Michael Keaton and Ed Norton in Birdman

Michael Keaton and Ed Norton in Birdman

I like Michael Keaton, always have.  I think he was by far the best Batman, and I have never understood why we don’t see more of him on the screen.

In Birdman, Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, a faded actor who had great popular success as the superhero Birdman, and now cannot escape the role.  He is attempting to re-invent himself as an author, director and Broadway director while his world crashes around him.

Writer-director Alejandro González Iñárritu is brilliantly inventive, shifting time and place seamlessly, blending reality with unreality without the tiniest of bumps.  Even after the movie you aren’t entirely sure what is actual and what is imaginary.

Keaton provides a masterful performance as a man tormented by his success.  He both loves and hates Birdman, his alter ego, the character who vaulted him to stardom yet keeps him contained in the broad caricature of a superhero.

Ed Norton portrays Mike, an actor who barely exists off-stage, who can only be real and himself when he is being someone else. He just doesn’t know what to do with himself when he isn’t acting.

Zach Galifinakis  does an excellent job as the best friend/attorney/producer trying to hold the entire production together.  None of the usual Galifinakis smirks and tricks here, just a solid performance.

The ending uses a cheap cinematic trick that debases the plot somewhat but fortunately doesn’t destroy the overall worth of this very good film.  I still think you should go see Birdman.

The Making of Art is not Pretty

Timothy Spall stars in Mr. Turner

Timothy Spall stars in Mr. Turner

Most movies tell stories.  Mr. Turner, about the English painter J.M.W. Turner just shows slices of his later life, giving the viewer a deep understanding of what drove the brilliant but eccentric artist.

Timothy Spall provides an award-worthy performance as the artist–in fact, he won the Best Actor Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival, yet was overlooked completely in this year’s Academy Award nominations.

Turner was a premier landscape and seascape painter of the early to mid 19th Century, often called “the painter of light” long before that hack Thomas Kincade usurped that title.  Because he cared little for posterity, he often used pigments that would fade over time, and much of his work is already fading into oblivion, yet his reputation lives on.

The movie doesn’t seem to have much of a plot, rather being a connected series of scenes from his life.  Turner was a curmudgeon, to say the least.  He is crass, crude, boorish and unpleasant, but accepted in the best artistic circles due to his overpowering talent.  His work predates, and in many ways anticipates, impressionism.  Brilliantly skilled in both watercolors and oil, he brought the techniques of the former to his palette of the latter, giving his paintings a depth not before seen.

His personal life was odd, to say the least.  He lived with his father until the old man died, an event which had a profound effect on the artist. (A flaw of the movie is that the actor playing the father, Paul Jesson, seems younger than the son.  Very confusing)  A long-term unmarried relationship with a widow produced 2 daughters, who the movie shows him ignoring, then privately mourning over the death of one.  His unattractive housemaid was apparently in love with him, although the attention he paid to her was in the form of tossing her against a piece of furniture for a quick one without grace or care.  The last 18 years of his life were spent with a another widow, Mrs. Booth, with whom he lived under an assumed name.

The movie is beautifully filmed, but the sound is terrible.  Watching it at home, Gail asked me if I was getting all the dialogue and I had to tell her 40% at most.  Turner seems to communicate largely in grunts and snarls, which doesn’t make things any easier to understand.

Mr. Turner was written and directed by Mike Leigh, in the slow-paced, gently opening-up style of European cinema.  Spend you two and a half hours getting to know JMW Turner.  Drink in the scenery, which Leigh has shot in the same kinds of light as Turner’s paintings.  Savor the lush costuming and architecture.  This is a very good movie, as long as you aren’t waiting for a car chase or an explosion.

Where to put Daisy?

We’re getting a new piece of art–a very large sculpture named Daisy, created by Harry Siter.

You can’t just bring a 700 pound wood and bronze sculpture in and plop it down, you have to think about where it will go, and then make a space for it.  To ease this process, Harry made a pseudo-Daisy out of plywood and plastic, then came over to try her out in various places in the yard.  I thought the whole process was fascinating.

Harry, Gail, Daisy and Robin in front of the living room.

Harry, Gail, Daisy and Robin in front of the living room.

