Traveling to the beat of a different drum

 

Spring, 1968.  I’m a 17-year-old high school senior.  Every day after school, I drive to the north of Orinda to work on a deck I’m building for some crazy psychiatrist.

And every day, just as I turn onto Miner Road, listening to KYA radio,  the same song comes on.  “Different Drum”, by Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys.  Fifty-one years later, and I can still hear every note in my head, just the way they sounded coming out of the cheap speaker of my 1961 Plymouth Valiant.

This all comes up because we saw Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice this afternoon.  It’s spectacular.  Delightful.  Heartbreaking.  Eye-opening. Wonderful.  Not to be missed. A pleasure for the ears, eyes and heart.

Linda was a much greater talent than I ever imagined.  Capable of singing in virtually every genre, from rock to country to comic opera.  In English and Spanish.

Born and raised in Tucson, Ronstadt was surrounded by music all her life from both of her parents.  At 18, she left for LA to be a star.  That worked out well for her.

Buckets of awards.  Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Multiple-Platinum albums.  A few mature high-profile relationships, notably with Jerry Brown.  No problems with drugs or alcohol.  Two adopted kids, kept well out of the spotlight.

Then, disaster.  Parkinsons disease, the same thing that killed her grandmother. She is no longer capable of singing.  Her final concert was in 2009.

Ronstadt is still here, still able to talk and work and make an impressive movie that will find ways to move you to tears without a shred of self-pity or whining.

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice.  Showing in Berkeley.  You’ll love it.

That’s some good fish

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Silas and his mom in the hot tub. Photo by star iPhoneographer Kate

Grandkids are in town, with the great-grandson in tow.  That means we are all going out to Sushi Ran in Sausalito, the best sushi place I’ve ever seen.  The Michelin Guide rates it a “Bib Gourmand”, which is just below one star.  The joint is worth visiting.

We ate outside, because Marin county is very particular about bringing dogs inside unless they are actual, trained service animals.  Claudia is my idea of the perfect dog, but Marin County has another opinion.  Outside it is. Not that it’s much of a trial to enjoy a lovely evening on the sidewalk watching the beautiful people in their beautiful cars going by.

I started out with a glass of Sho Chiku Bai sake, a very traditional unfiltered sake which is pretty sweet.  OK, I have the wine tastes of a 13th century Japanese peasant.  I like the stuff.

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The 6 1/2 of us ordered a variety of plates, not many of them the classic raw-fish nigiri sushi.  I did have to have this one though: hashimoto toro, a fatty tuna piece that may have been in the Tokyo fish market the previous morning. It is delicate, rich and smooth. There really isn’t anything in western cuisine to compare it to.

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As far as everyone else is concerned, the star of the menu is the salmon citrus–perfectly fresh raw salmon, Japanese cucumber, avocado and lime. It’s simply perfection on a plate.   And it’s art, too.  We order 2 of these.

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One always wants to have one’s veggies, so we can’t pass up a plate of tempura.

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There are vegetables here I can’t identify,  dipped in incredibly light tempura and quickly fried.  Is this healthy death food?  It looks good, tastes good and I choose to believe it’s good for me.

Another choice is the tempura shrimp roll, with a fried shrimp joined with asparagus encased in rice, seaweed and some other exotic mysteries.

The service is impeccable, the bill is significant.  Sushi takes exotic and expensive ingredients, prepared by trained and skilled chefs.  You get what you pay for, and at Sushi Ran you’re paying for the best.  It’s worth it.

 

The true Mexican tourist experience

When I told Gail I was renting a car, she said to be careful.  The Mexican police are infamous for stopping tourists to collect a bribe.  She was right, sorta.

Out exploring yesterday, I was pulled over by a cop on a tiny scooter.  Since I’m driving the tiniest possible Nissan, I don’t think I look particularly touristy, but there he was.

It turns out I had run a red light, making an illegal left turn across the busiest highway in the area.  I really did it, and I deserved. to be stopped.

He said the fine is very high, 800 pesos (the symbol for peso is also $, so writing $800 would be quite confusing).  That’s about 42 dollars, which is maybe a tenth of what it would cost me to run that red light in Lafayette.

They don’t just write you a ticket, because they know you won’t pay it.  They keep your driver’s license until you go to the police station to clear it. I said I was leaving in a day and that wouldn’t work.  He said I could pay him.  I offered 500 pesos, and he said yes.  So I got out of the experience for $27 US, learned a bit about how the traffic lights work around here and got a good story out of it.

