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Walking and Drinking Our Way Through San Francisco

“San Francisco …
Bridges, fog, food …
It’s crunchy granola, but it’s also double martinis and thick slabs of beef.
A city of towns, neighbourhoods …
A tough town for a stick shift.” — Anthony Bourdain

So. What to do when you don’t know what to say about a new-to-you city?

Me? I turn to Anthony Bourdain. And as I did so, I had to laugh.

I laughed because he seemed particularly fixated on martinis while he was filming his San Francisco episode.

And I laughed because as my friend and I spent our week climbing the hills of San Francisco (hence, “a tough town for a stick shift”), we finished each day with an adult beverage. Or two.

Double martinis indeed.

This was my first one, which I sipped as we listened to jazz in a bar that time forgot at Haight and Ashbury.

Haight and Ashbury, of course, was the epicentre for the Summer of Love. With a little imagination, it seems like the entire strip is one that time forgot.

See what I mean?

We spent a morning strolling through Chinatown — one of the largest in North America, and certainly the oldest.

Then we hit the Castro, San Francisco’s gay village.

We finished our day in the Mission, enjoying cold beers in another bar that time forgot.

The Mission got its name from Mission San Francisco de Asis, one of the 21 Catholic missions established in California to convert Indigenous peoples. From Dolores Park, in the heart of the Mission, you have a great view of the entire city.

We also spent time in the Embarcadero, which is where my home exchange condo was located.

We bought fresh produce at the Ferry Building Farmers Market. (Being a ferry building, this is also where you catch any one of several ferries to get across the bay.)

And we ate sushi overlooking Alcatraz in the middle of San Francisco Bay.

We finished up our last day in North Beach, the Little Italy of San Francisco and home to the Beat Movement. We rested our aching feet at Francis Ford Coppola’s bar in the Sentinel Building (the green building) …

… and imbibed in yet another late afternoon cocktail.

San Francisco is known to be a foodie town (be sure to try the tacos), but during our short week, it was definitely the adult beverages that sustained us.

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City by the Bay

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my visit to San Francisco last summer, intending that post to be an introduction to a handful of posts about my summer vacation. And … a month later, here I am.

Huh.

Part of my delay in writing about San Francisco has been, well, the things that keep me hopping from day to day and week to week. Like other trips. Also, work. Spending time with family and friends. Chores.

You know, the usual.

A more truthful reason, though, might be that I just don’t know what I think of San Francisco.

One thing I did figure out while I was there is that when I travel I much prefer to spend a much longer period of time in a place. Long stays in a city, like my winter in Paris or my summer in Amsterdam, let you really dig into the rhythm of a place and figure out what makes it tick.

Not so easy in a week.

At any rate, I’m going to do my best to share a few posts with you about this City by the Bay.

This photo was the view we had from our too-cold-to-sit-out-for-long balcony on the night of our arrival. It would prove to be the most spectacular night of our stay — every night afterwards, the fog rolled in.

But at least we had this.

San Francisco in July

It’s the last day of February and Canadians are getting a little cranky.

Winter is going on … and on … and on.

Those of us who can have fled south to warmer climes like Arizona and Hawaii. Or Florida.

Sigh.

And people like me — who have little to complain about with respect to cold and snow and ice — tend to just wait it out.

I went south last July instead. Which, I learned, was a mistake.

San Francisco in July, it turns out, is much cooler than Vancouver in July. In fact, I have since learned that it’s entirely possible for San Francisco to remain enshrouded in fog for the entire summer. They call it June Gloom, No Sky July, and Fogust.

When I was there, we saw lots of the sun, but without fail the fog rolled in every evening. Despite my lovely home exchange condo with a lovely view over the Bay, it was far too chilly for this Canadian to sit outside on the balcony for any length of time to enjoy that lovely view.

So. Lesson learned. Go to San Francisco in the spring or fall. Or here’s an idea … in the middle of a Canadian winter!

Here’s a photo of the iconic bridge that San Francisco is known for: the Golden Gate Bridge. This is the best view I had of it the entire week.

Because fog.

Epiphany at the Met

Here are some last photos from the Neapolitan Crèche at the Met. I don’t think I need to tell you who these fellows are. I’m posting these photos today to commemorate the Feast of the Epiphany.

Merry Christmas!

Neapolitan Crèche, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Goatherder at the Met

It’s less than a week until Christmas.

Already.

To mark the ever-accelerating passage of time, here’s another photo from the Neapolitan Crèche at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I’m calling this fellow the Goatherder.

The United Nations

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” — Article 1, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Today is about some significant anniversaries.

For one, 70 years ago today the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. One of the authors of that declaration was a Canadian lawyer and diplomat named John Humphries, who was Director of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights from 1946 until 1966.

