Saturday, July 14, 2012

Bastille Day

Today is Bastille Day, the French national holiday that commemorates the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 and the beginning of the French Revolution.

The Bastille was a prison and a symbol of the absolute power of Louis XVI. The revolution marked an end to the monarchy and the birth of a sovereign nation and, in 1792, the creation of the first country's first Republic. 

Bastille Day is to the French what Independence Day is to us in the United States.

I've always been a Francophile, loving all things French. My fascination for France began long before I ever traveled there. My first visit, in 1995, sparked the passion I have for the country now. 

I love Paris. In the springtime, anytime. I love Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Côte d'Azur and Provence. Each is uniquely beautiful; all hold special places in my heart for the memories  created there. 

I love French food and wine. Years after the fact, I can't purchase a baguette here in Houston without being reminded of the first one I bought in Paris - at a small bakery near Notre Dame. 

I've always wanted to travel to France in July and be there for Bastille Day. But, so for, that's not happened. Even so, I always keep an eye on festivities there (via cable news) and do a bit of celebrating here. 

Tonight I was with friends who share my love of France. We dressed in all black, donned berets and gathered at a private home. There, we listened to French music and drank French wine. Those who could speak French did and made fun of those of us who only understand (non-spoken) four-letter words. 

For dinner, we were treated to a menu that featured Soupe à l'Oignonlarge (onion soup with grated swiss cheese)  and Poulet aux Porto (chicken breast sauteed in a port wine mushroom cream sauce). For dessert, we enjoyed a delicious Crème Brûlée and strong French Roast Coffee. 

The meal lasted for hours and many stories of French adventures were shared. We talked about doing this all again next year. Someone volunteered to play host. Another volunteered to bring the wine. The rest of us promised to be there — berets and all.

One more good reason to say, "Vive la France."

Sushi and Sake 102

I showed up at the RA Sushi Bar and Restaurant in Highland Village today, just before 11 a.m., to participate in the restaurant's Sushi and Sake 102 Class. I wanted to learn more about sushi, how to prepare a few of the restaurant's signature dishes and how to pair them with the appropriate sake.

With me to enjoy this culinary adventure was Nikki, my good friend and associate.

We were greeted by Kim Stitham, the restaurant's general manager, and Head Sushi Chefs Jimmy Kieu and JoJo Urbano, who put in front of us several plates and bowls filled with the food items we would be using during the class — avocados, imitation crab, cucumbers, ginger, salmon, seaweed, sesame seeds, shrimp, soy sauce, tuna, wasabi, yellowtail and, of course, rice! 

Also placed in front of us were cutting boards, bowls of water, clear plastic gloves, glass mats, knives, chopsticks and saki glasses.

Kim started the class by telling us sushi was invented thousands of years ago in Japan - as a way to preserve raw, cleaned fish. (The fermentation process could keep a cleaned and gutted fish for several months.)

In the 18th century, Yohei Hanaya, a chef from Tokyo, decided to forget about the fermentation process and serve the fish as it was. Fresh sushi became very popular, and two styles emerged — the kansai style from Osaka and the edo style from Tokyo.

After that brief introduction and before severe hunger set in, we were ready to prepare Salmon Nigiri, the first of several items on today's menu. It took a couple of tries, but we learned to properly (by using only one hand) wrap the salmon atop and around a "log" of rice. We learned the secret of keeping the rice together is folding in distilled white sushi vinegar, available at H.E.B. and other grocery stores with an Asian food section. 

Next, we prepared a Rainbow Roll, RA's version of the California Roll, topped with tuna, yellowtail, shrimp, salmon and avocado. 

The California Roll, we learned, was invented in Los Angeles in the late 1970s. It was  considered "a big leap" in sushi culture. It is credited for spreading the popularity of sushi in the West. Until the California Roll was created, most sushi rarely utilized ingredients foreign to Japanese cuisine. It was also considered a "no-no" to use imitation crab for a cuisine that prided itself on using the best seafood possible.

After preparing (and eating) our Rainbow Rolls, the chefs taught us how to prepare tuna rolls. We made two types -  "outside in" and  "inside out." Both consisted of tuna, rice and seaweed wrappers. In one, the rice is rolled on the outside of the wrapper, and then sliced. In the other, the rice is rolled on the inside of the wrapper, and then sliced. In both ways, the tuna rolls we made looked beautiful and tasted great!

At the end, we prepared a Banana Split Maki - a fried banana maki topped with whipped cream and fresh fruit and then drizzled with raspberry and chocolate sauces. Again, this "sushi" was beautiful and yummy!

RA Sushi offers Sushi and Sake classes about every couple of months. Already, I'm planning a return visit in the fall. Taking a Sushi and Sake refresher course would be delicious fun! 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Ima Hogg's Birthday

Today is the 130th anniversary of the birth of the Houston philanthropist and visionary, Ima Hogg. To mark the occasion, Houston Woman Magazine and Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens teamed up to host a fun and festive celebration luncheon. 

