Category Masticating With Mellzah

High Five Tea at Balthazar London

One of the things I really wanted to do whilst we were in London was to have a proper afternoon tea–scones, clotted cream, tiny sandwiches, the works. There are a lot of places eager to cater to tourists looking for this experience, and if I’d wanted, I could have taken tea every single day of my stay and still not visited all the most lauded options. And while I do love tiny crustless sandwiches, I don’t know that I could eat tiny crustless sandwiches for nine days straight and still be excited when the tenth tower arrives at the table, so I elected for one posh appointment: the High Five tea at Balthazar. I’ve since read Balthazar described as an American take on a French brasserie, so it may have been an unusual choice for an English tea, but I stand by it.

Balthazar is located in the Covent Garden district of Westminster. Nearby is a shopping center, a former vegetable market, that is now lined with tall, narrow shops, many spanning two floors. When I visited, there were a number of street performers on the lower floor, their singing expanding to fill the entirety of the hall. Jason kept attempting to purchase food, and I kept preventing him, reminding him that our afternoon tea appointment was like to be more of an entire day’s worth of food than the light snack he was envisioning. We did note some goodies that we’d be interested in returning to purchase should the tea not live up to our expectations (spoiler: we did not return), and instead spent the time before our reservation idly browsing the shops as neither of us were in the market for a luxury watch.

For their 5th anniversary, Balthazar developed their High Five tea: a towering tray stuffed with all of their biggest hits of the past five years, appearing in a haze of dry ice that swirls alluringly around the treats.

The bottom layer is the foundation of the meal: tea sandwiches of crisp cucumber and bright mint with a smear of earthy hummus, egg salad with watercress (I don’t do egg salad, but Jason liked it well enough to eat both), smoked salmon and lemon crème fraîche, and the perpetual British tea classic, coronation chicken, which with its combination of apricots and curry spice manages to be lightly sweet yet richly savory and was my favorite of the lot. Also served on this layer were miniature lobster prawn rolls served on buttery brioche. 

The middle layer is comprised of buttermilk scones (half studded with plump sultanas, half without), served with generous pots of Devonshire clotted cream and house-made strawberry jam. These scones are soft, warm, fragrant vehicles perfect for mounds of cream and jam and utterly unlike the dry, crumbly triangles that serve as scones stateside. Ignore for now the boxes also nestled on that layer, we’ll return to them later.

The top layer is reserved for the crème de la crème: five cakes, one for each year the restaurant has been operating. Proceeding clockwise from the bottom right cake that reads “Balthazar”:

  • Balthazar Icon, a confectionary copy of their awning rendered in Valhrona chocolate on a shortbread base with raspberry jam fusing the layers
  • Union Macaron, a meltingly delicate red and blue cookie sandwich loaded with fresh blueberries and cream
  • Gooseberry o’ Clock, a roulade of choux sponge infused with elderflower and gooseberry compote and ensconced in a shiny, sugary cellophane
  • Queen of Tarts, a sweet strawberry tart topped with a white chocolate disc
  • The Golden Bombe, a creamy, dreamy chocolate and hazelnut pudding topped with crisp sugarwork

 

 

As though all that weren’t enough, we opted for the ultra indulgent version of the tea, which included a rosé champagne cocktail with crystallized rose petals and a 30g tin of imperial caviar, served with yet more crème fraîche and blini. I’d never before tasted caviar, and the briny oceanic burst of the eggs paired gorgeously with the heavy crème, each tempering the other and becoming more than the sum of its parts. I fair say we nearly rolled from the restaurant, stuffed as we were with every good thing, which doesn’t mean we were too carbohydrate-addled to pocket our take-home boxes on the second layer, each containing a crisp, deeply caramelized, divine cannelés bordelais.

They’ve since moved on to a flower-themed tea that looks return trip worthy, even when that return trip involves an international flight. Who is coming with me?

 

GŎNG Bar at The Shard

I should’ve used Jason for scale, this door is much smaller than it appears in this photo.

After touring a structure with nearly a thousand years of history, we headed across the Thames via the Tower Bridge to a much newer addition to the London skyline: the Shard. Side note: I adore the nicknames for London buildings, which include among their numbers The Gherkin, The Walkie-Talkie, and The Cheese Grater.  Completed in 2012, the Shard is 95 stories of neo-futuristic steel and glass looming over the city, complete with an indoor/outdoor observation deck located at its upper reaches. A costly observation deck, particularly if you don’t purchase tickets in advance, so I thought I’d be clever and go to the nearly-as-high GŎNG Bar instead for my sweeping city views and spend what I would’ve on elevator tickets on drinks instead. It’s twenty floors lower than the observation deck, but they craft a mean cocktail and you don’t have to pretend to be impressed at the “opportunity” to shop at “the highest gift shop in London”. Oh boy! 

The thing I should have gleaned from the name alone, with its insistent all-caps and needless diacritic, is that GŎNG Bar is also pretentious as fuck. And so whilst I saved myself an admission fee, I paid a different sort of price. The sort of price that sticks long after the temporary pain of parting with money has passed.  It began with the wait–reservationless, we were directed to a couch in the lobby to wait. And wait. And wait. Ostensibly, we were waiting for a table, but when we were finally allowed up, the many empty tables conveyed to me that during said waiting period, GŎNG Bar was also waiting: for me to leave.  Well, joke’s on them, as an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. (I’m talking about my butt*, of course, which stayed firmly planted on the couch until the receptionist heaved a sigh, hobbled over in the floor length red gown and heels that was her uniform,  and invited me up.)

