Icy Beauties


The Northwest experienced its first snowstorm of the year this week. Another is on the way. Despite being a headache for everyone, there are moments of beauty that take your breath away. These icicles formed under one of the eaves of my roof as temperatures went slightly above freezing during the day and the relentless drip of water created these spectacles.

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Shanghai Cafe Continues to Surprise—Beef with Black Bean Sauce


Shanghai Cafe remains my go-to Chinese restaurant even as new ones open in the Seattle area. My wife and I tend to order the same things every time, menu items that have stood the test of time over the 20 years we’ve been customers. (You can read about our favorites here.) Years ago, one of the long-time waitresses kidded us on our (almost) unwavering selections. 

Last night for dinner, as the year’s first snow started to fall, we decided to give a new dish a go. 

I want to enthuse about their Beef with Black Bean Sauce. After the first bite, it was obvious that this would join our other favorites, a dish so savory and funky from fermented black bean sauce that all my wife and I could say was ‘Mmm.’ Many Chinese restaurants seem stingy with this condiment as if to insinuate its flavor. Douchi should be the star, not a shrinking violet. Dishes using it should be emphatic like chicken with black bean sauce at Yea’s Wok, refinement be damned. For the same reason, I downgrade restaurants that use pesto to color its pasta green rather than generously sauce to highlight basil’s herbal and pungent qualities. There were enough mushrooms to compete with beef slices in volume, maybe a cost-cutting measure. Yet they were perfectly cooked without being spongy while adding their own earthy flavor. Basil leaves lent nice anise notes and color. Despite the sauce verging on being too salty, tempered when spooned on steamed white rice, I’ve found another gem at Shanghai. 

I’ve said before that Shanghai Cafe is unsung and under-appreciated. For good reason, it’s lasted decades at the same location in the Factoria commercial area of Bellevue. For sure my wife and I try new Chinese restaurants but seem always to return here because it’s comfort food. Likewise to my daughter and her husband who crave Shanghai’s vegetarian options whenever they’re in town. 

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Parting Shots at Portland’s Japanese Garden


My wife and I have never driven I-5 through the Northwest in October. This year we did, en route to Southern California. The autumn leaves were gorgeous all along the interstate, mostly yellow with occasional spots of orange and red. They helped break up the monotony of having gone this route many times before.

Randolph E. Collier rest area (California), Interstate 5, just south of the Oregon state line

When I was in Southern California it dawned on me that we’d be passing through Portland later in the month on the way home. I tried to keep a close tab on the fall colors as they were developing in the Japanese Garden.

Trying to find out the current status of the maples wasn’t easy. The website japanesegarden.org didn’t do frequent enough updates to be helpful. So fortune would have to shine on us and it wouldn’t be too late by the time we got to Rose City. As it turned out this year, for best color, the third week was probably best. Yet when we arrived the following week, fortunately there was plenty to admire, in particular the stunning lace leaf maple whose glory I was able to capture on camera. Here is a view from a slightly different angle.

Portland’s Japanese garden is recognized as being the finest outside Japan. I’ve seen it grow and mature over the years, infrequent though my visits have been, and become the breathtaking ambassador it is today. My last time here was in early October 2013, a bit early for best fall color. So it was with great anticipation and fingers crossed that my wife and I arrived on Sunday (October 28). Because it was two hours before closing, we had to keep up a faster pace than we wanted, but we were still rewarded with splendor. The forecasts for thundershowers didn’t materialize; there was only an occasional sprinkle.

After leaving, we headed straight to Ataula, one of our favorite restaurants in Portland. Not wishing to get stuck in Portland’s awful rush hour traffic on Monday morning, we got a room for the night in Vancouver, Washington, just across the Columbia River.

Pan My Smart Phone? Definitely!


One thing I can’t do with my DSLR is take panoramic shots. I like them for their more encompassing record of what I saw, a way to capture the surroundings more than a single exposure can. Using a wide angle lens may not always be the solution; an interesting background tends to recede with shorter focal lengths.

I take a series of partially overlapping handheld shots, sometimes as many as a dozen depending on the subject, with the camera controls set to a constant EV value (manual mode). Image-editing software does the stitching. The steps are a bit involved. Below are some examples.

