Saturday, February 28, 2009

George, Being George

I met George Plimpton once, at the wedding of his sister-in-law, a dear friend of mine. I am sure the meeting was not an occasion that George remembered; it was more a courtesy that the bride extended in introducing me to her sister, George, and their twin daughters. There was a nanny present that day also.

But, I've always been intrigued by the life of George Plimpton and the Paris Review, which he founded.

George died in his sleep in 2003, while I was vacationing in Paris. My thought on reading the news was, "How appropriate that I be in Paris when George dies."

Last year, his widow, Sarah Dudley Plimpton, with input from at least 200 people who shared their lives with George, published the book George, Being George.

When my friend alerted me to the book, I bought it immediately and saved it until now, when I had a bit of extra reading time, to savor it.

And savor it I did. The book touches on events in Plimpton's life from his early school days in 1934 until his death. I love the way it is written, with brief interviews by friends, family, associates, lovers, and just people who knew him. The way it is written sometimes makes me feel like I am there with them. But, other times, especially when I read about his social life in New York City in the 1960s, when I was also there working at IBM, makes me feel like I lived in a total other universe. His lifestyle was so different from mine in the same city.

All the same, George, Being George is a fascinating read, whether you have a personal connection to him or not.

Thursday, February 26, 2009


It's not like there isn't a Cheesecake Factory restaurant in just about every major shopping center...but, a week ago, Walnut Creek got its own Cheesecake Factory, a block from Broadway Plaza and less than a block from the Walnut Creek Downtown Century Cinemas.

I like Cheesecake Factory for is huge menu with something to suit just about everyone. Prices are moderate. The decor is always fabulous. For those who might remember Maxwell's Plum in San Francisco, that's what the decor of most Cheesecake Factories remind me of.

One thing that seems to be universal at all Cheesecake Factories is that they do not take reservations and there is almost always a wait and customers put up with it.

J and I decided that our strategy for last night would be to arrive shortly after 5 p.m., presumably before the dinner rush. As we approached, we saw crowds already gathered outside, each person holding a beeper waiting to be called to a table.

We checked in and were told the wait would be 15 minutes. I wandered toward to dining room and noted that most tables were empty. They were gradually phasing the seating, presumably to not overwhelm the kitchen, especially when they've only been open a week.

We were seated in less than 15 minutes and ordered drinks. Warm bread and butter arrived quickly.

Then we ordered.

It was the California Omelette for J. The Jamaican Black Pepper Shrimp for me. J ordered a side dinner salad to start. Our drinks arrived promptly but then we had a wait of at least half an hour before we got our order. Taking a positive approach to what seemed like a very long wait, I noted that it was better to be sitting at our comfortable table with drinks and bread than to be standing with the mobs waiting to be seated.

All our food arrived at the same much for J's salad first.

J's salad was beautiful. His omelette looked rather plain and not that appealing although it was generously filled with Avocado, Sauteed Mushrooms, Green Onion, Tomato, Shallots, Garlic, Sour Cream, and Cheese. He chose sliced tomatoes over potatoes to go with his omelette.

My shrimp dish was accompanied by White Rice, Black Beans, Fried Plantains, and Mango Salsa. A menu option to the Jamaican Black Pepper Shrimp was to have Chicken or half and half. While I ordered Shrimp, I got Chicken and waiter swore that he ordered Shrimp and offered to take the dish back. I kept it, not wanting another long wait for a replacement. It was tasty and spicy. However, my black beans were not they pre-assemble dishes such as this?

I had hoped to have a piece of Original Cheesecake for dessert but just couldn't handle it. It our waiter's credit, he suggested I take a slice home.

When the check came, J noticed that he was charged $6.95 rather than $3.95 for his salad with a meal, a lower price because you order a main dish. The waiter corrected it, but it brought home, once again, how you have to check your bill in restaurants.

When we left two hours later, the crowds by the door and outside were so great, it was difficult to navigate our way out.

Will I return? Of course...I like Cheesecake Factory and there is still lots that I have not tried on the menu...I was very tempted by the Cuban Sandwich...their salads are always delicious...the pizzas and the hot fudge sundae at the next table looked amazing. There is a special menu of small plates that I plan to explore in the future. It's a fun and lively place. While the food is good, hearty, and fresh, it is not extraordinary, but given the variety and ambiance and price value, I can live with that. However, if the service is not better when I return to this Cheesecake Factory, I will not be as foregiving.

To its credit, the Walnut Creek Cheesecake Factory may be big but it was not noisy...the artistic sound buffers on the ceiling and other elements acoustic design keep the noise to a level where you can easily converse with your dining companions.

There is plenty of free garage and metered street parking near the Cheesecake Factory. There is also paid valet parking in the adjacent garage that has a direct entrance into the restaurant.

And, if you place a to-go order, there is a special parking area in the same garage where you pull in, call them, and they bring your order out to you. How good is that?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


I get my hair cut next door to El Jarro, a Mexican café in Lafayette, CA. (3563 Mt. Diablo Blvd; 925-283-6639).

