Friday, November 25, 2005

Fabulous Dinners & Lots of Pictures

Well, here we are in Mendocino. As I mentioned yesterday, we're staying at a place called 'Blue Heron', which is a house rented out through Shoreline Vacation Rentals. It's a pretty nice house, although the coffee maker doesn't work and they only had enough toilet paper in one of the bathrooms to get us through one night! Their 'encyclopedia' says that we can get more at one of various drug or grocery stores in Mendocino or Fort Bragg. I think that's ridiculous. My parents are renting this place for probably at least $300 a night, they ought to be supplying things like toilet paper. It is, however, probably the nicest house we've ever stayed in up here, with a gorgeous master suite (including a bathroom that's like something out of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition), good, consistent heat, and circulated hot water. The views of the ocean aren't great, but we've seen lots of birds from the house (California quail, eagles, ravens, and others we haven't identified) and there's a path to the bluff overlooking the ocean a couple of houses away.

So, here we are. We came up Wednesday afternoon, by way of Navarro Vineyards, where we stopped for wine tasting and lunch. We had my brother, Aaron, in the Prius with us, while my parents and family friend Charles were in my parents' car. Between our needing to stop to get something in Richmond and how fast my mother most likely drove, they were at Navarro for almost an hour before we got there. Apparently, there had been lots of birds around before we got there. The sun was out and it was fairly warm and pretty. We had pumpkin cider bread with cream cheese, and grapes, for lunch. Aaron ditched us to ride the rest of the way up with them; I don't really know why but I assume it was because we don't drive fast enough.

We stayed to do some wine tasting, including Rachel who asked for wine. The person behind the counter was with it enough not to point out to her that it wasn't actually wine, just gave her (and me too) tastes of their wonderful grape juices. I took a few pictures; I wasn't paying enough attention at first and managed to take several pictures in macro mode even though I was about 30 feet from the main subject. Oh well. If they look terrible I'll delete them and if they don't, they'll just sit in our photo archives until... whenever we do something with them.

There were long segments of the ride that were just great for the Prius... long winding downhill stretches with lots of coasting and little active acceleration. Of course, there were plenty of uphill bits to get us in position for those, but that's the way it goes. At this point, I think we're doing about 48mpg since I filled the tank last, which I certainly won't complain about.

My parents picked up the keys in Fort Bragg (a few feet south of the entrance to the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens); I dropped Dawn & Rachel off at the park in Mendocino to play for a little while and the met up to find the house and drop off all our stuff. The house turns out to be just a few houses further down the private road from the last place we stayed last time: Crane Dance. That house was pretty nice, maybe even better in some ways (much better ocean views, and the bedrooms split with 2 on one side of the living/dining/kitchen area), but just not overall as nice as this one.

There was some minor drama around Wednesday night's dinner; it was late and there were a lot of onions to prepare, and we needed to get olive oil and balsamic vinegar, as well as the broccoli Dawn and I were planning to make, so Charles and I went into Mendocino, found out where Dawn and Rachel had holed up when the fog rolled in, and shopped at Mendosa's. While we were on the way back with the goods (& my girls), we met my mother on the way into town to get cilantro, because she'd left it at home. Then the drama actually came up... it was getting a bit late & we had to get my mother to calm down a little and just make the thing she was making. Dinner was quite good, though - especially the pissaladiere my mother made (not my mother's recipe), about which the only problem anyone could find was that it was gone! I barely remember what else we had, and only remember the broccoli because that was my contribution.

Thursday morning, preparations for dinner started pretty early, and were punctuated by a nice walk we took. First, we went to the bluff over looking a reef where there were several seals (or sea lions?); I noticed on the way back to the house tonight that the house next to the access path is called 'Seal Reef'. I think they're seals, but I'm not completely sure. Sea Lions seem to be pretty closely related, though. We also saw several oystercatchers, which have very distinctive long, bright red beaks. From the bluff, we came back up to the road and walked all the way back out to the main road, looking at flowers and birds and mushrooms along the way. There were a lot of mushroom, of several varieties. I took a number of pictures.

We talked briefly with a woman who must live around here, or at least spend a lot of time here, who mentioned that the weather's been cloudy/foggy a lot through the summer and into fall, and in spite of not getting a heck of a lot of rain, there have been incredible numbers of mushrooms. She took the trouble to point out that many wild mushrooms are extremely poisonous to humans (and dogs, though we didn't have one with us), but we were certainly not planning on eating any, and had even talked to Rachel about it some.

On the way back, we spotted a heron on the bluff, but couldn't really get close enough for a decent picture before it flew away. Throughout the walk, Dawn and Rachel (and my mother occasionally) picked up pine cones, leaves, and twigs. I think the plan was to make a center-piece for the table and/or a fire, but neither has happened yet.

