Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Leslie's Plight

Poor Leslie Harlib. I don’t know the woman, or a single thing about her, other than the fact that her name appears after virtually every one of the restaurant reviews in the Dining section of the Marin Independent Journal.

That this lone woman must review the majority of Marin County’s restaurants is tribulation enough in and of itself. That the paper didn’t have the imagination to concoct a pseudonym for some of her work, a la early Ruth Reichl, only makes her singular burden more unfortunate.

But a girl has to do what a girl has to do, and Leslie Plays Nice. She seems to live in Emily Post’s world of etiquette. She will not describe a dish in more downbeat terms than “a tad dry” or label an environment as anything worse than “somewhat uncomfortable.” Afterwards, she hastily writes about what was delicious or fun or hip about the experience, so as to balance out the negative vibes. Leslie is fond of adjectives; you’ll find “lavishly lush fondue” and a "funky marsh of a wild mushroom risotto” in Leslie’s world.

Perhaps, knowing all too keenly the dearth of skilled food preparation in Marin County, she writes in hopes that more encouragement will fertilize this sparsely-populated soil.

Sadly, I am not so sunshiny as dear Leslie. Her recent review of Matsuyama in Novato made me dig my fingernails into my palms. B and I drove by there a few times after we moved to Novato, debating whether to stop or drive 30 miles into the city to sit at sushi counters that we knew and loved. We opted to drive, until one very cold night when we decided to pull over and give it a try.

We walked in to a square room divided by rice paper partitions. The person who greeted us suggested that we sit anywhere we liked. We chose one of the faux-wood-grain-formica-topped tables and sat down, eyeing each other nervously.

The menu was replete with the usual rolls – California, Dragon, Rainbow - and udon noodles in various broths. We settled on two soups, a tempura sampler and a nigiri plate, a world away from what we would normally order, with the hopes that we could gain a sense of what the kitchen had to offer.

Alas. Alack. The sushi was cold and tasteless, indiscriminate lumps of fish slumped over cold knobs of rice. The soups were thin and insubstantial. The tempura was the best dish, but even that was unremarkable. The floor around us was littered with stray paper chopstick wrappers and the odd grain of rice; several tables sat empty, piled high with the detritus of the previous meal, while we dutifully tried to eat ours.

The man I love just might be the most ardent sushi eater I have ever met, but that night he flicked the pieces about on his plate. After three bites, he could not bring himself to eat more.

When our sweet waiter came back to check on us, he asked if we wanted anything boxed up. “No!” We both said, in unison, and then, apologetically: “I guess we’re not that hungry tonight. So sorry.”

Ah, Leslie. I know you must have a mandate to Promote The Few Good Places Up Here, and for that I salute you. I just won’t go to any of the places you recommend. Alas.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Tagged by the 'ho

The fabulous Joy tagged me for this meme, and since it has been a while (ahem!) since my last post, I'll do what I can to bore you silly with meaningless details from my life.

Four Jobs I've Held:

* Strawberry picker. What can I say? I was twelve years old. My knees still hurt.
* Checker at Food 4 Less. I was in college, trying to make a little extra money. I lasted all of 2 weeks. When I quit, the manager said: "But you were our fastest checker! We were going to give you a raise!" I didn't walk out; I ran. I still have a horror of large, overly bright grocery stores.
* Research assistant. Post-college, the follow-up to my senior thesis. Think lab coats and pipettes and cute pre-meds running around. Why did I leave that one? I'm still wondering.
* Restaurant manager. Have I mentioned that I recently gave this up? I'm still taking care of the wine list, and my feet still hurt.

Four Films I Could Watch Over and Over:

* Breakfast At Tiffany's. Here's to the joy of doing something you've never done before!
* Much Ado About Nothing. Sigh no more, ladies. Sigh no more.
* Shawshank Redemption. That Morgan Freeman: he's good people.
* Fargo. The accents, the plot, the wood chipper. Ya know what I mean, then?

Four Places I Have Lived:

I'm afraid I haven't lived anywhere terribly exotic. Like now. Is this a pattern? Am I stuck? Why did my therapist have to go on vacation?

