I seem to always get nervous shortly before I have visitors. Not because of them, but because of California. I feel like California gets built up as this amazing eternal paradise where everything is perfect all of the time, when it actually is only perfect roughly 90% of the time. Particularly in the November-March window, I find myself paying too much attention to the weather forecast, worrying about the rain and the temperature. This despite the fact that my visitors, all from the Midwest, seem to invariably enjoy themselves no matter what the sky feels like doing.
Kathryn is the second sibling and fourth family member to bless me with her presence out here. In this case, she got a pretty sweet deal in the California department. Things have been relatively miserable in the Chicago area recently - I believe "arctic freaking tundra" was uttered at one point. It was so bad that her flight out on Friday was canceled, so she didn't arrive until early in the afternoon on Saturday. Still, she walked off the plane into a balmy (for her) 60 degree day, totally sunny and dry.
The theme of the day on Saturday was "go go go" - it was one of the more packed kickoffs I've had, which was sweet. Without stopping at home, we went from the terminal to the Fremont BART station, stopping only to refuel at the nearest In-n-Out Burger. It was Kathryn's inaugural experience at one, and she put up with my fanatical ravings about how awesome it was while we waited a relatively short time in line for our fix. It was actually just the second or so time that I've eaten in the car, and I was impressed yet again by how they do things. They ask at the window if you'll be eating in the car, and if you say "yes", instead of giving you the food in a bag it's presented in an open-topped cardboard box, with the burgers partially wrapped so you can start eating without needing to unwrap the thing. Anyways, I was quite impressed.
(The food this time around was pretty traditional - hamburgers, fries, and shakes; Kathryn with vanilla and me with strawberry. I can only handle Animal Style fries too many times, plus eating it in the car seemed like a recipe for disaster.)
At Fremont, we borded BART and soon were in downtown San Francisco. Kathryn found out a few days before she came out here that Anna, a friend and fellow-student from her time studying abroad in Italy, was also going to be in San Francisco that day visiting her brother. That makes the second time that I've gotten to reconnect a sibling with a former classmate in San Francisco, which is awesome - makes me feel a bit like it's the West Coast equivalent of Times Square. In this case we rendezvoused at Union Square, a great spot to meet up with people. Both of us were planning on attending the Chinese New Year parade that night, so we had time to spend before it kicked off at 5:30.
After some brief discussion, we decided to try and find a cafe to get some coffee. This kicked off one of the longest and least productive (though still enjoyable) walks I've done yet in San Francisco - we basically kept going north, not seeing anything but a super-crowded Starbucks, until we went all the way to North Beach. We finally found a nice little bakery with some open tables and a good coffee selection, sat down, and chatted.
It's always nice to get to know siblings' friends. Anna and her brother, who is a freshman at USF, are both really nice and friendly. It was really fun to listen to Kathryn and Anna catch up and reminisce about their time together.
When we got closer to parade time, we ambled back south again, this time along Grant street. Most of it was closed off for the festival, though the stalls were being deserted as the parade kickoff drew closer. Still, it was my first time down that street, and it was fun to look at the various temples and stuff like that in the area.
Once we got back to Market street, we parted ways when Anna and her brother went to meet their cousin and parents. Kath and I spent the next few hours slowly pacing up and down the parade route, occasionally snagging a relatively open spot to watch the festivities. The parade itself was awesome; I've loved every one I've seen in San Francisco (disclaimer: I have not seen the Folsom Street Festival parade), but even in that august company, the New Year parade stands out. For starters, it's one of the only nighttime parades left in America, and they take advantage of that fact with spectacular lighting and colors. The size of the thing was amazing too, with a seemingly endless procession of costumed dancers, dragons, pigs, marching bands, stilt-walkers, corporate advertising, and creative floats.
One of the few imperfections in a generally spectacular experience was the half-hour or so when it just stopped. We never figured out what the deal was, though I did find out later that a Falun Gong demonstrator had been arrested. Even that wasn't horrible, though... we just slowly walked back towards the beginning of the parade, essentially putting it in motion for us. Once it kicked off again, we drifted back towards our earlier spot.
We kept watching until pretty close to eight, when we hopped a train back to the east. (I think I might try to do the parade again some other time - apparently it ends with 200 people carrying a giant golden dragon, which sounds pretty cool to me.) In keeping with an East Asian theme, our next stop was Yoshi's at Jack London Square, which is a sushi restaurant and jazz club. Doesn't that sound awesome? Yeah, it was really sweet. Kathryn had made the suggestion of trying to find a jazz club, and we were both intrigued by the idea.
