Sunday, August 7, 2016

Why I can't listen to Hamilton

Everyone knows that Hamilton is a recent darling of Broadway and cleaned up at the last Tony Awards.  I'll admit I don't know much about it, and I don't think I've actually heard any of the songs or music from it, at least that I'm aware of.  There hasn't been anything about it that has called out to me.  I like musical theatre generally, but there usually has to be a particular reason why a specific show might catch my attention.  Several months ago, this chain of thought went through my head.  And then I had a realization and burst into tears.  Hamilton is the perfect example of the kind of show that my friend Robert would have introduced me to.

The first time that happened was in 1997, when the animated movie "Anastasia" was released.  I had liked the movie and really enjoyed the songs.  Robert and I hadn't been friends for very long, but in that short time, we'd discovered a lot of common interests.  He told me that the two people responsible for the songs in that film, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, had also previously created a Broadway show called "Once on This Island", and if I liked the songs in the movie, I might like the songs in the show.  And the next time I saw him, he gave me a CD of the show soundtrack.  And I loved it.  I have since seen a couple of small productions of the show, including a terrific minimal-set production one by International City Theatre that Robert was actually able to attend with us, and my dream would be to see a full-scale production of the show.

"Wicked" was another popular show that I had zero interest in.  I knew a lot of people who loved the show, and I'd even seen the television ads for when the touring production was in town, but none of the bits and music did anything for me to want to see the show.  My first positive exposure to the show elements was probably when a couple of the songs were sung on different episodes of "Glee", which I was a huge fan of.  That made me vaguely interested in hearing the songs from the show, and I asked friends if anyone had a CD of the show soundtrack that I could listen to.  I had made arrangements with a friend to borrow the CD the next time I saw them.  But before that could happen, the CD showed up from Amazon at my house.  Robert had ordered it and sent it to me.  I did listen to it and ended up liking it and eventually saw the show.

It didn't always work when Robert sent me a CD.  He'd told me about a show he was particularly excited about called "Spring Awakening".  He had mentioned it one night during a phone call when we were obsessing over and dissected a couple of episodes of "Glee", and he brought up the show because some of the actors on "Glee" had been in this production.  Yep, the CD arrived at my house a few days later.  He'd mentioned elements of the story to me, and in this case, I'd wanted to read the play first, so I bought a copy.  Because of stuff going on at the time, I think I only got about 2/3 of the way through the play, and so I've never actually listened to the CD.  It's on the list to do someday.

I had met Robert because of our mutual love of Disneyland, and partly because of him, I was introduced to a musical stage show that was in Disneyland in the late 90's called "Festival of Fools", based on the Disney animated film "The Hunchback of Notre Dame".  I'd not seen the film but the stage show gave me an appreciation of the songs in the movie, which prepped me for seeing the full Broadway show when it debuted at the La Jolla Playhouse at the end of 2014.  The show is going to be at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts in the next few months, and we're planning to see the show there as well.

The last time Robert introduced me to a show was in early July 2014.  I got a couple of emails from Robert that didn't seem to make any sense, but I didn't have a chance to ask him about it immediately.  And then a few days later, I realized the emails didn't make sense because they were regarding a CD that he'd sent me that hadn't arrived yet.  He hadn't said anything previously to me about this show, but he'd apparently been listening to the CD a lot and decided I might like it.  The CD was for Idina Menzel's new Broadway show called "If/Then".  I did get a chance to listen to the CD a couple of times, and I liked it, but the story is a bit complicated and takes a bit of work to follow.  And not everything is evident from just listening to the CD.  Robert and I exchanged a couple of messages after I'd listened to the CD but never had the chance to have in-depth discussions about it.

We lost Robert to lymphoma on August 7, 2014.  As it turns out, the touring production of "If/Then" came to Los Angeles at the end of 2015, with Idina Menzel in the title role, no less, and I was glad I was able to see it and loved the show, but it was difficult to process that Robert wasn't around to see the show and that I couldn't talk to him about the show afterward.

