29 March 2008

California, Here We Come

Today we'll have my last in a series of posts about the United States before I go back to blogging about my usual stuff. Thanks to all the people who've commented and welcomed me back. Please do write me if you ever plan on coming to the Philippines. I won't be so bold as to write "I'll make it worth your while," but one can try. I'll begin with a fortune I received in a cookie:
Peking Palace Fortune Cookie
I'm not much for tooting my own horn but I truly hope you have a good sense of who I am and thoroughly enjoy my blog posts and comments. Now, on to the rest of California!

Our itinerary basically consisted of: Daly City and San Francisco - Las Vegas - Long Beach - Folsom - San Francisco again - San Bruno. We've already covered the Daly City, San Francisco, San Bruno, and Las Vegas parts so here are the rest of my adventures. There are relatively fewer sequential pictures of food so I've incorporated them into the post unlike the last three.
Shoreline Village Lighthouse
Long Beach Boats
From Vegas, we took a plane to Long Beach and my Aunt Ellie immediately whisked us off to Shoreline Village for a bit of sightseeing. Very touristy, and we got a pirate tourist teaspoon-- Don't ask. We stopped by to take home a huge Costco pizza. The fat-free swirled Kirkland Signature frozen yogurt made me curious-- I got one a little later. It's probably bombarded with sugar but it sure takes care of a soft-serve ice cream craving.
Me and my aunt, cousin, and friend at Hokkaido
That night, we ate at a buffet in Hokkaido, a Pan-Asian restaurant. The pizza was still somewhere up there, but I still ended up eating more than I could handle, and I was the only one who got dessert, even. Smart. I'm on the treadmill as I type. That's me with my Aunt Ellie, her super-cool and ebullient daughter Christina, and her super-nice boyfriend, Derek. I love their family. We stayed at the Mariott Courtyard on 1st Street and I absolutely recommend this hotel. It had free Internet where I could (and did) bug you guys at no cost to me.

We had a day trip to Los Angeles on a suave Lincoln town car (we don't have Lincolns in the Philippines). Our driver was a mixed Native American-Spanish-Mexican guy in his late 20's, James. I love his distinctive accent-- a mix of Californian and Native American, each syllable distinctly pronounced, and kind of surfer-sounding. As you have no doubt picked up, I am quite an accent-ophile.
Los Angeles
Los Angeles is pretty much everything I expected. We didn't have a lot of time, but I observed that the abrupt change in scenery-- from the extravagant to seedy-- was very jarring. Imagine transitioning between some motel where they film amateur porn and then to Paris Hilton's luxury suite. No, wait, actually that's not such a big leap. Anyway LA is virtually Sheryl Crow's Tuesday Night Music Club album come to life.
Santa Monica Boulevard
"All I wanna do, is have some fun, until the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard..."
Grauman's Chinese Theater
"We'll be down on our knees outside Grauman's Chinese-- palm prints there on the street, immortality's neat!" I couldn't decide which celebrity I wanted to match my feet with. I have one with Charlton Heston, but I actually don't know him. Will Smith's feet and hands are huge. There must be padding.
Criterion Theater, plus me
Here's the Promenade on Santa Monica, where several boutiques are lined up. I wish I had more time to go into the shops. I don't know what's so significant about the Criterion Theater but the signage reminded me of Bert Monroy's work so I had to have a picture taken.
Mickey Mouse's Star
I honestly would have preferred to have my picture taken at Bugs Bunny's star and not the mascot of an evil corporation (oh, I'm kidding), but there it is.
Kodak Theater
The Kodak Theater. No Academy Awards or American Idol finals when we went. Booo.
La Creperie
La Creperie's menu
Romeo and Juliet at La Creperie
We spent our last evening on 2nd Street. It was near closing time so I wasn't able to buy any quirky kitchen items (sigh), but we did eat at this gorgeous café called La Crêperie. While I do enjoy the quiet, peaceful places, I do on occasion enjoy these joints, bustling with activity, sophistication, conversation, and a man playing ragtime music on a loud piano. Awesome. I wasn't too hungry so I used the opportunity to order a crêpe. That is the Romeo and Juliet Crêpe, and it was divine.

