Sunday, July 22, 2018

Remembering Jonathan Gold

I was immensely saddened last night to learn of the untimely passing of Jonathan Gold. I regret never meeting him, but we shared a love of food and of our city, and Los Angeles will not be the same without his intelligent, insightful guidance on our dynamic food scene. As a regular guest on the KCRW “Good Food” podcast with Evan Kleiman, his voice was a regular guest in my car. His column in the LA Times food section was the first thing I would consume on Saturday mornings. Los Angeles has become one of the most vibrant food scenes in the world, and if any one person could claim credit for making that happen, Jonathan would be a top contender. This vast and dynamic city, fueled by the confluence of streams of human migration from the south and the east, a megalopolis of ethnic pockets, ever-transitioning neighborhoods, and cultural mash-ups, has a staggering array of food cultures on offer that can be bewildering and overwhelming. Jonathan provided us a map. For his avid readers, he inspired us to visit unfamiliar neighborhoods, enter establishments sometimes beyond our comfort zone, persevere past menus in languages we couldn’t always read, and put things in our mouths we never dreamt of before (but would dream of after). When he started writing, food critics generally only paid attention to white table cloth, mostly French or “Continental” restaurants, measuring shortness against a particular idea of perfection, their prose often filled with attitude and the caustic cleverness of a Scalia dissent. Jonathan smashed that mold. While he appreciated and lauded the finest high-end restaurants, he could find equal appreciation and praiseworthiness in the craft of an immigrant who sells street corn from a cart on a corner in Lincoln Heights made in the specific style of the particular region in Mexico that he came from. He famously started his career by eating at literally every establishment on Pico Boulevard (one of LA’s long boulevards that stretches 15 miles from downtown to the beach). And by the time he was done, he no longer spoke of Mexican food or Chinese food, but had taught himself -- and went on to teach us -- about the wonderful differences between the styles of Oaxaca, Jalisco, or Guerrero, or the specifics of Chengdu distinct from other parts of Sichuan. He was a scholar and guide to the food regions of Thailand, Korea, and Vietnam, and the subtleties of Honduran vs Guatemalan vs Salvadoran foods. He probably knew more about Korean food than most Koreans in Koreatown. His infectious enthusiasm inspired non-Koreans to venture into K-town, and non-Latinos to venture into East LA. He fomented an openness and an invitation to cross-cultural exploration in this city, and I might venture that he did as much as anyone to cultivate the appreciation and create the cultural space for someone like Roy Choi to take LA by storm with his Kogi truck, mashing up Korean and Mexican food. And Jonathan’s smashing of the cult of the white table cloth paved the way to a city where some of our top-rated restaurants are food trucks whose location you need to follow Twitter to pin down. I am deeply grateful for how much he has enriched my own life, as he has countless Angelenos, with his insights, his encyclopedic knowledge, his contagious enthusiasm, and his delightful prose. His death – way too soon – leaves a huge hole in the heart of our city.

Friday, July 20, 2018

FILM: Postcards From London

It’s always fun to see Outfest films at the Ford, an outdoor theater that is lovely for a summer night screening. This year, we enjoyed Postcards From London, an unconventional story of a young man coming to London with little money but big dreams, and falling in with a group of high-end male escorts who are aficionados of baroque art, and who serve clients who want discreet sex and sophisticated conversation. (“We’re not prostitutes, we’re raconteurs.”) Though the film is mostly dramatic, it has some good comedic breaks, particularly a very amusing scene where the young man is in a hotel room with a client reenacting the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. The lead is beautifully played by Harris Dickinson, whom we met in last year’s film Beach Rats, which makes for an interesting comparison. While Dickinson gave great performances in both, Beach Rats was full of destructive self-loathing and was painful to watch. Postcards, in contrast, is free of shame for being gay, for enjoying role-playing, or even for doing sex work. The only shame in this film is for those who fail to appreciate great art. The film is stylish and surreal, including flashbacks to the time of Caravaggio, who is the ultimate hero to the “raconteurs”. While there are a few glimpses of the art itself, director Steve McLean doesn’t give the actual paintings as much camera love as one might expect for a film about art lovers (unlike, for example, the way Mike Leigh featured paintings in Mr. Turner). His focus is more on evoking the look and feel of Soho street life and bar life, and though it is done in quite a stylish way, somehow the style struck me as more reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick (think A Clockwork Orange) than the painterly Peter Greenaway. Similar to another great Kubrick film, Postcards ends with some kind of transformative breakthrough, though I couldn’t tell you exactly what happened. In any event, we did enjoy the film.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Lamp Beside The Golden Door Extinguished

The Statue of Liberty was sent back to France today. The plaque with the famous poem remains, with amendments. Emma Lazarus was deported posthumously when Jeff Sessions discovered a misdemeanor committed by her great great grandfather in New York in 1743.

