Tuesday, April 22, 2008

No Longer Falling Down.

An eclectic decision placed a piece of London in the middle of the desert, and it’s still drawing visitors today.

It’s amazing, the places that curiosity will take you. And curiosity alone is what brought myself and my traveling companion to the banks of Lake Havasu City in early March.

We were headed back from Las Vegas. We’d taken Highway 95 in from the cutoff through Laughlin through the mountains, and didn’t want to go back the same way. Going across Boulder Dam was straight out, so we decided to skip the turnoff right past Cal Nev Ari and keep going south.

That took me on my one and only trip into California. I’ve punctured the border, but never stepped foot in the state. We drove down to Needles, where we picked up I-40 and drove on into Arizona.

We stopped for gas just inside the border, and noticed a sign for London Bridge. I just assumed it was a town name, but my traveling companion insisted she remembered a story about a bridge that had been brought over stone by stone from England. After a little consideration, we decided to go check it out.

There was no mile marker on the sign, just an arrow. We headed down a two lane highway, between standing stones and scrub brush. About the time we decided to turn back, we saw a sign for London Bridge Road. Well, it’d make sense to go back that way, wouldn’t it?

The highway we were on wasn’t bad, but the road we pulled off onto had seen better days. It took us by marinas and motels and car lots. We passed a giant chicken in a restaurant parking lot at one point. And we kept getting further and further out. At one point, we wondered if someone had been mean enough to just name the road London Bridge to see who’d take it.

Just about the time we’d decided to turn around (for the second time!), I saw a bit of an old neon sign with the pattern of the Union Flag. We pulled into the parking lot.

And here we saw a little bit of what appeared to be an English Village. Four flags flew overhead -- Arizona, United States, Canada, and Great Britain. The fountain they flew above was empty, but dragon headed lions proclaimed this was the city of London.

Not quite.

The visitor’s center at the entrance was closed (this was, after all, early March) but there were strategically placed photo opportunities, including a red British phone booth, Tudor style buildings, and more. A closed restaurant led down to the canal -- over which was perched an enormous stone bridge.

The massive stone bridge was originally finished in 1831 in, of course, London. John Rennie, the man who came up with the five arch design, perhaps couldn’t conceive of a time when London’s population would reach the multi-millions, nor could he determine then that the bridge would one day carry tens of thousands of cars a day over the Thames. Probably didn’t occur to his son, either -- who saw the bridge to its completion. Didn’t really matter -- in 1831, it was da bomb, and a grand way to cross the river that divided the city.

Years passed, and the population increased, and so did the traffic. The bridge started to sink into the clay of the river. By 1924, one end of the bridge had sunk down three or four inches lower than the other. It was sinking at a rate of an inch every eight years. London’s engineers tried all sorts of things to alleviate traffic congestion… widening the bridge from 52 to 65 feet, propping it up with more pillars, all to no avail.

Other bridges were constructed across the Thames, and eventually the decision was made to tear the old bridge down. But even this would be a colossal burden on the city’s budget.

That’s where Ivan Luckin came in. The member of the Common Council of the City of London served on the Bridge House Estates Committee in the sixties. He came up with the idea of selling the bridge -- and people thought he was crazy. Indeed -- even after it went on the market, it sat there and stubbornly didn’t sell. That is, until April 15th, 1968, when American businessman Robert McCulloch of McCulloch Oil Corporation plunked his signature down on a contract to purchase the bridge for £1,029,000 (approximately $2,460,000).

A lot of folks thought McCulloch was nuts. Rumors spread that he thought he was purchasing the Tower Bridge instead, the one with the towering buildings on it. Not the case. McCulloch had a vision for the structure.

He knew what he was doing.

McCulloch had put a lot of money and inspiration behind the creation of Lake Havasu City, a community founded on the eastern shore of a manmade lake. From its inception in 1963, it was advertised as being an oasis in a desert. How could anyone resist the idea of all that water in an area where it hardly ever rained?

But McCulloch knew it’d be hard to get a lot of folks to come check out the city if there wasn’t something else to draw them in. So…how about a tourist destination? And what better than a piece of history from overseas to draw them in?

The bridge was disassembled over three years, each piece carefully hand numbered for reassembly in the states. Ship after ship crossed the sea with the stones from the old bridge. They were brought out into the desert, where most of the stones were assembled over a concrete frame over a dry canal especially built for the bridge. Some of the stones were left behind in Great Britain to pay the taxes on the sale. Others were distributed out as souvenirs. It cost $8 million to move the more than 10,000 stones and bricks to America.