We boarded a Jet Blue plane to Sacramento, where I had a nice conversation with a guy visiting his extended family. Yeah, Americans, so unfriendly! Haha. I saw some struggling Christian rocker too toting his huge, obnoxious guitar. Maybe I should have gotten an autograph just in case.
View outside my cousin's apartment in Folsom
My cousin, who is a pediatrician (we're both first-generation doctors) works in Folsom, not far from Sacramento. This is a view from her apartment. It's freakily beautiful. I would literally die with happiness if my job consisted of clinic duty, then going home to a great, (relatively unused by her, unfortunately) kitchen. And that would be my view. The environment here is so amazingly lush-- I will one day show you the view from my bedroom and it is butt-fugly, folks.
Boreal, plus me
We took the opporunity to take my cousin to places nearby that even she hasn't visited, among them Boreal ski resort near Lake Tahoe. My brother plunged his shoe into the snow and I was like, "OMFG WHY DID YOU JUST DO THAT?!" It is literally too cold for human inhabitation, but hey, this is what I get for being an islander. My thick Zara hoodie was a lifesaver, but it's still not proper winter-wear. So that is my first taste of real snow. Fifteen minutes of freezing my ass off after an hour and a half of driving. By the way, here in the Philippines, we don't pump our own gas. Actually I've been puzzled about this, but at least it creates job opportunities and maybe curbs any attempts at theft or tampering.
Tahoe Joe's
Chicken Club at Tahoe Joe's
We ate at Tahoe Joe's, a Sacramento chain. Service took a long while, but I got a good chicken club.
Romano's Macaroni Grill
We also ate at Romano's Macaroni Grill, which is an American-Italian chain of restaurants. The servings were huge and tasted great. My picture of the food, though, was not.
Tofu Satay at Amarin
For a change, we ate at Amarin, a Thai restaurant. I had Tofu Satay because I was feeling very guilty about everything I'd eaten so far, and I must say, that was mighty tasty for something wholesome. Sampling the other dishes ordered by my family (Beef Rendang, Yellow Chicken Curry, Pad Thai), I'd say it was a great dinner.
Artesa Visitor's Center
The other place my cousin hadn't been to was Napa Valley, known for its vineyards. I'm not a particularly extravagant person (despite what some of my friends may sometimes think, I'm not Frasier personified), so instead of a tour, I suggested that we go to a well-renowned winery, Artesa. Here you can find great wine, beautiful art (sculptures, paintings, fountains), and a few kitchen knick-knacks for sale. That's my brother walking away from me inside the Artesa visitor's center.
Wine Tasting Menu
Champagne at Artesa
Here's the wine tasting menu (uh... we went for the $10 one). Since I'm not used to alcohol, my visual acuity very suddenly improved (haha). And because I'm no expert, I won't offer you any advice regarding the wines we tried, but I would not want to drink the 2004 Elements again. We bought a bottle of the 2004 Limited Release Syrah. We came at a bad time for food, though-- I wanted to eat at Zuzu or Pilar, but most restaurants only open at night. We ate Chinese food at Peking Palace, where I had the nice fortune cookie. It was good food, but I was disappointed not to have eaten where I initially planned, and we have great Chinese food here at home anyway.
Syrah at Artesa overlooking Napa Valley
So, that is, in more than 120 pictures, my trip to the States. We have more but I didn't include pictures of my mom and brother. I'm sure you can tell that I had a fantastic experience with few regrets, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. Here's a horribly centered (hey, I've had a few sips of wine already) glass of red overlooking beautiful Napa Valley, for all you kind readers. Thanks so much for reading and I hope you'll come back soon to read about my now American-enriched culinary adventures.

(PS- Actually, I still haven't chronicled my 2004 trip to Europe yet, but it's not very gastrocentric. Someday, when I'm not so busy. I just hurried to publish these before I forget the details, which is a good practice for after any vacation.)

27 March 2008

Las Vegas, While My Guitar Gently Weeps

I think it was shortly before my high school graduation that my (more extravagant) classmates were talking about going to Las Vegas. Of course, they were 18 and I was 16, but it boggled my mind why anyone would want to go there. You see, the images that had been embedded in my mind were those of the ridiculously gaudy Flamingo, champagne overflowing, Donald Trump buying your soul, etc. But my opinion of Las Vegas has completely changed. I would go back. But never with my classmates. Being a food blogger completely alters your view of the world, you see, and your itinerary is often met by normal people with a giant "HUH?" The reason I love Las Vegas (huh, I sure throw around the word "love" a lot these days) can be summed up in one image:
Tickets to LOVE
But of course, me being me, I'm going to expound on that. I will try to refrain from screaming LUXURY!!! at the end of each paragraph, but feel free to add it in your head.

