Our friend Harry led us to a new place on Lakeshore Avenue in Oakland Saturday. He knows the owner, and wanted us to try the joint out.
It’s name is Shakewell. The facility is pretty amazing, with walls decorated with huge sheets of steel marked by geometric cutouts, large wooden piers and stone walls indoors. The kitchen sports a wood fired pizza stove, and there is a full bar where the bottles are lit from beneath but placed in front of a too-busy wall.
We started with dessert–fried bread pudding. Just think of it as high class french toast:
Just why we had dessert first I don’t know, but it works for me.
I had the soft scrambled eggs:
My eggs were wonderful, the potatoes a bit too crunchy for my taste. No butter or jam for the toast, but Gail stole it anyway.
Harry had the short rib sandwich:
Gail had the best looking dish of the day. Maybe of the month–this is beautiful:
The Mexican chorizo is a loose sausage, the Spanish version is a solid sausage. She loved this dish.
On the way out we met the owner, Tim.
Tim has a big restaurant background leading up to being an owner here. I asked him to describe the menu and he said “Mediterranean with a strong Spanish accent”. That works for me.
We liked the food so much we went back Monday night for dinner. It’s that good.
Big night in Oakland tonight. Our friend Dan Scarola is limping around with one crutch and a cast on his leg after snapping his Achilles tendon playing tennis, so we thought we’d take him out. Since it wasn’t fair for me to have the only good looking girl, we brought Gayle Everett along to properly adjust the man to cute blond ratio.
First we had to stop at his house for a glass of wine and a nibble. Dan lives high on Hiller Drive, in a house he rebuilt after his was burned up in the Oakland hills fire of 1991. The views are spectacular:
Dinner was on College Avenue at a place called Chu that Dan frequents. It’s a gorgeous place, narrow but very tall, with dining on two floors. The building was designed specifically for this restaurant and is a very pleasant place to sit in. Not surprisingly, the decor is Asian modern,with huge mirrors to visually double the apparent space.
We started with pot stickers, which were served with a very attractive cruet of sauce:
Next came the best hot and sour soup I’ve ever had. We all raved about it.
We ordered three main dishes, and I only liked one of them, the Beijing Hoisin Pork:
Thick chunks of pork, not overcooked, in the mildly sweet and still savory hoisin sauce. I thought this dish was a hit.
The next dish was the Red Curry Prawns and Crab Noodle.
Loser. Big time loser. The presentation is hardly attractive. I had one bite and found it gritty, fishy, greasy and all around not good. The others liked it, so I guess you have to entertain the notion that I just got it completely wrong about this dish, but I’m not going to be trying it again to find out.
Healthy Danny ordered the Buddha Vegetables, which had lots of mushrooms so I didn’t try them, but they looked pretty decent and Gail liked them.
Service was what you expect in a Chinese restaurant, prices are quite reasonable.
I’m a bit up in the air about Chu. The hot and sour soup is phenomenal, the red curry prawns were dreadful. Beijing Hoisin Pork is an excellent dish and the presentation on the pot stickers is worth the price of the dish all by itself. I guess it’s a qualified “go”, with one big exception. Rockridge is a busy neighborhood so you should make a reservation, particularly on the weekends.
Our friend John Harrington is at it again, releasing another jazz CD. Turns out you don’t get rich teaching music in the Oakland School system.
There was a party at Club Anton in Oakland to mark the release, and his band, Deep Sea Quartet, played for the crowd of friends.
We went to see the show, and were surrounded by friends:
Every guy who ever went to a bar with a band knows to avoid the table with all the pretty girls right up front–they’re with the band, and you won’t get anywhere. I was reminded of this seeing Becky, right up front:
Rebecca was at Becky’s table, too.
Got to have a photo of the star:
And the bass and vibe players:
Club Anton is a pretty nice place. They offer a Peruvian menu of very good food (far too dark to photograph), which is served too slowly because they don’t have enough staff, at least when the Deep Sea Quartet is playing. The place was crowded, and I don’t think they were expecting such a large and hungry crowd.
Still, the decor is attractive:
The band played their first set and then we were gone. The younger folks stayed longer, no doubt.
You can get the music from Deep Sea Quartet on iTunes. Check it out.
