Wednesday, June 18, 2008


San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum opened, with much ado, on Sunday, June 8, 2008.

In the heart of what has become the downtown Museum District, the Contemporary Jewish is as much an architectural wonder as it is an extraordinary museum.

Built on the site of a former PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric) Jessie Street Power Substation, the building combines the 1907 brick facade of the substation, which was designed by Willis Polk, with a modern extension which includes a three-story bright blue brushed steel angled cube of a building. Architect Daniel Libeskind is the building's designer. Libeskind's design work includes Berlin's Jewish Museum, the Denver Art Museum addition, and the master site plan for the rebuilt World Trade Center in New York.

The Contemporary Jewish is sandwiched between the Marriott Four Seasons Hotel and the historic St. Patrick's Church. It faces Mission Street and the Yerba Buena Gardens. It is set back from the street and has a large plaza, Jessie Square, in front. The main side streets are Third and Fourth Streets. The Yerba Buena walkway, where new restaurants and shops are starting to open, runs between Mission and Market Streets. Both the Powell Street and Montgomery BART stations are nearby. Union Square and the San Francisco Centre are short walks away.

The museum lobby runs the length of the brick substation facade, with a café on the east end and Admission Desk and Gift Store on the west end. The Gift Store is actually in the base of the new blue cube part of the building. Portions of the old substation have been incorporated into the airy lobby: these include tile-clad columns, iron trusses, and sections of the catwalk. Looking up at the catwalk, I wondered if it was left here to facilitate the changing of the light bulbs in the fixtures that light the lobby from high above.

The Blue Cube is probably the most striking part of the building. Balancing on one point, it is covered with more than 3,000 large diamond-shaped steel panels that glimmer in shades of blue as the outdoor light and time of day changes.

The blue color of the steel is achieved through a procedure called interference coating, a process that will retain this color, never allowing fading or chalking. For the scientific among you, this process consists of bathing the steel in chemicals that thicken the chromium oxide on the steel and draw out the blue color, interfering with the way the steel naturally reflects light, soaks up certain wavelengths, and reflects light.

Libeskind's design is based on the Hebrew phrase, "L'Chaim," which means "To life." Two hebrew characters make up the word "chai" or "life." The top part of the word is the "yud", which is the part of the building which is the blue cube and in which the Stephen and Maribelle Leavitt Yud Gallery resides. The long part of the word is the "chet," in which the Koshland Gallery resides.

As for the museum's exhibitions, the Contemporary Jewish is the only Jewish museum in the world that does not have a permanent collection. All exhibits are temporary, further adding to the dynamic nature of the building. The current exhibits include From the New Yorker to Shrek: the Art of William Steig, In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis, and an audio-only exhibit that fills the Yud Gallery, John Zorn Presents the Aleph-Bet Sound Project.

Several times during my afternoon at the museum, I passed Museum Director Connie Wolf, bustling around like a proud mother hen as she chatted with visitors about the exhibits, future fund raising, and the architecture and materials used in the building's construction and furnishings. I sat with her as she marveled at the "softness" of the concrete benches in the gallery housing the Being Jewish: a Bay Area Portrait exhibit.

I must say that the off-balance design of the museum, both inside and out, sometimes set me off-balance. The angled walls and windows and the tilting benches caused me, more than once, to grab onto a railing to keep myself in perspective. The diamond shaped windows and skylights in the Yud gallery give glimpses of the cityscape outside and create interesting designs on the blue cube from the outside.

To start my visit to the Contemporary Jewish, I met friends, H, D, and M for lunch in the museum's Café on the Square. The menu offers a few hot dishes, soups. sandwiches, salads and desserts. Service is cafeteria style.

H chose the day's special Panini Sandwich,

D had the Caesar Salad, M had the Baked Cod and a cup of soup, and my choice was a Cassoulet of summer squash, tomatoes and rice. All our meals were delicious. Most main dishes are priced between $10 and $12.

The Gift Store features books, lots of toys and books for children, and an array of decorative items.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum is open daily, except Wednesday, from 11:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Friday through Tuesday and from 1:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday. Docents lead free guided tours throughout the day; check at Admission when you visit.

A nice feature of the museum is that, to encourage younger visitors, admission is FREE for youths age 18 and younger. Paid admission is $10 of adults, $8 for seniors and students. After 5 p.m. on Thursday, all paid admission is $5. There is no admission charge to visit the the café and the store.

Other nearby museums include the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Crafts and Folk Art, the California Historical Society, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Cartoon Art Museum, the Museum of the African Diaspora. The Mexican Museum is hoping to locate in this area sometime in the future.


