Friday, November 27, 2009

Expectations: Reliving Some, Fulfilling Others

Bobo's The Steak, Lombard Street, San Francisco

It ended up that yesterday, Thursday, was just about all about eating. Now, given the fact that yesterday was Thanksgiving, anyone reading this might nod his or her head knowingly, thinking, "Well of course, it was Thanksgiving." But no, yesterday wasn't my Thanksgiving; that will be tomorrow, Saturday, which ends up fitting everybody's schedule better. Is it incorrect to celebrate Thanksgiving on a day other than Thanksgiving Thursday? I am sure that when we do celebrate it, I will be thinking that it is about getting together with family and friends and being thankful for our many blessings...and THEN eating.

I started the day yesterday with breakfast at Cafe Lombard, after making sure that they were open (which they weren't the night before). This is the delicious little Italian restaurant that is owned by a Chinese woman who does all the great cooking; she serves regular American breakfasts and lunches. When she saw me, she said, "Welcome home!" after recognizing me from when I was here at this time last year. I loved that "home" (as opposed to, say, "nice to see you back again"). I asked her what she was going to be doing for Thanksgiving, open for Thanksgiving, or cooking at home for family and friends, but she said she was invited to a friend's house so she was able to escape the kitchen. I said, "Ah ha, this time it is for somebody to be treating YOU."

For some reason, this year I am being thankful of all the time off that I get to have in my job and am more keenly aware than ever of all those who are working to make the holidays work for those who are off. I've been leaving larger tips on such occasions, and also making mention of my noticing that they ARE working whenever that seems appropriate. I think it must be hard to be working when everybody else is playing, but a little extra recognition might make it better.

I got to sit in "my" seat in the restaurant's window (which will now be the fourth time I have sat in that one and only spot there). Kind of behind me were the only other diners in the restaurant, a man and a woman, whom I never really got a good look at because to do so would involve a very obvious and pointed turn-around-and-look. Whenever I am dining out alone (which is about 99% of the time), I am keenly aware of how easily I can hear every single thing that is said by others nearby, which I assume is a general principle with all lone diners unless they are utterly insensitive to whatever surrounds them. But I make a big point of acting like I am paying absolutely no attention whatsoever (and sometimes whatever they are talking about is of no possible interest to me), but my ears are not turned off so people's conversation are similar to a radio that is on in the car. I just want people to understand that if you are talking in a restaurant and there is a lone diner nearby, every thing you are saying is being heard by that diner. Does this now make you paranoid? Well, it shouldn't...but I thought you would like to know.

What makes it hard is if one of the speakers is outrageously funny, or perhaps extremely fascinating; I want so much to laugh, or to join in, but either response would spoil the carefully created illusion that people have some measure of privacy when out in public.

Based on their conversational style, I happened to like both of these diners sitting behind me at Cafe Lombard, even though the man had a very whiny voice. I wondered deeply about that whine; it wasn't that he was complaining about anything or was even demonstrating very much of a negative nature, but it seemed that this voice might be a carry-over from a childhood raised in a household where the culture was one of extreme disappointment and while he had absorbed that affect, he counteracted it by having an attitude of "the silver lining." Another description of this might a Pollyanna-ish "glad game," which is a perception of always turning around the bad things that happen to see what good is really inside there. I find that unfortunately people are more commonly the opposite of that, keenly aware of or carefully seeking out the negative that is lying in wait inside of the good things that happen. So, in some peculiar way, I realized that despite what might ultimately become screamingly tiresome to others, this voice could be described as the "sincere voice of Thanksgiving," saying in its tone, "I may have been hurt all my life, but there is always something good to be thankful for." So his was the perfect soundtrack for Thanksgiving morning.

The woman, on the other hand, was quite free-spirited, taking whatever in life came her way, and often made a clever joke of her companion's "glad game". For example, the man was quite complementary about various things about the restaurant...he loved the light classical music that was playing in the background, he loved the crispness of the home fried potatoes, his eggs, though a little runny for his taste, were nevertheless quite delicious in a way that he wouldn't have expected. He said to her, "So I had thought you might like to eat here instead of the coffee shop in our hotel, even though it was an eight block walk, I hope that was okay." She said, "It was fortunate that I had put on my walking shoes."

