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A private lesson with Pascal January 27, 2009

Posted by Peter Hornby in food&wine, local.
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Pascal Olhats has been one of Orange County’s top chefs and restaurateurs for decades.  He’s originally from Normandy, trained in France and Belgium and worked under the legendary Paul Bocuse in Lyon.  His flagship restaurant, originally called simply Pascal, and relaunched three years ago as Tradition by Pascal, is always right at the top of the list when the region’s best classic French restaurants are talked of, despite its unlikely location in a strip mall near John Wayne airport. 

So, it was birthday week.  Mine was last Monday and our friend Stuart celebrated his on Tuesday.  We’ve often enjoyed combined birthday dinners, but this was something different.  Stuart had won a 6-seat private cooking class with Pascal in a silent auction at a fundraising event, and he’d been kind enough to extend an invitation to Lorraine and me to be part of the evening. 

So, six of us, Lorraine and I, Stuart, his husband Jeff, and two mutual friends, John and Chris, met up at around six in Pascal’s lovely little gourmet deli, a little nervous about the extent to which our cooking chops would be put to the test.  We needn’t have worried.  Pascal arrived, introduced himself and immediately put us at our ease.  We dressed in kitchen aprons and were led through into the kitchen we were going to use.  Pascal popped a bottle of white Bordeaux, pointed us at a tray of nibbles, and distributed the evening’s menu.

As it turned out, the cooking lesson mainly involved the six of us watching closely, glass in hand, as Pascal prepared the food.  Lorraine stripped some thyme stalks, and I peeled some tomatoes, but that was pretty much the extent of our hands-on involvement.

Pascal started off with a pasta dish – egg fettucine with Rocquefort sauce.  It seemed pretty simple, and ended up unbelievably rich and tasty.  A couple of mouthfuls was all we had, and all we needed.

Next up was Pascal’s signature dish – sea bass in a thyme crust with a fruits de mer sauce.  The sauce was magnificent, mussels, scallops and shrimp shells cooked in white wine, the liquid reduced, cream added, more reduction and concentration and butter stirred in at the end.  The shellfish were just there for flavouring, but they were so good that we ate them all anyway.  The seabass was layered with a thyme-breadcrumb coating, poached in white wine and then finished off in the oven.  The dish came together remarkably quickly, and was delicious.  Lorraine was shaking her head as this delicate fish simmered in white wine and then sat in a 425 oven for what seemed like ages.  I suppose that’s why Pascal is paid the big bucks – the fish came out of the oven perfectly cooked.

The final dish was a rack of lamb with a Dijon mustard and breadcrumb crust.  This recipe turned out to be very similar to the rack of lamb that Lorraine and I do, but Pascal’s lamb was a class above ours.  I suppose home cooks can get hold of meat of this quality, but I’m not sure how you’d go about finding it and how much it would cost.

Pascal was a lovely host. There was no sign of celebrity attitude, even though he’s been a nationally and internationally known chef for over twenty years.  The conversation, and the wine, flowed freely, and Pascal was happy to answer questions about his ingredients and techniques, and talk candidly about sharing in the downturn which has affected everyone in the last few months. 

I did some research when I got home, and found that Pascal offers a Sunday evening three course prix fixe dinner for $40, which includes one waived corkage fee per couple.  That’s a seriously good deal, and we’ll be back there soon.

 And, of course, we thank Stuart for his generosity in inviting us along to an evening we won’t quickly forget.

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Lynn Harrell in Laguna Beach January 26, 2009

Posted by Peter Hornby in laguna beach, local, music.
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Our friends Erich and Viviane called earlier in the week, and wondered if we’d like to take up a couple of spare tickets for the final concert in this year’s Laguna Beach Music Festival.  Sure, we said, sounds like fun.  Really, it was more than fun – it was totally revelatory.

The Festival is in its seventh year, and they take the approach of building each year’s festival around a single world-class musician.  I suppose that the goal must be to allow audiences to both hear wonderful music from the guest of honour and, at the same time, watch the interplay between the guest and the younger musicians who form the supporting cast, so to speak.