The Underminer

I haven’t seen the new Incredibles film yet, but at the end of the first film, we get a preview of a new villain, the Underminer, who emerges from underground declaring “I am always beneath you, but nothing is beneath me.” What a perfect symbol for the current U.S. president, who not only is presiding over a pandemic of repugnant and ill-informed policies, but is actively undermining core values, principles, and institutions that have made our country great. To prove this (in honor of the Fourth of July), let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

  • His personal business interests remain a massive ongoing conflict of interest. His charade of putting his personal business into a blind trust run by his sons is about as blind as a surprise present wrapped in cellophane with the purchase receipt taped on the outside. His taxpayer-funded summits at Mar-a-Lago and his other properties line his own pockets while providing ongoing product placement opportunities. And what foreign dignitary courting favor doesn’t stay at the Trump Hotel in DC? It’s an emoluments extravaganza, and an in-our-faces flouting of basic business ethics.
  • Petty corruption is rampant, as we’ve seen a steady parade of his cabinet secretaries taking personal trips at government expense, often in first class, spending lavish amounts on office furnishings, and using government employees as their personal servants.
  • He (and his press secretary) have a reckless disregard for truth and facts. Politicians have always engaged in spin, but this president has taken it to a whole new level. We are in Orwellian “newspeak” territory when a president can outright lie to the American people so casually, openly, callously, and egregiously, even so far as to claim not to have said things that anyone can see he said just by scrolling back in his Twitter feed. His very relationship to reality is demonstrably pathological.
  • He has alienated allies so solidly longstanding that such alienation was inconceivable before this administration. Who could have imagined we would pick a fight with Canada? Or question our commitment to NATO? And to what end? He has gained us nothing while damaging the very core alliances that we need to help keep the world secure. Suddenly those who would never have questioned the alignment of our interests with theirs are raising those questions, and that can only be to our detriment.
  • He has not only given regard to odious dictators but openly expressed admiration and envy of dictatorial powers. When President Xi Jinping became president for life in China, he said we should try that here. In appraising Kim Jong-un as a “strong head of his country”, he was envious of how deferential the North Koreans are to their “dear leader”. “When he speaks, they sit up at attention!”
  • He dishonors treaties with wanton disregard. He cynically and disingenuously claimed a “national security” exemption in “justifying” his steel tariffs – against Canada and Europe. He essentially abrogated the Iran Treaty by falsely certifying that Iran was not in compliance. He pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, often threatens to renegotiate NAFTA, and now is indicating he wants to pull out of the World Trade Organization. Whatever one thinks of the pros and cons of particular deals, it shouldn’t be hard to understand that making a practice of reneging on treaties undermines our national integrity and devalues our ability to make treaties in the future, if other nations cannot take us at our word, or cannot rely on treaties to be any more enduring that the administration that made them. I guess integrity wasn’t covered in The Art of the Deal.
  • He has no discernable core values, principles, or even strategic goals. Nobody can speak for or rely upon what he wants, because it changes daily or hourly with whoever last got his ear and played to his ego. The presidency is transformed into a personality cult rather than an administration, and one even has to feel a little bit sorry for the Republican Congressional leadership who dance and tip-toe around him like an abused and battered spouse desperately trying to guess from which direction the next smile or strike will come.
  • He has given comfort and encouragement to the most vile expressions of racism and nativism. White nationalists, once marginalized by decent society, are now coming out like cockroaches when the lights go out. They speak and march openly, as this president sees “very fine people on both sides”.
  • He has stoked baseless fears that immigration is dangerous to our country and harmful to our economy, working actively to repress all immigration, legal or otherwise, and turn away those seeking asylum. He has employed the most vicious and inhumane tactics, such as jailing asylum-seekers and separating children from their parents, in attempts to discourage them.
  • To some agencies, he has appointed leaders bent against the very charters of the agencies they lead. The head of the EPA opposes regulation to protect the environment. The head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau doesn’t want the government protecting consumers. The Secretary of Education is an opponent of public education.
  • To other agencies, he has appointed leaders who are incompetent and unqualified. The Secretary of Energy had no idea what the Department of Energy did when he was appointed to it, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development is lead by a man who has no experience whatsoever in housing, urban development, or running a large organization. Competence and expertise mean nothing in this administration (which is hardly surprising, since the president himself has no competence or relevant experience for his own job).
  • Through a combination of sheer maladministration and malice to government itself, he has hollowed out the agencies of the federal government. Career civil servants, many who served faithfully through numerous administrations both Democratic and Republican, have resigned in droves if they haven’t been sacked out of paranoid fears of “the deep state”. (Those are the real witch hunts.)
  • When any governmental organization or institution challenges him, he takes to Twitter to malign their overall integrity. When the FBI investigates him, he declares the FBI is corrupt. When a federal judge restrains his action, he declares the judge partisan. When members of Congress oppose him, he hurls personal insults and accusations. When newspapers report accurately on his malfeasance, it is all “fake news”. His mudslinging not only degrades the reputation of his own office, but it slowly corrodes general faith in public institutions.
The stone walls of a castle are strong and durable, but can be brought down when the ground beneath them is weakened and the mortar of their foundations is corroded by undermining. Under the administration of this Underminer-in-Chief, I fear for the future of our republic.