When the owner came to bring the man some more coffee, he said, "Oh yes, PLEASE, this coffee is just SO good!" Then he leaned over to his companion and said, "But you are drinking tea." And she said, "They have the best hot water here." I nearly burst out laughing when she made that comment, but he took her humor in stride and said, "You know, you are in so much trouble!" which, when spoken in his Eeyore-like voice, also nearly made me burst out laughing.

After breakfast, my mission was to cross over the bay via the Golden Gate Bridge and drive around in Tiburon and Belvedere, two of the more famously appealing across-the-bay waterside communities that I used to love when I lived in the area. Both of them, along with the better-known Sausalito, and well, anything water-side in the bay area, is utterly out my reach, I who couldn't even afford a falling-down tract house in a gang-infested area of L.A. But for some reason that I cannot quite yet explain, it was important for me to reconnect with this kind of thing, as if they represented some life-line that I could grab onto to pull me up out of the mire that I felt stuck in.

After marveling at those fairy-tale communities (and SOME people actually commute via ferry-boat from those lovely Marin County docks to San Francisco's downtown financial center skyscrapers,
so I could just as easily refer to them as "ferry-tale" communities), I crossed back over the bridge and headed south into San Mateo County to go look at the restored Carolands Chateau in Hillsborough:

Carolands, the 65,000 square foot home of Harriet Pullman Caroland, heiress of the Pullman railroad car fortune, once sat at the top of a major peninsular estate in what is now the Town of Hillsborough, which I loved to go look at from time to when when I lived in the area, but as people died and various heirs took over and money became tight, the place fell into disrepair. It used to be you could actually drive right up to the house and, if you were brave, walk around on the property, but now I see that it is fully landscaped again, gated and closed, and all but-invisible from the road.

Hillsborough, and another similar town in the Peninsula, Atherton (where my parents lived from when I was in sixth grade all the way through to when I was in my mid-thirties), are as equally out of reach for me and 99.9% of all the other Californians as are the fabled bayside cities, but I have fond memories of these communities having lived there during my "prime" years, so they are in my blood. This makes me kind of the opposite of the whiny-voiced man having breakfast at Cafe Lombard. I did not grow up in an atmosphere of disappointment, but in one filled with nearly impossible expectation.

I hadn't slept well the night before and felt exhausted with doing even more driving the day after having made the long drive up here, so I decided to drive back to San Francisco to take a nap and then relax until time for my dinner reservation at Bobo's, which really ends up being the day's main event.

I found Bobo's (Boboquivari's) to be everything it was touted to be. The restaurant, itself, was a melange of different rooms on different levels all in a fun, dark, romantic atmosphere. I was seated at a table in a room that was partitioned into intimate areas by heavy velvet curtains. There was an array of various-sized heavily-framed artwork on the walls, all in a hodgepodge of DISarray, as if the joyful energy of the various diners over the years had knocked them hopelessly off-kilter. I thought that was decorating genius. The colors and patterns of the Harlequin, the Italian comedic/operatic clown (such the rows of diamonds, or black and white stripes), was also a decorative theme of the restaurant, and a little research on the subject revealed that harlequins, while gluttonous, were also acrobatic, given to flips and cartwheels. Well, I will surely agree with the GLUTTONOUS part, but if after eating there I even attempted a cartwheel, that would have been the last act of my sixty-one years of life.

The waitress wished me a happy Thanksgiving and I said, "So, what about YOU?" and she told me that the restaurant had provided a Thanksgiving party for all of them earlier that day, which I thought was a wonderful touch. "But how are you going to be working stuffed and sleepy?" I asked her, and she laughed, saying that she had had time for a nap and now was subsisting on gallons of espresso. But we both agreed that sometimes your co-workers are more of a family than your own family, so a Thanksgiving with them can make sense.

