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The Friars Club

Friars_Club_NY.jpgOK, so if someone asked you, “Do you want to go to the Friars Club for dinner? It’s fish night, so there’ll be 90-year-olds on oxygen wearing lobster bibs in the corner,” what would you say? You’d say, “Hell yes, I want to go to the Friars Club! Let me grab my chest-high pants and I’ll meet you at the front door!”

The Friars Club, for those of you not in the know, is a members-only club in midtown Manhattan that is most famously host to the Friars Club roasts where old-school insult comedians say terrible, sometimes funny things to and about some poor celebrity sap who has to just sit there and take it. (Between you and me, roasts make me cringe more than they make me laugh, but I seem to be in the minority.) Membership is invitation only and is all show biz types. Carol Channing, Milton Berle, George Burns, Billy Crystal type place. Heavy on the comedians but including Frank Sinatra and his ilk too.

The place is so much more than we could have every hoped. It’s like a Poconos resort threw up 1950-1955 all over the place. It’s a five-story mansion with curved carved staircases, tiny elevators, ornate dark wood paneled walls, a billiards room, a sauna, and headshots everywhere of all the famous members, from Jerry Lewis to Tom Hanks.

No cell phone usage is allowed: if you need to take a call – I’m not kidding – they bring you a cream-colored rotary phone and plug it into the jack in the banquette. Every table has one. Think Rock Hudson/Doris Day. Each bathroom has an old-school glass pump with blue mouthwash in it. The men sport big rings. The ladies have all had face lifts. It is, in a word, awesome.

So we went for dinner.

The waitstaff wears ill-fitting polyester suits and when you ask about their red wine selection, they say, “We have a burgundy, a pinot noir, and a merlot.” None of this modern bullshit about grape blends organically grown in Australian or Argentinian or Sonoma going for $12 a glass. You’ll order by type and you’ll like it.

The dinner menu’s the same. Appetizers? Shrimp cocktail, crab cocktail or salad with blue cheese. The shrimp cocktail comes with red cocktail sauce. Same for the crab. None of this frou-frou garbage with anise-seed consomme and sea nettle foam. You’re having the shrimp, you get the shrimp. That’s it. Fuck you.

Dinner? Steak, lobster, roast chicken or sole. And that’s exactly what you’ll get: nothing else, just a giant 20-oz. steak, a freakishly large 2.5-lb. lobster or the largest sole I’ve ever seen. It’s like they were bred at Costco in the steroids aisle. If you want sides, you order them but no one’s bringing you your fish on a pressed disc of maple-glazed pork molars. Spinach? Steamed. In a white dish. Done. Potatoes, brocolli or french fries. Enjoy. No white asparagus, no bamboo stems, no essence of baby swamp grass.

Dessert? This is the best part. Peach melba. That’s right, there’s a place in 2010 that still serves peach melba. Vanilla ice cream, peaches (listed as fresh but clearly Del Monte cling from a can), and raspberry sauce served in a cocktail glass. Brownie. Or ice cream. I was really hoping that a bowl of Jell-O might be an option, but no such luck.

I gotta tell you: everything was really good. Straightforward, uncomplicated and tasty. It was kind of refreshing. Don’t knock 1952, people.

A Word of Advice


You know how Iran and North Korea keep putting hikers and journalists in jail for so-called “border incursions” when they step across some imaginary line in the dust right about where the the lunatics in charge think their territory starts? I’m starting to warm up to that idea.

Just before we knew we were pregnant, I complained that the general public felt free to ask personal questions about our sex life over cocktails, e.g. when and how many children we intended to produce. Apparently, that was just the tip of the iceberg. Now that I’m obviously pregnant, a whole new world of boundary violations has opened up.

For starters, there’s the touching. I thought we’d all gotten the “show me on the doll” memo when we were kids, but clearly some segment of the population feels that a.) that doesn’t apply to children before they’re born, and b.) it doesn’t apply to other adults who are carrying those children.

Let me ask you this: when was the last time you walked up to someone you haven’t seen in ten years, a co-worker or really anyone you’re not sleeping with, and put your hand on their stomach like you were their high school boyfriend copping a feel between first and second period? Never, that’s when.

I get that it’s interesting that I’m carrying around the equivalent of a bear cub in my abdomen. Yes, it’s weird. Yes, she moves. It’s fine that you’re fascinated. That’s your deal. My deal is that I still retain air-space rights at least several inches around my body. If you want to enter the no-fly zone, you ask. Period.

Then there’s the advice. International law on this one is unclear. The United States offers all kinds of unsolicited input to countries all over the world, especially ones in some kind of transition: don’t stuff your ballot boxes; don’t blow that up; don’t eat that; stop hitting them, and so on. Usually though, there’s a cash incentive (like, we’ll give you money for counter-terrorism) or a serious disincentive (like, we won’t give you snacks).