Which brings me back to Hamilton, which is the kind of show that I think Robert would have loved, that he would have been excited about, that he would have talked about a lot, and I wouldn't have been surprised when the CD showed up in a package from Amazon at my house.  I might like the show and I might not.  But I'll never know because since Robert isn't here, that CD is never going to appear and I'm never going to listen to it.  And no, this is not a hint for friends, acquaintances and strangers to send me the CD.  It wouldn't work because it's not from Robert.  Every time I hear anything about Hamilton, I think of Robert.  My non-exposure to Hamilton is just one small indication of everything I've lost out on since Robert has been gone, movies and books and music that I haven't been able to talk to him about, experiences (his and mine) that we haven't been able to share, everything about this crazy election this year that we would have talked about.  And Disneyland.  Oh, so much Disneyland.

Two years seems like a long time and yet has also gone by in an instant.  Hugs to everyone missing someone today.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Catal Restaurant - dinner - August 5, 2016

My husband and I and a couple of friends had a chance to visit Catal Restaurant in Downtown Disney in Anaheim for dinner.  People who know me know that Catal is one of my favorite restaurants anywhere.  My husband and I made our first visit to the restaurant in May of 2001, a few months after they opened, and we’ve been going regularly ever since.  We have introduced many friends to Catal, and many of these friends have become regulars as well, and they’ve introduced other friends to Catal.  Acquaintances and co-workers know that I’m a regular visitor to the Disneyland Resort, so I often get asked for restaurant recommendations, and Catal has been one of my most frequent places to recommend.
Because of recent personal circumstances, we hadn’t had a chance to visit since January of this year.  We normally go at least every 3 or 4 months, sometimes more often.  Because we visited often, we’d gotten to know a lot of the staff, and we’d enjoyed our visits to Catal for the amazing food, the friendly and terrific staff and the opportunity to spend time with friends.  In the time that we’ve been going, there have been many menu and personnel changes.  Over our last few visits, I started to notice changes in the menu that I wasn’t particularly pleased about.  I was hoping that in the time since our last visit, maybe the menu had been changed back to resemble more of the style that celebrated the Mediterranean cuisine that Catal is supposed to serve.  However, I’m sad to say that didn’t happen.
Many of the more interesting items that were customarily on the menu in Catal’s first 10 years have been taken off with each progressive menu adjustment, to be replaced by much more pedestrian offerings.  In the past, on our first visit after a seasonal menu change, I already knew that I had to go back 3 or 4 times to be able to try everything on the menu that I wanted to try, because so many things sounded interesting.  On our last visit in January and on this visit, though, I had a hard time deciding what to order, not because there were several things to choose from that I was interested in, but because there was nothing special on the menu that jumped out at me.  There were several flavors of paella, a couple different cuts of beef, a couple choices of fish, a chicken dish, a scallops dish and the normal salads that are staples of Catal’s menu.  Gone were the interesting entrees that included lamb or venison or duck.  They used to have an entree of baby back ribs with an amazing sweet and spicy sauce.  Gone.  They used to have a wonderful pasta dish with a terrific tomato-based sauce, and maybe one or two other pasta dishes with interesting presentations and sauces.   All gone.  There are actually no pasta entrees on the menu at all.  The only entree on the current menu that is particularly interesting is the suckling pig.  Otherwise, the beef and fish and chicken and scallops dishes are ordinary, and while they are indeed tasty entrees, they can be found on menus of most ordinary restaurants.  Catal was anything but an ordinary restaurant.  It first caught our attention not just because it was a new restaurant but because of the menu offerings.  If we were not already familiar with the restaurant, if we walked by and looked at the menu, there is nothing on the menu that would draw me to make a first visit.  If we were not already familiar with the restaurant and if we happened to have dined there, there is nothing on the menu that would compel me to return for a second visit.
One additional change that we noticed on this visit is that while Catal has always offered bread service with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, they seem to have discontinued that now.  Well, sort of.  After our appetizers had been brought out, I realized that we hadn’t gotten any bread, which is usually brought out when they bring water/drinks, often while we’re still reviewing our menus.  I asked about the bread and was told that they no longer automatically offer bread but will provide it if anyone asks.  So, they have bread available, but you have to know to ask for it.  Is it a secret?  Do you have to know the secret password to get bread?  If they had done away with the bread completely, I would have been unhappy, but at least then it’s the same for everyone.  But if you’re a first time visitor and don’t know to ask for it, then I guess no bread for you.
