Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Plumed Horse, Saratoga

I have always liked the entrees and desserts at the Plumed Horse - a Michelin 1 star restaurant in Saratoga. When it was time for Valentine's Day, I decided to reserve a spot for my wife and me.

The Plumed Horse prepared a special, Valentine's Tasting menu for $225 per person (quite a steep price).

When we arrived, we were quickly seated at our table and provided two complementary glasses of Francois Lecompte "Premier Cru" Rose Champagne from France. We really liked the champagne (and usually dislike the Brut version of Champagne usually sold in US).

The tasting menu started out with a small sample of Black Caviar. Inna really liked it but I must say that I prefer red caviar.

Our first course was an entree for Dungeness Crab. It consisted of tempura, avocado, puffed wild rice, and pickled combu. It was delicious but very small.

Our next dish was "Dayboat Scallops". This unique combination included deliciously seared scallops, Fuji apple, fermented kohlrabi, and citrus. We really loved the scallops.

The next course was "Duck Breast". This entree included roasted chestnuts, sunchoke, and smoked bacon jus, along with tender duck breast. It was quite a treat!

The main dish - "Roast Tenderloin of Beef" - finally arrived at it was spectacular. It addition to the slightly rare tenderloin expertly prepared, there was potato rosti, hen of wood mushroom (tasting like chanterelles), and bodelaise.  It was so delicious! Inna was already full and could not finish it all.

For dessert, we enjoyed the "Valhrona Chocolate Ganache". This was a red velvet cake with white chocolate and blood orange foam. It was quite delicious.

We really enjoyed our time at the Plumed Horse. We hope to come back again. It's one of our favorite restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area. The food is not just delicious - but a true work of art.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Snowboarding at Northstar

With a reported total of 16 inches of fresh snow at Lake Tahoe on Wednesday, January 24 and Thursday, January 25, Alex and I decided to try snowboarding at Northstar and Heavenly on Saturday, January 28 and Sunday, January 29th.

We woked up around 3:50am on Saturday, January 29th, and quickly dressed, for the 4 hour drive to Northstar. The traffic was fairly light and we arrived into Truckee and subsequently into Northstar before 8:00am. However, upon arrival traffic become quite heavy and we were required to park in a remote parking lot.

We parked our car in the "Yellow Lot" (i.e. shuttle 7), dressed, and boarded the shuttle to the resort. Upon arrival, we decided to eat a small breakfast. We found a nearby cafe which served light sandwiches, muffins, and coffee. Alex ordered a ham'n'cheese sandwich, while I enjoyed a fresh muffin. Finishing breakfast, we strolled to the Gondola, which was already quite busy - even before 9:00am. It felt like being in a line in Disneyland (or Whistler).

Eventually, we boarded the "Big Rings Express Gondola" and were whisked away to mid-mountain. From there, we boarded two more lifts: "Arrow Express", followed by "Comstock Express". We were told that the back-side had the best snow and we wanted to experience powder before it was all beaten up.

Our first run of the day was on black diamond "Burnout" run, pictured below.

The run was going well, until I decided to try snowboarding in the trees - as I was hoping to make fresh tracks in virgin snow. All was going well into I unexpectedly fell, hitting my left side against a rock. I didn't realize how light the snow cover was, and did not see the rock covered by a light sprinkle of snow.

It hurt a lot, but I was able to get up and continue my run. We continued snowboarding down "Burnout" a few more times, but I was a lot more careful and was not able to go full speed, due to back pain.

After a few runs, we decided to try the snow-park, which contains small and large jumps, rails, and obstacles. I managed to jump on a few small ramps, but the back pain was really beginning to distract my attention.

It was also getting very crowded and the lift lines became extremely long. Eventually, we decided to take a break and eat our early lunch. Surprisingly, lunch was fairly delicious and not as expensive as in Heavenly.