We took a shuttle to our hotel, and it was driven by the snarkiest driver ever. It was at this point I was beginning to wonder if failed stand-up comedians come here to look for other work. But as you know, by the end I was convinced that all people in the service business in the States was trained in the art of snappy patter. We never strayed from the Las Vegas Strip (too much to see as it is), and walked till our feet bled or took the Monorail (good value, good for 24 hours).
Treasure Island Room
We stayed at the Treasure Island Hotel at the Las Vegas Strip, and man, that was the most luxurious bed I've been in, ever (that's what a 4-diamond rating will get you, I gather!). Compared to the other hotels on the strip (most famously: The Venetian, Paris, MGM Grand, The Mirage, Caesar's Palace, The Bellagio, New York New York), Treasure Island was not exceedingly large or packed with big-name restaurants and shops, but I think it was a good choice for us.
Fashion Show Mall
A short walk over a bridgeway takes you to the fantastic Fashion Show Mall. And yes, that is a catwalk. And no, I did not walk on it or strike a pose. The man in black is Burnie, who sold iPod embellishments as if his life depended on it. I was impressed so now my iPod is dressed in a removable Union Jack. The shops in Fashion Show Mall are more tailored to women, but there were still some (men's/youth) shops that caught my eye.
The Sirens of Treasure Island
Treasure Island also has a nightly show, "The Sirens of TI." I think there are two missing letters at the end of that. It was public, so that was kind of surprising. Vegas is really not a place for kids. Or if you want your kids to age exponentially, take them to Vegas.
The Grand Canal Shoppes inside Venezia, plus me
Across Treasure Island, also accessible by bridge, is the beautiful Venezia at The Venetian (take a peek at the satellite photos on Google maps to get a better idea of what walking around the streets is like). A non-smelly canal runs through it, where you can browse the Grand Canal Shoppes on gondola. Actually, I was kind of missing the characteristic smell of Venice, even if it's not quite so appealing. Take note the "sky" you see here is false-- I'm completely indoors. Amazing, huh? I asked my brother if they have their Vegas weddings at a replica of the Piazza di San Marco. Anyway, there are plenty of high-end shops here, moreso than the Fashion Show Mall, in the hopes that once you get a big win at the casino you will splurge without moving too far. Question you may be asking: Did I gamble? No, and it's not because I think it's more virtuous or whatever. It's just not one of the things I consider exciting or an item in my checklist of life. Seeing the older folks push a button for the slot machines (see? They don't even crank 'em anymore!) actually seemed really boring to me.
Fountain at the Bellagio
Here we have another fantastic hotel, The Bellagio (the Eiffel Tower belongs to another hotel). This is a moment from the Fountains show, where several jets of water explode to the tune of popular songs. There was some confusing renovation going on inside so I think I didn't get the full effect of its grandiosity.
Pool at The Bellagio
Inside was this exclusive (I'm guessing guest-only) pool.
Paris driveway, Las Vegas
Base of the Eiffel Tower at Paris, Las Vegas
Here we have a view of the driveway of Paris, a Caribbean-themed Hotel (uh, I'm kidding). Beautiful detailing-- again it was effective in evoking memories of Paris for me, but frosted in the gaudy/awesome LUXURY!! of Vegas. So there's the "Arc de Triomphe." Also you can see the shrunken Eiffel Tower. I asked my brother if they have their Vegas weddings at a replica of the Notre Dame Cathedral.
The Wynn lobby, with me
This is me inside the very expensive Wynn Hotel, striking a very awkward pose. I'm only five and a half feet tall, so you can just imagine what a tiny slip of a ghost I am in person (my aunt joked that I looked twelve, not twenty-six-- so I am looking forward to a career with little patient interaction, such as Radiology, Pathology, or Anesthesiology, or maybe Pediatrics). There happened to be a construction convention going on at the time I was in Vegas, so there was a hefty cross-section of people from all over America and I have to say they are HUGE! And I'm not talking about obese or even just plain tall, people. I felt like I was in the company of a completely different scale of people. Even at very young ages of probably sixteen or so, it seemed like everyone went through American football training and had a steak everyday since infancy.