Four TV Series I Like:

I watch so little TV that I honestly couldn't think of four. So here are three:

* Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. I cry my head off during every single show. It's my way of expressing the emotion that I too often keep bottled up inside. Those sick/bereft/courageous people need help! Look, Ty is coming to the rescue! He's so handsome! Ooh, he made that little girl a princess room! Her bed has a crown on top! *Sob*
* Grey's Anatomy. Once upon a time, I was going to be a doctor. Now, for one hour a week, I pretend that I'm dressed in scrubs and leaning over a operating table next to Patrick Dempsey. That's almost the same, isn't it?
* The Amazing Race. Joy and I have this one in common. The show last season didn't do much for me, mainly because they didn't choose my sisters and I to be one of the teams, plus the challenges were h-o-k-e-y. But one of my friends is in the upcoming season! Go, Tyler!

Four Places I’ve Been on Vacation:

* Paris. What can be said about Paris that has not been said already?
* The Burgundy region of France, in which I ate the most wonderful food of my life.
* Rome. The Sistine Chapel made me cry. We had maybe the best guide ever, and she brought the whole place to life with her stories.
* The Sonoma Mission Inn, just last week, which is all of 27 minutes from my home. I couldn't pull myself out of the bathwater-warm Watsu pool. There's music under the water! Music! Under! The water!

Four Foods I Love:

* Roasted Chicken, hot and crackly from the oven, preferably ripped apart with my bare hands and devoured while standing up.
* A huge scoop of 2% Greek yogurt drizzled with wild honey and toasted pine nuts.
* Tomatoes picked off of the vine and eaten while standing by the plant, salt shaker in hand.
* Michael Rechutti's Rose Caramels. Oh! I want one right NOW.

Four isn't nearly enough.

Four Websites I Visit Daily

* The New York Times. I'm not a fan of their premium content model, but they have a roster of damn good writers.
* Salon.com Even though I don't like the new design, I love their gutsy-ness.
* Maud Newton. 'Cause the only thing better than reading a book is reading about books.
* French Word-A-Day. If I'm going to live there some day, I'm going to have to be able to speak the language!

Four Places I’d Rather Be Right Now:

* In Paris
* At the ballet
* With my sweetheart
* In a beautiful dress

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

We Don't Want No Stinkin' Progress!

The latest copy of the Novato Advance was flung onto my driveway at some indeterminate time this morning. When I bent down and picked it up mid-way through the afternoon, I noted a yellow square in the upper right hand corner that read: "Whole Foods Project Petition Sparks Letters To the Editor."

I should mention that I've driven by the alleged site of the Whole Foods project several times throughout the last couple of months, looking for signs of a construction site: a bright yellow Caterpillar, or a crew, or a mound of overturned earth at the very least. To my repeated dismay, I haven't seen a single thing. The Trader Joe's building is nearly complete, and now it seems that it was the lucky one that slipped under the radar.

Apparently, a minority of Novatoans (would Novato-ites be more poetic? I can't decide) have raised consistent and stubborn opposition to the project. Even though the developers have secured the venerable Book Passage as a tenant (be still, my heart!), the naysayers will not be silenced.

I regularly trek down to the Whole Foods in San Rafael for organic foods. It is a round trip of twenty miles, and I assure you that this matters to me. And so it was that I ran inside with the paper and eagerly leafed to page A-4, where the drama was explained in more detail.

Here, my fellow foodies, is the scoop: it appears that the Novato Whole Foods project is still being held up by appeals and petitions. The Letters to the Editor section showcased a tennis match of opinions. The main arguments against the project seems to be that the building will be "too high" and that the development will not be "in keeping" with the character of Old Town Novato.

Which all sounds terribly sentimental and might even be touching, except that Old Town Novato is a ghost town. It is dead. It is pathetic. To drive through it is to wonder at what might have been as one passes boarded-up storefronts and shabby liquor stores and the odd television repair shop. What character is in danger, I ask? What, exactly, is being lost? And where were these righteous opponents when the sprawling, mortifying spectacle of the Vintage Plaza took shape, with its Target and Marshalls and Starbucks and Costco all strung out in a terrible, endless row?

I want to be able to run to the store for a head of organic lettuce without having to drive thirty minutes. I religiously shop the farmer's market at the San Rafael Civic Center on Thursdays, but there is the occasional Thursday when I simply can't make it! And what then...?

The cost of a house in Novato is downright obscene, and there is no corresponding sense of civic pride. I feel like I got thrown back into some backwater country. I'm experiencing whiplash here, and to find out that the natives are still drumming to an old, tired beat is like a slap in the face.

