Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Day Ten: Ringing in the New Year
Happy New Year!  I wanted a celebratory dinner, minus the work or expense.  One of my favorite solutions to that conundrum is lobster.  Buying live lobsters is pricier, than say, ramen, I suppose, but certainly cheaper than a fancy meal out.  Add a few more simple courses and you have an elegant meal that really doesn’t take much time or effort to prepare at all.  Once again, I won’t take credit for the food photography.  Might as well cook and let someone else man the shutter button.

Spinach and sausage bruschetta with Gnarly Head Red Zinfandel.  Because that's what was in the house.

NYE Dinner 031
Lobster and garlic bread.  And champagne, of course.  The order of wines doesn't quite make sense, but sometimes you gotta break the rules.

NYE Dinner 038
I'm one of those people who eats the salad after the main course.

NYE Dinner 040
My French heritage does not allow me to skip the cheese course.  Back to more Gnarly Head Zin.

NYE Dinner 047
And my sweet tooth doesn't allow me to skip dessert, especially after a special meal.  I made a tarte Tatin with sour cream whipped cream.  It looked kind of pretty before we attempted to serve it, but by that point, I think the wine and champagne were hindering both our serving and photography efforts.  It's hard to tell, but at that moment I was tipsily demonstrating my whipped cream quenelle making technique.  Espresso not shown.

The next day, we took a short hike up the Brown Mountain trail in the Tucson Mountains.  Just enough to stretch the legs, but not too much exertion after last night’s excesses.

Brown Mountain Camera Test 008

And that night, in an Italian take on the Chinese tradition of long noodles for good luck in the New Year, I rolled out some pasta and graced it with a sundried tomato gorgonzola sauce made from leftover cheese from the night before.

New Years Day Pasta 010

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Day Nine*: Headed Home
Time to head home for our big finale on the 30th and 31st.  On our way out of Death Valley we stopped at the Goldwell Open Air Art Museum (“Art where it seemingly shouldn’t be…”) in the ghost town of Rhyolite, NV.

Rhyolite 014
Part of the Last Supper (1984) by Charles Albert Szulkalski

Rhyolite 016
Mosaic Couch

The rest of the day was unremarkable, but for the cutest little campsite ever at Burro Creek Campground between Wikieup and Nothing (I didn’t make that up), AZ.  Alas, we did not get to enjoy it.  We arrived well after dark, and awoke to rain.  Rain.  Rain. Cold, cold rain.  By the time we traveled the only 60 miles to Wickenburg, we were chilled to the bone, and looking darn wet.  The diners at the Horse Shoe Cafe (one of the 10 best diners according to AZ Highways magazine) all had a good laugh at our expense when we walked in.  I can’t say the food was the best I’d ever eaten, but it was hearty and tasty and the folks couldn’t have been more welcoming.  We holed up there for several hours, drinking eternal refills of hot coffee, eating an enormous breakfast of omelets and biscuits, while watching the weather radar and strategizing the best route home.

Turns out there was no best route home.  Mother nature got the last laugh, and we finally got rained on for real.  Having survived a number of rides in ugly weather both as rider and passenger, this easily won the prize for most miserable.   Serves us right for gloating about our earlier successes.  Rain, rain, and more cold cold, rain for 200 miles. In almost (but not quite, thankfully) freezing weather.  And stuck in traffic.  Twice.  Which ended up meaning cold, cold rain and more cold rain in the dark, dark, dark.  I paid a lot for my rain suit and it was worth every penny.  But I was still pouring out icy water out of my boots and my “waterproof” gloves (hah!) at gas stops.   My riding partner…  well his rain suit wasn’t quite so impervious.  I think he’s finally a believer in the real deal.