It was tough to go back and forth between my two lenses a lot, so I'm wondering if I made the right choices with the lenses. The two main things I've been photographing are at opposite ends of the spectrum. On the one hand have been the mushrooms and flowers, which tend to be around 40-80mm and up close. On the other have been the seals and birds, which tend to be as close as I can get but at 300mm. The two primary subjects are diametrically opposed... I have with me 17-85 and 70-300mm lenses. At home, I still have the 28-135mm I got from butterflyphoto but am planning to return in favor of the battery grip. All three lenses are image stabilized, which is really cool, but I wonder whether I ought not really be using the 28-135 as my main lens with a higher-end IS zoom? I think I'm going to stick with these for now, but add a second battery to the mix. Hmm.. I like the sound of this 100-400mm IS, but it's a $1300 lens (after a short search online). There's one on eBay for about $850 US. I wonder how the IS does at 400mm? I'll have to see if Looking Glass has one in stock sometime.

Anyway, Rachel had a pretty good time on the walk. She looked at a lot of things and was quite interested, though she was already starting to be a bit of a pill. I don't think she's been eating enough, and then she runs out of energy and gets whiny/demanding/etc. She tried to use the binoculars at one point, but insisted on looking through the wrong side, so I don't imagine she was able to see anything. Oh well. She had more trouble in the evening until she finally went to be right about 8.

Dinner was very good, except that Rachel wasn't very good company, and Dawn had to take her off to the bedroom to try to settle her down. We had the turkey, done Julia Childs' way of cutting the legs off and baking them in a separate dish. Charles made the stuffing (and gave me the recipe), including chopping, sauteeing, and mixing in the turkey liver (sounds gross, and I normally wouldn't want to eat the liver, but the stuffing was damn good!) and then spreading it on the bottom of the pan that the main turkey was baking in. This way, the stuffing soaked up a lot of drippings without actually being inside the turkey. That was probably part of what made it particularly good. The gravy was made mainly with the drippings from the legs, and was also very good. Besides the turkey/stuffing/gravy, we also had an apple chutney Charles made, pear-cranberry relish I made, butternut squash with shallots, and green beans with garlic and almonds.

The best part was the stuffing, and like the pissaladiere, the only thing wrong with it was that there wasn't more. The best part of the dinner, that is... my father made two desserts this time: a persimmon pudding that was more of a wet cake and a divine chocolate cake. I had more of each, and would have had still more if I hadn't been so full already. Not to mention that my weight is coming back a little bit at the moment and I want to avoid having that get too far out of hand. Rachel managed to calm down and make it back to the table, but still didn't really eat all that much. She had some dessert, and wanted more chocolate and then more again, which she didn't get.

As we were cleaning up, I had a bit of a fun moment with Rachel. She was being a bit of a pain in the neck, reaching for things on the counter, and I kept moving things, particularly the desserts, but left the turkey dish where she could reach it. She complained that I kept moving things and I said that it was because I didn't want her to eat any more of them, so she got her determined "I'm going to push Daddy's buttons now" look on her face and proceeded to eat a piece of turkey. And then several more. This was, of course, just fine with me. Of course, she then proceeded to get up at 5 this morning.

Today was much better, as far as Rachel's company was concerned. She ate more, for one thing, and only started whining a couple of times. Around mid-morning, we went up to Fort Bragg to look around, as none of us had ever been there, beyond the Safeway and Rite-Aid the last time we were up here (11/03). Oh, and the movie theater, where Dawn and I went to see Star Wars 1, which must have been May '99? There wasn't really a whole lot to see; it's a small town, but larger, busier and less interesting (at least to us) than Mendocino.

We went into a couple of stores & galleries (I got a couple of lens cap keepers), including one that had some fantastic prints. This guy (Jon Klein) had a couple of pictures he took of raindrops on vines or rose branches in which the raindrops are acting as lenses and you can see things in them... one was a vine with several raindrops on it, each with very clear images of rose bushes in it. It was fantastic, especially given his statement that the entire image originated from a space smaller than his thumbnail! They didn't have either of those pictures in the Jon Klein pages, but that link goes to the gallery we were in.

Before lunch, we headed down to Mendocino, where we were going to have lunch and then walk around for a while. Dawn and I wanted to find the little cafe we've had fantastic tuna sandwiches from the last time we've been here, but couldn't seem to find it. At least, not before we were so hungry we just settled for something. In this case, we wound up at a market/deli across the street from the post office, where Dawn got what she describes as the best BBQ chicken sandwich she's ever had. Later, we found the one we were looking for: Cultured Affair Cafe, which is apparently for sale.