Daffodils, Skagit Valley, Washington

Corvette club, Fresno, California

lyttleton

Lyttleton, South Island, New Zealand

whitney1

Alabama Hills (foreground), Mount Whitney (background), Lone Pine, California

It’s therefore a huge convenience that smart phones can do the work for you. For those unfamiliar with how this works, select the panorama function in the camera settings, then sweep the phone in a steady arc (horizontally or vertically) until done. It’s basically doing what I do with the DSLR except that the camera uses built-in intelligent software to create a composite. In my previous post, I indicated that I inherited an iPhone 6s, so I took this test shot.

Sammamish State Park, Issaquah, Washington

Despite some cylindrical distortion (not unusual for panos even with DSLRs), I was happy with the result. For what I need this function, it’s perfect. No extra work on my part. Life just got less complicated.

Phone Envy


I just inherited my son-in-law’s iPhone 6s. It replaces a Motorola Moto E. For a while, I’ve been wanting to leave my Canon point-and-shoot at home when I go places and use my smart phone instead, but the Moto takes crappy pictures, to put it mildly.

The quality of this image, taken on the iPhone on a trail near my house, is impressive. Cameras and software have greatly improved in modern smart phones. I can put the little Canon away now. (I will still take the DSLR for more serious endeavors.)

Portland Beauty


If there is one outstanding beauty in Portland, Oregon, my vote goes to this laceleaf maple that shines the brightest in late fall at the Japanese Garden. I was fortunate to see it in its full glory when I passed through the city last Sunday on my way home to Seattle. Five years ago, I visited too early in October to enjoy the best color.

The Majesties of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks


The park ranger held it up between her thumb and forefinger. It was a mere two inches long.

“This is a sequoia cone.”

Sequoia cone on forest floor

Behind us was a colossus, the General Grant sequoia, the second largest in the world and located in Kings Canyon National Park, standing at a prodigious 268 feet in height. That a seed from a cone can produce one of these giants is one of nature’s wonders. 

General Grant tree, Kings Canyon National Park

The word majestic doesn’t enter into my vocabulary often. I seem to use it when I travel because of amazing things I see. It’s even more rare for me to apply it to a living thing. The giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) is one of them, a tree so massive and tall that on first sight you’re likely to be left speechless, in awe. Today, they are endemic only to the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas in California.

The ranger continued to describe additional interesting facts about the tree as well as its historical and political importance. The sequoia isn’t the tallest tree. That distinction belongs to its cousin, the coastal redwood (S. sempervirens), though the sequoia’s height is no slouch, mature specimens reaching 250ft or more. But by the sheer volume of its height and massive, slowly tapering trunk bottom-to-top that can reach 20 feet in diameter, it is earth’s biggest tree. When looking straight up from the base, I was unable to appreciate its relative size.

However, on the Giant Forest Loop, I got to see just how big it is in relation to us mere humans.

There’s another impressive attribute. At Sequoia National Park’s General Sherman Tree, I pondered its extreme age, estimated to be 2,100 years old, earth’s largest living organism. At the signing of the Declaration of Independence, it would’ve been 1,850 years old. When it was just a sapling, Caesar would’ve uttered his mortified words to Brutus. These trees are some of the oldest living things on earth. There’s no telling how long they can exist if left unmolested. Some are estimated to be over 3,000 years old. (BTW, if that age astonishes you, the oldest living bristlecone pine, also found in California as well as Utah and Nevada, is estimated to be more than 5,000 years old, making it more ancient than The Great Pyramid of Giza.)

Here’s a curious fact. The longer a sequoia lives, the better it’s able to defend itself against intruders. Tannins will foil bugs and fungi and the thick bark and resin-free sapwood will hinder fires. Lightning can scorch the tree, blackening the exterior and core, but the sequoia remarkably heals itself. I should be so tough in my golden years.

Sequoia is resistant to fire and insects

For all its hardiness, the sequoia is defenseless against humans. Some very large specimens were cut down in the latter half of the nineteenth century. What it took for a tree to grow in excess of a thousand years was undone in three weeks by two-man saw and axe. Even in the age of Manifest Destiny, people were outraged that trees much older than Methuselah were destroyed. Many stumps can still be seen along the Big Stump Trail in Kings Canyon.

USNPS ranger hat (image from askaranger.blogspot.com)

The fight to save the sequoia was so seminal to the conservation movement and establishment of our national park system that the ranger I mentioned above informed us the sequoia cone symbol appears on every Park Service ranger’s hat band. I will be sure to look for it when I visit the next national park.