There's a lot of really good restaurants and really good food around, and every now and then I end up in places that I think I should keep track of. So here's a shortlist of some of the discoveries of last month:

  • Pranged between the financial district and Chinatown, Louie's has good Chinese. Aimed at the finance people but not overpriced. They encourage to order a couple of plates and then share the food, which is really nice if you want a little bit of everything or if you order dim sum.
  • And if you end up there, you're a few blocks from Columbus av. That's where the nightlife is and there is a really nice bar just across Vesuvio's (where I ended up on Thanksgiving). Well-hidden in the alley between Tosca's and Pearl's Jazz near 250 Columbus, the door on the left is the entrance to the tiny Specs Twelve Adler Museum Cafe. It has all kinds of maritime stuff hanging on the walls and from the ceilings, an authentic atmosphere, and (miracle!) a friendly bartender.
  • Should you ever end up in Haight-Ashbury and want to get a quick lunch in a place with good beers, there's Magnolia's on the intersection of Haight and Masonic street. There's often a waiting list to get in, the food is pretty pricey unfortunately, but it's good and the time I went there the service was excellent.
  • Back to Palo Alto! Just one block from the main street in Lytton avenue is a great Indian restaurant, Darbar. I absolutely love Indian food as long as there's not too much peppers in it, and here they have a sampler menu for about $25 where they give you a little bit of everything. It's most likely more than you can finish, and it's great food. Certainly a good deal for the center of an expensive town.
  • For really good food, we sometimes just take the car and go out of town. One really good Japanese restaurant is in Menlo Park. Gombei is not in the most desirable location, next to a major road, but the inside makes you forget about that. The food is delicious.
  • By far the nicest town centre is that of Mountain View, not far from the Google headquarters. The main street, Castro, has a mediterranean feel to it, and houses several restaurants that are known all over the Bay area for their excellent quality. At lunchtime, they're all packed, so there might be waiting lists. For an original experience, Shabu-way certainly offers good price-for-value. Cook your own meat in a miso soup dish, it's delicious and dangerous to burn your tongue, but something you need to have done once.
  • Slightly closer to home in the San Antonio Shopping center in Los Altos, is a nice Vietnamese, Pho Vi Hoa. Though generally I like Indian, Chinese or Japanese more, it's certainly good for a change, and pho dishes are usually also cheaper: you can have a full meal here for less than $10. When I went here, the meat in my pho was unfortunately all fat, but I take it their fish and vegetable phos are better.
  • I'd almost forget the campus itself. There's a variety of places to get good food on campus, and the Treehouse sees me 2 or 3 times a week. This Mexican place in the center of campus is actually best known for its excellent pizza.

So, you see, I won't starve here!

(picture below: some houses near Masonic street in Haight-Ashbury)


SF Beer Week

Often I get the question, "don't you miss the Belgian beers a lot", but in fact, it's not that bad. Most of the good ones are also imported here, they're expensive but acceptable for special occasions - a 75cl bottle of Affligem or Westmalle will go for about $13 in a supermarket. But besides the import, there's actually a good deal of American beers to discover.

Artisan beers and small breweries are all the rage in the US. Craft beers are fancier than wine, and most bars will do a good deal of effort to offer something special. Any brewer that wants to stand out tries its best to produce a couple of "Belgian Style Ales". It's still not the real thing, but it's definitely way better than the Budweiser. California has a wide range of small breweries - I've been told that some of the best are down in San Diego, but this time we went up north.

The San Francisco Beer Week is drawing more attention every year, this year they had over 20 events each day. That week was really busy so I did not get to do many of them. Wednesday evening we went to the Rose & Crown pub in Palo Alto, only to discover they started serving their special beers at 18h, so by the time we got there at 22h it was already gone (never mind, it's a horribly expensive pub anyway).

The last sunday however, we went for a daytrip to Santa Rosa, some 140km north of Palo Alto. Next to Napa is Sonoma, and next to Sonoma is Santa Rosa, and they're all known for their excellent wineries, but Santa Rosa most notably has the Russian River Brewing Company. There's not that much more interesting to do in that town so if you ever end up there, visit it, it's certainly worth it. Their beers go for tens of dollars in supermarkets, but in their own bar they're really cheap and they have some good stuff. Not to mention it's actually a nice bar, we had live Irish music, and they have great pizza too.