Once the bridge was nearing completion, the canal was completed, and water flowed from Lake Havasu through it into Thompson Bay. On October 10, 1971, a grand ceremony was held, and the bridge was opened for business.

An English style village was constructed at the east end of the structure, to take in the visitors that McCulloch was certain would come. And McCulloch was busy with other things, too -- like moving his operations to Lake Havasu City from Los Angeles. He built plants in the area, and convinced trucking companies and other businesses to relocate there. But by far, the area most attracted real estate developers, who marketed Lake Havasu City as an escape from West Coast woes.

McCulloch himself passed away in February 1977, but the area continued to thrive. Hundreds of thousands of people would come out every year to view the bridge and spend a bit of money at the British Crown Colonies Resort Park or any of the other souvenir and photo-op places along the way.

Maybe it was the time of year, but on our visit most of the attractions around the bottom of the bridge were closed. There was a dock, several concession stands, even a restaurant - all closed for the season. But there were also people out, a couple dozen adults and kids doing what we were doing, gawking at the bridge and avoiding the ducks.

There are small boats you can rent, and an old steamboat (which seemed to be a little out of place to me), and a lot of other shops further along the east bank. I could see where non-tourist businesses like hair stylists and dollar stores had cropped up in the center.

We ducked into an open souvenir store, and looked over the merchandise. A lot of the items inside were the expected -- the ubiquitous pressed penny machine, shot glasses and spoons promoting Arizona and the bridge, posters, t-shirts, hats. I was a little startled to see the standard “hillbilly” souvenir here -- Complaint Department signs on raw wood, and other similar items.

Back out we went, sorry we couldn’t stay longer. I snapped off more pictures, catching the big bridge against the sinking sun, its gas lights starting to come on. Underneath the edge of the bridge, I spotted a solid row of swallow nests that went from one side to the other, just like I’d seen under the Highway 5 bridge at Calico Rock back home. Some things don’t change.

If you’re out on Interstate 40 in far western Arizona and have a little time to kill, go seek out London Bridge. It’s rather massive, and interesting to think that something that big could be brought over here for us to enjoy. You’ll find Lake Havasu City roughly 18 miles south of I-40 on Highway 95. There are plenty of little restaurants to munch at, and you can listen to oldies on KBBC 980AM.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

An Artist's Home In New Orleans.

Ever wanted to stay in the home of a master artist? At New Orleans’s Degas House, you are in luck. This fantastically restored home on Esplanade isn’t just another stop on a local tour. It’s a piece of history itself.

From October 1872 to March 1873, this was the home of Edgar Degas. He came to New Orleans shortly after his stint in the Franco-Prussian War. It was while training for his enlistment that the artist discovered his eyesight was failing.

He came to New Orleans for rest and relaxation -- at a time when the city was in the middle of Reconstruction and fighting its own set of woes. He arrived by train and came to the splendid home of his brother, Rene. The harsh light and unpredictable warm, humid weather kept Degas indoors to paint, and the colors and contrasts in his New Orleans era paintings reflect this a great deal.

The home belonged to Degas’ uncle, Michel Musson, and his three female cousins were frequent subjects of his work. He was especially drawn to his cousin and sister-in-law Estelle, who was blind. She would sit for him for hours as he drew and painted portrait after portrait.

The paintings capture more… scenes of a city and a Creole culture that was disappearing with the days. The most famous of the pieces he created in New Orleans -- The New Orleans Cotton Exchange, captured the final days of a brokerage that was to see its end shortly after his departure for France. It shows several members of his family in the work at the Exchange. This would be Degas’ only piece to be sold to a museum while he lived, and a turning point for his future work.

When he returned to France, he returned invigorated, and the work he created from them on fell into what he called the “realist” movement. Others would dub the style with the name that would stick, “Impressionism.”

The home celebrates what inspired the artist -- a beautiful Esplanade ridge home with parlors, staircases, and pillars, looking out onto the tree-lined avenue. The home was built in 1852 by the architect Benjamin Rodriguez, and was rented by the Musson family for many years. In the 1930s, the house was literally divided in two, and the southern portion moved several feet over onto the next lot.

When David Villarrubia purchased the home on the north side, no one knew the house next door had been an original portion of the property. When that was discovered, the other home was purchased and restorations began there as well.

Today, you can stay at the Degas House in one of the luxurious refurbished rooms, complete with restoration furnishings.

