From Linda Ronstadt and Robert Redford to James Galway and Robin Williams: The Box of Interview Tapes

 

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When Gary Shandling died recently, I found myself thinking about his wonderful The Larry Sanders Show. But then,suddenly, Hey, didn’t I interview him? popped into my brainpan. I was a busy boy back then doing the journalism thing, and writing about the famous, semi-famous and not-quite-yet famous at such a rapid clip that I moved on quickly to the next. Had I really interviewed Shandling, or was that some celebrity fever dream?

That’s when I remembered the big plastic box of cassette and micro-cassette interview tapes that I hadn’t been able to part with. I found the box and pulled off the lid. Stacks of tapes stared back, more than 100 of them. Would Shandling be in there? I’d have to burrow in to find out.

Right on top were cassettes labeled “Ronstadt,” and that set my mind wandering back to a 1980s sit-down with the well-famous singer. It had occurred in the office of her manager, Peter Asher, which was on Doheny Drive in West Hollywood right around the corner from The Troubadour, the seminal music club where Linda had started her climb to renown. I had seen her perform there, barefoot on stage, several times. In the interview, I remember her telling me that she had moved to Marin County in Northern California and had a cow there named Luna. She was dating some governor. Some things you never forget.

Here are other memories from those old tapes:

  • There was Mil Batten, former New York Stock Exchange chairman. I sat in his huge Wall Street office in while the amiable West Virginian shared his views on many subjects. One was the impending breakup of AT&T, intended to erase its monopoly status and increase competition. Worst idea ever, Batten said. Why? Because the “Baby Bells” produced by the breakup would inevitably coalesce over time to form other near-monopolies, he said. That, of course, is exactly what happened. And one of them is now named AT&T.
  • I picked up a cassette labeled Robert Redford and recalled that we had once compared backgrounds–he wanted to hear about me first before talking about himself–and found that we had both lived as kids in Los Angeles’s Beverly Glen Canyon. Then I smiled and remembered that the actor and director had later called me at home to fill in some gaps in our discussion. My wife Patti picked up the phone and  asked the name of the person calling for me, and when she heard “Bob” Redford was on the line, the look on her face was as if she had just heard the word of God. It was a priceless moment.
  • I met Quincy Jones for lunch at at a favorite restaurant of his, Wolfgang Puck’s Chinoise in Santa Monica. The music producer did talk about his projects, including one with Michael Jackson, but mostly he talked about food.
  • When Esa-Pekka Salonen came to California as new music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, I was the first writer to interview the Finnish conductor and composer. He had barely gotten off the plane from Finland when I picked him up after a rehearsal at UCLA, and while I drove him to the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles I thought it would be funny to welcome him to Los Angeles by playing the Monty Python song honoring his homeland. It begins: Finland, Finland, Finland; Pony Camping or Trekking; Or just watching TV; Finland, Finland, Finland; It’s the country where I want to be.  He had never heard it. I thought it would be hilarious. He didn’t agree.
  • My dubious inspiration for interviewing blue-eyed soul singer Boz Scaggs was to go on a saloon crawl with him in San Francisco, where he lived. It devolved into a long night of hopping between drinking establishments, in one of which we met a genial biker who told us he had that day changed his name legally to Joe Dirte’, pronounced Dir-tay. A couple stops later, after an unfortunate encounter for Joe in the Balboa Cafe, he ended up stuffed rear-first into a trash can, both legs and arms poking out. That’s where we left Joe, grinning up at us.
  • David Geffen has a fearsome reputation for ruthless business practices, but the billionaire music and film business entrepreneur has never been anything but cordial to me. Once we met for a luncheon interview in his Beverly Hills mansion, which he told me was actually rented from actress Marlo Thomas. His staff served us pork ribs, I recall, and afterward he promised that he’d always take my call. I’m keeping that in my back pocket until I need investors for my next can’t-miss inspiration.
  • For decades, Steve Allen was admired as a nonstop creative force in television, publishing and songwriting. His output was so prodigious it was easy to imagine he had little need for sleep. But the most surprising thing he told me was that he was worthless unless he had 10 hours of sleep every night.
  • Once I went on a road trip with the Los Angeles Lakers, during which I learned how boring such multi-city jaunts really were–grinding travel and hotel time punctuated by a few hours of game, usually every other day. In Atlanta, some players used the down time to go to a shoe store patronized by many NBA players. I remember Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and teammate Gail Goodrich sitting on the edge of a baggage carousel playing chess. During a team shoot-around on a practice court in Cleveland, I found an unused basket and was throwing up a few awkward baskets when I felt a presence behind me. When I turned around it was Kareem, staring down and me and shaking his head sadly.
  • Robin Williams always seemed a hyperkinetic whirlwind of energy and quips, as he was on the set of Mork and Mindy while I watched the show’s taping prior to our interview afterward. But when I was shown into his trailer later, Robin was slumped in a chair, exhausted. He was perfectly pleasant, but it seemed draining for him to simply answer questions, much less crack jokes. His performances exacted a tremendous toll.
  • Before I knew better, I assumed that classical music artists were serious and solemn even when not playing for an audience. James Galway set me straight about that. I met the flutist from Northern Ireland on board the long-gone small French ship Renaissance during a remarkable two-week classical music cruise in the Caribbean. Galway was one of the solo artists, who also included Daniel Barenboim,  Maurice Andre’ and Gidon Kremer. The entire English Chamber Orchestra was also on board. From the first lunch at a big round table with several of the musicians, it was clear that classical artists knew how to kick back. One night gathered in a cabin and fueled by multiple bottles of good Champagne, Jimmy, Daniel and a few others grabbed their instruments and engaged in an impromptu jam session. I never looked at classical music the same way again.
  • Before I met Tom Waits in the seedy West Hollywood motel he called home, I thought the singer-songwriter-actor’s down-and-out persona was calculated. But I changed my mind when I entered his disheveled ground-floor apartment, carpeted from wall to wall in crushed beer cans. Pushed against one wall was the battered upright piano on which he composed such bleary paeans to drinking and disappointment as Closing Time and The Heart of Saturday Night. Even that distinctive gravel growl was authentic. When we went for a late-night drive in his pink Cadillac convertible many hours later, I understood how wrong I had been.
  • I didn’t know it at the time, but English artist David Hockney lived very close to us in the Hollywood Hills, our mutual canyon immortalized in his Nichols Canyon. It was close enough that I could walk to my interview with the acclaimed painter and collage artist. He couldn’t have been more pleasant. He let me into his house and introduced me to his beloved dachshund Stanley. He showed me his high-ceiling studio with its north-facing windows and unfinished works scattered around. We sat next to his backyard pool, its bottom painted in those trademark squiggles, and talked of California and England, of fame and privacy, of creative energy and ennui.

Yes, along with many others, Gary Shandling was there, too. I had interviewed him. But I can’t tell you a thing about it. Some things you never forget. Others you just can’t remember.

 

 

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A fish by any other name is simply a flounder

??????????It became a game, after a few days, between the pool grill cooks and I. Before lunch pretty much every day I would expectantly wander over and ask what was today’s fresh fish. The first full day out of Fort Lauderdale, a sea day, I was told  it was red snapper, and the filets resting on ice looked like it—the red-tinted skin on one side the tell. Simply grilled, it tasted like the genuine article too, delicious, sweet, too, served with a little green salad. Perfect, in fact.

After that, the game was on. “What’s the fish today? I would ask.

“Flounder,” said the cook the next day. On subsequent days came “ocean perch,” “hake,” “tilapia,” “haddock.”

What emerged after a few days of fish roulette is that each one of these different fishes looked and tasted pretty much the same. Perhaps telling was that none of the filets had skin on one side. They were fine, white and mild tasting, but only a fish expert could tell them apart.

One day, intrigued for no other good reason but ennui, I reverted to basic journalism practice and consulted more than one source. “What is the fish today?” I brightly asked the grill cook.

“Flounder,” he announced, and I smiled my humble thanks.

But when we took a table, I asked the waiter what today’s fish was. “Ocean perch,” he said.

I couldn’t imagine what might account for this fishy discrepancy, so I stepped over to the grill again and asked the cook—it was none other than the executive sous chef—and asked him if he was sure the fish in front of him and which I was about to eat was in fact flounder.

“Oh yes,” he said in accented English. “Flounder is a flat fish,” he said, patting his palms together horizontally so I could understand what “flat” meant. “In German we call it flunder.”

Well, that was that. Teutonic reasoning had triumphed. If “flounder” could be explained in German, it existed. And it was being served today. Any other questions?

 

 

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SCARJO IN ST BARTS? OR JUST THE GALOIS CLOUDING THE BRAIN?

??????????We weren’t sure what we wanted to do in Gustavia, the second port of the cruise following San Juan a day earlier. It’s the little main town of rocky, hilly small Saint Barthelemy, usually abbreviated to St. Barths or St. Barts, and a favorite of mega-millionaire yachters and lay-about Eurotrash working on whittling down the family fortune. Yes, I mean it’s expensive.

Even with the prices, it’s our favorite island too, intensely French in all ways, including the unreasonably good food, smoky bistros, and haughty attitudes that can put off some, but not us. It’s also a difficult place to navigate, all up and down on narrow roads, with cove beaches scattered between rocky points.

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We’d been here several times before, both off cruise ships and twice to stay at small tony hotels, the aptly named Le Toiny, a 20-minute scooter ride from Gustavia, and Emerauld Plage, on the long beach of St. Jean Bay. This is where I suggested we go, not only because of the topless windsurfing, but because it is a short taxi ride from town, the swimming is terrific, and Le Plage at Tom Beach is one of the best beach restaurants in the world. Silver Shadow wasn’t to sail until 11 at night, so there would be no need to rush back to the ship. Even with $30 beef tartar, I figured we could have a nice long afternoon of swimming and some food and rose’ for $100. Okay, maybe $200. But it would be worth it—if we could squeeze our way in without a reservation in high season.

On the other hand, we’d always liked to walk around the harbor around to tiny Shell Beach, which almost nobody knows how to find and is never crowded. Getting there is a 15-minute stroll around the harbor, along the way gawking at the multi-million-dollar yachts tied up in a stunning display of arrogant wealth, turn left on Victor Hugo, then left again at a little school, and there it is. It doesn’t cost a Euro, and we could tender back to the ship for a nice lunch on deck.

??????????That’s what Patti wanted to do, mostly because her friend Vicky was on the island and they had arranged to have a drink around six and L’Oubli, a smoky open air bar in the heart of Gustavia. Her point: Multiple 20-minute tender rides might take all the fun out of the day.

That’s what we did. Tendered in after the tours had left to swim and snorkel at Shell Beach for an hour or so, and a walk back to the quay to catch a tender for an alfresco fish lunch onboard. On the way back we noted that L’Oubli was exactly where we remembered it, and even sent a picture of it to Vicky so she would be sure where to meet later. Once again, we shook our heads in wonder at the size and magnificence of the yachts, until I noticed a tall, blonde young woman with full, violently red lips and clad entirely in white slowly walking her way toward us with a beatific smile on her face. I looked at her as she passed us in the other direction and she gazed languidly at me gazing at her. Then she was gone.

 

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“She looked like ScarJo to me,” I said to Patti.

“Who,” she said.

“You know,” I said. The actress.  Scarlett Johansen.”

“Well, I suppose it could be, with all these yachts and money around,” she said.

I thought she looked exactly  like her, except she was quite tall, and I never imagined ScarJo tall.

We had lunch on the ship and went out again around four so we could poke around the chic shops that lined the quay, and the even more chic people who hopped off scooters and raced around as the French tend to do. We got to our open-air bar a little early, ordered a beer and a rose’, and did some serious people-watching  from our table next to the intersection of Rue de la Republic and Rue de la France.

Then, there she was again—our tall young blonde young all in a white—but a different  outfit—strolling with her languid walk and firetruck-red lipstick, walking past and pleasantly  but vacantly gazing at those she passed. It was too perfect and too perfect a mystery. Would ScarJo keep walking town smiling at passersby? All day?

“It can’t be her,” Patti said.

And I agreed.

“Could it be that she’s modeling for a boutique?” I said.

“You mean some kind of subtle French advertisement,” Patti said, considering.

“We haven’t seen her handing out any cards or doing anything to lure people to a store,” I said.

Extremely subtle,” she said.

“Should we follow her and see if she leads us to an explanation?” I said.

“We’re meeting Vicky,” Patti said. “Remember?”

I might have sulked a bit, but only a bit. But we had lazily sipped as the French do, making our drinks last an hour or so, and Vicky had not shown. And it was already past six.

“Should we have another drink?” I asked.

“I guess so,” Patti said. “Vicky is always punctual, she has a car, and she’s coming from just a few miles away.  She’ll be here. She can’t miss us here, right on the street in the center of town.”