Here is a short GoPro Hero4 Silver video of snowboarding down the "Burnout" ski run:

After lunch, we snowboarded a few more times on the Northstar backside and at snow-parks, until about 2:00pm, when we decided to return to our Bluelake Inn in South Lake Tahoe, for much needed rest & relaxation.

After resting (with an icepack on my back), Alex and I decided to eat an early dinner.  Since it was only around 5:00pm, I thought that we could easily get a table at Base Camp Pizza - but there was a 80 minute wait. We declined and decided to try our luck at California Burger. No luck, there either - as there was 80 minute wait there too.

We decided to eat again at our tried and true Applebee's. I had my usual Bourbon Street Chicken and Shrimp, while Alex had an 8 oz Top Sirloin. For drinks, I tried the delicious Red-wine Sangria and a Perfect Margarita, while Alex had his mint lemonade. Dinner was great and we came out full.

Overall, I liked snowboarding at Northstar, but I did not like the crowds. On busy days, I think it's better to snowboard at Kirkwood, which never gets this crowded.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Snowboarding at Heavenly

Since I purchased the Epic Local Pass from Vail Ski Resorts for Alex and me, I was eager to snowboard at one of the accessible ski resorts (Heavenly, Kirkwood, or Northstar). Although the snow conditions were not very favorable, I decided to try snowboarding at Heavenly anyway.

I booked a room for one night on Saturday, January 13 at the conveniently located Blue Lake Inn in South Lake Tahoe - only a short walk away from the Heavenly Gondola.

Expecting a 4 hour drive, we departed early morning on Saturday, January 13th at 4:15am, arriving at South Lake Tahoe at about 8:06 am. The drive was not very difficult (due to lack of traffic and snow), but there was a bit of fog early in the morning. We parked at the Blue Lake Inn and ate a quick breakfast of coffee and bagels (compliment of the Inn). We changed into our snowboarding clothes and walked to the gondola.

Since my Epic Local Pass was blacked out on January 13, we had to buy a supplemental pass for Alex and me. The line to purchase the pass was extremely long and we waited for one hour (from 9:00am to 10:00am). I was really frustrated with the long wait and impatient to get on the slopes.

Once we arrived at Tamarack Lodge (Gondola drop off), we strapped on our boards and took the Tamarack Express up the hill. We snowboarded down Sam's Dream ( an easy Blue run), and then got on the Big Easy chairlift (not realizing that this lift was for beginners). We got back on the Tamarack Express (which seats 6 skiers) and snowboarded down to the Dipper Express chairlift. The snow was surprisingly good (not icy at all) and we enjoyed the easy runs on "Big Dipper" and "Orion".

For lunch we decided to eat at the East Peak Lodge, where Alex selected a hamburger while ordered a tri-tip sandwich. The food was delicious but extremely expensive. Can you say $20 for a burger?

Eventually, we decided to try other lifts and took the California Trail to the Sky Express chairlift. Arriving there, we did many turns on the "Ridge Run" trail.

On this gorgeous, sunny day, the views of Lake Tahoe from Ridge Run trail were really spectacular.

We had a fantastic first day at Heavenly - much better than I expected with the low snow cover.
We returned to our room around 4:00pm and rested.

Here is a GoPro 4 Silver video I recorded of my ride down "Ridge Run":

Eventually, I walked around the village, looking at all the fun activities going on. There was a lot of live music at Heavenly Village. When Alex got hungry, we headed to the nearby Applebee's for dinner. Alex had his 8 oz steak while I selected the "Bourbon Chicken and Shrimp".

I also tried the Pomegranite Margarita which was really delicious and finished of the meal with the "Butter Pecan Blondie".

We had a fantastic day and my Slopes app on my phone recorded most of my runs (because of GPS issues at Heavenly, may runs were missed). However, the Apple Watch Series 3 version of the app did not work at all.

The longest run - "Ridge Run" - was 2 miles long. I was able to hit 30.9 mph!

The next day - Sunday, January 14 - was very similar with the same snow conditions as on Saturday - but a bit more crowded at the chair lifts.

