Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Bard on the Beach

Shakespeare Santa Monica presents "The Merchant of Venice" at the Beach! Performances are sponsored by the City of Santa Monica, and attendance is free!!

Here on the verandah of the restored Marion Davies Guest House, the foppish Prince of Aragon tries to choose the right casket to win the hand of Portia - and discovers he's chosen a portrait of a fool - a mirror!

The company presents the plays of Shakespeare in eclectic, accessible environments. Tonight, if you're in town, catch a production of "Love's Labours Lost" performed in Santa Monica's Reed Park, Tennis Court #1. Suggested donation is $20.

For other beach cultural events throughout the year, click Here.

Pink Saturday - The Explorer

I'm too late for Pink Saturday - but today I saw this little girl at the beach. Her mom and dad are walking on the sand just to the right of the frame, but she was fiercely independent and taking off on her own, exploring the beach, heading for the water.

Good for her.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Greek style Los Angeles

This weekend we had guests for dinner. [The Man I Love] cooked a leg of lamb over the Weber, marinating it Greek-style in oregano, lemon and olive oil, and slow-cooking it over indirect heat. The rest of our menu had a Greek flavor, with olives, stuffed grape leaves and taramasalata served as appetizers.

We get these from C & K Importing Company, also called Papa Christos, located in the Los Angeles neighborhood called, rather fantastically, the Byzantine-Latino Quarter. Although the neighborhood was home to Greek immigrants as early as 1908 this name was coined relatively recently. Current residents are primarily immigrants from Central America, but the neighborhood is graced with St. Sophia's Greek Orthodox church, built in 1952 by movie executive Charles Skouras.

Because this neighborhood is home to many old 19th century Queen Anne style houses, I like to think the "Byzantine" adjective also refers to the fantastical turrets and shingled domes featured in some of these house, neglected and re-purposed as they are.

The name "Byzantine-Latino Quarter" first appeared in 1997 after residents and local businesses got together to help battle grafitti, crime and gang violence. It was officially designated as such by the state assembly. A giant mural on the side of a large building at the corner of Pico and Normandie shows two angels in flight with the words: "We are each of us angels with one wing. We can only fly embracing each other." Atop the building a large sign proclaims the name.

The diverse and eclectic nature of the neighborhood is perfectly reflected in the patrons and employees at Papa Christos.

Typically, you park behind the store at the valet stand. Not that this is a swanky joint, but it gets so busy sometimes they need to stack-park. We usually enter through the back door, which takes you through a storage room into the main store.

Papa Christos is a market as well as a restaurant, so the first thing you see is the long deli-counter, full of sliced meats, cheeses, and prepared foods. There's a wide assortment of olives, pickles and other preserved foods. You can choose from several different types of feta cheese. There are hot cooked foods, too; lamb and chicken and casseroles. There's another case that holds pastries and cookies.

The market shelves hold Greek and European imported foods, like jams and preserves, pasta, pickles, olive oil - lots of different kinds of olive oil. Coffee. Herbs. Spices. There are freezer cases with bread and pastries. There's also a fine assortment of Greek wine.

But hold up - don't go shopping now. We're going to eat first!

Just off to the side of the deli case, the line to order food starts. The menu is displayed on the board above the counter, with brightly colored flyers advertising specials. You order what you wish and pay, and they give you a number. Let them know where you want to sit - do you want to sit in the restaurant or outside on the patio?

The restaurant is a large echoing room, concrete-floored and set with rows of tables covered in blue-checked cloths. It's often crowded, with large families seated together after church. The walls are hung with scenic pictures of Greece and with strings of twinkle lights. On Thursday nights, they throw a party - the Big Fat Greek Dinner. For $24 (includes tax and tip) you get a full dinner, with wine tastings, appetizers, salads and desserts. They even have belly-dancers to entertain you!

Not so on a bright Saturday afternoon, our recent visit. Most weekend afternoons there's live music, a guitarist or traditional musician playing acoustic music while folks enjoy a gyro plate or felafel sandwich.

If the weather's fine, we prefer the patio. You have to exit the front door and walk a few steps east on Pico, then go back in through the gate. Here, in a little spot carved out of the parking lot, you can dine outside, beneath market umbrellas. There are potted roses and a fence covered in bougainvillea to screen you from the traffic.

The food's fantastic! Here's a lamb and feta cheese sandwich I had on one visit.

Another time, [The Man I Love] ordered shrimp cooked in tomato sauce with feta and olives.

