Bistro 1491 is fresh but not fast

Bistro 1491 BLTThe front of the menu at Bistro 1491 offers up this phrase: “Fresh, Quality, and Unpretentious.”

First, kudos for accurately spelling unpretentious. (I’ve seen my share of menus with much easier words misspelled.)

Second, my experience allows me to corroborate all three claims, if I’m understanding them correctly.

Third, why would one create a slogan in the form of adjective, noun, adjective—an unparallel construction to begin with—without providing the word that’s being modified? (I know, I know—it must be tough to be me…) But really, how hard would it have been to create a slogan that makes grammatical sense? Such as…

“Bistro 1491 serves fresh food of high quality in an unpretentious atmosphere”?

Or, if you prefer phrases to sentences, at least make the words in the list the same part of speech. How about

“Fresh, fine, and unpretentious.”

I had planned to lunch at the Sunnyside Café, since it was the next restaurant on my list. But when we arrived, a note on the door explained that the café was closed for renovation, so I will just have to wait until it reopens.

George was supposed to join us, but his oven broke, so he had to wait at home for the repair person. Poor George.

So Dave and I walked down a few doors until we reached Bistro 1491, which, by the strangest coincidence, is located at 1491 Solano Avenue. (What are the odds, right?) Now when you hear the number 1491, what comes to mind? I immediately thought of the non-fiction work by Charles Mann of the same name that chronicles pre-Columbian America. But that may just be me…

A sign on the window revealed that the restaurant was seeking experienced wait staff, which should have been a warning sign. Both working waitresses offered to seat us, the first one on the east side of the restaurant, and the second one on the west side. And indeed Bistro 1491 appears to be two small establishments divided by a wall down the middle with walkways in the front and back—rather bagel shaped. (Though admittedly that would be a rather rectangular bagel.)

We opted for the west side, which was quieter due to fewer diners at the time. I was happy to be presented with a tall glass of ice water immediately. Because the weather was a bit on the chilly side, I ordered coffee, which I rarely do at lunch. And it arrived soon after I ordered it. Then we had to decide whether to order from their all-day breakfast menu or stick with lunch items. I figured I should stick to lunch, since this whole project is titled Lunching Down Solano, not just Eating Down Solano.

I chose a BLT with fries. Dave waffled between the turkey brie sandwich and the caramelized pork sandwich, but decided on the turkey after our waitress admitted it was her favorite. She took our order at 12:14. I know because Dave reminded me to keep track. (It’s kind of his thing.)

While we waited, we wondered about the décor. Why a framed Time magazine cover of Secretariat? Our waitress didn’t know either. So that must remain a mystery.

The bathroom was serviceable and perfectly clean, if not roomy.Bistro 1491 turkey brie sandwich

I felt sorry for the two waitresses. The place was pretty full, and it seats about 60. Despite the odds, our waitress did check on us and refill my water and coffee while we waited.

And waited.

Our food arrived at 12:41. Twenty-seven minutes might be an acceptable waiting period at dinner time, when you are more likely to be having a leisurely meal and your hunger can be whetted with bread while you await your entrée. But at lunch, when most folks expect to be done in less than an hour, it’s a bit on the long side. Maybe they are short-staffed in the kitchen as well.

My sandwich was good (once I added mustard), and the fries were piping hot. Dave enjoyed his sandwich, though I considered it a tad boring. His salad dressing was sweet and heavy, and I detected a raspberry flavor; but the waitress confirmed that it was just supposed to be a vinaigrette. Neither of us liked the salad, so I shared my fries. Because I am a good and generous wife.

Dave and I are not particularly slow eaters, especially when we know we have work to do, so we finished eating by 1:00. By 1:16 we still hadn’t gotten our check. Dave’s response was, “It’s almost European.” (Maybe that’s what they’re going for?) So we took our check up to the front and paid. Because there was no host/hostess or cashier, our hardworking waitress rang us up.

I’ll probably give Bistro 1491 another chance at some future date—possibly for breakfast. Maybe by then they’ll get the help they need.


Body bags and interstates don’t mix

It looked like a body bag in the lane next to mine in the middle of I-980.5.0.2

I was in the fast lane on my way to a California Writers Club board meeting/brunch in Oakland last Sunday. The red Prius one lane over obviously saw the obstacle in question as well and decided to avoid it by entering my lane. Right in front of me. Crash.

It happened so fast.