We had an early lunch at the Sky Deck lodge, where I had the barbecue chicken sandwich and Alex ate another burger.

We had another fantastic day of snowboarding, finishing a bit earlier - around 2:30pm (due to large crowds).

Overall, we liked snowboarding at Heavenly, though we felt that most Blue-rated runs were too easy; they were more similar to Green-rated runs at Whistler. We hope to be back when there is better snow!

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Best of the Best 2017

Which are the best restaurants, spas, and travel destinations? At the end of 2017, I am rating the following (in order of best to worst), based on my personal experience.


Even though it has not been rated my Michelin, Mama's Fish House on Maui is our favorite restaurant in the world. Using only the freshest fish caught of Maui, Mama's Fish House combines an authentic Hawaiian atmosphere with exceptional cooking, and magnificent tropical setting (overlooking Maui's North Shore, near the famous Ho'okipa Beach), to create an unforgettable dining experience.
  1. Mama's Fish House, Maui, Hawaii 
  2. The Plumed Horse, Saratoga, CA  (1 Michelin Star)
  3. Lagoon Restaurant by Jean Georges, St. Regis, Bora-Bora, French Polynesia 
  4. Manresa, Los Gatos, CA (3 Michelin Stars)
  5. Solbar, Calistoga, CA  (1 Michelin Star)
  6. Gary Danko, San Francisco, CA  (1 Michelin Star)
  7. Weinstube Baldreit, Baden-Baden, Germany 
  8. Plachutta, Vienna, Austria 
  9. Humuhumunukunuku'apua, Maui Hawaii 
  10. La Foret, San Jose, CA (Michelin Rated)
  11. Bouchon, Napa, CA  (Michelin Rated)
  12. Eataly, WTC, New York City (and Munich)



We have had pizza everywhere in the United States (New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, etc.), France, Italy, Spain, Austria, Netherlands, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, etc. So far, our favorite pizza restaurant is Keste Pizza in Greenwich Village and Eataly in New York City. There was a wonderful, small pizza restaurant that had the most amazing pizza in Paris - but I cannot recall its name. From what I heard, the absolute world's best pizza is to be found in Naples, Italy - but I have not been there yet.
  1. Keste Pizza, Greenwich Village, New York City (Keste #1)
  2. Eataly, WTC, New York City ("Capricciosa" pizza)
  3. Juliana's Pizza, Brooklyn, New York City (#1 Special)
  4. Pizza My Heart, Los Gatos, CA (especially "Manresa" only available on Sunday's)
Gelato and Ice Cream

Our favorite gelateria was in Bologna, Italy. We also tried many exceptional gelaterias in Florence, Siena, Lake Como, Venice, and Lucca.
  1. Gelato in Bologna, Italy (near Piazza Maggiore)
  2. Gelato in Florence, Siena, Lake Como, Venice, Lucca (Italy) 
  3. Bella Gelateria, Vancouver, BC 
  4. Grom, New York City (also in Florence and Siena) 
  5. Eataly, New York City (and Munich)
  6. Lappert's Ice Cream, Maui, Hawaii


Our favorite spas so far have been in Baden-Baden, Germany, but we've also heard or exceptional spas in Austria (which we have not tried yet).
  1. Aquadome, Laengenfeld, Austria
  2. Friedrichsbad Therme, Baden-Baden, Germany 
  3. Caracalla Therme, Baden-Baden, Germany
  4. Alpentherme Gastein, Bad Hofgastein, Austria 
  5. Miri-Miri Spa by Clarens, St. Regis, Bora-Bora 
  6. Solage, Calistoga, CA 
  7. Scandinave Spa, Whistler, Canada 
  8. Tabacon, Costa Rica 
  9. Indian Springs, Calistoga, CA 
Books (2017)