The Advance reported that there is a signature petition taking place in front of Safeway and Albertsons to curry support for the Whole Foods opposition. I haven't seen it, because I avoid those places like the plague. But God help the petitioners if I do walk by, because I am absolutely furious, and I will not hesitate to give them a piece of my mind. The business climate in Novato is downright oppressive and claustrophobic, and bringing in Whole Foods is a much-needed step in the right direction.

Deep breath. I know: it's going to be okay. I'll be fine tomorrow. I will.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

An Ode to the Blogsphere

My blog muse is on a temporary holiday, and I have good reason to believe that she's seeing other bloggers while she's away. I say this because while my creativity might be ebbing, other bloggers are cranking out incredibly wonderful stuff.

If you're anything like me, you read many of the best-written blogs for the escapist aspect. As I sit in front of my computer, bleary and caffeine-deprived, I frequently imagine that there is a whole world of fuzzy-faced people with gorgeous produce and high-end cameras that are baking and foraging and making reservations at high-end restaurants for the sole purpose of my enjoyment. What a lucky girl I am! I'm in awe of people like Sam, who posts wonderful, entertaining entries every single day of the week, and jetsetters like Pim, who seems to travel the globe on a weekly basis. Ladies: however do you manage it?! I can scarcely make time for my bi-weekly mani-pedi. Your secrets, please.

Entertainment value aside, I find that blog recipes are infinitely more accessible than, say, a recipe in The Elements of Taste cookbook by Gray Kunz and Peter Kaminsky, a heartbreakingly lovely work which has sat untouched on my kitchen shelf for years. Recipes by bloggers tend to invite experimentation and participation; though they can be quite sophisticated, they generally aren't overly fussy. More and more of late, I've found myself turning to carefully written food blogs to answer the question of "What's for dinner?"

Just last week, I took posession of a beautiful organic cauliflower, snowy white and firm, with a lovely green-earth smell. As I pondered what to do with it, I remembered something I had read a couple of months ago. I summoned Google, and an hour later, I was re-creating Brett's Least Popular Recipe Ever: slow-roasted cauliflower with pounded anchovies. I followed his recipe to the letter, right down to the parchment paper on the baking sheet. The pile of sweet-tender, caramel-y pieces of cauliflower that came out of the oven were so delicious that B and I were jabbing our forks at each other to get the last bite. It was that good. Now B is gone on an extended business trip, and while I'm terribly lonesome, I have plans to make the recipe again and eat it all by myself.

But food blogging is about so much more than recipes. I must admit to having a girl-crush on Jennifer Maiser, who not only headed up the brilliant Eat Local Challenge last year, but also frequently posts on issues relating to big business, agricultural sustainability, and the increasingly complex puzzle that is eating well. Her recent link to an article about The Man Who Said No to Walmart and her thought-provoking post about voting with your pocketbook at large chain stores have all been incredibly inspiring to me as I ponder the sad plight of the Novato strip mall scene.

I think I saw Jennifer one afternoon last week, while I was sipping a cup of tea outside of Peet's on Fillmore Street. I wanted to rush up to her and blurt out my admiration for her outstanding work, but she was on the phone, and I didn't want to barge in. Another time.

When I need a soul-affirming reminder about the mysteries of the earth and the intricacies of this tenuous, fragile life, I visit
Root Cap. Recently, RootCap says: "The promise of an illuminated freedom lies in the apprehension of organic truths. Truths that grow out of the ground like great oaks. Their vividness is our liberty; their flourishment our instruction; their fruitfulness the means for our love." See? Doesn't that make you feel happy?

And for those days when I'm worrying about suburban schoolchildren eating too much sugar, I found a blogger who writes under the moniker of McAuliflower. She has a Biology degree (just like me!) and she has a unique perspective on food and dining. Her post on fizzy fruit made me smile. Fizzy Fruit is going to turn kids away from packaged sweet snacks and on to the wonderful world of fruit... oh, joy! When I went to the Fizzy Fruit web site, the illustrations reminded me of the scratch-and-sniff stickers I used to collect in grade school. Grape, orange, cherry, and lemon... get the whole set!

I'm continually amazed and delighted at the incredible writing and photography out there. Keep writing, everyone, and I'll keep reading.

But could you do me a favor? Grab that capricious little muse of mine by the feather boa and send her home where she belongs, would you?! Thanks!