Harry came over with Robin Bernhard, who installs art for the UC Davis museum.  Nothing like getting top notch professional advice for the price lunch and a glass of Prosecco.

Robin analyzing possible locations.

Robin analyzing possible locations.

We tried the front of the house, we tried over by the grasses.

The chickens would have to move, but it's a thought.

The chickens would have to move, but it’s a thought.

I like the view from the dining room.

It frames up pretty well this way.

It frames up pretty well this way.

After much walking around, moving the mock-up, thinking and wondering, we decided to try right in front of the living room, if it isn’t too wide.  There is a back-up plan, too.  Later this week Harry will deliver and I’m in charge of hiring 5 or 6 strong men to carry her in–Gail won’t allow a forklift on the the tile walks, so we have to use brute force.

Living with art is a joy, even getting it situated is fun.  I’m glad we have good friends to help.

Inherently Vapid

Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon in Inherent Vice.

69Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon in Inherent Vice.

If there was a “pitch meeting”, where somebody was supposed to sum up a proposed film in just a few words, Inherent Vice might have been described as “Jeff Spicoli becomes Sam Spade”.  That isn’t a good thing.

We watched this movie on DVD.  Gail was paying attention and I was writing a blog post, and neither of us had much idea of what was going on.  It is disjointed, fuzzy and hard to hear.  The plot is convoluted and messy.  The characters are simple minded and messy.

Inherent Vice gets a 69 on the tomatometer, the measure of critics opinions.  Reading the reviews, it seems like I’m not supposed to care about the incoherent storytelling and just feel the vibe.  Just because the movie is set in the 70’s doesn’t mean I intend to return to the hippie days.  I lived through them once, that’s enough for me.

Joaquin Phoenix does his usual great job of submerging himself into a character; I just don’t like the role. James Brolin is wonderful as the corrupt cop, but I’m not much interested in corrupt cops these days.

Final opinion: that’s two hours of my life I’ll never get back.  Glad I wasn’t paying much attention.


Why do they lie?

I bought gas at Costco today. The price was excellent, $2.16 a gallon. Line was long but not terribly so. Everything was fine, until I looked at the sign on the gas pump:


And there it is, “For your security, no cash accepted”. In italics, no less. This has nothing whatsoever to do with your security. Costco doesn’t want to invest in another employee, another cash register and the requisite management time needed in order to accept paper money at their gas pumps. This is for their benefit, not yours, not mine.

I don’t mind that they don’t accept cash, I mind that they find it desirable to tell this convenient lie as though you and I were too stupid to understand the situation. I have always felt that Costco has no respect for their customers, and this is just another indication. Tell the sheep a lie, nobody will know or care. Fie on them.

Millie’s Kitchen

A very long time ago, there was a red-headed woman named Millie who had a tiny cafe near the theater in Lafayette.  She officially opened at 5 am, but got to work about 2:30 in the morning to get ready.  If she knew you, or if you were in a uniform like the police, fire department or tow truck drivers, she would let you in.  I was a 20-year-old kid who drove a truck for the 76 station in Orinda who liked eggs and potatoes late at night–so I knew Millie.

Years passed.  Millie moved to her own building, but kept the same hours.  Only now the door was locked until official opening time.  Her cafe had a front room and a back room–and all the important business in Lafayette was conducted in that back room in the early morning.  There was a huge brass cash register, and regular customers would ring in their own checks, pay the bill and make their own change.

Decades passed. Millie retired, somebody else owns the joint now, but things haven’t changed much.  Same hours, new cash register.  Customers don’t use the cash register anymore. The eggs and potatoes are still great.

I think the eggs should all be smooshed into the spuds.  Lots of grape jelly on the toast.

I think the eggs should all be smooshed into the spuds. Lots of grape jelly on the toast.

I felt like taking Gail to breakfast a few days ago, and there is still no better place to enjoy a classic American breakfast than Millies.

Gail opted  for the croissant and egg:

Low-brow upscale.  Or high class hoi polloi food.  Hard to tell the difference.

Low-brow upscale. Or high class food for the hoi polloi. Hard to tell the difference.

