Not quite Carmel

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.

Why a fireplace here?  Why not?

Why a fireplace here? Why not?

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.

One of those ancient oaks, with interesting lamps hanging beneath.

One of those ancient oaks, adding to the view.

All this comes at a price, of course.

There is no meat in the lkj;lkj.  The price on the guacamole is insane.

The price on the guacamole is insane.

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.

Melon and cucumber gazpacho

Melon and cucumber gazpacho

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.

Half a chicken panini but a full set-up.  Nice.

Half a chicken panini but a full set-up. Nice.

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.

Oak Grill on Urbanspoon

Everything old is new again

propplane-1

Embraer 120 propjet on the tarmac waiting to take us to Santa Barbara

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.

That's a serious looking piece of equipment for slicing through the air and pushing us forward.

That’s a serious looking piece of equipment for slicing through the air and pushing us forward.

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.

propplane-12

The new control tower at SFO beyond the gleaming nacelle of the plane as we took off.

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.

Jack Scott

Amsterdam-4

On a late stroll in Amsterdam

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.

photokina-3

Jack and Carol during lifeboat drill. Riverboats don’t have lifeboats.

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.

T

Service, it’s always the service

Dinner tonight at La Sen Bistro in Concord.  It’s a tiny place, just 34 seats.  The food is good, the service wasn’t.  Maybe the service will be great tomorrow, who can tell?

I made a reservation, as always.  Opentable is my friend and yours.  It wasn’t necessary: the place was about half full. No hostess: there is only 1 waiter and he was busy, so we waited there about 5 minutes until he could get around to us, then he turned a table for 2 into a table for 3 (Lisa Evans was with us), and we got a seat.  Eventually, orders were taken.  I heard a woman get up from a table behind us and ask that the waiter bring her partner dinner–two of them had their food, the third didn’t.  That’s a really bad sigh.

The facility is nothing special–just a small storefront in a strip mall at the corner of Salvio and Galindo. 34 seats, bathroom all the way at the back through the kitchen, not much ambience.  There are white tablecloths, but ours had quite a few crumbs from the previous diners.

lesen-1

Escargot, God’s gift to garlic butter.

French restaurant, French menu.  That means escargot, so that’s what Gail and Lisa decided to share as a starter.  I love it because I can dip my bread in the garlic butter and not have to eat the snails.  Of course, the appetizer was delivered along with my salade roquefort and Gail’s soupe d’oignon.

Duck breast as it should be served.

Duck breast as it should be served.

I had the duck breast in honey pepper sauce, served with a caramelized apple and fried polenta cake. It was excellent, perfectly medium rare.  The carrots and haricots vert were cooked precisely al dente.  My meal was excellent, and I had time to examine it closely before the girls got their plates, another failure of the service.

Gail and Lisa both had the steak frites.  If their rib eye steaks were any thinner, the would have only 1 side, but they were exceptionally tender and succulent.  The frites were cut thin and served hot and crispy.  Another winner for La Sen Bistro.

Profiteroles with gelato.

Profiteroles with gelato. 

The profiteroles were as good as the rest of the meal–crispy pastry, vanilla gelato, chocolate sauce, vanilla sauce and whipped cream.

I feel like I’ve been in this situation before.  Good food, less good service.  No one to seat us, appetizer served with the salad, my dinner came out before the other two.  Did someone call in sick?  Were they just understaffed for the day, or is this a structural issue?  I have no way to tell, I can only relate my experience on the day I was there.

Do I recommend La Sen?  I don’t know. My food was very good and the prices are exceedingly reasonable.  The service is completely suspect, though.  Give the place a try if you like, but you have been warned.

 

La Sen Bistro on Urbanspoon

 

Autumn Lights

There is a huge, beautiful garden fronting Lake Merritt, next to Fairyland.  I didn’t know that until last night, but now I do, and so do you.

The gardens cover 7 relatively hidden acres, and have a bonsai garden, a succulent garden, Japanese garden, sensory garden, and more.  It appears to be 11 years old (but I may not understand it correctly), and seems to be an excellent community resource.

Autumn Lights is an annual fund raising event, combining the gardens, art, music and food into two lyrical evenings by the water.  Artists are recruited who work in light, all the garden pathways are lighted with luminaria, music abounds, food trucks cater and a horde of people descend for a magical evening.

Big crowds, lots of lights

Big crowds, lots of lights

 

People come in costume:

A walking flower

A walking flower

Some are wilder than others:

There were LED lights in that wig, too.

There were LED lights in that wig, too.

