Monday, June 11, 2012

Stand Back, We're Tourists...

We sort of stayed close to the ranch on Saturday. Chris had a charity gig that evening and, to be quite honest, I was feeling a bit burnt out. A day of relaxation would make the rest of the trip a bit more enjoyable.

We decided to do the "tourist thing" on Sunday. Chris says he never really goes sightseeing because, well, because he lives here. I totally get that. I grew up less than 50 miles from the Statue Of Liberty, but I've only ever seen it from an airplane. So, yeah, I completely dig not sightseeing in your hometown.

We decided to take the BART into the city. "BART" stands for "Bay Area Rapid Transit", and it's a Helluva' lot easier than driving into the city; to the Embarcadero, of all places, and trying to find a place to park. So, the train it would be.

The BART station in Lafayette, California...
It took a little over 30 minutes to get into the city. We hopped off the train right near the Ferry Building. At one time, the Ferry Building was this dilapidated, rundown, forgotten husk of a building. Now, however, it houses a number of, primarily, food shops selling everything from Chinese tea (like the kind at Nanking) to kitchen utensils to coffee to meats. The whole building smelled amazing.

Inside the Ferry Building in San Francisco...

Chris, being the culinary guru that he is, picked up some smoked sea salt at this one store we went into. It's weird. It's like flakes of salt. I tried it but, hey, I guess I just like boring old sea salt.

From the Ferry Building, we walked along the Embarcadero, shooting as we went (Chris brought his Canon 30D with him). We decided to get some lunch, so we headed over to the Fog City Diner. I was looking forward to this. It just had this certain vibe that told me it was going to be amazing.

It wasn't.

It was okay. The food was fine, I suppose, but the service left a lot to be desired. While I opted for the biscuits and gravy (which were... fine), Chris, inexplicably, decided that oysters were the way to go:

Mmmmmmmmm... Nothing says "breakfast" like hastily prepared shellfish...

He was happy. That's all that mattered...
As I said, the food was okay; certainly nothing to write home about, and certainly not what I'd hoped for. We ate, paid the tab, and continued down the Embarcadero.

The Embarcadero in San Francisco is a pretty wild place. Buskers are everywhere, and there's a tourist vibe that you'll not find in too many other locales. It's fun, though, and it's an absolute mecca for people watching.








We decided to walk up to where the cable cars board, and take one down into Union Square. From there, we'd hop back onto the BART and back to the East Bay. We didn't expect the wait, though. Seems as though a few hundred people had the same idea we did. We decided to stop by Fiddler's Green, a place where Chris plays a gig from time to time. We sidled up to the bar and, as we always do when I come up here, had a Guinness. There's something about getting a Guinness in an Irish pub. You just don't get the same experience anywhere else:


Our thirsts quenched, we lit off for the cable cars.

The San Francisco cable cars are a marvel of engineering. and they're also the only mobile national monument in the world. Cables move under the streets to move the cars. At each end of the track, the cars have to be put on a turntable and manually turned around, as there are no gears (such as "reverse" on them).




Coit Tower, seen from the top of Hyde Street...

Alcatraz, as seen from the top of Hyde Street...

The city also operates what are called "Heritage Streetcars". These operate primarily on Market Street and the Embarcadero:

A Heritage Streetcar along Market Street in downtown San Francisco...

We got off the cable car and found our way underground, headed to the BART station.

Our train...
We found our way back to Lafayette, and then back to Chris' house.

This proved to me a ridiculously good trip, both in terms of the photo ops it presented, but also the culinary ridiculousness that often occurs every time I come up here. Chris busted out with the biscuits and gravy this morning and, to be honest, I think I'm good for the remainder of the day.

So, once again, I tip my hat to Chris and thank him for his hospitality. This was a great trip...

The Presidio...

In the past when I'd come up here, the intention had always been to seriously maximize the photo ops. As it ends up, though, I usually get in one good day of shooting. Well, Friday was yet additional proof that this trip would be different.

We headed out of Lafayette, and found our way across the Bay Bridge into downtown San Francisco. We were on our way to the Presidio, which was first occupied by the Spanish in 1776, then the Mexican Army in 1822. The United States Army took control of it in 1846.

The Presidio is home to San Francisco National Cemetery. It's small in comparison to Arlington, or even Fort Rosecrans, within its confines are the remains of the fallen going back as far as the late 1800's.

San Francisco National Cemetery overlooks San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz can be seen in the distance...