It was Kathryn's first time eating Japanese food, and she picked a great place to do it. I really like the restaurant - it's open, tasteful, friendly, high-quality while still feeling fairly casual. The food itself was excellent as well, and cheaper than I'd expected to boot. We ordered the edamame, ginmon salad (rice, seawood, mushrooms, some interesting garnishes), calamari tempura and a selection of sushi rolls. Kathryn was a little intimidated by the sushi, but bravely tried a few pieces and ended up enjoying it. Everything we had was quite good, with really clean flavors and presentation which was gorgeous, as Japanese restaurants seem to always do.
The meal was just incredibly pleasant: great food, great service, and very leisurely. It was served family style, with the waitress periodically bringing out more plates of goodness. Something about sushi really encourages a calm and contemplative approach to eating, which is the perfect setting for nice long conversations.
Anyways! One perk of eating in the restaurant was that we got preferred seating for the 10pm show; our waitress reserved a table for us while we enjoyed our meal. When we were finished, we walked into the club. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned yet who we were there to see: Kurt Elling! My brother and sister are huge fans of him, and I've been hearing them talk for years about how great he is, so it was awesome to finally get the chance to experience him for myself. Not just that, but see him with someone who could fill me in about who he is, explain some of the music references, etc.
The show was sweet. I'm the sort of person who really enjoys jazz but doesn't know much about it, so this was both educational and entertaining. The setup was a pretty traditional combo; Kurt Elling is a vocalist, and he was joined by a piano, drum, and bass. All of the musicians were phenomenal. I was blown away by Elling... his lyrics were amazing, his voice top-notch, his stage presence impressive. He could do a love song and make it feel totally original; he could scat for two minutes and not have it sound at all silly or contrived.
The venue was fun, too. Kathryn was telling me about the Green Mill while we waited for him to arrive, and this definitely was bigger than that, but still much smaller than most music venues I've been to. I don't think there was a bad seat in the house. There were maybe six rings of tables facing the stage, each elevated a bit above the ones below so we all had a great view. As an unexpected bonus, the other two people with reservations for our table never showed, so we got a bit of extra space.
One of the best parts about a sushi jazz club: they serve sushi rolls and sake during sets. How cool is that? (Answer: way cool!) I'm not much of a sake expert, either, but I liked what I had.
The show didn't last as long as I expected, but that was fine... the music was phenomenal and I enjoyed every minute of it. After a standing ovation, Elling and his pianist returned to the stage for a nice little encore. And with that, we headed out into the warm night air, a little giddy and delighted with the unique combination of good sushi, good sashi, and good jazz.
I'd planned on catching a cab back to BART, but we ended up just walking it. It wasn't too bad... definitely a step down from San Francisco, but the streets were fairly quiet, and I didn't get too much of that "Oh, no, I'm in Oakland!" kind of feeling. From the station it was just a quick train ride and car drive back to my apartment and sweet, sweet slumber.
So that was Saturday. :-)
Sunday, we slept in a little bit, then consulted The Big Map and came up with a plan of attack for the day. It started with an invasion of the Farmer's Market in Campbell. I wandered around and selected the fruits and vegetables I would usually get for the week. I didn't pick up my customary fish, though... it would be a while before we returned back to my refrigerator.
Next up was one of the few mandatory elements of a Chris visit: breakfast at Southern Kitchen. We took the scenic detour to gape at the sweet autos at Silicon Valley Auto Group, then put in our names at the tiny restaurant. We needed to wait about twenty minutes, but didn't mind at all... the weather was gorgeous and sunny, so we wandered up and down Main Street a little, then plopped down on some chairs and watched adorable kids run around and blow bubbles while they waited for their table.
We sat at a tiny table tucked away near the kitchen and ate unbelievably good food. Throughout her trip, Kathryn was totally game for sharing food, which was excellent... I'm the sort of person who's curious about what everyone else is eating. She ordered a Greek omelette, which comes with olives and feta cheese and is utterly delicious. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I dove deep into unhealthy territory and ordered the Country Special. It consisted of scrambled eggs, patty sausage, and a biscuit, all smothered in country gravy. While I won't be doing it again soon, that isn't because of the taste; it was amazing. I also took a bowl of grits on the side, mainly because I've never had grits before and figured that if they'd be good anywhere, they'd be good here. And they were pretty tasty, although honestly I do prefer the hash browns. But hey, at least now I KNOW that hash browns are better, and will no longer be wracked with doubt when I order a side.
Once we were stuffed with great country cooking, we headed back out to the car and up into the mountains. Just having Kathryn visit was wonderful, but what made the trip even better were the things she wanted to do that others haven't tried yet. I never would have thought of doing the jazz club if she hadn't suggested it, and in a similar vein, she was the first person to take me up on the idea of visiting a vineyard. The famous ones are up in Napa Valley, of course, but there are a surprising number in the Santa Cruz mountains near where I live. I'd consulted with a friend at work and done some online research, eventually selecting one or two which seemed like they would work.