So, bread arrived, olive oil and balsamic vinegar in a dish arrived.  I took a slice of bread, tore off a piece, dipped it and ate it.  And something was wrong.  I couldn’t quite tell what it was at first.  I like the bread that Catal serves.  Especially on days when I’m particularly hungry, I have to make sure not to eat too much bread so as not to ruin my appetite for the actual meal.  I dipped another piece and ate it.  Yep, something was definitely wrong.  I asked my companions to try the olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  And without any further prompting from me, they came to the same conclusion I had come to - the olive oil tasted old.  It wasn’t spoiled but there was definitely something wrong with the flavor.  It seems that because they don’t offer bread and olive oil and balsamic vinegar to all patrons anymore, they don’t go through their stock as fast.  I don’t know when they stopped automatically serving it, but it was clear the olive oil had been sitting around, having its flavor changed in a bad way.  So, if you don’t know to ask for bread, you don’t get any.  If you do know to ask for bread, you get olive oil that has already started to turn.  This is really unacceptable for any restaurant, and it would have been unheard of at Catal even as recently as January of this year.
When I walked towards Catal for dinner, I noticed that the upstairs rotunda had its shades drawn and the lights were turned off.  We often sat in the rotunda for dinner, so I thought it was odd.  Was there something wrong with the restaurant?  When I asked about it, I was told that the rotunda is now no longer open if the restaurant itself isn’t busy enough.  OK.  So, the most visible part of the restaurant, the part of the restaurant that can be seen up and down Downtown Disney, no matter if you’re coming from the Disneyland side or the Downtown Disney parking side, the part of the restaurant that draws your eye to pay attention to it because it’s lit and people are in it enjoying a good meal, making you curious about what it is, making you want to investigate either for a meal that night or for a return trip in the future - is dark and closed.  It now gives the impression that whatever used to be there is now closed, so no need to pay any attention to it anymore.  It seems like a terrible business decision to project that kind of image.  It sure seems from the architecture of that rotunda that it’s designed to catch your attention, but now, it looks like an abandoned section of a building.
The meal itself was fine.  I had the scallops and enjoyed it, but it wasn’t something that I raved about to my friends, posting pictures on social media and making my friends envious of what I was having and having them express the desire to come to the restaurant to enjoy the dish at a later time, something that’s happened multiple times in the past as the result of a dinner at Catal.  Our party still had a nice evening.  Among the staff, we saw some familiar faces and many new faces, but everyone was still friendly and helpful.  That hasn’t changed.  Based on the menu offerings, it seems Catal is now a place they hope you’ll choose to eat at if you’re already at Downtown Disney and deciding among the various restaurants there.  Catal used to be a destination spot, a place you specifically planned to visit because of the amazing items on the menu, because of the multiple amazing items on the menu.  Catal was a place that you talked to your friends about, that you made plans to visit with friends who hadn’t been there before but wanted to experience this great place you keep raving about.  Catal had a terrific balance on its menus, with some really interesting items you don’t find on every restaurant menu but with enough “safe” items that anyone could eat there, and then people who were more comfortable with dishes they were familiar with could try the entree that someone else might have ordered that they’d never tried before.  “That steak looks great, but would you like to try a piece of my lamb?”  “That fish looks terrific but would you like to try a piece of my duck?”  “That spaghettini looks terrific.  May I have a taste?  Oh, I want to come back next time and order that.”  Dining at Catal was an experience all around, not *just* a meal.  I’m hoping that whomever is in charge now will come to realize that and with some menu tweaks and some operational changes, it can be that way again, and I can again recommend Catal as a dining destination.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Classic Afternoon Tea at the Disneyland Hotel - Steakhouse 55 - March 12, 2016

The Disneyland Resort had announced that classic afternoon tea would be served at the Steakhouse 55 restaurant inside the Disneyland Hotel, and I was interested in trying it.  I love tea, and I'm a fan of afternoon tea.  I still really miss the Practically Perfect Tea that used to be offered at what is now the Paradise Pier Hotel.