My exposition here wouldn't be complete without a summary of the other diners who were in this room whose conversations, of course, I was privy to. Next to me were two men, a young college-age man with a phenomenally deep and sexy voice, and an older man. Naturally I wondered about why those two would happen to be together on Thanksgiving night, but I ended up figuring out that they were father and son, and surmised that the father had divorced his son's mother long ago and really doesn't know his son all that well. One was visiting the other, but I couldn't quite figure out which one lived there and which one didn't, but if I had to guess, I would have said that it was the father who was from out of town. The son seemed more secure whereas the father was unsure of himself. They discussed the ISSUE of religion, God, and what happens after you die (but not any of the specifics), which I guess came up because the father is an atheist whereas the boy was raised by his mother to be a church-goer. However, once the boy reached college-age, he determined that Christian behavior was hypocritical and therefore he lost faith in the faith. It was kind of a peculiar conversation, actually, in that the father never had had a thing to provide on this subject and now that his son was questioning, the father couldn't add anything to it, since to him there is nothing there to even ask about. For his part, the son wondered how a person actually went about answering these questions, realizing that most people never really do seek, but simply accept whatever they were taught.

At the other table in the room were three drunk middle-aged men and one fat middle-aged woman. They were simply having a good time eating and spent their whole meal discussing the relative merits of various steakhouses and how steaks are best cooked. It was their conclusion that Bobos' was consistently the best steakhouse they knew, and that Ruth Chris's was often a disappointment and ALWAYS snobby (and horribly expensive). After their dinner, they were going to further add to their fun by bar-hopping for the rest of the evening.

As for me, I really treated myself to the full nine yards--mixed drink, the bread that they automatically brought, salad, steak, side, dessert, and coffee. In retrospect, I would have been perfectly happy with just a steak and maybe a simple dinner salad.

Regarding drinks, the menu offered a variety of clever creations, most of which seemed to involve margarita-like salt around the rim (which, if I get a margarita, I always ask the bartender to skip) except here there were various combinations of salt and pepper, or various other spices, or even ground chocolate. I ordered a blueberry margarita that various restaurant reviewers recommended except that the only blueberry I managed to taste wee the actual blueberries that they had placed IN the drink. This margarita had nothing around the rim. Well, it was unusual and refreshing, but I didn't need to have it.

The bread they brought was practically a whole LOAF of olive bread that was heavily infused with olive oil so that one did not need to, say, put on butter (besides, there was going to be BUTTER to come elsewhere in the meal....). The bread was the only thing I was unable to finish, so I "brought the rest of it home" to the hotel and actually, I have yet to finish it. It's very good and also very filling, but somehow I sense that it is very healthy. It has pieces of both green and black olives in it.

The salad was a wedge of baby romaine lettuce with sliced apples, seasoned walnuts, and raspberry dressing. I told the waitress that I could get addicted to those seasoned walnuts. She told me that they also serve them as snacks at the bar and she, herself, always finds herself reaching for them.

Then came the steak, a bone-in filet mignon cooked medium rare, sitting in the middle of a large square plate, and the "side," which was sauteed portofino mushrooms. Here was where the butter came in, since both the steak and the mushrooms had been cooked in butter.

I could very well say that this was the most delicious steak I had ever had. I, for sure, could say that it was the most TENDER steak I had ever had. In fact, upon alternating between a bite of steak and a bite of some portofino mushrooms, they both were as equally tender. Since for me steak is often a chew-chew-chew ordeal, I just can't imagine how they managed to cook it so deliciously and so tenderly. For sure it has to do with the cut of meat, but it is more than just that. Anyway, that was utterly wonderful and would bring anyone to his knees, I am sure.

For dessert I had blood orange sorbet in a waffle basket and this was actually a dessert that did not taste sweet; the blood orange is almost bitter like a grapefruit. I kind of enjoyed having a dessert that did not make me feel like I had to immediately brush my teeth after. And, in all honesty, I am getting so that I hate chocolate, so it was nice to have a dessert choice that didn't have anything to do with chocolate.