The one we visited is called Byington, and was yet another really fun experience. The vineyards look really impressive even outside of growing season, and you just can't beat the location: amazing and dramatic views of the mountains, and even the chance to see the Pacific Ocean. We pulled into the winery and saw the great building they have, very pretty and impressive.
We walked inside the winery for tasting. It was my first time, and honestly I was a little nervous - after seeing Sideways I had some idea of how it worked, but also was worried that they would be able to detect how little I know about wine. I needn't have worried, though. There were three people working behind the counter, and they were really fun... they enjoyed what they were doing and knew a lot about their wine, but didn't lord it over us or anything. Some other visitors came in and out while we were there, and the whole operation just had a really open, relaxed feel to it that appealed to me.
So the way a tasting works is that you stand at the counter with a glass. There's a printed list of the featured wines for the month, and they'll pour you a little bit and describe the wine to you. Some people ask good questions about it, Kathryn and I tended to just sip. There's a little jug off to one side where you can dump the wine you don't drink; since I was driving, I would pitch mine after a few sips (though the servings were small enough that I probably didn't need to bother). And that's it... no pressure to buy, no entrance fee, no nothing. Oh, and there are some crispy breadstick things around too.
The actual wines all tasted really good. I've only started drinking wine since moving out here, and once again am far from an expert. At Byington, all the grapes they grow are for Pinot Noir, but they produce several other kinds with grapes that they buy from other local growers... I think the furthest south come from Monterey, and furthest north are still on the Peninsula. The five wines we tried were Chardonnay, Saignee, Sauvignon Blanc, Alliage, and Pinot Noir. Both of us liked all of them, but eventually agreed that the Alliage was the best. It had a really good taste that wasn't overwhelming. I ended up buying a bottle of the Alliage, the Pinot Noir and the Saignee.
We spent some time just wandering the inside of the building, which was really cool. You could see the room where they produce and store the wine, as well as some really classy open rooms that could be used for receptions. It looks like there are a lot of weddings held at Byington, and I can definitely see why, it is a gorgeous location.
We eventually returned to the car, stored the wine with the produce still in the trunk, and hit the road again. Rather than take the direct route (Highway 9 to Santa Cruz), I decided to try and work my way through back roads to get down to the ocean near Bonny Doon. Kathryn catnapped as I bounced and rattled our way through several detours, eventually emerging exactly where I wanted to be, opposite Bonny Doon Beach.
It was PACKED this day. Some times that I've gone there (on weekends, even) I'm the only person, and other times there will just be a few cars. This time, there were probably thirty or forty vehicles there, and for a while I was afraid we wouldn't be able to find a spot to park. We first headed up to the headlands, looked down into the beach, and gazed out onto the ocean. We next descended into the beach proper where we walked along the shore. There were a lot of people there, but it wasn't as crowded as I had feared based on the number of cars. We headed back into the car and did what Californians do best: drove down the highway.
There was some brief discussion about whether to go north or south, eventually settling on south. This proved to be a wise choice. The first section, through Santa Cruz down to Monterey, while pleasant, was not spectacular; you got nice views of the mountains and fields, but the ocean wasn't even visible for much of the time. Ah, but south of Monterey... Highway One moved directly onto the coast, and you are treated to several miles of gorgeous and awe-inspiring scenery. The road swoops dramatically in and out of the mountains, with sheer cliffs down to the ocean on one side and mountain faces on the other. Viewing spots are located all along this stretch, and any one of them would be great to stop at. I'd never been this far south before, and have to admit that it's the best part of the coast I've seen yet. We got all the way down to Big Sur, decided that we were running out of daylight, then turned around and headed back.
Just for the fun of it, we did a quick driving tour of Santa Cruz on our way back. We spent some time on Pacific Avenue, the main downtown area, as well as going along the waterfront and seeing the amusement park on the Boardwalk. Kathryn noticed all the street musicians, and I noticed someone coming directly at us the wrong way down a one-way road. When we'd had our fill, we jumped on 17 and came back over the hill.
That night we stopped at Andale's for supper. I'd only been to their north location before, so we tried the one across the street. It was smaller and noisier than the other one, but the food was just as good. Kathryn had a Quesadilla Suprema that was delicious... as always, everything was really fresh and pleasant, with no gristle or anything out of place. I had a Chile Relleno Burrito, which I hadn't known existed, but proved to be very tasty. It was smothered in a particularly spicy and interesting sauce. Every time I take a Midwesterner our to eat Mexican, I've started to order them a taco al pastor. I've only seen these on the west coast, but they are incredibly tasty. Andale's were good as well, though different from usual... most tacos here are really small and simple, while this was a bit bigger and came with pinto beans. Still really tasty, though.