The grand Estelle Suite is named for Degas’ favorite subject during his New Orleans sojourn. Its large and fluffy four poster bed reclines in an airy teal high-ceilinged front room on the second story, complete with fireplace and dark wood furnishings. Instead of a closet, there's an armoire large enough for your belongings, an inviting desk for letters, and a wash basin by the bed. A daybed in an alcove provides additional bedspace.

The bath features an antique clawfoot tub with brass finishings and a gigantic basket of towels.

During our stay in March, it was pleasant enough for us to leave the air off and the windows open until about 10 p.m. Each room is climate controlled with an individual thermostat. The balcony was a wonderful place to relax after days on the road, and at night there is little traffic. The house is almost silent, except for the movement of guests around the premises.

On the western end of the second floor, you’ll find Desiree’s Room. This section of the house used to be on the north side, but was moved in the 1930s to the back so the lot next door could be sold off. This burgundy accented room features a bathroom with whirlpool tub, separate shower, refrigerator, and two fireplaces.

The house also hosts a number of rooms on the third floor called the Artists’ Garrets. Each of these windowless rooms features beds, televisions, and artists easels and are named after the children who lived in the house. The attic space was originally solely meant for storage, but during a renovation in the 1990s the extra space was added. This is also where a communal butler’s kitchen can be found, complete with a refrigerator stocked with colas and sometimes beer, and a fine selection of teas.

Guests are treated to a continental breakfast during the week and a hot Creole breakfast on the weekend. The kitchen is open to guests who need a place to cook, to store leftovers, or to grab a bottle of water or a glass of juice during the night.

In fact, there is a certain matter of trust at Degas House. During the months after Hurricane Katrina, the house hosted several workers employed in the search for survivors and bodies from the disaster. Realizing that this was a home away from home, the kitchen was opened -- and over that time, visitors have been more than courteous. You won’t find an overnight attendant here -- the house is free for you to roam at your leisure. David and his staff are just a phone call away if you need them.

Don’t have the time to stay a night? Tours are offered by appointment during the day. The hourlong tour features the viewing of a documentary and a personalized visit through the house and the artist’s quarters for a $10 donation.

You'll find the Degas House Historic Home and Museum at 2306 Esplanade. Call (540) 821-5009 or check out the website.

Lovely Late Night Loiterings in the Quarter.

The French Quarter -- home of Jackson Square, beignets, history, and Bourbon Street. The Crescent City could easily be called the City That Sleeps In; breakfast restaurants (outside of the Café du Monde) mostly open around 8 or 9 a.m. Many travelers forsake early morning excursions so they can sample NOLA at night.

Problem is, what are you going to eat in those late night hours? Sure, there’s a bar every couple of feet along Bourbon Street; but for some of us folks past our twenties, going out on that neon-lit alcohol-drenched boulevard after dark holds about as much interest as walking from the swine bar to the beer cart at the State Fair. Worse still, most of the eateries along that strip (outside of the odd pub fare location or Krystal’s off Canal) start closing down around 11 p.m.

I’ve been fortunate to find a couple of places around that offer better-than-average late-night fare, the local favorite Coop’s Place on Decatur among them. But what if you’re not searching out Shrimp Creole or Rabbit-Sausage Jambalaya? What if you’re wanting healthier fare?

It’s not that far away.

On a humid Tuesday night in March, my traveling companion and I stumbled across an inviting doorway along the Canal Street end of Decatur. We first thought it was simply a hookah bar, but the scent of cooking kebabs told us otherwise, so we went in. This was our welcome to the Attiki Bar and Grill.

The restaurant has a variety of seating options -- couches, short tables, tall tables, a bar. We had a seat in a corner at a tall table, and as we sat a waitress was already on-hand to provide us with menus.

Noticing that many of the other diners were consuming martinis, I went ahead and ordered one to try. The Sun Kiss is a blend of Stoli Ohranj and Grand Marnier… unfortunately, it’s a rather stout combination, and I soon found myself asking for water as well.

The tri-fold menu was full of snacking and dining options. A wide variety of salads, kebabs, seafood dishes, and sandwiches gave us plenty of options -- probably a few too many, being as late as it was. After chewing over the menu for a while, we settled on a Mazze plate and a Combination platter.

Each of the dining selections on the menu include a paired beverage -- a wide variety of wines. The sandwiches included burgers and “sandwiches on French bread.” Apparently this Mediterranean eatery didn’t presume to know how to make a proper Po’ Boy, though the fried oyster sandwich ordered at the next table did bear a fine, overstuffed resemblance.

