Monday, April 30, 2012

Urban Art: Street Koi

Recently I was up in San Francisco and happened to look down. There on the sidewalk was a school of peaceful koi goldfish gliding and swirling across the sidewalk at the northeast corner of Church and Cesar Chavez in Noe Valley. The funny thing is that I'd walked past this section of the sidewalk earlier in the day but hadn't noticed them as I'd failed to looked down.

A little online sleuthing and I learned about Jeremy Novy, a local street artist who has painted over 2000 koi in San Francisco. Some were commissioned. Others he stencils/paints over other graffiti to beautify less aesthetically appealing tagging.

I'm not certain if these particular koi are the work of Novy. But, I suspect even if they weren't made by his hand, they may have been inspired by his designs and desire to bring art and beauty within reach of everyday citizens. It was a special and refreshing moment to be able to enjoy them.

I know most of us are just trying to make it from point A to point B while surviving the hustle and bustle of our day to day lives. But for me, these koi were a reminder we should always take time to smell the roses and, when we're lucky enough to stumble upon them, be sure to take a minute to enjoy the street koi :)

A photography note: I took this image with my iPhone 4s using the Photojojo Fisheye Phone Lens. It's a magnetic lens and I love it! I then processed the image through the Snapseed iPhone app using the Tilt Shift filter.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Eric's Chinese Restaurant in Noe Valley, SF

The food was good and without a doubt this was the cleanest most efficiently run restaurant I've been in, well, perhaps, ever.

From the outside the tall paned windows were so sparkling clean I could see the bright white tablecloths draping the tables and thought it might be an expensive bistro.

A peek at the menu in the window and I realized it was a Chinese restaurant (that specializes in Hunan and Mandarin cuisine) with very moderately priced food! Pleased to have stumbled upon it I stepped inside. I was immediately greeted, and asked for a table for one. Menus are already on each table which expedites the seating process.

As I settled in I enjoyed the decor. With welcoming yellow walls, a beautifully carved, wooden dividing screen, and fresh orchids creating a sense of elegance, the restaurant ambience was much more upscale than one would expect given the price of the food.

A pot of tea and glass of water with a fresh lemon slice was at my table within moments.

I ordered the Asparagus with Black Bean Sauce ($7.50).

And a side of perfectly cooked, short grain, brown rice ($1.65). I wish more restaurants would offer short grain brown rice. As a whole grain It's a far healthier choice than the more widely available enriched white rice.

As I dined the restaurant quickly filled with lunchtime diners. And the waitstaff continued with outstanding service. They would spot whenever my water glass reached the halfway point and would come back to refill it immediately. I will definitely go back to Eric's again. They had a Szechwan Green Bean dish on the lunch specials I'd like to try.

Another nice touch. My check came with not just a fortune cookie but two glisteningly fresh orange wedges. Speaking of the check, the moment I folded my napkin and placed it on the table the check arrived.

So, not only was the food good, the service was so attentive it was impeccable. Percentage wise it was the largest tip I've left at a restaurant in a very long time. Thank you to Eric's for such an enjoyable dining experience.

Eric's Restaurant
1500 Church Street (at 27th)
San Francisco, CA 94131

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Want to take the Santa Cruz Food Tour?

You can! Last weekend I did, and without my foodie friend Carl. You may be thinking "How could she?" or "Poor Carl!" but have no fear, Carl was on his own adventure attending a friend's birthday party and literally hanging out with his friends Dan and Jean in Sacramento.

I know because he emailed me this picture he took with his iPhone. The subject line read:

"From Dan's Hammock"

So no need to feel bad for Carl. He survived just fine without me. LOL

On to the food tour! Last weekend I headed to Santa Cruz for a 3.5 hour long excursion that involved eating a lot of great food, drinking three new beverages, walking approximately 1.8 miles, and learning all about the history of Santa Cruz.