While enjoying a meal with a glass of retsina, you can hear the murmured conversation of the other diners. A large group of older ladies, their voices twanging with East Coast accents, shared lunch. A family with a little girl sat further down, speaking in Spanish. A couple of film-industry guys over there. Back by the door, two restaurant staff took their break. Although Papa Christos still presides over the deli, the staff is quite diverse - many of the workers are Ethiopian or Somali. The Chinese-American woman who'd taken our order was taking lunch, eating with chopsticks.

Outside the fence, the Catholic church across the street rang its bells. As the traffic passed on Pico, you could hear snatches of music from cars - rap and Latino pop. A palatera went by, bells clanging.

Wow, what a good meal.

Now it's time to shop!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Where the Mountains meet the Sea

Click to "embiggen"

Santa Monica Beach. It's here that the coast of Los Angeles, Santa Monica Bay, curves to the west after a steep, straight shot northwest from the Palos Verde peninsula. The Santa Monica Mountains, one of the few transverse mountain ranges in North America, rear up their rocky flanks above Hollywood and Bel Air and Brentwood, march west and force the coast to take a turn to the left, before petering out into the Pacific Ocean.

The seal of the City of Santa Monica shows this curving coast, along with a quite attractive mermaid and a legend proclaiming "Populus Felix in Urbe Felici", or "a happy people in a happy city." Interestingly, the coast shown in the seal is not part of the City; the city limits end just about at the point where the beach takes its left turn.

Funny how Santa Monica uses non-city topography as its emblem. The mountains and beaches beyond are part of the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of the City of Los Angeles, and the place I live, the unincorporated L.A. County community of Topanga.

If you look at the photo, my house is probably just on the backside of the ridge that's above the orange lifeguard shack.

It's been said that "Topanga" comes from a word the native Tongva people used that meant "where the mountains meet the sea." Other linguists have disputed that, saying it might just mean "a place above."

No matter. When I stand on the beach and look at those mountains where my house is, with the sky above and the curving coast, I know this is a place where "the mountains meet the sea."

Weekly Jack

For those of you who've missed him lately, here's your Weekly Jack.

Each morning, Jack and I take our walk. Jack's always on the look-out for neighborhood friends. Who will he meet today?

One of his friends is Cooper, from down the road. Cooper likes to take his own morning walk.

Jack adores Cooper, and when he sees him, he perks up. His ears go forward and he watches. Cooper takes his own sweet time, roaming back and forth to sniff everything on the road.

But when they finally meet up, Jack bounces and invites Cooper to play. They're like two teenagers, chest-bumping and tusseling, before

Cooper suddenly plays it cool, breaks off and just walks away.

Won't you play with me some more?

This has been your Weekly Jack.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Thematic Photographic - Close up

"Thematic Photographic" - Carmi at the blog Written, Inc. presents a weekly themed photographic challenge. This week's theme is Closeup. Check in and see who else contributes photos based on this idea.

This fellow appeared one evening on my porch. He stayed quite still, in the same position, for over an hour. His name is Prionus californicus, or the borer beetle. They range from Alaska to Baja California, and east to the Rocky Mountains. The adults emerge in July, and fly at night in search of mates. They lay eggs on the surface of the earth, and their larvae bore into the roots of trees feeding on them for up to 3 or 4 years before maturing. They favor fruit trees - he probably enjoyed the roots of my plum or apricot tree.

Still, he's a handsome fellow. He's big - about 2 inches in length. His elytra, or hardened forewings are shiny as lacquer, and as rich a brown as a French roasted coffee bean. His shapely legs end in little clawed feet. His antennae gracefully curve like brackets, with jointed and ornamental-looking barbs upon them.

All right, Mr. DeMille. He's ready for his close-up.

A cool July

It's been an unusually cool July. Mornings are chilly and foggy. Some mornings I have to drive with wipers on to clear the mist from my windshield.

If I'm running early enough, there's time to pull off the road for a moment and check out the beach.

The view north, an eroded breakwater. The curve of the coast north toward Topanga State Beach

The view south, one lone figure braves the water.

A clutch of gulls.

Where are you driving this morning? If your drive goes past something beautiful, stop a minute, get out of your car, and take it in.

It might be only five minutes, but sometimes that's all you need to fill your lungs with oxygen, smell the sea, and recharge your batteries for a day's work.