The husband and I attended the afternoon tea for a lunchtime seating on March 12, 2016.  I checked in at the podium, and then we waited for a few minutes in the lounge before being taken to our table.  The first time I went to breakfast at Steakhouse 55, I was surprised to note that the restaurant was well-lit, though I should have expected it.  I'd only previously been there for dinner, when the lights are dimmer to set the ambiance, but it made sense for the restaurant to be bright instead during breakfast, which was the same for afternoon tea.  We were taken to a two-person table towards the back, and the hostess said our server would be with us shortly.

The husband and I perused our menus in the meantime.

Menu choices for classic afternoon tea at Steakhouse 55 at the Disneyland Hotel.

Three choices are offered for tea service.  The classic tea party includes scones, tea sandwiches, dessert, and of course, tea, for $50 per person (AP discounts, and presumably cast member discounts, apply).

Classic Tea Party elements.

The premium tea party includes all the elements of the classic tea party as well as a glass of sparkling wine, a salad, and farewell truffles, and that costs $65 per person, before applicable discounts.

Premium Tea Party elements.

There is also a kids tea party offered, for $35 per child, before applicable discounts.

Kids tea party elements.

The husband and I both opted for the premium tea party.  We then perused the menu of available teas.  When our server came to greet us, she told us that we were of course welcome to try as many of the teas as we liked, but she did recommend that we have one pot at a time.  She also mentioned that the teas could be served hot or iced.  I was actually surprised at that since it would never occur to me to have iced tea at an afternoon tea, but I guess they were being accommodating to people's preferences.  I'm not generally a fan of flowery teas and fruit teas, and I tend to like my tea strong, so the tea that really caught my eye was the Perfect Afternoon.  When we told the server that's the one we wanted to start with, she mentioned that it was the strongest tea on the list.  Of course it was.

List of available teas.

There was also a list of other adult beverages that were available.

For an adult twist to tea.

We also asked for water, and after we'd ordered, we were ready for tea to start.  First, they brought out the sparkling wine.  The sparkling wine being served was Fairy Tale, which has been the signature sparkling wine at the Resort for some time, and which I love, but I hadn't realized that it was from Iron Horse.  Many years ago, at a wine dinner at Catal Restaurant in Downtown Disney, I'd discovered a riesling from Iron Horse that I'd really loved.

Table settings already in place for tea.  I love the clean, clear pattern.

Iron Horse Fairy Tale sparkling wine.

I liked the teapot that they were using for tea, but I did think it was very plain, with just the bone white.  I didn't want anything too flowery, but maybe some kind of subtle solid-color accent might have gone nicely with the pattern of the china.  It wasn't a very large teapot, which made sense if the intention is that you are going to try several of the teas in succession.  And, I have to admit, even though I wasn't planning on using the milk, I was disappointed that it was cold.  It would have been nice if it had been even a little warm, or even close to room temperature, as pouring cold milk into hot tea really dampens the temperature of the tea.  In this case, it wasn't even just the milk that was cold, but the container was as well, so we figured that meant the entire container had been in the refrigerator.  Serving warm or even room temperature milk is definitely more labor intensive than serving cold milk but it would have been a nice extra touch.

Pot of tea with milk on the side.

I really enjoyed the Perfect Afternoon tea.  It definitely had a bold tea flavor and was a good accompaniment to the menu items, especially the scones, since they're fairly sweet.

Beautiful color of the Perfect Afternoon tea.

In addition to milk, also brought to the table were sugar, sugar substitutes, honey and lemon.  I generally don't put anything in my hot tea, but it's nice to have the items available for people who do use them.

Sugar comes in the form of crystallized sugar sticks.

Honey and lemon for your tea, if you please.

Because we'd ordered the premium tea party, our first course was the salad.  I was pleasantly surprised that it was a rather nice salad, with romaine lettuce rather than iceberg, and a few different accompaniments on the lettuce as well and a nice dressing that didn't oversaturate the salad.  They also added fresh ground pepper upon request.  It was a nice and refreshing start to tea.

