52 Notes :: Valentine’s Quickies

52 Notes :: Valentine’s Quickies

I’m that person whose party gift lands on the table without a tag, requiring the recipient to look around sheepishly as she opens it to figure out the givee, me lifting my hand, apologizing for my lack of decorum with a grand smile, a gentle shrug. A few times, I’ve written my name on the top corner of the bag, practically having to etch the letters, the waxy paper not easily accepting of ink. I’m at least better than my husband, who once showed up to a friend’s wedding with our gift in a floppy gray plastic bag, the bold lettering of Bed, Bath & Beyond viewable from space. My bad for not picking something up early, forgetting I hadn’t purchased a gift as I helped the bride-to-be prep. A hard one but lesson learned – I no longer wanted to be that gifter. Five years ago, when the American Greetings store in the Cerritos Mall closed, I spent about fifteen bucks on 30 or so cards, a purchase meant to support my new habit of being ready to bid fond farewells, best wishes, and the happiest of birthdays to family and friends. My greeting card bonanza was to save me from my chronic lack of preparedness. At 70-90% off, I picked up cards for work birthdays, for congratulations, for condolences, for missing those who were far away (at the time, my oldest daughter  was preparing to leave for college in the fall). And I purchased a pair of Valentine’s Day cards for my husband, though we’d never really been the card-swapping type. 52 notes quickie valentine With the bulk of my collection to be used for work birthdays, I kept the bunch in my office so as to prevent burning a morning break with a trip to Ralph’s for a last minute purchase when someone asked if I’d remembered that it was so-and-so’s birthday. 52notes quickie valentine Problem was that I kept forgetting to pull out the non-work cards, leaving me with an obsolete stack of greetings, collecting dust on my bookshelf over the years, including the love cards for my husband. 52 notes february valentine And he didn’t get any of them this year either as it wasn’t until I’d spent five bucks at Target on a new card that I remembered the waning stash at work. But I did indeed send him a card – mailed it from Elm Street to Elm Street, stamp and everything, along with a Valentine’s card to my sweet parents far away in Stockton, and a birthday card for my hound loving UCLA homie, Tami. This lucky bunch can brag that they received full-priced greetings from me. Hopefully, I’ll find a use for my remaining, obscure bargain bin remains before the year is over, even the juvenile one for my youngest niece, who is now 16.

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Tasty Places :: Willie Jane

Tasty Places :: Willie Jane

Sometimes you don’t get to pick your restaurant; sometimes, it picks you.

I hadn’t intended on a Sunday supper in Venice, but late in the week I was happy to receive an invitation to a birthday dinner for one of my dearest friends. Wonderful as it was to have a bit of a getaway from the LBC to look forward to, the chance to try out a new restaurant was the real thrill. Right away, I googled the name, familiar to me for some reason – Willie Jane. Quickly I learned that it was another restaurant of Post & Beam‘s Govind Armstrong (I’m quite the fan), a freshly touted location serving what my birthday pal referred to as hipster soul food. Just before heading out that evening, I flipped through my restaurant notebook to add this spot when I noticed it was already in my book – starred!; and I couldn’t help but wonder how I could have forgotten about it. Perhaps Willie Jane knew I was coming. Maybe Willie Jane picked me.

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If I didn’t think I’d maim some flip-flopped pedestrian as I drove, I would’ve spent more time taking in in the bustle that is Venice’s Abbot Kinney Blvd. It’s a happening piece of street busy with beach goers, boutique shoppers, pressed juice drinkers, and satiated diners. It has presence. When Willie Jane finds me again, I’ll arrive early to check out its neighbors and to people watch; to purchase a plant from the garden next door, a place that adds life and delight to WJ’s lovely patio. The entire area is primed for savoring.

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Once there, I caught up with both old friends and new acquaintances, then settled in behind my plate, studying the menu in distress, stuck between a few choices. Thankfully, someone ordered a couple plates of sumptuous appetizers, including a crusty sourdough bread that I lathered with pimento cheese – why haven’t I been eating pimento cheese all my life? And it was here and then that I enjoyed likely the moistest, tastiest, most excellent cornbread ever whipped together. Really, it couldn’t help but be great with all the butter I painted on the first, then another slice. There would have been a third piece eaten but I was too slow. I might have cried about this but then the birthday girl arrived!

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With the merriment of the night, I was a little off my game, not taking a quick pic of the drink menu so I don’t recall the name of the cocktail I ordered once, then ordered again after sucking down the first one so easily. But you could taste the freshness of it; its sweet and herby simplicity, which made sense with Willie Jane harvesting produce from its own garden, the scratch-made culture of the place evident with even a cocktail. You can imagine how psyched I was becoming about my dinner plate.

The catfish ended up being my choice, a popular one among the table. Same with the macaroni and cheese side, but how could I go to a “hipster soul” Govind Armstrong place and not get the mac & cheese? And so glad am I that I did – rich, gooey, and breadcrumb topped, just how I like it. After finishing mine, I had to stop myself from taking a spoon to the plate of a dinner mate who stopped short on her macaroni, saying she was full, had to save room for dessert. If I knew her a little better, I would’ve gone for it.