My favorite book for 2017 is "A Gentleman in Moscow" by Amor Towles. Finishing this book, I had to read his other book - "Rules of Civility" but "A Gentleman in Moscow" was far superior.
  1. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
  2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  3. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
  4. The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer
  5. The Godfather by Mario Puzzo
  6. The Boys: The Untold Story of 732 Young Concentration Camp Survivors by Martin Gilbert
  7. The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis
  8. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
  9. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Rock Albums (2017)

There were not that many rock albums that I really liked in 2017.
  1. "Louie Louie Louie" by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
  2. "Windy City" by Alison Krauss
  3. "Live in Amsterdam" by Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa
  4. "All The Light Above It Too" by Jack Johnson
  5. "Southern Blood" by Gregg Allman
  6. "Fire on the Floor" by Beth Hart
  7. "Lust for Life" by Lana Del Ray
Rock Concerts

My favorite rock concert was Elton John's Made in England Tour in Tacoma Dome. It was my frist Rock concert and a truly amazing experience. I have been to his other concerts, i.e. the Red Piano in Las Vegas, but they did not have the same atmosphere and intensity.
  1. Elton John's Made in England Tour, Tacoma Dome, Washington on 9/9/1995 
  2. Leonard Cohen, HP Pavilion, San Jose, 11/7/2012. 
  3. The History of the Eagles, HP Pavilion, San Jose, 1/29/2013 
  4. Postmodern Jukebox, The Warfield, San Francisco, 12/13/2015 
  5. Big Bad Vodoo Daddy, Harrah's Hotel and Casino, 5/30/2015 
  6. The Gipsy Kings, Mountain Winery, 8/27/2014. 
  7. Carlos Santana, Shoreline Amphitheater, 2002

My favorite opera is Carmen by Georges Bizet, due to the fantastic music and dramatic story. I am also partial to Puccini, especially Madame Butterfly.
  1. Carmen, Houston Grand Opera
  2. Madame Butterfly, Houston Grand Opera, 1993
  3. Marriage of Figaro, San Francisco Opera, 6/21/15
  4. Barber of Seville, San Francisco Opera, 11/23/13
  5. La Traviata, Houston Grand Opera
  6. Don Giovanni, San Francisco Opera
  7. La Boheme, San Francisco Opera,  11/22/14
  8. The Magic Flute, San Francisco Opera
  9. Lucia de Lammermoor, Houston Grand Opera
  10. Elektra, Houston Grand Opera
  11. Salome, Houston Grand Opera

Musical Theater

My favorite musical is Chicago (most recently seen at Ambassador Theater on Broadway), but I am huge fan of Kander & Ebb musicals (which also include Cabaret). I also really like most musicals by Cole Porter (Anything Goes, Kiss Me Kate!) and George Gershwin (Crazy for You).
  1. Chicago, Ambassador Theater, Broadway, New York City 12/18/2016. 
  2. Fiddler on the Roof, Broadway Theater, New York City, 12/23/2016 
  3. Cabaret, Orpheum Theater, San Francisco 
  4. Anything Goes, Golden Gate Theater, San Francisco, 1/19/2013 
  5. Grease, Orpheum Theater, San Francisco 
  6. Monty Python's Spamalot, Orpheum, San Francisco 
  7. Kiss Me Kate, Orpheum, San Francisco 
  8. Saturday Night Fever, Orpheum, San Francisco 
  9. Showboat, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 6/13/2014 
  10. 42nd Street, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, 7/15/2017
  11. Mary Poppins, Orpheum, San Francisco, 5/12/2013 
  12. Mamma Mia, Orpheum, San Francisco
  13. Phantom of the Opera, Orpheum, San Francisco, 8/21/2015
  14. The Book of Mormon, San Francisco, 1/7/2014 
  15. Cats, Neil Simon Theater, New York City, 12/24/2016 
  16. The Lion King, Orpheum, San Francisco
  17. Les Miserables, Orpheum, San Francisco
  18. Hello Dolly!, Orpheum, San Francisco
  19. Mathilda, Orpheum, San Francisco, 7/23/2015 
  20. Fosse, San Jose Center for the Performing Arts
  21. Annie, Portland, Oregon

