Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Visit to Catherine the Great in New York

What a joy to have had a chance to get back to New York to meet our new granddaughter Catherine Childs Moyle (“Cece” for short). It was a perfect trip – in addition to the chance to see Cece, Rob and Janet, I was able to stay with our friend, Lisa, who lives within walking distance of their coop, and also to spend a few days in the brand new Squire Sanders New York office.

Upon arrival in New York on Sunday afternoon, I stopped off briefly at Lisa’s to drop off my bags, and we then walked over to Rob and Janet’s place on West 86th. Cece was on her very best behavior for my visit.

One forgets how small babies are!

On my way to New York I had noted a picture of a relaxing polar bear at the airport and had randomly taken a photo of it. As Cece turned in for the evening, I noted her pose to be coincidentally quite similar!

Staying with Lisa was a lot of fun too. Lisa lives in a historic building called the Ansonia at West 73rd and Broadway, just across from Verdi Park. The building, which was originally a hotel, has a long history dating back to its construction in 1904 and, in addition to Lisa, such luminaries as Arturo Toscanini, Igor Stravinsky, and Enrico Caruso have resided there over the years.

Lisa’s place is also very convenient to the Squire Sanders New York office. The office moved to the GE Building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza (aka “30 ROCK” for the fans of the TV series) a few months ago and this was my first opportunity to visit the new office. It is in a beautiful space on the 22nd and 23rd floors. The entrance to the building is just over the shoulder of the statute of Prometheus on the Plaza, and there is a beautiful view of St. Patrick’s Cathedral from the east side of the office.

I had never spent any time on the Upper West Side, but the neighborhood, which is densely residential, is fantastic. Broadway, Amsterdam and Columbus are all full of food stores, restaurants and bars, and it would probably take several trips to fully explore the area between Rob and Janet and Lisa. During the three days I was there we tried the Mermaid Inn, the Ocean Grill and Spiga Restaurant (to celebrate Rob's birthday!), and some great takeout from Salumeria Rosi. Plus I had a chance to visit the Oyster Bar at Grand Central for a lunch and wander through the Grand Central Market, with a long stop at Murray’s Cheese.

However, probably the single most memorable food stop was the GROM gelato store which is on Broadway only about 2 blocks from Lisa’s place.

GROM is an Italian chain that was founded in 2003 in Torino and follows strong sustainability and environmental standards in its operations. However, most importantly, the gelato is ottimo!

With so many things to draw us there I anticipate many more trips to New York in the future!

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Overindulgence Relieved by the Magic of Averna

This past weekend when Nancy was back in New York visiting Rob, Janet and our brand-new granddaughter, Catherine, I went out to dinner with Alex, Cass, Amanda and Antonio. We decided to go to Avatar’s in Sausalito, one of our favorite casual spots when the craving for Indian/Mexican/Jamaican/etc. fusion cuisine comes upon us.

As always, we simply gave Ashok Kumar, the proprietor, an indication of the spiciness level we were after and left the rest up to him. His selections for us were as good as ever and by the end of the meal we were stuffed.

When we got back to our house I pulled out a bottle of Averna and poured a couple of small libations for Antonio and me, and one for Amanda who had never had Averna before but was willing to try it. My only regret was that we did not have any of the cool new Averna “WOMB” glasses at our disposal.

Amanda enjoyed her first taste of Averna (or at least was too polite to say she did not) and, as always, the its digestive qualities relieved our discomfort.

Amaro Averna is one of the Italian “amari” (“bitters”) beverages. It has been produced by the Averna company in the city of Caltanissetta in the middle of Sicily for the last 140 years.

Like many of the Italian amari, Averna was originally developed by a religious order for medicinal purposes. In 1854, the Capuchin monks of the Abbazia di Santo Spirito in Caltanissetta gave the recipe for Averna to Don Salvatore Averna, a local textile merchant who was a benefactor of the abbey, and the rest is amaro history.

I had never heard of Averna or amari until a couple of years ago when Wolfgang Weber, one of my fellow students in my Italian class, wrote an article for the San Francisco Chronicle entitled “That’s Amari”. I tried a few of the amari covered by Wolfgang’s article, but Averna was the only one that appealed to me at all.

Averna is not for everyone (just ask Alex and Cass!). It is a dark, slightly viscous liquid with an alcohol content of 32% and a pronounced herbal fragrance and flavor, attesting to its medicinal origins and the 60 or so herbs and other ingredients used in its production. Still, I have without too much effort really come to enjoy it and, since Averna sells over 8,000,000 bottles per year (a million in Sicily, four million more in the rest of Italy, and the remaining three million around the world), I seem to be in good company.

In the last few years Averna has also made a substantial push to increase its market here in the US. Among other things, it hired Duggan McDonnell, a well-known bartender and owner of Cantina on Stockton Street near Union Square in San Francisco, to promote Averna and develop new drinks which incorporate it and Duggan is now featured on the company's US website, which includes recipes for some of the mixed drinks Duggan has helped to create.