Am I certain that I was unwanted at GŎNG Bar? No. No one ever said to me “You don’t belong here.” But no one needed to say it aloud. The appraising up-down look (I didn’t look like a slob, but I certainly wasn’t wearing a gown), the artificial wait, the cruddy service: it spoke volumes. I felt unwelcome. Jason felt unwelcome, and he’s usually the one telling me that I’ve got it all wrong, that it’s just my inner critic dialed up to eleven and projected onto other people. It left us both feeling vaguely uneasy the entire time we were there.

The drinks, as mentioned before, are excellent–creative, complex, well-crafted. I truly enjoyed my drink, an ode to Peter Jackson with rum, New Zealand wine, beetroot, and pine honey, redolent of the deep forests of middle earth, served in a silver pipe. The views of the city with fireworks peppering the skyline? Also excellent. But I also could not see myself visiting again on a future occasion: I like myself too much to be subjected to an entire bar’s negative opinion of me.

 

 

*Their toilets are also incredible, and I’m not the only one who thinks so

London’s Borough Market

 

We ended up going to the Borough Market twice during our trip. The first time was our first morning in the country, and I wasn’t ready. Jetlag had a grip on me, yet, and I felt nauseated and entirely unready to eat until I died or even appreciate the smell of food. Which is why I had to go back a second time, because the Borough Market is glorious. 

The Borough Market has been around in some form or another for nigh a thousand years, though if you want to get nitpicky about it, it’s only existed in this exact location with this exact name since 1756. In the ensuing time, it’s perfected itself. It’s everything I want Pike Place Market to be–full of delicious food, with no huge wafts of urine or dead fish to sully the experience. Every kind of wonderful food to stock one’s home is here: charcuterie, stacked wheels of cheese, loaves of bread and pastries and homemade conserves and pickles and cookies and imported delicacies and fresh squeezed juice and foraged mushrooms…the list goes on. They also have stalls of made to order foods: I bought a sandwich from Roast Hog that ranks among the best sandwiches I’ve ever eaten. Chewy ciabatta smeared with applesauce, loaded with rosemary and fennel spiced roast pork chunks, bright greens, and topped with a healthy sprinkle of crispy skin, it was rich and savory and greasy and wonderful, and I almost weep to see that they do catering but probably not as far as the States. It was that good. 

Borough Market, twice was not enough. I’ll be back. 

Happy Place Los Angeles

In early December, someone shared a link on Facebook to the new Los Angeles pop-up museum, Happy Place. It was one of those made-for-Insta places where the whole point of the thing was to get whimsical photos to share on social media, with the tagline “find your happy place” and for some reason, it sucked me right in. Jason had been encouraging me to take some trips on my own, and this is the sort of thing he would more tolerate than enjoy, so it seemed like a good opportunity to dip my toes into the water of solo travel. I bought a ticket for one of the only dates in January on which they had a ticket available, found a cheap flight for a day trip to LA, and prepared to find my happy place. 

So, of course, not long before my trip, I got an email from Happy Place “reminding” me that the museum would be closed on the date on which I’d bought my ticket. What?! I checked my inbox to see if I’d missed any earlier messages: nope. Nice, guys. Thanks for the awesome communication. THIS IS NOT HOW YOU MAKE PEOPLE HAPPY. Later that day, I received another email stating that after “tireless work trying to gain the necessary approvals to get re-opened, it is clear at this time that the needed steps will not be complete until after the holiday season at the earliest.” In other words, they’d been shut down by the city. Great. Great. Evidently their person in charge of the permitting process was just as capable at their job as the one assigned to email. 

Well, I was not about to let some bullshitty “museum” I never should have purchased a ticket for in the first place ruin my day trip, and thus I visited Los Angeles determined to find my own happy place. I did do some preliminary research (I don’t know if I’m capable of full spontaneity) and determined that if I wasn’t going to rent a car, taking the flyaway bus was my best option. While I waited for my bus, a number of other buses and shuttles came and went, including some shabby vans supposedly bound for Disneyland but looked like a one way ride to Murderville. One of them had “Mickey sent me” written on the side, which didn’t so much evoke the warm umbrella of Disney so much as the stranger who pulls up next to your elementary school, rolls down his window, and says your mom sent him to come get you. Nope, not today, buddy. Especially if you don’t have candy OR puppies.

Waiting with me was an elderly woman, who asked me about my plans and told me all about her granddaughter, who she said is first clarinet for the John Williams orchestra, and that he’s a delight to work for. Cool, right? Before I could ask her a million more questions, her bus arrived, and she thanked me for the conversation. No, thank YOU, ma’am. 

My fly away bus finally arrived, and I took the one headed to Hollywood. Not because I particularly wanted to go to Hollywood (I’ve been. A few times.) but because it was the sort-of closest stop that would put me within walking distance of the places I wanted to start my day. So of course immediately after arrival, I put off my other plans and had pie for breakfast at The Pie Hole. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, after all. 

I had a nitro cold brew and a warm strawberry lavender hand pie. The crust on the hand pie is just meh, but the other flavors were on point, and I was glad to have some food in my belly before I proceeded on foot to my next destination, which was about an hour walk away. I briefly considered hanging around Hollywood until the Museum of Death opened, but since the day was about pleasing myself and not the harsh realities of life, I decided to give it a pass this time. And last time. And maybe I’ll just keep passing even though people keep recommending it to me. Either way, I knew that having a bunch of strawberry goo churning around in my insides while looking at gore wasn’t going to do me any favors. 

While out on my walk, I was stopped by a queen and asked if I had a dollar to spare for breakfast, saying she’d had a rough holiday. I told her I could do better than a dollar and gave her enough for breakfast. She pulled me in for a hug, told me I’d made her day, and that if I ever needed anything and saw her around the neighborhood, her name was Jasmine. 