This year’s guest was the internationally renowned cellist Lynn Harrell, and yesterday’s final concert in the series featured Harrell in a program titled “The Captivating Cello and Friends”.  The first two pieces, Bach’s Sonata for Viola da Gamba in D major, BWV 1028, and Brahms’ Cello Sonata No 1 in E minor, Op. 38, involved Harrell and a riveting young pianist, Victor Asuncion, originally from the Philippines and now blending an exciting concert career with a teaching gig at the University of Memphis.  Asuncion showed a huge range in this concert.  He was beautifully crisp and precise in the Bach and dynamic and involved in the Brahms.  After the break, he played the Piano Sonata No 1 by Alban Berg, which could hardly have been more different.  At times gentle and melodic, at time powerful, dissonant and angry, the piece sounded like a total minefield and he navigated it triumphantly. 

The collaborative piece which followed was Schubert’s gorgeous String Quintet in C Major, D 956, which brought together Harrell and an engaging quartet of young musicians from the Colburn Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles, the Colburn Conservatory String Quartet.  There’s nothing quite like watching a chamber ensemble up close.  They’re always watching each other, looking out for body language, making eye contact.  It’s a most intimate yet dynamic style of music and often the most fun to watch.  It was clear that Harrell was the leader. He was seated in the centre of the semi-circle with the second cello and viola to his left and the two violins to his right.  At the start of the piece, it seemed as though things weren’t quite to his satisfaction – there were some frowns, and at one point he pointed to the second cellist’s score with his bow.  But the piece settled down quickly and turned into a really lovely chamber performance.

And then Harrell came on stage alone, illuminated by a single stark spotlight, and blew us all away with a stunning performance of Bach’s Cello Suite No 3 in G major, BWV 1009.  This is just naked Bach, twenty minutes of unaccompanied cello, with no hiding place.  The ceaseless stream of Bach’s musical genius flowed from Harrell’s cello and you simply couldn’t look away.  When he was done, the audience went crazy – we knew we’d seen and heard something very special.

All in all, I felt very privileged to have been able to see world-class music in my home town, and, what’s more, in the local high school auditorium. The room is pretty small, probably no more than 400 seats, and we were lucky enough to be pretty much front and centre.  We’ve noticed before that when you’re this close, you experience artistic performances in a way that you miss in a larger room – you hear dancers breathing and feel their feet slap the floor.  Here, we could watch Victor Asuncion mouthing his phrasings to himself, and, in the last piece, we could hear Harrell’s physical  involvement in the music, as he breathed, as his fingers hit the fingerboard, as he bowed the chordal passages. 

So that was it, yet another remarkable chapter in the artistic story of our endlessly fascinating small town.  We loved it.

The sound of the drum January 25, 2009

Posted by Peter Hornby in laguna beach, local, music.
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There’s quite a drumming community in the Laguna Beach area.  Especially during summer at the beach, it’s hard to miss the groups of people sitting in circles, generating fine rhythmic grooves with their djembes and dun duns, shakers, tambourines and whatever else can be persuaded to make a noise when you hit it. 

I’ve been interested in rhythm all my life, but I only became seriously involved in drumming  when Lorraine presented me with the gift of a set of lessons with an inspiring local drummer and teacher called Greg White.  Greg plays regular drums in bands, but he’s also trained in African and Indian drum techniques, and it’s African drumming that we explore in the sessions we’ve been having at the house for the last five years or so.  I bought a djembe early on, Greg brings his,  and we have a blast.  A noisy blast, to be sure, but the neighbors have told us they don’t mind, so we’re OK. 

Greg’s wired into the local drum scene, which is diverse, active and enthusiastic.  We’ve played in the Laguna Beach Patriots Day parade, representing the very cool Sageman Drums, our local dealer of drums and drum paraphernalia. We’ve sat in on the summer drum circles at Main Beach, impressing the locals and the passing tourists with our energy.  Still, the key year-round drumming action in Laguna Beach centres around a gentleman called Billy Fried, and his Full Moon drum circle at Aliso Beach, a couple of miles south of town.

