Birthday at Esin

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Gayle 

Our friend Gayle Everett had a birthday this week, and we went to celebrate at one of my favorite local places, Esin.

Established over 20 years ago in Danville as Cafe Esin, they are now just Esin, right off the freeway at Sycamore Valley Road.  The chef/owners are Curtis and Esin deCarion, hence the name.

Esin deCarion is the pâtissiere and in my opinion the heart of the operation.  Lots of restaurants have great halibut, only Esin has the best desserts in the county.

To get to dessert, though, you have to eat dinner first.  That’s no challenge here.  The waiter told us the soup of the day was potato garlic, so that’s what I ordered:

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This is beautiful.  It just isn’t potato garlic–the kitchen switched up on him and gave up tomato soup.  Excellent tomato soup, and Gail certainly enjoyed hers, but my heart just wasn’t in it, so back it went and I ordered the burrata instead:

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That’s a generous serving of fresh burrata cheese topped with diced beets and pistachios, grilled asparagus, and warm (not cold and stiff) grilled bread.  Really an appetizer large enough to be shared.

I fell for the lamb chops, served with green garlic risotto.

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Lovely chops perfectly cooked, savory risotto with a delicate garlic flavor, beautifully plated.  This is everything an entree should be.

Our friend Barbara joined us for the evening.

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Barbara chose the halibut:

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She says halibut is the hardest fish to cook correctly, and the house got this one just right.  Look at the colors of that dish–what beautiful design and plating. The flavors were as complimentary as the colors

Gayle had the phyllo wrapped chicken with Israeli couscous.

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Another beauty, another delight.

Some people (Gail) have no interest in their own birthdays.  Some people (Gayle) do.  The reason we were there wasn’t kept a secret, and so with all the usual pomp and circumstance, a slice of the lemon meringue tart appeared.

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Some meringues are dry, some are thick and creamy.  I like them both. At Esin, thick and creamy is the order of the day.  The lemon filling was smoother and less tart than most, giving the dish a gentle cohesiveness.

I had to have my own dessert, of course, and chose the apple caramel bread pudding.  This is one of the best bread puddings I ‘ve had this side of the Palace Cafe in New Orleans.

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Warm bread pudding with ice cream is one of nature’s delights; I can not pass it up.

I love Esin.  Their service is great, their food is fantastic, their desserts are out of this world.  My birthday is February 13, if you’d like to make a note.

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Albatross

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I can’t hear the word Albatross without thinking of John Cleese walking among the audience at the Hollywood Bowl trying to sell an albatross to the crowd like it was beer or peanuts.

Nonetheless, Gail and Carol Scott and I went to Danville to try out the new restaurant there, Albatross.  It’s a shame they don’t have the bird on the menu; who could resist?

Albatross has a gorgeous facility just across the street from Lunardi’s.  Bright and airy, with plenty of outdoor seating for the clement months and a very colorful, modern looking bar.

We started with the “crispy artichokes”, which weren’t really crispy and didn’t have much artichoke.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

That little tiny stem sticking out of the bottom of the pile is a small slice of artichoke.  The rest is endive and spinach leaf, burrata cheese and pistachio gremolata.  The three of us shared 2 portions of this, and while we enjoyed it, kept looking in vain for more artichoke.  A $13 dollar dish should have more of the first item mentioned in its name.

Carol had the Jidori Chicken.  That’s just a brand of chicken, not a style of cooking.  Adding brands (like Niman Ranch Beef or Frog Hollow Farms peaches) is good marketing–makes the food look “special” and you can charge another $3.

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This was a serious failure of presentation.  Carol loved her chicken, but not how it was served.  There was an indeterminate mass of white stuff, which turned out to be Country Friends Polenta (more branding) mixed with wild mushrooms, some nameless greens and perhaps the rest was broccoli rabé.  The polenta was very thin, white not yellow and pretty tasteless.  She ate the chicken.

My dinner was more interesting.  I had the green garlic cacio e pepe, a pasta dish with cheese and pepper.  It is supposed to include morels, but I put the kibosh on that quickly.

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Apparently, you can’t get out of culinary school these days if you don’t cover everything with arugula.

The pasta here was a thick, al dente bucatini, which is not my favorite but stands up well to the thick cheesy covering on this dish.  The green garlic is not a strong flavor but gently leads the pasta in taste. I got my veggies from the fresh peas that gave flavor and pop to this very pleasant meal.

