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November 16, 2007

Irrelevant Disruptions

This week, I spent an hour and a half at a gate waiting area in Oakland International Airport, waiting for a flight to Seattle. The public address system there plays a series of recorded messages, each one replayed every 15 minutes or so. Here's the text of one:

The Transportation Security Administration has limited the size and quantity of items that may be carried through the security checkpoint. Please contact your air carrier or a TSA representative for further information.
Keep in mind that these messages are loud -- loud enough to disrupt mobile phone conversations. And with multiple messages, the disruptions are frequent. But the worst part is that in this case, the message is absolutely irrelevant, because the passengers hearing it are already beyond the security checkpoint.

I don't mean to pick on Oakland's airport. They're by no means alone. What they're doing is a variant of a growing problem: warning pollution. I'll come back to this later.

November 15, 2007

I Guess I Picked the Wrong Week to Start Renting Cars

I'm in the midst of a West Coast trip -- three days in the Bay Area and then a long weekend in Seattle.

I arrived at SFO Monday afternoon, picked up my rental car, and drove to my hotel in Emeryville, where we were doing motion capture work. About 90 minutes after checking in, I walked downstairs to head out, only to find that my car had been broken into (via a smashed side window) to get at the GPS system inside. A trip to the airport rental car facility and a few filled-out forms later, I had a new car.

Last night I arrived at SEA, picked up my rental car, and drove to my girlfriend's gym to meet her there for dinner. I had been on the road less than 10 minutes when, stopped in traffic, I was rear-ended. I got out of the car expecting the driver to apologize -- though you're never supposed to admit guilt in an accident, when you rear-end someone, it's always your fault, so no sense holding back the apology. Instead, I got, "You stopped and made me hit you! Why did you stop like that?" Right. My car wasn't damaged much, but his front end was well-crumpled. A police officer showed up quite quickly and efficiently, took stock of the vehicles, wrote up a report, and then, as he gave copies to us both, explained to the other driver that he'd be receiving a ticket for the collision.

As best as I can recall, I haven't had a car broken into since the early 1990s, and I haven't been in an accident since 1998. Both those streaks ended in the span of about two days. To paraphrase Lloyd Bridges, I guess I picked the wrong week to start renting cars.

November 12, 2007

Ode to a Gaufre

Two guest blog entries in little more than a week -- this is great!

Ode to a Gaufre

A guest blog by Missy

Souvenir shops are everywhere. In Paris, the Eiffel Tower can be purchased in many sizes, made from just about any material you can find. I have a small metal on sitting on my desk at work from the first trip. A trip to Paris also requires a stop at Ladurée for macarons to bring home, a visit to La Maison du Chocolat, and a cosmetic/perfume purchase or two.

But my mostest favoritest place to souvenir shop is at the grocery store. You can find all sorts of interesting goodies that can't be found at home (although with the array of ethnic markets, this is much less true nowadays) and even for stuff you can find here... just the fact that it comes from somewhere else, and the label is in a foreign language makes it more interesting. Jars of romescu sauce from Spain, Ajvar from Croatia, olive paste from Rome, Lizano sauce from Costa Rica, grapefruit jam from Germany... the list goes on. Even a normal spice bottle seems special when it says cannelle instead of cinnamon.

Being the mother of teenage boys, grocery stores have been a lifesaver for me when it comes to bringing them gifts. T-shirts start to get old, and what teenage boy wants a mini Eiffel Tower? Being teenage boys, they like to eat... and the grocery store has never failed me when it comes to finding something fun. I've brought them back tiny cans of coke from Korea and the Netherlands, a Russian brand of ramen noodles from Vladivostok, spaghetti-flavored potato chips, gingerbread cookies, Kinder candy, you name it.

But in the eyes of my children, there is nothing quite like Gaufres de Liège.

Gaufres de Liège

Gaufres de Liège.