Theater (Drama & Comedy)

I am a extremely partial to William Shakespeare's dramas, especially Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. Having seem them long ago, I don't have any exposure to more recent productions.
  1. Emma, TheatreWorks, Palo Alto, 12/4/2015 
  2. Les Liaisons Dangereuses, New York City, 12/22/2016 
  3. Disgraced, Berkeley Rep, Berkeley, 12/12/2015 
  4. Cyrano, TheatreWorks, Mountain View, 4/24/2016 
  5. Outside Mullingar, TheatreWorks, Palo Alto, 10/7/2016 
  6. The Hard Problem, Geary Theater, San Francisco, 10/19/2016 
  7. Daddy Longs Legs, Lucie Stern Theater, Palo Alto, 12/3/2016 
  8. Oleanna, Houston, 1992

Hiking Trails

Half-Dome was the longest, toughest hike I have done. It has fantastic overlooks on Yosemite Valley. However, the other hikes in Silver Falls State Park in Oregon are also fantastic.
  1. Half-Dome, Yosemite, CA 
  2. Silver Falls State Park, Oregon 
  3. Dipsea Trail, Sausalito, CA 
  4. Big Basin Redwoods, Boulder Creek, CA 
  5. Castle Rock State Park, CA 
  6. Mt. Shasta, CA 
  7. Point Lobos Natural Reserve, Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA 
  8. Lassen Volcanic National Park, Mineral, CA 
  9. Huddart County Park, Woodside, CA

Ski Resorts

My favorite place to ski and snowboard is at Whistler, near Vancouver, British Columbia. Whistler usually has great snow with minimal elevation gain, excellent, inexpensive restaurants, and a great youthful vibe (with many other nearby activities such as tubing, ice skating, dog sledding, cross-country skiing, & snowmobiling) . It's also has a great Scandinave Spa!
  1. Whistler/Blackcomb, BC, Canada (best resort) 
  2. Mount Hood Meadows, Mt. Hood, Oregon 
  3. Squaw Valley, Lake Tahoe, CA 
  4. Mt. Bachelor, Oregon 
  5. Kirkwood, Lake Tahoe, CA 
  6. Heavenly, South Lake Tahoe 
  7. Mt. Rose, East Lake Tahoe, NV 
  8. Sierra-at-Tahoe, Lake Tahoe, CA
  9. Sugar Bowl, Lake Tahoe, CA (closest resort) 

Saturday, December 23, 2017

San Diego Zoo

On Saturday, December 23, we decided to see the famous birds and animals at the world famous San Diego Zoo.

We enjoyed our stroll through the zoo, but Inna was not able to really enjoy it due to her mother's fall and transfer to the hospital.

The Pink Flamingoes were the first colorful birds we saw, and Inna could not resist the urge to take a couple of photos.

The many varieties of monkeys: Orangutans, Gorillas, Bonobos, Marmosets, and Mandrills.

The Organgutans and Gorillas looked and behaved quite similarly to humans.

One of Inna's favorite birds - a Toucan - was there in all its glory.

The Red Panda was very cute, hiding in the trees. It was hard to take a good photo of this extremely cute bear.

There were two Chinese Pandas and we got some excellent close-up photos of the Pandas eating bamboo.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Visiting San Diego

For a nice, relaxing, and relatively inexpensive trip during the Christmas holidays, we decided to re-visit the city of San Diego. The last time we visited San Diego was in June, 2008, so we were eager to re-visit all of our the main attractions. Inna found inexpensive, direct flights on Southwest Airline from San Jose to San Diego, so we booked the trip.

Our initial plan was to fly out on Thursday, December 21 at 8:15am on Southwest Flight #6225 and return back to San Jose on Thursday, December 28, on Southwest Flight #5085. We planned to visit Seaworld, San Diego Zoo, USS Midway Museum, Air & Space Museum, and the Maritime Museum.