* You’re right.  This is really two days. I’m fudging.  Since my “Day One,” really wasn’t part of the journey, I had to enact a bit of poetic license to get the finally tally to read twelve.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Day Eight: Death Valley Blitz
Death Valley: one of the hottest and driest places on the entire planet.  Yet when we arrived, about half of the roads were closed due to flooding caused by the rains we had been circumventing.  Many of the must see places on our hit list were out of reach, but we still had plenty to do.  Besides, we had to get back to Tucson by the 29th for what we were hoping would be the crown jewel of the entire adventure.  That left us exactly one day to see as much as we could.  Arise early and go!

First stop, a walk into the mouth of Titus Canyon.  Most of the rough, narrow,  steep 27 mile road was closed, but visitors were allowed a short walk into this very popular narrow grey corridor of rock.

Titus Canyon (2)
Cool, but tough to photograph.

On to a house tour of Scotty’s Castle, built with money from a non-existent gold mine.  I don’t quite remember the convoluted story, but it was quite a scam.
Death Valley Scotty's Castle (3)

Death Valley Scotty's Castle (27)

A ride over Towne’s Pass to this eerie flat area.  It feels pretty desolate here, and completely unlike the area of Scotty’s castle which was graced with large trees fed by a natural spring.  Water is everything in the desert.  Incidentally, though the name conjures up visions of mass fatalities, only one man died to christen the park Death Valley.
Death Valley West of Towne Pass (4)

Death Valley West of Towne Pass (8)
The remains of some flooding.

A ride up to Aguereberry Point, arguably one of the best overlooks in the park.  Our off road capabilities came in handy here, and although I don’t really enjoy being a pillion off-road, I’ll tolerate it if there is a prize as nice as this at the end of the road.  Make no mistake, it was cold up there!
Death Valley Aguereberry Point (5)
The late French miner Pete Aguereberry would take friends to see his “Great View,” pictured here.

A quick stop at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.  I’d love to spend a day here, catching the light as it glances this way and that off the dunes, changing each hour with the angle of the sun.

Death Valley Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes (2)

By the time we got to the salt flats at Badwater Basin (named for the brackish water an explorer’s mule refused to drink)  it was dark.  Still, it seemed a necessary journey, since it’s the official lowest place in North America (282 feet below sea level).  Weird factoid: there’s actually a rare snail that lives only here, the Badwater snail. (Visions of garlicky, buttery escargot go dancing through my head...)

That evening, we considered dinner at the Furnace Creek Inn, also a short walk from our less than idyllic but oh so convenient campsite.  It looked like a lovely restaurant, with a nice menu,  and although it wasn’t nearly as extravagant as L’Atelier Robuchon, it was out of our usual price range, and without the trusted recommendation of the Michelin Red Guide.  In the end, we decided we were not quite ready to diminish the memory of our meal two nights ago.   Wouldn’t you know it?  METG was in the area at the same time we were, and he later told me he gave the Inn two thumbs up after a nice breakfast of eggs Benedict and caviar!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Day Seven: Arrival!
After scoring an assist (helping a Harley rider without cell phone service arrange for AAA towing) it was time for yet another meal.  Our usual method of dining while motorcycle camping involves one enormous (usually inexpensive) meal out, coupled with scrounging through our sack of groceries for any other dietary needs.  Since we didn’t have any casino buffet meals while in Vegas (many of which are purported to be quite good) we thought a casino buffet at the “Pahrump Nugget” was in order.  This was, err…, quite a different dining experience from our meal the night before.

Gone were the dainty perfectly presented portions of exquisite luxury ingredients.  Rather we piled our plates sloppily high with fried chicken, omelets, salads, fruit, bacon (I’ve never seen more bacon in my life, and I found myself wondering exactly how many pounds they served up per day, or even, per hour.)  All for something along the lines of seven dollars.  It was, most definitely, a quantity over quality sort of meal, which, although is not something I’d typically do at home, I’m open to when I’m only having one meal a day.  Sometimes.  A study in Americana.  Fill ‘er up!