Our Santa Cruz Food Tour began at 2:00 PM. If you live over the hill in San Jose like I do and you sign up for a weekend tour during the summer, be sure to leave early as the traffic situation can clog up with beach-goers on HWY 17 from Los Gatos to Santa Cruz. Seriously. What is normally a 30 minute drive on a weekday (between commute times) can become an hour+ drive on the weekends. And you don't want to be late!

And don't forget, once you make it off the HWY you still have to find parking. That day the pay-garage at Cedar and Locust was full. So, using a tip I received in my Food Tour instructions email I was able to find a better (and free) alternative parking solution I never knew about right off Pacific Street!

Our first food stop included two kinds of pizza. Half of each pie was for meat eaters and half for vegetarians.

The vegetarian option included carmalized onions and spinach. The meat lovers side included beautifully browned bits of applewood smoked bacon, carmalized onions and fresh spinach. The crust was thin, crisp and tasty. It was nice and firm so you didn't have to use a fork and knife to eat it, you could lift it right up and it held its shape just fine. I would definitely go back and order this pizza again.

But even more than the pizza, I LOVED this salad. The toasted sesame dressing was so tasty and delicious! It's the kind of dressing you want to pour over everything on your plate! With peanuts and an assortment of fresh cucumbers, carrot and thinly sliced cabbage the salad was nice and crisp and the rice noodles only added to a great texture experience.

Yum X 10

After our first stop we took the scenic route to our second destination. Our guide Brion was very personable and crazy knowledgeable when it comes to the history of Santa Cruz. From the 1500's, to the rebuilding of the city and its businesses post Loma Prieta earthquake, to the present day his stories were interesting and engaging.

From the first mission to this South Pacific Coast Railroad tunnel I realized that in my ignorance I'd driven past many historically significant sights over the years without ever realizing how special they were. We now know where we can see one of the original trains that used this tunnel decades ago. It's on display in a national museum along with a picture taken at this location.

The walk itself is all flat except for one short but steep block up and a flight of stairs back down. If you get tired and don't want to walk the entire route there is an alternative route you can take later to meet back up with the group.

We also learned about this ancient conifer. The needles are quite unusual compared to most pine trees you've ever seen. I'll have to remember to take my mom by to see this tree when she comes to visit again. She loves plants.

And this isn't a picture of clover. This is a picture of quite literally, where the city of Santa Cruz was founded in the 1700's by a Spanish explorer. As Brion described how Monterey Bay was first discovered in the 1500' it made me want to learn even more about the history of this region.

We also learned about architecture. I learned quite a bit about the differences between Stick-Eastlake, Queen Anne, and Victorian architecture from Brion. I always thought I wanted to live in a Victorian someday. Now I know I've actually wanted to live in a Queen Anne.

And we didn't just see the outsides. We were a minute or two ahead of schedule so we stepped inside one of these classic homes for just a minute. That's Brion showing us the first electric light ever installed in Santa Cruz. And it still works! As he stood on the staircase landing I snuck behind him to get the picture of the stained glass window on the right. It was at the top of the stairs behind him. And the front door framed the stained glass window on the lower left.

And then it was time to move on to a scoop of buttery, toffee filled, artisan ice cream nested into a freshly baked waffle cone. I've been to this ice cream shop before but learned so much more that day. The thing I found the most interesting is the shop uses 2000 eggs each week! What do they do with all of those egg whites? They use them in their waffle cone recipe so they don't go to waste :)

And the other great thing? The tour is timed to the minute so the food is prepared and ready to be served the moment you walk through the door. Which means you don't have to wait in lines or for a table. That alone makes the tour experience an extra treat!

Our next stop was the one I found the most odd when I saw our itinerary for the day. We were going to sample olive oils and balsamic vinegars. Um. OK. As it turns out it was one of my favorite stops the entire day!