 

But it is the art that makes the evening:

 

Admission the garden is usually free, although you can spend a fin on the parking if you don’t want to walk in.  Autumn Lights is a fundraiser, and it will set you back $25, a couple of bucks cheaper if you do it online.

The show is over for this year; you should really plan to go next October.  Doors open at 6, but things aren’t very interesting until about 7:15 when the sun goes down and the lights take center stage.  Put it on your calendar.

Another way to decorate a house.

The redoubtable Jimmy Snidle among his art.

The redoubtable Jimmy Snidle surrounded by his art.

Another tour with the Oakland Museum Art Guild.  This one was a doozy.

We went to the home of James Snidle, a San Francisco artist, art appraiser and gallery owner.  His small San Francisco abode is crammed top to bottom with art, very very good art.  The spectacular views across the Bay are overwhelmed by the incredible interior of this 2 bedroom museum.

We have a considerable amount of art in our house.  Jimmy Snidle has more, and in half the space.  He has great art, by Robert Arneson, Clayton Bailey, Squeak Carnwath and dozens of others.  There are no unadorned spaces in this jewel box of a home.

Alongside the house is city property, which Jimmy and his partner have simply appropriated for a lush garden. The city doesn’t really mind if you want to take care of their land for them.  In the backyard they have a huge collection of immaculately tended bonsai.

I can’t describe this place, I can only show it to you.  And suggest that you join the Art Guild so you can go places you would never find by yourself.

They can’t all be winners

Some people plan every part of their life, some of us are as spontaneous as possible.  Fortunately, we have friends who live life as ad hoc as we do.  So when Keith and Jan Gunn called and asked if we wanted to go to lunch and see the Blue Angels today, we were ready in a flash.  We’re lucky enough to live in the Bay Area where the every year for Fleet Week we get a world class airshow over the beautiful bay.

Jan and Gail were ready for a sunny day:

The parasol will never go out of style.

The parasol will never go out of style.

We ate lunch at Murray Circle, a fancy-dancy joint that’s part of an upscale resort situated in Cavallo Point, at the very southern end of Marin County almost under the Golden Gate Bridge.  The idea was to have a fine lunch and then enjoy the Blue Angels.  One of those things happened.

We ate here once before, and liked it.  No such luck today.

The whole experience started strangely.  Our companions were Keith and Jan Gunn; Jan had called the restaurant twice trying to get a reservation and was told they were fully booked.  We thought we’d end up having a bite at the bar, but the restaurant was mostly empty and we got a table immediately.  Why couldn’t we get a reservation?  Only the Shadow knows.

The facility is warm and attractive, as you would expect from a former Officers Club.  Lots of wood and brass, windows everywhere, white tablecloths and heavy flatware make it a pleasant place to be.

The food, though, was a huge disappointment.

Biscuits and gravy, so they think.

Biscuits and gravy, so they think.

 

Biscuits and gravy may well be the quintessential American breakfast food, unknown everywhere else in the world.  Ordering a big hot gooey plate in an upscale eatery seemed like a slam dunk.  That was wrong.

I got a plate that included 1 hard, cold, biscuit, split, topped with poached eggs and lightly napped (not drowned, as they should be) with an insipid, bland, sausage-less “gravy” that was cold.  Cold enough to chill the eggs underneath.  It was dreadful, tasteless and vile.  Every fourth rate greasy spoon sitting alongside a two lane highway bypassed by an Interstate can prepare a decent plate of biscuits and gravy.  Murray Circle can’t.

Edible huevos rancheros.

Edible huevos rancheros.

Gail and Keith had the huevos rancheros.  I asked her the food was, and she said “edible”.  For $18 I expect a hell of a lot more than edible.

Lettuce Chicken cups.

Lettuce Chicken cups.

I think Jan was the big winner, although she wasn’t very excited.  The food was fine, she just doesn’t enjoy building her own food with her hands in a restaurant.  Jan eats pizza with a knife and fork, this dish just isn’t a good fit for her.

After lunch, Jan and Keith strolled down to the waterfront to view the Blue Angels.

blueangels-1

 

Lunch may have been a disaster, but the Blue Angels were a complete hit.  I took a couple of hundred photos, and got one winner.  That’s enough for me.  Any day you can see this is a good day:

 

This photo needs no caption

This photo needs no caption

The Most Important Person at ATT

Stephanie, the single most important person in the corporation.

Stephanie, the single most important person in the corporation.

Meet Stephanie, a customer service rep at the ATT store in downtown Walnut Creek.  She may not look like it to you, but she is the single most important person in the entire corporation.

That may surprise you.  It certainly surprised me.  I tell you how I found this out.