Service was friendly and helpful.  Gail asked for 1/2 glass of the Chardonnay and was told the house doesn’t do that.  Then a 1/2 glass appeared, which is as it should be.

I thought there was a considerable wait between the first and second courses, on a night the house was less than half full.  Makes me worry about what it will be like on a warm summer evening.

I have to call this a mixed experience, but we’ll most likely give Albatross another chance. The facility is too exciting to miss when we can eat outside and bring Claudia.  I want the cacio e pepe again, and we’ll try some other dishes.  Hope they can find more artichokes and improve that dish–it had such good intentions, just not enough of the star ingredient.

And I still want to try some of that albatross John Cleese is hawking.

Commercial Stupidity

I think I’m well preserved and youthful looking. Although I’m 68, I could easily pass for 64.

Today I stopped at Rite-Aid to buy a bottle of Bourbon, the better to cook pulled pork for tonight’s dinner.

The friendly clerk, wearing his Easter Bunny ears, insisted on seeing my ID.  I said no.  He said then you don’t get to buy your Bourbon. An impasse had been reached.  I refuse to give in to these absurd depredations on my life.

The clerk assured me that this was inviolable corporate policy.  I assured him that my, equally strict, policy was not to give in to corporate silliness.  I expect to be treated with courtesy, not disdain.  I’m doing them a favor by shopping there; they aren’t doing me one by condescending to sell me liquor if I prove myself to their satisfaction.

The rule-following appeasers of the world will tell me that I was being childish, that I should have just shown him the damned ID and been done with it.  Perhaps so, but that’s how the camel gets his nose in the tent.  I’m well over 21, as even a Rite-Aid clerk is smart enough to recognize, and I won’t be a party to their bullying.

The bad news is that now I have to go somewhere else to prepare for dinner. Bev-Mo, which sells a lot more booze than Rite-Aid, will treat me right.  I’ll still have my self-respect, and Rite-Aid will still have a bottle of Jack Daniels in inventory.

High-Class Memphis

One night we’re eating in a tourist dive, the next night it’s very old South taste and class.

Thursday night we dined at Chez Philippe, the super-upscale dining room in the Peabody Hotel.   The menu is very modern, the service is straight out of the 1940’s, the room itself is out of the 1840’s. The experience was completely delightful.

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Gail, Mike Rippey, Marie-France and Signore Garozzo

The high ceilings make the room seem larger, but in fact it’s quite small and barely seats 40 people.  The other side of the room:

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The four-course prix fixe menu has sufficient variety to be interesting without so many options your head hurts.  I started off with the chilled English pea soup.

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Rich, thick, bright with the taste of the peas.  The burrata cheese is an excellent addition to almost anything.  I can never pass up a chilled soup.

Second course, sea bass with marinated fennel and beurre blanc.

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Perfectly cooked, the fish just melted at the touch.  Slices of elephant garlic on top added just a mild, measured accent to the easily overpowered fish.

Gail had the lobster bisque,  A dollop of lobster salad surrounded by soup.

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After the fish course, a palate cleanser.  This is really just an excuse for a tiny dessert in the middle of the meal.  Strawberry sorbet topped with meringue.

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On to the meat course; passing on the filet, the pork tenderloin or the Colorado rack of lamb, I went for the venison.

memphis-8Tiny medallions of medium rare Bambi, with itty-bitty sculpted pearls of potato in a demi-glacé.  The meat is mild and very fine-grained, not the least bit gamey.

A meal like this deserves a great dessert.  I chose the strawberry soufflé with chocolate creme anglaise.  It would have been nice to get a photo before someone dove in, but I’m just not fast enough.

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Service is magnificent. Signore Garozzo has a tender stomach, and chooses to eat only pasta with butter and cheese.  Chez Philippe doesn’t serve that.  Nonetheless, the guest must be catered to.  I don’t know how, but a plate of linguini appeared, just to the Maestro’s liking.  These people know how to take care of their customers.

The pace of the meal is, shall we say, temperate. Very measured and slow–you are expected to savor this meal, not rush it  If you’re in a hurry, go to Burger King.  The dishes are presented to everyone at the table at one time, by a crew of runners. After the meal we were presented with lovely chocolate coffee cakes to enjoy the next morning, and a handwritten thank you note signed by all the wait staff.

Chez Philippe is an experience, not just a meal.  It is an event to be cherished and remembered.  Not cheap, but not as absurdly expensive as its equivalent in San Francisco or New York.  They are only open Wednesday through Saturday, for both lunch and dinner.

