Thursday, May 1, 2008

San Francisco Ballet: New Works Festival

Ballet is usually noted mostly for the classical works – Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, Giselle. And yet, at 75 years old, the San Francisco Ballet is still pushing the envelope by offering the New Works Festival: ten new pieces by ten internationally renowned choreographers in three different programs. Lucky and I had the fortune to attend Program A, which showcased works by luminary Paul Taylor, supernova Christopher Wheeldon and SF Ballet’s own Choreographer in Residence Yuri Possokhov. The result was a mixture of styles which, while bold and unique, was ultimately hit-and-miss.

The program began with Possokhov’s aptly named Fusion, a piece that – yes you guessed correctly – fuses a variety of styles. Musically, the piece starts off with a rousing Indian number before switching to three jazz pieces by composer Graham Fitzkin. The costumes are also mixed, featuring four men in white, reminiscent of Sufi dervishes plus four couples dressed in colorful pantsuits. It’s hard to imagine how two seemingly different styles could be mixed, but Possokhov somehow pulls off the unexplicable. The result is an East-meets-West pairing is successful in using classic ballet movements in the context of contemporary elements. Technical and aesthetic beauty abound in the hands of this accomplished troupe of twelve dancers.

Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour is a beautifully danced complex piece with 14 dancers used in various combinations – first in an ensemble, then as couples performing five pas de deux, then returning to an ensemble performance. Technically speaking, the dancing was exquisite. However, it seemed to lack any real depth of meaning or soul. The accompanying music by composer Ezio Bosso was equally aimless. It were as if I were listening to a wonderfully gifted pianist play scales. Sure, the pianist can play it flawlessly, but in the end it is just an exercise without any meaning other than to show off one’s ability. I felt the same way about this piece. There was no cohesion among the different pas de deux. Rather, it felt like an exercise. The style was too classical to really feel new. I just could not connect with the dancers or the music.

The last piece of the performance was Taylor’s Changes, set to the music of the Mamas and the Papas. It was a rocking good time reminiscent of a time when hippies strolled down Haight-Ashbury during the ’60s. This piece had the opposite problem of Within the Golden Hour: interesting storyline but not enough technical ballet dancing. Perhaps it was because the dancers wore loose fitting clothing (some even had bellbottoms) that hid their sleek lines and graceful movements. Or perhaps there really just wasn’t all that much beautiful dancing involved. While it would have made a good stage production, there just didn’t seem to be enough ballet. Otherwise, the music and clothing (and occasionally the dancing) was fun (and for some, nostalgic).

There are two other programs currently alternating with this program during the festival’s run through May 6. Of note are the piece Joyride, choreographed by Mark Morris, music by John Adams and costumes by Isaac Mizrahi (Program B); and Double Evil, choreographed by Jorma Elo with music by Philip Glass. Unfortunately, student rush tickets are not available for any of the programs. However, affordable seats are available for as low as $15 for Standing Room Only and $20 for Balcony Side tickets.

San Francisco Ballet
New Works Festival
Thru May 6
Tickets: $15 to $265

Originally published:

Restaurant Review: Mexico DF- Mexican Fare at a Reasonable Price

There are three types of food that I usually scoff at when I see a fancy restaurant – Chinese, Vietnamese and Mexican. Perhaps it’s because there are so many great restaurants that serve these cuisines at such inexpensive prices that I feel no need to go to an upscale version. So when my cousin took my wife Lucky and me to Mexico DF (abbreviation for Distrito Federal), I was expecting mediocre Mexican at overinflated prices. Fortunately, I was overwhelmed by the food and underwhelmed by the price.

Located in the Embarcadero, Mexico DF is surrounded by expensive restaurants such as Boulevard, Ozumo and Shanghai 1930. Like its neighbors, this restaurant’s décor is definitely more inviting for a dine-in experience than hole-in-the-wall burrito shops you’d find in the Mission. Don’t get me wrong, the Mission has some of the best Mexican food, but I’d rather bring it home than eat it there. At Mexico DF, the opposite is true (though to go is an option for lunch on weekdays). Paintings by Mexican artists hang in the dining area. The wood accents make the room feel warm while the high ceilings give a sense of space and expansiveness. Even the unique wooden plates at the table are unique and beautiful pieces.