Gaufres de Liège, also known as sugar waffles, have the look of a Belgian waffle, but a taste more akin to that of a glazed donut. My family first discovered gaufres several years ago after my mom (their grandma) came back from a trip to Belgium. She'd brought back a box of 24, and they didn't last long at all. I subsequently had several trips within the next year or so to Belgium and France, and I always managed to bring some home. Then I started traveling elsewhere in the world, and honestly, I forgot all about them.

Fast forward to a week and a half ago, when we were driving back to Paris from Giverny. We stopped at a huge shopping complex to go check out the Carrefour store, which is like a cross between Super Target and Costco. As we were walking up and down the aisles, I saw them. I may have shrieked. Then I started pulling packs from the shelves. I would have just bought an entire case of them, but I already had two full suitcases (I'll definitely be taking a different packing approach next time). I ended up with two packs for each of them (with seven waffles per pack), and then one more pack of the chocolate-covered ones to share. Frank wasn't entirely convinced that these were worth the excitement I was exuding, but he threw another pack of the chocolate-covered ones in the cart anyway, just to see.

Frank opened his pack in the car. "I'll just try one... then I'll take the rest home." (Yeah, right... they were long gone before we left Paris.)

Even having watched Frank devour his, I started having doubts on the flight home. I had bought wine for my parents, cosmetics for my sister, and some chocolates and macarons to share at work, but all I'd got the kids was waffles. Would they remember them? Would they still like them? Was I a bad mother for having spent a week in Paris and coming home with only $8 worth of snacks as a gift?

I got my answer on Thursday after picking them up from their dad's. I'd left the packages on the coffee table, and very shortly after they got in the house, I heard two loud yeaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh's, and the ripping of plastic. In the last 48 hours, they completely decimated the package of chocolate-covered ones, and are each over halfway through one of their packages of the plain ones.

They remembered, they're happy, and right now... I'm the coolest mom in the universe. Yay me.

I seriously considered stopping by a local supermarket later during our week in Paris to buy more Gaufres, but then realized that if I did so, I'd simply take them home and eat them, and not necessarily with much help. And it's not as if the Belgians are known for their health food. So I resisted the temptation... this time.

November 11, 2007

Cognitive Dissonance as Usual

From a Wired News article:

Seventies rockers and enemies of Jeffrey Lebowski The Eagles announced last month that their latest album, "Long Road Out of Eden," would be exclusively available at Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, and the company's online properties, thanks to a deal that gives the band a higher-than-normal cut of each sale and includes them in a $40 million ad campaign.
And from the lyrics to a song on Long Road out of Eden, "Business as Usual":
Look at the weather, look at the news
Look at all the people in denial
We're running time, leaving grace
Still we worship at the marketplace
While common sense is goin' out of style
I thought that I would be above it all by now
In some country garden in the shade

But it's business as usual
Day after day
Business as usual
Just grinding away
You try to be righteous
You try to do good
But business as usual
Turns your heart into wood

You've just cut an exclusive deal with Wal-Mart that's made your album number one in the country and brought you millions of dollars? Good for you. You want to write songs decrying "worship at the marketplace"? Fine, though that's not my cup of tea. But as someone once wrote, "Some things? Just don't belong together."

November 10, 2007

Pictures from Giverny

While in Paris, we rented a car for a day trip to Claude Monet's home and gardens at Giverny.

Giverny Flower

A flower.

Water Lily Pond

The water lily pond.

Japanese Bridge at Giverny

The Japanese bridge. Monet's house and gardens fell into disrepair after his death and had to be restored based on records and -- naturally -- his pictures.

Giverny Bee

A bee.

Monet's House

Monet's house. The picture doesn't do justice to how beautiful this view was in person.

It was the last day of the year that the gardens were open for viewing. Being so late in the year, a recent frost had killed many of the flowers. Despite this, it was still spectacularly beautiful, and made us want to go back to see the gardens in the spring, in full bloom. I can't recommend a visit highly enough -- even if you're occasionally art appreciation-challenged as I am.

