Poor Russell. He had just enough time to slow down to twenty miles an hour while I tucked and rolled out of the rental car and into the Ritz Carlton Marina del Rey. Originally we weren't supposed to fly to L.A. until Tuesday but Russell's schedule changed to accommodate a rash of meetings the day before. I couldn't believe Russell had enough energy to go directly from our nine hour flight from Tokyo, to a meeting with his clients. By the time he got back to the hotel that night, he'd been up for almost 36 hours. That man has some skills.
Russell was in town for the L.A. Auto Show, and since it was the week before Thanksgiving we decided to make it our holiday home trip. And since we wouldn't be coming back for Christmas, I decided to have Christmas early. Clearly I love stress, and strive to create it wherever I go, as I decided this the weekend before we left for L.A.. Yeah, my decision made a lot of sense. Try to squeeze in what usually takes two months worth of shopping and wrapping into two weeks. Smart. This resulted in a fervor of last minute Christmas shopping and manic packing to ensure I had covered all our family and friends.
I decided this year's holiday theme would be Asian. Shocking, I know. But I wanted to bring a little of our experiences home with us. We purchased yukatas (Summer kimonos - aka robes), sake sets, Japanese candy and solar toys, chop sticks and various Asian bowls as gifts. Aside from the six rolls of gorgeous washi paper I bought to wrap the yukatas, I decided to wait till we got to the U.S. so I could use Chinese take-out boxes for the rest of the gifts. You can buy them for 79 cents at the Container Store, among other places. A brilliant plan until I got there and discovered the washi paper rolls only covered one yukata each. They were $6.00 a roll. I just added another $6.00 to each gift which was already over budget. Holy shit! Russell doesn't need to know.
The extra day was a blessing in disguise since there was no way in hell I would have had time to run around town purchasing wrapping paper, last minute gifts and actually wrap them. All my days were booked solid with lunches and dinners so that we could see pretty much everybody we know in ten days.
With the help of my dear friend Lynn, I picked up my car, aka PLB (Pretty Little Bitch), at the storage place she'd been staying in Downey. PLB was bitchy as expected. I thought she might be a tad temperamental given she'd been neglected since May. I mean she was staying in a nice place. They kept a trickle charge on her, started her up once a week and made sure her tires had air and her fluids were topped off. But noooooo. This was not good enough for her and she expressed her dismay by refusing to hold a charge and not starting when I came to pick her up. I had to spring for a new battery when the one she had was less than two years old. I suddenly felt like a sugar daddy, placating my twenty year old mistress. "Come on baby. You know I didn't mean it. Here's a new diamond bracelet, now give me some sugar."
While Russell went to the Auto Show, I drove from Marina Del Rey to Westwood, then down to Costa Mesa and five stores in-between, before meeting my sister for dinner at Macaroni Grill in Long Beach. Of course I had to stop at Juniors in Westwood for lunch, specifically for the best matzo ball soup ever! Hey, it's medicinal. For the past three days my body was threatening to catch a cold. Which I kept ignoring because that usually works.
I practically fell asleep on the waiting bench of the Macaroni Grill until my sister showed up with two dozen roses and a warm hug. Thanks I needed that, the hug, not the roses. They were a bonus.
Being the planning freak I am, I had actually created an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of our many appointments and to ensure we made it to all our favorite restaurants.
Like Border Grill for example. Not surprisingly Mexican food and Karin and Tom were one of the first must do's on our list. Over spicy cucumber and jalapeno margaritas we were reminded why, even though we don't talk for weeks, when we get together it's just like yesterday. It's the banter. It's goes something like this. Tom said something he thought would be funny. I don't laugh. He points out that what he just said was supposed to be funny. I tell him I know but that particular comment was unusually un-amusing. I helpfully suggest that in the future he raise his index finger prior to saying something funny so I know when to laugh. The rest of the evening is punctuated by his finger, raised in warning that something, clearly funny, is about to happen. This continues a week later when we see them again at another gathering.
The next night we meet Alan and Susan for some of the most exalted wine in California and the undisputed best chocolate cake ever. Alan knows the manager at The Palm in Beverly Hills. Not my favorite steak house like STK but it is when Alan and Susan are there. The food is great, the wine amazing and the friendship enduring. The manager is especially amusing. It's uncanny how he shows up the second a new bottle is being opened, and brings "friends" (female and busty) to the table for a "taste."
Saturday night was better than expected. Russell's entire family joined us for dinner at a nearby steakhouse. Even the wine list was good. The plates were embarrassingly large and the bill was surprisingly small by Tokyo standards. Russell and I shared a wedge salad and a ribeye and felt like we got away with something.