Ima Hogg
The event, first in a series of small educational luncheons planned by Houston Woman Magazine for its readers this year, was held at the Lora Jean Kilroy Visitors Center at Bayou Bend. In attendance were nearly 50 professional women, all interested in learning more about Miss Ima and the many things she did to improve the quality of life in Houston.

As the publisher of the magazine, it was a pleasure to serve as the official greeter for so many of our readers. However, after making a few welcoming remarks, I was delighted to turn the program over to Bonnie Campbell, the director of Bayou Bend, and Kate Sayen Kirkland, our presenter, and - like everybody else - sit down and enjoy the festivities.

Kate, who did her Rice University dissertation on Ima Hogg, provided us with a lot of great information about Miss Ima, including her contributions to our city's arts and education communities.

During her talk, Kate explained how Ima Hogg was always thinking about additional projects to take on - even when she was in her 80s and 90s. It was a message that inspired us all. 

An unexpected treat was having one of our guests, Katie McGready, share an "Ima Hogg" story of her own. As the story goes, Miss Ima was a dear friend of Katie's mother-in-law. When she became engaged, Miss Ima suggested she "register" her china, so friends would know exactly what to buy her as wedding gifts.

This was  back in the 40s, when registering china was "just not done." Miss Ima, however, thought that it should be — that it was the practical thing to do. 

So, Katie did as suggested and registered a Lenox pattern in a popular china shop in River Oaks. Shortly afterwards, Miss Ima called the shop and bought Katie eight place settings!

As it turned out, that sweet story proved to be a fitting prelude to the presentation of the cupcakes and champagne that followed. When we lifted our glasses to toast Miss Ima, we did so with even greater appreciation.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

'Black Coffee'

The popular ExxonMobil Summer Chills series continues tomorrow night, July 8, when Agatha Christie's Black Coffee opens on the Alley Theatre's Hubbard Stage. 

In Black Coffee, the famous and cunning Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, gathers clues to solve the murder of Sir Claude Amory, the eccentric inventor of a new weapons formula. 

The cast is filled with an assortment of colorful (and suspicious) characters, and the plot is typical Agatha Christie - full of clever twists and turns.

Veteran Alley Theatre actors lead the cast. James Black, now in his 24th consecutive season with the Alley, is taking on the role of Hercule Poirot,. James Belcher, now in his 23rd  season with the Alley, is portraying Sir Claude Amory. Others in the cast include  Jeffrey Bean, Laura E. Campbell, Josie De Guzman, Jennifer Harmon, Paul Hope, Chris Hutchison, Joe Kirkendall, Paul Hope, Jay Sullivan and Todd Waite. 

Black Coffee, which runs through August 5, is being directed by Gregory Boyd, the Alley Theatre's artistic director.

Black Coffee was Agatha Christie's first play. It was written in 1929, after she had already established herself as a successful writer of mystery novels.  The production of Black Coffee  in the UK in 1930 launched Christie as a playwright too.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

America the Beautiful

My plans for today, the Fourth of July, will include some down time. On purpose, I've set aside a few hours between commitments to start reading America the Beautiful: Rediscovering What Made This Nation Great, a book that's been on my "must-read" list for awhile now. 

I learned of this New York Times bestseller on television when I saw its author, Ben Carson, being interviewed. I learned about Carson's challenging childhood in the ghetto of Detroit and his amazing journey to become well educated and one of the most celebrated neurosurgeons in the world. 

During that television interview, I saw that Carson was intelligent and articulate, but his voice revealed something that really appealed to me — an intense passion for this country and a strong desire for all Americans to understand how the fundamental beliefs of our founding fathers impacted our history. It was Carson's voice that made me want to read this book today! It seems a most fitting way to honor those who birthed our nation!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Branson Belle

Taking the two-hour dinner cruise on the Showboat Branson Belle was going to be the perfect ending to our last, fun-filled day in the music capital of the heartland. Thus, my friend and I were eager to get to the boat early and enjoy it as much as possible.

We picked up our tickets at the box office at the White River Landing, situated near the entrance to the showboat and alongside the shores of Table Rock Lake. There, we found a couple of specialty shops that begged for our attention. 

Inside the Layton Mercantile, we found stylish clothing, sunglasses and hats, custom jewelry, gourmet coffees, decadent candies and more. Next door, at McAdoo's Boatworks, we found unique nautical souvenirs, t-shirts, jackets and caps. Needless to say, a couple of "must-haves" were bought before we moved on toward the boat ramp.

We boarded the Branson Belle just before four in the afternoon. Immediately, we were taken by the beauty of the boat, as well as its size - 78 feet wide and 265 feet long. We checked out all three levels. We found the captain's wheelhouse on the top deck and the engine room and kitchen on the low deck. 