So we got another beer and a wine. But half an hour later Vicky hadn’t shown, it was almost dark, and we decided to give up on her. And then there she was again, the ScarJo facsimile floating past, in yet another white outfit, smiling beatifically through lips redder than ever at everyone she encountered.

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A MONTH OF MARTINIS: BOA’S YETS AND MARTINIS GONE WRONG

We had a great time at Boa, the ultra-hip, ultra-expensive steakhouse on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. As it always is, the place was jammed with the preening and parading set I call YETS—young entitled tattooed spenders. (I couldn’t trademark the acronym, so go ahead and steal it.) It was the same crowd that had surrounded us a few weeks ago on Maui at the wonderful new Andaz at Wailea. Waves of pure cool radiate from them–you almost have to shield your eyes.  If you haven’t noticed, understand that YETS are the new prime demographic, openly pursued by all. They are the free-spending fedora-wearing guests the hotel wants. They are the super-cool stilettoed patrons Boa depends on.

Anyway, Boa’s standard clientele didn’t detract from the superb steaks and fine service. This is my terrific New York Strip.

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What did detract, however, was how my martini was served. I specified Hendrick’s gin with a few drops of vermouth, stirred, with a lemon twist. When my cocktail finally arrived (slow was understandable if not optimal because we were a table of five, each with a specific drink order) it was presented in a small carafe with an empty glass—and no twist. The server instantly recognized that the twist was missing and promised to rectify the oversight posthaste, but poured my martini from the little carafe anyway. He returned quickly with the missing twist, presenting it to me on a plate.

But the moment was lost. Proper imbibing depends on timing. I was forced to stare at my martini until he came back, then had to pick up the twist and attempt to wring a little lemon oil from it before plopping it in. Here it is, but you can see how far below the rim it is.

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But I got to thinking: What is the deal with the carafe anyway? Is it supposed to be an elegant and sophisticated way to serve cocktails? Is it intended to make it easier on servers who otherwise would have to handle the admittedly precarious task of delivering filled-to-the-brim cocktails? Does the mob control the carafe trade? Here’s one of them from my home museum showing how little of the cocktail glass its contents fill.

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The more I thought about it the worse the carafe idea seemed. A cocktail poured into one means it loses some of its chill to the carafe, and then more of it when it is re-poured into a room temperature glass. Most of all, however, a carafe-delivered cocktail cannot avoid seeming like a short pour. I set out to test this theory, and as you can see here the standard cocktail carafe I used proves my point. It’s a short pour.

As a control, here is a martini of the proper heft and volume, served to me at The Palm. I rest my case.

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LE JOLIE AND ME: THE ZAP SESSIONS

This is a story about my new face. Well, not exactly new, but definitely improved.

It began, as far too many tales of mine do, at a bar. My friend Chris and I were seated of a late afternoon on adjacent barstools at the Studio City drinks establishment Spoonful.chriswangs2

Suddenly and without preamble Chris focused on my face. “You’ve got to get rid of those,” he said, examining the area of my right temple from a distance of inches.

“What?” I said, as if I didn’t know what he meant.

“Those spots.”

I knew. Sun and age marks on my face. And if a good friend like Chris just blurted it out, I could be assured that others noticed too.

A couple of months passed as I periodically looked in the mirror and considered what time and ill-advised pursuits—skiing all day as the sunblock eroded, playing in the waves as the sunblock washed off, tennis with no hat—had wrought.

Naturally Patti came to my rescue. She had discovered a new medical spa emporium, Le Jolie (yes, French for beauty), right down the hill from us, also in Studio City. One Sunday I sheepishly followed her inside, where the usual beauty-procedure chairs in an outer area caused the standard male-cringe reaction. Yikes! It looked exactly like a hair salon!

As we sat I observed the ranks of beauty creams and lotions nearby. Meanwhile a looped video of young women obviously not in need of any help at all played on a big flatscreen right in front of us.

Would my paintball buddies spy me in there? (No I do not have paintball buddies, or play paintball, but you get the idea.)

After a few minutes, Sharona Rafaeloff appeared, smiling and welcoming. She is the proprietor of Le Jolie, opened in March, and she has a decade’s worth of experience in things medi-spa in Beverly Hills, which is of course the center of the cosmetic-upgrade universe.

Then Sharona’s mom showed up, fresh from a meditation session in back. Mom is Parvaneh Rafaeloff, M.D., whose main medical practice is in Glendale. She grew up in Iran and the family endured an escape through Afghanistan in order to emigrate to America. She received her medical degree in Iran but trained further in the U.S. and served her residency at the Kaiser hospital in Los Angeles. Her fine steady hand was honed by executing Persian miniature paintings as a young girl. She does the procedures that require a physician. I would be her patient.

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After such initial chitchat, mother and daughter then gathered in front of me to stare at my face from several angles. I was ushered in back, where procedure rooms are stuffed with mysterious equipment. I was instructed to lie down on a surgical bed as Dr. Mom swabbed areas of my face with alcohol and then wielded a syringe to inject a numbing agent into several places. Not fun but not bad. I had my eyes closed.

Then came the heavy artillery in the form of the Hyfrecator 2000 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z8udqFWLyFU, an electrosurgery device that shoots electric current from its slender tip to vaporize unwanted bits. All I could think of was the arcing electricity in Frankenstein. And I was the monster.

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Dr. Mom is good at this. She worked fast while images of Sparky the unpredictable electric chair shot through my head. It didn’t hurt much. Much. What was disconcerting was the aroma of burning flesh. My flesh! I mentioned this. “You’re smelling the barbecue,” said Dr. Mom airily.

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There were two such zap sessions separated by a week, and then I was told I would need something called an acid peel to “even things out”. Meanwhile, my face had begun to shed brown swatches of skin. I did not yet look lovely.

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Then came the acid peel, applied by Dr. Mom from a container of honest-to-goodness acid sitting right there for everyone to see. For the sake of accuracy and from a safe distance, I observed what was written on its label: Trichloracetic Acid 50%. Clearly this was potent stuff, and yes it did burn, really burn. Mostly I bore my misery in manly silence, though a few whimpers may have leaked out.

After several minutes a series of cool patches was placed on my scorched skin. I was assured I looked just great, something not exactly confirmed by the picture Patti snapped. What I looked like was someone who should have had a tag on his toe.

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I’d like to quote Warren Zevon here: “Poor poor pitiful me.”

But guess what? A week later my face had pretty much peeled and healed. Most of those gnarly bits were gone. I was good as new, if by new we can agree that means much improved.

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I met for lunch with Chris the other day for the first time since my Le Jolie makeover and I displayed my upgraded face for him. I imagine Heidi Klum does this sort of thing on a daily basis, but in the surroundings of the Palm in West Hollywood it seemed a little out of place. He nodded with approval. Then I ordered a martini and he got a manhattan. Things were back to normal, though facially speaking it was a new normal for me.

Le Jolie Medi Spa, 13041 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, CA. 818-501-1114; www.LeJolieSpa.com.

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Filed under beauty and the beast, hyfrecator 2000, le jolie medi-spa, poor poor pitiful me, the skinny

WHEN MARTINIS JUST AREN’T ENOUGH: A LIME GIMLET WITH HAIR

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It was happy hour at Wolfgang’s Steakhouse in Beverly Hills, just the right time and place for what was, let’s say, a most unusual product demonstration. There were misconnections, a trio of Dicks, a bottle that walked out the door, an offer among adjacent barstool occupants of a Hollywood deal, and if I correctly recall, something close to fisticuffs. In other words, it was one of your usual saloon affairs, only in a smart atmosphere with sophisticated barflies in the middle of the upscale dining and shopping area of Beverly Hills.

But I dither.

We were finally situated in a corner of the bar there to test-drive EVOL, a new entry in the world of spirits that presents itself in a blackened bottle with a skull as a label.  In case you didn’t notice, and despite the biker imagery, that’s LOVE spelled backwards. It is a new 74-proof grain-based spirit emphatically flavored with clove and cinnamon conjured up by a pair of young entrepreneurs, “Baltimore” George Antonakas and Torrey James Ward. It is made in West Los Angeles in one of only two distilleries in the city. And lest you might think that EVOL is not good for you, know that it is organic, naturally flavored and made without sugar. Instead, it is sweetened with stevia. It was, in fact, the world’s first distilled spirit in that category.

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When I noted a passing similarity to certain other branded spirits, I was firmly advised that it was nothing like Fireball, the cinnamon-flavored whiskey, or Jagermeister, the sweet, flavored hootch favored in snowy settings and by younger tipplers. But let’s face it, I ventured, EVOL is aimed at a certain demographic, is it not, one that attends clubs when the rest of us are cleaning out the cat box or watching old movies in our Dr. Dentons? Well, kind of.

Things were going well, I thought, and soon Wolfgang’s head bartender Liam had been corralled for a demonstration. He put the establishment’s bottle of EVOL in front of us, the one brought for the purpose having disappeared in a blizzard of happenstance, poured a dram straight and waited for the tentative first sips. Pretty smooth. Definitely on the sweet side. Nice burn of decent alcohol content.  Brisk slap of clove and cinnamon.

But what cocktail might be made with it, Liam was asked. Perhaps a Manhattan? Foghorn-voiced Liam looked pained. No, he said, the sweet vermouth in the usual recipe would be supernumerary as would the bitters. What would be the point?

So Liam was set free to conjure a proper cocktail using EVOL. That turned out to be a nice little number with vodka, presumably to dilute the clove-cinnamon impact a megaton or so, and lime juice to mollify the sweetness. Not bad. Kind of a lime gimlet with hair.

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Then, the requisite product appreciation behind us, my feisty host and I repaired to our martinis. Where, face it, we were most comfortable. And, more or less, everyone survived.

www.evolspirits.com

 

What is EVOL? (Pronounced like ‘Evil’)

EVOL

is the world’s first sweet-tasting, sugar-free distilled spirit.

EVOL

is a spicy new, 74-proof artisanal distilled spirit that has more alcohol than its sugar-filled competitors, and it tastes great at room temperature.

EVOL

is a versatile, naturally flavored, organic libation that can be enjoyed as a shot, on the rocks, or in mixed drinks (mixologists love its endless possibilities).

EVOL’s

proprietary spice blend with hints of natural cinnamon and clove is intermingled with a gluten-free, sugar-free, Stevia-sweetened base to create an easy-drinking spirit that has no equal.

Who is EVOL?

EVOL

is handmade in beautiful Los Angeles, CA by Baltimore George and Torrey James Ward. After winning a poker tournament in Atlantic City, George decided to go all-in and start the EVOL Empire with his old friend Torrey. Two guys, with literally no experience in the alcohol industry, set out on the improbable journey to create “The Best Shot in the Bar.” Along the way, they decided to make EVOL sugar-free, so as to have a truly unique product and a competitive advantage in the marketplace. They never listened to anybody who told them that it couldn’t be done. The product you see before you is the result of years of hard work and dedication. George and Torrey truly hope you enjoy it, and they thank you for your support.

BE GOOD. Drink EVOL

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Filed under Beverly Hills, cocktails gone wild, drinks, Food/drink, Happy Hours, imbibing, manhattans, martinis, restaurants, the drinking life, When pigs fly

A Month of Martinis: The Madness in Palm Springs

thefallswangs2wangschriscitronps2We spent June in Palm Springs. If you know the California desert at that time of year, that turned out to be not such a hot idea. Take two. It was a very hot idea. The day it hit 114 made us wonder what had possessed us to do it.

It had seemed brilliant back in April. Coming up in L.A. was cool, often overcast June. It’s called “June Gloom” in these parts. Renting a place for a month in the desert, where it is reliably warmer but just 100 or so miles away, seemed like a smart move. Besides, the rates in the desert then are their lowest of the year.

It was a two-bedroom, two-bath condo at a small, almost-new complex called Villorrio. It was just a couple blocks from the center of Palm Springs. There was a 55-foot swimming pool steps from the front door and a rooftop patio with great views of the mountains. We invited friends, who came in waves from Seattle and San Francisco, flying right into the Palm Springs airport a five-minute drive away.

At first it was fine. Then the thermometer gradually began creeping up. The pool, big as it was, turned tepid. The air conditioning had a hard time keeping ahead of the heat. That rooftop patio became too hot to use, even at night.

Naturally, we turned for succor to the many of Palm Springs’ happy hours.

Now, “happy hour” in June in Palm Springs, which in some notorious cases begins at 11 in the morning and ends until last call, involves full-blown martinis for as little as $3. Maybe you don’t get top-shelf gin (Seagram’s seems to be the plonk of choice), but it’s decent.  It’s like getting an engraved invitation to AA.  Such serendipity is best approached carefully and with the understanding that the gates of hell are never far away.lulumartin2

Nonetheless, all involved threw themselves with enthusiasm into the effort, with mixed and still-uncertain results that may await the return of liver tests. The winners in our combined estimation included the happy hours held at Tropicale, Lulu, Kaiser Grill, The Falls and Frida’s. Wang’s in the Desert was thronged and cheap but, shall we say, a bit too…fevered. And when the fascination of a bustling happy hour waned, we went to quieter places like Citron at the Viceroy hotel. We never did get to some of the more corporate happy hours at Roy’s and Fleming’s. They were too far away in Rancho Mirage, and we had so many choices in our own back yard.riviera ps

The gates of hell were beginning to clank open when we decided to leave Palm Springs a few days before the end of our rental.  A high of 115 was predicted. Two hours later we were home in the Hollywood Hills, cool again at last, with no happy hours nearby.