When I initially learned of Averna I thought it was just a small one-product company located in the remote interior of Sicily. However, the company is in fact publicly traded and, since the 1980’s, has diversified both within Italy (where it acquired Amaro Braulio, Nochino di Modena, Limoncetta di Sorrento, the Friulian winery Villa Frattina (which produces wines, grappa and sparkling wines), and even the Piemontese confectioner Pernigotti) and overseas, where it now owns an impressive line of beverages produced around the world.

I certainly recommend giving Averna a try!

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Welcome Catherine!!

Our first grandchild - Catherine Childs Moyle born in New York City at 8:47AM EST on Thursday, September 10, 2009. Janet, Catherine and Rob are all doing well.

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Monday, September 7, 2009

Pescadero Pleasures – Harley Farms and Duarte’s Tavern

I first heard of Harley Farms in March of last year at, somewhat incongruously, a class entitled “Belgian Beer and Cheese” taught by Sheana Davis at the Cheese School of San Francisco. The first cheese in the 12:00 position on our plate that night was one called “Monet,” a snow white, fluffy goat’s milk cheese with a thin layer of herbes de Provence, decorated with flower petals.

Sheana told us that the cheese was produced at a small farm run by a woman named Dee Harley in Pescadero on the San Mateo County coast, not far south of Half Moon Bay. The cheese has nothing to do with Belgium, but it was very tasty and paired very well with a raspberry-flavored Belgian beer that Sheana had us try.

A couple of months later we attended another Cheese School class which sampled prize winners from the annual American Cheese Society meeting. Again we ran into the colorful “Monet” which had won first place in the Farmstead Cheeses category. Then, just a couple of days later, at a drop-in night at the Cheese School, we entered the room to find a whole wheel of “Monet” the size of a large pizza awaiting us on the table. By comparison to the small pieces we had had at the earlier classes, it was absolutely breathtaking.

Finally, when we first met Wil Edwards at a class at the Cheese School a few months later, we learned that Wil had worked at Harley Farms early in his cheese career. We also learned that, in addition to making great cheese, Harley Farms was one of the few goat cheese operations in Northern California to offer tours at their farm. Since then, Alex, Cass and I had been trying to figure out when we could visit Harley Farms and go on one of their weekend tours. A visit by their friend Amanda to the Bay Area this weekend provided just the motivation we needed.

Although I had never been to Pescadero, I had heard of Duarte’s Tavern (by the way, should you wish to avoid the same mistake I made, the pronunciation of “Duarte” morphed somewhere along the way from the original Portuguese doo-ART-tay to the current DOO-arts) and their famous olallieberry pie. Plus in March I happened to hear a very interesting NPR story about Duarte’s. Hence, we added a stop there to the agenda for the day, especially when we discovered that Harley Farms was less than a mile from Duarte’s.

I picked Alex, Cass and Amanda up in San Francisco under sunny skies and we headed south down 280 and across 92 to the coast. By the time we descended into Half Moon Bay we were in the fog and it stayed with us during the ride south along Route 1 to Pescadero. We had allotted 1.5 hours for the drive, but made very good time and arrived in just over an hour, so we explored Pescadero a bit before heading over to Harley Farms. Pescadero is not a big town - Duarte’s Tavern anchors the south end of town as does Arcangeli’s Market, pictured below, about 100 yards to the north.

After a brief exploration we made the short drive to Harley Farms, arriving just as the fog was beginning to burn off.

At the farm we were met by a woman named Pat who was leading the the morning tour. Harley Farms generally offers two 2-hour tours a day on the weekends – the morning tour starting at 11:00AM and the afternoon tour starting at 1:00PM. Ages 5 and under are free - the charge for ages 6-10 is $10 per person, and for those over 10 the charge is $20 per person.

Pat started us out with a brief history of the farm and a helpful admonition not to lean on the electric fence surrounding the field!

We then entered the pasture and met the nannies (adult female goats) of the herd who had been keeping their eyes on us.

The “adolescent” goats, who were born early this year, are apparently generally too rambunctious at this age to allow for contact with the general public so they are kept in a separate pasture. However, one of them, #76, had somehow found his way into the pasture with the nannies and certainly seemed well-behaved to us.

We wandered around the pasture for a while, being nibbled at periodically by the nannies who were very friendly and loved attention (or maybe they enjoy the taste of clothing). Pat said that Dee Harley strives to keep her goats happy and from what we could see she succeeds completely.

Pat explained to us that the farm is constantly striving to find additional ways to practice sustainable agriculture. Among them is the use of a “chicken tractor” pictured below – a bottomless chicken coop which is moved ever couple of days to a new location in the pasture to provide fertilizer directly to the soil (not to mention a nice perch for the goats). The chickens are rotated too as I imagine they must get tired of having goats constantly climbing over their coop.

Also on the sustainability front, the farm has been able to find uses for the goats’ production beyond mere milk!