Strangely, as my appreciation for the décor increased, my expectations of the food decreased proportionally.

Fortunately I was more at ease when they brought out sample shots of the aguas frescas of the day – a refreshing and delicious drink made from fresh pineapple juice – to accompany the arrival of the menus. The evening’s menu was split into seven parts – Guacamoles, Ceviches y Crudos (seafood), Sopas y Ensaladas (soups and salads), Tacos, Botanas y Antojitos (snacks and appetizers), Platos Fuertas (main courses) and Al Lado (sides). While the prices were definitely higher than what you’d find at your local taco shop, they weren’t outrageous or ridiculous. Aside from the Platos Fuertas, most of the offerings were in the $8 to $15 range. I relaxed a little and was ready to give the place a chance to prove itself. My cousin opted for the pound of carnitas ($26) while Lucky went with the Chuleta tacos (3 for $10) and I opted for the Huarache ($10). We also shared the Classico guacamole ($9).

The friendly and attentive wait staff soon returned with the chips and guacamole, made with lime, cilantro and Serrano chile. The fresh chips and guacamole was rather tasty, especially with the addition of salsa. Perhaps the guacamole could have use a little more acidity, but it was minor quibble. It was not long at all before our dinners were ready. My cousin received his huge portion of carnitas with a side of guacamole, pickled onions, salsa and handmade corn tortillas. He gave us some of his carnitas while we waited for our dishes. The pieces of slow-cooked port were so tender and delicious that both Lucky and I wished we had ordered the carnitas ourselves. I have to say this was perhaps the best carnitas I have had.

In comparison the huge carnitas plate, Lucky’s taco plate was simple – three handmade corn tortillas held an ample amount of pork loin, served with a side of mildly spicy chile de arbol salsa. Lucky set one of her tacos on my plate and I devoured it between grunts of satisfaction. The grilled pork was lean and boldly flavored. Sure they came out to about $3.33 each, but the high-grade quality of the meat was unmistakable – not one morsel of fatty, unchewable pork in there.
My huarache – a handmade corn masa “sandal” the thickness of pita bread (but softer, chewier, less flaky and made of corn) covered with black refried beans and grilled short ribs, topped with queso, cilantro and onions – did not disappoint.

The ingredients went together so well that I wondered why short rib huaraches were typical fare at most Mexican restaurants. Those with larger appetites may find it too small to be filling, but with the chips and guacamole and small helpings from my cousin and Lucky, I was too full to try any of their desserts (I hear the burnt caramel flan is quite delicious).

And so a mea culpa to upscale Mexican dining is in order. Mexico DF is proof that you don’t have to go to a dive with a questionable health code record to get delicious authentic Mexican food. Mexico DF, located not too far from Mission Bay at Steuart St, offers a decidedly enjoyable dining atmosphere at reasonable prices. Perhaps I will have to readjust my attitude toward upscale Chinese and Vietnamese food as well.

Mexico DF
139 Steuart St.

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Family-Friendly Yosemite

Ask anyone what comes to mind when they think about when they think of Yosemite and the answers are often in the same vein – rugged beauty and hardcore outdoor activity. It’s hardly the place for families, right? You’d be surprised to find how many family-friendly options are available in this amazing national park. Our group spanned three generations – Lucky’s parents, Lucky and myself, and our little pal Grady. One would think that would make it even harder to accommodate all of us. On the contrary, it was an exceptional trip enjoyed by all.

Our three-day excursion occurred during the winter season. Fortunately, there was still quite a bit of snow in the higher elevations at Badger Pass, located in the southern part of the park. It would be a stretch to say that the downhill skiing was optimal. So we opted for the cross-country skiing. While Lucky’s mom and Grady hung out on the snow tubes (oversized inner tubes perfect for sliding down the hill), Lucky’s father, Lucky and I rented cross-country skis and explored the surrounding area. Since we were just beginners, we took the road most traveled, which was perfect since previous skiers left a trail we could follow, making it less strenuous. With the warm sun on our backs and a gentle cool breeze on our faces, we skied at a leisurely pace, covering several miles before heading back to the tubing area, where Grady was having the time of his life alternating between trying to eat the snow and trying to slide down it.

