An Improbable Hero

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If you’re a woman, or if you know someone who is, then you need to see the movie RBG,  This magnificent documentary follows the life and career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court and a feminist hero for all time.

A brilliant girl from Brooklyn, RBG graduated Cornell and entered Harvard Law at a time when there were only 9 women out of a class of 525.  Her talents got her on the law review as a sophomore, but when she graduated, (from Columbia, after following her husband to New York), she could not get a job because of her gender.

There followed a lifetime achievement, with a strong emphasis on sexual discrimination law.  RBG argued successfully in front of the Supreme Court at a young age, and continued to push the boundaries of the law.

Appointed to the Federal Bench, and then to the Supreme Court, approved 96-3 in the Senate, RBG has been a strong force on the Court, striving to achieve consensus with a soft voice and a strong mind.  Although she and Antonin Scalia were polar opposites in political thought, they were strong friends away from work.

This movie is a quiet documentary, certain to be in the running for an Academy Award.  We see RBG as this tiny woman in a huge chair without knowing the enormous power of her mind and her abilities to reason and resolve issues.  Go see this movie and be prepared to be amazed at the powerhouse that is Notorious RGB.

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If this is modern, I want old fashioned

I’ve been thinking about writing this post for over a week, every night thinking this is the day I write about the Modern China Cafe, and then putting it off.

I think that’s because I don’t really like to write about places that disappoint me.  I’d much rather laud a new restaurant than pan it, yet pan I must.

It looked like this would be a winner.  A Chinese restaurant on North Main street in Walnut Creek, big patio in front where we could bring Claudia (a major consideration these days), open until midnight so we could have a late supper, a promise of a fresh take on the standard Chinese menu.

What we go was a good location, nice tables, poor food and sad service.

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Tessa and Gail at the outdoor table with built in fire pit

The tables have fire pits built in–there is flame coming out of the glass beads in the center.  I don’t know how they get around the insurance or liability issues, but they sure are interesting and fun.

The menu has both the standard dishes you would expect and individual orders of dim sum, which don’t come around on a cart.  The Modern China is as much a bar as a restaurant, and the dim sum serves as perfect small plate bar food.

We began with two orders of pot stickers–there are only 4 pieces in an order.

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Here it is–a plate with the pot stickers just thrown on, the dipping sauce perched atop the food, no presentation or care.  That matched the taste–which was non-existent.  These were the most boring, insipid potstickers I’ve had in a lifetime of smacking the tasty dumplings down.

I had the Mongolian beef.

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Bland.  Pedestrian.  Again, no presentation, no care, no desire to be better than anyone else.  Just some food thrown on a plate.

The accompanying bowl of rice was hard and crusty–I suspect someone in the back makes dozens of bowls at a time, and nobody cares if they get cold or hard.  Well, I care.  And I damn sure don’t like it.

Gail had the barbecue pork chow mein Hong Kong style, with pan fried noodles.

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You know the drill–no care, food just thrown on plate, not very good.  This place is nothing if not consistent.

We had a strange moment when a hostess, who had been admiring Claudia, asked what Gail’s dish was–apparently even the staff can’t recognize this food.

You would think you would at least get good tea in a Chinese restaurant, but my usual glass of iced tea, lime not lemon, was room temperature, not enough ice, and clearly made from syrup or powder or some other commercial method that produces cheap product quickly.  It sure as hell wasn’t a decently brewed beverage.

I wanted to like this place.  I’d love to have a somewhere to eat late at night, right here in the Creek.  Chinese cuisine is old home comfort food to me, and it pains me that this the Modern China Cafe misses the mark so badly.

The only constant is change

untitled-2First, there was Kaffee Barbara, a breakfast and lunch place in a tiny building in Lafayette, on Brown Avenue. My friends Jamie and Collette had breakfast there every Friday before the bridge game, but it eventually closed.

Then came Artisan Bistro, an upscale restaurant with a first rate chef.  Or a succession of them.  Although the food and service were always excellent, somehow the place never clicked with me.  It just had no soul.

Now there is a new eatery there, Locanda Positano.  It has more soul than James Brown on a hot night, great food and a re-done patio where we can eat al fresco with the dog rain or shine.  I think I’m in love.

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Granddaughter Tessa, Gail and Reed in the patio.  Or maybe it’s a loggia.

The outdoor eating is in an area covered, heated and protected from the wind on 3 sides.  The mosaic tile tables and wire chairs are just what you would find in Positano itself, and you don’t have to walk any steep streets to get there.