Back in the car and on your way.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Pie a Week - Nuts

This week's pie was made to serve as dessert to a Greek-inspired dinner, with barbecued lamb, roasted potatoes, and Greek-style beans. The filling combine roasted nutmeats - walnuts, pistachios, and almonds - in a rich, honey-caramel syrup delicately flavored with rosewater.

The tart shell used a press-in dough made from flour, confectioner's sugar, and butter. It was flavored with grated orange peel and cloves.
Tart shell:
1.5 cups flour
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
1/8th teaspoon of salt
10 tablespoons of butter
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon grated orange peel
The dry ingredients can be quickly mixed up in the food processor or in a bowl. Add the butter in slices - it should be cold from the fridge. Pulse the food processor until the mixture looks like coarse sand. If doing it by hand, use a pastry cutter, two knives, or your fingers to mix. If you're using your fingers, press the slices of butter with the flour between your thumb and index finger, squeezing them and breaking them up with the flour.

Once the flour and butter are mixed, add the grated orange peel and cloves, and then add 2 - 4 tablespoons of cold water. The dough should gather into moist clumps, like wet sand - it shouldn't be a smooth doughy mass. Pour it into your tart shell (I used an 8" fluted shell) and then, using your fingers, press it flat and up the sides.

Freeze the shell for about a half hour.
1/2 - 3/4 cup sliced or slivered almonds
1/2 - 3/4 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 - 3/4 cup unsalted pistachios
1 cup cream
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup honey
1.5 teaspoon rosewater

Toast the nuts on a cookie sheet in a 350 degree oven for about 10 minutes until slightly browned. Chop by hand or in the food processor until they are a mixture of fine and coarse pieces.

Combine the cream, the sugars and honey in a heavy saucepan, and heat, stirring, until it begins to bubble. Cook about 5 minutes until it thickens and darkens slightly. Remove from the heat, then add the nutmeats and the rosewater.

Pour into the frozen shell. Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 35 minutes. Take out and cool, and remove the outer ring of the tart pan.

It will be a bubbly, dense, chewy, decadent pie - denser than the most sinful American-style Thanksgiving pecan pie. It has the texture of a Payday bar, chunks of nuts glued together in a rich, sweet goo. The rosewater and the hint of cloves and orange peel lend an exotic perfumed taste that evokes the Middle East or Greece or Persia.

Serve with sweetened whipped cream, or with yogurt sweetened with honey.

Recipe adapted from this one at : Caramelized pistachio, walnut and almond tart.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


Click to "embiggen"

On Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles, a mother pushes a stroller past the Smile Auto Body shop. Behind her, older children follow.

From a muraled wall, Frida Kahlo looks on amid roses. "Art" and "Life" flank her portrait.

Viva la Vida - indeed.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Thematic Photographic - Close up

"Thematic Photographic" - Carmi at the blog Written, Inc. presents a weekly themed photographic challenge. This week's theme is Closeup. Check in and see who else contributes photos based on this idea.

Closeup can simply mean noticing something, stopping, and taking a closer look.

I was walking through a neighborhood of nice houses, up streets that wound up a seaside hill, and passed a house with climbing roses growing on a wall flanking the curb. A gardener was pruning the shrubs, and as I walked past where he worked, I saw the flowers and petals fallen on the sidewalk, the petals like bright confetti.

This rose with its streaked and striped petals looks so bright against the old concrete, I had to stop, kneel down right there in the street, and take its closeup.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Thematic Photographic - Close up

"Thematic Photographic" - Carmi at the blog Written, Inc. presents a weekly themed photographic challenge. This week's theme is Closeup. Check in and see who else contributes photos based on this idea.

A ripe summer plum, its skin still frosted with bloom, full of sweet juice oozing from where the stem detached. It pools in the hollow and clings to the sides, a sweet shining meniscus of clear syrup.

Carmi says: "You see things differently when you position yourself closer than you otherwise would."

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Pie a Week - Who likes chocolate?

This weekend Our Son put in a request - he wanted a chocolate pie. Well. Who doesn't?

I decided to make a chocolate cream pie. The filling for chocolate cream pie is chocolate pudding, which is made with egg yolks. I am irrationally disturbed if I have to separate eggs and don't have a use for the other part of them. So instead of the classic whipped cream topping for chocolate cream pie, I decided to follow Ken Haedrich's recipe (from his book, "Pie: 300 Tried and True Recipes for Delicious Homemade Pie") and make Chocolate Cream Pie with Cinnamon Meringue topping.