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Filed under Bombay Sapphire, cocktails gone wild, drinks, Food/drink, gin, Happy Hours, imbibing, martinis, tanqueray, the drinking life

THE MADNESS OF COCKTAILS GONE WILD: A MONTH OF MARTINIS

pattiandchef Robb Lucaspattiandrichatkoi

Sometimes I think that I just don’t understand drinking any more.  This is despite vast experience in the matter, mind you.  What often passes for a cocktail today sounds more to me like an experiment in organic farming.  We have entered the age of Cocktails Gone Wild, and I don’t like it.

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For the record, what you see here is a proper cocktail—a straight-up Bombay Sapphire martini—immediately pre-consumption at Koi in Los Angeles.  It’s a restaurant that has done many things well for more years than is usual in L.A., cocktails among them. Here are some scenes of the scene there, with the tasty kobe beef crispy rice and an unidentified local pawing chef Robb Lucas.

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But back to those silly drinks.  Let me give a random example of CGW found while thumbing through a print publication called The Tasting Panel, which for some reason (fine, I know which reason) shows up in my snail mailbox regularly.  Smokin’ Irishman, reportedly served at a Manhattan Beach, California, establishment called American Farmhouse Tavern, is said to contain Jameson Irish whisky, peach nectar and elderberry liqueur; it is garnished with a bacon-wrapped spear of sugarcane; and finally it is “spritzed” with Glenlivet Scotch.

Huh? It sounds to me like something Gordon Ramsey should be reducing to tears.

There are more.  Oh, are there ever more, and they are not only confined to the stranger parts of the U.S.  The same magazine credited above reported on a place called Ruby in Copenhagen that muddles a cocktail using leafy green carrot tops.  No, not kidding.  The place also makes a daiquiri with rhubarb jam and an apple-celery margarita.  Another Copenhagen bar called The Union, also cited in the article, makes drinks using lemon curd, local weeds and (wait for it) edible gunpowder.

Yes, gunpowder.  It gives an entirely new meaning to shooting one’s mouth off.

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THE MADNESS THAT ISN’T A MARTINI: A MONTH OF MARTINIS

Yesterday was Easter and we were at home with a turkey slowly smoking over hickory chips in the back yard.  IMG_4742Indolence naturally ensued.  With a doff of the fedora to the fussy grammarian at the center of the late Lawrence Sanders’ Archy McNally novels, one do get thirsty at times like this. (Please, no gear-grinding over this construction, just take it like a person.)  So I stirred up what you see here.bulleit2

Yes, I know if you can’t see through it, it isn’t a martini.  Get over it.  This is a manhattan.  Life is full of surprises and serendipity.  Besides, it was time to see if anything could taste as good as gin and dry vermouth massaged over ice of a late afternoon.

Allow me to blame this excursion on Chris, another of my martini-swilling pals. Sure, he lives in San Francisco, so what can he know about real cocktailing? Still, he had recently turned me on to the forbidden pleasure of top-shelf Bulleit bourbon in a manhattan made with the brown stuff down the hill at Spoonful.  Lordy, was it ever tasty.

Sometime later, however, my muddled mind had turned to the manhattan and its origin in the city it is named after.  And it dawned, perhaps more slowly than in years past, that the original cocktail on its home turf invariably was made with rye whiskey—or at least a whiskey like Canadian Club that is distilled partly from rye.

That was then.  Now the super-premium spirits revolution has given us a handful of exalted rye whiskeys made entirely or almost so with that grain as the primary ingredient.  And Bulleit, wouldn’t you know, is one of them.  This remarkably smooth, rich whiskey is 95 percent rye, and man is it ever good in a manhattan.  Just employ a generous hand with the Angostura Bitters and a restrained one with the sweet vermouth (use one made with real sugar).  And find that little jar Maraschino cherries that you put in the refrigerator years ago somewhere in the back.

But now to answer the question surely on everyone’s lips, yes Bulleit rye has made it onto the top shelf of better saloons and retail establishments.   And like twice-named New York, New York, we have added a second picture of that Easter manhattan.bulleit

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THE MADNESS MOVES TO BALBOA: A MONTH OF MARTINIS

Our martini-loving pal Glenn somehow manages to turn up when there’s the possibility of his favorite beverage being served.   He has an MBA.  He’s smart.

Glenn’s been with us here in the Hollywood Hills for more than a few home-made models and has come along for forays to various watering holes.  This is his martini at Watermarc in Laguna Beach.  And there’s mine without all volume-stealing olives. And there’s mine

without all volume-stealing olives.watermarc (2)

 

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Last year we drove down to his Balboa Peninsula home in Newport Beach for an overnight stay.  Naturally, he mixed up a batch of martinis, poured it into a container, grabbed the glasses and appropriate garnishes, and we walked it all to an electric boat he had rented for a leisurely afternoon promenade on Newport Bay.  Here’s one displayed for your delectation as we buzzed past the houses and yachts of the swells.  Yes, buzzed. balboa glenn

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THE MADNESS OF GOOD FRIDAY AT THE PALM: A MONTH OF MARTINIS

ImageWe ate lunch at the Palm in West Hollywood.  Again.  Couldn’t help ourselves.   We were back in L.A.  And It was Good Friday.

But, honestly, there was a good reason.  We received an e-mail while we were out of town that the Palm restaurants nationwide were in mid-March beginning a new lunch menu.

IMG_4722And get this: a martini—any real martini—would cost $8.37 (which, as Palmistos and Palmistas know, is the 2nd Avenue address of the original Palm in Manhattan).  Not a special.  Every day from now on.  Now that’s lunch.

That would be $8.37 for any top shelf martini—as long as it’s a classic martini and not a faux one like a cosmo or apple .  So naturally my eye went to the apex of the top shelf and Hendrick’s.  Yep, Hendrick’s included, the manly beverage (with couple drops of dry vermouth, I’m pretty sure) pictured here on the afternoon of Good Friday.

It went stupendously well with swordfish and cheesecake.  Was this a good idea?  Was it anti-religious? Was another ordered?  Were there consequences?  Only the next time will tell.

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THE MADNESS ADVANCES: A MONTH OF MARTINIS

IMG_0124MA31832121-0001We live in the Hollywood Hills, which means we have access to an endless number of top notch gin joints in Los Angeles.  This is your faithful writer at Esterel in the Sofitel Los Angeles, the standard bearer for things French in town.  (No, the French aren’t big on martinis, but neither do they hold back for cultural reasons if a franc is to be made.)

Naturally it’s difficult to pinpoint all the best martinis in L.A., so this is only a start. The frosty one here was served up at La Boheme in West Hollywood, which is not only a good hang but a spot locals know that nicely priced fine food can be found.

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But I’ve saved one of the city’s most revered drinking destinations for last.  This martini was made by longtime barkeep Michael at Dan Tana’s, which is on Santa Monica Blvd. just shy of the Beverly Hills border.

tana's

The saloon serves New York-style Italian food to faithful throngs of locals, most of who are somehow involved in show business.  Largely a tourist-free zone, here is where you will see familiar faces at their ease.  Be aware that Tana’s is open only for dinner,  the bar itself is tiny and usually packed three deep, and be warned that in an expansive mood Michael will insist on pouring you a tot of his personal bottle of slivovitz.

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THE DESERT MADNESS: A MONTH OF MARTINIS

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This martini was created of Bombay gin and a wash of dry vermouth at the Riviera Palm Springs’ Starlite Lounge well before the sun had disappeared to the west behind Mt. San Jacinto.

Palm Springs is a fine place to obtain a righteous martini.  The desert resort town has been floating on gin for years, stretching back to the Rat Pack days and before.  The vibe has been kept alive by restaurants like Mel’s, whose bar seems left over intact from the 1960s.  But none of the retro joints does the old days in the desert better than Riviera Palm Springs.

The Riviera was alive back in the day too, but it’s been updated to fold in the best of the new millennium with just enough of the old to foster authenticity without the reverting to slavish period reliance.  So you get a good gym and spa, a freeform resort swimming pool, nice rooms, and fine food in the Circa 59 restaurant.  Yes, this does refer to the hotel’s birthdate.

These two desert thirst-quenchers are from other towns in the toasty Coachella Valley.  One was made in the wonderful Morgan’s at La Quinta at the far eastern edge of the resort region.  The other showed up lagoon side at Rockwood Grill in the Marriott Desert Springs.  There are plenty more desert martinis to come when we explore desert happy hour in a future posting.  Stay tuned sots.

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THE MADNESS IN COCKTAIL GLASSES: A MONTH OF MARTINIS

Martinis back in the day were served in dinky little cheap stemmed glassware.  Maybe two ounces of gin mixed with a little vermouth was the maximum pour.  Olives robbed way too much room.

That all changed with the drinks revolution.  First came the cocktail glass with greater capacity and far wider diameter.  The four-ounce martini (and more) became the norm in better bars.  The one served at the Palm restaurants, shown here, is the benchmark.palm

This also became the standard for those of us who shake or stir them up at home.  This is my martini buddy Chris and I at my home in the Hollywood Hills. (For those of you far too interested in these matters, the wonderful cocktail glasses with the slightly curved sides you see came from IKEA, of all places.)chrispeacch

The next change was the better-quality cocktail glass analogous to the finer wine glass.  This one is found at Craft in Los Angeles’ Century City.  Yes, that’s my hand caressing it.craft

Now we have the artisan cocktail glass.  The sky-high one seen here is at the exclusive 10 Pound in the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills.  This exquisite piece of glassware must cost the hotel more than the equivalent of 10 Pounds Sterling.10Pound1

And the fantastical martini glass below is from the Martini Bar aboard Oceania Cruises’ Marina.marina martini bar

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THE MADNESS GOES HAWAIIAN: A MONTH OF MARTINIS

During the long day in Oahu Golden Princess was tied up at Pier 10 with downtown Honolulu steps away.  We weren’t sailing until 11 at night and it was Patti’s birthday.  Needless to say, we had plans.

We made a midmorning exit and strolled into Chinatown in search of Char Sung Hut and a sack of the pork-filled rice buns Hawaiians call manapua (known as bao elsewhere).  Char Sung Hut is a hole in the wall famous for its inexpensive manapua ,  but when we got there it was closed, as it is every Tuesday.  But the rice buns are ubiquitous in Chinatown, so we enjoyed our sack lunch onboard anyway.

Plans called for a late-afternoon martini at nearby Restaurant Row in the same outdoor bar where we had planted ourselves last May just as news broke that Osama bin Laden had been killed.  But we were running late and I wanted to treat the birthday girl to happy hour at Hiroshi at dozen steps away, so we went straight to the restaurant. Hiroshi exterior

A favorite of locals, Hiroshi is one of the best restaurants in Honolulu, and our old pal Chuck runs the wine and spirits program there and at all the other DK restaurants in Hawaii—Vino, Sansei and more.  But Chuck isn’t only the best wine guy around, he’s also the busiest.  Although DK’s offices are right there, I never expected him to be at his desk.  But he was and he came out to talk story with us while we ate happy hour’s half price “Eurasian tapas”.  That’s Chuck in the picture.Image

After plenty of laughs, the discussion turned serious—in other words, to martinis.  We talked gin aromatics and botanicals.  I said I loved Bombay Sapphire for just that reason.  He said his favorite was Plymouth.  So naturally I had to react politely and try a martini made with it.  That’s it there on the bar top.  I have to admit, pretty swell.  Mahalo, Chuck.  hiroshi plymouth

 

 

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THE MADNESS AFLOAT: A MONTH OF MARTINIS

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Hawaii drops away in our wake.  Two thousand-plus nautical miles lie ahead until Golden Princess reaches her next port, Ensenada, Mexico.  With four straight lazy days at sea before us, the mind drifts naturally to the next martini.  It’s just after breakfast and I already know what and where that will be.

Among the many srendipities aboard is that Tanqueray 10, the exalted gin brand’s new super-premium entry, is for some magnificent reason bearing a “promotional” price in the Golden Princess’ bars.  This fact is nowhere noted, so one can easily imagine the research required to have ferreted out this vital information.  The upshot is a $7.50 Tanq 10 martini, or less costly than an ordinary martini.  You can understand the joy this discovery produced.