The Presidio also offers some pretty unparalleled views of the Golden Gate Bridge. A well maintained hiking trail makes access very easy, and there are even large, prepared areas off the path to accommodate everything from bicycles to, in my case, a camera tripod.

Shooting the Golden Gate Bridge. Photo by Chris Estes...

I've been dabbling (true, I "dabble" from time to time) with high-dynamic-range, also known as "HDR" photography lately, and I figured this would be a good place to flex that jones a bit. I'm not entirely sure how happy I am with the HDR results, but I know I wouldn't have wanted to fail at it anywhere else. This view was just inspiring.



My take on an "old time" photograph of Alcatraz, as seen from the Presidio...

From the Presidio, we decided to drive down to Baker Beach, to get an ocean-side view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Like the view from the Presidio, it was awesome. The wind was ridiculous, so I opted to leave the 5D in the car, and I took these with my trusty Canon G12:


The view of the Golden Gate Bridge from Baker Beach...

After leaving Baker Beach, we had to come to grips with the fact that the only way to get to the Bay Bridge, and back to Lafayette, was to go through downtown. Accordingly, we decided to make it interesting.

We first made our way to Lombard Street. Now, most people know Lombard Street as the most crooked road in the world (although that claim is contested). It's a tourist mecca, and traffic moves very slowly through the quarter-mile route of eight switchback turns heading through the neighborhood of Russian Hill.

Lombard Street...


After surviving that, we continued through downtown, back past Chinatown and House Of Nanking (GO THERE!), and into the financial district.







So, Friday proved to be another photo-intensive day, and that was good. Again, I don't normally shoot this much when I come up here, and it's a Helluva' lot of fun...

Muir Woods...

A couple years ago, my brother Greg was in southern California on business. Ordinarily, he would've driven to San Diego to visit when his business was done, but we opted for me to pick him up, and we would make the drive to the Bay Area. On that trip, we went to Muir Woods. Well, to be more exact, we went to the parking lot of Muir Woods, drove around for thirty minutes, and then left. It was 4th of July weekend, and it was just that crowded.

This time around, however, I really wanted to make it down there. I was hoping that the fact that we'd go on a Thursday would help matters, and it did. We were able to find a parking spot after a mere 15 minutes of trying.

The entrance to Muir Woods National Monument...
Muir Woods National Monument is named after John Muir, who was instrumental in getting the United States Congress to pass the National Parks bill in 1890. Muir devoted his later life to preserving America's natural beauty, so much so that he is now known as the "Father of the National Parks".

Essentially, without Muir, there would be no National Parks system.

Now, while most Americans will never actually step foot in Muir Woods, most, I dare say, will see it. Anyone who's seen the movie "Return Of The Jedi" will recognize Muir Woods as the planet Endor. It was also used in the movie "Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes".

It's an amazing place. Some of the largest trees in the world are here, both hundred of years old and hundreds of feet tall. A well built boardwalk permits you access to the entire park, and photography, for personal use anyway, is highly encouraged. Commercial photography is permitted, but you need a permit.

It would be possible, I'm sure, to spend days exploring Muir Woods. It seemingly goes on forever and, for me, every time I turned around there was something else to aim my lens at. It was a visual feast, and it even lent itself to some HDR work.





Taking a break from shooting at Muir Woods National Monument. Photo by Chris Estes...

As amazing a place as it was, we decided we needed to leave to get some food. Our breakfast plans had fallen through, and we were starting to get a little squirrely. We decided to head over to the small town of Tiburon for some lunch.

Aside from being the home of Shark's Deli, where we had lunch, Tiburon is also home to Schoenberg Guitars. This store has some amazing instruments on display, many of which climb into the mid-five-figure price range. They really do specialize in high-end manufacturer and small independent luthier guitars.

Schoenberg Guitars in Tiburon, California...

Chris plays a Bruce Sexauer guitar at Schoenberg Guitars...

After about an hour or so in Tiburon, we decided to make our way back to Lafayette. We had a gig that night, and the reality is that the trip back could take a while, even outside of rush hour. It was nice to have that down time in the passenger seat, though...

Beef... It's What's For Dinner...

So, in keeping with the whole food motif, we move on to dinner.

As I've mentioned from time to time here, my buddy Chris is a pretty amazing cook. I might even go so far as to call him a chef, although I'm not entirely certain what the criteria is to be called either. Regardless, we opted for some bone-in rib eye steaks.

