Monday, January 29, 2007

Momapalooza 2007

After an incredibly busy week at work, it was a real joy to have my mom visit for the weekend. This is her second solo trip out here and fourth in total. Her goal is to eventually visit me once for every month of the year, and so she is now one-third of the way there. To September, November, and March she can now add January. (Everything has been on the cool side of the year, but still generally warmer than it is in Chicago.)

I was running on very little sleep and a lot of stress through the middle of the week, but on Friday morning I cleared my last hurdle and was able to wrap everything up in advance of the day's end. Even the interviewing I was involved in didn't make the day feel rushed. As a result, I was feeling relieved and relaxed when I picked up Mom from the airport.

She got in at night (a little ahead of schedule), and we had a simple dinner... some focaccia I had made the day before, hummus and fruit, to which I added some leftover tuna pasta. The rest of the night was spent just talking. We chat nearly every week on the phone, but it's still nice to reconnect in a personal way on the same room.

We both had some trouble sleeping that night. My mom is still on Central Time, so her normal 6am wakeup got translated to 4am. I was still so wired from the work week that I popped awake a little after 4 and wasn't able to fall back asleep, so I ended up just lying on the couch and reading "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" for several hours.

After the sun rose and we were both ambulatory, we headed out to one of my favorite spots in the world, Southern Kitchen. I think it was my mom's third time visiting, though this may have been our first weekend visit. We lucked out perfectly, grabbing the last open table. She ordered a spinach and mushroom omelette with feta cheese while I ordered off the daily specials and got Banana Pecan Buckwheat Pancakes. As always, everything was delicious. My favorite waitress waited on us, and it was just a really pleasant experience... the bustle within the place and cheerful energy can really help a day get started right.

They were predicting some rain that day, so we decided to opt for a more indoorsy experience. One item which has been on my list for a while but that I haven't done yet is visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It's a little out my way at about 80 minutes from my apartment, but the trip down there is great, and it doesn't take much of an excuse for me to try something new. We finished driving south on 17 over the mountains, then picked up Highway 1 and did the coastal drive south. Mom and Dad had taken that route before, but it was the first time I've driven that far south, and it was really pleasant to see the scenery down there. I'm regularly impressed at how little development there is along Highway 1.

The aquarium is extremely well signed, and we got there with very little problem (except for a little confusion at one spot on the walk). While we'd had some rain on the way down there, the skies had cleared up by the time we got there, so we took advantage of the sun and first hit the outdoor exhibits. They have a flood pool, an exhibit on the tides, and some other fun things to look at. In addition, since the aquarium sits directly on the bay, it's fun to just look out at the water. There are kayakers who come right up to the side of the aquarium, plenty of birds, and we even saw a sea lion who came up to the rocks nearby.

The indoor exhibits were excellent as well. Just about any kind of marine life you can think of was represented there: there were tanks filled with sharks, schools of fishes swimming en masse, more kinds of jellies than I knew existed, a pair of octopi, all sorts of stuff. The building is divided into two broad sections, one for the ocean and one for the bay, and each one in turn has a great deal of information in addition to the animals to watch.

Their collection of marine life is definitely the best I've seen anywhere. There were also a lot of other fun items in there. Besides a lot of environmental information, there were exhibits on sea food safety (what kind of fish to eat, wild versus farmed, etc.), contemporary artwork, an exhibit of marine birds and another one of penguins. There's a whole "zone" which is especially for kids and includes a splash pool, lots of hands-on activities, a little tunnel to crawl through. As Mom pointed out, it would be the perfect place to bring a family with little children.

One quick side note: I hadn't known this before, but according to a video there, the octopus is one of the most intelligent sea creatures, and might be the smartest invertebrate. Yet another sign that mankind is meant to be ruled by the octopus overlords, perhaps? Watching two octopi in their tanks was one of the most fascinating moments in what was already a really interesting trip.

We finished all the exhibits in around three hours and then headed home, after a little unintentional detour to find the highway. Once again, it felt like we had timed everything right: got to breakfast before we needed to wait, got to the aquarium when the sun was still out, finished visiting just as it was started to get really crowded, and were back on the road shortly before it started to rain.

On the way back home, we made a stop in what I've decided I'll start referring to as "The Big-Box District". This is an area by the intersection of Highway 17 and Hamilton Avenue. When I moved here there was a Fry's Electronics, Home Depot, and Staples store all in the area; in the last year, a Kohl's and a Bed Bath & Beyond have been added. Mom very generously wanted to buy me a new comforter, so we spent some time in the latter two stores looking at what they had available. I ended up getting a nice, modern-looking black and grey unit with a microsuede top.

One of the many things I enjoy doing with visitors is going to restaurants. I actually very rarely eat out; I'm cooking almost all my meals these days, and it feels awkward for me to eat at a restaurant by myself. At the same time, I love trying new things and especially experiencing different types of cuisine that I can't really prepare for myself. I'd given Mom a short list of places I wanted to try, and we decided on Twist Bistro, a very highly reviewed French restaurant in downtown Campbell.

It seemed like a step up from my standard haunts, so I traded my jeans up to slacks and called to see if I needed a reservation. There was no answer, so we decided to take the chance and went down. The French woman who co-owns the restaurant with her husband greeted us at the door and showed us to our table, which was nicely located towards the rear of the restaurant.