Making like a tourist

Looking at a map, Memphis is pretty much in the middle of the country.  Being here, it’s the South.  Really, really South.  That makes Gail want southern food, and to her, that means gumbo and etouffée.

Googling for “best etouffée Memphis” led us to Kings Palace Cafe.  On Beale Street, the home of the blues, in the middle of the two blocks permanently closed off to cars to make the Memphis version of Bourbon Street.  Kings Palace is a dump, a dive, a trashy joint specializing in beer and blues and really good Cajun food.

Alcohol enforcement laws are strict in this tourist district–all the bars have signs insisting that ID must be shown for all liquor purchases.  Gail was not amused when they insisted on seeing her drivers license to get a glass of white, but thems the rules.

The menu had a considerable variety of Cajun delights; rather than choose I opted for the “Cajun Feast for Two”, a $33 extravaganza guaranteed to shorten your lifespan by 6 months.

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A huge platter of etouffée, gumbo, “voodoo potatoes”, fried catfish, grilled chicken, rice, bread and fried green tomatoes.  A big pile of paper napkins attended the meal, although none of this is finger food or particularly messy.

Mostly, it was great.  The etouffée was made from a blond roux, rather than a dark one, which gives it much less flavor.  I still liked it.  Gail is the gumbo lover, okra and all.  She pronounced this version excellent. The grilled chicken wasn’t very interesting, but the catfish more than made up for it.  These were the best fried green tomatoes I ever had, especially when napped with just a touch of the attendant horseradish sauce. “Voodoo potatoes” turn out to be just mashed spuds, but they are always satisfying.

Service was deep south friendly, and that’s hard to beat. I ordered a slice of the pecan pie for dessert, and a cup of ice mysteriously appeared alongside.

The whole bill was under $60, including a goodly tip. Minimum wage for tipped workers in Tennessee is $2.13/hr, so I try to be generous.

Sometimes you want to go to some upscale, 5-star palace of fine dining, but if you want down-home  cooking, you have to go to a down-home place.  Kings Palace Cafe fills the bill admirably, doesn’t hurt your wallet will leave a smile on your face.

The wheel that squeaks gets the peach pie

Quickly in and out of DFW, we got to Memphis. The world keeps changing and there were nice big, clear signs showing the way to the Uber/Lyft pickup area. Airports are now embracing what they so recently tried to ban.

Once inside the Sheraton, we started thinking of food. The room service menu looks decent, including a beautiful peach pie dessert and something called barbecue soup.

But we were at a national. I come to these things for the socializing as much is for the bridge. The lobby and the restaurant would be full of people I know from all over the country, so I didn’t want to hunker down in our room. We put our shoes on and headed down to the restaurant, which was still open for another half hour.

On the phone, room service swore they had the same menu as the restaurant. Room service lied. Everything was different; there was no barbecue soup and, most importantly, no peach pie.

I ate my club sandwich, whining all the way. There was peach pie in the kitchen, but bureaucratic bloody mindedness was saving it for room service. So close, so far away.

Then the night shift boss lady came by and heard my sad tale of woe. Miracles were arranged, bureaucracy was slaughtered, and look what appeared in front of me.

Hot, fresh Georgia peach pie, caramel, ice cream and whipped cream. Heaven on a plate.

I guess a business needs to have systems and policies and rules. It great when line management knows when to break them to keep the customer satisfied.

Doing the Dallas Dash

So where else would I be in March? Changing planes in DFW, on the way to Memphis for the spring NABC.

Gail and I left home at 7:15 this morning die our 10 am flight.

Which took off at 12:30. At least we got to play one session of Bridge Base Online. And we won!

We missed our connection in Dallas with the delay, so I’m standing in line to get new boarding passes for the next flight. It’s great living the jet set life.

A Satire of Love, Life and Talking Lizards

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Ellen McLaughlin and James Carpenter face a talking lizard in Edward Albee’s Seascape (Photo from ACT webfiles)

Edward Albee is far and away my favorite playwright, so when ACT announced  Seascape I knew we had to go.  It was the right thing to do.

This play is directed by Pam McKinnon, the ACT Artistic Director and a veteran of 11 prior productions of Albee plays.  She was a long time friend of the author and is ultimately qualified to bring this production to life.  It is a total coincidence that Gail and I saw the first Albee play she produced, The Play about the Baby,  because we were in Philadelphia and casting about for something to do one night 17 years ago.