Chris does nothing easy. It would be easy, for example, to simply buy croutons for the Caesar salad he was making. However, that, you see, would never do. Instead, he makes his own. He cuts up bread and grinds down garlic and fries up his own croutons, and they can only be classified as "candy":









So, the salad was taken care of. Bourdain would've been proud. This was the first time I'd ever seen anyone actually make croutons but, I can tell you this, it's the only way to go.

Next were the steaks. We stopped on the way back to the ranch and picked up some HUGE rib eyes. They remind me of that old adage "Never eat anything bigger than your head". These were big.

And tasty.

Seasoned up nicely...

And perfectly prepared...

So, with a satisfied appetite, it was time to call it a night. Thursday would prove to be a long day, and the rest would prove to be a good thing...

Sunday, June 10, 2012

San Francisco - The Food Edition...

Normally, when I come up to San Francisco, I actually spend the majority of my time east of the city in Lafayette, visiting my buddy Chris. We may make an excursion into the city at some point but, for the most part, we stay on the east side of the bay. This trip was a little different, however. Chris entertained my photography jones to the nth degree, and I came away with some stuff I'm pretty happy with.

The trip started out in Chinatown after Chris collected me at the airport. I've been craving good Chinese food, and this seemed as good a place as any to have some. So, we drove into the city, parked the car, and set out to find some lunch.

Time for a quick public service announcement: For those who happen to have the iPhone 4s, don't tell Siri you want Chinese food while you're standing in the middle of Chinatown.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog.

We decided that House Of Nanking looked just about as good as anywhere else. Having never been here before, for me, it was a crap shoot. But we figured "What the Hell?" and walked inside.

House Of Nanking in Chinatown...
We were greeted by a pleasant young woman who handed us menus and asked if we'd like anything to drink. Chris and I both asked for tea. Within about a minute, an older Chinese gentleman walked up to our table and introduced himself as the owner and chef. He asked if either of us had any food allergies. When we each said "No", he relieved us of our menus and proclaimed "I'll take care of you".

This would be the moment that the verb "Bourdaining" came to be.

If you don't know, Anthony Bourdain is a guy who travels around the world, eating. That's what he does. That's his gig. He even has a television show in which you can watch him travelling around the world, eating. Now, how he got that gig is anyone's guess, but his television shows generally start out with a chef looking at him and saying "I'll take care of you".

I figured this lunch was either going to be profoundly good or monumentally bad. I didn't expect much in between.

The tea was brought to the table in tall glasses. I guess I'd expected small teacups because, well, that's how it's been served in every Chinese restaurant I've ever been in. But this was different, all the way around. The reason the serve it in a glass is because there's a large clump of tea in the bottom of the glass. At first the tea rests on top of the water. It then sinks to the bottom of the glass, and the most bizarre thing happens: The tea starts growing. Yep, as it sits at the bottom of the glass, a small... well, I can't even adequately describe it. It looks like this:

The tea leaves grow...

After the soup came a veritable parade of of amazing food.

The first dish brought to the table was a pork wonton soup. I was mildly wary, as I'd never seen a creamy wonton soup before, but I figured I'd dive right in. I am so glad I did. It was incredible. An odd thing about it was that there was the very obvious presence of cilantro, which is normally used in Mexican dishes. It worked well here, though.

Pork wonton soup. Amazing...

Neither Chris nor I are big fish eaters, but the next dish to hit the table was a garlic pan fried fish that was unlike any fish I've ever had. It was very, very light and broke apart if you used too much pressure on the chopsticks. Served on top of rice with spinach leaves, I could've made this the sole lunch dish.

Garlic pan fried fish. And, yes, I'm aware that there's a fork in that picture...

The fish was a prelude to what came next, which was a dish that wasn't even on the menu (hey, that happens when you're out "Bourdaining"). It was a beef over rice, but the beef had an almost bacon quality to it; it's very hard to describe. It was amazing. I'd love to know how it was prepared but, at the same time, I don't think I should know.

I don't know what it was, but it was amazing...

Now, we weren't at all sure when the food was going to stop and, to be quite frank, I was particularly interested as I was paying. But, I have to be honest, while it wasn't nearly the most inexpensive lunch I've ever had, it was also far from the priciest. It was also close to the top of the list in terms of, quite simply, how good it was. Peter Fang, the Chinese gentleman who told us that he would take care of us, did exactly that. He prepared a lunch which was pretty over the top for a Wednesday afternoon in San Francisco.

With Peter Fang at House Of Nanking...

Let's Talk Apps...

From time to time, I'll be talking about cell phone apps as I find good ones. Let's face it, it's almost impossible to get thro...