 

Driving around just to see things, I noticed all the partially completed buildings.  You don’t get a mortgage to build around here, you buy a piece of land, go to Home Depot for some cinder blocks, and start building.  When you run out of money you stop, save up some more and start again.  Eventually, in a year or 2 or 20, you have a completed, paid-for house.  I think this house has been waiting for some love for a very long time.

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Appearances seem to mean much less here.  I see hundreds of tiny businesses with crudely hand-painted signs.  In fact, there is only one sign I see frequently that is professionally created;

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In the afternoon I went for my dental appointment.  It seems strange to go to a dentist in a mall, across the aisle from Walmart. (Walmart is the largest employer in Mexico), but there I was.

It’s a large and well-appointed place, with 10 dentists drilling away.  I met the manager, Kirt, a very tall Canadian who fell in love with Puerto Vallarta years and decided to stay.  I was assigned to my dentist, a young woman with a decent command of English.  She examined the teeth and took x-rays as much as my gag reflex allowed, then we went upstair to take a 3-D panoramic x-ray.  My teeth are a ghastly sight, but will be better in 8 to 10 months.

Today I’m going wandering again, paying special attention to the red lights.  Then late this afternoon I’ll go back and have what’s left of the 3 completely broken teeth extracted.  Probably not going out for a big dinner tonight.

More tomorrow.

Not a pleasure trip

Outdoor bar at the entrance to the airport. Party until your plane is boarding

I’m in Puerto Vallarta. Not for a tequila and Corona infused spree, I’m just here to see the dentist.

My teeth are in lousy shape, and the amount of work I need would be staggeringly expensive in Walnut Creek.

Winnie and Jerry have a condo here, and get all of their dental work done in Puerto Vallarta. They find the quality of the work is every bit as good and the price is perhaps one fifth. So I have come down here to begin the process.

This isn’t a glamour trip. I am staying in some very simple hotel for the princely sum of $44 a night. I’ve rented at tiny car which was supposedly seven dollars a day, but then they stabbed me 20 bucks extra for insurance, which they claim is mandatory. I’ll be having a chat with priceline when I return.

I went exploring the neighborhood where my hotel is and found a tiny outdoor restaurant where they sell hotdogs, hamburgers and tacos. The cook looked like he was 14, the waiter was more like 12.

Nothing gourmet here. I opted for two hotdogs which came with tomatoes and onions. I passed on the jalapeños in deference to my stomach. Fries of course. The Diet Coke had to be purchased from the minimart next door.

Tomorrow afternoon I have my first appointment with the new dentist. There will be x-rays and examinations; we will have to come up with a plan to reconstruct everything that is wrong with my teeth. I expect that over time it will take four or five more trips down here to get everything completed. Then I will have the teeth of a young lion. At least something about me will be young lion-ish.

A Michigander, if only for a few days

The Michigan state legislature once debated for 3 days whether residents of the state should be called Michiganians or Michiganders.  Michiganders won.

I have lived in this state twice–for a year in Detroit when I was a 3-year-old toddler, and for another year in Grand Rapids when I was 30.

Gail and I are here now, just for a few days to visit friends.  We are way far north in the lower peninsula, the area called “tip of the mitt” (because the lower peninsula looks like a mitten)  Specifically, we are in Petoskey.

We’re staying in Stafford’s Bay View Inn, a hotel that proves you can overdo quaint.

Gail in bed

Although it is a lovely suite, with a fireplace and a canopy bed, there is no coffee maker.  I do not relish having to get dressed and go down 2 flights of stairs (or use the slowest elevator I’ve seen since my college dorm) to get a cup of coffee for Gail first thing when I get up.

I can live with no TV in the room, but it would be nice to have a phone to reach the front desk.

Que sera.  The older I get the more creative I become at finding things wrong.  That probably isn’t a virtue……….

65 years ago, when I first lived here, my mother’s mother wanted to visit.  She wrote my mother (because that’s the sort of thing people did in the dark ages) that she was unable to find a flight to Detroit, what should she do?

It turns out that at that time the only air service was to willow Run airport, just out of town.  If you didn’t know that quirky fact, you couldn’t get to Detroit.  Grandmother was not the most worldly of women.

Today, DTW is a beautiful modern airport.  And you drive through the town of Willow Run a few miles north.

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Tram entering the stop at Detroit airport

Petoskey is a 5-hour drive north of Detroit.  The road is wide, modern and lightly traveled on a Tuesday night.  Everything was fine until we ran into a thunderstorm so violent I just pulled off the road and waited.  Some people were braving their way, but on an unfamiliar road, in an unfamiliar little car waiting seemed like much the wiser course of action.  We don’t see rain like that ever in California.