Here’s some stuff I saw on my walk:

I have to assume that the reason it’s a gym for actors is that there is no gym equipment so one has to be adept at pretending one is getting a good workout.

I finally made it to my first destination: The Never Open Store. This place has notoriously unusual hours and equally notoriously unusual things for sale, but was, when I arrived, not open, with no indication that it would be opening soon, as the hands on the clock on their door were conspicuously missing. I’m not saying I needed an opium jar, but it would’ve been nice to have a look. 

Around the back side of the Never Open Store were a lot of different pieces of street art. I walked around the back of the block and circled around, because there was another place I wanted to visit, directly across the street: Gallery 1988. There were a few prints I was debating online and I was hoping to have an opportunity to look at them in person before I made a decision. Unfortunately, I caught them between shows and they, too, were closed. Siiiiigh. So I was thankful that I knew my next destination, about another mile away, was definitely open.

If there’s not, you’re in the wrong place.

I dig this bush a lot, it looks like it moved out of an ocean bed into someone’s front lawn. I’m thinking it’s a foxtail fern

That destination was ScentBar Hollywood. No one could have predicted when I was kid that I would grow up to be a complete and utter perfume hoor, considering I used to get a migraine whenever anyone with heavily-applied scent would walk by. Either I’ve built up a tolerance, or the choking oriental cloud style of the 80s has fallen out of favor, but I haven’t experienced a scent trigger for ages. It’s fun to dabble in scent, and there’s so much to try in the world of niche perfumes and oils. I’ve been buying little samples from LuckyScent for years, because the descriptions almost always suck me in, but I’m not always thrilled by the scents themselves, and who wants to splurge big bucks on a bottle of scent that they don’t like? ScentBar is one of LuckyScent’s physical locations, and I was excited to have this opportunity to go in and sniff ALL the perfumes I’d been intrigued by online and some I’d never considered. ScentBar also offers up to four samples free of charge, so in addition to a small bottle of scent I’d been eyeing for a while, I was able to walk out with four new things to try: Hummingbird (the floralest floral to ever floral), Kismet (recommended to me as an ambery vanilla that doesn’t read too gourmand), Confessions of a Garden Gnome (green and playful), and La Danza Delle Libellule, which is honestly something I never would have reached for based on its notes (apple? fruity? Naaaaaah) but I fell in love with at one sniff, because it smells like a warm secret garden where everything good lives. Which just goes to show me that I don’t always know what I’ll like, so I shouldn’t write things off before trying them.

After ScentBar, it was time for lunch, and there was no place I wanted to eat lunch more than Trejo’s Tacos. I once received a book as a gift that was essentially making fun of actors’ headshots–very “look at how stupid this person is, wanting to be a star”. It was deeply cruel, and I remember seeing Danny Trejo’s photo inside, so literally every time I see him in a movie or a show I am completely stoked for him. I’m also stoked that he was able to take his new fame and turn it into six thriving restaurants. 

When I arrived, I ordered a jackfruit taco, a carnitas taco, the street corn appetizer, and a strawberry lemon agua fresca, and I took a seat outside, because being able to eat outside in January is peak Happy Place. 

The street corn was charred grilled corn with a chipotle cream and popcorn, and it was totally bomb. The popcorn was a surprising element but it worked. The standout, however, was by far the jackfruit taco. I’d heard that cooked jackfruit takes on a texture like pulled pork, and that it soaks up the flavor of everything around it, much like tofu, but I don’t know that I believed it. Well baby, I’m a believer now. The cooked jackfuit was shockingly meatlike. Juicy, flavorful, delicious. I vastly preferred it to the carnitas taco–the pork was a tad dry and had me looking around for salsa or hot sauce. The jackfruit taco needed nothing because it was everything. EVERYTHING.

This was across the street from Trejo’s Tacos, I wonder how many of these pink signs to God there are throughout the city?

After lunch, I made my way to Velveteria, a museum dedicated to black velvet paintings, located in Chinatown. This place deserves its own post, and it’s going to have one later this week. Watch for it! In brief: it’s weird and great and everything I hoped it would be.

From Chinatown, I made my way to Culver City, primarily because I wanted to be closer to the airport as my time grew short. I had fun just walking around, checking out some more street art, peeping in some more shop windows, and eventually ending up at Coolhaus, a super premium ice cream shop. I’d tried one of their frozen ice cream sandwiches from their grocery store line and was really unimpressed, but I also think it’s difficult to translate that fresh ice cream sandwich experience into a prepack, so I wanted to give the original a try. Verdict? Much, much tastier, particularly their ice cream. I tried their brown butter french toast ice cream (aces) and their churro cookie dough (even better), but their cookies leave something to be desired, and overall, I still think The Baked Bear is a better place to get your ice cream sandwich fix. 

I’m certain I saw a piece by the same artist in Iceland!

And then it was time to head back to the airport, where I finished the excellent book I was reading and met an aspiring novelist who bought me a drink and regaled me with the tales of her past twenty-two days in Mazatlan.

There’s no denying that I was pretty ticked off when my reason for purchasing nonrefundable airline tickets was going to be closed, but ultimately, I’m glad, because I’m certain that I had a much better time carving out my own happy place than I would have had there. I also learned that I do well traveling by myself, and that if I have a problem, I can figure it out. I also learned that people talk to me a lot more when I’m alone, which I’m generally down with, because I’m interested in people. Overall, I’m declaring this experiment a success and am looking forward to booking more impulse flights!

Hiking Point Defiance Park

This December, we bought Jason a new (used) car, because you could hear his old junktrap Saturn squealing down the street from a block away, its bumper held on with a bit of string, the oil puddle in the garage growing into a horrible pond. It was ridiculous, and we were both determined to get him into something that was less likely to heave a sigh and collapse in the middle of the freeway. Ultimately, we bought a Mini Cooper. It had some flaws in the chrome pieces surrounding the headlight and taillight, and since it was certified and the trim should have been pristine, they gave us a thirty day IOU to replace them.