Monday, July 02, 2018

Roe Is In Danger, But It Doesn't Stop There

On a bright note, last week the Iowa Supreme Court struck down yet another of those unending legislative attempts to chip away at women’s rights to make their own reproductive choices. The decision was 5-2. On a less bright note, one of the two dissenters, Justice Edward Mansfield, is on the published short list of potential nominees to replace Justice Kennedy on the US Supreme Court. Being the constitutional law geek that I am, I thought I would take a look at his dissent. It was terrifying. Not only does he show thinly veiled hostility to Roe v. Wade, but he is completely up front in his opposition to “substantive due process”, the constitutional theory that certain fundamental rights may not be infringed by government. Mansfield is not distinctive here. This philosophy is a hallmark of the Federalist Society, the conservative legal society that has been diligently recruiting a whole new generation of “textualists” and “originalists”, and to whom the President has completely outsourced his pool of Supreme Court nominees. Hiding behind these academic terms of legal interpretation, their goal goes well beyond overturning Roe v. Wade. They would basically overturn every great landmark decision of the last century. That’s where their “war on substantive due process” inevitably leads. Think that consenting adults have a constitutional right to have sex in the privacy of their own home? The Federalist Society does not. Lawrence v. Texas, which declared sodomy laws unconstitutional rests on substantive due process, and they would overturn that. Think that you have a fundamental right to marry another unmarried adult of your choice? The Federalist Society does not. Not only does Obergefell, the 2016 gay marriage case, rest on substantive due process, but so does the 1967 Loving v. Virginia, which affirmed the right of people to marry across racial lines. Do you think a lawfully married couple has the right to use contraception? In 1965, the Supreme Court in Griswold v. Connecticut found a fundamental right to make such intimate and personal decisions in our Constitution, but the Federalist Society thinks that was a grave mistake. They believe it’s completely constitutional for the state to legislate what you can and can’t do in your own bedroom. Make no mistake, Roe v. Wade is in danger, but that’s not nearly the end of it.