Wednesday night we went to a place called Interlochen, to see a concert by Diana Ross.

Diana Ross

The open-sided covered auditorium was plenty warm, but at least out of the direct sun.  We are very far north here, and at the furthest western edge of the eastern time zone–the sun doesn’t set until almost 10.

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Sunset over Traverse Bay

After a short opening set by Diana’s daughter, the superstar came on and did lots of her old hits and a few newer songs.  Mostly, it was incredibly, ungodly loud.  We enjoyed the concert, but still left 15 or 20 minutes early, beat the traffic and got the heck out of there.

Thursday night was a charity gala with our friends.  It was a fundraiser for an arts association and the gimmick was that there were as many works of art on the walls and tables as there were couples in attendance.  Couples were separated randomly into perhaps 10 groups, each named after a famous artist.  After the meal, and the speeches, and the live auction, each group was called individually to “dart for art” and pick any piece they chose.  Of course, the early groups took the good stuff, so everyone had to prepare a group of choices and try to get the best piece they could.

We were lucky, called in about the 3rd group, and I took home a certificate to have a portrait of our dog Claudia painted from photos.  Really, that was a very fortunate item for us to win.

During the day Thursday and Friday, we did a lot of sightseeing.  This area is quite beautiful, and there are many large vacation homes that were once the summer residences of the Chicago and Detroit wealthy.  Families would come up on steamships for the summer to homes that had no heat because they were closed all winter anyway.

Heading home in the morning.  I spent much time this evening trying to resolve an obscure issue: we had planned to return from Grand Rapids, but I changed our flight to leave from Traverse City, 150 closer to where we are staying.  The airline was amenable, but I rented our car from Dollar, and there is no Dollar office in Traverse City.  A couple of hours on the phone, and the assistance of the invaluable Travel Goddess, and I’ll be able to return the car to Hertz.  It wasn’t easy, and it’s always amazing how things you would never think of can become major issues in a flash.

We see Claudia tomorrow night. Life is good.

Some days you got no luck

We’ve got a new convertible and Gail was hungry.  Sounded like a good time to go for a ride to the Delta and find a nice marina to have a burger.  Silly me.

Driving out Hwy 4, the phone rang in the car.  It was the young master, now almost 30, calling from Tel Aviv to wish me a happy Father’s Day.  I was so pleased that I gave the conversation 98% of my attention, and completely missed the turnoff to the Antioch Bridge.  By the time I noticed, we were 5 miles down the road to Brentwood and in a place where I couldn’t turn around.

Once I sorted it all out, it seemed like too far to go back, so I looked for a place in Brentwood to eat.  “best hamburger in Brentwood” took us to a dumpy sports bar in an ugly strip mall.

The door was locked.  My luck was running bad.  Then someone said that door was broken (like they couldn’t put up a sign?) and to try the other one 20 feet away.

We got in.  Sat down at a table in the mostly empty, ugly, fairly dismal bar and the waitress came over and told us the dog couldn’t stay.  That sealed the deal, and we left.

Restaurant #1

Since Gail wasn’t speaking to me anyway, I decided to go back the right way and end up at the delta joint I had planned on.

We went up the road, over the bridge, along the levee and finally turned right on Sherman Island Road.  A couple of bumpy miles later, we were there.  And it was deserted, and wrapped in yellow caution tape.  Completely out of business.  Not a boat in the marina, not a car in the parking lot.  Broke, busted, gone.

Restaurant #2

Back along the levee to the main road.  Cross the bridge into Rio Vista, they must have someplace to eat along the water.  Indeed, a large and well-kept marina, with a big, 2-story restaurant buzzing with people.

We go in.  Ask a waitress how to get out to the tables on the deck.  She says if we want to “get sat” (sic) we have to talk to the hostess.

Hostess says she can seat us, however the kitchen is closed.  There was a Fathers Day brunch buffet, but it is now closed and they are changing over to menu service.  No food for the next 30 minutes.  That won’t do.

Restaurant #3

Google suggested Foster’s Bighorn.  Not on the water, but an old-time bar with a huge collection of mounted animal heads with reputedly good burgers.  If not everything we planned on, at least an experience.

I drove the few blocks.  Parking right in front.  Big sign on the doors:  NO DOGS

Restaurant #4

Burgerlicious gets a decent review.  Turns out to be an unreconstructed 1950’s drive in.  So trashy looking I don’t even tell Gail I had considered it, and keep driving.