For another, 61 years ago today Lester B. Pearson accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. It was awarded to him in recognition of his work at the UN, including his 1956 resolution that an international United Nations force be sent to the Suez Canal to deal with the crisis there. At the time, Pearson was the UN General Assembly President and Canada’s Secretary of State for External Affairs. He later served as Canada’s fourteenth Prime Minister.

The UN General Assembly Chamber

The international force Pearson envisioned is today known as the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces. Seventy peacekeeping operations have been deployed since 1957, and 14 are currently still underway.

The phrase “United Nations” was first used by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942 as a term for the 26 nations who came together to fight Germany, Italy, and Japan during World War II. These Allied Powers, along with 24 additional countries, met in San Francisco in June 1945 at what was called the United Nations Conference on International Organization. They drafted the United Nations Charter, which was signed by 51 countries and ratified in October of that year.

Today, the UN has 193 members.

Given that I’ve been to New York City four times before my most recent visit, I’d already ticked off most of the “Top Ten Things to Do in NYC” a long time ago. Except for one.

I had never been to the United Nations Headquarters.

Here’s a pro-tip from me: Don’t wait until your fifth visit to New York to go to the UN. It’s far too important an institution for any citizen of this planet to ignore.

The UN has offices in Geneva, Vienna, and Nairobi, but its headquarters are in New York. The UN General Assembly meets here once a year. The UN Security Council also meets here, as often as necessary. Its five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) were all members of the Allied Powers during World War II. The Security Council also has ten non-permanent members, who are elected for two-year terms. Canada has served on the Security Council six times since 1945, the last term being from 1999 to 2000.

The UN Security Council Chamber

I learned all this from our Austrian guide. She also told us how the UN Headquarters is designated as international territory. You can feel that, actually, the minute you walk into the building.

The chairperson of the committee that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945. I’m going to finish this post by quoting what she said on the tenth anniversary of the declaration. Her words are ever so powerful and, given the current inclination towards ultranationalism that seems to be blanketing the globe, they are words we should all strive to live by.

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world…. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

The United Nations Headquarters

Recipe Box: Ratatouille

When I was flying back from New York the other month, I watched a couple of episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s show Parts Unknown on the plane, including the episode he shot in Newfoundland. (If you haven’t seen it, do. It’s hilarious and oh-so-Canadian.)

A world without Anthony Bourdain is all the poorer, I thought as I looked out my window somewhere over the American Midwest. The celebrity chef, travel writer, and TV personality died six months ago today. I had this sad anniversary in mind while working on my last post about Le Bernardin. Eric Ripert was a close friend of Anthony’s, and he appeared on his shows many, many times. They were together in France, filming an upcoming episode of Parts Unknown, when Anthony died.

The first Anthony Bourdain show I ever watched was an episode he filmed in Provence for No Reservations. My sister had recommended his show to me; I had never heard of the guy and had absolutely no expectations. But I went to YouTube, clicked on the episode — and have been a fan every since.

One line of dialogue in the episode about Provence always stuck in my memory. Anthony was preparing a meal for his new Provençal friends and he was quite nervous about messing it up. He set his dish of ratatouille down in front of them, they tasted it, nodded politely, and then said, “It’s true that your ratatouille is very handsome.” After much laughter, Anthony asked what he got wrong. They replied, “You didn’t miss anything. It’s just … not a ratatouille.”

I remember laughing out loud at that point. Food is so much a part of the travel experience, and we try our best to replicate what we eat elsewhere when we are back home again, but most of the time we fail. It’s never quite the same. Rewatching the episode now, after the dozens of Anthony Bourdain TV shows I’ve watched since, I marvel at his self-awareness. It’s a rare quality that few celebrities (and, to be honest, men) possess.

A traditional dish from the south of France, ratatouille is essentially stewed vegetables. Like many French dishes, its origins are simple: it was a way for peasants to use what they had readily available in their gardens.

Last summer, I made a lot of ratatouille. It was a very good year for zucchini at my local farmers market and every weekend, I came home with bags of the stuff — all shapes and all sizes. And whenever I saw my sister, I was given bowls of tomatoes and handfuls of basil and thyme from her garden. What better dish to make than ratatouille when you have more fresh vegetables and herbs than you know what to do with?

This recipe is based on several versions, including Anthony’s. Vary the quantities according to your own preferences. I like to use cherry tomatoes, but if you use full-size tomatoes, you probably want to peel and seed them. If your squash are on the larger size, quarter the slices. Make sure your eggplant is on the smaller side as you want each cube to have a bit of the skin. And, most importantly, cook each vegetable separately to help retain their shape and texture.

I’m sure what follows is also “not a ratatouille,” but in my humble opinion it tasted all right.