When replacement day rolled around, they gave me a new Mini to tool around in until the work was done, and since it was a gorgeous day, I decided to go to Point Defiance Park and walk around. 

I parked near Owen beach and climbed the staircase back up to five mile loop road, backtracking to the rhododendron garden. I started wandering the trails and found myself on this absolutely magical moss pathway: 

How is it even possible that this didn’t lead to a witches’ hut?

While the branches here don’t sigh as heavily with mosses as the ones at the Olympic National Rainforest, it’s a close thing. Even in the winter, with dead leaves carpeting the ground, this place is verdant and full of life. Very few other people, however, so I almost shrieked a couple of times when someone I had been unaware of suddenly passed me by because I had been looking too intently at my camera and too deep in podcast land to sense their presence. I might as well wear a sign on my back that says “Murder me“. 

What a neat mushroom!

Olympic mountain range

Tacoma Narrows Bridge

Speaking of getting murdered out in the woods somewhere, I misinterpreted the map and ended up getting a little lost. Not, like, “oh shit I need some survival skills alone out in the wilderness for 72 hours” kind of lost but more like “this road keeps splitting and somehow every fork is marked with the fort going one way and the zoo going another but I never arrive at either”. If I only had access to those signs, it could have turned into the former kind of lost situation, but thankfully T-Mobile’s coverage has improved since I switched to them and I was able to use GPS to figure out that I was nowhere near where I thought I was. 

Once I had that information, I was able to orient myself back on the path toward Owen beach, and took myself out for a celebratory “I didn’t get myself killed out in the woods” lunch at Duke’s Chowder House. This wild salmon with goat cheese and blueberries was so good, and while I’m still iffy about mixing cheese and seafood (probably from hearing it my whole life and not because I’ve had a particularly heinous cheese seafood experience), the tangy goat cheese paired beautifully with the flaky, rich salmon, the balsamic blueberries a burst of earthy summer on a cold winter’s day. A window seat with a beautiful view of the sound was the cherry on top. 

I can’t believe how long I’ve lived in this area and had never been to this park before. I’ll have to make it a point to go back during the other seasons to see how it changes–maybe I can twist Mini’s arm into giving me a loaner for oil changes.

The Bestest Beach Weekend for the Bestest Boy

In late September, I knew my time with Napoleon was coming to an end. His dementia was starting to take a toll–he was withdrawing from us, he lost interest in toys and playtime, he would get lost in the house, he would pace the hall at night. It was hard to watch him slipping away from us, and after a lot of talking and crying, we made the decision to euthanize him at home before things progressed to the point where he was having more bad days than good. It was a hard choice, and I questioned my decision nigh-relentlessly. 

But before that, we decided to take him on a weekend trip. He was in heaven the last time we took him to the ocean, so we decided to go to the beach, so we could walk him out on the sand as much as he wanted to. We stayed at the Hallmark Resort Cannon Beach, because I had a wonderful experience with them last year in Newport, and remembered that they had this second location and were dog-friendly.  We arrived late in the evening on Friday, and this was waiting on check-in:

Awwwwww!

Napoleon was a bit agitated that night–it could be that it was an unfamiliar place, it could be the dementia, but I’m pretty sure it was that he knew we were at the flippin’ ocean and hadn’t gone out to it yet, gigantic staircase and pitch darkness be damned. So we were up at the crack of dawn for our first beach walk. 

We rushed down the stairs and finally, finally, we were at the beach. Which we immediately charged across to solve The Problem Of A Rock With A Moat Around It, at least until we got distracted by a bird.

I don’t believe I was aware that Jason was recording this but now I’m glad he did.

Damn, I love the Oregon coast. 

After we tuckered Napodog out with a morning walk after his all nighter ocean anticipatory vigil, we packed him in the car and headed to Tillamook for a grilled cheese and some ice cream, some of which we shared with the pup and some which we did not, because the goal was to give him an exciting, happy experience, not churn his guts like so much rich creamery butter. He had many admirers on the Tillamook patio seating area, which helped to assuage his sense of hurt justice that somehow his cute face did not warrant an entire grilled cheese sandwich plus everyone else’s sandwiches as well.

After filling ourselves full-to-bursting, we headed back in the direction of our hotel on a different route, one that went through Rockaway Beach. I remembered from on our previous trip up 101, we were going to route through Rockaway Beach and stop at Pronto Pup, purportedly the inventors of the corn dog. That trip, however, we rerouted to save time after Tillamook since driving on the coast loses its appeal at night, and thus never made it to that stretch of road. This time we were gonna stop, no matter how full. Jason and I rode their mechanical corn dog, and then sat out in the sunshine with our dog, waiting for our other dog to be ready. 

The corn dog was excellent, and I have no problem crowning it as the best corn dog I have ever eaten, and I have eaten many an encased meat that has been battered and then deep fried. Still groaning from too much ice cream, however, a bite was all I tried. Napoleon had no such issues and also found it to be an excellent corn dog, though I’m not personally certain of his ranking system since I once saw this dog poop out an unused tampon and furthermore once engaged in a week long battle to acquire a corn cob he’d stolen from the trash and ate and threw up repeatedly, immediately eating it to begin the cycle again. “Leap towards the vomit with your bare hands” is probably not going to be the party game sensation of 2018, or ever. 