After a rather tiring day, we headed down to the Yosemite Valley floor to do check out Yosemite Village. Besides the Valley Visitor Center, the Village is home to the Ansel Adams Gallery, Yosemite Museum and the Yosemite Cemetery. There is also a huge Village Store where I was quite surprised at how reasonable the prices were: spaghetti, salad, and garlic bread definitely didn’t break the bank.

The next day we returned to the Valley floor to catch one of the park’s bus tours. A two-hour narrated tour with stops at the major attractions along the floor – Bridal Veil Fall, El Capitan, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls to name a few – it allowed us to relax and let someone else drive while we learned about the history of Yosemite as well as trivia about the various spots. For those who don’t want to fork over the money, though, there is the option of parking in the Yosemite Village day lot and taking the free shuttle that drops you off at various sites. The only downside is that you don’t hear the extra inside information about the sites.

We went in the winter, but there are even more great activities for families during the spring and summer. For one, the number of areas serviced by the guided bus tours increases as the snow melts and roads become accessible. One can choose from the Grand Tour, the Tuolumne Meadows tour and the Glacier Point tour as well.

For those who prefer a little more activity, bikes are available for rental at the Yosemite Lodge. For those who do not want something too strenuous, Yosemite has over 12 miles of paved bike trails leading to beautiful vistas. They even rent out trailers so the ones too young to bike can join along. Yosemite also offers programs aimed toward families with small children. The free WeeWild Ones program is for children 6 and under (only during the summer) while kids 7-13 can enjoy the Junior Rangers program. For the folks older than 7, Yosemite offers horse and mule rides. And if you still have time, kids of all ages may want to try their hands at the 3,050 yard, nine-hole par-35 golf course.

Of course, there’s always hiking Half Dome or rock climbing on El Capitan if your family loves a strenuous adventure. And there are plenty of places for camping and backpacking throughout the 1170 square mile park, too. Whatever your family is interested in, Yosemite has something for almost every member of every family.

Yosemite National Park (Contracted concessioner’s website) (Government website)

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Animal Attractions for the Little Ones

After the recent events regarding the escaped tiger attack at the San Francisco Zoo in December 2007, the focus of the media has largely been on the problems of this San Francisco institution. Questions are constantly raised as to treatment of its larger animals and the morality of capturing animals and depriving them of their freedom. While these are very important questions that need to be probed, they are wholly ignored by the blissfully oblivious like my young pal Grady.

On a recent trip to the zoo, Grady, my wife Lucky and I decided to enjoy a beautiful day at the Children’s Zoo.

All the lions, tigers and bears were largely ignored as the majority of our time was spent petting goats and sheep at the Family Farm section of the Children’s Zoo. To see all the children running to and fro, feeding the animals or combing their coats, it was hard to imagine that the zoo in the news and the zoo they were at were generally the same place. Here, the most dangerous part about the place was that a few of the animals would aggressively nudge people to get them to feed them special little pellets of food that could be purchased.

This was little Grady’s first up-close and personal exposure to animals. Sure, he had seen dogs on leashes and pigeons at the park, but he had never had any close encounters with animals. He was so eager to touch real sheep he had previously only seen in his books. On the verge of hyperventilation, his little hands excitedly rubbed and occasionally pulled at the animals’ coats. Fortunately, the animals were used to it and did not retaliate.

The Children’s Zoo also has a fascinating collection of insects and spiders for older children at the unfortunately misnamed Insect Zoo. Those with arachnophobia may want to stay away from the exhibit Otherwise, it is an amazing collection that introduces children and adults to scorpions, tarantulas, walking sticks, and many other creepy crawlies.