I initially booked rental car with Budget Car Rental using, but the price was too high for the week of Christmas - almost $500 - so my wife suggested that we try Turo instead. Turo is like Airbnb for cars and individual owners rent out their private vehicles. I selected an 2010 Audi A5 from Elijah and it cost me less than half of Budget (with a much easier pick-up/drop off at the airport) and at half the price! The car was great - clean and well maintained - and fun to drive too!

After getting up early on Thursday morning, we used Uber to drop us off at the San Jose airport. Our Southwest flight was right on time and we landed in San Diego right around 9:35am. We quickly picked up our Turo Audi A5 and drove to downtown San Diego, to explore the downtown. It was quite empty, but we were a bit hungry, so we decided to stop by for breakfast/brunch at the Werewolf restaurant and pub.

The menu was quite interesting with some Mexican dishes I did not immediately recognize. I selected the "Chilaquiles Roja" - a spic Mexican dish with eggs and avocado. It was delicious but very spicy!
Inna chose the "Pork Belly Benedict", which she liked a lot.

After breakfast, we briefly explored the downtown Gaslight district, which is home to hundreds of restaurants. Surprisingly, the downtown was mostly empty.

Everything was festively decorated for the holidays with hint of Christmas in a very sunny, snow-free place.

We enjoyed strolling downtown, but after a while decided to head to another section - as parking was very expensive!

We returned to our car and drove to the nearby Seaport Village, where we looked at some of the cutesy shops before heading to the USS Midway Museum. Alex and I were interested in the large aircraft carrier full of military aircraft while Inna wanted to explore the cutesy Seaport Village shops.

Alex and I spent a few hours on the USS Midway, looking at both World War 2 era, Vietnam era, and more modern military aircraft. Alex also got to try flying in a real aircraft simulator (which simulates all aspects of flight, including full rotation). He really enjoyed the experience.

In addition to sitting in many aircraft, Alex and I also listened to the launching explanation on the desk, where an former officer explained all the intricacies of launching from an aircraft carrier, using a steam powered catapult. There was a lot of co-ordination involved, to allow launching one aircraft every 45 seconds!

Alex really liked the cockpits of some of the aircraft with their hundreds of gauges and buttons.

There were many impressive, last generation jet fighters on the flight deck like the F/A-14 Tomcat. I would have liked to have flown this one!

After our visit, we met up with Inna and decided to grab a bite to eat at the well rated Extraordinary Desserts nearby. There were so many delicious cakes and pastries on display, that we were lost in indecision - which one to try?

I selected the "Apple Crostata" - apple streudel, pictured below. It was delicious!

Inna selected the "Dolce Leche" cake. It was extremely rich and decadent.

Alex tried the "Cocoa Coupe" - a delicious chocolate concoction. He really liked it!

We really enjoyed our desserts here and vowed to come back again! Extraordinary Desserts was the first U.S. bakery that compared favorably to my favorite Cafe Demel in Vienna, Austria. I hope to come back here many more times!

On the way back to our car, we stopped by the shore.

It was starting to get a bit chilly on our walk back, but there were many beautiful buildings to enjoy.

The walk back was filled with stops at some cutesy shops, to look at the touristy merchandise like kites and t-shirts.

From here, we drove to our hotel - Inn by the Sea at La Jolla. Inna was able to secure a very advantageous price for our trip to San Diego, but I really did not like our room there. It was always too cold/drafty or too hot.

As Alex was not hungry, we decided to go out to dinner but the two of us. Based on Yelp reviews, we selected Puesta Mexican Artist Kitchen in downtown La Jolla.

I ordered a margarita - but it was too spicy for me! I prefer a little less Jalapeno in my Margaritas!
The chips were fresh and the salsa was hot! Come to think of it, many of the traditional Mexican dishes were much spicier in San Diego than in San Francisco Bay area.

We shared a couple of spicy taco dishes and they were quite well prepared.

The guacamole was really delicious too!

We had a fantastic first day but were a bit exhausted. We returned back to our Inn by the Sea for some needed rest.