Our entry into Death Valley National Park Sunset Campground, (once again, running on fumes, oy) was greeted with a lovely sunset (I guess they named the campground well), what seemed like fiery busses crashing through the sky (more astronomy) and… and… a SHOWER!  Sunset Campground is hardly an idyllic communing with nature – an RV parking lot gives you a better idea of where we were staying, but at that point the shower was a definite plus.  As was the warm saloon across the street.  Not our usual scene, but we can occasionally enjoy the perks of camping in less than pristine wilderness.

Death Valley Furnace Creek Sunset Campground (8)
Sunset Campground provides.

Corkscrew Saloon Furnace Creek Death Valley (1)
Strategizing at the Corkscrew Saloon in Furnace Creek, Death Valley.  It was toasty enough here that I could actually enjoy a cold beer.  This practically never happens since drinking anything cold pretty much makes me hypothermic (as I’ve described before), despite living in the desert.  Oddly, I don’t get the equal and opposite reaction when I drink something hot.  Bummer.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Praise Jesus!

When you have a Category Five homeowner situation, and the workmen in your house are dressed like this…

Plumbing Catergory 5 Jesus from Davis Restoration 001
This guy’s name is Jesus.  And he’s saving my house.  Praise Jesus indeed!

… you’ve definitely earned yourself one of these…

Downtown Kitchen and Cocktails after Otello 005
Far and away the best margarita I’ve ever had, which means now I’ll never be able to have one anywhere else. Good thing they’re served about a three minute walk from my house.

…and a ride on one of these…

The New Ride 004
My ride still languishes in the back yard and it still hurts me more than I can say.

…in spite of everything you said here.

I got the former  after a performance last week at one of Janos Wilder’s ventures*, Downtown Kitchen and Cocktails (dumb name, good cocktails and a fun, better than average bar menu – can you say “foie gras bons bons?”), but I’m still waiting for the latter.**  Soon.  Very soon.

* Locally famous (somewhat nationally, actually, since he's a current semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation's Outstanding Chef of the Year, actual winner TBA in May) chef who didn’t rock my world at first (take a classic, add chipotle, call it fancy southwest cuisine), but that impression was formed a good 10 years ago, and lately I’m changing my mind.  Interestingly, the day after I wrote this, I saw a review of this restaurant that pretty much read my mind word for word.  You can read it here.
** During the interval between when I wrote this and when it "went live," I must divulge that I did indeed go for a short ride.  Stacks of music to learn be damned,  I rode up Kitt Peak to use the restroom, since the only bathroom in my house has been rendered temporarily unusable, thanks to the current homeowner situation.  It was the most pathetic, remedial ride ever, yet I couldn't have been happier.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Twelve Days of Christmas (L'Atelier Robuchon Review)

Day Six (Evening): Shining Stars of Another Kind
Christmas Dinner 
After glorious days of riding across magnificent vistas and camping under shooting stars and lunar eclipses, cruising down “The Strip” in Las Vegas is the “re-entry” to beat all.  Startlingly disconcerting doesn’t begin to describe it.  But it’s a phenomenon, admittedly of a different sort, that should not be missed if one happens to be in the area.  This would be a great spot for urban geocaching, and I had planned to do just that, but I think the lights affected my brain.  I completely forgot.  In any case, the Vegas Strip is one of this planet’s most bizarre and curious places, but also one of the best places to eat bar none.

Search results for vegas, baby
Christmas in Vegas.  Weirdest. Christmas. Ever.

So, on Christmas Day, finding herself in the midst of  the Vegas hubbub, what’s a girl to do for dinner?  Why, have a nine course meal at a Michelin  starred restaurant, that’s what!