Of course the zoo has its share of tigers, gorillas and bears (at the new Grizzly Gulch) for those who like the bigger animals. Bu if the zoo does not fit your fancy, there are also animals in Golden Gate Park. Besides the squirrels that beg for food in the Botanical Garden, there is also the Bison Paddock. Yes, they are locked up and kept at quite a distance to really be appreciated, but how often do you get to see bison (other than in the zoo)?

Another place in Golden Gate Park you and your young ones may find interesting is the Conservatory of Flowers. You read that correctly. From now until November, part of the Conservatory will house butterflies in the “Butterfly Zone.” We went in mid-March when it just opened- there weren’t an overwhelming number of butterflies, but they were a sight to behold. And at $3 for students (and free for children under 4, $1.50 for children 5-11), it won’t kill your budget. There is a butterfly bungalow which houses caterpillars in various states of the transformation into butterflies. I assume that later in the year, these new butterflies will increase the population flitting about the butterfly zone.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Sonoma Valley Pampering, Part 2: Spa Treatments to Die For

After a comfortable night’s rest, we continued our weekend of pampering at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Spa. It was the first time either my wife Lucky or I had been to a spa, and I admittedly was a bit embarrassed to be there. Not that I’m a manly man, but I personally have always thought of spas as a place for a “girls’ getaway.” Using Lucky’s birthday as a cover for having to go, I was able to hide the fact (until now) that I was secretly looking forward to being doted over while soothing hands kneaded me into a pile of mush.

We arrived at the beautifully manicured grounds of the Fairmont Sonoma with its impressive Spanish-Mission style architecture, an oasis in the middle of a very average neighborhood. It didn’t take long to find the 40,000-square-foot, European-style spa complete with its own source of thermal springs. After checking in with the attendant at the front to confirm our reservations, we were soon changing into our bathing suits and Fairmontsupplied plush robes and reflexology sandals.

The Fairmont’s menu of spa services is amazingly comprehensive. They offer everything under the sun, from the typical massages and facials to the unique – body wraps and flotation treatments in which you are suspended in a cocoon-like environment in flotation beds heated to 120°F. Add to that access to all their day classes – spinning, aerobics, yoga and more – and the use of their bath house and you can easily spend a day or two there without getting bored.

We decided on the couples’ massage and facials since we were new to all of this. But before we began our treatments, we took part in their signature Bathing Ritual. A unique treatment all its own, at least 30 minutes should be allotted to fully enjoy this experience. The ritual begins with an exfoliating shower in which a supplied mineral kur shower gel is used to exfoliate and cleanse your skin. Next you ease into the 98°F warm mineral bath before relaxing in the 102° hot mineral bath with jets. Both are from the 135°F Boyes Thermal Springs, located more than 1000 feet below the spa, cooled to differing degrees for each bath. After a nice soak in the hot bath, it is suggested you re-hydrate with a glass of water before cooling your body with a cold shower. I couldn’t stand it for more than a few seconds before I jumped into the eucalyptus steam room. Both invigorating and soothing, the eucalyptus steam cleared my airways within seconds and had me sweating despite a strangely cool sensation. Next door to the steam room is the sauna, which gave a 100°F dry heat that reminded me of the dry Las Vegas climate. The sauna is then followed by another drink of water and a cold shower. After the ritual, I was so relaxed that I didn’t think the massage or facial would do much more to help us unwind.

We waited for our masseuses while snacking on complimentary fresh fruits and teas while reading the paper in comfortable leather chairs in the waiting area. Before long, our names were called and we were whisked into a private room with side-by-side massage tables. Lucky had the lavender aromatherapy massage while I opted for the unscented one. Our only other professional massages were in Hawaii after our wedding, so granted, we had very limited experience for a frame of reference. Nonetheless, both of us agreed that these totally obliterated the previous massages we had received.

My lower back has been killing me since our pal Grady came to live with us. With a little direction, regarding which areas on which to concentrate and how firm a touch should be used, my masseuse had hands (and arms and elbows) of magic! Abracadabra! The pain literally subsided (until we went home and I picked up Grady again). Lucky preferred a lighter touch and was totally satisfied with her massage as well. It was amazing how we both felt as though we were drifting in and out of consciousness, drugged by the masseuse’s touch. Our fifty minutes passed way too quickly; I thought to myself, “Perhaps the 90 minute massage wouldn’t have been too long after all.”

