March 28, 2012

Seaside fun found in San Diego

Posted in Between Us column, Travel, Women at 4:31 pm by dinaheng

The best thing about traveling with your sister is having a companion who knows your tastes and habits, and doesn’t hold it against you.

My sister Linda and I recently spent a lovely weekend in San Diego, a beautiful city on the California coastline that offers everything from whale watching and tours of historic ships to shopping and dining in ethnic neighborhoods. And that’s just a fraction of the fun we were able to squeeze into our two-and-a-half day trip.

Our first stop on Friday afternoon was at the Maritime Museum of San Diego (www.sdmaritime.org), which boasts an amazing collection of historic ships that visitors can walk through and experience first-hand. Aboard the Star of India, which launched in 1863, we watched a group of school children turn the wheel that hoisted a sail under the watchful eye of a museum instructor in period costume.

“Aye, aye, Captain, sir!” the students called out, enthusiastically, as they took turns at the capstan.

The exhibits, which chronicle the adventures of the immigrant ship and commercial vessel, were fun to walk through. We marveled at the size of the bunks, which must have accommodated very short sailors.

After a peek at HMS Surprise, a replica of a late 18th century Royal Navy frigate used in the production of “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” we went down the hatch of a B-39 Soviet attack submarine built in 1974 that was one of a fleet of Soviet subs that shadowed U.S. Navy ships during the Cold War.

Linda was a good sport about indulging my museum-going interest. I know she’s the type who can run through museums that don’t interest her, so I thought this unique collection of ships would offer an interactive experience she’d enjoy.

There’s no better way to learn about history, after all, than to put yourself in the shoes of the past, and this unique museum was definitely worth the visit to both of us. Admission costs range from $8 for children 6 to 12 to $14 for adults. Children 5 and under are free. The museum also offers an historic Bay cruise for $3, with museum admission, on the Pilot, a restored 1914 boat that ferried harbor pilots to merchant ships entering San Diego Bay.

Not far from the Maritime Museum was another amazing and inspiring museum — the U.S.S. Midway, an aircraft carrier that was converted into a naval aviation museum in 2004 (http://www.midway.org/). We didn’t spend enough time at this stop, but were able to take in the planes on the hanger deck, the officers’ quarters, kitchen, and, of course, the gift shop.

Next on our itinerary was a stop at nearby Seaport Village (http://www.seaportvillage.com/), a sweet shopping and restaurant destination on West Harbor Drive. Visitors will find more than 50 shops and 17 eateries here, perfect for those looking to spend some tourist dollars.

Linda, who LOVES to shop, enjoyed walking through various boutiques to check out their island-themed merchandise. My favorite shops were the Upstart Crow, a bookstore and coffeehouse that had wonderful children’s books and gifts, and Silver Crossing, a jewelry shop that specializes in silver, crosses and inspirational gifts. Since I don’t have pierced ears (and refuse to poke holes in them), I loved that you could buy any pair of earrings here and have them converted on the spot to clip earrings.

“My dad retired from the Navy and learned how to be a silversmith,” says Cindy McAdams, the owner of Silver Crossing. “My mom designed jewelry sometimes, and they taught me most everything I know.”

It’s always nice to see interests pass down to the next generation, and yes, I bought a lovely pair of dangling rose quartz earrings. After McAdams converted them to clip earrings, Linda suggested that I wear them through dinner so that I’d know if they needed further adjusting before we left Seaport Village.

When it came time for dinner, Linda and I sampled the offerings at the Edgewater Grill (http://www.edgewatergrill.com/), one of several eateries at Seaport Village. The restaurant, which features views of San Diego Bay and Coronado Island, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a happy hour at the bar from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., Monday to Saturday.

The dinner menu includes appetizers that range from $9.95 for three sliders to $14.95 for steamed clams or ceviche. We sampled the fried calamari ($12.50), which were crispy with the right amount of salt, and a cup of New England clam chowder ($5.95) for our starters.

The menu offers everything from an Ahi Salad for $19.95 to gourmet pizzas for $14.95. Linda, who loves Mexican food, decided to try the fresh fish tacos ($16.95), which came with grilled white sea bass and avocado cilatro crema on corn tortillas with ficama slaw. While the fish had a nice flavor, she thought the two tacos were somewhat tasteless.

I chose the seared scallops ($26.95), which came with slow roasted garlic potatoes and mixed vegetables. The scallops had a lovely applewood smoked bacon ibeurre blanc sauce over them, but the mixed vegetables were a mixed bag — the zucchini was nicely done, but the carrots weren’t cooked enough, for my taste.

There were numerous dessert options, and we chose the apple pear strudel with vanilla ice cream ($8), which made a sweet, conventional ending to the meal. For a dinner menu that offers a little something for everyone, The Edgewater Grill hits the spot.

After dinner, my earlobes started complaining that the new earrings needed further adjustment, so we headed back to Silver Crossing before it closed.

“See?” said Linda. “Aren’t you glad you wore them through dinner?”

Yes, it’s true — sisters often know best.