That’s Charles,the Wheelhouse bar’s talented bartender, you see after having just made my T10 martini in the foreground.  He was not at all fazed by my careful instructions for a dry vermouth rinse and a slowly stirred cocktail.  One might only wish for a more capacious vessel to hold such ambrosia.

wheelhouse

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THE MADNESS IN MAUI: A MONTH OF MARTINIS

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Golden Princess glided into Lahaina Roads at dawn, careful not to disturb the wintering humpback whales in the channel between Maui, Lanai and Molokai.  A few spy hops and tail slaps greeted early risers, the harbinger of greater exhibitions to follow. (Wow, did they ever.)  The ship dropped anchor about a half mile from Lahaina town, the old whaling port turned tourism destination. Actually, “dropped anchor” is an anachronistic term, since cruise ships rarely do that anymore—using thrusters they more or less hover in place.

We tendered ashore and trundled about for a bit, hopping ourselves over to Kihei in South Maui, and then back to Lahaina.  Avoiding the passenger crush downtown, we got out to Mark Ellman’s  Mala Ocean Tavern for lunch.  It’s a little place at the edge of town right on the lapping sea, and even with a couple thousand people clogging the area a mile away, there was a nice table with a sea turtle visible poking around for its lunch.  Mala is one of the best spots to eat on the island, with the freshest fish and the coolest attitude.  But it’s hardly cheap. A fish sandwich made with local mahimahi was $19.95, an ahi burger $18.50.  Still, delicious.

Maui always manages to remind me of martinis, and it’s not the alliteration.  I’ve had some of my best ones here, or at least it seemed that way.  This was was shaken up during previous Maui trip at Lahaina Grill, sometimes called the best restaurant on the island (it isn’t).  Dinner was okay, the dishes suffering from the too-many-ingredients syndrome.  But, trust me brah, the martini you see was terrific.

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THE MADNESS IN BEVERLY HILLS: A MONTH OF MARTINIS

wolfgangs liamWhen the after-work drink morphed into happy hour, a marvelous institution was created.  What could be better?  You are going to drink anyway, and the drinks are cheaper.  But if you’re a traditional gin martini drinker, things can get dicey.  For one thing, the “martini” has somehow transmogrified into a galaxy of frou-frou cocktails concocted of various suspicious colors and contents whose only familial relationship to a genuine martini is the stemmed glass in which these ridiculous beverages are criminally served.   And the dreadful vodka martini? The less said about it the better, and that onus falls squarely on your shoulders, Fleming.

All of which brings me to happy hour at Wolfgang’s Steak House in Beverly Hills. Here, happy hour starts at the civilized hour of 4, the restaurant’s bar is long and accommodating, the bartenders are professional, and the well gin used for happy hour is Bombay Sapphire.  I will at a later time wax poetic about my love affair with Sapphire, but for now let me give a shout out to places like Wolfgang’s that use great gin in a happy hour bargain martini (Wolfgang’s is seven bucks and you get free house-made chips and superb happy hour-priced food).

So that blustery face you see is Liam, one of the Wolfgang’s barkeeps , not long after he has served me my martini. Let me share what he shouted at me in his foghorn voice not too long ago as I grinned over my martini.  “I’m Irish and I’m a bartender.  What a surprise.”

 

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THE MADNESS ADVANCES: A MONTH OF MARTINIS

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All obsessions inevitably manifest themselves in physical form. The flipflop-shod foot shown in the photograph illustrates this axiom. It is my left foot and, yes, that is a miniature martini painted on the big toenail. And yes, that is a tiny pimento-stuffed olive in the martini.

This homage to my obsession came to be last June at a health spa called The Golden Door in San Marcos, California, in northern San Diego County. It is a small place dedicated to healthy, active living. Thoughts are pure. Skeletal muscles are challenged. Minds are opened and expanded. No alcohol of any kind is served, except on the last dinner of the seven-day week when a little decent wine is uncorked in celebration.

To some, that toenail martini may seem like childish rebellion, or even needless perversity. But to me it is an expression of regard for my surroundings and temporary victory over obsession. Soon enough there will be martinis. Perhaps even on the drive home. But certainly at home, as the second photograph proves.

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THE MADNESS CONTINUES: A MONTH OF MARTINIS

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Café Was is a watering hole on Vine Street in the heart of Hollywood.  It’s really a late-night place that bills itself as a “Bohemian bistro, bar and cabaret”. It’s located in that gentrifying block between Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards, suspended as it is between tourism and the new hip residents.  But we craved a late-afternoon pick-me-up before ambling over to the nearby Cinerama Dome on Sunset for a screening.

As a side observation, the Dome—the largest geodesic dome in existence—is an amazing place to see a movie. Occasionally it even shows the extra-wide screen films for which it was designed.

We passed Café Was and paused. Was it even open at such an ungodly early hour? We tried the door and it opened. So we shrugged and went in.

It was dark, of course, a stark contrast to the blazing L.A. sun outside, and the battered bar just inside the entrance was occupied by a sole imbiber and the barkeep. You can see a sliver of that peeling bar top in the accompanying photograph. Despite the happy hour timing, Was had none.  But the barman obligingly shook up a nice Bombay Sapphire martini, which went down the hatch, and we were on our way to the Dome.

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A MONTH OF MARTINIS: THE MADNESS BEGINS

WP golden princess skywalkersWPThis madness popped into my head more than two years ago. Naturally enough, inspiration struck over a dry martini. Make that a dry gin martini with nothing but a couple of generous tots decent gin and a cursory rinse of dry vermouth bathed in a goodly amount of ice and drained into a cocktail glass of significant size.

A month of martinis, I said to myself, a little too loudly apparently as a couple of barflies nearby lifted their heads and momentarily stared understandingly in my general direction. In truth, however, the notion had been stirring in my brain for more years than I cared to admit. Get it? Stirred, as opposed to shaken. Sure, I know—obscure martini humor. Get used to it.

For the next many months I documented my everyday life as defined by my imbibing habits, using a digital camera to record what I probably would not have remembered. I told myself that I would not begin to place this dismal account before the pitying public before I had a full 30 days under my liver. Clearly, I cleared this hurdle by a goodly distance. And so I begin.

Here I am at sea between California and Hawaii with nothing much to do for a few days and ample access to the drink of my dreams. Why not begin this folly now, though it is bound to bring only grief to those who love me. Consequently, what you see here is the first in a daily month’s worth and more of questionable choices, along with a bit of narration and opinion.  This photograph is of a vermouth-scented Tanquerey martini, as seen from a perch in the Skywalker bar at the stern of Princess Cruises’ Golden Princess.  Cheers.

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Back away from that tortilla soup and nobody gets hurt

Wolfgang Puck's Restaurant at the Hotel Bel-Air

Not even Wolfgang Puck dared to toy with the newly reopened Hotel Bel-Air’s tortilla soup. The Los Angeles luxury inn, renowned for decades of cosseting visiting dignitaries and show business luminaries (yes, Oprah’s bespoke suite remains), survived its two-year closing for badly needed renovations and quietly opened its doors for business again a couple of months ago.

 But one of the biggest questions in the minds of visitors and invested locals alike was what would happen to its famed restaurant overlooking the even more famed Swan Lake and its clutch of photogenic denizens. And one could clearly discern the gaps of wonder (or was the dismay?) from Beverly Hills to London when none other than Wolfgang Puck would not only take over the restaurant but the hotel’s entire food and beverage service.

 Owners and managers depart and new owners and managers arrive, but the restaurant at the Hotel Bel-Air endures. Those who love the place and consider it their own would have it no other way, so mucking with it, including the menu, carries a heavy risk. That includes the tortilla soup, beloved for no discernible reason and which has inhabited the menu for as long as anyone can remember. Nonetheless, the impossible came to pass.

Yes, the tortilla soup is intact, more or less. But the super-secret renovation has given the restaurant a significant new look courtesy of New York restaurant designer David Rockwell, he of the dangerously hip vibe. What resulted is a greatly truncated indoor dining space, an expanded but still familiar terrace (where pretty much everybody wants to eat anyway), a suspiciously sparkly new bar replacing the clubby previous one (the fireplace and piano remain, though in a reduced space, but will Sumner Redstone still want to sneak in for to take a meeting?) and most of all, a vapors-inducing (at least to some long-time habitués) new menu.

Perhaps the most gasp-worthy development of all is that the restaurant now has an actual name with a Hollywood touch—the star’s name over the title: Wolfgang Puck at the Hotel Bel-Air. Puck,

Wolfgang Puck at his Beverly HIlls' Spago

of course, is the Austrian-born eminence grise of Los Angeles cuisine, godfather of goat cheese and smoked salmon pizza, wizard of multiple grand eateries in multiple cities (if he hasn’t opened a new restaurant today, I count this one as number 28…wait one just opened in London), doyen of sensible upscale food, prominent TV foodie, guiding elf of all eats fusion in the western world.

His Spago set the stage for grand cuisine arriving in L.A. His Chinois on Main in Santa Monica brought inspired French-Chinese to the privileged. Yes, even Puck treated the tortilla soup as radioactive. Yet he also has several other restaurants in Los Angeles, including the nearby Spago and most interestingly Cut in the Bel-Air’s archrival Four Seasons Beverly Wilshire within a few minutes cruise in the Bentley. Kind of remarkable, really. But the Puck name, reputation and steady but creative hand on the tiller clearly appealed to the Bel-Air’s ownership, which stretches back to the island oil kingdom of Brunei and the sultan who there resides. So there it is, but what about the food. A recent visit found the menu resplendent in its simplicity, impeccable in its preparation and presentation, about as expensive as you would imagine (Dover sole, $56 now, actually was more expensive on the pre-closing menu) and just plain old yummy.

Among the raves is the house-made agnolotti celery root and Fuji apple, melt-in-your-mouth light and magnificently flavorful, though $60 is a lot to pay for any pasta. At lunch the big eye tuna burger was the best an ahi burger lover had ever tasted. As for the tortilla soup, well, that will wait until next time.

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Impressions from the LA Auto Show

Impressions from the 2011 LA Auto Show….

 Opened Friday for a 10-day run, the thousand-car Los Angeles Auto Show reveals a few things about today’s compromised car-selling and –buying climate.

 Way less flash than in previous years.  Carmakers used to dazzle us with imaginatively altered current models and futuristic “concept” vehicles intended to inflame our sense of the (somewhat) possible. This year, not so much. Painting a Camaro neon green or turning a Scion turned into a traveling tool box just doesn’t make it. Without the juice of wow-look-at-that, the auto show is just another vast car mall. Shouldn’t there be entertainment value for a $12 admission charge?

 Let’s put green into perspective You can’t walk 50 feet at this year’s show without tripping over yet another hybrid, plug-in hybrid, plug-in all-electric or natural-gas fueled car. (And some are so small you might literally trip over them.) Offering cars that have higher mileage and less impact on the environment is certainly a noble aim. But when Rolls-Royce rumbles out a massive all-electric sedan is when I, for one, begin to wonder if the green theme that overflows this year’s show is another cynical marketing strategy.

 When did Adam Corolla become Jay Leno?    Wandering the press preview days, I spied Corolla being repeatedly interviewed in front of various vehicles. The C-list celebrity was the only vaguely famous person around. I guess it’s the economy.

 Lord, won’t you buy me a pair of Christian Louboutins.   Apparently, reduced times call for fewer stilettos. The cadre of young women hopefully referred to as “product specialists” (aka car babes) may be the canary in the cage of the auto industry. I don’t think I’m projecting here, but in past years haven’t all these Vanna White wanna-bes perched on the highest of heels? This year, lots of them had dumped their five-inchers for Converse All-Stars or sensible flat-heeled boots. At least the models whose contracts still called for skyscrapers looked as if their feel hurt just as much as in previous years. 

 The LA Auto Show runs through November 27 at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Information: www.LAAutoShow.com.

 

 

 

 

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July 4th Without Baseball: String up the bastards!

Say it ain't so, Selig

Televised baseball on July 4th once was an American birthright. But when I opened the sports page and checked out the day’s games, guess what? There wasn’t a single major league game available to me. Imagine that: the Fourth of July without baseball.

 There were games listed, all right, just not ones I could get. Four were scheduled: Toronto at Boston on MLB Network; New York Yankees at Cleveland, also on MLB; Detroit at the Angels on FS West; and New York Mets at Los Angeles on Prime.

Notice anything interesting? At least for me, all these channels require upgrade packages. Hey, I already pay Dish almost $100 a month to get a full slate of broadcast, cable and premium channels. And yes, it includes ESPN’s many iterations. I don’t want to bump my bill into three-digit territory by having to pay for more outlets.

Even you poor Luddites who get your tube over the public airwaves with an antenna were out of luck in Los Angeles where I live. A fortune was spent to spread high definition to the masses through the atmosphere, requiring set-top boxes or new TVs. Yet you can’t get a friggin’ baseball game on July 4th.

It’s friggin’ un-American. This isn’t one we can blame directly on Frank and Jamie McCourt, even though here in L.A. we sure would like to pin it on the warring and apparently penniless Dodger owners who took the team down the tubes with their con game. No, it’s all part of the insidious dismantling of access to baseball that has been building for a few years.