On their beer list, next to the alcohol level, they also advertise the bitterness of their beers. I never hear of it before, but apparently there exists something as a Bitter Units scale. As a Belgian, you want to go for the least bitter of them all. Especially because American beers seem to be all about the hops and the bitterness and not about the yeast or the fermentation, so all too often you end up with what seems like incredibly bitter alcoholic lemonade. The bitter ones are like pure hops but no body, so if you're used to relatively sweet trappist beers, you'll want to avoid the kind that gets advertised as "hoppy".

The "Belgian style" beers from Russian River all have names ending in "-tion". Especially the Consecration is one of my favourites, since it comes closest to what I'd consider to be a tripel. (I found out later that they cheat a little: they blend in 2% of Kriek to it to give it some more flavour). The Damnation gets some points for trying to be a good double, but it's not that magnificent. They have some beers that have been aged in wine barrels, and the Temptation is one of those and worth a try.

Needless to say, on the long drive back home, everyone in the car (except our designated driver, thanks Nick!) was really, really sleepy.

(Below: what the Golden Gate looks like if you drive over it. Very impressive! $6 toll though...)


Golden Gate

On one of the stormy days last week, I made a tour of San Francisco by car. After driving to Twin Peaks and the Great Highway, I finally had the chance to cross the Golden Gate - it is really impressive, even in clouded weather (and costs you $6). But the view is worth it, and you need to have done it at least once if you live here.


Los Angeles

The NAMM show is the largest tradeshow for the music industry in the world. More than 1000 companies gather in Anaheim in the middle of january to present their newest developments. Some 50000 visitors come and see what they have to offer in the Anaheim Convention Center, right across Disneyland. The event is usually only for people who are in the music business, but we managed to get in as a group from a Music Technology education program. It's a 7 hour drive from San Francisco to LA (add 3 more hours if you encounter rush hour or a traffic jam somewhere).

With almost 20 people we set out for a short weekend trip to Los Angeles to visit the show. Organizing it was not easy because everyone had different schedules, but eventually all went well. I could stay at the house of the parents of one of my fellow students here, who's an LA native. A good deal, because he also knows the best places to go eat and drink. If anyone ever needs good coffee in Santa Monica, check out Funnel Mill where they freshly grind and brew the coffee of your choice in syphons - a technique that I never saw before, but produces great coffee. Or for a huge choice in local and international beers, Naja's Place on the marina boardwalk of Redondo Beach has a great choice. The last night we ended with delicious sushi at Sushi Mon on 3rd street in downtown LA.

We stayed near Sunset Boulevard in Santa Monica which is quite a distance from Anaheim. Though on the map it seems as just on the other side of the city, the city is actually one huge suburb. Housing, industry and offices are all mixed and there is no urban planning at all, with lots of concrete and not much green. To give an idea of scale, I've made a picture with 2 maps on exactly the same scale (using Mapquest because of their equirectangular map projection that maintains scale). Now imagine the districts of Antwerp, covering the complete province. That's greater LA.

It's immediately clear that taking a bus that stops at every corner is not an option to travel from one end of the city to another, a distance that is considered very normal. Because of the scale, and the fact that people live and work scattered among that area, there is not really a way to set up a public transport system that is cheap and efficient at the same time. Thus, several huge highways intersect the city to handle all the car traffic, which makes for continuous smog and traffic jams. Also, if you want to go out somewhere, you need to have a car. There is not really a city center. If you want a minimum of choice, then you need to be prepared to drive 25 km.

NAMM itself was very much worth the trouble, very noisy and busy, and very tiring. Walking past all companies trying to promote and sell their stuff is pretty interesting, but it's also fun for the celeb spotting - several famous artists also visit the show to look for new toys. When we eventually left Los Angeles, with bags full of promotional material, demo's and other stuff, the weather had turned against us. We left in a huge storm, had some dangerous driving conditions because the highways were flooded at some locations. But once over the hills to the north of LA, the sun kicked in and the view when driving on the hillside was stunning. Later we heard that some parts of Los Angeles had small tornadoes - which are not supposed to appear in California. The weather services blamed it on El Niño, and a few days later, back in Palo Alto, we would get our fair share of storms too.