A nice salad to start with.

The main elements of the tea were brought in a stacked tower, with the scones on top, the tea sandwiches in the middle and the desserts on the bottom.  Accompaniments for the scones were on a separate plate.

Scones, sandwiches and dessert.

There were two kinds of scones, one was a black currant scone and one was a blueberry scone with lemon glaze.

Blueberry scones with lemon glaze and black currant scones.

The scone accompaniments were Devonshire cream, lemon curd and blueberry lemon preserve.  I did think it was kind of interesting that the blueberry and lemon themes were repeated in the scones and in the accompaniments.  The Devonshire cream was wonderful, as you'd expect.  I mostly put that on the scones.  I liked the lemon curd but I'll admit I wasn't sure how the tartness of that would work on the scones, so I didn't end up using any of it.  The blueberrry lemon preserve was quite nice, and I had some of it with the black currant scone.

Devonshire cream, lemon curd and blueberry lemon preserve.

The tea sandwiches consisted of cucumber and watercress, heirloom tomato and mozzarella (basically a caprese), egg salad, and smoked salmon.  I enjoyed all of the sandwiches.  They were all different enough from each other that you could enjoy the various flavors.

Tea sandwiches.

A different view of the tea sandwiches.

Dessert consisted of chocolate-dipped strawberries, mini fruit tarts, and four different flavors of macarons.  The flavors have apparently changed during the time that tea has been offered, but on this day, the flavors were pineapple chocolate, white and dark chocolate, pistachio maraschino, and raspberry chocolate.  I enjoyed the desserts, though I didn't have all of them because I was feeling that there was quite a bit of sugar overall during the meal, and that's without putting any sugar in my tea.  The scones were sweeter than I remember them normally being when I've had them elsewhere - perhaps the lemon glaze on the blueberry added to that.  For the mini fruit tart, I ate the fruit on top and left the rest of the tart.  I really enjoyed the chocolate-dipped strawberry (neither the husband nor I like white chocolate, so he scraped the white chocolate off and just ate the strawberry, while I was able to enjoy the milk chocolate one) because it was a perfectly ripe strawberry, not too sweet and not too sour, and the size of the strawberry was enough to evenly balance the sweetness of the chocolate.  Even though the macarons were smallish and were shared by two of us, having four of them seemed more than I'd have expected.  I probably would have preferred for there to be two of them and then maybe some additional fruit on the side instead of the other two macarons, maybe a couple slices of honeydew or cantaloupe, which are mild enough in flavor not to overpower the other desserts but wouldn't add as much to the sweet flavors.


I think part of the problem for me in feeling like the sweet factor of the meal was too high is that I didn't have as much tea to drink as I'd have liked.  We did finish our first pot of tea, and when we were ready to try our next tea, it took a while for us to get the attention of our server, who was helping other guests.  So we sat for a little while without any tea to drink, and I did end up having more of my water than I normally would during a meal where I also have tea.  When we finally were able to speak to our server, we ordered our next tea, and that seemed to take a while to come out as well.  So, at a meal advertised as afternoon tea, I spent too much of it without any tea.  If I'd had more tea available throughout the meal, I think it would have cleaned out my palate more from the scones, and having the tea with the desserts would probably also have presented a better balance.  At one point, I sat there for a while waiting to have some more of my dessert until I had tea to go with it.  Our initial pot of tea was brought out by someone other than our server, but otherwise, everything else we received and needed was handled by our server.  Maybe it would be better to have someone assist the server so that if someone needed another pot of the same tea or even a different tea, the other person could take care of that.  If someone needed assistance in picking out what tea to have, it would make sense for the server to handle that, but for people like us who have very definite ideas of what kinds of tea we like, who don't need the extra assistance and just need to make our tea request.  I'd wanted to also try the White Tip Darjeeling but didn't have time.  Towards the end of our meal, the husband actually asked if I wanted to order a pot of that, but I didn't want to wait the extra time to get it, as we'd already been there for a while.  If they don't want someone other than the server attending to the guests, perhaps they might give fewer tables to each server and have more servers so that the server isn't spread as thin among their various tables.  (For those who know me, yes, there was English Breakfast tea on the menu, and yes, I love that, but no, I wasn't going to order it because there were other teas I wanted to try.)