First, a pre-baked crust. I didn't mess around, I used the Gordon Hammersly recipe that had worked so well for me before. If you don't feel up to the challenge, you can use a store-bought graham-cracker crust, or a store-bought pie shell - pre-bake it according to the instructions. (But the Hammersly recipe is so easy and so worth the effort you really should try!)

The filling is cooked in a saucepan over the stove. You mix milk, egg yolks, sugar, corn starch, vanillla and chocolate. I had Scharffenberger Bittersweet Chocolate in my cupboard, so I used that. I added just a drop or two of some strong French roast coffee. After 7 or 8 minutes of cooking, the pudding thickens and you pour it into the pre-baked shell.

Then you whip egg whites until they hold soft peaks. Add a 1/4 teaspoon of Cream of Tartar, and a 1/4 cup of sugar mixed with two teaspoons of cinnamon, and beat until stiff peaks form.

Spread on top of the filling, pop into a 350 oven, and bake for about 10 minutes, or until the meringue colors soft golden brown.

Oh, delicious! Who wants chocolate?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Ancient monument

Age is only what you feel, they say. Good strong bones endure, they say. This goes for houses as much as it does for people. Some age gracefully, some don't do so well.

The views and vistas of the mountains above the streets of Los Angeles have been prized since the city's beginning for home sites for the rich, famous, and glamorous. Roads twist and turn and switchback along the folds of the hills. Over the decades, architects and designers indulged in the fantasies of their clients, creating Alpine cottages, French chateaux, Swiss chalets and Spanish missions that climb the hills and offer themed environments just as fanciful as the dreams they arose from.

So it is not unusual, while downshifting your car to climb a steep and twisting incline, to crane your neck past amazing structures, crammed together on top of one another, or gawk at the next great edifice revealed by a hairpin turn.

Here in Los Feliz, on Glendower Avenue, as you pass the steep-roofed chalet with a witch-broom wind vane, in the break between the '70s era horizontal box and the '90s Tuscan villa, you suddenly glimpse a soaring majestic structure that looms against the sky. Something tells you this one is special.

The Ennis-Brown House occupies a loop of land bordered by a hairpin switchback of Glendower Avenue. When you encounter its south face, looming above you, it's an awesome experience.

The sheer face evokes a Sumerian fortress, a medieval castle, a Mayan temple. Its jointed planes and patterned, textured surface seems exotic, foreign, and somehow forbidding.

Built in 1924 for clothing merchant Charles Ennis and his wife Mabel, the Ennis House (as it was known then) was the fourth and most ambitious of Frank Lloyd Wright's concrete block houses.

Wright saw the concrete block as a tool for building that was versatile, inexpensive and easily adapted to the most organic designs, allowing the shapes and planes of a structure to work in conjunction with the topography of the building site. The 16" blocks themselves were molded decoratively with geometric abstract designs, which when arranged together, created rich textures and lines. Wright used the term "textile blocks" to describe the way he could arrange the molded blocks to work with plain blocks to achieve an arresting design.

Here's what Wright said about his idea:
"What about the concrete block? It was the cheapest (and ugliest) thing in the building world. It lived mostly in the architectural gutter as an imitation of rock-faced stone. Why not see what could be done with that gutter rat? Steel rods cast inside the joints of the blocks themselves and the whole brought into some broad, practical scheme of general treatment, why would it not be fit for a new phase of our modern architecture? It might be permanent, noble beautiful."

Wrap around the turn and you come to the entrance of the house, a wide wrought-iron gate piercing a block wall, revealing a broad paved plaza and a view of Los Angeles that stuns.

The complex consists of the main house and a smaller chauffeur's cottage across the entry plaza. When you peek through the intricately patterned gate, here's what it looks like:

The metalwork of the gate was inspired by Mayan imagery and architecture. The house also includes classic art glass windows, and a glass mosaic tile fireplace that is said to be one of the last remaining examples of the many such fireplaces Wright designed. The house's interior is said to be somewhat claustrophobic and sinister. You can read about one blogger's visit inside, see views of the interior and decide for yourself.

The Ennis family didn't spend much time in the house. Charles died in 1928, and Mabel left the house in 1936. It was sold in 1940 to John Nesbitt, who commissioned Wright for some remodeling, adding a swimming pool and a billiard room. In 1968 the house was bought by Augustus Brown, until it was severely damaged by the 1993 Northridge earthquake. Large sections of the retaining walls broke away. Some of the concrete blocks had eroded over time, and crumbled under the strain. A very rainy winter in 2005 compounded the damage. The house was red-tagged by the city's building department.