The Michelin Red Guide, as opposed to the Green Guide which is a different beast, is the original touring and eating manual.  The first edition was published in 1900 as a way to convince people to burn through their car’s (if they had one) Michelin tires in search of fine food while touring France.   These days you can buy a red guide to some twenty or more cities around the world, including Las Vegas.  Although some say it’s biased to “fancy” (ie ungodly expensive) restaurants, I wouldn’t drop big bucks  on dinner without consulting one first.  Zagat’s guide or the equivalent US rating of AAA Diamonds just don’t match up when it comes to deciding where I’m going to plunk down a week’s pay for dinner.  It’s one of the few restaurant guides that is truly anonymous with its  “expert” reviewers (admittedly a vague description) rather than any old customer who might give two thumbs up just because the table cloth was clean and the service hoity-toity.  Chefs live and die (quite literally in one tragic case) by their star designations.  The New Yorker magazine (November 2009) has a fascinating (to me, anyway) undercover interview with a Michelin “inspector” which you can read here.

Las Vegas has a statistically decadent concentration of Michelin starred restaurants.  I wanted to be fed by the man with the most Michelin stars of any chef worldwide: Joel Robuchon.  His three star Vegas kitchen in the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino (“exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey,”  the highest Michelin designation) was booked for weeks, and definitely wouldn’t look too highly upon our dirty touring outfits (new riding jacket not withstanding), but “L'Atelier Robuchon” (one star - “very good cuisine in its category,”  and right next door) was willing to take (lots of) our money for dinner on Christmas (or any other evening).  “Very good cuisine in its category” doesn’t really begin to describe it.  These are really, really good eats.  I’ll let the photos below do the talking.  And yes, the food tasted even better than it looked.

I’m breaking my rule again, using photographs not taken by my own hand (well I stretch that for photos of me, although many of those I've taken myself as well), but it was nice to have someone else do the work while I was enjoying dinner.  Plus a meal this expensive should be photographed with the most expensive camera available to you at the time.

L'Atelier Robuchon (1)

L'Atelier Robuchon (25)
The best seats offered a peek into the kitchen.

L'Atelier Robuchon (3)
Roses everywhere.  Hundreds of 'em.

L'Atelier Robuchon (5)
Thank goodness we had the presence of mind not to fill up on bread.  It would have been easy to do.

L'Atelier Robuchon (6)
Foie gras parfait with port wine and parmesan foam.  Or, as we called it, a "meat shake." Yum.

L'Atelier Robuchon (8)
Lobster on a turnip slice with a (the only one I've ever liked) sweet and sour sauce.  Turnips never tasted so good.

L'Atelier Robuchon (9)
Sea scallop cooked in the shell with chive oil.  Our favorite course, although it was a tough decision.

L'Atelier Robuchon (10)
White onion tart with smoked bacon, asparagus and black truffle oil.  I decided the asparagus should have been cooked about 10 seconds longer.  Perhaps that's why this place has only one measly star.

L'Atelier Robuchon (11)
Dover sole (the real thing - usually it isn't) with baby leeks and ginger.  Also a strong contender for first place, in my opinion.

L'Atelier Robuchon (14)
Lamb shoulder confit with sweet spices, couscous and black truffle.  Or you could have had venison with black truffle and poivrade sauce.  Between the two of us, we had both.  But this photo was the better of the two.

L'Atelier Robuchon (17) 
Why not cleanse your palate with a fresh mint white rum granite with lychee fruit?  Fun!

L'Atelier Robuchon (22) 
Hazelnut dacquoise, light mascarpone mousse  (dessert and cheese course in one, I suppose) flavored with almond liquor.

L'Atelier Robuchon (24)
A little coffee wraps things up.

If you’ve been counting carefully, you are correct.  There are only photographs of eight courses (bread doesn’t count).  We forgot to photograph course five, the egg cocotte topped with a light Jerusalem artichoke cream.  Oh well.  We decided it was our least favorite, anyway.  Not that we were complaining.

Motorcyclists are everywhere.  It’s like a secret society.  One was masquerading as our bartender (we ate at the bar – some bar food, eh?).  He gave us a great tip - Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area.  (He got a good tip, too.)  We camped there that night (taking wrong turns and finally setting up in the wee hours, on what had become a cold and rainy night), and detoured the next morning via the Red Canyon Back Country Byway  before we carried on our way.