We then headed back down to the waiting room for some more cucumber- infused water and strawberries, oranges and dried fruits before we were magically whisked away for our second treatment. Lucky received a Lavender facial while I went in for the Men’s Facial (that way I didn’t feel too silly). But after the cosmetologist examined my skin, she declared my face a disaster zone and recommended the Cellular Rejuvenation Facial. I was in the hands of a professional, so I relented.

While this treatment was therapeutic, it was also even more relaxing than the massage. With each step, she explained what she was doing, what products she was using, and how each worked. Occasionally, her voice would fade into oblivion and I would rudely fall asleep as she talked. But I’m sure she was used to that. Perhaps if she hadn’t wrapped my hands in warm lotion filled mitts and massaged my face and scalp, I wouldn’t have fallen asleep on her. When she was done manually extracting, exfoliating, slathering my skin with grape leaf extract and applying an ampoule of cell-rejuvenating solution, my face really did feel radiant.

It may have been the thrill of the moment, but even a few days later I still felt glowing. Maybe it was what I call the dentist effect: After a cleaning by my dentist, I always swear to floss every day. That lasts about a week before I’m back to my bad habits. Let’s just say I moisturized for about a week before forgetting where the facial lotion was.

As we drove away from that oasis of peacefulness, Lucky commented, “Maybe we should make facials and massages a part of every birthday celebration.” Yes, spa treatments may be habit forming. Fortunately, we won’t be students next year.

Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa
100 Boyes Boulevard
Sonoma, California
Spa Reservations: (877) 289- 7354

Originally printed:

Sonoma Valley Pampering Part 1

There is no better way to refresh yourself than a cathartic mini-vacation. Think of it as a regular vacation, but shortened by the restraints of time and distance.

Seeing as how we are in the midst of a quarter, we can afford no more than a weekend (three days if you are lucky), and it has to be within a reasonable driving distance. But if it’s done right, a mini-vacation can be just as luxurious, indulgent and rejuvenating as a regular vacation. A few mini-vacation spots that come to mind are Mendocino, Tahoe, Monterey and the wine country. All offer beautiful surroundings and luxuriant options for dining, pampering, and relaxing. My wife Lucky and I recently used the excuse of her birthday to plan a mini-vacation in Sonoma Valley.

Sonoma Valley is often overshadowed by its better known sibling, Napa Valley. This, however, presents quite an opportunity as there are wonderful overlooked gems to be discovered here. In fact, it has become one of our favorite local destinations over the years. With over 40 wineries along its 17-mile stretch, one can spend a week here and still not try all the varieties of pinots, syrahs and merlots. It may come as a surprise to many that it is, in fact, the birthplace of the California wine industry. In addition to wineries, it is home to a burgeoning olive oil industry. Olive oil tasting rooms, while not as numerous, have been popping up all over. A couple notable places are the Olive Press and Figone Olive Oil Company.

Those who want to forego the viticultural delights of the valley may be interested in the therapeutic spa treatments courtesy of two thermal springs in the area: Fetters Hot Springs and Boyes Hot Springs. There are a handful of day spas and resorts that offer spa treatments, but the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa is one of the few that has its own thermal spas. Still others may want to take advantage of the beautiful display that nature offers in one of three state parks within the vicinity: Annadel State Park, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, and Jack London State Historic Park. This time of year is especially beautiful with the wild mustard flowers dotting the hillsides as well as the dormant vineyards.

And for those who are looking for a culinary focused getaway, Sonoma Valley is a great destination. Several restaurants that have earned rave reviews in the San Francisco Chronicle and the ever-popular Zagat Guide as well as garnered coveted Michelin stars are located in the area or within a respectable driving distance: Dry Creek Kitchen, Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant, La Toque and most notably Cyrus, which arguably offers the best dining experience in the Bay Area.