As you would guess from the name, the food here is from the Amalfi Coast, with lots of fresh veggies and seafood along with the pasta.  What more could a nice Italian boy like me want?

We had a waiter named Rafael, who is from Napoli.  His wife and son still live in Italy, and he is here to make more money than he can at home. He was cheerful, helpful, interesting, exciting and pleasant, making our meal an experience to be relished and savored.

Our first dish was an antipasto for 2, which easily satisfied the four of us:

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Salami, mortadella, copicolla, brushcetta, pesto, burrata, tomatoes and olives.  A first rate way to begin the meal and whet your appetite.

Presentation is such a big part of the dining experience, and Locanda Positano certainly has some beautiful ways to get your meal on the plate.

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I started with the burrata, and was impressed with this large glass, filled with cherry tomatoes, burrata and a drizzle of oil. The arugula didn’t thrill me, but I’ll order it the next time we go.

Reed had the beet salad:

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More arugula, golden beets and a scoop of burrata.  Beautiful, tasty and healthy.  You can’t ask for more than that.

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Tessa and I each had the Branzino, a Mediterranean sea bass.  It came with white wine sauce, clams, carrots and asparagus.  This is the sort of meal at the heart of the Mediterranean diet–low in fat, olive oil rather than butter, fresh fish and veggies.  Eat like this and you’ll live darn near forever.

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Reed, who is rail thin and runs even when nobody is chasing her, had the heart attack on a plate.   Gnocchi della mamma, mother’s recipe.  Gnocchi, fresh mozzarella and gorgonzola sauce.  I had a few bites, and it was fabulous.

The meal is finished with a complimentary glass of house made limoncello to cut the richness of the meal.  It’s too tart for me, but I’m a sissy with a sweet tooth.

In any event, we loved Locanda Positano, and intend to return soon and often.  I suggest you do, too.

 

Dinner at the Duke’s house

Cruise lines all sail up and down the same waterways, so they compete to have the most interesting tours and excursions.  Tauck hit the jackpot last night, when we went to dinner in the private garden of the Jacques de Crussol, 17th Duke of Uzès. For an added bonus, the Duke himself was in attendance early in the evening.

Beth the Travel Goddess got a selfie with the Duke.  Naturally.

We knew the Duke was home (instead of Paris) because his flag was flying over the building:

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Uzès is a small city south of Avingnon, where we are docked.  The castle we visited has been there since the 11th century, and the Duchy of Uzès is France’s oldest ducal peerage, since 1572.

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A very grand entrance

The courtyard is somewhat more modern, with a new-ish facade on the old walls.  Notice that the columns are Doric on the first floor, Ionic on the second and Corinthian on the third.

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The adjoining wing

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I think the Duke and his family live in this part.

We got to tour some rooms, full of period furniture and art, but not exciting.  When the Duke himself showed up, he took people up to his favorite room, where he has a large, elaborate model train system.

This is the garden where we would enjoy our supper:

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The gas heaters were out, but not needed on a balmy spring evening.

We had enjoyed champagne and some excellent canapes in the front courtyard, now we settled in for a gourmet feast.  The Duke is a graduate of MIT and has an MBA from Columbia–which explains the professional way this operation  is run.  Owning a castle is exceedingly expensive, and there is constant need of cash for repairs and remodeling.

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We began with salad and mille feuille,  sort of a cold eggplant lasagna.

The second course was either a tender cut of veal:
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Or a bouillabaisse of John Dory, served in a pot.

The entree was followed by a brief concert.  Two violins and a guitar provided modern and classical music in the warm evening air. As the shadows lengthened:

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The music played:

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Following the concert, a dessert of Lavender creme bruleé was served.

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With the sun setting over the fallen ramparts of the building, we shuffled back to the buses and headed home.  At least I’ve lived like nobility for an evening.

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Yes, there are French cowboys

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The French have their own version of bullfighting, course camarguaise.  They don’t kill the bulls, but rather chase them around the ring trying to take ribbons from their horns.  The only blood spilled is from the young raseteurs running and jumping to get the prize without getting gored–the French bulls are bred with their horns turned up, not down like the bulls in a Spanish bullfight.

We bused out to a ranch in the Camrgue, a region situated between two branches of the Rhône adjoining the Mediterranean.  The ranch we visited raises cattle solely for the fighting ring, not for meat.  They also raise horses with which to tend and herd the cattle.

This is the season for foaling, and they have a number of babies on the ranch and two more expected in the coming week.

These horses are for work, not play.  They are never stabled, living outdoors all year. They aren’t shod, as the ground is relatively soft. And they receive no vaccinations, which seems odd to me but they didn’t ask my opinion.