The fish was pretty amazing too – breaded and softly fried, the fish buttery and moist. I’m only 80% sure that what rested underneath the fish was a polenta, but 0% remained once I got through. Yes, this was a no doggy-bag required night.

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The night ended sweetly with a few bites of a brownie sundae with caramel and peanut butter-filled chocolate balls, both elegant and decadent. Those at the table who’d gone with the prix fixe meal were lucky enough to be served WJ’s peach cobbler. I’m no cobbler girl, but I couldn’t help but sample someone’s crust, and just that made me want to get up a clap. So glad that everyone was in a sharing mood.

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Birthdays come and go, and as long as we keep living, all of us get to spend one every so often. But how wonderful is it to celebrate those we care about, tell them we love them, remember good times, and laugh about the silly gifts we decide to give them. And even more wonderful, to break bread with them, especially when that (crusty sourdough) bread comes from one of Govind Armstrong’s kitchens.

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Happy birthday, A!

Willie Jane
1031 Abbot Kinney Blvd. in Venice, CA

Sweet Spots :: Extraordinary Desserts

Sweet Spots :: Extraordinary Desserts

The last time I went to this place, I was on a diet. It was almost three years ago – I’d given up carbs in want of a quick slim down that didn’t require physical activity (during what I call my sedentary years). As proud as I was to resist letting anything at San Diego’s Extraordinary Desserts touch my lips (with the exception of a few sips of cold water), the concoctions lining their display have shown up in my daydreams and fantasies ever since.

Last weekend when I was in San Diego once again to celebrate my 2nd oldest’s 21st birthday – remind me to bring up the nose ring later if I forget; actually, I won’t forget – I was once again in the middle of a no/low-carb thing in preparation for my Vegas trip. However, the birthday girl earlier wanted Italian and I was so close to vacation that I figured I might as well eat like I was on vacation; and even if I managed to lose another pound or so before getting to MGM’s lazy river, my bikini wouldn’t know the difference. So I said what the heck, and got the fam to head a few blocks away from our lunch spot in Little Italy to Extraordinary Desserts.

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It’s a good thing there’s no place like this near the LBC – otherwise, I might get the hankering to quit my civil service job and fill out an application to wait tables or work behind the bar; that way I’d have daily access to incredible (extraordinary) sweets with a discount. And booze too!

It was hard to make a selection once we were seated. I’m not a chocolate person. But I am a chocolate CAKE person. Because of this fact, I finally opted for a slice of their Viking cake based on looks alone. All I noticed were stacked layers of dark brown cake. Little did I realize the chocolate creme brulee and milk chocolate cream padding these layers, nor the crushed chocolate almond praline crust pushed into the frosting. It was ridiculously decadent and effervescent and palatable and crunchy-smooth if there’s such a thing. It was truly a sensual experience. We probably could have used a room, my cake and I.

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Also tasty were my husband’s Dulce de Leche cheesecake – with caramelized pecan edges, a hint of sea salt, and whipped cream – and the birthday girl’s berries and ice cream (not the raciest choice for a 21st birthday, but it fit her; she did enjoy her first official, card-wielding drink at ED, a sangria made at the bar; as a non-wine person, she was a little disappointed at the taste so I had to explain the complexities of true sangria; how the fruit sits and ferments a bit with the alcohol from a liqueur, which isn’t commixed with the wine until later, along with a clear fizzy soda and a sweetener; she was likely only half-listening).

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Now about the nose ring. Those two words coupled  together usually don’t cause any bother for me – people should feel free to pierce any ol’ hunk of cartilage they’d like. But when my husband and I picked up our new 21-year old to find her with not a teeny sparkingly nugget pierced delicately through one nostril, but rather a thick and rounded rod of metal reminiscent of something you might find on a bull drilled through her nasal septum, we got a little itchy. We were honest about our initial dislike (in particular, our 11-year old). We did our best to look away, to avert our eyes. But it’s her nose and she’s been an adult now for three years. And, as she told us several times, she could always tuck it in (ewwww!).

I’ll get used to it, I’m sure (though I don’t think my hub will anytime soon).

At least there were desserts.

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Extraordinary Desserts in San Diego’s Little Italy
and one other location
1430 Union Street

Sweet Spots :: Duff’s Cakemix

Sweet Spots :: Duff’s Cakemix

I’d heard that it was way overpriced. I’d read that the cakes weren’t delicious – dry and crumbly and lacking flavor. Some reviewers on sites I checked out called the staff inattentive and unfriendly, questioned the store’s sense of customer service. Yet, I hauled my birthday kid and her friends to West Hollywood anyway to give them the chance to decorate cakes in the studio helmed by television’s Ace of Cakes star Duff Goldman – Duff’s Cakemix.

Even before leaving Long Beach, I knew at least one of the sentiments about the do-it-yourself cake shop was true – the place isn’t cheap. But for a special occasion, I didn’t mind overspending, especially if it meant I didn’t have to clean up afterward.

Regardless of word on the street (that being the information super highway), this place is fun! Sure, there was disappointment in myself that I hadn’t arrived with an idea in mind for my cake, which made choosing colors, shapes, and sprinkles a bit of a chore; but still – whenever I get into that artsy dimension, I bubble over with endorphins.

