Monday, February 18, 2019

Memories of the Blue Train Hidden Inside Bloomingdale's NYC

I shudder to think about all the things in New York City I missed out on despite living there for 14 years.

Photo: Circa 2007, by Coolcaesar via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

I managed to squeeze one of them in on a return visit at Christmastime back in 2013—something I'd never found hidden inside the flagship Bloomingdale's store in Manhattan, despite having shopped there many times.

It was an oddity like no other—Le Train Bleu, a ladies-who-lunch type of restaurant built onto the department store's rooftop.

Climbing aboard felt as though you'd seamlessly been transported across the Atlantic to ride on the Paris rail.

Originally created in 1979, it only lasted 37 years—and in 2016, Bloomingdale's took their dining car out of commission, as part of a restoration that either removed or painted over many of the store's French influences.

When I insisted to Michelle that we lunch there, I had a feeling I'd never make it back. But I didn't know that was because it wouldn't be there if I ever tried to return.

Having recently mentioned it to a native New Yorker who'd never heard of it—much less been—I found myself regretting not having documented it better.

It felt first class all the way.

But I was more than comfortable eating my casual croque madame...

...and Michelle with her smoked salmon and salad.

Looking back, I can't believe that Le Train Bleu actually ever existed in New York City. And now, I can't believe it's gone.

It wasn't a real train, of course. It was a bit of Hollywood magic in New York City—no more than a prop or a set piece.

And now that it's gone, it'll always remain a mystery to those who never got to go (and those like myself who never got to go enough).

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Sunday, February 17, 2019

For the Love of Goats

It's been a year since I last visited Angeles Crest Creamery during kidding season, and I'd been having a hankering for more baby goats.

Hiking with baby goats has gotten so popular that you really have to plan ahead to get a ticket before the event sells out. And when you sign up, you don't know whether any goats will have recently given birth—because it's too far ahead to really know for sure.

So, you just have to pick a date and appreciate whatever you get when you get there.

I chose to return the Saturday after Valentine's Day—not knowing what a stormy January and February we were to have or that there would be snow on the ground, with temperatures peaking around 40 degrees F the day after hurricane force winds.

I didn't know that on that wintry day, the goat hike would start early—making us late, though we technically arrived two minutes before the advertised start time.

I also hadn't know that the herd of goats would choose that day to take off up the hillside instead of meandering around the flat lake, leaving us in the dust (or, the snow, as it were) as they climbed up a high ridge the way only goats could.

We looked for a way to join up with them by hiking up and around, but it was becoming clear that there was no avoiding scrambling up to the top more or less the way they had.

"Do you want me to run ahead and go up there and scout it out?" Cat offered.

"YES. Go Cat go!"

I was feeling old and out of shape, out of breath from the cold and the altitude and limping despite my sturdy boots and orthotic inserts.

Then, the most magical thing happened.

Behind me, a pig named Katie had shuffled on up the trail and started to make acquaintances with some other hikers who'd been left behind. And ahead of me, Cat was shouting, "They're here! I found the goats! Ohmygodohmygodohmygod!"

Cat beckoned us to join her—but I was momentarily more interested in this free-range pig who was snouting around in the snow.

And then a few goats—maybe a tenth of the size of the entire herd—rumbled down the ridge with Cat following in hot pursuit, exclaiming in disbelief as I delighted in announcing, "Here they come!"

Everything up to that point had been abjectly unfamiliar to me—but once we headed down the dirt road (suitable more or less for golf carts and equestrians), I thought I knew what to expect.

After all, I'd taken this path with some of these goats before. This isn't the way they usually start out the hike, but this is the way they usually finish it.

They all made a beeline for the tree surrounded by the retaining wall that I'd learned they love just last year.

Photo by Cat Lukaszewski

That's usually where they sit and ruminate, chewing the cud of whatever sagebrush or buckwheat or pine they'd found on their hike, and settling down from all the excitement.

But they got glints in their eyes—and before I knew what hit them, they headed back up the trail, right back to where they'd just come from. Apparently they'd never done that before. But sometimes in shepherding goats, you can't lead them—you just have to follow.