Just walking into Millie’s will make your arteries harden. The place is a monument to butter, eggs and bacon fat. The coffee cake, heated in the oven and dripping butter, is legendary.  The coffee is hot and strong, the OJ is fresh, the pancakes thick. The dress code is anything legal.

I write about a lot of very fancy, hoity-toity restaurants with chefs straight from culinary school.  Millie’s doesn’t have a chef, it has cooks, who can sling a half-dozen plates of eggs at a time and get them all just right.  The waitresses are brash and friendly, fast on their feet and quick of wit.

Millie’s is a classic diner, the best place in the county for a quick, hot breakfast or lunch without pretension, flash or glitz. It’s been that way for 40 years, and I hope it lasts another 40.

Millies Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Looking for a star

I almost never write about a restaurant twice, but today is the exception.

We went to FARM  at the Carneros Inn last Friday night, and dinner was so good, the service so polished, the experience so delightful that I cannot stop wondering why this restaurant does not have a Michelin Star. FARM is vastly superior to, for instance, flour + water or FIVE, yet has not been granted even the lesser “bib gourmand” rating. The omission is glaring and shameful.

Dinner began with a tiny amuse bouche which I cannot properly describe but will not soon forget. I wasn’t planning on writing this, so I took neither notes nor photos.

Gail and i both followed with the winter vegetable soup, good enough to be an entire meal, if one was willing to forgo the remainder of the menu.

Gail had the lamb three ways, a spectacular presentation of lamb tenderloin, crispy lamb skin and something yet more indescribable with unforgettable goodness. She barely finished part of it and then demanded to switch plates with me–which we commonly do so we can both enjoy a greater number of flavors. The problem here is that we both wanted the risotto– I was savoring the Carnaroli Risotto, with Maine Lobster, meyer lemon and the addition (for an upcharge, of course) of 4 grams of Australian black truffles. But I traded, like the good Boy Scout that I used to be. The lamb was truly excellent, it just wasn’t the as incredible as the risotto.

Our friend Reed was with us. Along with our friend Mike Patton, she had the chicken with the truffled stuffing, which was about the best chicken I can remember.  Reed maintains a tiny figure, but still managed to completely clean her plate–in fact, all 5 of us at dinner had perfectly clean plates, not a crumb left.

A meal that good deserves dessert. I always hate it when they offer a soufflé after I’ve finished my main meal, and tell me it’s a 20 minute wait. Why don’t they mention that inconvenient little fact about 20 minutes earlier?  Still,Harry ordered one and we thought we’d all enjoy another dessert first, then share the soufflé.  Great plan, Harry.

Of course, then the soufflé came out of the kitchen first.  So we shared it, then dug into our individual sweets.  I had the arrancini, deep fried rice balls somehow magically turned into dessert.  Harry had the beet velvet cake. That’s right, beet. Sounded weird, tasted great.

Service at FARM is first rate.  It’s always impressive when a swarm of staff emerge from the kitchen with the meals for everyone at the table, so it can all be served at one time.  Everything moved swiftly, smoothly, elegantly.  Plates were delivered, plates were cleared.  Water, iced tea and bread were replenished as if by magic. The staff are perfectly trained, competent and professional.

FARM has become my favorite upscale place to enjoy a great meal. You can’t do any better unless you can score a reservation at the French Laundry, and that takes an act of Congress.  Don’t wait for Congress.  Head to Napa now.

FARM Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Massage kale, make big money

Los Angeles is teeming with hip, modern, cutting edge restaurants.  Saturday night David and i went to one of the newest, Cadet.  On Wilshire Blvd. in Santa Monica, it’s a very dark facility with exposed brick walls, a wood burning oven and a menu so ultra-noveau it hurts.

Ostensibly, the place was booked up when David called for a table on Friday.  When he told them he was a columnist for the Santa Monica Press Democrat and his brother was the 15th rated blogger on Urbanspoon, a table mysteriously opened up.  Turns out there really is a power of the press.

The eclectic menu offers more in the way of appetizers and small plates than in entrees. Overall, the sense I get of the menu is modern French with California overtones.

Right off the bat, David broke my heart by ordering club soda with grapefruit bitters.  Why anyone would want to make grapefruit any more bitter than it already is escapes me.  I didn’t even know there was such a thing.