Friday, June 22, 2018

FOOD: Gualaguetza

Today I lunched at Gualaguetza, a piece of Oaxaca on the corner of Koreatown (only in LA). It’s all about the mole here, a thick sauce made of chilis, nuts, spices, hours of cooking, and in the negro version, chocolate. When you sit down, tortilla chips come covered in a sweet rich mole coloradito with queso fresco. There’s Oaxacan chocolate mixed with atole (a hot ground corn drink) called champurrado. And the main event, a chicken breast in a pool of rich mole negro, with rice, and corn tortillas with browned spots from the comal. And of course the Copa Mundial on the big screen, fun to watch with a crowd. I watched the Swiss beat Serbia. This place will be crazy fun tomorrow morning when Mexico plays South Korea! I definitely want to come back and try some more things, as there's quite an array of Oaxacan specialties, including chapulines (fried grasshoppers!). I'm intrigued, but also squeamish. (In the film "City of Gold", there's a scene with Jonathan Gold and Ruth Reichl munching on a plate of chapulines at this very restaurant, and talking about how we'd best get more used to eating insects, as it's our future.) I'd also try their cafe de olla next time, which might be a better way to cut the richness of the mole. Truth be told, the champurrado, a dish I'd never tried before, wasn't my favorite. I do love atole and who doesn't love chocolate. But I just didn't find the combination to be complimentary. And certainly not the 2+2=5 that you get from chocolate and peanut butter, or chocolate and hazelnuts, or even Guinness stout and chocolate (an awesome gelato). Or of course chocolate and chili in this awesome mole.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

BOOKS: Homegoing

Yaa Gyasi, who was born in Ghana but raised in Alabama, grew up with the distinctive perspective of a vicarious participation in the African-American experience of the descendants of slavery, while also having a more immediate connection to her West African roots. From this experience, she has crafted Homegoing, a beautiful, sweeping novel that captures all of that complexity by telling a story of seven generations on two continents. On the “Gold Coast” of West Africa, two centuries ago, a fortification called the Cape Coast Castle housed British governors in relative luxury while the dungeons beneath them held hundreds of slaves waiting to be loaded onto ships to the New World. Through that portal, one woman passed through the dungeons while her half-sister lived for a time above before returning to her Fante village. Homegoing tells the story of these two women and six generations of their descendants. In West Africa, the lives of the characters provide a lens on village life, the customs of the warring Fante and Ashanti peoples, the experience of European incursion and the slave trade at the source, and later, missionaries, the introduction of cocoa, and moving toward national independence. In America, her characters experience slavery, the Underground Railroad, Jim Crow, northern migration, Harlem. While all of this is as epic as a Michener novel in its scope, it doesn’t feel the weight of all that history because each chapter is a very personal story of one person in the genealogy, focused on their personal hopes, desires, frustrations, and achievements. It’s really a series of short stories linked by ancestry, and the stories are told in beautiful prose that captures the language patterns and feel of each person’s place and time, and with a lovely whiff of magical realism. I was not surprised to read that the author has mentioned Gabriel Garcia Marquez as one of her inspirations. There is some wonderful imagery around fire and the ocean. In one passage describing how evil has touched a whole family, a character explains that evil is like a net cast wide by a fisherman who keeps the fish he wants and puts the rest back, but even the released fish are no longer the same because they know they were not free. As a genealogist, I was especially intrigued by this fictional genealogy because it illustrates the many distinct challenges of tracing African-American roots, where for various reasons a person might not have known who their grandparents were, or sometimes even their parents. Gyasi’s beautiful book imagines a fantastic genealogy, making magical sense of the complexities she grew up with.

Friday, June 15, 2018

FOOD: Tatsu Ramen

On a stretch of Sawtelle in West LA you can find dozens of Japanese restaurants with different specialties, one right next to another, up to six in a row in one strip mall. Of course there are places to get ramen. Today I tried the much-vaunted Tatsu. There was a line of people waiting, but this place processes people with Tokyo efficiency, starting with iPads on the sidewalk for automated self ordering, followed by text messaging to let you know when a table is available. I went for a bowl of “Old Skool” ramen, with slices of pork, woodear mushrooms, and green onions, all in a rich tonkotsu broth. The richness of the broth is a testament to the hours and hours that they boiled the pork bones. The noodles are thin but chewy and with a wheaty flavor, almost slightly undercooked, but that’s the traditional way it’s made in Fukuoka. I slurped up every last drop.