Billy is a local entrepreneur who runs La Vida Laguna, a company offering kayak tours of the local coastline. He’s also very visible in the community, trying to gently redirect Laguna Beach towards the kind of people-friendly values it used to have.  Every month, Billy puts the word out, and we head down to Aliso Beach for the Full Moon drum circle.  It’s a great evening.  Someone starts a fire in one of the beach firepits, and the group forms around it.  There’s sometimes a leader, sometimes not, some people are drumming, some are dancing, some are just watching and absorbing.  In the summer, there are grills and people bring food to share.  It’s a wonderfully warm and energizing way to spend an evening.

The next Full Moon drum circle is Monday, February 9.

2008 King William’s College quiz January 6, 2009

Posted by Peter Hornby in Uncategorized.
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The Guardian has published the 104th annual King William’s College Quiz.  Just to remind you, this is a lethally difficult general knowledge quiz taken by the pupils of King Williams College, on the Isle of Man.  The students take the test twice, once on sight before the holidays, and once, after what I assume is a pretty hectic couple of weeks of research, after their return from the Christmas holiday.

The questions are set by Dr Pat Cullen, who seems to have trained at the knee of Torquemada.  He takes special care to phrase the questions so that skill in Google searching is of little or no help.

On my first pass over this year’s quiz, I think I was able to answer ten questions out of the 180, which is unusually good – I’d normally expect between two and five.

So, ladies and gentlemen, start your search engines!  The quiz can be found on the school’s website  here

And, to get you started, here’s question 17.6 from this year’s quiz:

17.6 – In which town did la Baronne de la Chalonnière encounter Alexander Duggan at the Hôtel du Cerf?

Frost/Nixon January 2, 2009

Posted by Peter Hornby in movies.
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Lorraine and I caught a matinee showing of “Frost/Nixon” on New Year’s Day.  (Aside – NINE BUCKS for a matinee! Ack!)

The movie tells the story of the famous series of TV interviews between British media personality David Frost and disgraced President Richard Nixon, interviews that rekindled Frost’s career and finished any possibility of Nixon returning to the limelight as a political force.  “Frost/Nixon” was originally a play by British playwright and screen writer Peter Morgan, premiered in 2006 at the Donmar Warehouse in London with Michael Sheen and Frank Langella playing the leading roles.  Morgan developed the screenplay for the movie and Sheen and Langella reprised their theatre roles on screen.

Unlike most US viewers of the movie, I was very familiar with David Frost and Watergate, and this presented some odd issues.

I found it very difficult to see Michael Sheen as Frost.  He had Frost’s nasal, self-aware voice perfectly, but he really doesn’t look anything like Frost, and I found it hard to get past that.  Oddly enough, I had exactly the same reaction to his performance as Tony Blair in “The Queen”.  Sounds perfect, looks – not so much.

For Frank Langella, on the other hand, you can suspend your disbelief, and you’re glad you do, because his performance is totally mesmerising.  The overriding memory I have of the movie is the way in which Langella created a person of huge power and presence.  His Nixon was physically imposing, of course, and he had the adulation and respect of his family and staff, but the way in which the character owned a conversation, owned a room, owned everything he came into contact with, was stunning to watch.  It’s a simply magnificent piece of film acting.  And that makes it more interesting, because it is, after all, film acting.  What I find almost inconceivable is how Langella took a stage performance, with its special rules and  techniques – a role which he’d inhabited in London and on Broadway for over a year (winning a Tony on the way)  – and reinvented it for film.  Where did he find the little things that you don’t need on stage but can’t live without on film – the subtle expressions, the tiny facial mannerisms of a man under huge pressure?  I have no idea. 

More generally, you come away from Frost/Nixon thinking about parallels in today’s world – the idea that “when the President does it, it’s not illegal”, and how that view of executive authority might, with any luck, rebound on the administration which has so shamelessly worked for it over the last eight years (anyone for a sequel to Frost/Nixon – Paxman/Bush, maybe?)

But mainly, you’re left with the memory of one of the finest pieces of film acting you’ll ever witness. See the movie for that.