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Really, it wasn’t about me – it was about my daughter and her friends, who weren’t just high off the sprinkles and fondant but the energy in the place, which started with the staff. Perhaps the crabby, snappy ones complained about by others were off the day we went. Or had been fired or were taking their meds; those we dealt with were nothing but pleasant and helpful. And patient, as my pre-teen crew was composed of dancers who among them did several hundred second turns on Cakemix’s polished cement floor.

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The biggest test for me was the taste – I waited until home for that, not wanting to show the disappointment (or disgust) on my face should I hate it. I made the mistake of leaving my cake in the warm car when dropping off one of the girls, and when I opened it up to show her mother, I’d found that the top layer had slid off. After trying to repair it, I had no choice but to lick my fingers and was thrilled to taste the non-cloying, buttery frosting. After fixing it as best as I could, I placed my cake in the fridge to help it set some but could only wait about ten minutes before cutting a slice. Perhaps my palate is unrefined, unable to identify a terrible and drab cake when it meets one, but I quite enjoyed my red velvet treat from Cakemix. Expensive, yes – but you can’t put a price on some experiences. Actually, you can – but this was a price I happened to be willing to pay this particular day.

If you ever do the same, know that the place gets busy on the weekends. You can make a reservation, or take advantage of discount prices during their weekday happy hours. But do go, with a goal of creating, rolling, squeezing, and just going for it.

Duff’s Cakemix
8302 Melrose in LA

Tasty Places :: The Crow Bar

Tasty Places :: The Crow Bar

It wasn’t exactly a Ladies Who Dine, but may of the Ladies joined me in my favorite hobby (the fine art of dining out) in celebration of my birthday.

Pre-dinner toast
Pre-dinner toast

We decided to venture south to beautiful Corona del Mar, sitting down at The Crow Bar and Kitchen, a gastropub along the area’s E. Coast Highway. Reservations would have been smart, but I’d like to say that our charm and style scored us a sweet table in the bar area (actually, we just got lucky; and one in our party was quick to grab the seats right as a group packed it up and left), helping us avoid an hour wait.

Nestled in Corona del Mar
Nestled in Corona del Mar

We began the night with drinks, my mojito coming in at fifteen bucks. But it was a $15 well spent (by the homie Mario – gracias!) as it packed all the alcohol I would need for the evening (the bartender warned to take it down slowly). It was so delicious and potent that I forgot to take a picture of it; but I know all (seven) of you Dianderthal readers are going to head down to The Crow Bar anyways to see for yourselves, as you do with all my Tasty Places, right?

Dinner was like Grace (AMAZING!). With six of us, I had quite the selection to sample. My favorite had to be the duck fat fries and the mussels (a complimentary order from the owner – he was super nice! – maybe we WERE a charming bunch). I also would make the 35 minute trip (without traffic) back in a hurry simply for the sweet potato fries, served with an unforgettable sauce that I neglected to ask about.

Who knew what duck fat could do to fries?
Who knew what duck fat could do to fries?
Deviled eggs
Deviled eggs
Blackened local halibut burger
Blackened local halibut burger
Beer steamed Carlsbad mussels
Beer steamed Carlsbad mussels
Roasted brussel sprouts
Roasted brussel sprouts
Skillet mac n' cheese
Skillet mac n’ cheese
Vidalia onion rings
Vidalia onion rings
The Crow Burger
The Crow Burger
Beer braised natural short ribs
Beer braised natural short ribs

All in all, not a bad way to celebrate my birthday. Really, there was nothing bad about The Crow Bar. It was absolutely tasty and fabulous. Would love to make my way there again one of these days. Luckily, I have a small box of leftovers to tide me over for another day or so.

The Crow Bar and Kitchen
2325 E. Coast Highway
Corona del Mar, CA 92625

Tasty Places :: Farrell’s Ice Cream

Tasty Places :: Farrell’s Ice Cream

It was just for a birthday party. An 11-year-old’s birthday party – my reason for hopping on the freeway to Brea, a city I’d only heard of before, legends about its fantastical mall. There was a wait, yes. We were a party of a dozen so that was to be expected. But apart from us, there was a line outside, people waiting patiently alongside the window, behaving themselves within the constraints of the retractable bands. For ice cream? I wondered to myself. How good could this place be?

What a sight!

Once I stepped through the door, it was like walking into 1977, when I enjoyed my 5th birthday at a shined up little ice cream parlour at the Weberstown Mall (that’s in Stockton, if you don’t know). I love getting that warm, nostalgic feeling, especially when not expecting it. All I’d planned for was the rote version of “Happy Birthday” and a conventional restaurant plate. Instead, I got over-the-top desserts, clever takes on the birthday song, tasty entrees, and, of course, ICE CREAM!

Slugger Hangerbers (Junior Menu)
The crew at work
On deck, creamy deliciousness
Chili Cheese Frank
Fabulous French Dip
Bruschetta Pizza
Chopped Cobb
Farrell’s Classic Sundae

Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour
Several Southern California Locations