March 23, 2012

Love makes splendid movie magic

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Movies, Women at 3:56 am by dinaheng

Second chances at love come in all shapes, sizes and situations. If you’re in the mood for romantic tales that will give you a smile, you’ll find it in offerings this month that will  take you to Mars, Paris, and the Yemen.

First, love of the extraterrestrial kind… “John Carter,” an epic, action-adventure film based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic, “A Princess of Mars,” has been called a box office flop, projected by Disney to lose $200 million or more.

Personally, I don’t get it. I thoroughly enjoyed “John Carter.” Having never read the Burroughs’ novel, I didn’t know what to expect when I went to the film. While I wouldn’t call the performances Oscar-worthy, the movie was a fun, entertaining ride.

Yes, the film follows in the shadow of “Star Wars” and “Avatar”-like movies, but the 1917 tale of John Carter clearly inspired many of today’s well-known authors and filmmakers.

In this version, Confederate soldier John Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch) is transported to Barsoom (Mars) and unites warring tribes to save Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) from a treacherous plot to control the planet’s future. The American Civil War veteran, who battles a mysterious enemy and his own regrets, must move heaven and Earthly forces to be with his princess love.

If you’re in the mood for a popcorn film that has great special effects, a smart heroine, and a story bound for a happy ending, “John Carter” offers a mindless escape to love.

If you’re after more thoughtful fare, “Delicacy” offers a nuanced tale of what happens when Nathalie (Audrey Tautou), a lovely and successful Parisian business executive, suddenly loses her soul mate after a happy, short-lived marriage. After burying herself in work, it’s an awkward, ordinary looking subordinate named Markus (Francois Damiens) who brings back her joie de vivre in this French language film.

The delicate question of whom we should love, and what they should look like, is deftly explored through the dismay of friends and co-workers as Nathalie comes to realize she’s falling in love with the ugly duckling, good-hearted Swedish man who dares to woo his boss.

Tautou, whom many viewers will recognize from “The DaVinci Code” or “Amelie,” brings a beautifully expressive face to a character that anyone will understand — regardless of whether or not you read the English sub-titles. “Delicacy” is a sweet reminder that love will always find us, if we just open the door.

Opening the door to love, of course, requires opening the door to faith, something that  British fisheries expert Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) learns when he’s dragged into a wealthy shiek’s dream of bringing fly-fishing to the desert land of Yemen by the shiek’s quietly supportive London representative, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) in the wonderful romantic comedy, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.”

This adaptation of Paul Torday’s novel is a wonderfully inspiring tale of what can happen when far-fetched impossibilities are shown to be not so impossible after all. For just as the shiek (Amr Waked) dreams of a time when his country will not be torn by violence, and fly-fishing becomes a common past-time that all can enjoy, Jones realizes that his unspoken dream of having true love can also come true, if he’s brave enough to walk away from a bad marriage and tell the woman he loves how he really feels.

On one level, we are all salmon, running upstream in hopes of finding love and rebirth. And on another level, we must all learn to be better fishermen. For as the shiek asks, “How many hours do you fish before you catch something?”  It’s often a long time, he notes, before you get a nibble on your line.

But if you’re a  true fisherman and persist, he says, “in the end, you’re rewarded for your faith… with a fish.”

For a joyous, witty affirmation of the power of love and faith, be sure to catch “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.”

March 14, 2012

Scarpetta shines at modern Italian cuisine

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Travel at 7:44 pm by dinaheng

A long, thin bar runs the length of the entrance to Scarpetta in Las Vegas, parallel to a series of semi-private cubby-hole tables set into the opposite wall. It’s a cool, contemporary look that sets the tone for the menu and dining experience at celebrity chef Scott Conant’s home for Italian cuisine in Sin City, located on the third floor of The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.

Like the other four Scarpetta restaurants — in New York, Beverly Hills, Miami, and Toronto — the Vegas rendition offers a modern interpretation to Italian classics, starting with Conant’s signature spaghetti with tomato and basil, served al dente with lots of basil and a hint of red chili flakes.

About a third of the menu is comprised of Conant staples, with the rest of the offerings created around what’s available locally. Vegas may be in the desert, but the restaurant imports fresh produce and meat from neighboring California.

Bread lovers will swoon over the four Italian bread offerings — filone, a classic yeast bread similar in texture to the French baguette; a whole wheat foccacia, stromboli filled with meat and cheese, and ciabattini. But don’t fill up too fast because there’s so much more to savor.

Primi piatti standouts include the roasted chestnut soup ($15), a delicious fricasse of black truffle mushrooms with polenta ($17), and Executive Chef Dan Rossi’s roasted sea scallop with cauliflower, bottarga, chili and caper salmoriglio ($18).

The one small disappointment amidst the pasta offerings was the short rib agnolotti ($25), which was more gamey in taste than expected. Entrees range from roasted organic chicken ($31) and black cod ($32) to a 24 oz. beef ribeye ($62). Meat lovers will be happy with the Colorado lamb loin ($40), which came nearly rare, accompanied by eggplant, artichokes and pearl onion.

Wine connoisseurs will appreciate the restaurant’s extensive wine collection. However, it’s a shame that the odd-shaped dining room, which offers a splendid view of the Bellagio water fountains and Strip, is so dimly lit with a monotone feel. Food so delectable should be served in a more distinctive setting.