The cattle likewise are unvaccinated.  I guess it works for them.

This showing off for tourists is a big business in itself.  The ranch has a building which seats over 100, with a commercial kitchen.  They need it to feed the gringos who arrive by bus, down a long single lane dirt road.  The food was excellent–we started with a buffet of appetizers/salads:

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Sun dried tomatoes, chicken wings, pasta salad, quinoa salad, cherry tomatoes, fresh vegetables, tomatoes and cheese.  There was more, but that’s all my plate could hold.

The main course was essentially pot roast in red wine sauce and red rice grown on the ranch.  The rice is common in this area because the ground is very salty from historical incursions of the Mediterranean, only 10 km to the south.

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The dining hall was decorated with a fascinating collection of saddles, from all over the world.  Saddles from America, Europe, Somalia, Ethiopia, Latin America, and Asia.

Music accompanied our meal, more Spanish than French–but this area isn’t really all that far from Spain, and the influence is strong.

We saw the cattle and horses from trailers towed behind a tractor, while the cowboys followed on their horses and herded the livestock towards us for a better view. There are only a few full time ranch hands, including the owner and his mother and father, all of whom were riding along to make the show great.  This is a working ranch, but they are in show business, too.

 

Growing the elusive truffle

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Oak trees planted 400 to the acre, waiting for truffles to grow on their roots.

The excursion this afternoon was to a truffle farm.  For as long as men have enjoyed the truffle, they had to find it in the wild.  Modern science is changing that, and now oak saplings can be inoculated with truffle spores, and in 10 years or so the tree has a very good chance of being a host for the expensive fungus.  It’s not an exact science, and not every variety of truffle can be created, but it’s a big start on the domestication of the aromatic delight we love.

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The owner of the farm, Gilles, came out to give his talk on the history of his industry.  He is both a grower and a broker, shipping, he told us, 5000 tons of truffles a year all over the world.  He grows black truffles, and the less expensive white summer truffles. The hideously expensive white winter truffles cannot yet be cultivated and are all found in the wild.

What we were all interested in, of course, was the harvesting process. So Gilles called for his  two trained Labrador receivers to show us how it is done.  Although pigs used to be the preferred hunters, it’s hard to convince a pig to give up the truffle once she (and all truffle hunting animals are female) finds it.  The Labs can be trained to trade the golf ball sized treasure for a biscuit, and they’re easier to get in the car, too.

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The 3 year old is on a leash, the 4 month old puppy follows everywhere

Gilles currently has a 3 year old, and a puppy still being trained at 4 months.  He gets the puppies at 9 weeks and immediately starts to teach them.  They work in the field with a handler who guides them and provides treats when things go right.

After a bit of hunting, not successful because the season is really over and there aren’t many truffles to be found, we went inside the farmhouse for a tasting.

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Those black truffles wholesale for €1500 per kilo.

They sliced the truffles into thin slivers, then covered them with olive oil and sea salt.

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Putting them on a slice of bread, we had quite a treat

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We had some very friendly visitors while we tasted–the two working dogs and a retired truffle dog living with the family.

Truffles are grown in Oregon and places on the East Coast, where the weather is moderate and cool.  Lafayette is too warm, or I’d be teaching Claudia to root around for treasure.

There was a gift shop, naturally, where you could buy truffles or truffle oil.  I bought the oil, perfect for flavoring scrambled eggs or pasta.

The day was a delight.  Our hosts were pleasant and taught us quite a bit about an interesting subject.  The dogs were cute.  The truffles were great.  The French countryside is beautiful as we drove the huge bus down tiny one lane roads, sharing with tractors, trucks, cars and bicycles.

And we’ll have more fun tomorrow.

In Monet’s Garden

We’ll get to Giverny, but first a couple of photos of Paris at night.

First, the opera house:Giverney-1

Next, the plaza in front of the Opera, with all the car lights streaming from a long exposure. I’ve always wanted to make a picture like this, and where better than Paris?

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Monday, the cruise line had another tour planned, with a pastry making lesson at the Cordon Bleu.  Since I didn’t like the first tour, I decided not to take the second tour. Nobody else in our group wanted to go, either, so we decided to hire a car and go somewhere.

Kate and I went to the concierge for suggestions.  Sadly, many of the places we wanted to go, like the Musee d’Orsay, are closed on Monday.  Then she mentioned Giverny, the home and gardens of Claude Monet, and we knew we had found our excursion. A car was hired to take us there, and off we went 80 km north of Paris to see the sights.