Last but not least: if you ever visit, do yourself a favour and stop at an In'n'Out Burger. Infinitely better than McDonalds, this fastfood chain does not use any frozen products and makes everything fresh. Discovery of the month.



It's been some time since I've been writing here, so in a few posts I'll give a quick overview of january at Stanford. A few days after returning from Christmas break in Belgium, the area got a few shocks. They could be felt by those standing on the ground, but when the 2 quakes of 4.3 magnitude hit the Milpitas area (about 50km from where I live) on january 7 and 8, I was both times on my bike towards campus. I only heard about the quakes when I arrived.

Anyway, nobody here is impressed by a little shaking. Every day some 100 mini-earthquakes hit California, so small that they are barely picked up by the seismographs. Particularly active regions are The Geysers nature reserve and Yosemite National Park, and slightly closer by the Fremont-San Jose area across the bay. The US Geological Survey provides interesting "ShakeMaps" that show last week's quakes around San Francisco and their magnitudes.

Whenever there's quakes, people also start speculating about "the next big one". The last quake that caused significant damage around the Bay Area was in 1989. It took Stanford 10 years to restore the buildings put the 750000 library books back on the shelves they had fallen from. Since then, the university also keeps earthquake supplies and food rations for 3 days on 12 different storage locations on campus.

But after the two quakes nearby, Eureka in the far north of California got a 6.5 magnitude rattling, destroying half of the windows in all houses but otherwise with no major damage. Since then, it's been really quiet.


Thanksgiving means turkey dinners, and I had two today - the first one was free and provided by the Graduate Student Council at Stanford, in a large tent outside the graduate community center. I shared the table with a nice Egyptian business student who had lived in Europe for a couple of years - which made for good conversation starter.

Directly after that I went off to San Francisco for dinner on Sasha's boat. Sasha is the lab maintainer at CCRMA and invited everyone who was far from home to have thanksgiving on her boat that was moored on Pier 39, right in the center of San Francisco. Some families from the neighbouring boat joined in the dinner which this time also featured a few bottles of whisky.

Since the party had started already very early we had some time to go out in the city for a few drinks and we ended up with 8 people in The Saloon, a blues music bar that had a crowd that was mostly in their sixties, but had great live music. For some reason they would not let one of us come back in after he went out for a phonecall, so we just left it and instead went to a nearby bar called Vesuvio, definitely an original place. Picture underneath was taken outside when I left - you come across that kind of gatherings around musicians on the streets pretty often in San Francisco, and it makes walking around the city at night an event in its own.

Thumbs up to Sasha for having us over for dinner and for a great night out!


Max Tundra @ Bottom of the Hill

My housemate Keith invited me yesterday to go to a concert by Max Tundra, a British electronic music artist that he is a fan of. I had nothing better to do that evening and it's been some time since I went to a concert, so I joined him to Bottom of the Hill, one of the many legendary music venues in SF. It's in an old industrial part of the Potrero district. I had never heard of the guy before but he makes some very original music, and his live show was extremely energetic though the bar was not crowded and we seemed to be the only people to have come for him and not one of the other bands that evening.

It happens very rarely that I buy merchandise but this was one record that I needed to have. He seems to program a lot of his music on an ancient Amiga 500 computer, and has an incredibly versatile voice. But the most surprising was probably the various toy instruments that he picked up and played on, like xylophones, melodicas or the mouth-blown toy piano organ (see photo). He managed to mix these sounds into the electronics very subtly.

Something totally different that struck me: San Francisco has much warmer evenings than Palo Alto has. Apparently the blanket of fog that covers San Francisco at night keeps some warmth from disappearing after sunset.


