Sunday, July 29, 2012

LA Culture Shock and Awe

Arriving back in Los Angeles after almost a year now under my expanding Parisian belt, I found myself even more cognizant, and sometimes overwhelmed, at the differences between the two cities.

The first item that smacks you in the face is the traffic.  Ah yes, bumper to bumper traffic, grid lock, road rage, I have not missed you my friends.  I quickly jumped right back into yelling useless things at bad drivers, like "really, is your right hand asleep and unable to tap that turn signal."  It scared me how quickly it resurfaced.  It must have been stored up, or perhaps I was just anxious to string a full thought or sentiment together in a language I knew fluently.

Police sirens came blazing down the street my first day back behind the wheel, and of course I was just annoyed that I wouldn't make it across the incredibly long light at Lincoln and Venice.  They cut me off while crossing to the opposite side of 6 laned Lincoln, jumped out, and surrounded a liquor store with guns cocked over the hood.  It was right out of a movie, except I was in this one.  While I've seen my share of uniformed police with big guns in Paris at the many demonstrations, I've never seen a gun cocked there.  Maybe that just means I'm hanging out in the wrong places in LA, and Paris.

The first few days in LA were a shock of a very different life I was not so recently immersed in filled with random things like needing to park as close as possible to anything and everything even though I walk miles a day in Paris, then there are the bland strip malls and lack of flying gargoyles, and Spanish as the first option on every phone call.  It's an overload of sights and sounds on the polar opposite end of the spectrum as Paris.

Before you stop reading and quickly call me a French snob who is past the point of no return, attendez!  Let me tell you what happened on days 4, 5, and beyond.  Everywhere I went people were smiling at me.  I had to doublecheck I had the right scarf on, or rather that I didn't have a scarf on and wasn't dragging toilet paper around under my flip flops.  It was honestly a little strange, until the 4th day, when I was able to find and return the smiles.  The French don't smile at you and think foreigners are strange for doing so, so I've been walking around with my game face on.

The smiles go further with hugs, and not cheek air kisses as greetings.  I have to admit I've enjoyed the French double kiss greeting, but I forgot how nice the warm embrace of friends can be, as well as strangers.  It was a little alarming when I had hugs coming out of the woodwork from people like my facialist, as well as the boutique owner of a place I like to shop.  I know what you're thinking, but how can I possibly shop or get that many facials when I'm not home more than twice a year?

This warmth extends into the restaurant scene.  I've had waiters falling all over themselves to attend to my every whim, refill each sip of my water, iced tea, and bottomless chips and salsa.  I felt like I had to break up with them at the end of each meal saying it's not you, it's me.  You're too good for me.  I'm used to being ignored while eating and having to send a flare to get a check.  The French respect your privacy almost to a fault.

I haven't realized how I've been able to avoid eavesdropping, given my need to fully concentrate to pick up every other French word when someone is speaking.  Back in LA, I feel like I've got super sonic hearing and am listening to way too many, uninteresting conversations, but they do remind me that LA's warmth can extend to another dimension.  How can I explain, but recount, word for word, some of the choice phrases I've heard:
  • How do I know this is truly vegan?
  • Lizbeth loves her AA class.  They have a great spread of glutten free blueberry muffins, and a bunch of hotties there.  Trisha met Ringo Star there, and Steven Tyler supposedly goes.
  • He's just really present.
  • I LOVE your nail color  It really adds a great depth and complexity to your toes.
So I just need to admit it.  I've fallen in love with 2 completely different cities for completely different reasons, and I often feel like 2 different people in each place.  In Los Angeles, I'm at ease, and feel truly at home and relaxed.  I'm surrounded by family and friends who know my more or less decade long journey that landed me on France's fromage friendly banks.  The warmth of the beach and the people feed me and make life very easy.

In Paris, I'm a little on edge.  I'm out of my comfort zone, trying to speak and understand another language and culture, but my eyes are wide open.  I'm taking in sights that humble me and bring tears to my eyes.  I'm learning more than I thought was possible about myself, people, places, history, music, architecture, and things I can't even express in writing.  I push myself when sometimes I can't go anymore, and am always rewarded in ways I will remember for life.