That makes sense, since, let’s face it, unsolicited advice implies that you’re doing – or about to do – something “wrong” or that you don’t know what you’re doing at all, which, unless you’re really evolved and secure, makes the advice-giver seem like kind of a jerk, however well-intentioned or correct she or he might be. Money softens that blow. It’s kind of like employment: you pay me so I’ll do what you tell me to do.

Apparently where pregnancy and children are concerned though, there is no such arrangement. Advice, usually absurdly specific to the giver’s situation, is not accompanied by a cash incentive.

Just between you and me, if you handed me a roll of twenties before advising me not to take drugs during labor, I would definitely be more receptive to your suggestion.

Worse – and more common – than the advice is the unsolicited negative input. It’s the lazy man’s advice: it just sits in your path like a suicidal frog on a road in a rainstorm. No plans, no suggestions, it’s just out there. I can’t make out what the intent is in recreationally telling someone who is inevitably going to have to deliver a baby in a few months all the things that can go wrong when she does. Unless you have medically relevant information to disclose, discussing disastrous deliveries with an expectant mother is like stopping by the JFK security line to share the latest on airplane crashes.

Also inexplicable: telling me how I’ll be sleep-deprived after the baby arrives (as if I’m not now) or how my life will never be the same again. Since I don’t live in a cave, am sentient, reasonably well-educated, and not sixteen years old, trust me when I say that I am already aware that my life will change and it will, for a while, include less sleep. (We thought of that before we decided to have kids, didn’t you?) So the intent can’t be informative, right?

And don’t tell me it’s just making conversation either, because when you make small talk with a non-pregnant person you barely know in an elevator, I guarantee you don’t start with freak accidents or Things I’m Bitter About. You say pleasant things about rain showers and television shows and puppies. OK, maybe not puppies, but please know that I’d much rather hear about them than how your cousin’s husband cheated on her while she was pregnant, who you know who had a late-term miscarriage or how your daughter grew up to be a teenaged mother living in your basement. I can say unequivocally that I do not want to hear any of those stories because a.) they do not bring any useful information into my life, b.) as stories, they are total downers, c.) I am often awake and paranoid at 4AM and your story’s not helping, and c.) they make me want to kick you in the shins, which is kind a losing proposition for you too.

Let me return the favor and offer some advice of my own: unless an expectant mother asks for your rundown of worst case scenarios or Your Least Favorite Things About Being a Parent, say supportive things. Say happy things. Mention what you love about being a parent. Tell her what’s gone right. If that’s beyond your reach, save it for your close friends, say, “Congratulations!” and move on to the weather and small animal antics. Your shins will thank me.

Santa Lucia: The West Coast Tour




santa_lucia_concert3.JPGI know you’ve been up all night wondering how the weekend baking went, so let’s get right to it and relieve your anxiety so you can get back to wrapping up the cat.

It’s hard to believe that as a.) a girl, and b.) a Swede, I have never torn open a packet of yeast. I’ve cooked and baked, but just in front of yeast is where I’ve drawn the line in my kitchen endeavors. It’s sat there my entire life in its deceptively innocent yellow packaging just across the DMZ behind the unfurled barbed wire. My reasoning has been this: if I can’t manage to keep myself, my kitchen and my loved ones free from sticky residue when I buy my dough from a store and only have to roll it out, what hope is there for any of us if I attempt to create said dough from scratch?

I’m just trying to make you aware of the risks. Emma + dough = umm….let’s say, “street luge.”

Yesterday, December 13, was the date I set to break my yeast embargo because it was Santa Lucia, an inexplicably Swedish celebration of an Italian saint whose eyes were gouged out with hot pokers before she was burned at the stake for converting to Christianity around 300 AD. Isn’t that a lovely and heartwarming story?

In Swedish households, the oldest girl gets up at some ungodly hour of the morning, bakes nice things, makes hot drinks, loads it all on a tray, puts a wreath of candles on her head and goes around the house in a white robe waking her family with songs and delivering tasty treats. She’s on the hook until she’s thirteen, at which point the next daughter in line takes over.

My Lucia career was pretty smooth until I was twelve and misjudged the under-construction curve of our stairs, dropping the tray of cocoa and toast down the stairwell as I barely prevented my hair and the house from catching on fire when my flaming head wreath slipped sideways. If the real target of Lucia is to get everyone in the house up and at ’em, mission accomplished.