Tuesday, I went to her store to buy a couple of the new iPhones.  Stephanie and I spent 30 minutes filling out forms on her iPad, I declined to buy the insurance. She broke my heart when she offered an iPad mini for $199 but it was really $536 when I wanted one with a decent amount of storage. The process was reasonably swift if somewhat more bureaucratic than really necessary.

Wednesday, I got a confirmation email, and I noticed that both phones were ordered in black. That won’t do; Gail and I would spend half our lives deciding which phone was whose.  I want black, she wants white. So I picked up the phone to call them and correct this minor error.  Silly me.

After the usual hold time and interactive voice response hell, I got a person.  We went over the problem.  I gave her phone numbers, order numbers, social security numbers, my shoe size.  She found the problem. Then she said she could not fix the problem, I would have to schlepp back to the store and fix it in person.  Gee thanks, ATT.

Maybe, I thought, I can just call the store.  Not a good plan.  I called, went through the same hold and IVR stupidity, and got nothing.  Nobody answers the phone there.  I tried again, and again. And again.  Finally, I got through.  I thought.

The very nice young woman on the phone took a detailed message.  But she could not fix the issue, that had to wait for The Most Important Person in the Corporation, Stephanie.  Who wasn’t in until Thursday.  The very nice young woman promised to give Stephanie the message.  I had no faith.

Thursday, I went in to see TMIP Stephanie.  I felt honored to be in presence of the one person in the universe who can correct a minor error.  We are lucky to have her here in Walnut Creek.

Nothing is easy.  She had to cancel the previous order and make an entirely new one.  There was even more filling out of forms than there was the first time.  Lots of signing with my finger in the iPad.

The order is, theoretically, reset.  We’ll get one white and one black.  Perhaps.  I don’t have the greatest faith in the clunky, clumsy, bureaucratic, officious, inept system.  I’ll just have to wait and see what, if anything, is ever delivered.

ATT offers no apology for this fiasco.  They don’t care.  Stephanie is sorry for her error, but still thinks this is the best system, that nobody else in the world can correct a minor error but she.

I think ATT sucks, and they should be ashamed of themselves.  I keep them because we travel considerably, and I like being able to use my phone in Cambodia or Ethiopia or Budapest.  And hey!  I get to deal with The Most  Important Person in the entire corporation, the only single person who can correct a simple error.  Stephanie.

Finding the meaning

An interesting opening this afternoon at A New Leaf/Sculpturesite Gallery in Sonoma. The show was titled “Being a Woman”, featuring the work of 5 artists. We already have art from two of them, Jane Burton and Gale Hart.  After this show, there may be another headed our way.

What I’m here to talk about today is this piece, from Jane Burton:

36 different shapes on the wall.

36 different shapes on the wall.

There it was–36 different little shapes made of plaster and wax, attached to the wall and strongly side lit.  I looked at it, I walked around a bit, I looked so more, I had no bloody idea what it was about.

Fortunately, I saw this smiling face:

Jane Burton, artist and friend.

Jane Burton, artist and friend.

 

Jane lives in Walnut Creek, and we see her frequently. I’m kind of forward, so I just asked her, “what the heck is this all about?”

Now I know more about Jane’s reproductive organs than I ever thought I would.

It turns out that the forms of the sculpture are all IUD’s.  Jane had one one, specifically the Dalkon Shield, and is now infertile because of it.  She’s been hospitalized with PID (pelvic inflammatory disease) 5 times.  You might say she’d kind of cranky about it.

The reason for the lighting is to accentuate the shadows, not the forms. She’s concerned with the shadows of the IUD, the long term effects for women, the way the drug companies just sell IUD’s overseas when they are banned in the US.  The artwork is a very strong commentary on the issue.

Dalkon shield and its shadow.

Dalkon shield and its shadow.

The concept is great, and knowing the meaning made the artwork considerably more interesting. There may not be a way to put all of that on a title card next to the artwork, though. Maybe Jane could just stand in the gallery forever to enlighten the public.

It isn’t often you get the chance to talk directly to the artist to learn about a work of art, that’s just another reason to go to gallery openings.  The food was really good, too.

More Buda, less Pest

Okay, that may not be all true, but who can resist?

Buda is the rich side of the river, where the hills and castle, cathedral and money all reside.  Pest is the where the hoi polloi live, a broad flat plain that stretches hundreds of miles.