We both pulled onto the shoulder next to the concrete blocks that separated us from east-going traffic. And I just sat for a good 30 seconds taking a mini-inventory: no blood, no glass, no broken bones. The airbag in my steering wheel had deployed; and I have to say, it did its job.  Except for a slight mark from the seatbelt digging into the skin below my neck, I had no injuries.

I saw two people getting out of the Prius, and I was happy to note that despite their vehicle’s crunched rear end, they also seemed to be intact. As they walked toward my car, I started to try to figure out what happened, and I was confused. The Prius must have slowed down when its driver saw something blocking its lane; so when it landed in my lane, I didn’t have enough time to decelerate and allow him space to enter. To me, it just seemed like I was driving along and another car was suddenly right in front of me. A smoky stench began to fill my car. Was the engine on fire? Should I be getting far away from this car rather than sitting there quietly assessing the situation? I unbuckled my seatbelt and opened my door.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen they reached my car, I asked them if they smelled it. They did. But he assured me that it was because of the explosives used to activate the airbag. Explosives?*

Once I was fairly certain that my car wasn’t catching fire and we’d assured each other that we weren’t hurt, we set about to exchanging information. I gave the other driver my business card and showed him my proof of insurance, but  I was too shaky to write down his information. He was kind enough to do so for me. I could see the damage to his car was significant, but he was behaving in a calm and rational manner, as was his companion, for which I was exceedingly grateful.

After we’d already been out of our cars for several minutes, it occurred to me to formally introduce myself to them both, which is a bit odd, considering we already had each other’s license plate numbers and insurance information. Then I took a moment to look back at the object that had caused all the trouble. It was still there—an oblong duffel, probably canvas, lying across the interstate, daring drivers to run over it. I guess I’ll never know what was in it…

I made a series of phone calls in an effort to let the board know that I was running late, finally making contact on the third try. I have to admit, if I weren’t the president of the board and running the meeting myself, I might have driven my battered little car right home. But since my destination was less than ten minutes away, I decided to see if my Honda could make the trip.

It did! Considering that I was already twenty minutes late, I made use of the restaurant’s valet parking service. I explained to the surprised bourbon smashattendant that yes, I had just been in an accident—hence the deflated airbag protruding from my steering wheel—but I was pretty sure it was safe to drive a short distance in order to park it.

Not only did I make it through the board meeting, but I lasted through the general meeting after that and finally arrived home around 4:45, where my wonderful husband gave me a big hug and mixed me a cocktail—appropriately, a Bourbon Smash.

*It’s true. Apparently every time an airbag deploys, it’s because a small contained explosion made it happen.

Cugini’s Is Great for Lunch

Cugini's frontCugini’s Ristorante and Pizzeria has always been one of my daughter’s favorite restaurants. It’s always one of her first answers when we ask her where she would like to eat. She’s such a regular that the waiters now know to bring her balsamic vinegar before she even asks for it. I’ve had dinner there several times, and it’s always been fine, but it never bowled me over.

But lunch—well, now, that’s a meal of a different color! They have a lunch menu that has several items that are not available for dinner, many of them more interesting to me than their night fare. I’ve had lunch there before and ordered the steak sandwich that comes with a mushroom gravy and fries. Now that’s terrific. This time I ordered the spicy chipotle chicken sandwich, which had heat but not a lot of flavor. It greatly improved with a slathering of mustard, however. The accompanying steak fries were great. Dave gave his BLT a thumbs up, and George was very happy with his steak salad. (I had a bite of the steak, which was quite tender and yummy.)Cugini's chipotle chicken sandwich

I  ordered an iced tea, which had very little taste. I asked for lemon, and that helped a bit, but I won’t order it there again. Dave and George decided to splurge and get cocktails, which made my iced tea seem even more boring. I knew that not only was a cocktail empty calories that I could not afford, but it would probably diminish my capacity for the editorial work I still had on my afternoon agenda. So I resisted. Dave got a Slap and a Kiss. (Isn’t that the greatest drink name ever?) It was a rye/lemon/gum syrup concoction, and he enjoyed it. George got a beautiful drink called a Hibiscus iced tea, which was the opposite of boring. It had St. George’s gin, sugar, lemon, and hibiscus tea, which gave it such lovely color. I got a taste of it, and it was way better than my iced tea.hibiscus iced tea 2

When it’s beautiful weather, as it has been of late, it’s nice to sit either outside or next to the large open windows so you feel like you’re at a little sidewalk trattoria in Italy.