Every year I try to get on the stick and make Lucia happen and every year toast is about as far as I get. This year, I was determined to beat that poor standard. I got up early (for a Sunday) and made the dough. So far, so good. No major mishaps except when I’d pre-read the recipe on Saturday I’d missed the part where I had to let the dough rise for two hours before turning it into spiral rolls, so we had to re-plan the first half of our day and “Lucia breakfast” became “Lucia midafternoon snack time.”

Start time: 7:30AM. By 10:00 the dough was supposed to have doubled in size but hadn’t. Maybe a third bigger. By 10:30, my patience had expired, so I rolled out the unpuffy dough and started distributing butter and sugar.

Put all the rolls in the pan. Took all the rolls out of the pan when I realized the nut and sugar coating was supposed to be making a diabetic bed for them in the bottom of the pan. Make the bed, reinsert the rolls.

At this point, the rolls are supposed to rise again for, according to the recipe, 35-45 minutes. Until they’re double their original size. Again with the double. After 2 hours and 15 minutes, which is a massive, massive miscalculation in the recipe if you ask me, the rolls were nearly big enough to be candidates for the oven. 25 minutes later – correction, six hours and 25 minutes later – voila, sticky buns!

They’re good too. The dough part is fluffy, thanks to the extra two hours of rising I’m sure, and the coating is appropriately coma-inducing, if a little on the burned side, but who’s counting? Nothing caught fire and no one’s missing a limb.

See? It’s all about how you set your expectations.

To close the day, we hopped over to the Swedish-American Hall (who knew we had one? Thanks for sorting that one out, R!) for pepparkakor and glögg and to watch a proper Santa Lucia procession and concert, complete with a blonde Lucia from Stockholm with flaming wreath, (poker not included). A young boy in a white wizard’s hat with silver stars on it joined the girls, which we thought was weird, but I guess an extra wizard here and there can’t hurt your chances for a successful outcome, right?

The whole event made me miss my Swedish grandmother awfully, but soon we’ll have a small daughter ourselves to carry on the family tradition and Vivy would have loved that, so here’s to Swedish girls and old ladies and traditions handed down far from the homeland.

It was our most successful Lucia Day ever and a lovely day overall. Hooray, Christmas!

Holiday Update


Nothing says “Christmas” like a nut-covered cheese ball, right? RIGHT??

Well, maybe not for you, but my grandmother always scored one from somewhere and we had it with Ritz crackers and egg nog on Christmas Eve as a pre-dinner lactose tolerance test. Maybe it’s because I’m pregnant and seeking comfort food like a missile seeks a…well, some sort of sweet or savory target. If missiles do that, which they probably don’t. But it would be excellent if they did. Small missiles. Programmed to find macaroni and cheese. And Mallomars. Someone should get on that. I’m talking to you, Pentagon/Steve Jobs/Better Homes & Gardens.

Maybe it’s because it’s been a pretty daunting autumn and I’m determined to make Christmas feel like home. And by “home” I mean the parts of the holiday chaos that I enjoyed, not the yelling and the tube socks.

Has everyone had a difficult time these last few months? Divorce, career disruption, family issues, financial problems, unwelcome moves, relationship drama, you name it, someone in my inner circle is dealing with it. And, of course, I’m pregnant for the first time, which is not at all a bad thing but has become something of a private thing in the surrounding storm. So I’m turning to cheese balls for steadiness (they can get quite sturdy if you freeze them) and planning a low-key, carb-heavy, small Swedish Christmas in our little apartment away from the economic and metaphorical recession.

A key feature of that plan is items that involve risen dough, namely my grandmother’s sticky buns (sweet rolls with an extra coating of sugary goodness) and homemade bread. For those of you unfamiliar with my background in the kitchen, this is not a solid plan. Dough and I have a history, a history in which I have consistently been on the losing side, as have the walls of the kitchen. Dough and I, we’re like Afghanistan and anyone who’s invaded Afghanistan. It seems like I might be the destined-for-victory, well-intentioned exception when I come by with my troops of well-organized ingredients and clean counters and what not, but as soon as I get a toehold of control, the stuck-together insurgency creeps off into the tricky hills, taking any hope of smooth success with them. I’m left holding a bag of flour and staring at a pile of mess in some country where I don’t understand the rules or the language.

But Christmas isn’t just for winners, people! If the sticky buns come out like little nuggets of holiday cement covered in burned sugar, well, we’ll goddam well eat ’em anyway, because it’s Christmas and you weren’t raised in a barn, so show a little class and finish what’s in front of you.

Now that’s the Swedish Christmas spirit I remember!

Really though, I hope you’re taking a moment out of the chaos to score a tree, have some cocoa and listen to a little soothing Christmas music. Even with the chill and the drama, if you pause for a moment, Christmas is a lovely time of year, don’t you think?

