THE WEST COAST HAS THE SUNSHINE

CALIFORNIA, Part 4 of 5

Dear Diary, Day 12 … It’s Sunday, pleased with myself that I remember the day of the week. I don’t always do that at home [wink]. We enjoyed lox on thin slices of dark bread … and a Bloody Mary. Debbie was generous with the vodka. But we had promises to keep (though today, not too many miles to go), so we said merci and adieu to Debbie as our journey continued.

I found myself taking pictures for our Italian friends. They see Los Angeles in “NCIS: Los Angeles” and “Beverly Hills Cop” … and now they have a friend, one degree of separation from a city of their dreams. LOOK AT THAT MOUNTAIN, LOOK AT THOSE TREES. I excitedly sent WhatsApp messages full of photos to various zumba groups and assorted individuals. They replied with emojis of envy and excitement.

As I took all those photos, I laughed to myself … it looks like I’m not from around here (hehehe … but I am!).

We drove to the designated parking lot to meet my friend and former next door neighbor, Susan, and her youngest son, Matthew. I’ve known him since he was 4 … when he asked why I had little lights on the ficus tree when it wasn’t Christmas … he is now a rocket scientist (which he tells me is not brain surgery). I’m a proud “aunt.” The four of us walked to Santa Monica Pier on a Chamber of Commerce day, watching cyclists and rollerbladers and weight trainers and kite-enthusiasts and people who don’t remember the 1960s and tourists. Strolling leisurely, we found an Asian fusion place near the formerly skeevy, now rebuilt from the ground up Third Street Promenade. It seems fusion means some dishes are served hot. I’m good with that. We shared all sorts of sushi and rolls … some spicy, some slightly sweet, all nicely rice-y … Matthew made good selections that we all enjoyed.

When Matthew and Susan said ciao, it was still early and it was still sunny … so David & I walked back to Shutters, where we had a spectacular dinner the night before. We went to the bar downstairs … it was Happy Hour … and I was happy to see Prosecco on the menu. Now we saw the palm trees and the sun setting into the Pacific. HOPE IT DON’T FALL INTO THE SEA.

For dinner, we had picked Mexican … at La Talpa, on Pico Boulevard, a little restaurant (next to a big restaurant) recommended by Debbie. Our dinner companions were high school friend, Richard, and his wife, Lynn. We arrived early … and waited at the bar with a margarita and chips/salsa. For dinner, I decided to get something different. I ordered carnitas … but when it arrived, I realized all I really wanted was, wait for it, the guacamole. I ate a few bites … then saved the rest for lunch the next day. David had pork fajitas, served with the usual suspects of Spanish rice, refried beans, pico di gallo, and flour tortillas.

Dear Diary, Day 13 … We had no plans for lunch, but David had leftover Mexican, and I realized I hadn’t eaten the pain du chocolat that Debbie tucked into my bag. Merci beaucoup Debbie. We met our friend, John, for a leisurely hot beverage at his favorite coffee hangout in Burbank.

We then headed for dinner with my high school friend Jeff, and his wife and son, Yelena and Zach. Set in the back of a strip mall, Carnival Restaurant, on Woodman Avenue in Sherman Oaks, serves Lebanese and other Middle Eastern food. Yelena and Jeff are familiar with the restaurant and David & I were eager to try everything … and we filled our table with delicious dishes. First appeared a plate of pickled turnips, green olives, and spicy peppers, plus a basket of warm pita. We started with lentil soup that was thick, creamy, and decidedly delicious. Next arrived stuffed grape leaves, rice-filled with a touch of lemon, and very tasty. Chopped salad, cool and refreshing. Then there was a platter filled with deliciously ultra-creamy hummus (the real McCoy, of course, not some trendy faux puree … in fact, I joke with Yelena about this, and she suggested we rename hummus “chickpea guacamole”) AND velvety baba ganoush with a subtle smoky flavor AND yummy falafel that were crunchy on the outside, tender on the inside AND tasty tabouli of equal parts parsley and bulgur. On another platter were grilled vegetables … zucchini and tomatoes and onions and mushrooms and eggplant. With barely any room on the table, we squeezed in a platter of Shawarma … the spit-roasted, thinly sliced, flavorful and tender lamb, accompanied by perfectly cooked-in-broth rice pilaf that included little bits of vermicelli. But wait there’s more. Chicken kebabs, tender and moist, sharing space with French fries. Every bite was so good, with flavors familiar yet deliciously different. My taste buds wanted more, but my tummy said no mas. We divided the leftovers between the two families. And yet … we found room for dessert. Baklava. Expecting something drowning in honey, I was pleasantly surprised … honey, of course, subtle and sweet, and filo dough, of course, crispy around the nutty filling, and sprinkled with pistachios.