Napoleon also made friends at Pronto Pup, with several people coming by to pet him and tell him what a good boy he was. I was still having some trouble with my decision and was always struck by the weird impulse to tell people that our time with him was ending soon. I honestly can’t remember if I told anyone or if I managed to squelch it down to that place where all of my dumb impulses live, but I have to assume that it was coming from a place where I wanted them to appreciate even more what a good boy he was–how soft, how nice, how smart. I do remember that several of the people who approached us and asked to pet him mentioned that they’d lost dogs recently and my heart broke for them*. 

From Rockaway Beach, we drove back to the hotel and walked from there into the cute downtown area of Cannon Beach. We did some window shopping and some actual shopping, and we opted to walk back to the hotel via the beach–the mist had burned off since our morning walk and it had turned into a truly gorgeous day.  

His little paw prints are glowing as he walks toward the light and I definitely cut some onions while going through these photos.

After our walk back, we rested again in the hotel room until closer to sunset, when we headed back down to the beach. (So. many. stairs.) Our hotel was right across the beach from Haystack Rock, and a fair amount of people had gathered to watch the sunset, which is actually pretty special. We live in this world with so much entertainment and yet we gather with strangers to watch something that’s happened every single day of our lives and will never stop being beautiful. 

There’s this little gap at the base of Haystack rock, and at sunset, the light flashing and flickering inside gives the appearance of the wall being painted in gold. Napoleon, for his part, was way more interested in the activity on the beach than any glowy cave. 

Eventually we retreated to the beach chairs and watched the last of the sun slip over the horizon. Unfortunately, watching that late sunset meant that our options for patio dining (which was a must, given the presence of the pup) were zilch, so I popped over to the local hardware store (no, really) to grab some take out to eat in our room. I was met on my walk back by Jason and Napoleon, who had come out to find me after that little dog bean pitched a fit at not being able to have eyes on both of us at once. We watched a surprising number of movies over the course of our stay: Goonies (of course), Hotel Transylvania 2, and Ratatouille. Stuff that was kind of easy to just chill out and cuddle with one’s pup on the bed after a bunch of beach play time. 

The following day was a half beach day/ half drive home day, and we made the most of it, starting with another early morning beach walk to check out the tide pools and enjoy one another’s company. The beach cooperated by giving us an absolutely gorgeous morning, bright and cool, and wholly unlike the misty morning previous. 

When we decided it was time to wrap up beach time, and headed to Sleepy Monk to grab some coffee and breakfast before we hit the road. The line there is kind of ridiculous–you have to step to the side to wait for your drinks and food, but people just keep cramming into the building, forcing you to interrupt someone’s conversation about yoga three times as you elbow your way through to get your goods. Their coffee and pastries are totally great, though, and I dig their druidic vibe. I especially dig the teeny goat on top of their coffee sleeves. 

After properly fueling our machines with caffeine, we hopped in the car and promptly saw this Bigfoot themed steakhouse with what appears to be a werewolf with one hooked flipper arm chained up outside. When viewed from the proper angle, it looks like the Bigfoot on the side of the road and the prime rib sign merge to become Bigfoot’s, uh, prime rib. If you know what I mean, and if you read this blog, you do. 

Ostensibly this is a photo of the lady Bigfoot, but look a little more closely at the background to catch a glimpse of Bigfoot’s Prime Rib.

We also found this great big chair in Seaside, Oregon. 

Our route home took us through Astoria so as to visit their Sunday farmer’s market. I don’t have any pics because walking through a crowded market that’s almost universally not looking where they’re walking with a small dog, and furthermore not paying attention myself by fiddling with my camera is a great way to get someone’s tiny paw stepped on. It hasn’t changed a lot since the last time I visited–even if some of the vendors are not the same, there was someone there in that particular category, be they sign makers, leather workers, or popcorn vendors, so the overall flavor remains the same.  Napoleon met his first goat and stepped back in shock, trying to figure out what was going on with this strange dog. The goat didn’t have much of an opinion either way.

At some point on the way home, we stopped at a restaurant that advertised their famous pie, because Jason is a legendary pie hound, and while he went inside to buy a slab, I walked around with Napodog outside and saw this bird carving, while so. many. vultures. wheeled around in the sky. I don’t know what that’s saying about the restaurant’s food or their mainly elderly clientele, but I do know that Jason thought their pie was nowhere near as good as mine. I do make a mean slice

And, since it was such a beautiful day and we had plenty of time to spare, we stopped in Winlock to finally see the world’s largest egg, something that I had been driving past in a hurry to something else for the last decade. It was, indeed, a sizeable egg. 

The rooster’s not talkin’. 

 

A special treats and walk filled week later, the veterinarian made the visit to our house, and even though I had been second guessing my decision up until the time she walked in the door, I have no regrets. I called my buddy up onto my lap, and after he was administered the painkillers, it sealed the deal for me. I felt him relax in my arms, pain free, and that was not something I’d felt from him in a long time. It eased some of my hurt to feel him not hurting, and I handed him over to Jason so he could feel the same. He was in Jason’s arms when the final shot was administered, and we petted him and told him how much we loved him as he passed. I keep reiterating what a difficult decision it was, because it was difficult to voluntarily part myself from him forever, when he’s been the little light of my life for so long, my constant, unquestioning, loving companion. But at the same time, I know it was the right choice. To be at home instead of afraid in the cold, sterile vet’s office. To be lavished with love until his very last breath. To still know us, mentally, so that we could comfort him at the end, to keep his last days from being confusing and scary. When I think about it in that way, I know that I made the best choice I could.