Russell's parents rolled out the red carpet for us including a Christmas tree and our first Thanksgiving Turkey of the week. Little did they know we had brought Christmas with us too. It was like Santa had shown up when we put all the gifts for the family under their tree. It was the best of both holidays. It snowed when I went for a run in the morning. Football played on the TV all day. Russell's mom even made a chocolate cream pie, at least that's what she said it was, for Russell's upcoming birthday. He was actually born on Thanksgiving day 46 years ago. We were stuffed enough for both holidays.
Monday and Tuesday were Saatchi days - my old job. I had lunch with Sam and then dinner and drinks with Gwen and Conrad. It reminded me how much I miss them.
Wednesday I took my niece out for her, gulp, twentieth birthday which was November 8th. Just think - next year she can drink! Hmmm, what should I start her on? White Zinfandel? Riesling? Or my first - the good stuff - Boones Farm Tickled Pink? Do they even make that anymore? We had a great day shopping and then had lunch at Open Sesame in Long Beach. It was so amazing talking to her. We covered the gamut from fashion, to politics, from boyfriend to God. Fitting considering her boyfriend's name is Jesus.
That night our neighbors Geoff, Olga and their pretty little five year old, Avery, hosted us to a gigantic Salmon and a raucous game of WTF. Look it up - it's raunchy fun. Lynn and Greg brought heavenly homemade cheesecake which we had to share with the others. Damn. After dinner Karin and Tom and Susan and Alan joined us for some more revelry.
The next day was doctor appointments. Ugh. Then I met my old Wine Not club friends Caryn, Lisa and Gwen, at Terranea in Palos Verdes. It was just like old times, stimulating, provocative conversation with amazing women. We drank pinot noir overlooking the Pacific and watched the sun melt into a frothy pink and cobalt ocean. Sublime.
We took them to dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant from my childhood - the infamous Mario's - home of the best refried beans ever made, most likely still made with real lard. I'm OK with that. That's what tequila is for - cutting the fat. But apparently it doesn't cure colds. By that time I had a doozy.
The next day was Thanksgiving. To my surprise my niece, her boyfriend Jesus, and my nephew Brandon, all got up early to run the Long Beach Turkey Trot with Russell and me. There was a lot of trash talk in the car on the way over to the 8am race. But in the end, even with a lousy cold, I finished first at 26:32, Russell second at 28 and change, followed by Brandon who was actually sweating (a first) at 31:58, and finally Jesus and Alyece. Apparently Alyece had told Jesus they should walk across the finish line together hand in hand, although secretly she had every intention of sprinting ahead at the last minute. To her surprise Jesus had the same plan and left her in the dust the last ten yards. I stood at the finish line encouraging all of them to hustle, yelling enthusiastically "get that pie, get that pie".
Free pies are bestowed upon some of the finishers. Several minutes were spent theorizing how this is determined. I thought it was based on bib number. Others speculated on attractiveness and thigh width. Our neighbors Geoff and Olga were there too with the darling Avery. "Get that pie Avery!!" If anyone could get a pie - it would have been her. But none of us got a pie.
Russell did spring for Starbucks and IHop. Good man. I keep him a little while longer. We counted the number of times Brandon said the word "like" over pancakes and eggs. In spite of the vernacular it's been pretty spectacular to witness my nephew grow from a kid who did funny things, to a young adult with a great sense of humor, not counting the "likes."
As usual Dave, my brother-in-law, out did himself. It's the smoked turkeys. They get me every time. Turkey was preceded by Christmas presents for the entire family. They weren't expecting it, so it was especially nice to observe their reactions to the gifts.
The next day, after another trip to Open Sesame, we checked into the boutique Long Beach Hotel Avia. My grandmother used to say, guests, like fish, start to smell after three days. We stayed at my sister's for four nights. The hotel was nicer than we expected, especially given the reasonable price.
Since we would be on an airplane traveling back to Tokyo on Russell's actual birthday, I had planned some celebratory experiences for him. Unlike Triscuits and See's candies like me, the thing Russell misses the most about California is going out on our Duffy boat. So I rented one and we tooled around Los Alamitos Bay, admiring the newly minted Christmas lights. Then we met our friends Eric and Deanna at Michael's, our favorite Italian restaurant in Long Beach for dinner.
Saturday was a whirlwind of shopping for things we need that we refuse to pay double for in Tokyo.