For dessert, don’t miss the coconut panna cotta ($11) with coconut sorbetto, guava soup and pineapple. The Amedei chocolate cake, with toasted almond gelato and salted caramel sauce ($11) is a close second.

A signature tasting menu ($110 per person) with two appetizers, pasta, two entrees and dessert will leave diners more than satisfied.

The service here is impeccable, with a wait staff that anticipates when you need more water in your glass, or a new fork for the next course. But traditionally stuffy this place is not.

“The trend in fine dining is refined, but approachable,” explains Executive Chef Dan Rossi, who joined Scarpetta after serving as executive chef of the former David Burke Las Vegas restaurant in the Venetian Hotel down the Strip. “We offer incredible quality at a reasonable price. You can come here in a t-shirt and jeans and feel comfortable. It’s the new wave of fine dining.”

Rossi, who favors wearing a black chef’s coat and jeans, is passionate about the dishes he and his staff of 26 create. He credits his boss with creating a restaurant concept that’s easy for foodies to love.

“Scott is very down to earth and knows what he wants,” Rossi says. “The food is straight-forward, so it was a natural fit for me. Italian food is genuine. It’s very rustic and peasant-like, but we have a certain sophistication here. Scott calls it modern Italian.”

Rossi, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, started cooking at 14 years old, and did his share of washing dishes and prep work in an Italian family restaurant before attending the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in Pittsburgh. He’s studied with a number of notable chefs, including Alessandro Stratta, working at four of his restaurants.

“I knew I wanted to do this at a young age,” Rossi says. “I’m a perfectionist in the kitchen. Sometimes I’ll raise my voice, or throw something, to get things moving. But I want people to have a great memory of their experience here. I’ve worked at a lot of great restaurants, and what people get here is incredible.”

Buon appetito!

For hours and menu information, check out http://www.cosmopolitanlasvegas.com/taste/restaurant-collection/scarpetta.aspx on the Internet.

March 7, 2012

Stroll through Monet’s ‘Impressions of Light’

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Travel at 6:18 pm by dinaheng

The Bellagio Las Vegas is known for many things, such as its dancing water fountain show, gourmet dining, and high end casino gaming featured in the 2001 remake of “Ocean’s Eleven.”

What many visitors may not realize is that the art gallery in the movie actually exists at the resort, as well. A hidden treasure that would delight any art afficionado, the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art lies down a corridor past the guest rooms and shops, offering a peaceful respite from the sound of slot machine trills and roulette wheels.

The current exhibition, “Claude Monet…Impressions of Light,” features 20 works by the famous French impressionist, along with eight other paintings by Monet’s predecessors and contemporaries, including Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Camille Pissarro, Eugene Louis Boudin, Constant Troyon, Charles Francois Daubigny, and Paul Signac (a neo-Impressionist whose Pointillist style followed Impressionism).

The 11-month show, organized in partnership with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, will be on display until Jan. 6, 2013.

“We’re getting an overwhelming response to this exhibition,” says Tarissa Tiberti, director of the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art. “The past couple of shows have been summaries of the figure and landscape. I thought this would be a good time to go deeper into Impressionism. The whole show is dedicated to one genre. It’s also a bit more what visitors are used to seeing.”

The gallery space is small and can be toured in less than half an hour, but the exhibition is nicely mounted, and visitors can take a self-guided tour with audio wands that are included in the price of admission. A docent-led tour is also offered daily at 2 p.m.

The $15 general admission fee seems excessive, given that admissions to entire art museums across the country are comparable in price, or slightly higher. But since gaming revenue isn’t what it used to be, ancillary casino attractions are clearly expected to help make up the difference.

The paintings in this exhibit span four decades of Monet’s career, and include many of his most recognized works, including “Camille Monet and a Child in the Artist’s Garden in Argenteuil,” 1875 and “Charring Cross Bridge (Overcast Day),” 1900.

Monet’s words on one wall of the gallery reveal a perspective that could be said of life itself: “For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life, the air and the light, which vary continually… For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere that gives subjects their true value.”

For those who would like to have a more interactive conversation about the exhibition, the gallery offers “Art & Wine” talks every second Wednesday of the month.

“Jason Smith, the master sommelier and wine director at the Bellagio, pairs wines — and possibly champagnes — with the artwork,” explains Tiberti. “He will talk about the wine selections, and I talk about the artwork.

Tiberti says the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art is the only fine art museum in a casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

“Thirteen percent of our visitors are locals, and the rest are tourists who come from all over,” she notes. “We provide a unique, intimate viewing experience. It’s a chance to get away from the casinos, and provides a different kind of entertainment. It’s different from the norm of what you expect to see in Vegas.”

Hours of admission are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, with last admission at 7:30 p.m . General admission, $15; Nevada residents, $12; Wednesday Locals Night from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. ($8 admission with valid Nevada ID); Seniors 65 and older, $12; Students/Teachers/Military, $10; Children 12 and Under, free.

For more information, call (702) 693-7870, or check out http://www.bellagio.com/attractions/gallery-of-fine-art.aspx on the Internet.