Here are a few photos snapped haphazardly from the back seat.

Red Rock Canyon (2)
The rain of the night before gave way to cool clouds.  I'll bet that's a rare sight. I think I could have touched them if only I had had my 36" pasta rolling pin on board.  A bit much to tote on the moto, perhaps.

Red Rock Canyon (17)

Our next meal couldn’t have been more different…

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Day Six:  Fire and Dams on Christmas Day
Lake Mead NRA, Valley of Fire State Park, Hoover Dam
Merry Christmas, Nevada!  Our day started with a ride down scenic Northshore Road (Nevada Hwy 169) in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, barely making it to the Circle K in Overton without running out of gas. (What is it with guys, anyway?)  Circle K was packed with people still wearing their pajamas.  I didn’t quite get that, but, yanno, “whatevs.”  Then a chat with fellow motorcyclists (they’re everywhere) sharing our thoughts about equipment, packing strategies and the like before we went our separate ways.

A view from Northshore Road near Lake Mead.  I admit it, I'm partial to a short depth of field these days.

Thanks to the park ranger who convinced us it was worth a stop (and the fact that you have to pay the entrance fee even if you are just passing through on the state road), we came across another trip highlight:  Valley of Fire State Park.

If memory serves, this is the Fire Canyon overlook.
Valley of Fire State Park 018
Colors reminiscent of grocery store sherbet, non?
Valley of Fire SP Nevada (41)
I took this whilst holding (rather tightly) a very expensive camera (not mine) over my head and blindly snapping away.
Valley of Fire State Park 093
Petroglyphs on Atlatl Rock

On to the Hoover Dam and the newly constructed Callahan-Tillman Memorial Bridge, open for tours every day of the year except Thanksgiving and Christmas (go figure), yet completely mobbed on Christmas Day (weird, but I guess that includes us, so…).  Oh my, what a picture you could get of the newest wonder of the world, the Callahan Bridge, at sunset, with lights twinkly against the dusky sky.  If you were allowed to stop at that oh so perfect vantage point on the road, that is.  I saw a spectacular photo exhibit of the construction of the new bypass at the Etherton Gallery in Tucson.  You can view some of its photos here.  If you click on only one link in my entire blog, click on this one.  Who knew a construction site could be so stunningly beautiful?

If you have any doubt about the effects of the ever increasing population of the American West combined with recent drought (which, evidently, is more of a return to “normal” rather than actual drought), take a look at this picture of Lake Mead.  See that white stripe along the edge of the lake? That’s the world’s biggest bathtub ring.  Yup, the water level in both Lake Mead and its companion, Lake Powell, has dropped lower than ever in the past decade.  Make your own conclusions about our future.*

Hoover Dam (37)
Hoover Dam at dusk.  Well not the dam itself, I guess.

Lake Mead (8)
A quieter corner of Lake Mead
And what did we have for Christmas Dinner?  Ahh, that’s worthy of its own posting...

*Just this moment I heard a news article on the radio stating that, thanks to heavy snow in the Rockies this winter, the lake level may rise up to 20 feet by this summer.  This will stave off our imminent water shortages for 1-3 years.  1-3 years?  I guess that's better than now, but it doesn't sound all that great.  This past summer, the lake was only at about 40% capacity, and at the time of these photos, it was at its lowest level ever.  This, despite all that rain we'd been circumventing on our trip.  Yikes.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Day Five: Christmas Eve Traffic on Historic Route 66
After gassing up in Quartzite, AZ (weirdest and largest RV community I’ve ever seen) we found ourselves passing by Parker Dam (deepest dam in the world), Davis Dam, and the many state parks that surround them.  From these sections of AZ 95 you can wave across the Colorado River to California.  I regret missing a photo opportunity of the area’s wet land scenes that are so foreign to Arizona eyes.   It’s hard sometimes to decide when to stop for a photo (which, when on motorcycle, takes longer than you’d think) and when to actually cover some distance.  That only gives me a good excuse to go back.