How lucky I am to be able to live in these two worlds.  I don't know what the next day will bring, but for that, I'm grateful as well.


Thursday, July 26, 2012

LA: The Anti-Paris

My time in LA has been a lot of things, but most specifically, it has not been like my time in Paris, which is a good thing.  If it was the same everywhere, why go anywhere. These two cities that I'm fortunate to both call home right now, are vastly different in people, place and culture, but that's a separate post, coming soon.  First, I thought I'd recount some of the highlights from my summer stay that make LA, the anti-Paris.

One of the first things I was quickly reminded of on my first beach run is that Angelenos' fitness fetish is in your face.  I do see Parisians running in designated areas, and occasionally I'll catch a distant glimpse of people on stationery bikes on the 2nd floor of an old building, but the fitness regime in LA transcends any simple run on the treadmill.  Strike that.  It didn't transcend the treadmill until I saw a friend's specially designed computer keyboard holder and screen that allow you to work, while working out.  Duncan, you could probably sell these to anyone, except the French since I don't think they'd want to sweat in their well pressed suits.


Speaking of sweating, I'm all about getting a sweat on, but I try and make it a point to shower before going anywhere after, especially a place serving fresh food.  I've spoken of the CA casual attire, but unless Whole Foods has started offering yoga classes in the produce section, and I wouldn't put it past them, I'm just wondering if people can put some clothes on while picking out their organic greens.  Yes, this could be a sign I'm turning Parisian, but I must admit that I've logged some serious hours in my yoga wear - off the mat, but that will all stop the second wheels touch down at Charles de Gaulle.

The fitness fetish is everywhere.  One step on the beach and I was reminded of the many activities you can do in the sand and surf - yoga, rugby, surfing, kite boarding, paddle boarding, kite flying, and now add dodgeball.  Pourquoi pas?

I myself even dusted, or rather, pumped up my old, pancake deflated beach volleyballs, and got myself back to the court to see if I remembered anything from the glory-ish days.


I did remember all the hand slapping and hive fiving for good, bad and mediocre plays, but what I didn't remember was how the game uses so many different muscles that evidently are not needed in Paris.  Luckily I didn't have to find that out until apr├Ęs drinks at our local watering hole, Lula's, where we picked up some stragglers and took over the bar and left them with a new indoor sandbox.  I then remembered where my week-ends used to go following this tradition since you can blink and have spent 8 hours beachside having lots of fun, and lots of drinks.


There are also beach activities for the less motivated.  Perhaps a little medical marijuana?  LA has 762 marijuana dispensaries, or at least had, because just this week there was a unanimous vote to close them all, except for those that were set up to help the most needed before the thing snowballed a bit.  We tend to get excited about an idea then go all in.  Cupcakes anyone?

There are plenty of opportunities to get a tattoo in the beach areas.  For the less serious and committed, there's the less permanent henna, or you can go big with real ink, and when you sober up, you can remove it with Dr. Tattoff (wonder what the tat med program is like).


Can't decide if you want to treat yourself to a toe ring or some botox?  There is some good, one stop shopping along the beach for the indecisive.

And then there are the organized beach partiers who we happened to stumble upon one lovely afternoon while we were enjoying a few unorganized drinks in Venice. A dozen or two friends were doing a themed golf bar crawl.  There were score cards, costumes and many characters.  Now, I have seen some costumed bachelor/bachelorette parties in Paris, but they had pending nuptials as the purpose.  The golfing drinkers did it for the pure fun and joy it brought them...and then us.


And then there's the food.  I've been feeling a bit like an overstuffed squirrel, packing away many different CA food groups to last me through the Parisian winter.  One of my favorite CA food groups is Mexican cuisine.  I've had nachos the size of my head and bottomless chips and salsa and most meals.  Ah spice.  I will you my friend.