The service at Cugini’s is quite good. (My water glass was never empty.) And the décor is very Italian, with lots of colorful artwork adorning the walls. Lunch is also less expensive than their dinner menu. (Although the cocktails certainly inflated our bill.)

Bottom line? I will definitely go again some time for lunch, preferably on a day when I don’t have to go back to work…


The Amazon – Hachette Dispute: What’s at Stake for Authors?

My mantra (Amazon is evil) has never been more true. Read how Amazon is doing even more to screw with authors. Go, Hachette, I support you!!

Ask the Agent

bezos_bookstore-620x412The book industry has been abuzz with the latest news of Amazon bullying book publishers. According to an article in The New York Times on May 8, Amazon has been involved in tough negotiations with Hachette Book Group, the fifth largest publisher in the United States. In order to pressure them for better deals, Amazon has engaged in a number of practices to make it harder  for Hachette to sell books through Amazon. This includes “slow walking” Hachette titles — delaying reorders of out of stock books in order to  slow down delivery. Normally Amazon ships books within 24 hours. On some Hachette titles, Amazon is saying that delivery will take as long as 5 weeks. Examples include new and backlist titles and even some best sellers.

Today we learn Amazon has removed the pre-order function for many not yet published Hachette titles. Also typically Amazon discounts books 20-40%. Since…

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Le Bedaine scores with their sweet treats

La Bedaine

Le Bedaine, at 1585 Solano Avenue, is one of those spots that I’d walked by many times but never gone in. Our friend George says he bought some amazing sausage there for his cassoulet, but I wasn’t sure how it would rate as a lunch spot, particularly since it’s really a take-out place. So I decided to try it out.

They have more of a range than I’d expected, including hot and cold sandwiches, quiches, salads, and charcuterie. I went for a simple mozzarella tomato sandwich. It was a hot day, and a cold sandwich was what I was in the mood for. I was a bit disappointed because there wasn’t anything particularly special about it, although it was exactly what it promised. My lunch companions were more enthused with their choices. Sandwiches are $6.50, whether they’re paté, salmon, or veggie, which is a pretty good price, I think.

The best part was dessert—the lemon ginger cookies were heavenly. And I have to admit it was a tough choice to make with the variety of sweets they had to offer: madeleines, tarts, éclairs, shortbread, and much more. I’ll have to go back there when I’ve made it down to my goal weight…

It’s also one of those places you can grab a full meal after a hard day when you don’t know what to fix and don’t want to face the lines at Safeway after work. They have French feasts that are vacuum packed, so that you can stick a bag into boiling water and 15 minutes later you have Coq au vin or Lapin à la moutarde or mushroom risotto, and at reasonable prices.

So in the future, I might go there to get a nice, easy dinner to bring home, or I might try a quiche. Or I might just go for dessert…

Chirp, chirp!*

Cecil & Dave @the Wash
Cecil & Dave @the Wash

It was a gorgeous, sunny day  when Dave and I drove down Highway 101 toward Pomona College in Claremont for our 30th class reunion. On the way, we stopped to have a long, leisurely lunch with our friend Fred in San Luis Obispo and avoided traffic by reaching L.A. long after rush hour. We stayed at Hotel Claremont & Tennis Club, which is actually just a motel right off the San Bernardino freeway with some tennis courts. The next morning we had what they call continental breakfast on paper plates in the “clubhouse,” where the water dispenser was broken, and the coffee was awful and only tepid, but Maria made us some Belgian waffles and the bananas were too green for Dave but perfect for me.

We grabbed some real coffee at 42nd St. Bagels in the Village, which is the tiny downtown area of Claremont, before arriving on campus. But walking up to Seaver House to register, I realized that I probably should have opted for iced coffee because the temperature was climbing rapidly. We received our blue bags with the Pomona symbol proudly displayed on the side, and inside was a booklet outlining the weekend’s events and a three-page list of all the Pomona alum who had died in the last few years. Luckily I saw no names from the class of ’84. Despite that somewhat depressing note, we ventured onto campus, eager to begin reunion festivities.