There’s an innovative bar and grill in Benicia with excellent food. There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.
We had dinner at Lucca Bar & Grill, smack “downtown” on First Street. It’s a modern looking joint, all brick and glass inside, with tables on the sidewalk for more clement afternoons and evenings. The semi-exposed kitchen in the rear produces awfully good food while letting you see the production process. It’s too damned loud, but that’s the way they do things these days, deliberately making design and structural choices to intensify the sound level and make the place seem busy and exciting. The French Laundry doesn’t seem to need this.
We started with an appetizer:
Nothing fancy, just a plate of various olives, warmed with a few spices. It’s amazing how different the varieties are, and how much more than simple black circles olives can be.
Then I had the soup, which tonight turned out to be chicken congee. My only previous experience with congee was 25 years ago in China, where the thin rice based gruel is used as a breakfast cereal. This was a thicker porridge-type dish, flavored with roast chicken. The flavor is subtle (some would just say ‘bland”) yet rich. I was sorry I had the cup instead of the bowl.
Gail had the beet salad. She grew up with the same dreadful canned beets that I did, but has managed to grow past that experience. Me, not so much.
Of course, the salad isn’t only beets, it’s your basic greenery, some apples, some walnuts, a sprinkle of cheese and then some roasted beets, all napped in a spicy, vinegary dressing. I guess it wasn’t so awful, he woefully admitted.
Reed (the architect of our house, and a good friend of Gail’s) ordered the black cod special:
Certainly a beautiful presentation, the cod was perfectly cooked. For some reason, they decided to deliver this dish while Reed was still enjoying her salad, so it was fairly cold by the time she was ready to eat it. It sure looked good sitting on the table, waiting.
Which brings us to my only complaint about Lucca–erratic timing of the meal. The servers were accurate and attentive, but dishes seemed to come out of the kitchen almost randomly, at the convenience of the chef not the diner. Reeds meal was early, Gail’s was late. Entrees should all come to the table at once, and not until the salads have been finished and the plates cleared. This isn’t rocket science, and it isn’t a new concept, either.
My entree was orzo with rock shrimp, and a complete success in how to make comfort food out of semi-exotic ingredients like rock shrimp. Like the congee, it was rich and soul-satisfying, even though there were no sparkling or spectacular flavors, nothing exploding with joy over my tastebuds.
Gail then had a well done classic, fish and chips.
The fish was superb, the asparagus was crisp and fresh, the chips were chips. The presentation, on an extraordinarily wide plate, was exceptional. Sure beats the hell out of crowding it all in a cone of newspaper and sloshing malt vinegar over everything the old fashioned way.
The food at Lucca is good, very good. The service is also good, but a trifle eccentric. Or maybe they don’t know what they are doing, but the place has been open for over 4 years, so I’m sticking with eccentric. Is the chef running the front of the house? Or just running all over it? Whatever the reason, i don’t like it, but not enough to keep me from returning. Reed recommends Wednesday nights, when there is a fried chicken special with housemade cheese and corn biscuits that are reputedly excellent. We may have to back tomorrow night…………….
Deathtrap, the classic comedy-thriller by Ira Levin, is one of the classic plays of the American canon. I saw it at ACT 25 years ago, it was a well received movie starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, and is currently on display at the Lesher Center.
This play is about as meta as it can be–it’s a play about a play about a play, taking self-referential to an art form. If you tried to outline the plot, you would get a circle.
The two act play uses a single set, the home of the protagonist, Sydney Bruhl, a playwright whose one big play was many years ago and he is still struggling for a second act to his life.
Telling you more would give too much away. There are crosses and double crosses, plot twists, surprises and just plain old murder. If you think you have it figured out, you are wrong.
The acting is pretty good. The leads are all Equity professionals, but I noticed a disturbing amount of stumbling over lines in this very talky production. I never know whether to blame the director or the actor for overbroad scenery chewing, but somebody should be ashamed–subtlety is not much on display in the Margaret Lesher theater this week.
Which is not to say we were not amused and entertained. Deathtrap is a very well written play, and the direction never lags for a second. It moves along swiftly and keeps your attention all the way.
Best of all, there is ice cream at intermission. Why Center Rep has ice cream and nobody else does is an enduring mystery, no unlike what will happen next in Deathtrap. Drop in at the Lesher Center and see for yourself.