I tried to follow them, but I couldn't breathe and I could barely walk. I'd worked up too much of a sweat to wear my North Face jacket but I was too wet and it was too cold and windy to hike without it. So I sat on a log under a tree and watched the pig surpass me as I listened to the wind.

Then the best thing happened—I didn't have to follow the animals, because the animals came and found me.

Soon I was getting to know a Great Pyrenees with great intimacy, as a few goats joined us and Katie the pig dug her snout into the ground under Zita Marie, one of two dogs tasked with guarding the herd on the ranch.

I got distracted at one point and began talking to some other hikers and giving the other Great Pyrenees, Luigi, a few scratches around the collar—but Zita was having none of that. She placed a paw on my knee and then her face in my lap.

She's a good worker, though—so she knew we'd have to return to the red barn as soon as the herd started heading down there. But later, she followed me to the cabin by the lake and got plenty of more love from me, even as the goats kissed and nibbled my palms and fingers and bit my butt and backpack.

This past weekend, most of the kids had been born too early and were already too big to pick up and snuggle and let fall asleep on our laps.

Which means I might have to go back again next month, for the next round of babies to be born.

When you love goats, you just can't get enough.
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Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Where to Find the Tastiest Local Chocolate in SoCal (from KCET)

My latest for KCET delves into the world of SoCal chocolate culture. And since I haven't written much about that here, I thought I would excerpt some photos and writing from my chocolatey research here.

As I write in the article, which appears on, you don't need to travel to Europe or even Hershey, Pennsylvania to get your chocolate fix directly from an authentic chocolate maker. There's plenty right here in Southern California.

For instance, taking a bite of the dark chocolates at Chocovivo – which sources all its cacao beans from a farm in Tabasco, Mexico – is like tasting the nectar of the Mayan gods.

Ranging from 65% to 100% cacao pure bars to blended bars that include Mayan cinnamon and spices, nuts, fruit, sea salt, and spices (like black peppercorn), you can try them all at the tasting counter – your choice of flights of three, six, or all of the varieties available for sale in full-sized bars.

Chocolatier Jean-Michel Carré spent 40-some-odd years as a French chef at his own restaurant in France – and now he brings that haute cuisine sensibility to his chocolate-making at his own shoppe, Chocolats du Cali Bressan, in Carpinteria.

Carré runs the venture with his California-born wife Jill, spending much of his time in the kitchen to focus on creating milk, dark, and white chocolate truffles and bonbons. Each flavor profile is well balanced with the addition of citrus, mint, rum, and more. And while his French roots remain strong – “Cali Bressan” is a tip-of-the-hat to the Bresse area of Provence – Carré also incorporates ingredients from all over the world, like curry and cardamom.

At LA's Letterpress Chocolate right now, you can taste 70% dark chocolates made from beans sourced from various cacao-growing regions around the world—including Ecuador, Ghana, Costa Rica, Belize, the Ucayali region of Peru, and so on.

Soon enough, though, you’ll be able to taste Letterpress chocolate bars made from its own beans, as it has invested in own sustainable cacao farm, Guatemala's Izabal Agroforest.

At the helm of Twenty-Four Blackbirds  in Santa Barbara,is founder Mike Orlando, raised to grow plants, trained as a marine biologist and self-taught machine-tinkerer and candyman. Much of the equipment used in the factory was designed or even built by Orlando, including those for roasting the beans and cracking and winnowing the shells.

In the self-guided tasting section of the boutique, you can serve yourself small portions of dark chocolate whose bean origins range from the Dominican Republic and Belize to Tanzania and Madagascar.

In addition to hand-wrapped bars, also for sale in a glass case are beautifully decorated truffles, each hand-painted with colored cocoa butter, as iridescent and eye-catching as precious gems.

With a factory store located in the Brentwood neighborhood, Compartés has been making chocolate in L.A. since 1950 – but what it offers now under the leadership of upstart owner Jonathan Grahm isn’t your grandmother’s candy bar.