Dawn and I were planning that Rachel would have a nap, even if we had to drive around for a while to arrange it. This didn't really wind up happening, but (not to give away anything) it turned out OK. After lunch, we headed over to the William Zimmer Gallery. We thought initially that this was a new gallery, but it turns out that they just moved from another location since we were last here. Right near the entrance, they have an absolutely gorgeous table with a glass top and a wooden base that looks like a set of four Cs joined together and twisted into a bit of a spiral. My description undoubtedly doesn't do it even the least bit of justice, but there it is. This place may be even more expensive than our favorite gallery in Mendocino, the Highlight Gallery. We stopped by there later.

While Dawn and Rachel were finishing Dawn's sandwich outside William Zimmer, I took a few pictures. I say a few, because I wasn't really expecting to do much. But then a hummingbird showed up at the sage bush behind Dawn and I started taking pictures of it. I was following it back and forth around the bush, which may actually have been somewhat comical. A number of the pictures turned out extremely well, and I think I might have to make a triptych. At some point, I switched from P to Tv, but I didn't have a hat and the sun was too bright, so I couldn't actually see the read-out inside the viewfinder. I took 6 pictures that way, trying for high shutter speeds (I wanted to get past 1/2000, but all of those were badly under-exposed).

While inside William Zimmer, where the gorgeous table I mentioned was $12,000, we also saw a really ugly, very narrow (1' diameter?), but quite high table that looked as if it was supposed to look like a metal jelly fish with a wooden head. This ugly table was horrifically overpriced at just $500 less than the gorgeous one. I joked that maybe we ought to buy the wood & glass one, since it was obviously on sale, even if only accidentally. From there, we walked over to the Highlight gallery, where I only took the time (so far; I hope we'll have time to go back this weekend) to get the business card of a guy who makes front doors (they have at least one on display at Highlight). Dawn and I were considering having him make us a new door after our last visit, but weren't ready to commit (it's not cheap). We might be more interested now, so I need to get in touch with him again.

Anyway, on the way to Highlight, we met a really handsome dog named Blazer, a burmese (I think) mountain dog with a ton of fur. He was very well groomed (because he's a priss, according to the owner's 16-year-old-ish daughter, who didn't look like the toughest girl ever herself) and extremely gentle. He wanted lots of attention, but Rachel didn't seem to want to pet him unless one of us was. I don't know why she does that sometimes... it's kind of funny.

After Highlight, we went out onto the headlands a bit. While waiting for Dawn & Rachel to come back from the restroom, I figured out how to set up AE lock, exposure bracketing, and reminded myself how to do continuous shooting mode. As they were on their way back, I was trying to take some close ups of some kind of bird on the blackberry bushes (which are everywhere on the headlands), but it took off before I could change lenses, maybe because Rachel was coming. I was able to wait a little bit and another came by, so I got some pretty good shots of that one. I haven't figure out what kind or sex it was yet. I also got a couple of great pictures of Dawn and Rachel hiding behind a slat fence (two horizontal slats that could barely hide a gnat!) and jumping up to surprise my father, including a great shot with a "surprised" expression on his face.

Someone plugged Rachel in along the way, because all of a sudden she was having a great time and walked all over the headlands by herself, wanting to be in front the whole way. We only had to caution her a few times about getting to close to the edge; luckily, most of the trails we happened to pick were not really all that close to it anyway. I showed Rachel some pictures a few days ago that I took of Dawn on one of our previous visits, making faces like a couple of the huge faces carved into some old wooden pillars along the trails. She thought these were great and was actually willing to take some pictures doing the same thing with her mother. I haven't looked closely at those yet; I'm hoping they came out well.

I also took a lot of pictures for possible panoramas, mostly using Duane's suggestion to take them in portrait to get more vertical height out of the finished product. I put two sets through Panorama Factory; the first wasn't all that impressive because I only took 4 because of running into the sun's reflection on the water, while the second got badly mishandled for some reason. I'm not sure why yet...

Rachel was very interested in a couple of the large holes that open to the water & get tide currents. I took some good shots of her and Dawn looking into one of them. After our hike, we took a few minutes to go to Mendocino Jams & Preserves, and the Chocolate Haus. The former to let Rachel do some jam tasting (she'd done some with Dawn in Ft. Bragg and loved it), the later to give her a spontaneous reward for having been such great company and our all having had such a nice day so far. We shared a dark chocolate rocky road, then went back to the car and drove back to the house.