Another beautiful day in paradise. The weatherman calls this “instability”, with sun and showers alternating all day. I call it great.
Micky and Linda left for home this morning so they can go to the Niners game tomorrow. The remaining 4 of us decided to go sightseeing rather than play cards, got in motion very slowly and drove up the road to the Santa Ynez valley because we had never been there.
First stop, lunch. Gail proved her mettle yet again as ace restaurant Googler, directing us to Trattoria Grappolo in Santa Ynez. This is reputed to be the best restaurant in the valley, and i won’t argue a bit.
This is an old-time Italian restaurant: it has been there for 70 years, I can hardly imagine how remote this valley was in 1944, or what would possess anyone to start a business there.
We ate in the loggia in front, with the large windows wide open even during the brief rainshower. The meal was pretty classic Italian, with a small California accent.
Ed and Sheryl started with the caprese salad:
Sheryl had one of the oddest dishes I’ve ever seen, yet she raved about how good it was and took home the leftovers. They call it Italian enchiladas—angel hair pasta in a marinara sauce wrapped in slices of eggplant. It certainly makes an interesting and extravagant presentation:
Gail went for the veal. Ed thought it was “too busy”, and it turned out he was right.
The veggies were great, the veal was breaded, cheesed, sauced and just generally overworked.
My lunch, which I was too busy to photograph, was a pasta carbonara. Spaghetti with cream, cheese, garlic, egg and pancetta. It was awfully rich, but that didn’t stop me from eating it all.
Service was good, food was good, prices were not cheap, We would all go back.
After lunch, we made an adventure and went exploring to find Neverland Ranch, the home of Michael Jackson. Some people revere him. I don’t. But his house is pretty famous all by itself, so we wanted to see it. Or at least the gate, because the house is well back in the 3000 acre ranch and can’t possibly be seen from the road.
At one time there was a sign that said “Neverland”, but no more. The entry is 5 miles down a country lane, but it is clear that many a fan has made the pilgrimage. Those red and blue hearts on the gates are, I think, placed there by the caretakers so fans can leave love notes to their departed idol. I suspect that they are changed daily.
There are also many inscriptions on the wood, on the bricks, on the lanterns, all pledging eternal love to Michael.
Because yesterday was Halloween, there was a pumpkin display:
Notice the red card in the middle–somebody thought it was not tidy enough.
The card turned out to be a very nicely done paean of love to Michael by a foreign fan.
As we left a car was waiting for our parking spot. Two fans from Orange County had driven up. I suspect that the flow of idol worshippers is steady and unending.
We drove home the long way, through Solvang and Lompoc. Solvang is a tourist town with a Danish heritage, and they play that up for all it’s worth. Danish signs, names, stores and events everywhere. Ed, therefore, thought it mandatory to stop for a Danish.
Now we’re back at the house, Ed and Sheryl are in the hot tub and I’m getting ready for a nap. Big dinner plans tonight, I need to keep up my strength.
If you eat at restaurant 3 times in a week, you either work next door or you really like the place. We’re certainly not working here in Santa Barbara, so we must just love Cava, the little Latin restaurant we stumbled into in Montecito early this week and can’t seem to stop returning to.
Cava (Spanish for wine cellar), is right on the main street of Montecito. It looks to me like the building originally housed a coffee shop situated in front of a motel, but as the city has grown rich it morphed into a fine dining establishment. The decor is latin, of course, and quite dark. I greatly enjoyed the background music, which I usually tune out. As with most places here, there is dining both indoors and out.
The goodness of Cava starts right at the beginning–chips come with the standard red salsa, and this delightful addition:
Finally! A salsa that is something more than spicy ketchup. We went through several dishes of it.
If there is pozole on the menu, Gail is interested. After Gail had some on Wednesday, Linda needed to order it on Friday, too. Pozole is a pork and hominy stew:
The dish comes with a plate of condiments so you can flavor it to your personal perfection,
I’m a big fan of rack shrimp, which taste like tiny lobsters. Therefore, the rock shrimp soft tacos were my first choice: The presentation is both eye catching and confusing. I like the look of it, but found it hard to actually eat. There is a humongous pile of red cabbage and crispy tortilla strips atop the two tacos, which you have to sort out and dig through to get to you meal.