The crowd was incredibly varied -- twenty-somethings sharing beverages and a hookah on a couch, an older couple at the bar, various singles and groups here and there. The music was heavily influenced with bhangra (think of a cross between traditional Indian rhythyms and tones, hip hop, and trance) but it wasn’t overpowering, and we didn’t have to struggle to hear each other.

Our Mazze platter ($18.95) came out first -- a much larger offering than I had anticipated. Our waitress brought out separate sampling plates for the both of us, along with the proper serving ware for such a repast -- big fresh and soft wedges of pita bread. Three sumptuous and generous dollops of babaghanough, hummus, and lebneh accompanied a fine selection of grape leaves, buffala, kibby, and falafel.

The buffala (sliced tomatoes baked with imported mozzarella cheese and basil in olive oil) was a refreshing surprise. The tomatoes were still crisp, but had incorporated that lovely basil flavor. The kibby was something completely new to me… ground beef, onions, and pine nuts wrapped in a cracked wheat crust and fried… savory, crunchy, and juicy all in one mouthful.

The falafel came with a yogurt cream sauce that did nothing to detract from the crispy and well-seasoned chick pea patties. The grape leaves, which I find to usually be hit or miss, were hearty little morsels filled with rice and ground beef. The hummus was excellent, the babaghanough creamy, and the lebneh with its pool of olive oil topping was exquisite.

The platter was served up with a spicy clear red sauce, which my traveling companion savored -- and a small container of tziki, which was lovely and refreshing after sampling the red sauce.

Before we could even get halfway through the Mazze plate, out came the Combination Platter -- a rainbow of grilled meats and vegetables served up with saffron rice. You actually have a choice with all of these dinner kebabs -- two sides, including the steamed vegetables, the saffron rice with pine nuts, garlic new potatoes, fries, or house salad. Viewing our dish, I believe we had made the correct choice.

The Combination Platter ($19.95) includes three of the more popular kebabs Attika Grill serves… prime steak tips, chicken, and shish kebabs. The seasoning on the steak tips is a traditional Greek seasoning reminiscent of Cavendar’s, with just a hint of mint. It’s served medium rare, unless you specify otherwise.

The chicken is more delicate -- with hints of cumin and turmeric. The shish kebab is served as one long sausage (don’t worry, a big knife comes with the platter) full of Middle Eastern spices and not at all hot. Rather than segregating the steamed vegetables along the side, they’re all over the platter -- deliciously seasoned mushrooms, asparagus spears, onions, and sautéed reconstituted sundried tomatoes. They all compliment the meat quite well.

We found ourselves too full to sample the dessert selections -- a choice of baklava, tirimisu, or chocolate cheesecake. We also passed on Turkish coffee and hot chai, realizing that unlike the tourists here we had to get up early in the morning and work. But we’ve promised ourselves an afternoon next time we’re in New Orleans, to come in and relax with some of that baklava and Turkish coffee while reclining on a comfortable couch.

If you’re stumbling around looking for a good meal late at night and don’t want to venture far off Bourbon Street, check out the Attiki Bar and Grill. It’s on the same block of Decatur as the House of Blues, but a lot quieter. The physical address is 230 Decatur Street -- you can also call (504) 587-3756 or check out the extensive website at attikineworleans.com. Oh, and they also serve lunch.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Author's Rate Guide

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Tie Dye Travels, monthly or bi-monthly syndicated column
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Seriously Savory Somethings.

I don’t like cooked spinach. Raw spinach adds a certain flair to salads, and I’ll eat it by the handful. But early in my life, I was exposed to badly cooked spinach, and I usually avoid it.

You can’t keep me away from it at Jimmy’s Serious Sandwiches.

A cooked spinach sandwich may sound like the sort of stuff gastronomic nightmares are made of, but the folks at Jimmy’s have raised it to fine art.
I was exposed to the restaurant’s fare back on September 12, 2001. I was working in a newsroom, the day after THAT DAY, and lunch was catered in. One of my co-workers, aware of my allergies, handed me a box with the word “garden” on it. I was surprised to find inside not a salad, but an ethereal sandwich that both satisfied me and urged me to find out this restaurant. And over time, any time I needed good food fast after work, I called in an order and picked up a box on the way home.

Of course, times have changed, and being out of state so much I don’t get back to Jimmy’s as much as I would like. So heading over to the West Markham shop on a Thursday afternoon was a real treat.