In the few years that El Jarro has been open, I often consider timing my hair appointments around lunch here. It was not until today that I finally tried El Jarro.

My stylist recommended the Tilapia Vera Cruz, the manicurists love the Mexican Torta Sandwiches. I was advised to not order burritos, enchiladas or tacos because the specialities of El Jarro are the authentic dishes of Southerm Mexico.

The woman who was having her hair cut after me, arrived for her appointment with Sopas from El Jarro...they looked deliciuos and this is what I ordered...what is offered on the menu gives a choice of Chorizo or Chicken as the main filling. I've been told you can ask for custom creations; the woman at the hair salon had Carnitas on her Sopas.

I decided to order off the menu, choosing the Chorizo. My serving consisted of two fried tortilla shells, each about the size of an English Muffin, filled with Chorizo, shredded lettuce, and Mexican cheese. On the side was sour cream and spicy red sauce. At $7.50 the serving, this was more than enough for one hungry person.

The one thing that I would have liked with my lunch was some Agua Fresca, the Mexican fresh fruit drink. El Jarro does not offer such. Instead I had a glass of orange juice, which was a refreshing balance to my spicy dish, but watermelon or strawberry Agua Fresca would have really hit the spot.

The one Mexican non-alcoholic beverage that they serve is Horchata, a drink made with almonds, rice milk, cinnamon, sugar and lime. Next time that's what I will order.

And, there will be a next time. Looking around the small dining room, I observed that the Tortilla soup was very popular. Also at many tables were the Tortas, sandwiches in thick soft Mexican buns, filled with meat, avocado, cheese and more. A customer near me ordered a single taco with Spicy Chicken.

I will be back in 6 weeks, if not sooner...6 weeks is my next hair appointment.

Oh, El Jarro has an enclosed back patio and a few outdoor seats in front on the side walk. It has private free off street parking in the back too.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


Yesterday was Valentine's Day and a Saturday. The perfect day for a celebration dinner out.

While I usually avoid restaurants on Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, and New Year's Eve because prices are generally higher and the restaurants are so busy and crowded that service and sometimes the food suffer, this year, we threw caution to the wind and booked at Eccolo, one of our Berkeley favorites.
They had a special three course menu at the fixed price of $75 per person. The selections sounded delicious and we were able to get a reservation.

The meal started with a complimentary amuse buche, a small empanada filled with prosciutto and cheese...yum!

Then the meal started.

For my first course, I chose the Poached Egg on Toast with shaved Black Truffles. J went for the Grilled White Shrimp tossed with avocado and greens. Both courses were amazing and visually beautiful.

Then, it was on to the main courses.

While neither of us eats much red meat, J could not pass up the Sirloin with Fried Potato Salad. Again, a beautiful plate and a perfectly cooked dish.

I am always tempted by lobster and the Grilled Lobster with Fried Artichokes "spoke" to me. Before dinner I had been talking with a friend about Eccolo's Fried Artichoke Hearts, which are prepared in a Roman Jewish style. They are often on the menu as a first course. Well, surprise of all surprises was these special artichokes were piled into the center of the lobster. I was in heaven and relished every single one.

For dessert, I chose the Citrus Pavlova and J went for the Chocolate Tart. I found the Pavlova a bit sweeter than I desired...I know that meringue is mostly sugar, but it just seemed too intense. All the same, we enjoyed.

While the food was wonderful and special, I probably will save Eccolo for non-special day meals.

Almost as soon as we were seated, we noticed that several more tables had been added to both dining rooms. Our table kept getting bumped by everyone who passed by. We quickly asked to be moved and they were able to find us a better table. We noticed other people who also were asking to change tables. The servers had a difficult time navigating to their tables because the dining rooms were so packed.

The service was leisurely to the point of leaving long gaps between courses. When I realized that my dessert was so sweet, I asked for a cup of tea and Jim a cup of coffee. Again, the wait for the beverages seemed like an eternity. It was long enough for the ice cream that topped my Pavlova to melt.

We always look over the check before putting down our credit card to pay. While the menu stated that coffee or tea was included in the $75 price, there was a charge for our beverages. When J pointed this out to the server, she pretty much brushed it off, but quickly redid the check. When something like this happens, especially in this case where all meals were one price, I am always suspicious...even wondering how the register would allow coffee and tea to be rung up in addition to the meal.

Friday, February 13, 2009


Our second day was a Monday, a day that all the museums are closed. Since a day in Bruges was on our must-do list, we hustled over the the Central train station and caught the next train to Bruges. An hour later, we were there.

The main ways to get into the Center of town and to Markt Square in the center of town are by walking a mile or so, taking a taxi, or by renting a bicycle. It seems that just about every train station, big or small, has bikes for rent. I'd say that about half the passengers on our train, rented bikes.