Friday, June 08, 2018

FOOD: Ostrich Farm

Lovely evening sharing a favorite new neighborhood restaurant with a new friend. Ostrich Farm really showcases the wonderful produce we get at our local farmers markets, along with a few things they grow in their own garden, in fresh light preparations, doing much on the grill. The little gem salad is crisp and fresh, with small shavings of fennel, large shavings of pecorino, thinly sliced watermelon radishes for color and spice, and bits of fresh dill, lightly dressed. Artichokes are grilled with preserved lemon. Grilled prawns are served on a generous heap of fava beans. Long thin asparagus is lightly grilled, topped with panko gremolata and capers. Deeply roasted carrots are topped with labneh and a pesto made from the carrot tops. A spring risotto is generously filled with chopped vegetables. And the Pacific salmon with its satisfying hearty grill marks is served on a spring succotash of corn, zucchini, and red pepper. In one departure from current trends, the portions here are rather generous. The “plates” are almost too much for one person, and even the “small plates” give plenty to share. So it’s good to bring a friend or two. For dessert we just shared the Eton mess, a jar filled with blackberries, lemon curd, chunks of baked meringue, and whipped cream.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

FOOD: 71Above

We have a fun Christmas tradition with our friends Chris and Carol where we gift each other with a fabulous dinner sometime in the next year. This means we get a good excuse to spend time together, to enjoy great dining, and celebrate Christmas several times a year. Win win win. Last night, we enjoyed such a “Christmas dinner” at 71Above – the stylish space with exquisite food and breathtaking views from the top of the US Bank Tower (the highest if not officially the tallest tower on the LA skyline). This was a great addition to the upper-end DTLA scene when it opened nearly two years ago. Chef Vartan Abgaryan (formerly at Cliff’s Edge) makes creative modernist takes on local ingredients, symphonies of flavor plated like works of art. We started with bubbly rose and an amuse bouche of three colorful and creative bites, including cucumber with sumac and passionfruit, and a lipstick radish with a dollop of soft cheese and ground pistachio. The hearty crusty wheat bread was warm and delicious, always a good harbinger. Our windowside table, looking east and north, overlooked downtown, the lights of Dodger Stadium, and the vast city stretching out in the distance. We started around 7pm, so enjoyed the last soft patches of sunlight and then watched the city transform into a jewel box nightscape as the evening went on. The menu is a prix fixe three-course dinner. Of course with four of us, we could share bites of different things. Our first courses included a fine gazpacho with thin slices of sour plum and cucumber; squash blossoms stuffed with rice, peanuts, and charred scallions with poblano chile and coriander; and oysters poached in champagne with fresh uni, caviar, and a tarragon leaf. Our second courses included a risotto with arugula, nettles, and preserved lemon, dramatically presented with sunflower petals around a center of ground olives; asparagus in black garlic honey and pea puree, with snap peas and pea tendrils; an almost dessert-like fois gras on brioche with macadamia, cocoa nibs, blueberry, and tarragon; and a handkerchief pasta with golden beets, goat cheese, and a pistachio pesto. Our third courses included spring lamb rack, loin, and croquette made from other lamb cuts with red walnuts and raisins; New York steak with a celery root bone marrow puree and onion jus; diver scallops with white asparagus and shaved fennel. Desserts included a coconut custard with tapioca pearls, puffed sweet basil rice, toasted coconut, young soft coconut meat, and matcha sorbet (like a modernist take on buko pie); a pistachio paste with pistachio sorbet and a colorful circus tent of white chocolate, cassis, and lemon cremeaux; and a caramel milk chocolate structure with a Sydney Opera House of hazelnut brittle, butterscotch shortbread, cocoa meringue, and brown butter hazelnut ice cream. In all, a fantastic evening of great food and great company. (See complete set of food pics here.)