Bon appétit!

Ratatouille

olive oil
1 medium red onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 1/2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
1 medium eggplant, cubed
1 large red pepper, seeded and diced
2 medium zucchini, sliced
1 yellow zucchini, sliced
several sprigs fresh thyme
one handful fresh basil, shredded
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper

1. In a large, high-sided frying pan, heat several splashes of olive oil over medium to medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic. Cook until soft, then remove from the pan and spread out on a cookie sheet to cool.
2. Wipe out the pan and repeat with the cherry tomatoes. When they are beginning to soften, smush them with the back of a wooden spoon to release their juices. Cook a little bit longer, then season with salt and pepper. Transfer them to the cookie sheet, keeping them separate from the onions and garlic.
3. Repeat with the remaining vegetables, wiping out the pan, seasoning with salt and pepper, and transferring to the cookie sheet each time.
4. When all the vegetables have cooled to room temperature, combine them in a large mixing bowl. Add the thyme, basil, and balsamic vinegar, and adjust seasoning if necessary. Let the mixture sit at room temperature for 3 or 4 hours before serving to let the flavours blend. Serve reheated or at room temperature.

Dishing: Le Bernardin

While in New York the other month, my sister and I treated ourselves to lunch at Le Bernardin. This New York institution has maintained its three Michelin stars for the past 14 years and, just last week, it was named the world’s best restaurant by La Liste, a Paris-based ratings organization.

The world’s best.

Hee. It was quite the lunch.

Le Bernardin specializes in seafood, which seems like a natural choice given that the restaurant’s founders, Gilbert and Maguy Le Coze, grew up in Brittany, on the French coast. This brother and sister opened their first restaurant in Paris in 1972, calling it Les Moines de St. Bernardin after a song their restaurateur father used to sing about an order of monks who loved to eat and drink. When Gilbert and Maguy moved to New York in 1986, they simplified the name of their new restaurant to Le Bernardin.

Eric Ripert, who was only 26 when he joined the restaurant in 1991 as Chef de Cuisine, took over as Executive Chef after Gilbert’s sudden death in 1994. He is now a partner in the restaurant. When I got home from New York, I read Eric Ripert’s book, On the Line, which describes the inner workings of the restaurant. Want to know what I learned?

Le Bernardin is a machine.

In order to serve some 1200 dishes every day, 800 pounds of fish are delivered first thing in the morning. All of it is butchered on site — a process that takes six hours. To make 240 sauces each week, the restaurant goes through, per day, 10 pounds of shallots, 5 pounds of garlic, 10 pounds of ginger, and 30 pounds of butter.

(Thirty pounds of butter!?!!)

One neat thing about Le Bernardin, by the way, is that the day’s leftover food is donated to City Harvest, an organization that feeds one million New Yorkers each year.

Le Bernardin is on the ground level of a non-descript office building in Midtown Manhattan with screens hiding the interior from the street. If you didn’t know where to go, you wouldn’t know it was there. But once you are inside, it’s as if you’ve entered another world.

The service was seamless. We lost count, but my sister and I think there were at least seven people waiting on us. And because all staff are full-time, there are no actors moonlighting as servers at Le Bernardin. Instead, you are surrounded by professionals.

The menu consists of three parts: Almost Raw, Barely Touched, and Lightly Cooked. For the three-course prix fixe that my sister and I ordered, we were instructed to order one dish from the left side of the menu (Almost Raw and Barely Touched) and one dish from the right side of the menu (Lightly Cooked). I had Barely Cooked Scallop with Sea Beans and Bonito Butter Sauce and Pan Roasted Merluza with Stuffed Zucchini Flowers and Brazilian Shrimp Moqueca Sauce.

I apologize for the lack of photos. I was too overwhelmed with what I was seeing and tasting to pull out my camera.

When it came to my third course, however, there was no question that I had to document the moment. This is a Golden Hazelnut Sphere with Frangelico Mousse and Praline Ice Cream.

Yes, that is gold leaf on the hazelnut sphere.

I don’t know if New York’s streets are paved with gold, but this I do know: its pastries sure are.

Christmas at the Met

It’s December tomorrow.

Already.

Seriously, how is it possible that Christmas is just around the corner??

My last post was about New York, so today I’m posting again about that city. Here is a photo I took when I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art two years ago to check out their Christmas tree. This is an annual display in the Met’s Medieval Sculpture Hall. Surrounding the tree are figurines from a Neapolitan Crèche dating from the Baroque era. The detail of these figurines is exquisite.

New York at Christmas time is magical — almost (but not quite!) as magical as Paris. Two of my closest friends are in New York this weekend, taking in the Christmas spirit, and I’m so pleased they get to experience the magic for themselves.

Everybody should, at least once.