Jimmy Weisman’s sandwich palace hasn’t changed much over its 23 years. There’s still the happy sculpture out front, and the green awning. We went late in the day, around 3:45 (the restaurant closes at 4 p.m.) and it was strangely quiet… unlike during the lunch hustle from around 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., when the place is packed with business professionals and hospital staffers looking for a good, bargain priced meal.

My traveling companion took a moment to decide on lunch, but for me, it was a no-brainer -- a Garden Sandwich, serious sized, with a fresh fruit side. We made the rest of our lunch selections, poured our drinks. and sat down.

The restaurant isn’t all that big -- about the size of your average Wendy’s… but it is clean and relaxed and completely without pretension. And the view in the front window is lovely -- a nice sprawl of green across the road that’s War Memorial Golf Course, and St. Vincent Medical Center and War Memorial Stadium in the distance.

I have to admit, I have to like a restaurant that serves Red Zinger Tea. The Celestial Seasonings offering is a great accompaniment to a good sandwich, and makes a relaxing afternoon beverage. You can drink the Red Zinger, or regular tea, or sweet tea… or a selection of fountain drinks. Or bottled water or Doctor Brown sodas, for that matter. There are plenty of choices.

For that matter, you have a lot of sandwich choices, too -- hence the “serious” part of the restaurant name. Selections like Thai One On, a hot and spicy Thai chicken breast with lime, Asian slaw and lettuce on a ciabatta; It’s Greek To Me, a hummus, veggie, and yogurt filled wrap; and the Salmon, Red Chile Rubbed, wrapped with corn and black beans and jalapeno dressing. Yummy.

Our lunches came out on green-tissue lined baskets.

My traveling companion had ordered a daily special, a Beef Tenderloin sandwich ($7.25) with a side of Twice Baked Potatoes. The meat was served up on a Po Boy roll, carefully cut down one side and piled up with savory yet tender strips of marinated beef, fresh tomatoes and lettuce. My companion had chosen to have his house dressing on the side (he’s not a big mayonnaise fan) but ended up spreading the horseradish-thick sauce onto the bun. The Twice Baked Potatoes, unlike those offered at other restaurants, are twice baked MASHED potatoes… slightly crunchy on the outside, light and fluffy on the inside. My companion, who’s also a salt-i-vore, never reached for the seasoning, telling me the pile of perfection was perfectly seasoned.

Of course, while his meaty meal was tempting, I wasn’t parting with my sandwich of choice. Jimmy’s recipe for the Garden Sandwich ($6.25) won the 1979 National Sandwich Contest, and it hasn’t lost anything in the ages since. Two thick slices of pumpernickel bread conceal a warm mixture of cooked spinach, mushrooms, green peppers and green onions, a little mayo and lemon juice, alfalfa sprouts and sunflower seeds, all glued together with slices of Provolone, Swiss, and Cheddar cheeses. The savory mixture has the consistency of a good chicken salad, yet the warm gooey goodness of cheese. I found myself stabbing at the crumbs once I’d consumed my sandwich.

The Fresh Fruit Bowl side (you can also choose potato chips, potato or pasta salad, or the soup of the day) was a medley of fresh apples, watermelon, cantaloupe and purple grapes… nothing else, not that you need anything else. Everything was crisp and bright.

Of course, you can’t go to Jimmy’s without at least considering dessert. There’s even a warning on the menu: “Jimmy’s will be held harmless for actions taken against any and all individuals who fail to order dessert -- seriously!” The desserts aren’t fancy -- but at $1.10, they don’t have to be. You have a choice between the James “I Feel Good” Brownie, the Pecan Square, the Lemon Square, and a Big Toll House Cookie.

My traveling companion, ever the choco-holic, went for the brownie -- with its light crusty top, moist bottom, and heavy load of nuts. I had to go for the Lemon Square, another signature item at Jimmy’s. The light floury bottom is covered with a thick, sweet-tart lemon custard and dusted with an ample amount of powdered sugar. The brownies, Lemon Squares, and Pecan Squares are all about the same size -- about three inches square -- but you really don’t need any more. They’re rich and delicious.

If you’re not in the mood for a sandwich, Jimmy’s also offers up a good variety of salads, “cool plates” like chicken salad and tuna salad, and kids meals. You can also “Serious Size” your sandwich for an additional $1.25 if you have a hearty appetite.

You’ll find Jimmy’s Serious Sandwiches at 5116 West Markham, across from War Memorial Park and next door to Chi’s. They do carry-out orders and business catering, too. The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday. You can call (501) 666-3354 or check out the menu at jimmysserioussandwiches.com.