What was once a favorite of Marilyn, Frank, and Elvis has flipped Hollywood glamour on its head – with Grahm mixing in pretzels, scones, doughnuts, brownies, potato chips, and even kale.

Whether you are a newbie nibbler or a confection connoisseur, SoCal’s chocolate shops are constantly looking for ways to surprise, enlighten, and seduce you – one bean at a time.

And these are five of the best places in SoCal to indulge your sweet tooth and embrace the savory side of chocolate in bean, bar, bonbon, and beverage forms.

To read the full article on the KCET website, click here

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Monday, February 11, 2019

R.I.P. Robert Winter, LA Architecture's "Bungalow Bob" (1924-2019)

Sometimes it's kismet when people come into your life by surprise.

I've tried to meet many a star of stage, screen, and song, and I've almost always been disappointed.

But Bob Winter was a different sort of celebrity—a beloved figure in Los Angeles as an architecture historian and academic.

I didn't really understand that, though, when I first encountered Professor Winter (faculty at Occidental College 1963-1994). I only knew him as "Bungalow Bob."

Photo: Bob Winter, 2019  (Angel City Press, via Facebook)

I only met him once, but he made a huge impression on me. And so, upon his recent passing at the age of 94—just after the publication of the sixth edition of the Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles he co-authored—I thought I'd share my story in tribute to him.

Sometime last year, I'd signed up for a tour of the periphery of the Bungalow Heaven district of Pasadena, California, with the promise of getting inside the infamous bungalow built and once occupied by ceramicist and tilemaker Ernest Batchelder. Completed in 1910 just a stone's throw from the lower portion of Pasadena's dry river, the Arroyo Seco, the house is probably the biggest bungalow in the area, appearing more like a cross between a Swiss chalet and a Craftsman cabin in the woods, covered in cedar shakes (some original).

It's unmistakably the work of Batchelder, with his tiles embedded in the walkway out front, throughout the backyard, and both the exterior and interior of the house itself.

Given his residence, which he'd occupied since 1972, Bob had become a de facto Batchelder expert—and even donated several Batchelder tiles (and accompanying archives) to the Pasadena Museum of History and curated the "Batchelder: Tilemaker" exhibit at the museum in its 2016-7 season.

What I didn't fully understand when I first met Bob was that he was an expert a a lot of LA architecture, including the Arts and Crafts movement he helped Angelenos (who he once considered "heathens") gain a new appreciation for. At the time of my visit, the fifth edition of his LA architectural guide could be found on the coffee tables and nightstands of many an LA-based journalist, historian, and architectural looky-loo—including my own, though I hadn't fully delved into the pages beyond its blue cover by the time I crossed the threshold of Bob's front door.

We all gathered in his dimly lit, wood-paneled living room, which is a half-story higher than the adjacent room, and he regaled us with stories, giving us a glimpse into his charm and wit. It was clear that he had a great sense of humor—and every time he said something funny, he'd smack the arm of the rollator he was seated upon as though slapping his own knee in utter glee.

I immediately fell in love with him, but I was eager to explore the rest of the historic property, too. So, I went outside to examine the chimney...

...with its inlaid Batchelder tile...

...and the kiln (which Bob insists Batchelder would've pronounced "kill," dropping the "n")...

...where Batchelder himself had fired up so many tiles for Greene and Greene...

...and other architectural clients, both near and far.

As Bob described in the nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places that he prepared, the backyard serves as a kind of "museum of ideas" for Batchelder's process... well as a gallery of some of his works.

It also exhibits the influence of his wife, Alice Coleman, founder of the Coleman Chamber Music concerts.

But as it turns out, I spent too much time outside, at the tile fountain...

...and the pet cemetery under the old oak, with its tributes to Wispy and Shadow ("a master of his own universe").

I planned on going back inside the house to spend more time with Bob and thank him for his hospitality—but once all the photos were taken and the socializing with fellow tour attendees was done, it was too late. Bob was tired and done. He didn't entertain visitors much anymore, and we'd tuckered him out.

I never got to see him again. But he will be in my heart—and on my bookshelf—for eternity.

is out now, from Angel City Press.

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