Photo credit: polaroidelusion on Flickr
Love Ticket Takers
So when we watched the Cirque du Soleil Show LOVE, I was pleasantly surprised to have my ticket scanned by a kindred spirit in tininess. But when he opened his mouth, an at least very convincing British accent came out ("just go up the stea-uhs"). Of course. Either that or he was actually fifteen years old (but his voice was deeper than mine-- so he probably was English, if that nose is not big enough. Er, as a clue). Anyway, it was refreshing. Rant over.
LOVE Hallway
LOVE logo, with me
You can't go to Vegas without seeing a show. My brother had decided on LOVE at the Mirage, a Cirque du Soleil show that brings several of the Beatles' songs to life. I was a bit hesitant as tickets were at least $99 plus tax, but I realized later my hesitation was unfounded as most other shows are more expensive and probably suck. I would watch this show again. You see, I'm not a fan of the Beatles (my dad is, as he grew up with their music), but I have massive respect for them as songwriters. Armed with some familiarity with the songs, I came in, was mesmerized, and came out a believer. I realize now that the only thing that turned me off to their music was the hype. The songs are actually very poignant (though others are obviously drug-induced) and now I'm retroactively searching for songs I like. Oh, that and I bought the LOVE soundtrack. My brother bought a Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club shirt which I am envious of.

Click here to listen to a digital recording of me playing George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." This was included in the show and I was deeply moved by it. It's an original rendition (as far as I can tell) by me, so I hope you like it. Nothing too flashy or flourishy, sorry (and sorry for the mistake). Also, it's on a piano. If you heard me play the guitar you would laugh at my sheer awfulness.
The Forum facade
The Forum Interior
Adjacent to Caesar's Palace are the Forum Shops, which if you haven't guessed already was also very extravagant. There was a Spago's inside that I didn't eat in. And on that note, let's get to the food.
Cafe Gelato at the Forum Shops
This is Café Gelato inside the Forum Shop. Seven dollars for a cup? Steep. But worth it if you had a billowing mound of white chocolate strawberry cheesecake gelato with a SLICE OF CHEESECAKE ON TOP. I didn't have one (so I don't know if the cheesecake is actually included), I'm wondering why now (I think we were in a hurry).
Burgers in Paradise at the Planet Hollywood Shops
Instead we had burgers (oh my God, I think I had 20 burgers on this whole trip) at Burgers in Paradise at the Planet Hollywood Mall. It's a branch of the one in Maui. Their burgers were of great value, but I think could have been less salty.
Pastry Display at Lenotre 1
Pastry Display at Lenotre 3
Pastry Display at Lenotre 2
Framboisine from Lenotre
Framboisine detail, from Lenotre in Paris
This is the other main reason I loved Las Vegas-- this is Lenôtre Pâtisserie inside Paris (how's that for authentic?). I'm not sure if this is really a product of Gaston Lenôtre's brainchild but I'm fairly convinced. I mean, will you take a look at the display? Even relatively simple things like the Flan Vanille turned me on. I wanted to stick up the waitresses and raid the display. It was my original intent to not leave Vegas without tasting a decadent dessert, so this was more than sufficient. I had the Framboisine ($5.50)-- dark chocolate mousse enveloping a raspberry center, with chocolate biscuit and glacage. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.

If you've got a lot saved up and really want the world-renowned chef experience, I think Vegas has to be among your targets. We are talking big names like Wolfgang Puck (Spago, Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grille, Postrio, Chinois, Trattoria del Lupo), Bobby Flay (Mesa Grill), Michael Mina (Michael Mina, Nobhill, Seablue), Mario Batali (Carnevino, B&B Ristorante), Thomas Keller (Bouchon), Emeril Lagasse (Table 10, Delmonico, New Orleans Fish House), Joël Robuchon (L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon), Alain Ducasse (Mix), Daniel Boulud (Daniel Boulud Brasserie), Nobu Matsuhisa (Nobu), and Tom Collichio (Craftsteak). Here is a link on Serious Eats with more suggestions and comments.
Jean-Philippe Patisserie
Jean-Philippe Patisserie Pastry Display
Here is another big-name pâtisserie inside the Bellagio-- Jean-Philippe Pâtisserie. It features the world's largest chocolate fountain (you can see a little detail on the right), but it honestly it was quite tacky, even for Vegas (maybe it stems from my negative experiences regarding chocolate fountains in general). But the pastry display? OMFG, as usual.
Denny's breakfast
Because I'm not made of money, breakfast was at Denny's! Actually? Lori's Diner in San Francisco is much better. But yum, squashed English muffin.

Next update (and last in this series): Sacramento, Napa, Los Angeles, Long Beach, and (almost) Tahoe. Watch out for stray Lindsay Lohans.