Yesterday was one of those days in San Francisco that make tourists wish they lived here. It was also the kind of day that makes tourists think that every summer day in the City is warm and sunny...not the case as we locals know all too well. We are the ones who know to carry a jacket or sweater with us always when in San Francisco during the Summer months. On most Summer days we know the tourists as the ones walking around enjoying the sights while shivering in their shorts or huddling in the new sweatshirt that they just purchased from a street vendor.

All told, yesterday was a treat, with nary a wisp of fog and balmy temperatures.

My first stop, right off the BART train at the Powell Street station was at the San Francisco Centre where I can walk directly into the lower level Food Emporium.

I always dash through Bristol Farms to see what tempting gift and tabletop items they have and to check out their prepared foods and fresh meat, fish, poultry, and produce for something to pick up for dinner, before heading home.

If time permits, I walk the length of the Food Emporium into Bloomingdale's...just in case there is something in the store that I can't do without.

Yesterday, I was in a bit of a rush, with a morning appointment near Union Square and then an afternoon planned at the new Contemporary Jewish Museum (see my blog post following this post for a look at the Contemporary Jewish).

A little after noon, when I was finished with my appointment, Union Square was bustling with the lunchtime crowd. At each of its four corners are oversized hearts from the Hearts in San Francisco exhibit that filled San Francisco a few years ago. The Hearts on display change from time to time. No matter which ones are there, they always make me smile and I always stop to enjoy them.

The one restaurant in Union Square is Rulli where on a day like yesterday, the outdoor tables are the place for lunch.

There is FREE WiFi in Union Square, another attraction to tourists and locals, as well, who want to check their email or stock prices while enjoying the sunshine and a bite to eat.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Sister V's California visit was a staycation for me and a vacation for her. With gasoline prices inching towards $5 a gallon daily, sstaycation has become an important part of my means staying home and visiting attractions close to home. I think many of us will be enjoying summer staycations this year.

We spent an afternoon in Berkeley at the headquarters of Scharffen Berger Chocolate.

We started our visit with lunch in their restaurant, Café Cacao (510/843-6000), then we took a guided tour of the factory (free; reservations required; reserve online or by telephone), and, finally, we did some chocolate tasting and shopping in their Company Store.

Café Cacao serves lunch/brunch daily and dinner on Friday nights. Wonderful chocolate desserts, pastries, and drinks complement the menu of savory dishes. Dogs are welcome to dine with their companions on the café's outdoor patio.

We started with a shared order of Sweet Potato Fries

and followed with the day’s Quiche with Salad for both V and J and Chilaquilles Rancheros for me.

To drink: steaming hot mugs of Scharffen Berger Cocoa...Impossible to resist!

Scharffen Berger’s one-hour tour starts with a presentation about the history of cacao and Scharffen Berger chocolate. The second part of the tour is a walk through the factory and packaging rooms.

The tour ends in the Company Store, where there is more tasting and, of course, the opportunity to shop. From time to time, Scharffen Berger produces a limited edition single-origin chocolate which is only sold here at the store. When you visit, be sure to ask about any special limited edition bars.

Although Scharffen Berger is now part of Hershey Chocolate’s Artisan Confections Company, it continues to
operate independently at this factory, making its chocolate in small batches, using vintage European equipment.

A few notes on tour rules: Not having read the Tour Guidelines carefully, I did not realize that closed-toe shoes must be worn on the tour, for safety reasons. They provided me with a pair of clogs to wear on the tour. Also, everyone is required to cover their hair with a hair net, which they supply.

One of the men on our tour had a beard; not only did he have to wear a hairnet on his head, he also had to wear one over his beard!!!


The weather is warm all over the Bay Area today. It is also the last day of J's and my project in Berkeley. This means it is the last day, after 10 weeks, of regular breakfasts and lunches together in the North Berkeley neighborhood that we have adopted.

Taking advantage of the balmy weather, even at 8 a.m., we started out day with Coffee and Beignets at Café Fanny.

Since our waistlines seem to have expanded a bit with all our yummy Berkeley meals, we decided to share a single serving of the Beignets. There are two of these puffy fried dough pastries in a serving. They are served with a ramekin of delicious fruit conserve. No problem sitting at the outdoor tables today; it was warm.

When it came time for lunch, we returned to Café Leila ((1724 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley)), where we enjoyed sandwiches on the outdoor patio.

I had the Amazing Tuna Melt, my favorite, and J chose a Chicken Club. Both good and,

with a light breeze coming across the patio, we enjoyed a relaxing lunch.

One other note, as I write this post, there is a nationwide warning about eating raw tomatoes...seems many have contracted Salmonella poisoning. Just to be on the safe side, Café Leila is not preparing any of its dishes with fresh tomotoes...most sandwiches usually included tomatoes, but not today.

To read more about our Café Fanny and Café Leila experiences, check out blog index for past posts on both of these Berkeley restaurants.