What next?  We happened upon a stretch of the original Route 66 (which has since been rerouted to avoid Sitgreaves Pass in the Black Hills).  This “Back Country Byway” turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip.  It featured not just more stunning AZ moonscapes, but a Santa Hat wearing Ducati  Moto Strada rider (?!) and some decorated creosote bushes.

Christmas in the desert.

Half way between Topock and Kingman we ran into this traffic jam in Oatman, AZ.  What a mess!

A closer look at this town's inhabitants.

It was easy to see why Route 66 was realigned to avoid Sitgreaves Pass in the Black Hills.  This road, rightly feared in earlier days, is as steep, narrow and twisty as you could hope for, and, on the day we traversed it, covered in generous heaps of treacherous gravel thanks to those recent news making rains that we had avoided earlier.  We were shamefully schooled by a FedEx delivery van hurrying through its Christmas Eve day deliveries.  Ouch.  That hurts the ego.

Tired, hungry and very, very cold, we reached Vegas Bay Campground at Lake Mead National Recreation Area well after dark.  Dining options?  It’s true, Chinese restaurants are open (and crowded) on Christmas Eve!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Day Four: Desert Rain Cafe, Kofa National Wildlife Refuge

Go West, riders!  And so we did, feeling rather pleased with our strategy for avoiding the rain.  As always, victory soon gave way to growling stomachs.  I’ve mentioned the Desert Rain Cafe in Sells, AZ before, with good reason.  It’s a unique restaurant in many ways.  Located in the capital of the Tohono O’odham Nation, it serves up meals featuring local and traditional ingredients.  Think mesquite flour, prickly pear juice, cholla buds, tepary beans and the like.  Although this concept isn’t particularly rare, I think the skill with which it is executed at this establishment is.  It’s obvious they did their recipe development homework.

This restaurant gets my two thumbs up not just for its delicious food and interesting ingredients.  It also goes far to combat the stereotypes one sees in regards to Native American cuisine.  Surprise!, “Indian Fry Bread”  and “Indian Tacos” aren’t traditional fare.   Native Americans seem to be at greater than average risk for obesity and diabetes when exposed to modern America’s sedentary but super-sized lifestyle.  Traditional ways of eating are being lost the world over, thanks in part, not just to the worldwide proliferation of  fast food and the “Modern American Lifestyle”, but our acceptance of it.  I like to think that the Desert Rain Cafe not only provides delicious food to its community, but more importantly, preserves and continues the thread of its rich culinary culture.

Our lunch (which was, admittedly, supersized, since we wanted to try everything):
Prickly pear glazed pork ribs with brown tepary beans, salad and cornbread.  Also eaten but not shown: tepary bean and short rib stew, a “desert rain” quesadilla, tea and a mesquite oatmeal cookie.  Every last bite excellent, excellent.  You can peruse their current menu here.

Desert Rain Cafe 002

After warming up a bit at Desert Dugs Pizza in Wellton, AZ (decent American style pizzeria, super nice owner), we planted our tent poles at Kofa National Wildlife Refuge that evening.   If you're wondering, and many people do, Kofa is an acronym for the nearby King Of Arizona gold mine.   We didn’t find any gold (we weren't really looking, I guess) nor did we see any of the Desert Bighorn Sheep that are refuged in the craggy mountains, but we did walk up to Palm Canyon before departing the next morning to see perhaps the only palm trees native to Arizona.   You probably could get a great picture of this narrow hidden canyon, if, like Indiana Jones, you were standing in just the right spot, at the exact time of day on the exact day of the year when the sun actually shone directly upon the trees, but, well, we weren’t.  Alternatively, I guess you could shoot in multiple exposures and compile them into one HDR (high dynamic range) photo.  I keep telling myself I’m going to try that one of these days.

Teddy Bear Chollas catch the morning light

I've always been curious about the strange silhouettes of the mountains in this part of the state.  I'm glad I got the chance to see some of them more closely.