Monday, February 24, 2014

Girl Meets Boy

Although Thomas Wolfe's 1940 novel posits that, "You Can't Go Home Again," there are a few exceptions to that rule. One of them is The Kettle. The restaurant at the corner of Manhattan Beach Boulevard and Highland Avenue is a profound symbol of my far-flung youth. It was the scene for my first dining-out experience without my parents, the first place I had a cup of coffee, and the scene of many evenings talking, laughing, and sharing dreams with friends. For years, my sisters and I had a tradition of going there to eat whenever one of us flew home into LAX. So it seemed the perfect place to go the other night with Jeff, who I had not seen for the better part of 30 years.

Zucchini Parmesan: You can go home again - but you
have to eat your veggies.
We had reconnected a couple of years ago, when I was still on Facebook. FB is a veritable Pandora's box of everyone in your past, should you choose to send them a message or add them as a "friend." When I got over the initial shock of hearing from him after all that time, we exchanged phone numbers and began to talk almost daily.We caught up on the last three decades since we had dated while at El Camino College, when we were on the student newspaper staff. It was a relationship that we recall fondly as full of laughter and youthful exuberance (read, "physical chemistry"). Immature as we both were however, it ended as such things do at that age, rather badly. But time and experience seemed to put all that in its rightful place as the past.

That being said, all was not roses in this new version of our acquaintance. Although we would express interest in renewing a romantic relationship, something would always happen between us, due to our bad tempers and writerly egos. We would stop talking for weeks or months. I would date other people; he would do whatever. And eventually, we'd smoke our peace pipe until the next big blow-up.

We're both storytellers and seekers of truth. We're both opinionated, insecure at times, and incredibly stubborn. We're both killingly sarcastic. We still tease and laugh a lot and often, as we did back then. And we argue like cats and dogs.

We also form a mutual admiration society. I am in total awe of what Jeff has done to shape a bona fide journalism career, something that I had aspired to since those days in Jolene Combs' Warwhoop production class at ECC. We can talk about the trials and tribulations of the writers' life. Although I didn't end up as a reporter, I still use everything that JC taught us in my work and in my blog now. Even when we weren't speaking to one another during one of our several fallings-out, he would still send me messages about my latest blog post or a piece that I had written for work. We joke about my being a public relations sellout, but neither of us really believes it.

And we still have that mysterious chemistry between us that now makes the years melt away, revealing a new connection that in our old-ish age, we can now cherish and grow into something  mature, lasting, and real. Finding love at middle-age (what does that mean anymore, really?) is vastly different from the way we plunge into it at 20 or 30.

My default appetizer order at The Kettle was always Zucchini Parmesan, a basket of piping hot zucchini logs sprinkled with parmesan cheese. Although it is usually served with ranch dressing as a dip, I discovered long ago that bleu cheese dressing tastes better, so I ask for that. The server always brings both. I've tasted fried zucchini at a number of other places, but nothing equals this fresh, hand-cut green version, dipped in batter and fried at a mouth-scalding temperature that I almost always fall prey to in my impatience to gobble them up.

The thing about Zucchini Parmesan is that when you cut it hurriedly with the edge of your fork as I tend and dunk it into the puddle of dressing on your plate as I tend to do, it falls apart. The breading makes a gloppy mess in the dressing, and the denuded vegetable becomes an even more lethal burn hazard when eaten.

The best Boy for this Girl. Meet
Jeff Mitchell, political commentator and
ranch dressing fan.
I watched as Jeff methodically dunked his zucchini into the ranch dressing. It was alongside my bleu cheese dressing - which he had pooh-poohed. The crispy breading didn't come off of his zucchini log. And I had a "Wonder Years" moment, hearing Daniel Stern say something to the effect that "things would never be the same again."

At this age, we can fall into reveries where we get lost in the past; there are other moments where the the future is the daydream; it can be a hazy intriguing jumble. I am experiencing a bit of both. Being with Jeff that night at the Kettle was like watching all the hopes and possibilities of our youth break through the rhythms - some of them comforting, some of them simply hewn of resignation -  that we have grown used to in the present.  