Holiday Homesickness


To be clear, despite nearly ten years in San Francisco, New York is home. I mean, yes, of course, home is where R is and I do feel at home in our west coast apartment, but this city by the bay with its lack of drive, diners and dead of winter is discouraging come December.

Where are all the holiday markets and the Christmas buzz? Snow, please? Pretty please?

I need some tourists crowding in front of the Saks windows on 5th Avenue and snaking out of Radio City Music Hall so that I can look native and disdainful while secretly feeding off their excitement. I would like to be caught without gloves in Central Park so I can jam my hands in my pockets and dodge into an overpriced cafe on the Upper East Side for a cocoa to go so that I won’t lose my mind while I shop for boots and gifts at Bloomingdale’s. I need some weekday time on the street in SoHo to do some strike team snatching of holiday baubles before heading to the Angelika to catch some uplifting film on otter breeding that no one outside New York even knows was released. I want to wander the West Village in the winter chill and a long coat, thinking about the exciting year ahead, feeling the pull of Right Now! and What’s Next? I miss my Christmas market in Union Square with its red stalls and garland, and its mix of happy treasures and useless trinkets.

Home. Mmmm.

This happens every year and I usually dash off eastward in mid-December to get my pre-Christmas fix so everyone doesn’t have to listen to me whinge about the seasonally inappropriate sunny days and lack of aggressive Christmas cheer here in San Francisco. But this year we’ve been on the road for what feels like the better part of the last six months, plus my holiday heart is pumping an extra four quarts of shiny red Christmas blood around for this baby of ours, so I may be bound to the snowless slow lane for the time being.

If I were going to New York, here’s a list of what I’d do. If you’re there, you should too.

  1. Hit as many holiday markets as possible. Key one: Union Square. I’m also really fond of St. Bartholomew’s on Park Ave. because I grew up going to that church. You can score a silk tie for dad, jewelry from Brooklyn for your best friend, and a ridiculous overpriced hat for yourself because your mama didn’t dress you warmly enough. Full listing of markets, here.
  2. Check out Manhattan User’s Guide (MUG) listing of blogs covering holiday doings. Especially the events on the skint and Brooklyn Based.
  3. Seriously consider schlepping up to St. John the Divine for one of their Christmas concerts (they got Sting – apparently dressed in a cowl, no less – this year). Dress warmly: that place is freeeeezing in the winter.
  4. If it snows, take the A up to the Cloisters and wander about in the park a little before or after to get some winter stillness. Have tea. Maybe duck into a concert. Come to think of it, this is a good thing to do in January too. Maybe save the stillness for post-holidays.
  5. Go see a non-Christmas show. Screw Scrooge and the Rockettes: get cozy at Joe’s Pub (Happy Endings reading series is tomorrow), catch theater divas Lynn Redgrave at MTC or Anna Deavere Smith at 2nd Stage, or any of MUG’s 5 Off-Broadway Shows to See (see bottom of page).
  6. Get a good night’s sleep and head to midtown. Mind you, I never go to midtown unless I can help it, but the Grand Central Terminal shops, including the MTA store for New York-centric stocking stuffers (see also: New York Public Library gift shop), are a good place for gifts. And cheer. As long as you’ve had your coffee and not a lot of stress before you show up. Likewise wandering up 5th Avenue to furtively glance over the tourists’ shoulders at the windows at Saks and Barney’s and the tree at Rockefeller Center. If I’m feeling deranged with festive spirit, I might even go into FAO Schwarz for a few minutes. A word of caution: only brave this outing if you can feel happy window shopping and picking up the odd inspired gift. If you’re on a buying mission, the crowds and price tags could be your downfall.
  7. Hit Wollman Skating Rink. Think ahead re: crowds and events, but yeah, skating outside in Central Park is excellent.

If you’re there, I’m jealous, so maybe don’t tell me about it. Or you can tell me about it but you have to bring/send me a gift to accompany your tales of joy. That seems fair.

In the meantime, I’m sorting through New York First to see if I can import everything I like and set up a mini Manhattan in our apartment. Wish me luck.

Twelve Months


Last November, R and I got engaged, so it seems fitting that this November should bring its own news: we’re having a baby.

I love the autumn, don’t you?

If you’ve been been feeling a bit neglected, looking for a bit more writing, wondering why I haven’t sent you any emails or have noticed that I’ve been hedging a bit when you ask how I am, that’s why. It turns out that being pregnant is attention-consuming. Who knew?

Everything’s fine so far, and I’m feeling a bit more on-target these days than I have the last couple of months, especially with the break on the other side of the world, so business as usual to come, I hope. At least re: writing and so forth. The whole “an additional small noisy person joining the household” maybe not so much usual. I’ll keep you posted on that one.