That’s not to say that the loss of Napoleon hasn’t been crushing. It’s been months and I still step around the dog dish that isn’t there when going to the patio door. I feel happy and then sad whenever something causes his nametag to jingle against his urn, as though he’s here for just a second and then gone again. About once a year, I’d get one of those new super soft blankets from costco, and the old one would be given to Napoleon and derisively referred to as “the dog blanket” because no matter how many times I washed it, the smell of dog was just too ground in, so they’d line his beds and make them extra plush and cozy. In the aftermath, we kept some things that belonged to him, and a dog blanket. On days I especially missed him, I’d go and sniff the blanket, and it was like my stinky buddy was back. Recently, I was having a rough day and crept off to the closet and its stinky contents, only to discover that the smell I believed to be permanent entirely gone, and this, too, was like losing a bit of him all over again. I have waves of grief wash over me when I drive past our dog park, when I see those noseprint smudges on my car window that I know I will eventually have to wash away.

I miss my buddy. I’m glad we had this trip together. I hope that if there’s an afterlife, it’s full of so, so many beach critters to sniff. 

 

 

*The first time I pet a dog, post-Napoleon, I almost burst into tears. Thanks to everyone who allows me to pet their dogs for much longer than is socially acceptable for a stranger to do so.

This Didn’t Deserve Its Own Post: Ohio Edition

When I take a trip somewhere, if I don’t do a day-by-day recounting, there’s usually a bunch of tidbits left over that I either couldn’t write more than a few sentences about or don’t have any photos for or would drag out the series far beyond what any human could be expected to tolerate.  All combined, however, they make for something a little more substantial, so here’s yet another one, this time about Ohio. Six weeks of Ohio is long enough, right?

CINCINNATI

Spotted this cool book fountain outside of Cincinnati’s public library, the water flowing over the books symbolizing the free flow of information and ideas thanks to the printed word. Neat, huh?

Metrobot is back outside the Contemporary Arts Center after more than a five year absence, during which time it was refinished and beefed up to include a scrolling LED and a tummy screen. Even with the more modern upgrades it still feels charmingly retro, thanks to the 10¢ pay phone embedded in its leg. 

Near the metrobot, Cincinnati also features an outdoor chandelier, which is unfortunately outdone by…

CLEVELAND

Cleveland’s outdoor chandelier, which happens to be the largest outdoor chandelier in the world. 

If a city happens to build an even larger outdoor chandelier, Cleveland’s can be called The World’s Largest Outdoor Chandelier Adjacent To A Building That Looks Like The Headquarters Of A Batman Villain . 

Cleveland also has the world’s largest rubber stamp. It has the word “FREE” on it, embodying the desire of anyone in Cleveland. A large desire to be free. Free from this place, free from life, whatever. and it was commissioned  by Standard Oil of Ohio. Between commission and delivery, the company decided that, actually, they didn’t want this thing, so they dumped it on the city as a tax deductible gift of public art. The city demurred until the company, now Amoco, agreed to pay for all transportation, installation, and upkeep costs. That is how much they didn’t want it. Imagine listing something large and bulky in your home in the Craigslist “free” section and being so desperate to get rid of it that not only do you offer to deliver it, but also to pay for any future maintenance on it, forever. Cleveland knows that free stamps ain’t free. 

I got hollered at in Cleveland by a driver who told me I was gonna get run over — while I was crossing at a crosswalk with the pedestrian signal lit. Uh, are the laws different there? Or are we just to assume that anyone behind the wheel of a car in Cleveland is going to floor it through intersections and careen around corners regardless of traffic signals due to the sheer desperation of trying to be free of Cleveland? 

COLUMBUS

In Columbus’ brewery district, there’s a large statue of Gambrinus, the mythological king of beer. What I would have never guessed about it is that it’s actually been in Columbus for a hundred years. Gambrinus originally stood in front of the August Wagner brewery, and when the brewery closed, the statue was purchased and preserved by the local newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch, and placed in its current location. Gambrinus survived Prohibition, he survived the brewery demolishing, no wonder he raises his glass in a perpetual toast!

We had lunch at Hot Chicken Takeover and it was great and I loved it. Sweet cheesus, the mac & cheese was awesome, the chicken sandwich made me weep tears of joy and tears of pain, and I couldn’t eat it all even though I really, really wanted to. Don’t forget to grab your free sweet tea and spice-combatting house made ranch to drizzle on that sandwich! What’s also super cool about this place is that they hire job seekers with criminal records, because American society often fails people who have had dealings with the justice system. If there’s no legitimate work available for those with criminal records, how can we be shocked by recidivism? I’m glad they’re helping give people opportunities to succeed, and this philosophy certainly seems to have not impeded Hot Chicken Takeover in any way, as they’ve rapidly expanded to three locations. None near me though. Bah!

I love Fiona the chunky lil hippo and I will do anything she tells me to, including buying her special limited edition ice cream. In this case, however, I’ve gotta say that not listening to her is the better option, because the supreme ice cream at Graeter’s is their black raspberry chocolate chip, with its thick soft hunks of shaved chocolate rippling through its rich black raspberry ice cream base. Especially in a pretzel cone. Yum. So good I’d consider having a case of it shipped to me but so good that I really, really don’t want a case of it shipped to me. I’m better off without the unholy knowledge of how fast I could rip through twelve pints of outstanding ice cream.

This is the photo I’m going to give to the landscape designer I desperately need to hire this year. If my back patio looked like this, I would spend so many more summer afternoons/evenings out reading. The Book Loft in Columbus is an excellent labyrinthine bookstore–they were having a Bruce Campbell signing the night I visited. I had a good time winding my way through the sections–in one of the rooms, I found a woman sitting on the floor lightheartedly groaning to her friend about how they never should’ve come because she’s going to spend far too much money. I bought a new title and took photos of the ones that I thought might make me face some scrutiny from my shopping companions so I’d remember to look them up later.