I now know that nothing worth having is absolutely perfect. No matter how you and a loved one eat your fried zucchini, it can still be the same irresistible dish for both of you. And that yes, you can go home again. It's just a lot better if you don't go alone.

Epilogue: Jeff proposed after we got back from The Kettle and I said yes. We are planning a really simple wedding, light on ceremony, heavy on party. I don't know if Zucchini Parmesan will be on the menu, but if it is, don't worry - there will be both ranch and bleu cheese dressing.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Between the Sheets (Of Dough): Mishi's Strudel Bakery and Cafe

(NOTE: What follows is a thinly veiled work of fiction - thin as a sheet of strudel dough. The characters and incidents depicted are drawn from actual events and have been changed slightly to keep the reader awake.)

Elaine was in a foul mood. The streets of San Pedro, which on a weekday during the rest of the year, were pretty quiet, took on an even bleaker hue in the crumpled-paper strewn days after Christmas. Crumpled lists, crumpled giftwrap, crumpled hopes.

Her winter vacation from the university was dragging on and on; she could not wait to get back to the comforting reassurance of her work schedule, the companionable demands of email, the putting out of fires, small and great, that made her feel useful.

Port in a storm: Spinach Strudel at Mishi's charming
cafe provides welcome refuge from post-holiday doldrums.

It was New Year's Eve. She had been planning to visit Jake up north, and for once in her life, maybe have someone to kiss at midnight. But they had gotten into another huge fight. Elaine thought she had learned her lesson and had made a rule not to date any more writers. They were too neurotic, too competitive - being a writer, she would know. So she stayed home and waited out the second-to-last day of vacation.

Elaine kept to her daily exercise routine, but would head to the gym an hour or two later than she would during the workweek. She drove home after her workout, looking forward to a big brunch of buckwheat pancakes and Italian sausage. But alas, it was not to be.

Usually, Elaine would not be anywhere near home at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, so she never had to search for a parking spot near her apartment at that hour. Today, however, it seemed that everyone had the day off, lining the streets with their parked, not-going-anywhere-until-partytime cars. After circling her block in wider and wider orbits for nearly 20 minutes, she gave up in disgust and ran through the nearby options for breakfast. She decided to finally try that Hungarian place around the corner, the one that was always closed when she got back into town after work. She parked her car across the street - never a difficult thing to do in Pedro's "downtown" shopping district, except when the streets exploded with life during the 1st Thursday Artwalk - and entered the restaurant.

She had been to Mishi's Strudel Bakery and Cafe once before during the previous summer, when she had first moved back to town, and sat drinking coffee and nibbling on a tiny pastry on an exquisitely decorated dessert plate at a sidewalk table in the sunshine. The idea of a thick slice of apple strudel didn't quite appeal to her that day in the August heat, but today, it was time for a late breakfast. Besides, she had earned the right to indulge in some level of decadence with those 26 minutes on the elliptical machine.

Although the traditional sweet strudels sounded heavenly, Elaine, who was always rather diet-conscious, thought that she should have something a bit more substantial for the first meal of the day. She ordered the spinach, feta cheese, and mushroom strudel, which sounded like Greek spanakopita with a bit of Eastern Bloc gravitas. She loved mushrooms, those loamy, musty bits of cellulose that made her imagine what it would be like to eat actual earth.

Despite her self-consciousness over still being in workout clothes, Mishi's had a civilizing effect on Elaine's ruffled mood. She had asked for a cup of blackberry sage tea, one of those overly inventive flavors that Jake would roll his eyes at when she would order it. The only diner in the restaurant, she reveled in neatly blotting excess liquid off the tea bag against the side of her cup, carefully pouring in one sugar packet without dropping a grain of it on the table, and perching the remains of these demurely on the edge of her saucer.

Shortly before the spinach strudel arrived, a portly young man walked in and sat at another table. Elaine tried not to eavesdrop, but as they were the only two customers, it was difficult not to overhear him chatting with the waitress, ordering goulash, and telling the waitress that he ate there all the time. It sounded as if he was running up some sort of tab at Mishi's, perhaps even doing so up and down the block at the mom-and-pop restaurants and cafes that lined 6th Street.