Note to Self: The Kids Question


One of the things I loved about New York – not in the top ten but definitely a nice perk – was that no one ever asked me why I wasn’t married or when I was going to have kids. This is because there is so much to do in New York, who has time to notice the absence of rings and toddlers? You get there when you get there (if ever).

It’s not like that anymore. It might be a function of being so far from Manhattan or it might be because I’m 38. Whatever it is, “So, are you going to have kids?” has become this year’s, “How ’bout them Mets?”

It’s weird to ask people about their sex lives over cocktails, isn’t it? (Unless the people in question are your Sex-and-the-City, personal girlfriends, of course.) Not just that: they’re also asking you to summarize your plans for the rest of your life in what will probably be a drive-by conversation lasting no more than five minutes.

Maybe I’m taking this too seriously. Maybe it’s understood that the kids question is like the co-worker’s question about your recent hospital stay: no one actually wants you to tell him about how the surgeon left a sponge in your chest cavity that’s formed a third lung and kept you on painkillers so long that now you’re going to have to go to rehab like your second cousin Larry who’s been living on the streets of Minneapolis for the last six months with his three-legged ferret Myrtle. Maybe they’re just asking to fill the time and be polite.

Except asking about kids isn’t like asking about your health: presumably you already have some health to discuss whereas you don’t already have kids. Isn’t that as random as asking me if I want to get my pilot’s license? Or something more serious, like if I’ve been considering leaving my life of single, western world privilege to go help out in Sudan. I wouldn’t broadside you over a mojito with, “So, thinking about reconfiguring your concept of life, liberty and the pursuit of your particular happiness this fine weekend?”

Here’s what I’m thinking. People usually want something when they act oddly, right? Not from you: for themselves. They’re displacing what’s on their mind onto you. So it’s not really about you at all.

Parents want grandkids, but some instinct tells them it’s inappropriate to request that another person bear live young so they can spoil them with treats. Instead of finding a quiet moment to talk about their personal life with you at brunch and saying, “I look forward to having grandchildren someday,” and appending a respectful disclaimer about how that desire may not converge with your thinking about your future, they punt managing their desire onto you at a crowded potluck with, “Do you think you want kids?”

Same with pals. What they’re really asking is, “Do I want kids and can we please talk about that?” If they already have kids, they’re saying, “I hope you’ll have kids too because I’d like some back-up for my choice and someone to talk to about it.”

(Of course, there are exceptions. Some of my close friends really are curious about what I think. But they’re not the ones trotting up to me at bars to discuss it. Kids are best discussed over non-alcoholic beverages. Come to think of it, alcohol and kids don’t really mix from conception onwards, so good rule of thumb there.)

Instead of being privately offended or tactfully declining to respond, I’ve settled on the inappropriate response to the inappropriate question. I got the grandkids question at a wedding overrun with children under five last month and responded that perhaps arrangements could be made to rent some of the existing toddlers rather than adding to their number. The next time a half-drunk acquaintance tries for my position, I’m going to pull up with, “I don’t know. But how do you feel about nude camp? ‘Cause that’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while.”

I’ll let you know how many people are still talking to me in a month.

(That’s me in the picture by the way, working hard at correcting my 20/20 vision in a plastic swimming pool.)

Note to Self: Autumn Goals

It’s been a rocky week, Chez Emma. The end of summer usually gets me in the mood for new beginnings and back to school Members Only jackets in colors like Spice Bush and Brownage, but I can’t seem to grab on quite yet. Maybe it’s because most of the country is in the grip of a very still-summer heat wave or because, as usual, the San Francisco weather is passive aggressively kicking off my days with a blanket of grey clouds. There’s never anything cozy about the grey weather here. It doesn’t drizzle and it rarely rains, so you’ve no excuse to curl up with tea and Cary Grant. Here, the greyness just pouts like a spoiled child who is neither charming nor cute but controls the room through sheer force of ill will.

When it arrives, the autumn feels to me the way I imagine the New Year should: full of anticipation and excitement with the shiver of new opportunities in the air. At the beginning of January, I’m either hungover from Christmas or on the road, and I spend New Year’s Day making the obligatory lists of resolutions without the motivation to do anything about resolving them. Who wants to go to the gym or climb Mount Everest in January? No one, that’s who. Maybe if my resolutions were something wintery and within reach, like, “Get a kitten,” or, “Have some cocoa,” I’d get off my duff and get to it, but I’m too overachiever-y to pull up with something like that. I end up setting goals that are either way too broad or way too specific, like, “Win a Pulitzer,” and “Don’t forget to call Nicole.” Sometimes, I throw in a vacation destination or two, just for good measure. Clearly, in the wetness of midwinter, I’m in no mood to step back and take aim at my future.