The first thing on my list was to visit the Challah for Hunger table at the student union. One of my former first graders, Rachel Hamburg, had started this Friday tradition of selling challah and donating the proceeds to organizations that feed the hungry back when she was at Pomona, and even though she has since graduated, I wanted to support her efforts. And, hey, the challah was delicious! We made a stop at each of my dorm rooms (outside only—I didn’t disturb their current residents) and walked the campus, surveying the many changes that had occurred even just since our 25th reunion. We stopped by the new Student Life office (which I realize sounds like a student center but is actually the school newspaper) to get the latest issue, but it was all closed up. Luckily, a friendly student offered us his copy that Dave noticed tucked under his arm. Then we stopped by the Senior Art Show where a very talkative woman from the class of ’64 showed me a quilt she’d made and brought with her. (I guess she thought it was that kind of senior art show…) Dave got to visit with the prof that took a group of students to Florence, which reminds me that I still regret not studying abroad when I had the chance….

Brian Dunbar trying to do mouth trick
Brian trying to do mouth trick

The first official reunion function we attended was the Mexican buffet, where we saw Gina, who had made the trip from New York; Ken and his husband Theo, all the way from Amsterdam!; and Carol, who had flown in from Piedmont which of course is about twenty minutes away from Berkeley, but we never see each other. As we ate dessert, Richard and Patty found us, having flown in from New Jersey. I immediately made Richard do that amazing trick he does with his lips. Because that’s what you do at reunions.The English department was co-hosting a wine and cheese gathering at Crookshank Hall where I had spent many hours in lit classes, so I dragged my history major husband and bio major friend along with me, since their departments weren’t doing anything. It was a pretty small crowd and none of my former teachers was there, but I spotted Mac Barnett, class of ’04 and noted children’s author! I chatted with him a bit and enjoyed some yummy fruit tarts. And I talked with Jimmy, Suzy, Dayna, and even the prof I didn’t know.

Since we had a few hours until the next event, we hung out in the courtyard outside the student union, where Dave befriended Bob, class of ’54. Bob had known Dave’s dad and uncle Noel (classes of ’51 and ’54) and talked about the old days until it was time to head over to Frary Dining Hall for the wine tasting. Of course there was food there too, and I realized that what with the challah, the cookies at the art show, the Mexican buffet, and the wine and cheese from the English Department tea, this was the fifth time we’d been presented with food since our clubhouse waffles, and we hadn’t even had dinner yet! All the wineries represented there belonged to Pomona grads and poured wine freely. More friends, lots of wine, tiny quiches, and chocolate-covered strawberries—it really doesn’t get better than that!

Except it did. The slide show highlighting music and school photos from the last seventy-five years played on either end of the gym while we ate our dinner. Each class cheered louder than the last when its year was represented. We drank more wine. (And I definitely ate more than one macaroon.) Then we went to a party in the basement of the student union where there was more wine and beer and lots of chips and cookies. In case we hadn’t gotten enough to eat….

Saturday was spent mostly on Marston Quad eating even more and seeing even more classmates. Brian wore a shirt that Patty and I insisted was green and Brian just as vehemently insisted was yellow. Or maybe it was the other way around….I teased Robin about her title as the “appliance queen” junior year. (She had a microwave, hot curlers, and a food dehydrator in her dorm room!) Ross and Dennis arrived between meals. And Susie and Jim and Charna and Grant and Jon and Bill and Julie and Karen and Sue and Paul and lots of others showed up too.

The parade of classes began with the golf carts carrying the eldest alum, followed by increasingly younger folks, all of us displaying our class banners, some classes prouder than others of their chosen mottoes. Because we were the class of 1984, we were always under an Orwellian shadow and had a pretty lame banner that proclaims us to be “Class with a Vision.” As each class passed, the younger classes waved and cheered them on, except of course for the class of 2009 because there was nobody left to clap for them. As everyone else paraded into Big Bridges Auditorium to listen to the inevitable pitch for the alumni fund, our bunch wandered back to our tented table on the quad. We already gave, and it’s the same spiel every five years, so we figured we’d heard it already. The only really fun time was our 25th, when Don and Brian dressed up as a horse and our class all wore glow sticks.

Me in collapsing castleThe temperature was up in the 90s, so when Patty and I spied someone dumping a huge container of melting ice out on the lawn, we immediately plopped our feet in the icy puddles for relief. And because most of the children of alum had already abandoned the bouncy house, Patty, Sue, and I decided it was our turn. We bounced for awhile and even went down the slide. But Patty and Sue got out before it started losing air and imploding. I did not. As the walls of the castle came down around me, Sue and Patty dragged me out. It was not a graceful dismount.