November 04, 2007

Lunch at L'Arpège

When we were preparing for our trip to Paris, I realized that this would be a great opportunity to knock off one of my 100 things to do in life (actually, it's up to 129 now, with 31 done, 98 to go), which was to dine at a Michelin three-star restaurant. (I considered making a trip to The French Laundry during a vacation in Sonoma Valley last year, but let it go.) Missy is far more tuned into good food than I am -- not only is she an excellent cook, but she can identify all sorts of ingredients in dishes she's served, and she can remember entire multi-course meals. So I left it to her to choose the restaurant, and she chose l'Arpège, Alain Passard's three-star destination in the seventh arrondissement.

During the meal, I realized I wouldn't be able to do it justice here, so asked Missy if she'd write a guest blog entry for me. She kindly agreed, and the results are below.

L'Arpège

A guest blog by Missy

When Frank brought up the idea that we should try a Michelin three-star restaurant on our trip to Paris, I was both ecstatic and terrified. I am a budget traveler. Having friends in several international cities has afforded me the the opportunity and local insight to have some of the best meals that €50-60 can buy... but for me, a €60 dinner is a huge extravagance, which is countered by several days living on €3 sandwiches, crepes, and fruit from the market. The idea that one meal could cost what I would normally budget for an entire week's vacation spending was more than a little intimidating... even if I wasn't the one paying for it.

It's something that he'd always wanted to do, and if you're going to do it, what better place that Paris? First, I thought he was kidding. Then a slight wave of panic set in. Do I have nice enough clothes? Will I pick up the wrong fork? And most importantly, would my slightly-less-refined-than-the-average-Pigalle-whore-palate be able to appreciate the subtleties of three-star cooking enough to make it worth the cost?

I found myself getting dressed for lunch at l'Arpège. I was intimidated, but very much anticipating the experience.

We started with a glass of champagne. A very large slab of salty butter (from Breton) was placed in the middle of our table, and I wondered why anyone would need that much butter. Then started what we came to call "the bread game". Throughout the meal, the moment either one of us picked up our crusty slice of house-made bread to butter it... it was replaced with another. I tried just pulling a small piece of the bread off and leaving most of the slice on the plate, but that didn't work well either. They just left a smaller piece... but another piece nonetheless. And despite my first thoughts… we made it through most of the butter.

At the end of the meal, the bread game gave way to the cookie game. We were presented a tray of different cookies, and thinking it would be rude not to finish, I made Frank eat one of my cookies since I was full. Less than a minute later... it was whisked away and another left in its place "just in case" we wanted more.

The bread game is just part of the service that makes a three-star restaurant. The service is exquisite. They manage to anticipate every need (even the needs we didn't yet realize we had) without being intrusive. There are approximately 20 tables on the main floor, and there were at least 12 members of the waitstaff buzzing in the dining room at any given moment, and I'm pretty sure we were served something by nearly every one of them.

But, oh the food. Every single bite of every dish was magical. We both ordered the prix fixe lunch menu. But before our food arrived, we were offered an amuse bouche, then the larger mise en bouche.

Looking back, I don't think that we could have made a better choice in restaurants. Despite being an avowed meat-a-saurus, I really love vegetables... which just so happen to be the main focus at l'Arpège. All the vegetables served at l'Arpège are grown organically in Chef Alain Passard's garden outside of Paris. They are shipped in fresh every morning by high-speed train. Once in the kitchen, the things he does with vegetables are nothing short of amazing. My favorite course was the celeriac (celery root) tagliatelle with a light herb sauce. It wasn't pasta made with celeriac... it was made from celeriac. Perfectly formed pasta shaved from a lumpy root. Simply amazing. And who'd have thought you could put green tomatoes in dessert, or put artichoke in a cookie? I think I heard Frank say "this is the best I've ever had" during almost every course.

In the end, my intimidation was unfounded. I was dressed much nicer than the rapper dude and his music industry entourage at the table across the room. They changed flatware with each course, so I only had one fork to choose from at any given moment, and my palate appreciated every magical bite of that meal.