Last January, I tried something new. I labeled a set of vases and a champagne cooler with different categories – Job, Travel, Wedding and so on – and R and I wrote down individual goals on Post Its and dropped them in the appropriate container. My thought was we’d get all the stuff we wanted to accomplish out of our heads and into the world and after a couple of weeks, we’d have a few drinks and pick a couple reasonable ones from each category for 2009. That two-step process was clearly too much for us. I sorted the contents of the vases about a month ago and found a Post It in the Wedding bunch that said “CPR” in R’s handwriting. Either he was being sarcastic or he’s got some ideas about what’s going to go on at our wedding that need to be discussed.

When I was about twelve, I figured out how to handle Lent, that next season of promises made and often unkept. The Catholics had abstention all sewn up with their fasting and fish, but we Episcopalians weren’t all up in the ritualized self-denial, leaving me to come up with something original to deny myself. There was candy, but that was crap because who can give up candy? Ice cream likewise. Beating on your sibling was frowned upon year round. What was left that was possible without requiring an inconvenient amount of suffering and self-denial?

I must have been in about sixth or seventh grade when I thought of the ideal solution: aim for something that was pretty well under my belt already, like giving up yellow mustard or heroin. Foodstuffs were low-hanging fruit since I could include things I already didn’t eat and things I’d rather not continue to eat: fruitcake, mushrooms, pudding, anchovies. I’d struck on what the self-help and team management books proselytize: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based goals (or SMART goals, for short). The relevancy might have been a little lacking, but I had the rest of them down.

The winter months clearly aren’t the right time of year for me to stiffen my spine and get down to business, so September has become my January.

Right now, though, there’s too much on my autumn list, too many things waiting to get sorted when the crisp fall weather rolls in in a few weeks. What I need to buckle down to is somewhere between Everest and yellow mustard, a few – maybe three – things I can sink my teeth into as we roll through the end of 2009. If I can get there, I can kick off 2010 with a sense of achievement and maybe a kitten.

Here are my current candidates:

  1. Go to Thailand.
  2. Finish Draft 1 of my new play.
  3. Sort out the renter’s insurance.
  4. Start a salon. (Think Dorothy Parker not AquaNet.)
  5. Climb Mount Everest.
  6. Double traffic to my site.
  7. Settle on a date, location and budget for our wedding.
  8. Get a new cleaning girl.
  9. Drop usage of the word “like” to a level I can tolerate when I hear myself on tape.
  10. Global peace.

That sounds do-able, right? Four months? Sure. Although you’re right: the renter’s insurance thing is pretty complicated.

OK. I’ll go for 2, 4 and 6, with a side dish of 7. Global peace is a Christmasy thing anyway.

Barcelona: The Food


When I travel, I tend to be a low-effort locavore. That is, I eat at places that are directly in front of me. Because I try to avoid tourist districts as much as possible, this approach has generally worked out. It never lands me at McDonalds and rarely at overpriced tourist traps that serve watered down, poorly made versions of local specialities.

My selection process below the district level is random. Since I’m not especially into food as a hobby, I don’t go out of my way to eat at well-reviewed places. If I’m already in the neighborhood or someone else has sorted it out, great. Otherwise, I wing it: concierge recommendations are fine, maybe a quick audit in a guide book, but otherwise, c’est la vie. Traveling with me would drive a gourmet nuts, I’m sure.

It surprised me then, when I was thinking about the best part of our recent trip to Barcelona, that the food we had was at the top of the list. We had some really excellent meals, hit some superb, small restaurants, and brought back more food than anything else. Go figure.


It’s pronounced fee-day-WAH. As in, “WAH-hoo!”

The short description is “paella with capellini instead of rice.” (For a longer, more poetic description, check out Traveler’s Lunchbox.) I’ve been to Barcelona four times before and managed to miss this local fisherman’s dish. And Lord, what have I been missing! It’s richer in flavor than any paella I’ve ever had and the noodles make my day. It’s got all the excellent paella features – shellfish, finned fish, crusty bits on the top and bottom – but with pasta, which, to my mind, is always better than rice.

The first and best one we had was at La Fonda in Porto Olimpico. Don’t get all squeamish about heading to a brightly lit restaurant on a pier that’s also home to several bars and nightclubs. Yes, this place will look like your worst nightmare, but as long as you stick with the fideuà, you’re golden.