The ship comes into Budapest at night because all the big buildings are close to the water and brilliantly lit up.  Everyone goes up to the sun deck to watch the spectacle:

In the morning, the obligatory tour of the city, but they’re all starting to blend together.  I was impressed my Matthias Church, which has been both Catholic church and Moslem temple.  The interior is painted in an Arabic motif, with no representational art. The stained glass is from the Christian era, and the opposition is interesting.

 

The roof of this church is like the cathedral in Vienna:

 

Fascinating roof tile design

Fascinating roof tile design

In the afternoon we took an optional excursion to what was billed as a Hungarian Cowboy show.  There are a pair of very rich brothers who compete in coach driving–either two or four horses, obstacle courses, races, dressage, this is the big leagues of a rich man’s sport.  They cover some of their costs with this show at their gorgeous facility about 40 miles from the city.

When we got there we were offered a shot of some kind of liquor, which I found so undrinkable I reflexively spat it out.  Not polite, but fitting.

Then we saw the horse show–the early Hungarians were horsemen and fierce fighters.  There was a guy shooting arrows at a target while at full gallop, then throwing a spear.  A fellow with four ponies hitched up to a cart,  One man who is handling 5 galloping horses while standing on the backs of 2 of them.  A stunningly beautiful woman in a red silk gown riding dressage sidesaddle (this last in honor of a Princess Elizabeth who lived to ride).  A bunch of guys cracking whips annoyingly, but who had beautifully trained horses.  It wasn’t exactly Buffalo Bill Cody, but it was an interesting show.

There were a few animals to look at.  Gail liked the pigs, I liked the goats.  That may define our relationship.

budapest-6

That’s a good looking goat.

And that was really the end of the cruise.  One more dinner onboard, goodbyes to new friends we’ll never see again, and so to bed.  Jack and Carol had an early flight and had to leave the ship at 3:30 am.

We had another day until our ill-fated trip home.  I hired a car and drive to take us around for a half day to see some more of the sights.  We always like to just drive around where the rich people live and look at the nice houses.  We got a driver who had too much coffee and was talking a mile a minute in an extraordinarily loud voice in a small Mercedes.  After the second time I told her to stop shouting things got better and we enjoyed our time with her.

Beth, the Travel Goddess, had arranged a room for us at Le Meridien Hotel.  We dropped the luggage off and then our driver took us to the Museum of Modern Art on Hero Square before saying goodbye.  Which was a nice idea, but the museum is in the middle of an exhibition change and is closed except for one single piece of conceptual art.  At least it was free.

So we walked across the square to the Museum of Fine Art. The have lots of classical art, which doesn’t greatly interest us, but there is a sculpture room on the second floor we thought we’d check out, and some 20th century art in the basement.

The building had some interesting features.

The building had some interesting features.

We took the audio guides, as always.  Then wandered through the ground floor to the rear, where there was an elevator.  That turned out to be a tiny affair, and although it was just a normal elevator, you had to go with a staff person to push the buttons.  This museum has lots of staff people doing nothing.

My audio guide didn’t work.  I wasn’t surprised.  The sculpture was all medieval and religious.

Went back down stairs (same elevator operator).  Traded my guide in for a new one.  Took a different elevator down to the basement (no operator).  Watched a fascinating video about the installation of a Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit–it was an ad for a new Samsung 4K television, but the most interesting thing in the joint.

The twentieth century art exhibit was very strange–nobody you would recognize, all eastern European knockoffs of western modern art.

A taxi brought us back to the Meridien, and the adventure got much more interesting.

The view from our window. Photo by Gail

The view from our window. Photo by Gail

I don’t know who Beth, the Travel Goddess, had to kill or sleep with to arrange this hotel stay, but it was worth it.  The upgraded us to a junior suite, which was the size of a small battleship.  The bathroom, with both tub and separate shower, was larger than many of the cabins on the cruise ship.  Internet included.  In the morning I called for a pot of coffee (those foreign coffeemakers are too confusing to operate) and they brought a huge, hot pot in 5 minutes, no charge.  Breakfast buffet included. Complimentary bottle of wine.  €85 credit in the restaurant or room service.  Starwoods points for all of it.  Cool enough hotel that it was often crawling with security for the political big shots staying there before speaking at Parliament.

Lunching in the hotel,  Gail had perhaps the best hamburger I’ve ever tasted.  Room service for dinner, excellent.  Breakfast buffet was a disaster–eggs benedict ice cold, tepid tea, poor service.  Two out of three ain’t bad, and I politely let them know about the third.

Our entire trip was great.  Viking Cruises are an expert operation running as smoothly as Disneyland.  We saw wonderful places and had guides that made it all accessible.  I couldn’t recommend it any more highly.

Then we got to the airport on the way home………………………………………….

 

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