Restaurant #5

A few miles up the road is Isleton, a small town established by Chinese who came here to build the railroads.  It’s quaint, quiet and different.  Not much going on, and not a ton of places to eat.  At least Gail was talking to me again.

I see a large Samoan guy standing outside a store, and in my best cool-guy impression ask “hey bruddah, where de best hamburger in the town?”  Ok, so I’m not really all that cool.  He tells me to try The Joint, right up the block.

We park right in front.  Right where Gail can see the application for a new liquor license.  I check.  Yup, no liquor.  After this extended journey, Gail isn’t having lunch without a glass or two of wine.  I’m thinking of one myself.

Restaurant #6

We find Peter’s Steakhouse, an old brick building on the edge of the town. The have liquor.  The kitchen is open.  They welcome the dog.  They have burgers.

Success!!!  On the 7th try.

The decor is eclectic, redneck mixed with classic Chinese.

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The restaurant is only 8 or 9 years old, but the carpet has been there for ages.  That Chinese piece of furniture, with all the inlaid mother of pearl, is worth more than the building I think.

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The artwork seems totally random.

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This is stained glass over the door.  I can’t guess how old it might be.

The food was nothing special, except that there was something on the menu I’d never seen before.  Of course, I had to order it.

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This is a crawfish sandwich.  In truth, crawfish is so bland that it is totally lost under the melted cheese and grilled onions.  The fries were good.

And that’s what I did on Fathers Day.  Although things started out poorly, in the end we were both laughing and it was an adventure.  Life is good.

The City comes to the ‘burbs

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Light, bright and airy is key to the design of The Slanted Door

For quite some time, the restaurant most booked on Opentable has been The Slanted Door, on the Embarcadero in San Francisco.  So successful has it been that now they have opened a branch in the new City Center Bishop Ranch in San Ramon.

Mike texted and asked if Gail and I wanted to give it a try, his treat.  Although Mike is a generous man, I couldn’t think of a reason for this kind invitation.  It isn’t my birthday, Christmas is 7 months away, he certainly doesn’t need to borrow the rent money.  I finally decided he was still feeling guilty for the 5♣ bid he made in Gatlinburg.

City Center is a huge new development just off Bollinger Road, so hip, slick and cool there aren’t any indications outside of what is inside–we drove around and around until Gail prevailed on a security guard to lead us to the restaurant–which is right next to the entrance, if only they would tell you it was there.

The first impression I got from the restaurant was aural–this place is loud.  Really loud.  Concrete floors, hard tables, noisy flatware and china, music blaring.  So loud I pulled up the sound meter on my phone and noted it was 83 decibels there.  That may be a good thing if you want the young and energetic to be revved up, it’s a bad thing for us old codgers who struggle to hear in the best of circumstances.

Other than the sound, the place is beautiful.  High ceilings, all glass walls (which reflect sound), lots of light and air. Very modern, very chic.

The food is pan-Asian fusion. Beautifully designed small plates representing the best of Asian cuisine.  Get a bunch of them and share is the way to go here.

I’m a huge fan of green papaya salad.  I love the crunch of the papaya and the tang of the dressing.  This is one of the best:

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I’m not sure it’s fair to rate dishes across cuisines.  Micky and I had some darned good ribs in Gatlinburg last month, but how do you compare southern ribs with Asian?  These were excellent, but a complete world apart from the ones in Tennessee.

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The south cooks these ribs low and slow for that fall-off-the-bone tenderness.  Asia doesn’t have the fuel for that, so the ribs are cooked faster for a more solid meatiness.  The sauces are completely different.  There’s just no comparison, they are two completely different dishes with the same base meat.  I like them both.

Our consensus favorite was the cellophane noodles with crab.

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This dish is so far out of my ability and expertise that I don’t know what to say except that you should order it.

The signature dish of The Slanted Door is shaking beef:

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Linda and Gail wrestling for their share

Not unlike Mongolian Beef, this dish is tender slices of beef cooked with onion, green onion and lots of spices.  We ordered rice to pour it over, the better to savor the sauce.

The San Ramon version of The Slanted Door is just as good as the one in the city, albeit noisier.  Courtesy of Mr. Bandler’s generosity,  I have no comment on the pricing but this isn’t your local China Garden.  It’s somewhere in City Center Bishop Ranch.  I suggest you try to find it.

MidiCi

One of the fringe benefits of writing about restaurants is the recommendations I get from readers.