They’ll try and sell you on their grilled seafood plates by bringing your prospective dinner – live lobsters, crayfish, etc. – by the table to look you in the eye before their demise. This freaks me out – I’ve never been able to cook a lobster – and the resulting plate o’ ocean ordered by a companion just was not that tasty, so I felt justified in my resistance.

R and I got fideuà for two (they make you your own pan) and it was massive, so go hungry or order conservatively. Call ahead for reservations to get a table in a good spot if you’re going during prime dinner hours (around 9:30). Showing up also works, but you might end up on the edges of the outdoor room.


Of course, right? You can’t not have tapas in Spain and the restaurant options are endless, so where should you go?

Santa Maria, started and staffed by veterans of El Bulli, offers true small plates and all of them are either innovative or just plain better than what’s usually on offer. No patatas bravas or grilled chorizo for these guys, but what you get instead is super-flavored and interesting. I didn’t love everything we ordered – the Dracula dessert parfait with the equivalent of pop rocks crossed the line from “cool” into “unsuccessful” – but it doesn’t matter when they’re small plates. How bad can something that’s 3″x3″ be? We just ordered more of what we loved. The mussels and the fried tuna sushi roll were standouts. I’d go back in a heartbeat.

The place is small, so going late, as we did, is a good bet, unless you have a party of six or more, in which case you can reserve. We only paid 70+ euros for five people at dinner, which seems extraordinarily inexpensive for a place like this.

More info in the Times Online’s review.

Incidentally, Santa Maria has a sister restaurant, Santa, around the corner where we saw Puyol, the Barcelona soccer star, having dinner with too many sexy ladies and too much gel in his curls to look classy and not trashy, but whatever. If you’ve just won the European Championships, I guess you can be forgiven some lapses in taste.

Taller Tapas on Calle de l’Argenteria in the Born district is the opposite end of the tapas spectrum: a small chain that serves conventional tapas in a high-traffic historic district. Good to know about if you’re visiting museums or churches in the area or shopping of an afternoon. Solid offerings, friendly service and recommended by locals. Make sure you try the ham croquettes.

Gràcia district

Be aware that the restaurants in Gràcia are tiny and gritty-hip. So don’t plan on breaking out your Jimmy Choo’s and a party of twelve. You’ll never get in and you’ll look idiotic while finding that out.

Bodega Manolo was the best and most interesting place we ate in Barcelona. Not because it was haute cuisine or super cool but because the food was innovative and unbelievably tasty without being remotely pretentious. Also, the place is ludicrously local, down to the highly restricted hours (9-11 Fri-Sun), the tiny size (seats maybe 30), and the waitress in jogging pants. The barrels of wine lining the side wall aren’t some version of country decor. They’re actually being stored there. As a city dweller in a too-small apartment, I can relate to that. I just wish this team worked in our kitchen.


Get everything on the appetizer menu to start. Seriously. Grilled asparagus, paper-thin ham with tomatoes, and, listen up, the potato chips in a pile of indeterminate gratin. I’m not kidding. It’s potato chips with peppers, onions, some kind of ungodly flavorful sauce and, of course, cheese. Don’t laugh. It’s my new favorite thing. I don’t care if you’re on a diet or leery of the chips thing. Order it. You’ll thank me.

Dinner itself was almost an afterthought. Their specialty is a bacalla (salted cod) dish which almost everyone ordered and liked. I got the lighter fish dish which was also wonderful and easier to eat after nine pounds of appetizers. R’s cousin (who weighs about as much as Keira Knightley) got foie gras and apples which was predictably hyper rich and necessarily shared around. I think that dish might be illegal in the States.

Dessert, for me, was the cheese plate, which, in a place like this, you get and you eat and you don’t ask questions. There’s no cheese card, no description of the origins and whether the little sheeps are grass-fed. This is not Whole Foods. This is Spain. It was excellent. I’ll leave it at that.

Bodega Manolo: no credit cards, dinner only, reservations a must
Torrent de les Flors, 101, Phone: 93-284 43 77
Thurs-Sat only, 9-11PM (you can stay later but the kitchen closes at 11)

I don’t know anyone who thinks of Spain and sushi in the same sentence, but if you’re in the mood, hit one of Kibuka‘s two locations, both in Gràcia. Relatives (local) and our bartender at the hotel both recommended it and weren’t wrong.

Living in San Francisco, where sushi is plentiful and high-quality, I didn’t need to go to Spain to get a raw fish fix, but after days of noodles, ham and croquettes, cold fresh fish with rice was a welcome break. We ordered the usual array of special rolls – shrimp, salmon, tuna – and everything was quite good. Don’t expect a lot of original combos, but, definitely, if you’re overstuffed with carbs and meat from other Spanish meals or if you live somewhere where it’s tough to get good sushi, Kibuka’s your place.