Santa Cruz

Thanksgiving week means that everyone gets a week off, and I finally got the occasion to take the bus and make a daytrip to Santa Cruz - it's 2 hours by bike, train and bus to get there but very much worth the trouble. The bus was cheap, comfortable, did the trip in one line over highway 17, and had wireless internet access. Finally I got to see the coastline and the famous surf of Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz is one of the most free-flowing chill-out cities I've ever seen (apart from San Francisco perhaps). The population is a mix of students (from UC Santa Cruz), surfers, hippies, beatniks, homeless and tourists. The main street is dotted with shops that best compare to the Kammenstraat in Antwerp. Apart from groups of weirdos sitting on the sidewalk, clearly still high from the party the previous night, there wasn't much going on when I arrived monday morning at 10. Most shops were closed, the amusement park too.

I just went for a really long walk: up to the beachside amusement park, then further along the lighthouse and the surf hotspots to Natural Bridges State Beach. I ended the walk by jumping on a bus that brought me uphill and toured around UC Santa Cruz, a campus hidden largely inside forests and cliffsides, but also with lots of open land from which there are great views over Santa Cruz and the coastline.


The Big Game

The absolute highlight of the American football season in San Francisco and the Bay Area is the yearly game between Stanford and Berkeley, the Big Game. It is preceded by a week full of events. The symbol of Berkeley, or "Cal" for short, is a bear, and Big Game week starts at Stanford with spearing a teddybear onto The Claw, a sharp statue in the middle of a fountain near the student union building. That teddybear stays there until the end of the game and reminds everyone of the goal next saturday: "Beat Cal".

The week is continued with rallies for the team ( video ), events like blood donations, the cheerleaders selling their yearly calendar, all of this supported by the Marching Band . That marching band is pretty unique - unlike other harmonies or brassbands they don't have the habit of going in formal wear, but instead they make their own wacky costumes. This year the drum section was in Star Wars stormtrooper outfit. Tuba players paint their instruments in all kinds of colors, and the band as a whole is one giant circus act. The performance of the band on Big Game Day is always much anticipated, since every now and then they do something so daring or insulting (for American standards) that Stanford nearly kicks them out. They kept it pretty friendly this time - a story was told about how unrealistic it is to have a fierce creature like a bear as mascot ("Have you ever encountered a grizzly? Generally, you don't want to be in its neighbourhood")

Big Game Day was on saturday, november 21. The weather was fine and the Stanford Stadium, good for 50000 seats, completely sold out. People on parkings and in front of the stadium were barbecueing, picknicking, making hotdogs, generally having a good time. For students to get in, there were a limited amount of free tickets that were handed out on a first come first served basis. By starting to queue 90 minutes beforehand, I just managed to get into the stadium to see the game from myself, in the "Red Zone" which is reserved for students. During the first half of the game I managed to see the game from the stairs in front, for the second half I moved up and found a place on the last row with a nice overview of the field.

American football is supposed to be played in 4 times 15 minutes, but the game contains so much stops, breaks, and time-outs that it lasts for over 3 hours. I didn't manage to understand more from the game than that it is apparently the purpose for one team to get the ball to the other side, and the other team to block them in any way they can. In essence, the team would run for 10 seconds and then get tackeled, with the next 30 seconds time-out to get back into position for the next 10 second run. Except these few times when someone manages to slip out and run for 30 metres, I find there's not too much suspense in the game. Every now and then, the game is also paused for commercials or sponsor announcements over the speakers.

As for the result: we lost. Though Stanford has a pretty good team this year apparently and won the first half of this game, in the second half they were overclassed by Cal. The last small chance for victory was blown two minutes before the end. Next time better...


CCRMA fall concert

Every term there are several concerts going on at CCRMA, and in most of these people from the lab play themselves and show off their skills on computer, synthesizer, knobs, sliders and DJ turntables. The fall term concert was dubbed "A Cagian MusicCircus" . 7 different stages were set up through the building, and visitors could freely roam between them. Snacks and drinks were provided at every corner. There were some very very modern and complex installations, and especially the DJs extended the party to the late hours. Because parties here end way too soon, an afterparty followed of course at someone's apartment.

Picture below: Adam Somers, a student here, together with a friend, plugging in wires into their synths generating an impressive soundscape.

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