Entry to the main house, see from the gateway

Gus Brown founded the Trust for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, which became the Ennis-Brown House Foundation. He donated the house to the foundation in his will at his death in 2002.

After the 2005 damage, the foundation raised funding for restoration. The south face was shored up. A FEMA grant and a gift from Diane Keaton helped fund the needed repairs. Here's a photo gallery from the Los Angeles Conservancy, showing the restoration.

Mayan-inspired motif from the iron gate

This being Hollywood, after all, the house has been used as a location for motion pictures, including the 1959 B-movie horror flick "The House on Haunted Hill" and the amazing 1982 L.A. future-noir film "Blade Runner," where it appears as the apartment home of Harrison Ford's character Deckard. It's been in other films, too, and its unique structure has been reproduced in studios as well.

Even so, the place has become a huge money-pit. In 2009, the Foundation announced its decision to put the house on the market, reasoning that a private buyer would be best suited to care for it. The price-tag for this fixer-upper? $15 million. It's estimated that another $5 to $7 million is needed to bring it up to snuff.

Frank Lloyd Wright was an arrogant and often selfish man, with a huge ego. In 1921 Wright wrote in a letter to Charles and Mabel Ennis:
"You see, the final result is going to stand on that hill a hundred years or more. Long after we are gone it will be pointed out as the Ennis House and pilgrimages will be made to it by lovers of the beautiful from everywhere."
Over the years, like the Ennis house, many of Wright's buildings have suffered from flawed engineering and weakness of structural design. The Ennis house sits, alone, on its hill. It is stable for now. You can make your pilgrimage to it. You can peek through the gates. You can touch the roughened surfaces of its blocks, trace the cracks and crevices and wonder. Even with another $7 million dollars, how much longer will it last before it crumbles?

Pirates overun the harbor

Saturday and Sunday were supposed to be really hot. We wanted to go somewhere cool to beat the heat, but we wanted to beat the crowds as well.

We know how crowded our L.A. County beaches can get - but what about going north?

The little beach town of Port Hueneme is one of the West Coast's busy deep water ports, receiving shipments of cars, fruit, and other Asian imports every day. If you eat a banana today, it probably came through the harbor at Port Hueneme. It is also home to a Naval Base that is the home of the famous Naval Construction Battalion, or "Seabees."

The port in the harbor was built by local farmers, so they could ship their crops to market. Later on, federal money helped develop the port. We drove off the 101 freeway through the broad, flat fields of strawberries and other crops to the beach and marina. The air was pleasantly cool, and the breeze off the water stirred the air.

The Ventura County Maritime Museum is a charming collection of historical artifacts and maritime lore, housed in a weathered frame building facing a marina. There is a display that recounts the history of the Port, but there's also a trove of information about sea-faring around the world. Models of sailing ships and paintings of battleships at sea are fascinating, whether you're a student of maritime lore or just amazed by the craftsmanship of creating these tiny replicas.

There's a collection of scrimshaw, including this whale tooth carved in 1815, showing a pair of quite attractive mermaids guarding an image of a sailing ship.

We wove our way up the coast, along the shore at Oxnard, past a huge puffing smokestack from a power plant, and finally reached the harbor at Ventura. Here a large modern complex of restaurants and shops ranged alongside the marina, overlooking sail boats, yachts, catamarans, paddle-boats for rent, awning-shaded tour boats, and a few fishing boats, looking bulky and out of place next to the pleasure craft. There was even a replica of a Chinese junk!

Banners and signs proclaimed this weekend a Pirate Festival - boats sported the Jolly Roger flag, and a pirate hoard - costumed and bewhiskered and brandishing cutlasses - roamed the docks and ice-cream stands of the harbor.

We had lunch on the balcony of a seafood restaurant, overlooking the crowds. There were dogs dressed as pirates. Pirate kayakers. Pirate mommies pushing strollers.

Roaming bands of pirates took photos of other roaming bands of pirates. Pirates sat at outdoor cafes, and let their children play on a giant inflatable slide shaped like a sinking Titanic, sliding down the steep deck to land on bouncy icebergs - the perfect amusement activity for a festival promoting piracy, simulated death at sea for the kids!

This dog is returning from a tour of the harbor on an inflatable boat.

I'm not sure what this pirate lass is wearing on her back - is it a teddy bear pirate? A backpack?

Not to worry - the breeze was cool, the beer was cold, and the crowds were happy. It was a good way to beat the heat by the water.