Fair warning: get there by 9PM to make sure you get a table. They don’t take reservations and if you miss their first seating, you’ll wait until 11.

Note: Fideuà does not photograph well. Hence, that pretty photo above is from Socarrat, the relatively new paella bar in New York that I’m dying to visit. I hear it’s great, so if you can’t get to Barcelona, perhaps your maiden fideuà could be in Manhattan.

Barcelona: Dia Dos


Yesterday I went in search of soup. (Long story. Short version: I love Euro cup of soup.) Destination: Carrefour. For those of you unfamiliar with buying American-size groceries in Europe, Carrefour is a gigantic French supermarket chain. Kind of like a Safeway blended with Target. If I had any hope of locating a mass quantity of Knorr cup-of-soup, Carrefour was it. Simple errand, right?

Turns out, not so much.

For starters, my version of the plan involved acquiring a bike. Bikes and scooters are my new thing for international travel, a private version of public transportation. It’s still technically public transportation since I’m, er, in public and transporting myself.

I had planned on renting a bike but R has family here and his super-cool aunt ordered me up a residents-only Bicing pass. Bicing is like Zipcar for bikes only you don’t have to return the bike to the station where you picked it up and you pay by the year not the hour. Also, inexplicably, there is no hard “c” sound in “Bicing” like there is in “car”.

Here’s how that went:

Assessment Phase.
I think the nearest Bicing rack is a schlep. I look out the window of our hotel room. There’s a rack downstairs. Excellent. Smooth start.

Acquisition Phase.
I do not read instructions. I prefer to be an idiot, often in public, while trying hard to look nonchalant and in the know. It’s kind of a hobby of mine.

In keeping with that plan, I go outside and try to insert my Bicing card into various parts of the bicycle to release it from the rack. I can confirm that it is possible to slide a card between the light and the light fixture. Naturally, this does not release the bike, but I’m just letting you know in case you need somewhere to store a single business card while you’re biking.

I watch a guy drop off his bike and stare intently at the rack for a second before he leaves. I follow his lead and stare intently at the rack. My laser vision does not kick in and release the bike.

I go back into the hotel, back into the elevator, back into our room, reconnect my laptop to the internet and try to read the “how to release your stupid bike from the stupid rack” instructions on the Bicing site. The site comes up in Catalan. I stare intently at the screen. My laser vision does not burn a hole in the screen or translate it into English.

I go to Wikipedia because I am a genius. So is Wikipedia which explains how you have to use your card at the pole at the end of the rack. I didn’t see a pole but am open to the possibility that I am blind, so I go back outside and have a bike in my possession in under 10 seconds.

(The instructions say that staring is necessary to determine if the bike has locked back into the rack when you return it. So much for laser vision.)

Riding Phase.
The bikes weigh a ton and many of them are in some kind of disrepair, but I’m on my way and console myself for all the trouble by telling myself that even though I have blonde hair and hips I look like a Spaniard.

Navigating Phase.
Having no sense of direction is a significant barrier to getting anywhere.

Also a barrier: the total lack of bike lanes along my chosen route. That route turns out to be pretty much a freeway, so I weave my way across the city, making ever possible wrong turn. It takes me an hour and a half to make a trip that should take about 20 minutes.

Drop-Off Phase
When I drop off my bike to go into the grocery store, I cannot get it to lock into the rack. The bike appears to now be mine permanently. I try my nonchalance thing again, turning away for a second like I don’t care. Sadly, that doesn’t turn the “I’m locked” light on. I try my stare again. No luck. I ask a girl who comes to return her bike. The system has flaws, she says. We try the fourth slot. It works. I run off to Carrefour.

Soup Phase.
Carrefour has no Knorr soups. Let’s not get into my disappointment.

I buy hairspray and chocolate instead.

Return Phase.
I pick up a different bike for the return trip, load up my stuff, bike three feet and realize the bike has no brakes. I consider suicide by bike. Instead, I return to the rack, unload, redock the bike, release a different bike, load up and start on my revised route home.

Turns out my revised route is all one-way streets going the other way. I keep going anyway because variables are the enemy.

Two and a half hours to go about four miles on a bike. On the up side, I have chocolate and am not dead.

R has a card too so we decide to bike to our dinner date. We go to the Bicing rack which has four bikes locked to it. My card releases a bike. R swipes his card. The screen says, “No bikes are available. Your next nearest Bicing stations is at blah blah blah.” We look at the bikes locked three feet away. We look back at the screen. Bikes. Screen. Bikes. Screen. I decide that the Bicing system is trying to make me insane. I walk away. I think I can hear diabolical laughter behind me.