The other tea that we did request was the Russian Earl Grey, which initially intrigued me because while of course I was familiar with Earl Grey tea, I'd never heard of Russian Earl Grey before.  As I'd mentioned previously, I generally don't add anything to my hot tea, but I do enjoy lemon in my hot tea on the occasions when I have a cold.  I really enjoyed this tea, which had the flavor of lemon in it, but while I can't properly describe the flavor, having the lemon flavor infused into the tea gave it a much cleaner taste and flavor than adding lemon into the tea separately.  It was enough of a lemon flavor to give it the scent and taste but it wasn't too tart.  It was really a nice tea.

I asked the server about the teas that were offered with the meal, and she said that they were all loose leaf teas, fresh brewed, and they were from Tea Leaves and Twinings.  I'm a fan of Twinings, but I hadn't heard of Tea Leaves before.  At first, I didn't realize she was referencing a brand name and thought she just meant tea leaves, but as she was explaining that a rep from the company had come to explain the teas to the servers and staff, I realized that must be the name of the company.  And lo and behold, here's the Russian Earl Grey from Tea Leaves.  I'm amused that the story our server relayed to us about the tea is actually on the website, that tea was brought from China to Russia via the desert, and lemon was added to the tea to hide the dusty flavor.  I think I'm going to need to order some of that.  (And for those of you who know about me, buying tea, and the husband, yes, he knows I'm likely going to order it, and no, he didn't object.  Of course, he doesn't know that I've looked through the other teas available there, and I might be ordering more than just the Russian Earl Grey.  Shhhhhhh!!!!!)

Finally, the last item included in our premium tea party were truffles.  Inside the cute packaging were two truffles, Tahitian vanilla and salted caramel.  Yes, I was done with sugar by that point.  We saved them for later and shared them with friends.  I do love that the truffles come in a pretty and branded container which makes for a nice memento/souvenir.

Truffles to complete the premium tea experience.

A nice memento/souvenir of the afternoon.

Since there are two choices offered for tea (not including the kids tea), how would you decide which one to order?  Is $15 worth the extra price for a salad, a glass of sparkling wine and truffles?  Of course, it all depends on your preferences and budget.  If your entire family of 6 is attending, that's a lot of extra cost.  If you're not a fan of salad or don't partake in alcoholic beverages or are allergic to chocolate, the premium tea party might not work for you.  (I didn't ask if a non-alcoholic beverage could be substituted for the glass of sparkling wine.)  For us, we were glad we'd gotten the premium tea party.  Having the additional salad was definitely nice, and without it, the meal would have seemed even sweeter.  I did enjoy the sparkling wine, helped by the fact that it's a wine I already liked.  And while I didn't need the extra sugar of the truffles, it was nice to share them with friends, and I like having the souvenir to keep.  If you're going with other family members, some of you could order the classic tea party and some could order the premium tea party and just share the extra elements.  That could work among friends as well, as long as you agree ahead of time who gets what!

The restaurant was busy but not full when we were there, so it seems to be a popular offering.

Overall, I did enjoy the afternoon tea.  My experience might be a little jaded because I have a couple of local places that I can go to that have excellent afternoon teas, including one that's basically a proper English tea, and I really, REALLY miss the Practically Perfect Tea that I'd mentioned earlier.  This tea isn't something I'd likely attend on a regular basis (though I do have plans to return shortly, to enjoy it with friends), but I think it's a lovely offering for people who want to be able to enjoy the experience of tea and don't necessarily have a favorite place to already go to, or who want to try something different.  Whether for locals or tourists visiting Disneyland, it's a nice interlude during the day, and definitely a nice option to celebrate a holiday or an important milestone.  When we were there, we happened to overhear another party who were attending as a surprise retirement party for their mother.  What a wonderful idea!

A premium tea party adds enjoyment to any day.