Dear Diary, Day 14 … Today’s lunch was with Vickie and her husband, Mickey. We are lucky that we see her every year when she travels to Torricella Peligna, in Abruzzo, for the Fante Literary Festival. At midday, the sun shimmered on the Pacific as we took the scenic route to the restaurant in Malibu. We stopped at Vickie’s girlhood home … what was a single-story, Spanish-style ranch was torn down in favor of modern, energy-efficient architecture with an open, stainless steel mesh fence and a row of plants too young, too short, too far apart to form a privacy hedge. A chacun son gout.

We arrived at The Sunset Cafe, across a two-lane road from the beach in Malibu. A location of fantasies … a location tourists hope for, but (happily) cannot find. We sat at the window, the sun warm and the sea breeze cool through the open windows. Mickey picked a white wine … a Sancerre “Beau Roy” from Domaine Reverdy Ducroix … and we indulged in two bottles. He picked wisely. Warm sourdough rolls and butter arrived, and we nibbled while we read the menu. No rush. Three of us had fish tacos … fabulously flaky and juicy snapper served with spicy chili mayonnaise and avocado-lime cream nestled in flour tortillas, plus a cup of guacamole. This time it was David who enjoyed grilled salmon, served with a red wine reduction and a scoop of mashed potatoes. Watching the waves and a smattering of surfers on ANOTHER PERFECT DAY.

Dinner that night was a treat of another kind … a home cooked meal. Susan, an elementary school friend, had arranged a gathering with other Horace Mann friends, and Jerry, her husband and professional foodie, was cooking. We arrived early, and watched as he added the finishing touches to his pilaf. Also at table were Gail … whom I hadn’t seen since our reunion … and HMer Robin and her husband, Larry, both of whom we saw in Florence two years before. It was a terrific group of long-time friends (notice how I didn’t say “old”). The wine was red, both a nice Pinot Noir and bold Syrah, and dinner was Moroccan. Lamb sous vide was rare and toothsome, my first time enjoying this cooking technique … a rice pilaf with pine nuts and parsley was great … and the vegetable stew simmered in a tagine, and filled with tomatoes and garbanzos and dried apricots (really) plus cardamom and other unusual spices, was amazing. Gail and I kept taking spoonfuls and spoonfuls of it. We could have talked all night.

Dear Diary, Day 15 … For lunch, we were heading to Burbank for a quick meal al fresco with Bob and prior host, Eric. We went to Magazzino Cafe … since David knew Rose, the owner, from his days at the studio. When we walked in, a server offered us cups of the soup-of-the-day … and it was so good, I ordered a bowl. Sitting outside at a little cafe table on the sidewalk, I enjoyed the creamy green bean potage … warm and comforting, served with slices of French bread. David had a beet salad, with walnuts, almonds, and field greens in a light vinaigrette. And Eric made sure I took a picture of his turkey wrap; Bob had a good, old-fashioned sandwich.

It was time to drive to Long Beach to stay with Leslie and Rich (our Milan Mashup co-participants … among other adventures). She was the keeper of my online purchases … including a litter box (a much better, and more convenient, design at a fraction of the price of made-in-Italy models … making me a crazy cat lady) AND cream of tartar (a more convenient size at a fraction of the purchased-in-Italy price … making me a crazy cake lady).

For dinner, we went to nearby Restauration. From the small and quirky menu, Leslie and Rich both had Oxtail Doughnuts. Like I said, quirky … Leslie offered me a bite, and though I do like oxtail, I don’t like doughnuts, so I have no tasting notes. Both David and I opted for something more conventional … big, juicy cheeseburgers, one served with chunks of fried potatoes, the other with salad of field greens in an oil and lemon juice dressing. The burgers, cooked medium rare with cheese melting into the nooks and crannies, hit the spot.

Back at the house, we enjoyed bowls of caramel-swirl ice cream. It reminded all of us of our last evening in Los Angeles five years earlier … when the four of us ate the last of our chocolate-covered Dove bars from our now-sold freezer, as we sat on the floor without our now-sold sofa.

Buona notte.

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Life … and cooking … in the Tuscan countryside.

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