I ended up snitching a tortilla from Gail to make yet another taco out of the excess. I ordered this dish twice it was so good.
Time to fess up–most of the time at a Mexican restaurant, I read the entire menu thoroughly and carefully, then order the fajitas. Just can’t resist them. Our first night here i had the tacos, but the second night I reverted to type.
Why does anyone eat green bell peppers? They’re bitter and I don’t like them. Red, yellow or orange peppers are so much sweeter and more pleasant. I know the green ones are cheaper, but that’s because they taste bad. You can get lots of things that taste bad cheap.
Fajitas also come with a plate of condiments:
The fajitas were fine, but no match for the rock shrimp soft tacos.
Mike tried the Spanish dish, paella. It was pretty good, but not as good as what I make at home. Of course, I don’t have to turn a profit at home.
The wine list made the wine lovers happy. I was pleased to get a slice of orange in my iced tea.
Gotta talk about the service: it’s great. They took excellent care of us during our meals, and then went above and beyond the last night, when it started to pour rain just as we finished. One of the bussers went to the patio and unfurled and extended a large outdoor umbrella to aid us in getting to our car without being soaked. Then he even refused a tip, which he had well earned. That’s my kind of place.
So that’s all there is to say today. If you are in the Montecito/Santa Barbara area, Cava is the place for very good Mexican food in an upscale atmosphere with above and beyond service.
What do you do when you have a day all to yourselves in Santa Barbara? We took a ride to Ojai.
I’ve always thought of Ojai as an “artists community” tucked in the hills behind Ventura. A place where movie stars had their hideaways, the home of Jaime Sommers, the Bionic Woman. Home to fabulous spas and resorts, where the rich and famous come for herbal cleanses, seaweed wraps and high class pampering. Sort of Carmel south.
I was partly right.
Ojai is a beautiful place, with too much traffic. It might have an art gallery or two, but certainly isn’t anything like Carmel, Santa Fe or Taos. The movie stars live behind gates and walls–Sophia Loren might be in town, but she wasn’t in the grocery store.
The resorts, though. Wow. Or at least the one where we had lunch, the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa. Close to the city, it has a golf course with huge, ancient oak trees. Levels of service you can barely imagine. Great food.
We went for lunch at their restaurant, the Oak Grill, and were just blown away right from the start. The valet parking attendants, dressed in impeccable uniforms, were incredibly smooth and courteous. The stroll through the grounds to the restaurant showed us a large facility, perfectly maintained, with amenities for the guests at every turn.
Just a walkway between buildings, so they put in a fireplace, lit it with gas, added a few chairs and an umbrella. Somebody might want to relax right there.
I saw a bicycle rack, with the hotel name engraved in it. No bicycles, but there might be and the hotel is ready. There was an aviary with parrots and macaws, just for the heck of it. Artwork placed in the gardens. Every staff member well dressed and polite. This place is a dream.
We ate lunch outdoors, in a large covered area overlooking the golf course.
All this comes at a price, of course.
I can’t imagine $21 for an avocado and chips.
This resort caters to corporate meetings and retreats–most of their clientele is on expense account, and they all order the guacamole for the table to start, so the house just jacks up the price. The rest of the menu isn’t cheap, but it isn’t ridiculous, either.
I can’t pass up a cold soup, and this one was excellent. You think of gazpacho as being tomato and loads of garlic, but the Spanish are considerably more flexible. This soup was light and refreshing, the perfect starter for lunch al fresco.
Gail and I split a sandwich. In another example of great service, the chef prepared two plates, each with its own fries. I was impressed.
You make a reservation, they know your name. The great places make sure the waiter knows, so you can be Mr. & Mrs. Pisarra, not “you guys”. This is one of the great places.
Lunch over, we went back to retrieve the car. The valets offered us water (in bottles labelled “Ojai Valley Inn and Spa”) and a newspaper. No charge for the parking. Yes, I tipped well.
After our meal, we drove all around Ojai, looking at the houses, searching for art galleries, enjoying the day. It’s a nice place, but nothing really special, with one exception.