Next, we made our way to the showboat theater and to our assigned seats on the fourth row. We were greeted by Viva, our waitress, who took our beverage orders. Offered were iced water, iced tea and pink lemonade. (No alcoholic beverages are served on the Branson Belle.)

A comedic pre-show started as the servers brought out our green salads (splashed with a delicious sweet Vidalia onion dressing) and continued off-and-on until we finished our entrees (roast beef, honey-dijon glazed chicken, garlic mashed potatoes and fresh sugar snap snow peas with julienne carrots) and desserts (golden brittle lemon-berry tortes drizzled with caramel). 

The pre-show was a bonus we had not planned on, and it added much to the night's enjoyment. 

After dinner, we were encouraged to go outside for awhile (about 20 minutes) and enjoy the panoramic views of the lush Ozark Mountains and turquoise waters of Table Rock Lake from the various decks. We did, and it was delightful.

When we returned to our seats, the show, Made In The USA, began! 

The show was hosted by the two-time Branson Comedian of the Year, David Hirschi (as Slim Chance), and featured The ShowBelles (a four-member, all-female quartet), Master Pianist Julie McClarey and Champion Fiddler Dean Church. Each was backed by the showboat's own live band, The Castaways. All gave stellar performances!

Each musical moment in Made In The USA was a fitting salute to our country. Together, they stirred deep feelings of patriotism in all of us and made us proud (all over again) to be Americans! It was, truly, a beautiful thing!

Branson Landing

Branson Landing, situated between US 65 and Lake Taneycomo in the city of Branson, Missouri, is one of the nation's most attractive and dynamic mixed-use developments. This $400 million, master-planned project offers the only retail, restaurant and waterfront entertainment district in the region. So, naturally, I wanted to see and experience it. This morning, my schedule permitted me to do just that!

Branson Landing occupies 95 acres and boasts nearly 450,000 square feet of retail shopping, anchored by Bass Pro Shop and Belk Department Store. 

Additionally, there is the 220,000-square-foot Branson Convention Center and Branson Tourism Center, a flagged four-star, 260-room convention hotel, a 100-room boutique hotel, 140 waterfront luxury condominiums and penthouses and marina.

Branson Landing features a scenic boardwalk that stretches along the 1.5-mile Taneycomo lakefront. At the heart of The Landing is a beautifully landscaped town square that terraces down to a spectacular water attraction. The $7.5 million fountains are the first-ever merging of water, fire, light and music. At times, the fountains come alive, shooting 120-foot geysers and fire cannons blasting, all choreographed to light and music.

The water and fire spectacle was created by Wet Design, the producers of world-class shows for Downtown Disney marketplace in Orlando, Universal City Walk in California and the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

Visitors here will also walk past the docking facilities of Branson Landing Cruises, the home port of the Branson Landing Princess and the riverboat replica, Lake Queen.

Branson Landing also features a cross section of eateries — from fine dining on the waterfront with spectacular views to casual fare for shoppers on the go. 

I opted to drop in at Famous Dave's, a lively place near the water that boasts award-winning barbecue. The place and its decor looked familiar; they reminded me of barbecue restaurants back home in Texas.

I ordered the chicken wings, which were smothered in the restaurant's signature sweet-and-tangy sauce. It was a good choice; the wings were simply delicious!

Spa Chateau

Before leaving Houston on Friday, I scheduled an appointment for this morning at Spa Chateau, located just a few miles from Branson, at the luxurious Chateau on the Lake.

Spa Chateau, a 14,000-square-foot facility, is "a palace of pure indulgence." It reminds me of a Tuscan retreat, the kind of place one might go to enjoy exotic European therapies using the finest of lotions and potions.

The spa's two-story lobby features an amazing 30-foot-tall Swarovski crystal chandelier. It was beautiful and amazing, and it set the tone. Clearly, I was in for a very special experience.

After checking in, I was led to the woman's locker room and found it as well-appointed as the lobby. There were the usual restrooms, showers and dressing areas, but the locker room also featured a sauna, eucalyptus steam room and relaxation lounge offering beverages and light refreshments. Nearby were the co-ed whirlpool and indoor swimming pool. 

Spa Chateau offers a long list of signature facials, massages and body treatments, as well as hair cutting and styling, and manicure and pedicure services. The website ( provides full details, including prices.

Getting a facial is always a favored treat for me, so I settled on the 80-minute Pina Colada Facial. It stared with a comforting foot soak, followed by a customized, anti-aging facial that included eye and lip treatments, a relaxing neck and shoulder massage, enzyme peel and warm paraffin wrap for the hands. Some of the products smelled of pineapple and provided deep hydration. Combined, they diminished the fine lines and wrinkles and left my skin glowing! It was just what I wanted - and needed!