The set is a seashore with dunes, extending over the edge of the stage, but there is no backdrop.  You can see the back of the building, and all the lights in the flys.  There is no illusion that this is anything but a theatrical production.

Set on the shore, Seascape tells the story of a long-married couple, John and Nancy.  They are involved in a discussion of what to do with the remainder of their lives–Nancy wants to travel and spend life on beaches everywhere.  John wants to do nothing at all.

The colloquy extends to their history, the 7-month depression John once had and Nancy thinking, for a week during that time, that she wanted to divorce him.  Phlegmatic John is upset at this decades-old news, not being able to see past his own boring steadiness.

Then the lizards enter.

Great big honking lizards. Walking on two feet talking lizards. Green scaled, horned, taloned lizards.

Meet Sarah and Leslie, (Sarah Nina Hayon and Seann Gallagher) lizards who have emerged from the sea.  They know nothing about humans.  Humans know nothing about them.  It’s time to get acquainted.

They begin with fear: John and Nancy adopt strange poses of submission lest they get killed and eaten.  Leslie approaches, smells and pokes at them, but does no harm.  Slowly, a conversation begins.  The concept of the handshake takes some time to convey, but it breaks the ice.

Then a discussion about bodies and reproduction. Sarah lays eggs all the time and has no concern for the outcome. She can’t imagine having only one child, or caring for it.  Because she needn’t feed her young, she has no breasts and is fascinated with Nancy’s, who shows hers to Sarah. When Leslie wants to see them too, John gets jealous and possessive, emotions that confuse the sea creatures.

Leslie and Sarah don’t know how to talk about their emotions: they don’t even know what emotions are. John and Nancy, who know very well what emotions are, (not that they can discuss them well), endeavor to teach their reptilian visitors.

Asking Sarah what she would do if Leslie disappeared causes her to cry, the first real emotion she has ever had or shown. And now Leslie is the one to get possessive and angry, assaulting John because he made Leslie cry.

This is Albee: nobody lives happily ever after, but they are somewhat enlightened, they have reached a new understanding of their lives and relationships, and perhaps the audience does too.

I loved it.  Gail loved it.  You will too, if you can open your mind to talking lizards.

 

 

New Knees are Good Knees

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There it is, my new knee.

Yesterday I had my 6-week checkup;  they were kind enough to print out the x-ray for me. Gail won’t let me post it on the refrigerator, so I’m putting it up here.

You can see the new metal parts.  The open space between them is a plastic spacer (invisible to x-rays) that should last a lifetime–and they can replace it with relatively minor surgery if I have too much fun and wear it out.

The recovery has been awfully easy and quick, so I was surprised to be told that it can take 12 to 18 months to get full recovery and all the muscle strength back.  I have to keep stretching the knee out as much as possible, both to straighten it and to flex it back as much as possible. 67 years I’ve been dodging regular exercise, it finally caught up with me.

There doesn’t seem to any way to milk this for extra kindness, concern or chocolate cake.  I can’t even get a temporary handicapped parking placard.  I’ll just have to face a world where I can walk up and down stairs without pain.  Life is good.

 

Birds of West Coast Florida

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Driving in Cape Coral, we noticed three people with big cameras on bigger tripods just standing around staring at a distant tree.  Since I had my camera with a big lens handy, we stopped and found them staking out this eagles nest, waiting for great light.  I didn’t have all day to wait for the great light; this was the best I could get on short notice.  The giant eagle’s nest is a local landmark, and this mating couple are well known to the local birding community.

We were heading to Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a marvelous part of the national park system right in the area of Cape Coral. Fortunately, the government foolishness had ended the day before, and the park was re-opened.

(J.N. “Ding” Darling was a nationally known, Pulitzer prize winning political cartoonist whose love of birds and nature was the driving force behind the creation of this park.)

There is a 4-mile long one-way road through the park, where you can drive on the left and park anytime on the right, to stop and see the multitude of wildlife available.  We cruised slowly down, and i was able to get pictures of some of the birds that pass through here.

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Roseate Spoonbill and great egrets

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Roseate spoonbill

 

This is a brown pelican taking off.

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Here are white pelicans–they are considerably smaller than the brown.

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I don’t know what this guy is:

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These are, I believe, great egrets.

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Here’s a gallery I can’t all identify.  My cousin Nick will know all of them.

Two more:

As you can tell, I’m not much of a birder.  I like looking at them and taking their pictures, I just don’t know which is which.  Fortunately, that isn’t required to enjoy this magnificent national park.

Last one, this time for the composition and the reflection.

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