We were both pretty tired when we finally came back to my apartment. We spent some time planning Kathryn's next day; I had to work, and she was interested in striking off on her own to explore San Francisco. I walked her through the things to be aware of, how transit worked, things to see and skip, and so on. I also left her with two maps: the little pocket tourist thing that I've had since I moved here, and a PHENOMENAL transit map which I finally located last month after a year of searching.
Monday was pretty busy at work... we're kicking off a major new project while all the other ones are still going full-steam, so it's pretty intense. Kathryn made it down to the city by 11, and managed to pack in a pretty full day. She got to visit Haight-Ashbury, browse some resale stores and bookstores, see part of Golden Gate Park, eat lunch at a cafe, and spend a few hours on Ocean Beach. Needless to say, I was jealous.
I picked up Kathryn from the station when she came back. That night I made my first recipe out of my new Cook's Country magazine, "Chicken and Corn Chowder with Sweet Potatoes." We had a really pleasant dinner with bowls of chowder, some crackers and Gouda cheese, fresh apples from the market, and a bottle of the Alliage from Byington. It was tasty and pleasant, even though I'd messed up the recipe slightly by adding too much chicken broth so it came out more soupy than chowdery.
I introduced Kathryn to Guitar Hero, and she dominated song after song after song. She has some previous experience with Dance Dance Revolution and is musically talented, so I probably shouldn't be surprised she did so much better than I did. Meanwhile, I was wrapping up what was supposed to be dessert but was rapidly turning into an unmitigated disaster. In retrospect, my first attempt at making a cake from scratch should have been something relatively simple and not the Ultimate Layer Lemon Cake from Cook's Illustrated. The filling and icing came together just fine, but the cakes themselves were a mess, falling apart all over the place and impossible to deal with. I ended up deciding it was beyond hope and breaking off to do my own thing: instead of four layers, I would just have two, with a WHOLE lot of lemon filling in between. The icing did help cover up the fact that it was really more a "lemon crumble" than a "lemon cake." It took me so long to get through it, though, that it wasn't ready until after 11, by which time I was not in the mood to eat it, and so just stuck it in the refrigerator.
Tuesday was a variation on the Monday theme: I put in a day at the office while Kathryn explored the City by the Bay. She got a later start than planned, but still managed to arrive downtown before noon, whereupon she spent some time at the Museum of Modern Art. Having spent the last semester studying art in Italy, she was in a much better position to appreciate this world-class museum than I would be. Afterwards she returned to Chinatown, had lunch and explored in North Beach, did a quick tour of Fisherman's Wharf (which she correctly identified as a tourist trap), put in the requisite visit to Ghirardelli's, walked along the waterside a ways, and then walked all the way back down to the train station.
I'd planned on doing Frozen Chicken Pot Pies that night, but quickly realized that there wouldn't be time to make them, then freeze them, then cook them again. Instead we had some leftover chowder, kohlrabi with gouda cheese, apples and more Alliage. Afterwards, she was feeling brave enough to try some of my Unmitigated Disaster Cake. We both agreed that it tasted better than it looked... the cake part itself was too dry and not very flavorful, but combined with the icing and the filling it wasn't bad. I was impressed to note that the icing still held its body after a day in the fridge, despite my failure to elevate the temperature to 170 degrees as Cook's Illustrated had directed.
Kathryn continued her domination of Guitar Hero, beating a dozen songs without a single failure (although at one point she did manage to rip the controller cord out of the console because she was rocking so hard). When her hand finally gave out I took over and showed off some of the cooler songs on Guitar Hero 2. (I haven't reviewed that game on the blog yet. Quick capsule summary: mechanics are slightly improved from the first game but essentially the same. Song selection is on average a little worse that the first, but the best songs on 2 are better than the best songs on 1. I haven't tried the multiplayer mode yet, but desperately want to.) She then took back over and tore through still more songs. Finally, exhausted by all the rock, we both went to bed.
Wednesday was brief but pleasant. While I punched the clock at work, Kathryn advanced all the way to Hard level on Guitar Hero (a feat that took me several weeks), and caught a little more California sun before shipping back to freezing Chicago. I was sorry to see her go; our time together had been a blast, and it was a great opportunity to both reconnect and to see some more corners of this beautiful area. Perhaps best of all, I have now hosted all but one of my immediate family members out here. I'm pretty sure that after Andrew comes, I'll get a free ice cream cone.
P.S. - As a side note, this marks my 200th post on Timmy's House of Sprinkles. It seems very appropriate that it would be about spending time in my new homeland with someone I care about deeply.