I love eccentrics. People with a skewed approach to life are the most interesting. Ojai has at least one woman who is significantly off-plumb. We saw this house and I had no choice but to stop and take pictures:
And that was all for Ojai. On the way back to Santa Barbara, we took a smaller road and wound through Carpinteria, which seems to be the home of every commercial nursery in the state, they were just lined up cheek by jowl for miles.
Back at the house, we watched the Giants get crushed in game 6 then went out for a Cajun dinner at the Palace Grill downtown. Any place that serves a bread pudding soufflé is OK by me.
Micky and Linda arrived, after watching the baseball game in San Luis Obispo with their grandsons, and we all turned in for a big day on Wednesday.
For virtually all of us, the first aircraft we flew on had propellers. Then the jet age arrived and the propeller went the way of the buggy whip, or so one would think at any large international airport. Yesterday, we had a pleasant trip back in time.
We were flying to Santa Barbara, where we have borrowed Gail’s son’s beach house and will be hosting friends and playing cards at the Ventura Regional. Our spirits are dampened because Jack and Carol Scott were scheduled to join us. We will be home well before his services next Tuesday.
There is only on non-stop flight to Santa Barbara from the Bay Area. United flies from SFO, and alternates between jet and propeller aircraft, We got lucky, and were on an Embraer 120, a 30 passenger twin turboprop.
Boarding was strange. United has dedicated gate 84 at SFO to these smaller regional aircraft, with four subgates so more than one plane can board simultaneously. These are flight to places such as Bakersfield, Fresno, Palm Spring and Santa Barbara. With these short hops, a quick turnaround is essential. This can lead to confusion, though, with multiple planes at one gate, so we had to show our boarding passes FOUR different times between the gate and the plane to ensure we were on the right flight.
The seats are tiny. The storage bins on the plane are tiny–they even gate-checked Gails very small rolling case. There are three seats in a row, one on the left and two on the right.
Santa Barbara is 265 air miles from San Francisco, and the flight takes about an hour. The prop plane is not only nostalgic, but the views are better because you are 10,000 feel lower than you would be in a jet. There is drink service, but not even a bag of peanuts–more of United’s relentless cost cutting.
Although the plane said “United”, it is really operated by Skywest Airline, which seems to be a company which operates regional aircraft for a number of different major airlines. When we landed, i noticed an Alaska Airlines jet with a small “operated by Skywest” on the side. Skywest is the largest purchaser of these Embraer propjets other than the Brazilian air force, with 44 of them.
Once we landed, we got to stand around on the tarmac until they could get all the gate-checked luggage out to us, then go inside to wait for the remainder. I went to get the rental car, and had the odd experience of asking for a slightly smaller car at a cheaper price, then being given an invoice for $150 MORE than the original. Good old Hertz, sticking it to the customer every time. I made them fix that.
You better be quick about luggage in Santa Barbara–no carousel, just a window like the old days. And after a very few minutes, the attendant cried last call and took all unclaimed bags back into the depths of hell, or wherever bags go. Don’t stop for a cup of coffee around these parts.
We’ll be here for a week, soaking up the sun, eating, shopping and playing a little bridge. Then another fun flight home.
Mother said “Life is short and death is sure”. Why did that have to be the thing she was right about?
My friend Jack Scott died Sunday. He was enjoying watching his grandson play soccer and had a hemorrhaging stroke, effectively destroying his brain.
Doctors kept him on life support until his organs could be harvested to help others. Jack was a good guy to the very end, and then beyond.
We had just spent two weeks with Jack and Carol on a river cruise in Europe. When we weren’t sightseeing, we were playing bridge in the lounge. I’ve played with and against him for years, and he was invariably a quiet-spoken gentleman at the table, and everywhere else.
Jack had a successful career as a programmer–he chose to be an independent contractor because he never wanted to manage anyone else, just to do his job well and go home to his wife and kids.
As a bridge player, he was one of the best, although too modest to admit to his own strengths. Jack played with Bruce Tuttle on the team that goes to Gatlinburg every year, and they could be counted on to bring back good scores. He shared the house with us, but was more likely to go to his room and read than stay up and obsessively go over the hands card by card–he just played them well and moved on.
His funeral will be Tuesday, November 4 at 11 am. Sunset View Cemetery, 101 Colusa Avenue, El Cerrito. Don’t send flowers, sign up to be an organ donor.
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