Friday, May 25, 2018

FOOD: Manuela

Wonderful dinner downtown catching up with some old friends. We met at Manuela, a restaurant typifying the explosion of creative energy that is the DTLA Arts District. An old grain mill taking up an entire city block has been transformed into a Hauser & Wirth Gallery complex, with Manuela as a restaurant opening onto a central open courtyard. One side of the courtyard has been planted as the herb and vegetable garden for the restaurant, and the home for the chickens to provide fresh eggs. The old brick walls of the inside of the restaurant provide an organic extension of the art gallery to showcase rotating art displays. The food is Los Angeles farm- and dock-to-table, but with a Southern accent. Having just met the chickens, the deviled eggs are a must to start, yolks whipped with buttermilk and dill with a dash of red pepper on top. A cucumber sour cocktail (Hendricks gin, cucumber, parsley, egg white) was just the right note to toast Memorial Day weekend. “Barbecued” oysters were cooked just barely enough to melt the light dusting of Parmesan breadcrumbs while the oysters still tasted fresh and briny. Arugula with goat cheese and spiced pecans made a bed for the early peaches and cherries that are already in the market. Hot, light-as-air flaky cream biscuits, served on a board with mandoline-thin slices of country ham (like Virginia lardo), and honey butter, all together melting on the tongue with divine lightness. Most dishes here are quite conducive to sharing, so fortunately with four of us, we could get a good selection of the many great offerings. Local yellowtail was perfectly grilled with the tasty char of grill lines on the skin, served with tender young snap peas, green garlic, and shallots. A Peads & Barnett pork collar was beautifully charred on the outside and tender inside, rubbed with caramelized shallots, large-grain mustard, and a bit of rosemary. Diver scallops were butter-browned to light crispness on the outside, served atop grits with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and little chunks of bacon. Roasted cauliflower was lightly sweetened and brightened with date vinegar and almonds. As the menu says, “you ain’t done yet”. For dessert, a rich chocolate torte came with popcorn ice cream and popcorn (cause who doesn’t like sweet and salty), and some light-as-air churritos came with a dulce de leche dipping sauce. Wonderful food, wonderful company, wonderful way to start the holiday weekend. (See complete set of food pics here.)

Jaffa, Kenneth Hahn Park Views, and Marilyn Sanders' Fierce Flowers

“Modern Israeli” is the latest flavor to hit the LA restaurant scene, and Jaffa on 3rd St is a prime new example. If you get to Jaffa early, as I did, you might have to wait a few extra minutes for the lavosh to finish baking, but you’ll be glad you did. The fresh-baked flatbread – warm, spongy, with browned spots, and good bready flavor – makes a perfect wrap for the cornucopia of Israeli flavors, generally including a base of Israeli salad (chopped greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, red onion), tahini (sesame purée), zhug (a Yemenite condiment of hot peppers ground up with coriander), and pickles. I tried the “sabich” which featured thinly sliced and crisped eggplant, hard-boiled egg, hummus, and mango amba (a middle-Eastern savory chutney). It had a nice fresh crunch against the soft bread, with different bits of the complex flavors popping up in different bites. The accompanying taboulleh was a very fresh tasting variety of finely chopped greens with bulgur wheat in a citrus and light oil dressing. Oh, and that Jaffa shake! Made with almond milk and tahini (maybe with bits of halveh?) and dates, with a drizzle of date syrup on top. The space is lovely too. (I wish I’d taken a picture before it got busy and it felt invasive to get a good scene shot.) There’s a covered sidewalk patio area, but even the inside is largely opened up, with two oversize windows with opened shutters and tables creatively built into the sill, so that some people are literally sitting in the window. The décor palate is mostly light/white and wood, with bold blue water glasses on every table and blue bottles here and there adding a nice color pop, and fun blue and white irregularly shaped dishes.

After lunch, I went to check out the Kenneth Hahn Park, atop the Baldwin Hills, where I’d heard they have great views over the whole LA basin. It seemed a lovely day for it, with just enough clouds to be scenic but not obscure the views. Indeed it was a rewarding vista easily earned with a short hike. While I didn’t find a complete 360-degree spot, I did find one spot I could stand and take in at least 270 degrees, from Palos Verdes due south all across the Santa Monica Bay to the west, the Hollywood Hills to the north and around to the downtown LA skyline. It is amazing what you can see. Need to get back here with my real camera, as the iPhone doesn’t do it justice. I could see much of Catalina Island beyond Palos Verdes, and not just in silhouette. I could see the distinctive Googie “theme restaurant” at LAX, and watch planes landing and taking off. I could see the entire bay out to Point Dume. It is a marvelous vista of this vast and vibrant city.

Descending from the park, I headed to the Fabrik Projects gallery on La Cienega, to see a Marilyn Sanders photography exhibit called The Ferocity of Flowers. The flowers in these striking photos are very recognizable, yet she makes you see them in new ways. Normally, color is one’s dominant impression of flowers, but these photos are all sepia tone or silver gelatin prints. Without color, one is drawn instead to contemplate their shape and structure, and the way that light plays on them. On many of these, the play of light is fascinating, as it is sometimes direct, sometimes reflected, sometimes backlit translucence, or all of those interacting at once. Translucence and reflection illuminate shape and structure in unexpected ways. The other thing that makes these photos intriguing is the scale. She gets very close, closer even than the usual flower macro shot, creating an intimacy and an altered sense of proportion. Some of those pistils and stamens looked like something I could reach out and dance with. Some of the petals looked like a surface I could imagine sliding on or climbing. In one shot of lilies, a light source from behind creates a thin glow along the edge of the petal, the way one might see the first glow of dawn breaking over giant sand dunes in the Sahara. I wanted to ascend it. Beautiful and fascinating.