Chips, salsa, guac, and many kinds of beer awaited us at the Wash during cocktail hour. The Wash is an amphitheater that used to be sort of dilapidated back in the day, and it was the place to be every Friday afternoon where the kegs of cheap beer flowed. Now it has a nice lawn area and a fence around it, and the beers they served were premium beers. Sometimes change is good.

The word of the day was wenis, which nobody else there knew. (It’s the skin on your elbow. Go ahead—look it up.) I had learned it from my daughter, who said it was a big joke in elementary school, because pretty much any word that rhymes with penis is going to be funny in elementary school. Or to people celebrating their 30th year reunion…

For the final dinner, alum were scattered throughout the campus, each class eating with their own classmates, so it was rather a small grouping that ate dinner together that night. We were entertained by the Blue & White, a female a capella group who did a fun medley of California-themed songs among other pieces. Dave even bought one of their CDs. Our table definitely had the most fun. At one point I sort of realized that I was the only female seated among gay and bisexual men—there wasn’t a single straight person at our table. There was one almost tense moment when we got to reminiscing, and I referred to the two-week stint when Ross and I were a couple. Which apparently was news to his husband, even though he and Ross have been together probably twenty years. I think Ross still has the upper hand though. Four years into their relationship, Dennis accidentally referred to his ex-wife. I guess it had slipped his mind…

Seaver House brunch
Sunday brunch at Seaver House

I think my favorite moment came when we were saying our goodbyes. One of my former classmates, who was someone I knew to say hi to but didn’t know really well when we were in college, told me I was a lovely person with great sincerity and then said that he wished we’d known each other better when we were at school. I said, “It’s never too late!” And I mean it. I loved Pomona and a lot of people I knew then. But there are still alum that I’m getting to know thirty years later. Which is pretty cool, I think.

And I hope you and Theo were serious when you said we could stay with you in Amsterdam, Ken, because we might just take you up on it!

*Pomona’s mascot is the sagehen. I know it’s silly, but that’s why when alum run into each other, they say “chirp.”

Talavera Is Still My Favorite

Talavera signOkay, so I already knew I loved Talavera. It’s not like this is undercover, investigative journalism. I go there at least once a week, so when it was time to include it in my lunching journey down Solano, it was like coming home. It’s a casual, family place where you order at the counter and get your own flatware and napkins from under the salsa bar. The people who work there are all lovely, friendly folks.

Talavera tortaAlthough I could have used this as an opportunity to try something different, I ordered one of my favorites: a veggie tostada salad with black beans on a corn tortilla. Occasionally I get it with chicken, but usually I’m happy with just the lettuce, beans, salsa, Mexican cream, avocados, and the tangy dressing. But, inspired by George ordering a hibiscus drink, I got one of those too. This beautiful, sweet, garnet drink just may have to be added to my list of favorites! I sucked down half of it while we dove into our basket of fresh, crisp chips, accompanied by three different kinds of salsas. Dave got the sopas—one carnitas and one veggie—which he was quite fond of, opting out of his usual taquitos. (Which are not what I thought they would be the first time Dave ordered them. They’re just little tacos, not those skinny, crisp things they called  back at our college cafeteria…) George got the daily special, which I’ve noticed is almost always a torta of some sort. This time it was chorizo, and I loved it! It was sort of like a spicy sloppy joe. That might have to get added to my list too…

Since I keep referring to this list, I should share the other items on it: their quesadillas are to die for, which is not usually something that exciting at most other Mexican restaurants. But theirs is big and comes with three kinds of sauces—all of them good. Every once in a while Dave and I will split their chili relleno burrito, which is way too big (and probably too fattening!) to eat on your own. And if I’m feeling like I deserve a soda, I sometimes get a Mexican coke. And if I’m feeling extra worthy, I get a glass of their sangria, which is just as pretty as the hibiscus drink but of course has an alcoholic kick to it.hibiscus & watermelon sodas

Talavera on sunny days is especially wonderful because you can sit outside and watch Solano Avenue go by. I often see someone I know, either dining there or just walking by while on errands.  This time it was Alesia, who lives just around the corner. If you sit at one of the tables on the west side, you can watch the toddlers in Peralta Park surrounded by parents and nannies. Or, if you’re facing the other way, you see pets and their people enter VCA Albany either through the big door that says “CAT” or the one labeled “DOG.”

I could sit there all afternoon. If I didn’t have to work, that is…