In order to be in the middle of it all, we decided to stay in Glen Ellen, a quite small town in the heart of Sonoma Valley. We spent the night at the Gaige House Inn, with all the comfort and intimacy of a bed and breakfast but the lavish style and amenities of a hotel. The main building is a Victorian in the Queen Anne-Italianate design which houses 12 rooms, a dining room where breakfast is served, and a sitting room. But if you’re looking for something special, the cottage suites behind the main house are where it’s really at. We stayed in the Creekside Suite, a spacious stand-alone cottage on the back part of the three-acre grounds, with a private deck overlooking the Calabasas Creek.

The suite itself was a large space which included a dining table, a seating area complete with a flat screen TV, and king-sized bed. Decorated with furniture and works of art with distinct Asian accents, the suite felt as though we were off on a vacation in the Pacific Islands. And if that wasn’t enough to melt away the stress, the Jacuzzi in the spacious bathroom surely did the trick.

Getting back to the comforts of a bed and breakfast, in the main house, free homemade cookies, a variety of tea selections from Mighty Leaf Tea®, and soft drinks are available at any time of the day in the living room. But if wine and cheese are more your speed, they have a daily social hour where you can chat with your neighbors over local fare. We didn’t partake of these since we had dinner reservations at an amazing restaurant in Healdsburg. Also available in the living room was a library of DVDs that could be borrowed for personal viewing and copies of various newspapers including the New York Times and the Chronicle.

Yes, the Sonoma Valley was the perfect place for a mini-vacation, and Gaige House Inn was just the start of it…

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Sunday, March 2, 2008

Yoshi's San Francisco: Arturo Sandoval Heats Up Fillmore, Latin Jazz Style

The Fillmore jazz scene is back, thanks in large part to Yoshi’s recent foray on this side of the bay. Yoshi’s is one part restaurant, with Chef Sho Kamio serving up some of the most delicious and stunning Japanese dishes, and one part jazz club, promising an intimate and inviting show for a crowd no larger than 420. If the kinds of acts that Yoshi’s attracted were local artists or under-the-radar acts that have yet to make it big, this would be just another jazz joint. But the fact that Arturo Sandoval is gracing the stage until Sunday is testament to Yoshi’s impressive line up.

Here is a man who has won four Grammy Awards, six Billboard Awards, and an Emmy – in short, he is a legend. At the age of 59, he is not showing any signs of letting up any time soon. With passion and verve, Sandoval’s jazz trumpet is still wickedly scorching all the way up to the screeching upper registries that are so difficult to hit. Add his Mambo Big Band, singers and dancers, and you have one of the hottest shows around. In a tribute to mambo kings Tito Puente and Perez Prado, this show has all the heat, excitement and appeal of the 1950s Copacabana. Although there are two shows a night through Sunday, your best bet is Thursday night at 10 p.m. as the 8 p.m. shows and weekend shows will fill up soon if they have not already done so.

Equally stunning is the Japanese cuisine served either at the restaurant or at the club. The club menu, while just a fraction of the restaurant menu, is complete enough to satisfy the average customer without the need to compromise quality sushi. But if you are looking for more than nigiri, a few grilled items, or dessert, book a reservation for dinner about an hour before showtime. You won’t be disappointed with their extensive menu.

Although the food is a bit on the pricey side, you won’t want to miss their Morikomi (sashimi combinations) starting at $22 for 2 pieces each of 5 varieties of fish. Fare from their Kamayaki (wood burning oven roasted) section is less traditional Japanese, but the Kurobuta “Berkshire” Pork Prime Rib ($20) marinated in a ginger miso marinade and served with lemon thyme jus is spectacular.

Another option available to patrons is to watch the show for free while eating in the dining room. The gigs are shown on TVs all throughout the restaurant and lounge. You may not get the superior acoustics of the state-of-the-art club, but you will get to experience a performance by a living legend.

Arturo Sandoval’s Mambo Mania Big Band
Yoshi’s San Francisco
1330 Fillmore St.
San Francisco 94115
Now through Sunday

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