I can picture the light-bulb moment when a billionaire owner calls the boss of major league baseball. “Hey, Selig, I got a great idea to goose our revenue streams. Let’s break the games into separate packages and otherwise-inaccessible channels! Why give away the milk when we can make them pay for it?”

The wise man strokes his chin and grins his appreciation for the brilliant scheme. “Get me Rupert on the horn,” Selig yells to his secretary. “And Madoff, too, if he’s out yet.”

Sure, a let-them-eat-cake inspiration that might sound great to MLB and already-rich owners and players. But terrible for baseball fans. And terrible for baseball too. It may be time to storm the bastion, baseball lovers. String ‘em up by their wallets!

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Saving Big Bucks on Precor EFX

 

We wanted an elliptical machine. Rising club dues meant it made sense. My bad knees needed one.

Consumer Reports recommends some that cost about a grand—the Sole E35 is around $1,300 before tax, delivery included from Dick’s. I tried out a few nicely-priced ellipticals at local sporting goods stores. They squeaked, or rattled, or rocked. They were not a Precor EFX.

Precor’s EFX line is the gold standard for elliptical exercisers. We’ve used the club models in hotel fitness facilities and gyms around the country for years. They’re rock solid and have to be reliable to take the constant pounding they get. But the most popular club model EFX machines cost more than $6,000. A brand new 546i (fixed arms) is listed at $6,295 while the 576i (moving arms) is $6,499. (List prices are sometimes discounted by retailers, but not by much.)

Precor does make a line of home models for list prices between $2,999 and $5,399, but these are not the same as the club models. And since machines arrive unassembled, Precor recommends that they be professionally assembled, which adds to the cost, and delivery probably will as well. 

 LOOKING FOR EFX

So I went on the internet to see what I could find. Googling Precor ellipticals turned up several e-commerce retailers dedicated to used and rebuilt EFX models, with prices routinely half or less the cost of new machines. Eventually I winnowed the entries down to a handful, then settled on www.eonfitness.com when I dug into the site and discovered the company is based in Los Angeles where I live, a comforting factor when dealing with usually anonymous e-retailers. Numerous club model EFX machines were listed and shown, many of them totally remanufactured. The site seemed professional and interested in fitness. There was a nice quote from De La Rochefoucauld: “Wisdom is to the mind what health is to the body.”

However, the selection proved bewildering. Models with moving arms and fixed arms. Models with fixed ramps and adjustable ramps. And most surprising to me, models that plugged into the wall and cordless ones. I’d never seen an EFX that didn’t use electricity, but there they were. That made sense for people like us who might want to use their machine in a protected outdoor area with no convenient electrical outlet. But how did they work? As it turned out, they use a rechargeable battery pack ($26 from E On Fitness or $95 from Precor) that requires replacement every three years or so.

It comes down to four options: fixed or moving arms; fixed or adjustable ramp; corded or cordless; and age/cost. E On Fitness had six 546 fixed-arm/adjustable ramp models available, eight 556 moving-arm/fixed-ramp models, and a couple of 576 moving-arm/adjustable-ramp models. About half were plug-in. Prices ranged from $1,999 (546i version 1) to $5,399 (556i) and varied in cost based on age and degree of rebuilding.

 THE AGONY OF CHOICE

After reaching E On Fitness owner Alex Goncharov on the phone, we eventually settled on a 546i version 3 plug-in priced at  $2,549. Alex gave me double good news. First, his rebuilt machines arrive fully assembled. And first-floor (not curbside) delivery and setup anywhere in California is included in the price. He also told me that fully remanufactured machines like the one I was buying was disassembled, factory parts were used to replace worn ones, and the reassembled machine was powder-coated to look brand new. The work was done, he said, by a former Precor tech.

Getting a recent-model, fully assembled, completely remanufactured, rock-solid EFX 546i delivered and set up for three grand less than a brand new model was a tasty proposition. Still, buying something for that kind of money with a credit card from an e-site is something to think about. And I did. (Normally when I buy something online I use a credit card number generated for the purpose, but that wasn’t an option when dealing with E On Fitness over the phone.) But Alex was always available and forthcoming on the phone, and he was patient with my questions. There was a decent warranty. So I gave him my credit card information, and a week later he personally arrived with the machine.

And it looked brand new and operated flawlessly, including the complex electronic panel. But there was a surprise—it was a cordless 546. Alex had loaded the wrong one, which costs more than the corded version.

 “Oh, well,” he shrugged. “You just saved another two hundred dollars.”

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Filed under Fitness, Home gyms

ENTOURAGE’S TEQUILA HANGOVER

Guilty-pleasure fans following the escapades of Vincent Chase and his posse of Queens pals in Hollywood on the hit HBO show Entourage know that any show business cliché can and will occur.

  • The disposable young women. Check.
  • The entitlement of stars and their hangers-on. Check.
  • The obscene posturing and conspicuous consumpton. Check.
  • The predatory executives. Check.
  • The over-the-top agent, as played with gleeful brio by Jeremy Piven. Check.

All there.

But here’s one that appears to be a first for Hollywood: product placement as guest star. In a move that Piven’s deliriously amoral Ari Gold would love, a new tequila brand named Avion has had its product launch on a major national show. Over the course of three episodes so far. For free.

To recap, Vince’s homeboy Turtle gets enticed to Mexico to check out a can’t-miss new tequila venture by a female former employee of his failed limo business. They fly down in a private jet and are met by the sidearm-wielding patron in a setting that reeks narco criminal enterprise. The tequila is Avion and the name is repeated over and over. It’s quickly made clear that what is required is Vince’s superstar endorsement, not Turtle’s participation.

Back to L.A. jet Turtle and his wannabe score with a case or two of the product, which somehow finds its way into the storyline as the booze that fuels Vince’s drunken cavorting with real-life porn star Sasha Grey—and perhaps initiates a dangerous spiral that may threaten his career.

So heavy-handed was the placement, I thought at first that Avion was fictional. Turns out, however, that it is real, a startup venture co-owned by Kenny Dichter, a childhood friend of Entourage creator Doug Ellin. Dichter and Ellin grew up together in Merrick, New York, and have known each other for 35 years. That’s not all. Dichter is also an owner of corporate jet company Marquis, which happens to be the name on the plane flown to Mexico by Turtle.

Hello! Is anybody paying attention? Isn’t there a conflict of interest here? Isn’t there an obvious quid pro quo masked by longstanding friendship? HBO doesn’t accept paid advertising, yet when does a product endorsement become so blatant and extensive that it inescapably is worth a lot of money?

Since HBO also doesn’t allow payment from product placement, the practice is a rarity on the network’s shows. What’s the point if no money can change hands? Yet the placement here is so pervasive that Avion has what amounts to its own story arc. As reported in the New York Post, Ellin brushed off the blockbuster launch of his buddy’s tequila as merely old friends helping each other out. Ellin claimed he had approached Dichter for help with the storyline. “I need a business for Turtle,” Ellin said he told Dichter. And Dichter said something like, “Hey, I just started this tequila business.”

Let’s leave it to speculation why a veteran showrunner was so stumped for a simple plot point that he asked a friend with no experience in the business for help.

According to the Post, Ellin told Dichter that the tequila angle was a great idea, but that “you have no control how I use it.” Oh. That extinguishes conflict of interest.

(I must admit that connecting Avion, however vaguely, to Mexican criminal money, or with inducing a binge, might not be my first choice for getting a product off the ground. But you know what P.T. Barnum said about all publicity being good publicity.)

Ellin went on to pointedly tell the Post that no money changed hands and that he couldn’t charge for a product placement because HBO doesn’t allow it.

Disingenuous much? Anybody care to estimate how much Avion’s exposure on Entourage is worth? Or what the launch of a new tequila into a crowded market might cost?

Ari Gold is so delighted he needs to fire somebody.

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Filed under Conflict of interest, Hollywood, please, Show business, When pigs fly

A Tale of Two Stadia: Angel v. Dodger

This is the story of two baseball stadiums separated by about 30 miles of freeway in Southern California. The teams that occupy them—the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (now there’s a convoluted moniker)—share more than a few similarities. For instance, each is looking up longingly at first place in their division and desperately need an impact player or two to effectively compete.

It is their stadiums, however, that share an affinity that transcends their identical 400-foot measurement from home plate to center field. Each was opened more than 40 years ago as the first truly modern baseball venues, which unfortunately makes them exceedingly old by today’s ballpark standards. Dodger Stadium, opened in 1962, is the third oldest major league stadium after Fenway Park in Boston and Wrigley Field in Chicago. Angel Stadium of Anaheim, which followed in 1966, is the fourth oldest. Dodger Stadium cost $23 million, one million less than Angel (then Anaheim) Stadium.

(There are differences, too. Dodger Stadium is owned by the Dodgers, and the Dodgers are owned by Frank and Jamie McCourt—or at least until the couple’s impending divorce proceedings determine otherwise. But Angel Stadium (and please, let’s call it that) is owned by the city of Anaheim and is under long-term lease to the ball club, while the club itself is owned by Artie Moreno, a billionaire whose ownership seems threatened by no one.) 

 

Of course, there have been renovations and improvements to both, some of which has first involved crumbling and even falling concrete. While Dodger Stadium’s maximum capacity is limited by agreement with the city to the 56,000 seats, the seats themselves have been changed and luxury boxes added. Not much has been done with the plumbing (patrons complain regularly about a lack of restroom facilities) and long lines at concession stands. Much of that was to be addressed in an announced $500 million renovation, most of which has yet to begin.  

Angel Stadium has seen the most radical physical changes since opening. Built as an open stadium, it was renovated to also accommodate the once-tenancy of the Los Angeles Rams NFL team and enclosed to add capacity. Since the Rams are long gone, capacity has been reduced. In more recent renovations, the 200-foot “A” tower was moved from behind center field to the parking lot where it has become a landmark. It was replaced by a “rock pile” center field feature with a flowing stream and real trees. A reported $118 million has been spent on major renovations since 1996.

 

Meanwhile, in attending games a week apart at both ballparks, here is what I found:

  • Beer is cheaper at Angel Stadium
  • Rest room lines are shorter at Angel Stadium
  • Both parking lots may require lengthy walks
  • Parking costs $8 at Angel Stadium, $15 at Dodger Stadium
  • Both parking lots empty slowly
  • Both parks are well maintained and clean
  • Both have unobstructed sight lines for fans, but you’d better sit up fairly high between first and third bases if you really want to follow the game 
  • Dodger Stadium has an incomparable setting in Chavez Ravine—what a view
  • Angel Stadium has better scoreboards
  • Dodger Stadium has a terrific pre-game buffet in the Stadium Club (but it costs $39.95), but I wouldn’t want to eat anything I saw from any of the concession stands
  • Angel Stadium has a remarkable Friday night fireworks show after the game (it really is something)
  • The Wave is tepid in both ballparks, and just as annoying
  • Angel Stadium is actively anti-beachball, while Dodger attendants don’t seem to care much unless one gets loose on the field
  • Nobody keeps score any more

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Filed under Angel Stadium, Baseball, Dodger Stadium

LOOK AT THE RIBS ON THAT HOLLYWOOD GRILL

PERFECT BBQ RIBS

 It’s fortunate that I have a penchant for perfection, because everyone around me expects it. That includes the victuals for which I am correctly famous. Just the other day, after a swooning response to my BBQ ribs—one I can only fantasize extends to other areas of my fraught existence—the Diva got a request for my recipe for same from her niece.

Well, sure, I warned Linda via e-mail. You can try to recreate Los Angeles backyard magic in the wilds of Manhattan. Just don’t expect perfection until your apprenticeship has extracted its toll. And don’t forget the silicon BBQ mitts.

This quest is no cakewalk. First, one must forswear three wrongheaded cornerstones of contemporary barbecue grilling: the propane grill; manufactured charcoal; and lighter fluid.

All three are about flavor, two are about health, and one is about direct heat.

The charcoal grill will allow you to impart real smoke flavor and cook slowly with indirect heat. (Fat will drip into a pan, not onto the fire, which can create carcinogens.) You must get one with a grilling area large enough so the fire can be on one side and the ribs on another. (That’s tough with a gas grill.) They’re inexpensive. Mine is a Char-Griller that cost $119 at Lowe’s and has lasted five years so far. It has a high domed lid that allows me to smoke a turkey, something I did yesterday to what I modestly admit were breathtaking raves.

Use real hardwood charcoal, not the best-selling briquettes with the name that begins with a “K”. Word on the street is that these contain coal dust, which is probably why the instructions include allowing the briquettes to completely ash before beginning cooking. I use briquettes from Trader Joes that have no potentially toxic binders or fillers, but I also use chunk mesquite too. And I don’t wait until that white ash forms because I don’t have to. I also use hickory chips that I soak in water for a half hour or so and add from time to time to maximize smoky flavor and to help reduce the temperature if it’s too high.