Paris has come a long way in the Mexican department.  They do now have a Chipotle afterall, but I'm afraid they still have a long way to go.  The same goes for sushi.  While you'll see a lot of "fast food" sushi around town, and it's even one of the few items you can have delivered, it just doesn't seem to have the same freshness and diversity to me, though I'll give them credit for interesting meat and vegetable rolls.  So, yes, check the Mexican and Sushi storage boxes.

The Parisians have beautiful produce at all of their many farmer's market, but I still can't believe I can't get big leafy greens like kale there.  I've been foraging like a bunny in LA, but luckily there's another American equally distraught, but more motivated, who's taking it to the streets, farmers and restaurants with her kale project to attempt to get this luscious staple into this lovely city.  My fingers are crossed!

While I can get brussel sprouts in Paris, I have yet to see a brussel sprout and bacon pizza like the one at Larry's in Venice.  I may or may not have had it 3 times during this trip, but not all at one sitting.  It could be a long winter.

Ironically, as I returned to LA this trip, I was here for the implementation of the great CA foie gras ban. You can't get foie gras, but you can get pot, at least for a little while. It's hard to believe that they've banned this beautiful product, but most French chefs are finding ways around with orders of $30 toast that happens to come with a surprise side of foie gras.  I had to bring some back with me so my foie friends would not be deprived, but it's another great reason to come visit me!

I've put a self imposed ban on myself while I've been in LA to not drink any French wine.  Yes, it's wonderful, but the French don't include CA wines on their menus, so I've had a chance to fill the places in between my squirrel cheeks with some nice wines from Napa, Carneros and Paso Robles.

I also need to inform you that it's just not possible to be beachside without drinking a beer.  I realize Americans get accused of large portions and sometimes I defend it when I see the paltry Parisian pours, but Big Dean's two handed beer can't be condemned.  It can only be enjoyed as you watch the sunset, but hopefully not rise again.

And then sometimes even the biggest cup in CA won't do, and you just need to supersize it a little bit more.  Voila!

During my LA, non-Parisian break, I've fed my cheeks, belly and all places in between with great food and drinks and I've even tried to balance it with some fun fitness while enjoying the casual lifestyle, but I will say that the greatest feast of all has been catching up with my friends and family.  I even reconnected with former colleagues with several surprises and a little curiosity.


There's nothing that feeds my LA soul like the laughter between long time friends.

There never seems to be enough room to stock up on times with friends, but I've fit in what I could, and look forward to visitors' trips to see me, and the next return to my wonderful non-Parisian home.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Lake Tahoe Restaurants

You didn't really think I was going to talk about one of my favorite places without mentioning food did you?  As laid back as Tahoe can be, there are actually a surprising amount of very good and inventive restaurants in the area.

Spindleshanks has been a family favorite for over a decade.  It's always nice to sit out on the patio and enjoy dinner.  If it gets too cold, there are heat lamps, as well as a working fireplace, which I may not recommend sitting too close to unless you're up in the winter and have been on the slopes for about 72 hours straight.  That fire kicks off some serious heat.

They have a very nice wine selection and offer flights when you're feeling non committal or in need of appreciating more wines than one.  The oysters bienzo are a gooey mound of cheese, sausage, crab and spinach, but mostly cheese, mounded on top of an oyster for a great way to start off any meal, or new exercise regime.

The calamari is more like deep fried batter balls that are really just a mechanism for dipping into the creamy sauces.  The item we come back for every time is the butternut squash ravioli in a brown sage sauce with candied pecans.  It dropped off the menu at one point, but we were always still able to get it, but now it looks to have found its permanent place on the menu, and all is right with the world.

While the service is beyond Parisian slow, the servers are friendly, and I suppose friendliness takes time.

The Drunken Monkey is a relative newcomer in a recently constructed area just outside of Truckee.

They offer some unique sushi combinations with some interesting options to mix up flavors like the garlic chili zest edamame.  My sister in law even had a martini with similar flavors.  That'll definitely get your taste buds to stand at attention.

Other good menu items include shaking beef and the Singapore street noodles.  The taste of the miso marinated eggplant was good, but there was way too much syrupy sauce.

Austin's is always a favorite stop on our lunch circuit.  You can sit outside on a wooden bench under an umbrella and choose from a good variety of big leafy salads.