Much as I enjoy biking, riding on cobble stone streets, which seem to be the main pavement both in Bruges and Brussels, was a bit beyond my comfort level.

It was a lovely day and we opted to walk into town. We just followed the others from the train and found ourselves in the center of this charming town. Along the way, we got glimpses of some of the residential streets.

The first site that we came upon was the Sint-Janshospitaal. It also has a museum, which was closed, this being a Monday. Sint-Janshospitaal is a medieval hospital that treated the sick, homeless, and mad from the 12th century until 1976. It has the feel of a college campus. We just wandered around a bit.

The steeple of Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe-kerk, a church whose building started in 1220 (it took over 200 years to build), peeks out over much of the town. We first spotted the steeple above Sint-Janshospitaal. This was our next stop.

The church is open to the public and houses Michelangelo's Madonna and Child, the artist's only sculpture to leave Italy during his lifetime. The church has other art works by famous artists. The tombs of Charles the Bold, ruler of Belgium from 1467 to 1477, and his daugher, Mary of Burgundy, can be seen in a small museum in the church.

By now we were hungry for lunch and just across the street from Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe-kerk we spotted a restaurant with a lovely outdoor patio, Marie van Bourgondie. This being a warm sunny day, we had lunch here. We both ordered Omelets and enjoyed a leisurely lunch outdoors.

Having seen the film In Bruges, I was on the lookout for familiar sites. I never figured out which bridge the main characters walked over any number of times, but every so often I felt like I was in the movie.

Some call Bruges the "Venice of the North" because of the network of canals that flow through the town.

Getting back to my trip to Belgium last fall, as you may recall, we stayed in Brussels for a week.

Finally, we arrived at the Markt, or central square, which was bustling with cars, busses, pedestrians, and horse drawn carriages. Restaurants and shops overlook the Markt.

The one site I was sure of was the Sint-Salvatorkathedraal which overlooks the Markt Square. The main characters in In Bruges climbed the belfry. J walked up one level to a visitor center but neither of us was up to climbing to the top.

We ended our day in Bruges with a walk down what seems to be the main shopping street, Steenstraat, which runs off the Markt. I did some shopping at the Tintin shop. Tintin is a cartoon character who was the creation of Belgian artist, Herge. Tintin and Herge seem to be something of national heros and I thought Tintin socks and other souvenirs were perfect gifts and remembrances of Belgium.

I also noticed Esprit stores in most Belgian shopping areas, including the the train station. Esprit was a California company whose clothing was very very popular in the 1970s and 1980s but which is rarely found in the United States today. It seems that Esprit lives on with its trendy, casual, colorful clothes, in Belgium, at least.

We caught the 4:31 p.m. train back to Brussels and we back to our hotel in time to rest a bit before heading out to dinner. The express trains seem to run every hour between Brussels and Bruges.

I really liked Bruges, possibly more than Brussels. Another time, I will stay a day or two in Bruges to be able to explore it in more depth. We got a nice overview on our day here and having all the museums closed allowed us to focus on just walking around and absorbing the local ambiance. It was good.

Sunday, February 8, 2009


Two weeks post-op of a biggie knee surgery, I decided that J needed a break from being my personal chef.

Thinking of a comfortable restaurant close to home where no one would mind if I elevated my leg on a chair, I thought of Sunrise Bistro, one of my longtime favorites for healthful casual food at moderate prices.

Over the many years that Sunrise has been in Walnut Creek, just a short walk from Broadway Plaza and the Walnut Creek Downtown Century Cinemas, it has remained a busy popular spot for breakfast and lunch. From time to time, they've opened for dinner but haven't attracted a big enough crowd, I guess, to make it worth their efforts.

I am hoping that what they've been doing for the last 6 months or so with their dinner service will be a "keeper." They are open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday evenings. In addition to selections from their daytime menus of sandwiches, salads, and soups, Sunrise now has a full Barbecue menu which includes Baby Back Ribs, Brisket, Chicken, Tri-Tip and Pulled Pork. And, they offer options on serving size...small and full. All the Barbecue meals come with your choice of two Fixin's and a Jalepeno muffin.

My choice last night was a small portion of the Baby Back you can see from the photo, it certainly isn't small. My Fixin's choices were cole slaw and sweet potato mash. J ordered, and finished, a big order of Brisket with Collard Greens and Sweet Potato Mash as his Fixin's choices.

For dessert, we couldn't manage a big slice of Red Velvet Cake, much as I wanted to try it, but, instead, each had a very large chocolate chip cookie...we each took half a cookie home.

Sunrise has always been a health-conscious restaurant and features many vegetarian items on its menu. Its menu now indicates which items have sugar as one of the top three ingredients...a new way to guide those watching their sugar intake in their choices. Sunrise makes all its baked goods in house. I never tire of their Herbed Bread...always my choice when I order a sandwich.

Our tasty meals, with a glass of wine for J and a glass of OJ for me (I'm not yet cleared for wine), came to less than $40, not including tip.