But the very best part of the experience was when Chef Passard came out into the dining room to have his lunch. He graciously signed a copy of the menu for us, which will soon be framed and hanging somewhere in Frank's house, and we were able to thank him personally for the wonderful meal. Ok, actually... Frank thanked him personally while I was petting the rapper dude's cute little dog.

So I shall send my compliments to the chef via this blog entry, and say merci beaucoup à mon beau copain for treating me to such an amazing meal and an unbelievably lovely week in Paris.

The entire content of the Frank and Missy lunch at l'Arpège (mind you, these all sound better in French, and they taste much much better than they sound):

Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve champagne.

2002 Gevrey Chambertin Premier Cru (Pinot Noir).

Housemade bread with salted Breton butter (a lot of it).

Amuse bouche – a fried parsnip "cup" with a thin slice of a carrot, then topped with a tiny perfect beet square.

Mise en bouche – poached egg flavored with maple syrup and cider vinegar.

Course 1 – creamed rutabaga soup with whipped salted cream.

Course 2 – roasted beet with chocolate sauce and sea salt.

Course 3 – sautéed spinach, carrot puree, and lime chutney.

Course 4 – celery root tagliatelle with mustard and herb sauce.

Course 5 – assorted roasted baby vegetables.

Course 6 – pan-roasted scallops (Frank); roast duck (Missy).

Cheese course – this wasn't included in the prix fixe menu, but they rolled a cart over with at least 20 fantastic looking varieties of cheese, and we couldn't say no. We let the waiter pick, and it was goooood.

Course 7 – green tomato mille feuille with lemongrass ice cream.

Course 8 – A plate of cookies including green tomato and artichoke macarons.

Coffee (Frank); mint tea (Missy).

I have very little to add to this -- just a few notes here and there.

The service was the best I've ever had in a restaurant, and I've had some good service over the years. It wasn't just the bread game that Missy describes, or the fact that they somehow managed to refill my wine and sparkling water without me noticing. When our primary server introduced herself, I spoke in French at first, but asked if she could speak in English. She claimed that my French was far better than her English, but said she would give it a try, and then proceeded to speak perfectly fluent English. But what truly impressed me was that she adapted perfectly to us both. Missy speaks a smattering of French, and I'm at something like the second-year or early third-year college level, and our server seemed to know exactly when to speak in French to each of us, and when to revert to English because the wording would be too complex.

In terms of the things I thought were the best of their type I'd ever had, to be specific, there was the champagne (which, thankfully, I've found an online source of by the bottle or case since our meal), the butter, the beet, the duck, and the mille feuille. Oh, and one of the cheeses we were served was the best I've ever had. Missy will almost certainly remember the name; I don't, only that it was a hard cheese, perfectly salty, sliced at our table from the largest cheese round I've ever seen.

Coincidentally, over lunch, Missy and I had been talking about the issue of introducing oneself to celebrities in restaurants -- would we do so? The conclusion was that it's a tricky thing, because you don't want to intrude on someone's private life. When Chef Passard came out to have his own lunch, taking a corner table, we weren't sure at first that it was him we were seeing. As we were getting ready to leave, I spoke to our server in French, in a low voice:

Me: Is that gentleman over there the chef?

Server: Yes, it is.

Me: I wouldn't want to disturb him, but would you tell him that we found the meal to be extraordinary?

Server: I will do so, but you would not disturb him at all.

Me: You are sure?

Server: Oh, yes.

So I didn't feel bad in walking over, pardoning the intrusion, and thanking Chef Passard for the extraordinary cuisine. He was gracious and accepted the compliment with pleasure.

I can't recommend l'Arpège highly enough. It's expensive, to be sure -- on a per-person basis, with the weak dollar, it cost about three times as much as I had ever paid for a meal before -- but you owe it to yourself to have an experience like that at least once in life.