As for the best way to light the charcoal, use a $10 chimney lighter with crumpled newspaper below and charcoal in the top part. This is much cheaper and easier than the lighter solution, and there’s no kerosene odor to impart to the finished product. Since you’ll also need a water/drip pan to put beneath the ribs (see more below), one of my fast-lighting tricks is to soak newspaper in the left over fatty water from the drip pan. I let the newspaper dry out over a few days and then use it to start the charcoal in the chimney. That eliminates having to dispose of the left over gunk and it makes the ignition fire much more intense, just like the fat wood kindling starter used in fireplaces.

The drip pan is placed underneath where the ribs will be and is filled with an inch or so of water. This helps keep the ribs moist over a long cooking period. As noted above, it also provides the raw material for lighting future charcoal.

Now that you’ve got the hardware, here’s the recipe I gave Linda:

  1. Buy baby back ribs. They’re smaller, meatier and easier to work with than the big ones. Cut them into pieces of 3-4 ribs each.
  2. Pat the ribs with a spice rub. I mix brown sugar, tumeric, Chinese five-spice, garlic powder, chili powder and a good multi-spice dried herb (an Italian one works well). Find a mixture you like by experimenting, but my advice is to stay away from too much salt. I don’t use any salt, which is why I recommend garlic powder and not garlic salt. The ribs will taste so good you’ll never miss the salt.
  3. Do not use BBQ sauce…ever. It ruins the pure meaty taste of the ribs.
  4. After the flames in the chimney charcoal lighter begin coming out the top, they’re ready to dump into the right or left half of the grill. Don’t bother waiting for the fire to get any hotter. Put the grates over the fire and the prepared ribs, meaty side up, right over that fire. After a minute or two slide the grates with the ribs on them over the water pan. Put a little more charcoal (this is when I use the chunky mesquite) and those soaked hickory chips on the fire. Close the top but make sure the smoke can vent.
  5. Cook for about 2 hours with the lid on. At first the temperature will be 300+ but it will moderate in a half hour or so. If the temperature stays too high, throw some of those soaked chips on the fire. The last hour should be 225 or so, but even 200 is fine.
  6. Now the ribs will be smoky, tender, delicious.

See # 3 above.

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Filed under Celerbrities, Feeding Hollywood Faces, Food/drink, Uncategorized

WAITING FOR ANGIE’S: WHEN PLUMBERS FLY

I can’t be the only one fed up with discriminatory pricing practices leveled at existing customers. I’m talking about you satellite and cable TV companies with your “promotional” offers to new customers that are verboten to us shoddy old current ones. We’ve got you, so deal with it.

But years of experience have taught us to expect to be taken advantage of in the sleazy telecom world. We don’t expect to be jobbed by sensitive-to-the-consumer companies like Angie’s List.

If you’ve been living under your doormat, Angie’s is an online service intended to deliver impartial information on local service providers like plumbers, electricians, tile installers and tree trimmers. Angie’s compiles ratings from members and publishes them online. Think of it as a Zagat Guide for home repairs and maintenance, but with a yearly (or monthly) fee. It’s a brilliant idea that gives buyers of such services something more to go on than a vague recommendation by a neighbor or a flyer in the mailbox.

Now, a consumerist business like that wouldn’t take advantage of members, would it? Not if plumbers can fly.

WHAT WAS THAT AGAIN

When a charge of $63.60 for “business service” with the provider listed as Angie’s List showed up on my American Express statement, my journalist’s hackles rose. I was an Angie’s member, but the charge seemed much higher than I had been paying. I suspected that I had been charged for a multiple-year renewal. So I sent the following e-mail to Angie’s.

Why was my credit card billed $63.60 for a “business service”? I know my membership came due, but I never authorized a multi-year charge. Plus, according to your own web site FAQs, there is no charge of $63.60…AND four years is $56.50. As a business grows, it is common (and good business) practice to pass along to its savings due to economies of scale, but in this case you increased the fee for existing members. Kindly explain.

To Angie’s credit (and we are told that there is an Angie), soon afterwards I received a polite e-mail back.

I’m…sorry for any misunderstanding about our automatic renewal process and our pricing. We do inform our members about auto renewals when they join Angie’s List on http://www.angieslist.com. However, I am genuinely sorry to hear that you were not anticipating the transaction. Your credit card company probably has the charge categorized as a “business service” since they didn’t know how to classify the charge.

WELL, THANKS, BUT WHAT BUT WHAT ABOUT WHAT I ASKED

I had not questioned the automatic renewal, of course, and I had written that I wasn’t surprised by the renewal itself, just the amount. The e-mail continued.

The prices you saw online are for new members only and the member would be required to pay an initiation fee as well. However… we would be happy to honor a promotional price you’ve seen. Will you please let us know if you would like to continue your membership and, if so, which membership plan you’d like?

Now, you’d think I would be happy with a contrite offer to adjust my payment. But you wouldn’t know me. I replied with an e-mail inquiring about Angie’s pricing structure.

Please let me know what time period I … purchased for $63.60–nowhere does it tell me that. And nowhere that I could find on your web site is the renewal price(s) listed.

However, the idea of penalizing “old” customers in the quest for new ones is, nonetheless, a despicable and fraught business practice.

JUST WARMING UP, FOLKS

Once again, Angie’s was prompt, if not exactly transparent.

You can find this information under the “My Account” tab. There are several options and if you select the “Manage My Lists” you will be able to see the renewal rates and renewal date. We would be more than happy to offer the lower, new member rates.

I went to the web site and found my way to the existing member pricing structure, which is far more difficult to ferret out than the new member prices. And wow! What a tangled arithmetic web it was. After pulling out last year’s tax file to discover what my Angie’s List renewal fee was a year earlier—I was on a roll now—off went a new e-mail to Angie’s, where I could picture the customer service staff now wearing aluminum foil hats.

I have reviewed the membership plans for new and existing Angie’s List members, and I have a few questions.

1. Why is your new member rate of $22.63 ($17.63 plus one-time signup fee of $5) almost one-third the existing member rate for one year? That is a powerful disincentive to continued annual membership.

2. Did you know that signing up for four years as a new member ($61.50) costs less than a member continuing membership for one year ($63.60)? That is a potent incentive to question Angie’s business practices.

3. Why does a year’s worth of $4.50 monthly membership fees ($54) cost far less than your annual membership plan for existing members ($63.60)–even though your web site FAQs state that the annual payment plan has “the lowest overall cost”? That is a powerful incentive to choose monthly membership.

4. Why has your annual membership fee has increased more than 20% in one year from $53 (which I was charged 6/01/09) to $63.30 (which I was charged 6/01/10)? That is a potent incentive to drop Angie’s altogether.

5. Does anyone at Angie’s world headquarters understand how to operate a calculator?

ALUMINUM HATS IN PLACE

The response, in part below, was again polite and timely.

I’m… terribly sorry to hear of your disappointment with our new member special rates on the website. In an effort to make the service better for all of our members, Angie’s List continues to attract new members to sign up for membership by offering special rates from time to time. Again, I’m sorry that you are not happy with this approach.

At this point I gave up expecting answers to specific questions and accepted the victory, pyrrhic though it was in terms of time versus return. Did anybody at the company review the membership pricing structure? Will the inconsistencies be corrected? Will the pricing penalty for existing members be eliminated or reduced? Perhaps when plumbers fly.

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Filed under Consumer gripes, Journalism/Ethics, Odd things, Unfair practices, When pigs fly

WHAT WOULD LORD BYRON SAY TO KING LEBRON?

What Would Lord Byron Say to King LeBron?

Rant Part 1

The sad ego-stroking of the LeBron James/ESPN debacle got me thinking about the sad state of journalism today. Sure, ever since Walter Cronkite left the studio nobody with operative synapses thinks that the vast majority of television “news” programs have been anything more than a nonstop orgy of veneered teeth and softball celebrity interviews punctuated by car chases. Still, a basketball player raising his imperial hand and decreeing that a one-hour program be devoted to his decision about where he would play next is disturbing enough to churn of J-school notions of ethical behavior in even me.

It also reminded me of a favorite quote from what the English baron we call Lord Byron wrote in the 19th century about the writer’s game:

Condemn’d to drudge,

the meanest of the mean

and furnish falsehoods to a magazine

George Gordon Byron nailed it. I’ve been there as a print writer and, criminy, is journalism ever fraught with ethical accommodation, willful self-delusion, and la-de-dah cynicism

Here’s an example from my own file of shame. I once interviewed a sitting Mexican president for a magazine question-and-answer piece. Well, I was supposed to. I flew to Mexico City, overnighted at the Camino Real, and the next morning was taken to Los Pinos, the Mexican White House. I was met there by El Presidente’s press secretary, who cheerfully informed me that after months of negotiations and the promise of the magazine’s cover that his boss would be unavailable.

“Um, how about tomorrow, “ I stammered, stunned.

“Sorry, no.” He paused and smiled. “I’ll do the interview for him.”

I sputtered something about this being a Q&A regarding crucial aspects of the drug situation in Mexico, foreign policy, the kind of stuff that would appear in quotes. The press secretary shrugged that Mexican shrug that conveys the idea that not much can be done. So we sat down and I turned on my tape recorder and the press secretary channeled his boss.

When I got back to the hotel, I placed a panicked call to my editor with the news. He was silent for long moments.

“Who else knows?” he asked in a voice I thought was far too level.

I said nobody but us and the president’s staff. The editor told me to come back with the tapes.

The piece ran as a Q&A a couple of months later, El Presidente beaming from the cover. The piece was so well received that parts of it were quoted extensively in the U.S. But in Mexico, the entire Q&A ran, on the front page of Mexico’s biggest daily.

Woof.

Rant Part 2 will follow anon.

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Filed under Journalism/Ethics

When Beaches Vanish

Once I just had sand in my swimsuit. Now I have it on the brain too.

It began as I stood at the blunt western end of the Hawaiian island of Molokai, staring in horror at Papohaku Beach. Perhaps more correctly, staring in horror at what was left of it.   

One of the most perfect beaches I had ever seen, more than two miles of glorious sand and gently lapping waves, was pretty much gone. Spread before me in its place was a ravaged coastline studded with hard rock shelves and sharp coral boulders extending into a sea so ominously roiled it looked like a blender set to puree. There was almost no sand, walking on what was left of it reminded me of one those malevolent obstacle courses dreamed up for reality TV shows, and swimming was clearly out of the question unless life and limb had lost all meaning.

But the couple of times I’d seen Papohaku before it was such an ideal beach I was certain I heard Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” swelling majestically in the background. The sand was soft and deep, the swimming was idyllic, and the almost complete lack of development gave the grand sweep of coastline a pristine, almost untouched quality so wonderful to gaze upon it put digitally enhanced travel posters to shame.

The Papohaku I knew had been jacked. What had happened to it?

IT WAS HERE SOMEWHERE

Look, I’m a beach guy. These things matter to me. I had to get to the bottom of Papohaku’s Jekyl and Hyde act. Why did a perfectly good beach disappear, and where did it go? Perhaps even more important, did a sinister code of silence (a sand omerta?) exist among shoreline resorts worldwide to keep a lid on the truth regarding the relative presence or absence of sandy beaches? I was on a roll. Wasn’t it the right of the vacationing public to know if a beach would be inviting and useful at the specific time one expected to be there, and whether swimming in the sea then would be a reasonable expectation and not an invitation to bodily harm?

I was buried in sandy righteousness. First, though, I figured perhaps I should make sure I wasn’t once again simply the victim of synaptic insufficiency.

Turns out, this time I wasn’t. Maui-based coastal geologist Rob Mullane, a Hawaii-based beach scientist confirmed that the beach I recalled indeed existed. “Papohaku is one of my favorite beaches in the world,” he said. “It’s one of the largest beaches in Hawaii and more often than not your footprints will be the only ones in the sand.”

FOLLOW THE SAND

 Yes, I whined, but why doesn’t it look like that now?  Mullane chuckled and told me that I remembered the summertime Papohaku. “It faces northwest so it’s subject to seasonal changes,” Mullane said. “It’s the first place waves coming from Alaska in the winter reach land, and there are no offshore islands and no reef to protect it. So the beach gets scoured.  In the summer, the waves comes from the south and the beach rebuilds.”

Seasonal beach changes weren’t limited to Papohaku, Mullane added. At Magic Sands Beach, on the Big Island outside Kailua-Kona, the sand vanishes so thoroughly it used to be called “Disappearing” Sands, a name local authorities apparently considered counterproductive from the tourism standpoint. “It’s an extreme case,” Mullane said. “During the high wave season, there’s very little sand there. It’s just lava and boulders. But in the summertime there’s a two-foot thickness of sand.”

Mullane said that even one of Hawaii’s best known and most popular beaches, Maui’s Kaanapali, goes through yearly cycles of plenty and paucity. “Kaanapali runs north and south, so in the winter the north end has a very strong seasonal change. It gets narrower in winter, and in the summer the southern swells bring the sand back so it widens again.”