After ordering his food, the young man acknowledged Elaine at her table. She responded with a polite "Happy New Year," with an expression on her face that she knew was less than happy. She had heard him telling the waitress that he had just taken a meditation class at the yoga studio one block over. Elaine took in his too-tight and too-short shorts, a Tyrolean-style embroidered vest, and a couple of Native American stone animal fetishes that swung from a chain around his neck. His body, while generous, seemed taut with youth, despite his apparent girth. He didn't appeal to her physically, but moreover, the affectation of John Lennon-esque spectacles and his nervously gregarious manner sent the needle on Elaine'sWeird-O-Meter flying.

Nothing says that someone cares like a madeleine,
freshly dipped in chocolate and presented
like a yummy jewel.
After a cursory attempt at small talk about how quaint the neighborhood was, the yoga studio around the block, and Hungarian goulash - which the young man admitted he had never eaten before - Elaine decided that she was done talking. She usually felt compelled to entertain strangers, or people who were tending to her, and chatted nervously away with her hairdresser, the lady who threaded her eyebrows, even her dentist. The latter posed somewhat of a challenge, once her teeth cleaning or procedure was underway. But Dr. Branch was capable of talking for both of them, chatting nonstop throughout an entire procedure on music and film, much to Elaine's delight. Thus, she was often relieved of her conversational duty she sat in his examination chair, although she was tortured by the desire to participate in the conversation, while her mouth was being prodded with dental tools.

Finally, the spinach strudel arrived, a compact but substantial parcel of golden brown pastry stuffed with a harmoniously seasoned blend of spinach, mushrooms, and a mild feta cheese. A tiny cup of sour cream, which proved to be more delicate than the cold, stiff paste that Elaine usually found next to a baked potato at a steakhouse. The creamy condiment, pleasantly chilled, but not exactly cold, was just enough embellishment to bring out all the flavors in each savory bite of strudel, which Musette navigated with great delicacy and care.

Once the first few bites sated her initial ravenous hunger, Elaine took her time enjoying the subtleties of the dish, and listened to New Age Shorts Guy tell the other waitress that he lived with his brother across the street. The only building in any direction across the street from Mishi's that could provide a residence was an old building straight out of an Edward Hopper painting, with aged russet-colored bricks, crumbling fire escapes, and a bar on the ground floor called "God Mother's." The name, erroneously split into two words, drove Elaine's inner-"Grammar Cop" up the wall every time she drove past the bar. She imagined what it would be like to live in one of the residence hotels that dotted 'Pedro's downtown area. She couldn't imagine what it would be like to live in one of the residence hotels that dotted 'Pedro's downtown area, and envisioned it as an alternate existence, something between the squalor in "Trainspotting" and the insanity of  "Running With Scissors." 

As she slowed down toward the end of her strudel, Elaine made a mental note to order goulash next time, maybe even actually plan her next visit to Mishi's. She noticed that the large white ceramic bowl that had been served to New Age Shorts Guy, overflowing with a crimson broth and accompanied by a hearty-looking bread, was nearly drained of its contents. As she took her last bite of the spinach pie, Elaine wondered if dessert was a good idea.

It was. She had chosen a chocolate-dipped madeleine, thinking that a perfectly good, but commercially baked version would be served up. The cookie arrived, freshly dipped in a creamy chocolate coating, and dusted with a snowdrift of powdered sugar.

Elaine was touched by the extra effort that it took to present a typically unassuming cookie with such care. This is what makes Mishi's, Mishi's, she thought.

Elaine nibbled on the madeleine as slowly as possible, and drank a second cup of tea. When the bill was paid and the madeleine was gone, she tidied up her place setting a bit, gathered her car keys and backpack, and raising her voice slightly, wished everyone in earshot a "Happy New Year." This time, she meant it.

Kiss That Frog: Sweet Treats and Childhood Memories Make For Heartwarming "Gal-entine's Day"

When I was growing up, Valentine's Day was fun. All the way from first to seventh grade at Our Lady of Guadalupe School, we kids would knock ourselves out, preparing tiny cards and sweets for our classmates. On the 14th of February, we would deposit these gifts into the brown paper lunch bag "mailboxes" that we each had on our desks.