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It’s about a 90 minute drive through Monday morning Paris traffic, north by northwest to the tiny town where Monet lived for 46 years, creating a fabulous garden in which to create not just art but an entire artistic movement, impressionism. The road follows the Seine as the suburbs give way to exurbs then to farmland.  The bright spring weather was perfect, and we were lucky to arrive into gardens riotously laden with tulips and other flowering magic.  The first gardens were attached to the Museum of Impressionism.

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Kate left her phone at home, so she’s photographing with her iPad:

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The family refused to pose like three  monkeys seeing, hearing and speaking no evil.  If you squint just right, you’ll imagine them that way anyhow:

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These tulips seemed extra interesting because they have very serrated edges, and don’t really look like the rest of the breed:

Giverny is more than just Monet, it is a town with a couple of museums, restaurants, and people living quietly behind wall while the tourists swarm.  Walk another 100 meters, and you get to Claude’s house, where you can pay your €10 to enter the house and grounds of the master.

We never even made it into the house, so enchanted were we by the gardens. Let’s start with a panorama:

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We wanted to see the lily ponds, of course, only to find that it’s too early in the season and the water isn’t warm enough. It seem you can have tulips or lily pads, but not both.  So we made do with tulips, and other flowers tended by a horde of gardeners.

Panorama from the other corner:

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The central corridor of the garden:

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And the single most perfect flower of the day:
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Time ran out.  We had to get back in the car and return to the hotel, then board a bus for the Gare de Lyon, where we got on the TGV, Train à Grande Vitesse the high speed train for Lyon.  We were clocking close to 300 km/hr, or 180 mph, slicing through the countryside on a smooth as silk ride to big city in the south of France.

Once there, we boarded our ship, found our rooms and unpacked.  One of the great things about a river cruise is unpacking once while sleeping in a new city each night.

Our ship is beautiful.  Much smaller than the other river boats we have been on, it has a capacity of perhaps 100 passengers, and there are only 76 on this cruise.  This means we get insane service, since the crew has so many fewer people to please.

More to come, stay tuned.

Bad luck, great service.

Waking up in a strange hotel room in a foreign country, Kate zigged when she should have zagged, rolled the wrong way, and hit her head on the corner of the night table, opening a gash in the corner of her eye. Never fun at any time, at 2:30 in the morning in Paris it could have been quite an issue.

Facial cuts bleed profusely, so it certainly looked awful. Because this is the modern world, she did the obvious thing: picked up her phone and called the Kaiser advice nurse in Marin County.

The advice nurse said they should see a doctor.

Brad went down to the front desk, in the middle of the night, and came back with crushed ice, Band-Aids and first aid equipment. The desk offered either to send her to the hospital or to have a doctor come to their room. Of course they chose the doctor visit.

In a stunningly short 30 minutes, a well-dressed, experienced, English-speaking physician appeared at their door. He treated the cut, decided that no stitches were required, properly bandaged it and left a prescription for antibiotics and painkillers.

By 9 AM the following morning the hotel had already used their connections with a local pharmacy to have the medications delivered.

Although the cut looks bad, it has been excellently tended and there should be no repercussions.

We are all amazed at the quality of service the Intercontinental Grand Hotel provided. It is hard to imagine getting a doctor to make a house call at three in the morning in the states. Sometimes the French do things the right way.

Life is good.

My Buddy Augie

I’m back.  I was away for a while,  but now I’m back  Couldn’t think of anything to write since I got back from New Zealand.  Now I can.  Some things are simple

We’re in Paris.  So of course I have things to write about.  Starting off on a river tour, we begin with two days here in the city of lights.  This place gets my pick for the greatest city in the world–New York has more business and better theater, but Paris is still the one.

Our hotel is right next to the Opera House–I can walk out onto our tiny balcony and look down on the the plaza.  Yesterday there was a band playing there.

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A closer shot shows a motley crew, in various stages of uniform.   They played for over 2 hours, so they must rehearse quite a bit.  I’m guessing they do this regularly and pass the hat for a profitable afternoon.

RiverCruiseParis-4  The Opera building itself is a work of art, topped by two works named Harmony and Poetry,  covered in glimmering gift copper electrotype.

 

But what I really want to talk about today is my buddy Augie, Auguste Rodin.  My favorite artist by a wide margin, Augie was an immense, imposing man of magnificent talent and an ego to match.   He turned out a prodigious amount of what I consider to be the greatest sculpture the world has known, abetted by a large studio and many many assistants, who sculpted particular parts–there was a hand expert, a foot expert, a patina expert, etc. The artistry of Rodin was decidedly a collaborative effort.