Not far from the Book Loft is this house featuring this teeny tiny door for the Littles family, complete with a doormat and teeny tiny topiaries. 

Neither of us were worthy to pull the sword from the stone in front of a dentist’s office in Columbus, which is fine, because if I’ve got to be queen of something, I’d rather it be something more exciting than a dentist’s office. Plus no matter how benevolently I ruled, I’d still be portrayed as an evil monarch because of all the black I wear and the fact that dental drills strike fear into the hearts of literally everyone. Nobody is ever going to call the queen of root canals a good gal. You see how much thought I gave this as I was approaching the sword, preparing to give my speech declining the monarchy. Freedom ain’t free.

 

 

And that’s it for Ohio! The stuff that didn’t make the cut really didn’t deserve its own post. 

Happy Dog in Cleveland, OH

All that complaining about how much Cleveland sucks somehow didn’t affect my appetite, and thus the entire family wound up at Happy Dog, a Cleveland dive bar that serves the finest American cuisine: hot dogs and tater tots, each loaded up with as many toppings and dipping sauces as you want for the same low price. God bless Cleveland.

As you can see, there’s a huge variety available, and I selected mine with a fairly restrained hand:

Jason, conversely, couldn’t see spaghetti-os, froot loops, and a fried egg on the same menu without ordering them all, which is how we ended up here:

I can’t speak to Jason’s, because I’ve got some kind of egg allergy and also because gross, but mine was decent. Fair to middling. The dog quality was fine (not great, but fine), the topping options are thorough and fun, and the tot sauces are easily the best part (and between us all, we  had about half the dipping sauce menu represented on the table, so I’m qualified to talk about it)–but a quick blog search reminds me of a lot of dogs I felt a lot more enthusiasm about: Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs, the kobe dog smothered in chili at Slim’s Last Chance Chili Shack, downing a coney on Coney Island from Nathan’s Famous, the world-famous Icelandic hot dog stand, Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, hell, even the hot dogs I fed to gators at Gatorland USA, or the chopped up dog on the burger that was so rich it almost made me crap my dress at the ballet (for the record, again, that is an ALMOST and not an actual occurrence, so you need only be mildly repelled by me). ALL of those hot dogs were vastly more exciting than anything at Happy Dog, which is not an indictment of their dog so much as saying that it’s just OK. It’s not the kind of place that’s worth a special trip, but if you’re already in Cleveland, it might be the better part of your day.

Melt Bar & Grilled in Dayton, OH

Melt was one of those places that was on my radar long before I decided to take a trip to Ohio. I first stumbled across them on instagram, where they’d post these insane grilled cheeses loaded with all kinds of things you might not necessarily expect to find on a grilled cheese: kimchi, mozzarella sticks, waffles, ribs, jalapeno poppers, wedges of deep fried mac and cheese…Basically, take a chain restaurant’s entire appetizer menu and shove it inside a grilled cheese. I WILL HAVE THIS GRILLED CHEESE AND I WILL HAVE IT NOW AT A CONVENIENT TIME WHEN I AM PHYSICALLY LOCATED IN THE AREA. Months of anticipation built up, watching specials come and go on the ‘gram, waiting.

As it just so happened, I was near (enough) to a Melt when while my 3D print job was still going over at Proto BuildBar, so we headed over. And promptly had to wait some more. Luckily, this location was right outside a mall, so I was able to cross something else off my list: renting one of those ride-around-the-mall animal shaped scooters in a place where no one in the position of offering me a line of credit might see me. Verdict? FUN. SUPER FUN. Finally, I’m one of those cool older kids at the mall.

“I assure you that is my credit card, sir.”

Mischief managed, it was back to Melt for what I expected to be a life-altering grilled cheese. They were out of the special (damn it!). In its stead, we ordered a number of sandwiches so we could try more of the menu since it was possible we’ll never eat there again. We ordered: The Dude Abides (homemade meatballs, fried mozzarella wedges, basil marinara, roasted garlic, provolone & romano), Cuban War Pig (honey ham, mojo glazed pulled pork, fried pickle spears, honey mustard, swiss), Big Popper (fresh jalapeño peppers, cheddar & herb cream cheese, crispy battered & deep fried, powdered sugar, berry preserves for dipping), and Chicken & Waffles (crispy battered chicken, belgian waffle, sriracha butter, pepper-jack cheese & maple syrup for dipping). Bon choix! 

Honestly, none of them were that great. I’ve been thinking about it, wondering if the anticipation of eating here raised my expectations too high, because I want to be fair. And having thought about it, I think it’s fully fair to say that the food at Melt is not great.

I get pumped about eating a lot of things before I actually try them. Fully half of my trip planning is devoted to where we might like to eat if we found ourselves hungry in X neighborhood, I won’t lie. So it’s not like the case of the 40 Year Old Virgin when I saw it a year after it came out and literally everyone said “You have to see this movie, it’s the funniest movie I’ve ever seen, I wet myself eight times and would’ve gone back to see it again but I got banned from that movie theater  and all the other ones in a thirty mile radius owing to my refusal to pay to replace their seats. YOU HAVE TO SEE IT.” Literally everyone said exactly that. And then when I finally saw it, I thought it was just OK, probably because I’d heard all the references for a year and the gushing (ewww) recommendations and it would take a movie funny enough to make me black out laughing to live up to those expectations and the 40 Year Old Virgin wasn’t that movie.

This restaurant was nothing like the 40 Year Old Virgin, being only a Six Month Anticipated Dinner: I expected a delicious sandwich and they served me a merely OK sandwich. The sandwiches at Melt are consistently too tall to fit an entire bite in your mouth, top to bottom, which means you’re not getting all the components in every bite. That kind of sandwich height also makes it hard on the jaw because of having to open so wide–we’re not snakes, Melt, don’t make us unhinge.  The bread is too thick and crusty, so it competes too much with the insides while it abrades your mouth.