At The True Olive Connection I tried the three balsamic vinegars. I fell in love with the center bowl: Fig Balsamic. We were also able to sample many other flavors of both infused balsamics and even an 18 year old balsamic. One sip and I told Brion I could totally see myself enjoying a glass of the vinegar the way others drink wine. LOL. It was delicious! Sweet with a bit of tanginess.

Brion explained to us the differences between the olive oils you see in your local supermarkets and the estate grown oils that are of higher quality like the ones we were sampling that day.

But there was more. There were olive oils that would blow your mind. And the shop had combined pairings of infused balsamic vinegars and infused olive oils that complemented each other. WOW they were great! My favorite combinations were the Blood Orange Olive Oil with the Dark Chocolate Balsamic, the Lemon Olive Oil with Espresso Vinegar, and the Chipotle Olive Oil with Tangerine Balsamic.

Balsamic Vinegar Soda Recipe

And then came something that literally blew my mind. I noticed some dixie cups on a table and thought they were water. Wrong! They were a combination of Perrier and Black Cherry Balsamic Vinegar. it was SO GOOD! It tasted like Cherry Coke but not too sweet and with a little tangy kick. I pretty much gave up soda years ago but this, this is a healthier soda option. You can use any flavor of balsamic and the infused flavors just make it even better! When I asked, Brion said the mix is approximately five parts Perrier to 1 part balsamic. The recipe comes from The True Olive Connection. When I made it at home the next day I used:

  • 7 parts perrier - Which equaled out to one small 8.45 oz bottle (250ml) and a shot glass of balsamic.
  • 1 part infused (I used fig) balsamic vinegar
  • Stir
  • Pour into cute glasses to serve
It's so easy! Great on a hot day and I can't wait to have it with a pasta dinner :D

I couldn't leave without purchasing a bottle of the fig balsamic but want to also get a few more flavors for soda including the Black Cherry and Apricot. Here's the link to their online shop in case you'd like to try it too :) They also offer a Sampler Pack in case you'd like to try several oils and vinegars.

Our next stop was a fun beach themed cafe. While most of the other diners enjoyed angus sliders, as a vegetarian I received two large, breaded, and french fried fresh avocado slices. OMAF (Oh My Avocado Fries)! They were so delicious. Just looking at this pictures makes my mouth water! I will definitely go back to have them again. It's a good thing I don't live in Santa Cruz because I'd want to go have them every day :) And even though the lettuce was a garnish so there was no fork, I dipped each piece in the dip and ate them because the dipping sauce was so yummy I couldn't stop myself. Well, not that I tried very hard, or at all, to stop myself. LOL

And while everyone else enjoyed a flight of beer that included locally brewed selections. . .

As a non-beer drinker I was treated to this very cute and summery Acai Lemonade Freeze. I loved it too! Not too sweet and very refreshing. This stop was a win-win for me.

I have to say I thought it was wonderful to have my non-alcohol and meat requests attended to with so much consideration. The substitutions offered weren't second best options. The restaurant went all out to give me an equal experience to everyone else. Which is really nice because there have been times in the past when the attitude has been, "Oh you don't eat meat? Well there's nothing for you here then." The Santa Cruz Food Tour arranging accommodations like this definitely scored them extra points in my book :D

Our final destination was a cuisine I've never had before: Sri Lanken food.

The first course was a Banana Lassi with delicate saffron petals.

As they absorbed the moisture from the lassi the petals released the vivid yellow color saffron is known for. We were instructed to stir the petals into the drink and enjoy! And it was a very generously sized drink.

The first plates arrived and were set between each pair of diners. We shared the vegetable rotis, which were also very generous portions, that came with extra curry and a sriracha chili sauce.

The vegetable roti is another dish I will go back to enjoy again.

And our final dish was a crisp and refreshing Banana Blossom Salad. I noticed the restaurant plated a special serving for the diner sitting beside me because he was allergic to peanuts.