Carroll Brooks told me about a new upscale pizza place in the Willows with a dog-friendly patio, so off we went to give it a try. Owning a pizza store of our own, we rarely/never go out for pizza, but this seemed so different from what we sell and such a nice place on a sunny day that we had to test it out.

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Certainly a dog-friendly waitstaff

MidiCi is part of a 35 store chain specializing in Neapolitan pizza–think flour-salt-water-yeast only crust, the usual healthy non-GMO additions, high quality oil.  They make a nice pizza.

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Bennet the greyhound.  His family brings his huge bed with them.

There are a number of nice looking salads and starters on the menu Gail and I will have to try another time.  Today, we just opted for pizza.  We each ordered our own, but a better choice would be to order one pizza for two, with a salad before.

I had the pesto:

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It’s easy to overload the pie and overwhelm the crust/sauce with too many toppings and then you don’t know how well the do the basics.  I just stuck to Italian sausage and onions here, the better to savor the crust.  Pesto is always my favorite sauce; I’d eat it on wet newspapers.

This pizza was delicious.  The crust is nicely crunchy, sturdy enough to maintain its own flavor through the sauce, cheese and meat. Their sausage is decently flavored, without drowning you in fennel and garlic.  The cheese is a good brand of mozzarella and doesn’t taste commercial or processed.

Gail had the truffle pizza, with spicy sausage, black olives, onions and spinach.

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Another winner, although she never really tasted the truffle. Nonetheless, she enjoyed it sufficiently to eat the whole thing and have no leftovers.

Claudia had a side of chicken.  She ate it all in a flash; it must be good.

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There is a Nutella and strawberry calzone on the menu for dessert so tempting that I will have to go back. Carroll speaks very highly of the meatballs, so perhaps we’ll bring Micky (a noted meatball lover) and Linda for dinner.

I can’t close without a photo of the oil they put on the table,.  Regular olive oil and a housemade chili oil, which even Gail says is very hot.  I just like the colors.

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We enjoyed MidiCi.  Their patio is better than most, with comfortable chairs and even an area with an outdoor sofa.  They are kind to dogs, and the food is good.  What more could a boy and his dog ask for?

Why a duck?

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Sometimes I see something just odd enough that I can’t pass it up.

Walking back to the car after lunch, I saw a girl taking her duck out of the car to go for a walk.  Yes, a duck.  On a leash.  Because how else would you walk your duck?

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A fairly friendly duck, willing to be approached and petted, except he likes shiny things and will peck at your jewelry.  Not afraid of Claudia, who was slightly perplexed at this non-furry, two legged dog.  Claudia thinks all creatures are people or dogs.

The young woman is not strictly a duck person, either.

untitled-9Those are green cheek conures, a species of parrot.  They can live 30 years if properly cared for and are capable of learning a few words as well. We didn’t discuss their vocabulary or the lack thereof.

She just likes birds, and has had this crew for about 5 years.

Billy Miller, the bridge pro, has a green cheek conure, too.  Norman is his name.  I don’t think Billy takes Norman for walks, though.

Wrapping up

Micky and I went to the Smoky Mountain Opry, a show I had been to two years ago.  Some things changed, some didn’t.  It isn’t Broadway, but it isn’t bad.  If you don’t mind the heavy bible thumping at the end of the show.

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This is Slim Chance.  His part of the show is identical to the previous time, and it’s still perfect.  He’s a former science teacher who is also an incredible juggler and a very funny comedian.  To me, he’s the star of this enterprise.

The rest of the show is singing and dancing.  A very professional presentation, allllllmost Broadway quality. Great sets, costumes and lighting effects.  It’s corny, but that’s what plays in Pigeon Forge.

The show ends on a flag waving high note.  A mix up of Neil Diamonds “Coming to America” and Lee Greenwoods “Proud to be an American”, a stage full of red white and blue, an audience waving lighted flags (carefully sold just before intermission); it’s quite a sight.

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The show honors veterans in the audience, asking them to stand.

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All the performers come out to the lobby after the show to greet the fans and sign autographs.  It’s as friendly and down-home as they can make it.

There was one more day of desultory bridge, then Mike and I went for our annual game of miniature golf. This time we went to the Davy Crockett course, which we now think is the best in town.

He beat me by 3 strokes and I had to buy the ice cream later.

Packing to leave Saturday morning, Bob brought me my bill for the week in the house and my share of the food.

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Bob is kind of precise.

That’s a darned good deal for our annual trip.  A week in the Smoky Mountains with friends and bridge and mini-golf and a trip to Dolly’s resort.  Life is good.