We had to buy an extra piece of luggage just to hold it all. Best of all we got to eat at Marche Modern, my favorite restaurant for lunch in the South Coast Plaza. I told you we were eating our way through the trip.
That night we had dinner at the newly redesigned home of some friends in Palos Verdes. The drive across the bridges overlooking the ocean was spectacular as is their home. It's amazing. I'm jealous. Lynn has excellent taste. Dinner was Prime Beef and gargantuan shrimp. We were flattered to be the honored guest of such an elegant meal. Kristen and Ben brought her amazing buckeyes and fudge for dessert. Heaven had arrived!!! We couldn't believe the plate made it around the table twice. Thankfully only Russell and I knew how good they are and were able to take what we wanted before the secret was out and the plate emptied.
After dinner, Christmas broke out again. I loved watching our friends open their gifts. I'm so glad we didn't ask them to wait until Christmas to open them like Russell wanted to do. Even the kids seemed pleased with the Japanese candy, plastic Ninja stars, and solar operated pandas. I mean who doesn't want a solar operated panda? Everyone donned their yukatas and chop sticks for a group picture.
And then it was our last day, which I had dedicated to Russell's birthday. It started with a relaxation massage at Complexions, followed by lunch at Islands. Hey, it was his call. I suggested the Montage in Laguna Hills. He's a simple man. He wanted Island french fries. Who could blame him - they are the best. Our gusto was only momentarily suspended by the nutrition menu and the whopping 1,350 calories in a Maui burger. We always shared that in the past, thinking we were being good. We were mortified to discover that it's 675 calories per half, not counting the endless Island fries with a side of ranch and the compulsory strawberry daiquiri. Holy shit - that's equivalent to the calories we eat in a week in Tokyo! But then we thought - WTF - it's his birthday. Just for fun we ordered dessert too - the Lava pie - 1,050 calories. Hah! We're living large - literally.
After lunch we waddled through the South Coast plaza to finish our shopping. I bought Russell a black velvet jacket and a new G-shock watch for his birthday. Lord, that man does look good in velvet. He may seriously need an ascot now.
Our last dinner in the States was at The Hobbit in Orange of all places. This place is Zagat rated the best restaurant in Orange County, which is not saying much. Any Californian will tell you Orange County is not known for its dining, unless you like chain restaurants. We wanted to try it because of the "best" rating. We were pleasantly surprised. Turns out the Hobbit is a charming old house. The meal starts in the wine cellar. They serve reasonably good champagne and darn tasty appetizers while you peruse the impressive wine selection. Pretty good marketing tactic I thought. Better than scrutinizing a wine list.
The young and un-experienced staff serving the champagne was a bit haughty I thought. After overhearing one of them rodomontade about the one bottle of Petrus they had in stock, I sauntered over and asked if they had any Screaming Eagle. I was snottily rebuffed with, "we don't stock that over-priced swill." Really? I wasn't arguing. I just wondered if they had it.
The dinner was delicious in spite of the somewhat pretentious staff. I would expect the service to be accomplished given the price, but it wasn't like the restaurant was sophisticated. Russell had to remind me it wasn't Tokyo. Oh yeah. Neither was the price tag - thankfully.
The multi-course dinner started with an amuse bouche of shrimp and smoked salmon, followed by a scrumptious pear and candied nut salad, encored by a rich soup. Then there was a tasty quail course which rivaled the quail dish at Commander's Palace in New Orleans. Next came intermission. Novel idea. This allowed the guests to visit the rest of the home, including the pre-war kitchen which made the meal even more amazing. The second half started with blackberry sorbet. I'm in! Yummy. Then there was the requisite beef filet and potato. Dessert was forgettable but good. All in all we were quite satisfied but I would go to STK next time, instead.
The next day, Russell's birthday, we got upgraded to first class on American. I got my own pod! I was ecstatic. Did you know you get regular size wine glasses and they serve you meals like you're in a fine restaurant? Who knew. The service was great! Even so, I don't think it's worth the catastrophic price difference. Business class is pretty nice. Course I'd like to see if the difference is more dramatic on JAL, the airline we usually fly back and forth to Japan. I mean, American Airlines isn't what it used to be.
The next morning we woke up in our bed in Tokyo at 3:30 in the morning. Ranger sneaked into bed with us. We woke up again at 6:30 am and I made coffee. It was overcast as usual and at 8am the cacophonous gaggle of kids could be heard heading to school. It was as if the whirlwind trip home had never happened. Well, except for the extra six pounds Russell discovered when he weighed himself that morning. I'm too afraid to get on the scale.