I really learned a lot on this tour. Not only where to dine but the rich history of the city of Santa Cruz and that not everyone is cut out to be a tour guide. It definitely takes a certain type of sociable, organized, punctual and energized personality to do this and do it well. Brion was great! He was easy going, friendly and knowledgable. He made the afternoon an absolute pleasure and I'd like to thank him for inviting me on the tour.

If you're a local or out-of-towner looking for a fun and tasty experience, and the pictures in this post have your stomach growling and your mouth watering, I would highly recommend experiencing a Santa Cruz Food Tour for yourself. They also offer gift certificates which would be a really neat gift idea for the foodie in your life :)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Yes, that's a magnetic, fisheye lens on my phone!

I've been posting images taken with my iPhone and the tiny magnetic lens for the past few days. Most were featured in my visit to San Juan Bautista. When I take it out in public people definitely notice it and have questions about how it works so I wanted to show you just how easy it is to use.

I found it online in the Photojojo camera accessories store. I've always wanted a fisheye lens but here's the thing, the MFT (Micro Four Thirds) 180º lens for my Panasonic GF2 camera retails for $629 and I didn't think I'd use it often enough to justify that price. Panasonic introduced a fisheye adapter for $149 but it only has a 120º view. But Photojojo's lens retails for $25 and has a 180º view. Sold!

The lens is 1" in diameter and has a magnetic ring on the more narrow back end. For most phones the standard mount ring stickers work fine. For the iPhone 4 and 4s a small notch is removed to allow the light from the flash to work when the lens is not in place.

The silver side is magnetic, the white is the sticker backing for the adhesive side.

The magnet attaches to a metal ring that attaches to your phone with adhesive. You'll receive two iPhone 4/4s notched rings and two standard rings.

When you place the ring on your phone you'll want to make sure to align the cut out to not interfere with or block your camera flash / flashlight if you have an iPhone 4 or 4s.

This is the back of the lens. That small inner ring is the magnet. Some geeky friends at dinner wondered if it would interfere with the compass built into the iPhone. It did a little as they floated the lens near the camera but not severely. While completely off or attached there wasn't any noticeable interference.

You just place the lens over the ring and it will hold in place.

A side view.

The magnet is definitely strong enough to hold the lens to the camera but not so strong that I would store it there. The lens can be knocked off fairly easily so I remove it between shots if I'll be walking or moving around a lot.

Once the lens is on the camera the one thing you will want to do is make sure it's perfectly aligned around the opening of the built in camera lens. If you don't align it evenly the lens can cast a shadow along one side of your picture.

The magnetic lens also comes with a small, flat, disc to stick to the back when the lens is not in use to protect it.

It's so easy!

And the front comes with a plastic lens cover.

It snaps on over the face of the lens.

The only thing it doesn't include is a carrying case.

So I sewed a small silk pouch to tuck it into when not in use.

Safe and sound in my purse.

And what kind of pictures will the lens take?

Shooting in low light works better than without it because the fisheye is a wide angle lens so it lets in more light. Also the wider an object is, like a building, the more of it the fisheye will include because of its wide angle capabilities.

Shooting tall objects, like this LED wrapped palm tree at night, turns them into dynamic forms. The closer you are to something tall the greater the distortion effect of the fisheye will be.

Snapseed Tilt Shift Filter

If you're into street photography and use editing apps like Snapseed, Instagram or Histagram the fisheye is a must! Read more about this image in my Urban Art: Street Koi post.

Photographing small objects close up can make them look larger than they are.

And if you know people who like to make goofy faces in pictures the fisheye will exaggerate their expressions.

The fisheye turns ordinary into extraordinary.

So cool. I used it like crazy on a day trip to San Juan Bautista.

CLICK HERE to learn more about this lens on the Photojojo website and use the FAQ link to answer any questions you may have. There are also magnetic macro and zoom lenses that come as a 3 lens kit for the iPhone, a remote shutter release, a tripod attachment and a boom mic. All for the iPhone!