My go-to is the taco salad, and why yes, those are nacho cheese chips in the bowl.  They add a nice crunch, but for those eating more virtuous greens, you have to order some of the buttermilk fries, or you can even get cheese and chili on them if you want to go all in.

For breakfast, brunch or lunch, the Blue Onion has always been a crown pleaser for my family.

Situated on the Brockway Golf Course, you can sit outside and watch people miss putts on the practice green, or simply concentrate on lifting the enormous huevo rancheros into your mouth.

Or enjoy one of the many savory or sweet crepes.  Guess which one the kids went for?

 Another must eat place on any Tahoe trip is Dragonfly in Truckee.

They offer a great mix of Thai, Japanese, and Malaysian fare.  No meal is complete without the sweet and sour eggplant with won ton chips.  We've asked for the recipe before, but somehow it never compares to the real deal in the real place, and no, this picture does not do it justice.

Another favorite is the curried flatbread with the cooling yogurt mint raita bringing a taste of India to the lake.  For lunch there's great salads like the new curry chicken, which I split with my sister in law, and love that they brought out on separate plates before our turkey pesto sandwich.  Everything on the menu is really tasty and served with a smile.


The chef of Dragonfly came from Wolfdale's, an institution in Tahoe City since 1978.  We always see Tahoe City as a little longer drive, so we don't eat there than often, but our paths took us to Wolfdale's this trip, and we'll be making a point of it again soon.  The location on the back deck is beautiful with lake views and heaters to keep you warm at night.


The menu has an Asian flair with items like Hawaiian ahi poke cones, smoked trout, pork belly and the spiced beets that my dad liked so much, he got an extra order.  All of the "teasers" are a hit, and you can never go wrong with truffle fries.


I had a green thai seafood stew that was wonderful with its sweet spices surrounding shrimp, scallops, spinach, wild rice and cod.

Continuing with the Wolfdale's theme, we went to a great food and wine dinner at the Thunderbird Lodge at the end of our 4th of July week.  The food was prepared by Chef Douglas Dale of Wolfdale's fame, and the wine was provided by Napa Valley's Cliff Lede.

The Thunderbird Lodge is full of salacious stories.  It was originally the home of eccentric playboy George Whittell, Jr.  He enjoyed collecting everything from fast women, cars, boats and even wild animals.  He had a lion that lived with him for a summer, as well as an elephant, Mingo. Things quickly went awry as you could imagine and the animals didn't stay long.

The house is an interesting look into Whittell's mind with its 600' of underground passageways.  He even had a secret back door through a shower in the bathroom of his poker room in case things weren't going his way on game night.  There was also a multi colored light system that served as a communication system for friends at the casino across the lake.  You didn't need a text plan for this kind of talk.  Green light - party is on, bring the show girls.  Red light - wife is home, all quiet.

The grounds are lovely and they're always hosting a fundraiser to keep them so, but luckily many of us are more than willing to eat and drink for a good cause.  Chef Dale treated us to a summer twist on gazpacho by not using any tomatoes, but rather using fresh peaches for the base and topping it with chunks of king crab and spicy micro greens.  I could eat that all summer long.

The chef and wine maker took turns talking about their flavors and why they chose the pairing.  The creamy Sauvignon Blanc was a nice partner to the soup, and the Cliff Lede Cab duo we had with our main was a big toss up to decide which one we liked better between the 08 and 09.


The main was a perfectly cooked lamb chop with a petit filet mignon, served with a chimichurri sauce and truffle potatoes.  It was as good as it sounds.  I'm always amazed when food can taste that good and be served at the same time for 100 people.  That's a talent.

The good food didn't stop at dessert, which was a rich, chocolate souffle cake with salted caramel ice cream.  The only thing I struggled with a bit was the wine pairing of another Cab.

I had port or dessert wine in my head, so I found the Cab competing with the flavors of the dessert instead of complimenting, but overall, it was really hard to find fault in much.  It was a lovely evening in a beautiful place, and a fitting end to a nice week of great food in a wonderful setting with family and friends.