After a while, we went back out to go to dinner at Cafe Beaujolais, which is definitely one of the, if not the, best restaurants in the area. I think I have been there twice in each of the last 3 or 4 trips up here. They're always fantastic. When Dawn and I were here in 1999, we went one night and then tried to go to 955 Ukiah after seeing Star Wars 1. Since 955's wait was over an hour, we decided to see what Cafe Beau's story was, seeing that they are a whole 40' down the road, if that. We have a table available right now; would you like it? Umm... yes! I had the mixed garden greens salad and Niman Ranch top sirloin (this seems to be their current menu, at least until they change it), while Dawn had pumpkin soup & a vegetarian main course and Rachel nibbled at the tortilla appetizer and then the prawn appetizer (actually, she ate quite a bit of this, including all 4 of the prawns along with one of my father's which is what made her want to order it).

Rachel had been warned a couple of times that dessert is only for people who are good company and eat a good amount of dinner. I went out to let them know (in the bathroom) that our dinners had been delivered, and waited to carry Rachel back because I wanted to remind her about the desserts. I told her that she was being very good company and eating well, so if she ate a bit more of her dinner she could definitely have dessert, including either the apple crisp (which probably didn't interest her much) or the chocolate cake, which I told her would surely be really good. This definitely piqued her interest and reminded her that there were good things in store for people who don't make dinner hard.

We wound up with a chocolate cake (for me, but with raspberry sorbet instead of coffee creme anglaise), huckleberry pie with vanilla ice cream (for Dawn), and chocolate sherbet (for Rachel, who ate about half of it after graciously agreeing to let Dawn have a taste, and me two, and even stopped before it was gone because she'd had enough!). All of the food was excellent, and I heartily recommend Cafe Beau for dinner, or two. On the way back to the house at some point, I said "wow, that was a really great dinner", and Rachel, otherwise unprompted, said "I like that restaurant, we should go there again!" We tried to get her to tell my parents, but she got shy and didn't want to (so we did). We have plenty of left-overs, including desserts, so we most likely won't go back this time. More's the pity, though it's marginally better for our waist-lines not to.

Since they're undoubtedly going to change the menu online eventually, here are the things we had:
  • Mixed garden greens salad with baked marinated goat cheese and Niman Ranch bacon
  • Brandied pumpkin soup with tomato, onion, Gruyere cheese, minced prosciutto & rye croutons
  • House made tortilla topped with shredded beef cuitlacoche (corn truffle), served with salsa asado and salsa fresca
  • Niman Ranch top sirloin, broiled, sliced & served with Pt. Reyes blue cheese sauce, sautéed baby potatoes and summer squash with fresh herbs
  • House-made tortillas with greens and wild mushrooms served with salsa asado, spicy tomato sauce, cuitlacoche (corn truffle), coconut rice & black beans
  • Sautéed prawns, served with roasted tomato-chipotle sauce, fresh corncakes, creme fraiche and cilantro
  • Flourless chocolate cake with whipped créme anglaise & whipped cream
  • House-made fruit sorbets or chocolate sherbet with toasted almond butter cookies
  • the special dessert, which was Huckleberry pie with vanilla ice cream
Rachel got to see the stars with us tonight, because it was very clear when we left the restaurant and when we got back to the house (all 10 minutes of travel time, if that). She was very impressed with how many there were, and even commented that she'd never seen so many before in her whole life (her phrase). On the way to the restaurant, actually, while talking about Venus, which we'd seen getting into the car, she asked if it had North America there, and said something about this land. When I said, "is this land made for you?" or something, she started singing This Land is Your Land, so we had to get out the iPod and queue it up.

This lead to the annoying discovery/reminder, that the iPod and my home desktop are not completely sync'ed up, as I tried to find the two copies of Imagine (John Lennon's & Joan Baez's) that we have to play for her (this is another story altogether, though I don't think I've told it). Oh well... still need to figure out the right way to make sure they stay in synch, other than to rip & buy music only on that machine... I have Anapod Explorer, about which I have only one complain so far, when it comes to copying music out of the iPod - it doesn't handle compilations!! I suppose it's possible that if I use Anapod Explorer to copy all the music off the iPod onto my extra disk and then have iTunes move it all into the iTune library, it might recategorize things that are part of compilations... or it might not! Argh.

But I've digressed again. All in all, family stress points aside (and mostly only briefly mentioned for that matter), it's been a good weekend so far. Dawn & Rachel and I are going to try to get a chance to ride the Skunk Train (a four-hour round-trip out of Ft. Bragg), but we also want to go hiking with the rest of the crew... When Rachel was going to be tonight, we discussed sleeping late so she'll have plenty of energy to go hiking & look for mushrooms, which she seems very interested in. I sure hope she doesn't get up at 5am again!

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