The coffee was, of course, also delicious, but what I liked about it was the sculpture of the coffee cup in which the porcelain rectangle that was brought around to make the round sides of the cup had one end of it that was also extended out to form a handle. And they didn't just bring you a cup of coffee, but it came in a stainless steel carafe for the table that held three or four cups.

So, after this meal (which, before the tip cost $108), I had no further ambition than going back across the street to the hotel and lying down for the rest of the evening, which is exactly what I did.

But finally I could fully understand the suggested diet of one of my doctors. His trick, as he so proudly reveals, is "soup for lunch, salad for dinner, and steak once a week". That "steak once a week" makes him wink at you, as if THIS is the key to dieting success. But that secret hadn't communicated to me until my dinner yesterday at Bobo's. NOW I understand the reward that is implied by the "you can suffer anything all week just so long as you get a steak" steak.

And a diet is for sure something I need to go on again.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving Redux

Here I am sitting in the exact same room in the exact same hotel in San Francisco where I stayed last year, the Lombard Motor Inn on Lombard Street one block west of Van Ness--a perfect location and a great deal, price-wise (within walking distance of the San Francisco Bay, Ghirardelli Square, Fisherman's Wharf, plus public transportation (busses, cable cars, and street cars) to any destination imaginable. I'm here for three days, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and then Saturday will drive to the house of one of my sisters for Thanksgiving dinner with her family. (We expect this to be at her house in Clear Lake like last year if some construction she is having done is complete on time. Otherwise, it will be in her apartment. Either one will be great.) Sunday, I am driving back home.

The drive up here had a different "feel" than normal due to the fact that three weeks ago I had had my car's engine rebuilt by my expert mechanic (and wow, does it ever run beautifully!). I asked him if he recommended a certain "break-in" (I've had rebuilt engines before) and he said, "It's probably not essential, but it might be a good idea if you don't drive over 60 for the first month." I figured if I wasn't going to drive over 60 on this trip, it would be better to take 101 instead of I-5. On I-5 you can go 70 from the bottom of the Grapevine to where I get off at the Tracy turn-off for the Bay Area (all of the trip that is in the Central Valley). It would just be too miserable to be traveling that slowly while all but trucks were speeding by at 70, which would also mean that I would be stuck with all the trucks the whole time. US 101 is a longer but prettier route, but keeping it below 60 wouldn't be so intolerable. And I was right. I basically set my cruise control for 58 and then sat back and "watched a movie of beautiful hills, forests, and vineyards" as I smoothy headed north. There were LOTS of cops everywhere, standing by the side of the road pointing radar guns as if they were hunting rabid dogs or else actually giving tickets, their cars all flashing red and blue, but I just sailed on by them, not the least bit concerned. No tickets for me, going under 60 everywhere!

Oddly enough, the slower speed seemed better matched to the rhythms of the music I was playing on my iPod. Never before had that music sounded like such a beautiful soundtrack. Though I don't know from experience, I felt that a drug trip could hardly be better. (I ought to confess right here, though, that I have reached a peculiar stage in my life where I feel that I ought to take an acid trip. That was something I missed out on even though I was a college student in the 60s, but perhaps that was just as well as people really didn't know what they were doing, then. I've read enough stuff about it recently, though, to make me think that I would benefit from it. I would have no idea how to seek it out, though, so probably never will actually do it.)

While California is frustratingly expensive, when I go on a trip like this, I am certainly reminded of why people like it so much. There's just nowhere else quite like it.

It took me 10 and a half hours to go from my apartment to the lobby of this hotel. Of course, I had stopped for gas twice, had breakfast and lunch on the way, and had three bathroom breaks. I never did take a nap at a rest stop, though, something from time to time I felt that I desperately needed, but there was only one rest stop on the way, a tiny one twenty miles north of Santa Barbara, but it was so crowded with people waiting in line just to park so that they could go to the bathroom that I thought I ought to not hog a parking space by taking a nap. But doing other things (such as simply going to the bathroom, or getting a McDonald's "McCafe") gave me second and third winds, so it was all okay.