Perhaps it was because we were at a Catholic school, but there was never a kid who didn't get anything in his or her Valentine mailbox. In later years, when Valentine's Day took on an entirely different set of expectations, I still regard it - whether I have a significant other or not - as a day to celebrate all kinds of love and friendship.

Lindt's Froshkönig (Frog King): My dream man would be
nattily dressed and filled with chocolate too!
The commercial zeitgeist that is foisted upon the world at large - mostly the males of the species - is not lost on me, but for entirely different reasons. Heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and red roses mostly remind me of my Dad, who would present our mother with a dozen red roses and a large heart-shaped box of chocolate on Valentine's Day every year. In addition, he would give his three daughters each a smaller heart-shaped box of candy. So it seems to be my birthright that I have lovely chocolates at Valentine's Day, even if I have to buy them myself. (Pull out tiny violin to play sad tune here.)

I could not help but be charmed by Lindt's "Frog King" tin of über-luxurious chocolates, which was exclusively sold at Target. It seemed made for me to be able to laugh at my single state. I shared some of it with my two handsome princes, my nephews Seiji and Kenzo, who wondered why the box was shaped like a frog. They had never read the Brothers Grimm story of the prince who would be released from his amphibious state by true love's kiss. But they really liked the frog-shaped chocolate in particular, because it tasted like Nutella.

Valentine's Day is also one of the most hectic dining-out days on the calendar, or at least, it used to be. Perhaps ROC on Sawtelle isn't really the go-to dinner destination for a romantic meal, but it was a perfect place for Shiho and I to have our "Gal-entine's Day" nosh. The scallion pancake with ginger soy dipping sauce was a perfectly crispy and surprisingly, not at all greasy. It triggered a Proustian memory of my first scallion pancake, enjoyed years ago at a now closed Islamic Chinese restaurant in Torrance.

ROC's scallion pancake hits the appetizer spot.
ROC is known for its xiao long bao, or Taiwanese soup dumplings. I had eaten dumplings a couple of nights ago at Typhoon at the Santa Monica Airport, so wasn't really in the mood. I opted for the beef noodle soup, without the noodles, since I had maxed-out my nighttime carb intake with the scallion pancake. But the fragrant soup, with its subtly spicy broth, similar to pho, was amazing even without noodles. There was a huge, heart-sized chunk of oxtail in the bowl, its meat falling off the bone simply by my gazing at it, and plenty of baby bok choy for color and crunch.

Shiho had the pork dumplings, which she thinks taste fresher than the dumplings at the mecca of XLB, Din Tai Fung. I tasted one, with its fragrant broth inside the dumpling skin, and tender seasoned minced pork. I concurred, although Din Tai Fung is an experience unto itself. In addition, ROC gets major points for offering more than just Chinese broccoli as its only vegetable. We enjoyed a plate of kale, stir-fried with just enough garlic, edible, yet crunchy.

Love potion: ROC's beef soup with oxtail and baby bok choy
We were going to take in a reading by 'zine artists at GR2 that didn't start for another half-hour, so we strolled up to Nijiya Market, looking for dessert.

Shiho enjoyed the array of nostalgic Japanese candies that recalled her childhood in Okinawa, and I enjoyed the colorful and artistic package designs of everything from shampoo to baby biscuits. Japanese companies take great care with the presentation of even the most mundane of objects and food. I found these tiny chocolate hearts that looked like they were made by extruding chocolate through an icing bag and meticulously packaged in a cardboard box with a sliding lid. They were actually very tasty too.

Shiho treated me to mango mochi ice cream, which we both agree is a gastronomic marvel of the 20th Century. It began to melt as we loitered too long in Nijiya after taking it out of the freezer case, and when we got to GR2, we almost forgot about it as we settled into the tiny gallery and the standing room-only audience.

A famous Japanese brand of chocolate gets into the
spirit of Valentine's Day.
When we remembered the mochi, I told Shiho that we would have to eat them like soup dumplings, taking a tiny bite out of the outside, and sucking out the melted, liquified ice cream.We did so, enjoying the creativity of the 'zine authors, the laughter their work created, and another new Valentine's Day memory.