 Brings the sand back? But where does it go?

“At Kaanapali, the sand moves along the coast, but in the case of Magic Sands, it actually moves offshore,” Mullane said.

Seasonality wasn’t just a Hawaiian phenomenon, he added. “Seasonal change isn’t only common to Hawaiian beaches, it’s common to all beaches,” he said.

DR. BEACH EXPLAINS

For wider perspective, I turned to everybody’s favorite academic, Dr. Beach. In real life, his name is Stephen P. Leatherman, but we all know him for the list of America’s top beaches he issues every year. “Whole beaches can disappear,” Leatherman said. “You say, my goodness, what happened? Where’s the beach? Well, it went into a big sandbar offshore.”

After politely declining to disclose whether he wears Tevas to his lectures, Leatherman deployed genuine science in explanation. The rough, short-period, storm-driven waves that occur everywhere in winter tend to scour the sand from the visible beach and deposit it offshore as much as 200 or 300 yards. But sometimes the sand instead moves to a different spot on the beach, as in the case with Kaanapali, or even to another beach nearby. In summer, gentle, long-period ground swells move the sand gradually back where it was to begin with. The process occurs with beaches worldwide, but among the most pronounced victims are in Hawaii and along the California coast, Leatherman explained.

 I had visited Papohaku before in summer, when the sand was at its most plentiful and the sea was its most tranquil. But I returned in winter, when the ocean’s wave energy arrives like a freight train from the North Pacific to pummel beaches with orientations like Papohaku and Kaanapali’s.

That’s when the swimming can turn ugly, too. “If there’s high enough wave energy to move the sand, then you’re apt to have more dangerous swimming conditions,” said Mullane. “You can get a pretty steep slope to the beach, and that can mean larger waves, strong offshore currents, and greater undertow. That can take people by surprise.”

TIMING THE SANDS

 So I asked Dr. Beach how a person could plan for the best possible beach. “Go in the summertime,” he said. “That’s definitely true for Hawaii and California, and it’s also true for a lot of other places, because that’s when the wave energy is less.”

With normal seasonal changes and no artificial barriers, the beach always returns. But human intervention can lead to the permanent sand loss and the steady retreat of a beach. In Florida and along the East and Gulf coasts, Leatherman said, beaches diminish seasonally but rarely disappear completely unless manmade objects like seawalls, groins, revetments and river dams have altered natural sand movement or replenishment. Some of Palm Beach, Florida’s cove beaches vanish in winter because of this, he said, and Miami Beach’s sand becomes harder and packed with coral chunks for the same reason.

Elsewhere, said Leatherman, receding shorelines have led to an alarming rate of beach loss in some places along the east and Gulf coasts. Some Louisiana beaches are retreating at the rate of 50 feet a year, he said, due mainly to far less of the Mississippi’s silt reaching them than has been the case in the past and the sinking of coastal land from the extraction of oil and water. “Louisiana is the beach erosion hot spot of the nation,” he said.

HAVE YOU SEEN THE KIDS?

In fact, said Leatherman, beach erosion is a national problem that plagues between 80 and 90 percent of the country’s coastline. Sometimes it’s of epic proportions. He said Cape Hatteras, South Carolina, has averaged 15 feet of beach lost every year for more than 150 years. And the southern coast of Nantucket Island is losing about ten feet of beach annually.

The Caribbean, he said, experiences some beach loss, but it isn’t drastic. “Beach erosion is occurring throughout the Caribbean, but it’s not a particularly severe problem,” he said.  However, hurricanes can decimate beaches there. Gilbert, George, Lenny and Jose’ all wreaked havoc in the Caribbean in recent years, along with Floyd in the Bahamas and Iniki on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

Such extreme weather events can dump a beach’s sand too far out to sea or throw it too far inland to ever return. That means the sand is gone forever from the fragile beach system coastal scientists call the “sand budget”.  “Hurricanes can cause massive beach erosion,” said Leatherman. “It can take years for beaches to recover from hurricanes, and in some case they don’t come back at all.”

THAT’S WHERE SAND COMES FROM, VIRGINIA

 Beaches stripped by extreme weather events or because of human intervention usually must be replenished with sand from elsewhere, called “beach nourishment” by coastal scientists. For an island, that can be problematic. Sand can’t usually be mined from an island or scooped up from other beaches, so it must come from offshore sandbars. However, dredging is expensive and can harm underwater environments.

Still, sand had to come from somewhere to build beaches in the first place. Why not wait for nature to do the job again? The trouble is, that takes time, even eons.

“Marine creatures manufacture sand, or it comes down from rivers,” Mullane told me. For most islands, the primary source of sand is coral, either ground into grains by wave action or the nibbling of parrotfish over thousands of years. Rivers can also deposit silt and sediment along island shorelines, but it isn’t often the major source of sand as it is for land mass coastlines where no coral exists. Over time the soil washes away and what remains is sand. Wind and rain contribute too by helping coastline cliffs erode and crumble. It’s an agonizingly slow process.

NOT ON MY BEACH

And it’s a process humans are hindering. Many rivers are now dammed and cliffs are often armored to prevent erosion, both of which cut off the key sources of sand where corals don’t live. California’s building beach crisis is one example of what can occur when a shoreline’s natural sources of sand are throttled. 

But, agree coastal scientists, by far the worst enemies of both island and mainland beaches are the artificial barriers placed there for the very purpose of “protecting” them. These interrupt the natural flow of sand along the beach, concentrating it in some areas and stripping it from others. In Hawaii, where newspaper reports have cited the loss or narrowing of 25 percent of Oahu’s beaches and 30 percent of Maui’s, this has created acrimonious confrontations between proponents of science-based beach management and the owners of oceanfront property in fear of losing their land.

“There is abundant proof that seawalls kill beaches on shorelines undergoing chronic erosion,” wrote University of Hawaii geology and geophysics professor Chip Fletcher, a recognized expert on beaches, in a letter to the Honolulu Advertiser newspaper.

Maui-based Mullane said beach loss is “almost always found on beaches that have been armored with seawalls or revetments. Some of Maui’s beaches are eroding so fast that even if you have 150 foot setbacks, you’ll have problems in fifty years.”

I hope that never happens to Papohaku. Meanwhile, there’s comfort in now knowing that its magnificent sand makes a triumphal return from that big offshore sandbar every year.

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THE TORTURED TALE OF A “LEGIT” RENTAL CAR STEAL

There I was, anxiously walking the huge Long Island Rail Road parking lot in Ronkonkoma, New York searching for my rental car. I had parked the Avis Hyundai Sonata sedan there earlier that day before boarding a train for New York City. Several hours later I was back to reclaim it, only to fail to locate it.

I had searched for more than an hour, thinking that I might have forgotten where I parked it that morning. I knew better. I had found one of the few remaining spaces at the far western end of the lot near a tree line. I remembered that precisely. The day was beginning to fade, the lot was nearly empty, and the car was nowhere to be found. I was expected in Montauk, more than 50 miles away at the eastern tip of Long Island for a dinner I now knew I would not make. The car was stolen.

I flipped open my phone, its battery already drained from a day of use, and called Avis to report the absent car. I called 911 to report to the police, apologizing for not being a true emergency.

“That’s all right, honey, you didn’t know what else to do,” soothed a female voice. “I’ll call the Suffolk County police.”

The Run-Around Begins

 

What followed was a nearly half-year saga punctuated with dawdling inefficiency if not outright evasion and unexpected demands that inserted me between Avis and American Express. Meanwhile, an invoice from Avis for $22,649 hung over my head.

I had used my American Express credit car to rent the Hyundai after declining the additional damage and stolen-car coverage, depending instead on the “Car Rental Loss and Damage Insurance” as promoted by American Express to its cardholders. I knew my personal automobile insurance did not cover the rental car if it was stolen or damaged, so the American Express coverage would be considered “primary”. 

 The car was in my possession for less than 24 hours, the mileage driven less than five. It had been locked and I had the keys. Nothing was visible inside for thieves to see, no GPS unit beckoned to them. What’s more, it was a Hyundai. Who steals a Hyundai? Who takes one for a joy ride? No one, confirmed the cops.

I made numerous follow up phone calls the following day to Avis, American Express, my insurance agent in California and the detective assigned to the case. It quickly became apparent that the system is calibrated to deal with wrecked or damaged cars, not stolen ones. Among the most important of those next-day calls was to the regional Avis security executive, a contact only painfully wheedled from other Avis representatives. Unlike every other person I spoke with at Avis, he actually knew how to deal with the situation.

Using the incident report number supplied by the Suffolk County Police Department officer who investigated on the scene (with me in the back seat as she checked every corner of the parking lot), he checked the database that lists stolen cars. He also said that he personally visited the scene of the crime and the surrounding area and found nothing. “It’s a legitimate steal,” he said. He also said he would close out the rental contact immediately. Which I later learned he promptly did.

(He also said I would be charged for one hour’s rental, which turned out to be a hollow victory since Avis policy is to rent for a minimum of one day, which is what I was finally billed for. The charge to my credit card also had an “under 75 mile flat fee” fuel charge of $13.99, even though the closed contract shows 1 mile driven and no gasoline used. With taxes, the final credit card charge was $108.45.)

Am I Covered Or Not?

 

Though it is found nowhere online or in the pages of fine print American Express provides its customers, phone calls soon revealed that I was covered for up to $50,000 when a rental car is stolen. At fleet prices, the Hyundai surely cost Avis less than half that amount. I was confident that I would have no liability and that the matter would be shortly and simply resolved.

Not exactly. After I returned to California, Avis and American Express—through its underwriter, AMEX Assurance Company, and its administrator, Cambridge Integrated Services Group—proceeded with a blizzard of form letters, online status reports and e-mail exchanges. Given that I had been deemed innocent of wrongdoing by the police agency involved and was covered by insurance according to American Express’ own guidelines, it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that the process was designed to exhaust patience and resolve.

I knew when Avis sent me an invoice nearly two months after the Hyundai was stolen that I was facing a war of attrition. And when the company followed with a two-sentence form letter eight days later, it seemed I had been found guilty after all. “Based upon the facts and circumstances surrounding the above referenced rental, Avis has decided not to rent vehicles to you in the future, for the following reason(s): Other: Theft.”

“They’re accusing you of theft,” bellowed an outraged criminal-defense attorney friend when I showed him the letter. “You are the victim.

 

The Anxiety Mounts

 

What also did not arrive in a timely manner was a theft affidavit form that the Avis security executive told me to expect in short order. One finally arrived in the mail more than three months later. And it came from American Express/Cambridge, not Avis. And it came long after American Express/Cambridge had informed me that “no further documentation” would be required of him.

What’s more, Cambridge had started a clock ticking. “If all documentation is not received within 60 days of the report date, we will close our file,” read the letter.

I was in the middle of a tug-of-war between the Avis claims office in New Jersey and the Cambridge team of adjustors in Ohio. First came Cambridge’s demand for a written police report, first from Avis and then from me. Meanwhile, I had been told by the SCPD records department representative reports were delayed eight months and more. I should not expect one before then.

The records supervisor advised me to apply online and print out the form requesting a report, which would not expedite matters but would at least prove that I had tried to obtain the report. Avis also tried to get a police report, to no avail. Without the report, the Cambridge supervisor told me 2-1/2 months into the process, nothing could happen.

Three months after the vehicle was reported stolen to all interested parties, Cambridge finally attempted to obtain a police report on its own. The adjustor told me that the SCPD told her “no record was found” of the stolen car. The adjustor asked if I had “more specific information” regarding how to identify the stolen car. I emailed back to point out that the supplied incident number was the specific record locator and had always worked for everybody else. Cambridge did not respond.

Though it was clearly not my responsibility, I finally called the SCPD detective squad involved and was fortunate to find the newly assigned detective on whose desk the file and report had quite literally landed. It was right in front of him, he said. I gave him the most sympathetic story I could muster, and he agreed to copy the report and mail it to me. It arrived a few days later, and I shared it with AE/Cambridge and Avis.

Welcome to Wonderland, Alice

It wasn’t over yet, not by a long shot. Cambridge began asking Avis for documents to back up its invoice. Among other items requested were the purchase invoice for the car and a “fleet utilization log” to show there wasn’t an idle rental car to take up the slack of the stolen car. “American Express knows we don’t supply fleet utilization logs,” the Avis claims examiner told me with frustration in her voice.

Cambridge had a few other tricks up its sleeve. Next it required a follow up police report stating that the car had not been recovered. The Avis claim examiner was beside herself. She told me that her supervisor had called Cambridge to point out the impossibility of the request, but got nowhere. “He doesn’t know what to do,” she lamented.

If it felt as if stalling tactics—if not outright intimidation—were being used, a file that grew to about three inches thick did nothing to disabuse me of that notion. For example, Cambridge asked Avis for its “salvage receipt,” patently impossible with a stolen car.