When you make reservations for this hotel on-line, they have a section where you can select certain options. The options I chose were (a) to be on the Lombard Street side (that has the balconies and the view, whereas the other side is quiet), (b), to be on the third floor, (c) to have a king-size bed instead of two double beds, and (d) a refrigerator. But when I got here, the desk clerk was all concerned because she said that the only king bed room left on the Lombard side on the third floor was the smallest room in the hotel. If being in a small room bothered me, I could choose the second floor where there is no view, or the third floor but have two double beds. In attempting to make this decision, I asked the desk clerk why the room happened to be so small, and she explained that it was right next to the elevator. I said, "I think that was the room I had last year; I had no idea that it was small." It ends up that that WAS the exact room I had last year and I thought the experience was great enough to return this year, so there certainly was nothing about it that bothered me. Now that I am in it, I see that the room is shaped in an "L" around the elevator shaft, but all that does is make the room feel cozy, like the bed is in an alcove. It's really very nice and instead of being something to complain about, I think it is a plus.

Once I got settled in, I went out onto the street to get some dinner. I figured I would go to Cafe Lombard just up the street, which, even though is owned by a Chinese woman who is also the cook, serves delicious Italian dinners and I was eager to eat there again this time. However, they were closed. That left as the only other restaurant anywhere that I could see Bobo's Steak House ("Bobo's" is its nickname; it is officially called "Boboquivari's The Steak and The Crab"), but going there is a big deal (dress up, spend lots of money) and I am already going to eat there tomorrow and have reservations for it. So I walked around the block and spied a little neighborhood market and deli just around the corner from the hotel. The young man working there made me a delicious meatball sandwich on an amazing roll (about half the size of a full-on loaf of French bread) and I added some potato salad and some orange juice. I took these items upstairs and ate it at my hotel room's table while I watched the valet parking attendant across the street at Bobo's. I've got to say it, this guy is really very, very good-looking. I'm enough of a good looks worshipper to think that a guy that good-looking shouldn't be parking cars. However, if I could tell him (which I could not), I would tell him that he does serve as a great "advertisement" for Bobo's. He stands there in front of the restaurant looking all beautiful and I imagine that a certain kind of person just has to stop, and, well, "Let's go eat there!" He's one of those perfectly lean muscular guys, sharp and strong and thin as a nail (not bulky and all bull-like, a look that I despise), looks like if you pounded him on the head you could drive him right down into the sidewalk. Unlike the valet parkers in Los Angeles who all seem to work for the exact same company and wear the identical uniform of red valet's jackets that make them look somewhat like hotel bellhops (plus they're all Mexican, which the one here is not), he's dressed as only someone made like him can dress, with a skin-tight white pecs-and-abs-form-fitting dress shirt, sleeves rolled up to below the elbow, black dress pants that look as though his bottom half were dipped in a vat of black latex. And he's got on a black tie, somewhat narrow that is perfectly proportioned to his half-percent of body fat torso.

I'm thinking that isn't fair that a person be that good-looking (despite the fact that I am so thankful that some people are) and just as I was wondering how he happened to be as fit as he is, a car filled with diners arrived and at the exact same time, another party of diners had finished eating and now arrived with ticket in hand, wanting their car back. In order to accommodate the demands of two parties, he RAN up the hilly street to quickly retrieve the leaving diners' car and I got my answer; he couldn't get more aerobic exercise if he were at a gym taking a spin class.

But between cars coming and going, he's got nothing to do but stand there out in the evening chill looking beautiful. Why on earth don't they give him a chair to sit on, at least? I see that in an effort to relieve the boredom and his aching bones and muscles, he leaves his post from time to time to go lean against the wall of the Travelodge that happens to be next door, as if he were a hustler who comes already with a room to have sex in. All I can say is that I hope he receives generous tips, because I think he earns his money. If I had some way of providing him with a chair, I would do so.

I hope to write more as this trip progresses, but I failed to do so last year, so I'm not counting on much...but we'll see what happens!