But all that is still not my main criticism: a grilled cheese should be first and foremost cheesy. Equal parts grill and cheese.  Everything else that you add to it should be in a supporting role to the main character, the star, the cheese. Otherwise, it’s just a sandwich, not a cheese sandwich.

There’s not nearly enough cheese in the sandwiches I had at Melt to qualify them as cheese sandwiches, with the exception of the Big Popper, which was straight up disgusting: fried outside surrounding mushy bread filled with jalapeno and a mound of slippery cheese. It’s like someone took a bite out of a brick of cream cheese, chewed it up into a paste with a little bread and jalapeno and then spit that paste in blobs directly into a deep fryer. But in case it wasn’t wet enough, it’s got raspberry dipping sauce so it slides right down your gullet like an alien baby going to nest. Ahem.

In all the other sandwiches, the cheese consistently got lost against the other components. And I guess that would be one thing if it was just a regular cuban sandwich or meatball sandwich or, uh, chicken & waffle sandwich, but they’re supposed to be grilled cheese sandwiches. And because they’re making a “grilled cheese”, they also apply sauce with a very restrained hand, which meant that overall, each sandwich was much too dry for a sandwich that size. Without enough cheese or sauce to lube up the works, it’s less pleasant to eat, especially when you take into account the aforementioned height of the sandwich. And then when you add fried items to the sandwich, it adds yet another layer of breading and the overall effect is just…dry. Slap a waffle in between two dry pieces of bread and a piece of dry breaded chicken and you might as well be biting straight into a loaf of bread. Maple syrup on the side isn’t enough to make this sandwich work. Don’t get me wrong: I was hungry, and the sandwiches were decent (the flavors were fine), they just weren’t mindblowing grilled cheese. Not great.

None of us finished anything. None of us brought home leftovers. I guess Instagram beauty is only skin deep.

Cincinnati Eats: Famous Chili and the Best Pie in Ohio

Of course I was not going to take a day trip to Cincinnati and not eat the style of chili for which they are famous (or infamous, depending on one’s perspective on chili). I will tell you that I have never, never been to a city where chili is so heavily advertised and consumed. Chili restaurants in Cincinnati are the equivalent of Starbucks in Seattle: there’s one on every corner, and if you miss that one, there’s one less than a block away. Who is eating all this chili?! And pretty much all of their chili chain stores have drive throughs, which I also find a little mind boggling if only because chili doesn’t strike me as the consummate eat-on-the-go food. Like maybe, maybe I would concede this point if it was of the “frito pie/walking taco” variety where you dump chili and some fixings into an individual corn chip bag (there’s plenty of room in there, after all, given that each of them contains, on average, five to seven chips maximum) and eat it out of the bag with a fork. Or turn around and redump the contents of your bag into your mouth, I’m not the etiquette police. I can barely spell etiquette on the first try, much less put on pants and enforce a system of rigid and complex rules that seem archaic in modern society. Just, for the love of god, as you’re pouring chili and chips into your maw, please try not to burp at the same time.

Regardless, Cincinnati chili is a different beast altogether. Cincinnati chili is a spiced meat and tomato sauce melange that is used as a topping for two things: spaghetti, and hot dogs. It is NOT intended to be eaten by the bowl like chili con carne, and the people of Texas would probably rather blow Ohio off the map than refer to Cincinnati’s signature sauce as chili. If you decide on spaghetti, you can order your Cincinnati chili a number of ways. As in, literally, you tell the server whether you want your chili two way, three way, five way, etc. The least you can order your chili is two way, which is the chili plus the spaghetti. Three way: chili and spaghetti and cheese. To add to the confusion, not all of the ways are the same at all of the restaurants, but they all involve chili, spaghetti, cheese, beans, and onions. Oyster crackers are commonly given on the side as a garnish, but for some reason, they do not count as an additional way, forming the ultimate Six Way Chili. 

I did some polling at the American Sign Museum and they all agreed that Camp Washington Chili was the place to go for the best Cincinnati chili, and in my later research, discovered that it had won a James Beard Foundation American Classics award in 2000, so I feel confident that the Cincinnati chili I ordered and ate was its best possible iteration. The verdict? It’s tasty but I think you have to grow up on it to get it in your blood enough to crave it.

O Pie O was a late addition to the rounds. When we arrived in Ohio, my mother in law had stacks and stacks of every magazine and brochure that had anything to do with Ohio tourism (she knows me pretty well on that score). I flipped through all of them, and a glossy page calling the Honey Vinegar Pie at O Pie O Ohio’s best dessert stopped me dead in my tracks. Ohio’s best dessert? Within striking distance? Obviously we were going to go. Obviously

The verdict on this one was…not so good. I don’t know if I caught them on an off day in the kitchen or what, but the crusts on all of the pies were tough and leathery, not flaky in the least and not nearly tender enough to cut with a fork. Without a good pastry, you really cannot have a good pie aaaaaand it’s especially hard if the insides aren’t all that great, either. I can appreciate the tangy silkiness of the honey vinegar, but it felt like it needed something. The blackberries in the blackberry buttermilk pie were unpleasantly sour.  On the eternal battle that is cake v pie, I’ve switched to team pie, but I’m finding it difficult to go to bat for this particular pie. Now this pie that I made for my Game of Thrones birthday that disappeared before I got a slice and so many people came out of my kitchen moaning about its deliciousness that I had to make it again like a week later, THAT is a pie that I’m willing to ride or die on team pie for. Go eat that pie and know that because of something some magazine said once, that you’re eating a dessert that’s better than any in Ohio.