Finally, five months after the Hyundai was stolen, a letter from American Express Car Rental Loss And Damage Insurance arrived advising me that $19,792.55 had been paid to Avis’ Houston-based attorney. (This implies a legal tussle hidden from me, though that is speculation.) Still pending were Avis’ invoice items for loss of use and an administrative charge, but the language used in the transmittal letter seemed to indicate the matter was resolved. I can only hope. 

As postscript, I have since discovered an alternative to reliance on American Express’ cardholder coverage that allows car renters to decline additional non-liability coverage at the rental-car counter while keeping their personal automobile non-liability insurance safely out of the mix. It’s called American Express Premium Car Rental Protection and offers primary coverage (which means one’s own automobile insurance isn’t involved) of up to $100,000 for a flat rate of $24.95 ($17.95 for California residents) for up to 42 days. That’s a total of $24.95, not per day. You sign up and it applies automatically for almost every kind of car every time you rent. However, the policy is underwritten by AMEX Assurance and administered by Cambridge. .

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Grand Del Mar Resort: Bring Hermes

The Grand Del Mar is the kind of hotel where it is possible to feel under-dressed without having a Hermes scarf artfully swirled around one’s alabaster neck. Even if you’re a guy.

O.K., I admit it. Hyperbole for effect. Still, when I grow up, I want to live in a place like the Grand. Or at least be able to afford to stay there on a regular basis. (Room rates begin at $395, but you should be able to do better in these challenged times if you call.)

What Douglas Manchester has wrought on the 300 acres of a coastal canyon just north of San Diego—much of the rest of which is protected in a nature preserve—is nothing less than a $270 million last gasp of the decade of excess that came crashing to a halt in 2007. That’s the same year the Grand opened. Manchester, who apparently is called “Papa,” is a local developer said to be responsible for much of the skyline of downtown San Diego. There are 249 rooms, which works out to $1.084 million per room to build the resort. Remember when a hotel building cost of $1 million per room was a silly fantasy? I certainly do.

And wow, you can see every penny that was spent. The low-rise hotel, a loving homage to early 20th century architect Addison Mizner, is an amalgam of refined styles that seems Spanish, Moorish and Californian all at once. There is also plenty of design reference to the high-ceilinged drawing rooms of the old Europe in the stunning public rooms. Think marble, polished wood, hand-stenciled ceilings and what must have been the commission of a lifetime for the interior designer. Somehow, it never seems overdone, even though our room’s coffered ceiling was upholstered. That’s right. Upholstered.

 The rooms all have views of the hills, golf course or manicured lawns, and the smallest measure 600 square feet. The flat-screen TVs are fitted inside an ornate gilt picture frame. You get the idea.

To paraphrase Conrad’s Kurtz, oh, the money.

To make up for lying a handful of miles inland from the Pacific, there are four swimming pools, the largest perhaps the longest and best lap swimming pool I’ve ever seen at any hotel. Even better, it’s for adults only with mobile phones and all other electronic devices verboten. (Thank you, Papa, for that.) It’s next to the wonderful spa, where Scott will pummel you within an inch of your suddenly-improved life.

Also more than compensating for lack of a sandy front yard is Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve, mentioned above. The 4,100 acres rise and fall for seven miles and are laced with hiking and biking trails. The terrain is so expansive and varied that when we went for a guided hike one morning, we ran into only a handful of other people. One of the great perks of staying at the Grand on a weekend is the complimentary Saturday morning hike in the preserve.

 Golf is accomplished a five-iron away from the hotel at Papa’s par-72 Tom Fazio layout, an impossibly scenic 18 holes that comes with a waterfall. Tip: the $195 and up green fees fall to $125 for twilight play, which can be as early as 2 p.m. in winter.

 Amaya is the only real sit-down restaurant inside the hotel, but do not think of it as one of those three-meal hotel restaurants that try to be all things to all diners and dining occasions. It is, in fact, more elegant and serves better food than what fancy hotels like the Four Seasons like to call their “fine dining” venue. The food here has a Mediterranean cant to it that to me is more Californian than anything and happily doesn’t try to overachieve. At dinner, my short-rib cannelloni was terrific, as was the sea bass main course. Perfect Sapphire martini, too, and big enough to seem like two, which is one past my limit.

 The only minor hitch in our stay was dinner at Addison, the acclaimed restaurant in the golf clubhouse whose walls are figuratively wallpapered in raves. The bar looks like it might have been disassembled and sent over from Versailles, but the restaurant is chilly and cavernous. Its reputation and reviews probably set the bar too high, but chef Bradley’s dishes were on the fussy side and a salmon main course was so salty it had to be sent back. But the menu is a brilliant do-it-yourself prix fixe, one course from each page, with plenty of choices. The desserts were absolutely top shelf, and sommelier Jesse Rodriguez, who worked wine at the Napa Valley’s famed French Laundry, is a laid-back wizard of wine. Anybody who knows about Hanna Bismarck Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon is a pal to me.

The Grand Del Mar Resort, 5300 Grand Del Mar Court, San Diego, CA, 888-314-2030 www.thegranddelmar.com

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Toys Bright and Shiny at LA Auto Show Ferrari, Maserati Missing in action

It’s no secret that these are interesting times in the automobile business. There’s the bailout of GM and Chrysler, of course, as well as the recall debacle Toyota is facing. Then there’s the L.A. Auto Show, which runs Dec. 4-13 for the public but opened for the media Dec. 2 for a two-day preview as it does every year. Talk about a recall. The keynote speaker kicking off the show in front of the press Dec. 2 was scheduled to be General Motors’ CEO Fritz Henderson. Oops. Henderson suddenly and dramatically exited the company the day before, leaving old industry hand Bob Lutz to step in for him. It probably wasn’t the first time Lutz, a former Marine, had been dropped into a war zone.

 There is also the matter of the missing superstars.  Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini and Bentley are conspicuous no-shows this year, erasing a good portion of the glitz from this edition. Thankfully,  Aston-Martin and Rolls-Royce are on hand to uphold the outrageous upper stratosphere of the car game, but the three missing marques also means a significant reduction in the car babes hired every year to purr over the upscale product. Which brings up another point. Viper, along with parent Chrysler itself, may not be around for next year’s show.

 Also present is Saab, which is being shopped by GM as if it were a regifting situation and may not be here in a year either. No matter.

The show, spread over the vast expanse of the Los Angeles Convention Center, provides pretty much the same dose of hype and gearhead ecstasy as every year. There is the usual dose of debuts, cars unveiled with a showbiz flourish.

Among those shown for the first time anywhere are the Cadillac CTS coupe, renewed Dodge Viper and Toyota Sienna. Thirty-one other models are on view for the first time in North America, including ones from Audi, BMW, Chevrolet, Jaguar, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz. Porsche, aloof as always in its own space apart from the rest of the carmakers, rolled out its brand new Boxster Spyder, calling it nothing less than a “world premiere.” In-from-Germany executive Christian Dau termed the minimalist convertible “the perfect Porsche,” so focused on performance that routine niceties such as air conditioning, cupholders and even interior handles were left out to save weight. Dau said it would cost just over $62,000 when it goes on sale in February. The media obediently swarmed until the car was obscured in the crush. Yep, a Hollywood premiere all right.

There is the usual contingent of improbable “concept” cars, most of which will never be produced, at least in this form. BMW’s see-through Vision, Subaru’s flighty double-wide gull-wing sedan, and Chevy’s Leno (yes, Jay) Camaro fall in this category. They’re amazing to look at, but would you want to drive one? One you might want to drive, if you were a big-time DJ, is the Sciion XB DJ 2.0 by Five Axis concept. This is a car tricked out with a 2,000-watt sound system, massive fold-out speakers and a DJ mixing deck. It’s like a Death Star for tailgate parties. Meanwhile, the ordinary transportation that provides the car business with most of its cash money is largely ignored. The new VW Beetle convertible and the nice little Toyota Yaris generated no heat and featured no draped car babes.

The unveiling of the Ford Fiesta was the exception. Pitched with what seemed near-desperation to the texting demographic, it enjoyed a great deal of attention. To show off its youth market chops, the introduction included such phrases as “tweet-up” and “growing the buzz.” Hey, with talk like that, how can you say no?

 The LA Auto Show is Dec. 4-13. Weekday hours are 11 am-10pm, 9 am-10pm Saturday, 9 am-8 pm Sunday. Adult admission is $12, with $2 discount coupons and $10 e tickets available on the web site www.laautoshow.com.  Convention Center parking is $12.

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Facials Freak Lots of Men Out, But Not This Intrepid Guy

 Excerpt from www.Pattipietschmann.traveldiva.blogspot.com, by  Richard Pietschmann:

Facials freak out lots of men. Not only is there the still-lingering pussy factor–a guy getting a facial!–but also the extra anxiety caused by having to enter a spa setting designed for women. Often a man tiptoeing into the spa will be the only male there.
 
I have been that guy many times, so I know. But little did I realize that facials for men have a long history in this country, dating back to the railroad terminal barbershops that were commonplace in the 1930s and 1940s. There, men could get their shave and a haircut, along with what William Gornik told me was a treatment aimed at rejuvenating the harried (and sometimes hung over) businessman. It was called a “scientific rest facial,” William said, and it had the same result as two hours or more of sound sleep.
 
I learned all this while seated in an updated barber chair at William’s Gornik & Drucker barbershop on the lower level of the new Montage Beverly Hills hotel. Here, this men-only facial is called a deep cleansing skin treatment, lasts 45 minutes, and costs $75. After giving me a critical once-over, William swathed my face in hot towels, applied an Egyptian clay mask, rubbed cocoa butter into my beleaguered skin, applied a two-handed vibration massage to face, neck and shoulders, painlessly plucked out blackheads, cleaned up sideburns, applied more potions and lotions, and left me both relaxed and alert.
 
Gornik has had a Beverly Hills barbershop nearby for years, with a local clientele, some of whom prefer the Montage location. It’s a real plus for hotel guests, but a little hard to find since there are no signs yet to lead one to the spot and only a discrete small barber pole marking the entrance. But William is a genuine gentleman’s barber who wields the straight-edged razor with aplomb, has lots of fine Hollywood stories to tell, and vintage Ella, Frank, Tony and Dean in the background. He’ll even tell you about the opening scene to the original “Oceans Eleven” that was shot at his barbershop.
 
 

 

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Going to Barbados forget the camouflage

 

Boilerplate PA announcements made upon arrival in port are usually pretty tame.  The ship has been cleared blahblah…we sail at yaddayadda…the temperature is yeahyeah.  

This time, shortly after Silver Shadow had sidled up to the quay in Bridgetown, Barbados, our endlessly chipper cruise director Kirk ended his welcoming speech with an intriguing final sentence that managed to yank us from shipboard torpor.

“Please do not wear camouflage clothing ashore,” he said.

What!

If CDK had hoped to slip that advisory tidbit in without anyone noticing, he hadn’t counted on bulldog reporters—that would be us—among the passengers.

I turned to Patti, doing the mysterious Internet things she does on her laptop. “Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?” she said, a little peeved at the distraction.

“The announcement that we shouldn’t wear camouflage clothing ashore,” I said.

“You probably heard it wrong,” she said. “It probably said not to wear Crocs ashore, since that footwear offends nearly everyone.”

But I don’t usually mishear when my senses have been fine-tuned by a pair of potent double cappuccinos. “No,” I said, “it was definitely camouflage.”

Patti gave a small nod of acknowledgment, but my mind began racing as long-dormant journalistic instincts kicked in. Maybe the shipboard lack of hard news, caused no doubt by the curse of the international satellite television channels that blanket the oceans of the world with endless cricket scores had obscured some earthshaking event in Barbados. Had some terror plot sent Barbados into a spasm of fear? Was there a coup attempt that has turned the island into a dangerous armed camp? Or, more sinister, had the local rum supply, ravaged by the hordes disgorged by ever-larger cruise ships, sunk to historically low levels?

While none of that seemed plausible, Barbados being a largely placid, friendly place governed by British niceties, laws, and language, we nonetheless  swung into action—and action aboard Silver Shadow means  tracking down Cruise Director Kirk for comment on why camouflage clothing was such a big no-no here. Cruises being what they are, however, that task took several days, since he is usually up to his elbows in the ebb and flow of Team Trivia. Finally, we found him in his office off the reception area.

What he did was to chuckle, which seemed inappropriate given the potential gravity of the situation.

“There was a bank robbery here years ago when the robbers wore camouflage clothing, and ever since it’s been banned on the island,” he said.

Really?

“Really,” he said. “We’ve had some passengers turned back.”

Well, there it was. One bank robbery was all it took to keep Barbados free of clothing that might, at any moment, be enlisted in the commission of crime.

All we could think of was: Where does that leave the Barbadan hip-hop community? Perhaps left only with Rasta-style Jamaican gear? Oh, the horror!

 

 

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