Finally, thanks to Missy for writing such a great guest blog entry, and especially for being such a stylish companion at lunch.

November 02, 2007

Pictures from Paris

A few pictures from one of my favorite cities...

Rue de la Huchette at Night

The street on which we're staying, the always-lively rue de la Huchette, as seen through the plastic sheets keeping in the warm air for our cafe seats at a restaurant just a few steps from our apartment.

Rainy Day in Paris

A rainy day as seen at the intersection of rue de la Pépinière and boulevard Haussman.

The Seine at Night

The Seine at night, looking towards the Eiffel Tower.

Parisian Sidewalk

A sidewalk along boulevard de la Tour Maubourg.

Rue Saint-Dominique

The Eiffel Tower as seen from rue Saint-Dominique.

Flowers on Rue Cler

The display in front of a flower shop on rue Cler.

November 01, 2007

Paris Is Paris

As noted, my girlfriend and I spent a quick day and a half in Barcelona last weekend before moving on to Paris. I didn't have much time there, but from what little I saw of Barcelona, the food was great and the weather was practically perfect. That said, we had issues there. The dinner venue had to be changed at the last minute -- our host told us that the original restaurant had bumped us in favor of a larger party. We didn't drink all that much, but the rich food and wine hit Missy like a ton of bricks the next morning, poor thing. And then while I was off walking La Rambla, she spent an unexpectedly long two hours on buses to have only five minutes with an old friend.

From the moment we arrived in Paris, though, everything has been right. Sunday evening, our taxi driver warned us that the trip in from Orly might take as long as an hour and a half, but we made it in 20 minutes. Monday, we spent all afternoon walking in the rain and loved every moment of it. We stopped for hot chocolate at Angelina and it was the best I'd ever had. Tuesday, we had dinner at the home of my friends Jean and Martine and the food and the welcome were both extraordinary. Wednesday, we drove out to Claude Monet's home in Giverny and were blessed with the best weather we could have possibly hoped for so late in the season. Today, we had lunch with Jean and Martine at Les Ombres, where the setting and the meal were both tremendous -- Jean was predicting it would soon have its first Michelin star.

I can't explain why everything is going so smoothly in Paris. It probably has something to do with the fact that I have extraordinarily kind friends here, so we're not alone. It probably has something to do with the fact that my French is getting better and better, so I feel more comfortable. But in the end, I can't fully explain it. I guess it's just that Paris is Paris.

The Best Hot Chocolate in the World?

Monday, we were walking down the rue de Rivoli when we came upon Angelina. "This place," said Missy, "has the best hot chocolate in the universe." Solely in the interest of blogging material, in we went.

Angelina has a stunning array of pastries, and a more-than-serviceable lunch and dinner menu, but what they're famous for is their hot chocolate, especially their signature drink: un chocolat à l'ancienne dit "L'africain". When you order it, you're given a small pot of the chocolate, a cup, a spoon, and a bit of crème chantilly on the side.

The chocolate isn't overly hot -- I'd call it warm at best. But it's the thickest hot chocolate I've ever seen. It's the thickest hot chocolate I can imagine. Seriously, it's as if the restaurant takes blocks of chocolate, melts them down, and cuts the result with just enough cream to keep it liquid as it's being served. It's probably the most decadent thing I've ever had. The pot contains enough chocolate for two cups each for two people, and after my two, with the obligatory dollops of crème chantilly, I was actually feeling a bit light-headed -- it was probably the most sugar I've had at a single sitting in years.

So was it the best hot chocolate in the world? As with the sandwich at Viena, I can't say. But it was the best hot chocolate I've ever had, and I can't begin to think of what would take second place.

I didn't take any pictures inside, but here's the front of the restaurant:

Angelina

Of course, I need pictures of the actual chocolate serving, so we're going back later this week -- once again, solely in the interest of blogging.

You can try this hot chocolate for yourself at:

Angelina
226, rue de Rivoli
75001 Paris
Tel: 01 42 96 47 10