His home, in the left bank, was huge, and is now the Musee Rodin.   Gail took Brad and Kate sightseeing in a private car because Brad had never been to Paris.  Barbara McKay and I went out on a morning tour with our Tauck tour group, but it sucked big time, so we bailed out, had a bite to eat and then strolled down the Boulevard St. Germain and Google took us to the museum.

I’ve been here before, but can’t really get enough.  Here are some photos of artwork that caught my eye this time.

 

The building is impressive, and much of it is unchanged.

Our bathroom is adorned with feet.  How do I get this wall of foot models home with me?

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I don’t know whether the artist of the day traded pieces or if Augie bought these two pieces, but they’re kind of nice decoration to have.

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Renoir

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Van Gogh

In the garden are many large pieces, including The Burghers of Calais and The Gates of Hell.  This piece, Le Trois Ombres, is included on the top of the Gates of Hell, with the figures pointing to the sign “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”  In its separate incarnation, I think it should be “Get down, get funky”.  I doubt Augie got that whimsical.

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Life is good

Certainly all this travel is the sign of a wonderful life of privilege, for which I am mightily grateful.

Nonetheless, the greatest privilege of them all is having friends, and it is there that I am truly blessed.

Monday night, I had dinner with Micky and Linda.  Yes, they followed me all the way here just to have a meal at the O’Connell Street Bistro.

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Gail and I have traveled the world with these two, not mention the dozens of regionals and nationals Mike and I competed in.  Last year we surprised them in Tel Aviv.  I can’t get away from the guy.

Okay, in truth they were here to board a cruise ship for a trip to Australia and Bali, the timing was just Mike’s usual good luck.

David flew home Monday morning, and I’m encamped in a slum of a dump of a hovel they laughingly call a hotel.  I’m saving all my bad words about them for the Trip Advisor review.

Mike had a list of five great Auckland restaurants he got from a friend of his, and I chose this one.  We had a table outdoor, along a walking road (with a few taxis cheating)  The weather was balmy and delightful, the early evening just right for dining al fresco. 

Although the menu had quite a variety of dishes, with beef, lamb, chicken, fish and rabbit choices, all three of us ended up with the identical dinner.

We began with the amuse bouche.  A small piece of Tandoori chicken served on a yogurt raita.  It was delicate and perfectly designed.  The service included a tiny fork and spoon to match the serving plate.

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Nest was the gazpacho, which promised considerably more than it delivered. The presentation was lovely, with first a dish of the solid elements:

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There’s melon, pepper, jicama, tomato, cheese and a few unidentifiable things there.

The server then poured the soup over the fixings:

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Things now went downhill–there was damned little soup in the bowl.  I told the waitress, and that seemed to amuse her.  I convinced her I wasn’t kidding.  They brought out a little more soup for us, but the portion was still insufficient, especially for a dish that cost NZ$24, or sixteeen bucks US.  The waiter came out and explained that the chef want the cheese to be the hero of the dish, which is an odd choice for a soup.

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This is the tiny amount of soup even after they added to the serving.

And then the soup wasn’t all that good, anyway.  The texture of the raw vegetables was antithetical to the dish, and the chef’s attempt to model molecular gastronomy with “olive oil caviar”, tiny balls of microencapsulated olive oil, was a failure.

All was forgiven when the main dish arrived.  You come to New Zealand, you gotta order the lamb.  My first meal here was dreadful chops in a cafe, this meal had the finest lamb chops I’ve ever enjoyed.

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Heaven on a plate

There were two perfectly roasted chops, a piece of braised lamb, some “Parisian” Gnocchi, minced peas with mint and feta and a crispy thing.  I wasn’t crazy about the crispy thing.

The minced peas and feta will be finding a way to my kitchen soon.  I grew up on canned peas, and still like them, but this is an entirely new world.

This dish is the work of an artist.  Everything was cooked perfectly, everything went together. It was a masterpiece.

I thought I should have dessert since the soup didn’t excite me.  Skipping the fancy words in the menu, I had salted caramel pudding with ice cream and butterscotch sprinkles.

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It was sweet, and salty, and smooth, and crunchy.  The ice cream was aaaaaallllllmost melted.  The plate was clean when I was done.

The bill for all this was about the same as it would be in San Francisco. The soup was expensive, the lamb was more reasonable.  You can’t get a glass of ice tea in this country. The service is included, so what you see on the menu is what it costs, no tip.

Micky and Linda are off to Bali, I’m on a plane home tomorrow.  Next adventure on Friday.  Life is good.