Although almost all the animals on the farm are goats, there are a few chickens as noted above, as well as a pair of very woolly sheep and a couple of large llamas which guard the adolescent goats.

After we finished our tour of the pasture, we moved to the farm buildings, first saying hello to the two billy-goats who are responsible for producing all those kids – aptly named Elvis and Lucky (a third, Romeo, having recently gone to goat heaven, although it is hard to imagine what additional pleasures he may be enjoying in the afterlife). From the pens we moved to the milking shed where Pat showed us the proper "OK" grip, and then unleashed us to try our hands at milking a couple of very patient nannies (see below and this video).

From there, after donning fetching hairnets, it was on to the cheese production room where we formed a round of Monet – mere child’s play -- including the application of some of the edible flowers from the Harley Farms garden that they use to decorate the Monet and Van Goat products.

Then upstairs to the Hay Loft where we happily sampled the Monet with some excellent ciabatta bread from the bakery at Arcangeli’s Market.

The Hay Loft is a beautiful room with a wonderful rustic dining table surrounded by a fanciful set of chairs, all made by hand and without the use of any metal by a Pescadero native named Three-Fingered Bill whose photo keeps an eye on things from the wall of the room.

As reported here, it appears we also have Bill to thank as at least one of the factors that led Dee Harley to Pescadero in the first place. The Hay Loft is also where Harley Farms' periodic seasonal dinners are held – see the below picture of the table set for one of those dinners, and here are two great related posts – one set on Flicker and a second from Justinsomnia’s blog about one of those seasonal dinners he attended in May (which, as you can see from the pictures of the baby kids, is definitely one of the best times to visit the Farm!).

After a final stop at the Harley Farms cheese store for more tasting (yummy feta, ricotta, garlic-infused chevre, etc.), we then made the short drive to Pescadero for our late lunch at Duarte’s Tavern. It seems that there is a fairly strong connection between Duarte’s and Harley Farms since Tim Duarte and Dee Harley are married!

Duarte’s Tavern was packed, but happily we had made reservations and were seated quickly. I went with their signature soup (a two-tone green combination of their famous artichoke and green chili soups), the cioppino and their famous olallieberry pie (with ice cream of course – once one has gone that far, why hold back?) – all were wonderful.

Then a quick stop back at Arcangeli’s Market to pick up some of their bread before heading north in a food stupor. It was a perfect day and we look forward to a quick return to Pescadero!

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Saturday, September 5, 2009

All Ramen Is Not Created Equal

Coming out of our favorite Japanese restaurant the other night we ran into a friend who told us he had just seen the movie "Ramen Girl" on DVD and recommended it to us. I was pretty excited at the prospect since (1) there are so few movies in English that have anything to do with Japan, (2) I love ramen, and (3) my all time favorite Japanese movie was Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo”, a wonderful “ramen western” in which a tough Japanese truck driver befriends a widow struggling to operate a ramen store in Tokyo and helps her to turn it into a success.

When I got home I found the Ramen Girl trainer on YouTube which looked promising, as well as the following description:

"RAMEN GIRL: An American woman is stranded in Tokyo after breaking up with her boyfriend. Searching for direction in life, she trains to be a ramen noodle chef under a tyrannical Japanese master..."
Sadly, when I was finally able to watch the movie it was very disappointing. Although she was done no favors by whomever it was who wrote the script, Brittany Murphy – who I had never seen before - managed to turn in one of the most vacuous performances I have ever seen. I was tempted to turn off the video after almost every scene, but continued in part because I was perversely impressed with how consistently bad it was and began to wonder if they could maintain that low level of performance. I was not disappointed. In retrospect, the only reason I am happy I did so was because I subsequently found a review on The House Next Door blog which provides a very amusing (at least if you suffered through it) “live-blog review” of the film.

The only saving grace for me was the performance of the veteran Japanese actor Toshiyuki Nishida in the role of the crusty ramen master who, for unfathomable reasons, agrees to let Murphy work in his shop. Among his other roles, Nishida is probably best known in Japan for his work in the “Tsuribaka” series of films (of which there are about 20 in all) in which he portrays Densuke Hamasaki (“Hama-chan”), a Japanese salaryman who works in a Japanese construction company and who his supervisor has dubbed “tsuribaka” (the “fishing fool”) because of his passion for fishing.

The sub-plot of the series revolves around the fact that one day Hama-chan met and befriended an older fisherman who turned out to be the CEO of the company that Hama-chan works for. The stories focus on their relationship inside and outside of the office. There is also a comic series covering the same stories.

My viewing of Ramen Girl did have one positive result in it caused me to go back and watch Tampopo again. That is a movie I highly recommend, in part because in several scenes it captures some important insights into Japanese life and culture in a very humorous way. Those include:

~ The French restaurant scene dealing with conformity and inter-generational issues;
~ The spaghetti scene dealing with the question of whether to slurp; and
~ The ramen appreciation scene, including a young Ken Watanabe, perhaps better known to American audiences for his role in “The Last Samurai."

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