See the complete set of photos from this day here.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Dumplings, Highland Park, and Beyond The Streets


Today’s off-Friday exploration began at Mason’s Dumpling Shop, a new arrival in the increasingly happening Highland Park. These dumplings did not disappoint. The snow crab and pork soup dumplings had a delicate flavor that balanced both meats. The trick to soup dumplings, I learned today, is that the stock is chilled into a gelatinous aspic so it can be rolled up into a dumpling, and then the flavorful gel turns to soup when the dumpling is steamed. It is a test of chopstick skill to pick up the dumplings without piercing them and letting the soup spill out. Less delicate but even more flavorful were the pan-fried pork dumplings, spicy meat filling and the wrapper pleasingly browned and slightly crispy. I also had a seaweed salad with chili garlic dressing just to have a bit of green to go with my dough-and-meat fest.

After lunch, I took a walk along Figueroa, one of the two main streets of Highland Park. This neighborhood is reminding me of what Echo Park felt like 10 or 15 years ago. There’s a layered history of a part of town once fashionable, falling out, and starting to rise again. Liquor stores and pawn shops are starting to be replaced by hot new foodie spots, trendy coffee, record stores, barber shops, and even one combo record store / barber shop. Abandoned once-grand buildings that lined this stretch of the classic Route 66 are getting new life. Some classics, like the Highland Theatre, are alive again, and some of the Route 66 era kitsch, like a giant plaster “Chicken Boy” can still be seen. Just recently, the sidewalks were graced with a series of 14 tile mosaic murals depicting historic scenes of Highland Park, including the original Tongva indigenous people, the Rancho San Rafael land grant, the Ebell Club, and the Judson Studio (famous for its stained glass). There’s even one of the Highland Theater and Chicken Boy. Wanting a warm drink on this “May gray” day, I almost stopped into a hipster coffee house, but then a sign in Spanish on an older generation establishment caught my eye advertising atol de elote, a warm Guatemalan drink made from ground corn and sweetened milk. That hit the spot.

This survey of street art was a perfect prelude to my afternoon destination, an art exhibition called “Beyond The Streets”, just a couple miles down the arroyo in the industrial no-man’s land between Chinatown and Lincoln Heights. If you want to do an ambitious art installation that requires large sprawling spaces, a warehouse in this part of town seems to be the go-to spot. This provocative and at times immersive exhibit is all about street art and graffiti, including photographers who have chronicled street art, pop art inspired by graffiti, artists who grew up spray-painting walls and subway cars before moving to canvas and galleries, and even some actual graffiti. Parts of the show document “famous” graffiti and celebrate the anti-establishment attitude of the artists in a way that’s probably intentionally troubling to people like me who appreciate the artistry while also appreciating that there is a line where it crosses into vandalism. (Ironically, when you enter this exhibit, you are asked to explicitly state that you do not intend to damage or add to the art in any way, and you’re not allowed to bring in your own spray paint.) If you have any appreciation for pop art, you would enjoy this show, and some of the installations are truly impressive. Lee Quiñones, who became notorious for painting murals on schools and handball courts around New York City, has recreated one of his handball courts here, life size, and you’re free to play handball on it if you like. Several of the exhibits you can completely enter into, including a “gangsta garden”, an ironic version of a barrio strip mall church, a “temple” that reinterprets classic European sacred spaces, and recreation of the Venice Beach skateboarding pavilion that you’re welcome to skate on. Some exhibits were massive, such as a 30+ foot high wall that formed a large half circle, completely and intricately painted. Many were quite eye-popping, some amusing, some a bit challenging. I ended up spending three hours wandering this vast sprawling exhibition. It’s on through July 6, and then it heads to New York. Check it out! (See complete photo album here.)