Grapefruit bitters

Grapefruit bitters.  Why?

I asked for iced tea and the yellow sweetener.  They managed to find one single packet.  I’m just not hip enough, I know, but couldn’t they steal TWO packets from McDonalds?  We can’t all live on agave syrup or stevia.

The oxtail and onion soup is phenomenal.  A classic French onion soup crossed with a very hearty beef broth, it was rich, earthy and fulfilling.

About that kale massaging.  David ordered the kale and persimmon salad, and inquired if the kale was cooked, as it often is to soften the notoriously tough veggie.  No, the waitress replied, it is massaged to break down the fibers. That seems more than a trifle over the top, but the proof of the massaging is in the eating and David approved of the well kneaded kale.

Kale and Persimmon salad, post massaging.

Kale and Persimmon salad, post massaging.

My 5th grade geography book had a chapter on switzerland, and discussed raclette, where a block of cheese is held near the fireplace and the top layer is scraped off as it melts and mixed with a variety of items and eaten on bread.  I’ve wanted to try it ever since, so I ordered it here.

They served me a small dish of melted cheese, ham, potatoes and onions, accompanied by a large piece of oven warm bread.  Not entirely what I had imagined, but awfully good.

Raclette, the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

Raclette, the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

Every restaurant needs a gimmick, I guess, something to separate themselves from the crowd.  At Cadet, it’s the swarm of tiny plates of condiments they serve with your entrée. Shredded carrots, pickled cabbage, pickles, garlic butter (very very garlic butter), horseradish creme fraiche, some kind of flat bread, smoked sea salt, a steamed tomato you’re supposed to do something with

.   The table is littered with all of this, all ways to dress up whatever you ordered just your own style.

All the little dishes that accompany the meal.

All the little dishes that accompany the meal.

For my main course I had the ember roasted black cod.

Black cod on a bare plate.

Black cod on a bare plate.

I can’t say that Cadet puts a lot of effort into presentation.  My fish was pretty much just plopped on the plate with a slab of lemon and perhaps a few sprigs of thyme.  The fish was nicely cooked, exceptionally soft and moist, but I thought the covering of enoki mushrooms, unmentioned on the menu,  was disconcerting.  $29 for a small serving of fish on a barren plate is not thrilling.

Out to dinner with the baby brother, there will be desserts. I went for the classic apple crumble with walnut ice cream.

Apple crumble

Apple crumble

I thought the proportions were all wrong on this dish–the crumble had too much crumble, too little apple.  The ice cream scoop was tiny in relation to the pastry, and tasted more like plain vanilla than walnut.  I ate it all, just to be polite of course, but it could have been better.

David made the right dessert choice–the lemon and blueberry tart.

This should have been mine.

This should have been mine.

Take it from an expert–order the tart, it’s wonderful.

It wouldn’t be a proper hip joint in Santa Monica without a celebrity sighting.  David noticed Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of law at UC Irvine and a frequent TV commentator on matters of constitutional law, at the next table.  Later, he thought he saw Gordon Ramsay come in, definitely a good sign for a new restaurant.

Service was very good, but they were being nice to a pair of famous writers.  Management made very sure we were happy, stopping by often to check on things, then going out in the rain to give the ticket to the valet to retrieve our car.  I need David to make my dinner reservations more often.

The prices are on the steep side. Two guys who don’t drink ran up a pretty large bill, God only knows how much it would be with wine.  This is a town where $1 million a year is not a surprising income, though, so everything is relative.

Is Cadet great?  No.  They have some work to do on presentation: the whole concept of all those little plates needs refinement, re-thinking and re-plating, perhaps one large segmented dish would work better.  Is it pretty darn good?  Yes.  French food is somewhat out of favor these days, with modern restaurants trending more to the Asian-fusion ethic. Cadet may well be in the vanguard of a return to the Parisian ways–the oxtail onion soup is certainly a huge step in that direction.  Give it a try.


Cadet on Urbanspoon

The way to Los Angeles

Gail had to attend a funeral and was unable to play cards with me Saturday in Monterey.  That gave me the opportunity to go to Los Angeles and pick up the sculpture we purchased in Miami last month, and have dinner with my brother.

