wonderful. Director Ridley Scott filmed much of Blade Runner across the street at the historic Bradbury Building. Looking around the market, at diners crowded at counters and a constantly moving sea of shoppers among the stalls, I could imagine him getting inspiration for his dark street scenes in the movie.

Okay. I know this sounds like much more than a week’s worth of meals, but there are actually places I left out. Just about everything we ate was wonderful, though. And I would happily return to just about every place we hit.

 

The scary majesty of California’s Redwoods

November 14, 2007

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Why is it that the very things that frighten us also intrigue us so? I am more than a little claustrophobic, so of course touring the insanely cramped quarters of the captured German U-boat at the Museum of Science and Industry here in Chicago filled me with morbid fascination. Younger daughter Laurel’s longtime borderline obsession with dinosaurs began when, as a three-year-old, a life-sized animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex scared the bejesus out of her at the St. Louis Science Center. She immediately insisted on being taken to the library to get books on dinosaurs. Knowledge is indeed power.

And when we began planning our trip down California’s coast, I insisted on seeing redwood trees. Not that I’m afraid of trees. I just have a healthy respect for heights, shall we say, especially when no intervening railings or other barriers are involved. The Signature Lounge on the 96th floor of the Hancock Center is one of my favorite places to take out-of-town guests—I can press against the windows to stare fearlessly straight down the building’s side, putting my complete faith in a sheet of plate glass. But without any such protections, I tend to agree with George S. Kaufman: “I like terra firma; the more firma, the less terra.”

So when I read Richard Preston’s amazing article “Climbing the Redwoods” in the New Yorker a couple of years ago, I was hooked. He talks about unclipping himself from the main rope to climb the rest of the way to the top of a tree named Adventure by the scientist who first scaled it, some three hundred and sixty feet in the air: “There is something unnerving about leaving the main rope behind and going into free motion in the crown of a redwood tree. The main climbing rope is a lifeline that connects a climber to the ground, and it is the escape route out of the tree.” And climbing down, he rappels the last 250 feet to the ground, swinging far out from the tree trunk and opening “the brake on the descender full wide.”

Not that I wanted to climb a redwood, mind you. But I wanted to see these giants—Sequoias or California Redwoods. To touch one and stare up the side of it, watching it disappear into branches and sky.

steinbeck.jpgMy fascination with redwoods isn’t all fear-based, of course. I think it began with seeing photos of a footpath or possibly a road carved through the base of one giant in a textbook or an ancient National Geographic as a kid. Just imagining something that massive, that majestic, that old—some of the largest are perhaps 2,000 to 3,000 years old or older—stirred my young soul and made the far west feel like a magical place. Later, reading John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Search of America, one of the moments that stuck with me more than just about any other was his dog Charley’s encounter with a Giant Sequoia.

Preston’s own fascination with redwoods is more than climbing. In “Climbing the Redwoods,” he tells of the amazing ecosystem in the canopy of the California Redwoods. A dazzling array of animals and plants live there—masses of hanging fern gardens weighing tons after a rain, salamanders that never leave the treetops for their entire lives, thickets of huckleberry bushes… even other non-redwood trees.

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In the end, we failed to find true giant redwoods this trip. That could have something to do with accidentally finding the Bonny Doon Vineyard tasting room along the way. But the ones we did find were still beautiful and haunting and impressive. And yes, I did touch them and stare up their glorious sides.

International comfort food—in a tuba museum?

August 29, 2007

Quirky, comforting little places like the Travelers Club International Restaurant & Tuba Museum in Okemos, Michigan, are why you leave the Interstate. It’s not quirky in an it’s-so-bad-it’s-good sort of way—owners Jennifer Brooke Byrom and William White are in on the joke of its charm. Neither is it quirky in a calculated, corporate theme restaurant sort of way.

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Instead, everything about the Travelers Club—the decor, the friendly, relaxed staff, the ambitious, multi-paged international menu—seems to have grown organically from the owners’ own travels and lives. You get the sense that the restaurant is the way it is because this is the kind of place they want it to be.

And the way it is is comfortable and charming. The whole place has a relaxed, slightly homemade, slightly shabby [in a hippieish good way] feel. Tubas, sousaphones, French horns and fluglehorns adorn the walls and ceiling, along with an assortment of world maps for the traveler in us all. In addition to the handful of tables and booths, there’s an outdoor garden patio with the world’s only Sousaphountain. The music, when someone remembers to put it on, is an eclectic mix.

The tuba collection [or museum, as they call it] grew just as organically. William is a tuba player. He started leaving horns around the restaurant to play with visiting musicians [speaking of WTF?] and ultimately decided to create a museum. Most of the horns on display are in playable condition.

An overnight Michigan road trip led us to the Travelers Club. We’d driven past it on previous trips, so when Marion found a positive write-up of it on Chowhound, we decided to give it a try for dinner. We liked it so much, we went back the next day for lunch.

As I said, the menu is ambitious. It goes on for pages and pages, embracing American classics along with latin, asian and middle eastern dishes. Pulling this off would be a feat for any restaurant; for a small place like this that does breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week, it is a formidable challenge. Not everything succeeds. But the stuff that is good is really good. And when we sent back a weirdly subpar gazpacho, the waiter cheerfully announced he would take it off the bill, without even being asked. Among the successes were the buffalo burgers and the ridiculously delicious Deluxe Nachos Grande with chorizo. There were plenty of excellent vegetarian offerings too.

A dinner special, Pescado en Tikin Xik—a fish dish from South and Central America, grouper fillet charbroiled in an achiote paste [a mixture of garlic, oregano, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, allspice and vinegar]—was wonderful, but just not plentiful enough. And let me clarify: We are not big eaters. But the fillets were tiny, probably weighing in at three or four ounces. We would gladly have paid a few dollars more than the far too modest price of $10.95 had another small fillet been added.

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The prices across the board are insanely modest, even after factoring in my Chicago-trained threshold for wallet pain. This extends to the equally ambitious beer and wine lists. They serve 120 beers, all well-priced [although, of course, they were out of the first one Marion ordered]. And the well-chosen wine list—including more than a dozen Californias, a truly international selection of imports and even a few Michigan wines—has by-the-glass prices starting at $3.50 and topping out at just four dollars more.

It all adds up to this: Travelers Club International Restaurant & Tuba Museum is a delightful, cozy, quirky place that would quickly count us among its regulars if we lived there. Not precious, not hip. Just real. Best of all, it’s run by people you know you would end up calling your friends. And what more can a traveler ask for?

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