I really liked the ambiance of the place. It wasn't super-elaborate or anything - no candles on the table or stuff like that - but at the same time it was consciously classy and high-service. Our waiter was extremely pleasant, and he was assisted by two other people through the evening who handled all the beverages, clearing the plates, and so on. Soon after we sat down they brought to the table a loaf of warm and crusty bread and a small plate of really tasty marinated carrot slices.

It looked like they had a good wine menu, but we both opted for other beverages - my mom had some sparkling water and I chose some nice hot green tea. For entrees, she had the butternut squash soup and I had the estargot provencal en cocette. (Why? Because I hadn't eaten snails before, and I was curious.) (How were they? Quite good, actually! Very interesting texture, and the sauce they were served in tasted amazing.)

I had been telling Mom earlier in the day that I hardly ever eat red meat any more, so of course I reneged on that for dinner and ordered the Hanging Steak with French Fries. Steak is a very rare treat for me, and I was extremely pleased with what was provided. The fries were delicious as well; extremely crispy with lots of flavor. By the end of the meal some of the fries had soaked up the juices from the steak and that was delicious as well. Mom got a pork chop with mashed potatoes which was evidently quite tasty as well.

As with a lot of restaurants in the area, the physical presentation of the food was nearly as great as the taste. Everything just looks so elegantly and thoughtfully put together, with nice little details that distinguished the dishes.

I hadn't been able to finish my fries, but still really wanted to try their dessert. Making a choice was incredibly hard, not just because so much sounded good, but because I didn't know what a lot of the things on the menu were. I eventually ordered a warm chocolate cake with sauces and grapes. An utterly delicious way to end a meal.

(As great an indulgence as it was, I still don't think it was all that much food. There have been times in the past when I've felt overstuffed when I leave a restaurant; this time around, I was completely satiated without feeling annoyed that they'd given me too much food. Granted, the fact we'd skipped lunch might have helped in that regard.)

We were both feeling pretty tired after the early start to the day, so soon after arriving home we turned in. The next day got started with overnight oatmeal, a fun recipe I found in the Mercury News for cooking Irish steel-cut oats in a slow cooker overnight. It comes out really gummy and tasty.

We next went to Grace Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto, one of the recommendations passed along by Geoff, a College Church connection. It was a good service... they're meeting in a high-school auditorium, and had really wonderful music with good hymn singing and some really talented musicians. The sharing of the peace was awkward, as it always is for me, but the actual sermon (on money, with specific references to Silicon Valley culture and values) was quite good.

On the way home, I did my standard Sunday morning thing and got fruit and veggies for the week from the Campbell farmer's market. We also stopped by Whole Foods to pick up the ingredients for the rest of the day. First on the menu was broiled cod - a really quick and tasty method that's a favorite standby of mine. I rubbed the fishes in a paste of olive oil and basil, and served with strawberries and still more focaccia.

The weather was looking decent in the afternoon, so we went north to the Guadalupe River Park and Gardens. There'd been a lot of publicity when this opened... last summer, I believe. I've been curious about it for a while, but just never got around to trying it.

I had the bright idea of parking by the Heritage Rose Garden and then picking up the trail. Unfortunately, I had trouble finding it, but we found another spot near an access point and got on pretty easily.

The trail is... well, it has its ups and downs. Parts of it are really nice; it runs through downtown and has some great views up-close of the major buildings there, and there are some landscaped areas which look really pretty. There is also a lot of trash on parts of the trail, though, and ongoing construction is causing some annoying detours. Even once everything is "done", I don't think it'll be as convenient as the Los Gatos Creek Trail... there are multiple points on the trail where you need to cross a street or otherwise break up the flow.

That said, though, I could still see myself doing it again. I'd probably stick more on the southern section that runs through downtown, where the trail links together several other points of interest. And I will probably spend a lot more time on the trail if and when it becomes linked to the Los Gatos Creek Trail; it would be a fun way to ride my bike down to the Bay.

There were a couple of drops of water when we started walking, though those disappeared quickly. Soon we saw a rainbow. Throughout the afternoon clouds kept threatening rain, but then the sun would come back out again. After we finished our walk and got back in the car, I had some fun trying to figure out how to get back on the freeway, and some conversation with Mom reminded me of just how confusing the roads here can be to someone who isn't used to them. She'd wondered why I was getting on 280 North since my apartment was south of there; after we got home, I showed her how on that part of the freeway, 280 "North" actually runs south and west.

We called Dad and chatted for a while. He'd spent part of the week visiting his mom in Michigan before attending a conference. I got started on the dinner meal, Pizza Margherita. I can see this becoming a staple of mine - it's pretty easy, I keep most of the ingredients on hand, and it still feels kind of "special" and unique. My very first attempt had been a disaster, but now that I have the proper tools (including a fun SuperPeel (tm) and Pat's Pizza Stone), it's a breeze to make and looks decent. We had the pizza with some wine and, among other things, talked about my parents' experiences eating pizza in Italy when they visited Kathryn.

We finished up the evening with a fun game of Scrabble. Neither my mom or I are all that great at it, at least in comparison to the rest of the greater King family, but we do enjoy the game. Somehow we were both on fire that night, racking up some amazing scores. For a significant stretch of the game we stayed within one or two points of eat other, as each amazing play was followed by an equally impressive one. Towards the end I lucked out with some great plays (playing "Quit" across a triple-word score definitely helped), and pulled out the victory in the end.

And that's more or less it! Monday morning was a pleasant, more leisurely experience than my normal up-wash-eat-out sequence. Good food, good conversation, and good companionship... a great end to another great visit.


  1. Run a search on homosexuality in octopi sometime on youtube. I stumbled over just such a report once. No kidding.