(The sculpture was in LA because the gallery we purchased it from is in LA.  They brought everything back from the show, and I agreed to pick it up rather than ship is so i could see David.)

Leaving Monterey Saturday morning, I crossed through to Salinas and then went down highway 101.  This route is longer and slower than I-5, but substantially more interesting.  Today it was particularly beautiful because of all the rain in the last month–the hills are as green as Ireland.

The road is mostly widely separated 4 lane freeway, without guardrails or a concrete center divider, just wide spaces with gently turns.  You pass through a number of small towns and tons of agriculture, largely the grapevines that have taken over California agriculture.

Speeds are high. The posted limit is 70 and the real, enforced, you-will-get-a-ticket speed limit is of course a state secret but I think it’s about 80.  If only there was a way to get the cops to tell us how fast we can really go so it isn’t a guessing game with your drivers license.

I stopped for gas in Buellton and noticed the used car lot adjoining the service station:

That's a firetruck on the right.

That’s a firetruck on the right.


They don’t make Merc’s like this anymore.

An interesting collection of older collectible cars, not concours ready by any means, but cars you might just want to own and occasionally drive.

Buellton has a Pea Soup Andersens, and I sorely wanted to stop for the travelers special, except we had a reservation at a hot new restaurant in Santa Monica and I wanted to be hungry.  Such is the life of the restaurant blogger.

Continuing down the road, it began to rain.  You remember rain, that wet stuff that falls from the sky.  At times it was quite heavy and visibility diminished considerably, but that only made traffic slow down to 70.  Passing through Santa Barbara the tops of the coastal mountains were covered in clouds so thick and white they looked like a snowcap.

There was little traffic on the roads and i average about 75 until Thousand Oaks, when the curse of Los Angeles clogged the roads and brought speeds down to the mid 30’s.  for 10 miles or so, then back up to the 50’s until I took the final exit to my brother’s house.  In all, with one quick gas and photography stop, the trip was about 5.5 hours from Monterey to Santa Monica–about what it would take me from Lafayette on the faster but mind-numbingly boring I-5.  I know it won’t always be this green and beautiful, but the road today was just a delight.

How to offend customers

There is a sparkling red wine from Italy called Birbet, and BJ loves it. We were going over to her house for dinner, and wanted to bring her a bottle. You can’t get this stuff at the grocery store or BevMo, it’s relatively rare.  I thought I’d try Prima Vini, the wine store attached to the restaurant Prima in Walnut Creek.

This was last Friday, the day after New Year.  I tried calling the store, and got the answering machine.  Lots of options to leave messages for the owner, the sommeilier, the marketing person, the restaurant, anyone you could imagine except the wine shop.  I called again.  And again.  Never could get through to a person.  I left a message for the owner, asking if they carried Birbet.

Then, still not having an answer, I drove to the store in downtown Walnut Creek. Miraculously found a parking space, fed the meter.  Walked up to the door and found a handwritten notice that they were closed January 1 and 2.  I can’t imagine the logic of this, but that’s life.

Monday, I tried again.  Called the store, got the answering machine.  Same multiplicity of options, none of which included talking to anyone who actually sells wine. Being stubborn, I once again drove to the store,  Parked. Fed meter.  Walked to store.  Found this:

Another professionally made sign.

Another professionally made sign.

Reaching a new level of high dudgeon, I went into the restaurant and tried discussing the situation with the hostess.  She rapidly assessed the situation and went to find a manager, who was not surprisingly missing in action.  Or hiding under the sink.

Remember the message I left the owner on Friday?  I haven’t gotten any response.  He can’t be bothered to call me back to tell me if they have the wine or not.

If for some reason you want to close your store unexpectedly, it might be wise to at least mention that fact on your phone message, showing some consideration for your customers.  Having a phone system that lets people talk to the store would be useful.  Returning your phone messages is basic good manners. Hiring managers who can take the heat and talk to upset customers rather than hiding out in the kitchen is what owners are supposed to do.  Prima Vini falls down on all of these.

I still like P as a place to eat dinner.  Hell will be freezing over before I set foot in the wine store again.  Is it really so hard to show a bit of consideration for the customers the so desperately desire?


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