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The original Itzk Hagadol is a bistro-like eatery located in Jaffa, Israel  and its only U.S outpost is in Encino, a suburb of Los Angeles. We were in Los Angeles recently for a family re-union and one afternoon we wound up at Itzk Hagadol for a luncheon. The restaurant has an indoor area with the standard Middle Eastern décor and an annex, the exterior wall of which is open to the elements.

We were a large party, 25 adults and 6 children, and we occupied most of the outside seating area. Because of the chill, plastic sheeting was drawn across the open side abutting the sidewalk and the space heaters turned on to make it warm and comfortable.

Itzk Hagadol terms itself a grill ( true enough, because the entrees are almost wholly grilled meats ) but it prides itself on its vast array of salads and offers diners several  dining options. They can order just the salads with unlimited refills OR they can order skewers of grilled meats a la carte for an additional price. If one combines an order of grilled meat with the unlimited salads, the price of the salads is reduced.

Our party had opted to have the unlimited salads (really side dishes) plus skewers of three different meats. We were seated six to a table, three on each side, and the waiters soon started to bring out the salads and place them in a straight line down the center of the tables. The small ceramic dishes each contained about a cup full and the overall effect was like sitting down to ban chan at a Korean BBQ except that the salads were Middle Eastern.They included celery salad, pickled cucumber, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, egg salad, roasted bell peppers, beets, red cabbage, vegetarian pate, corn & mushroom in mayo, chopped eggplant w/ peppers and zucchini, baked rosemary potatoes, falafel balls, roasted jalapenos and hummus with pine nuts. There were about 20 salads in all  and they were constantly replenished. All of them were freshly made and good , particularly the vegetable pate  (it  fooled us initially into thinking that it was chicken liver), the red cabbage, the rosemary potatoes and the corn and mushroom in mayo. The hummus which was attractively presented in a babka like ring also came in for appreciation though I thought it could have used some salt. Accompanying all these were  baskets of laffa, a pillowy Middle Eastern  bread sprinkled with black sesame seeds. Each laffa was about the size of a personal pan pizza and I enjoyed tearing off pieces to eat.

When we had enough of the side dishes/ salads it was time for the grilled meats, three of them . We stuck with the basic options: house kebabs, the Rumanian kebabs and chicken. There are several other options for the meats including merguez, veal sweetbreads and foie gras but they are expensive and not worth it. Better to stick to the basics as we did.The kebabs were served family style so that each of us was able to taste everything, and were accompanied by plates of  flavorful white rice. Each diner had approximately one skewer’s worth of meat. Perhaps you are wondering about the difference between house kebab and Rumanian kebab ? Well, one contains garlic and the other onions but don’t ask me which is which! The meats were tasty and well grilled and, overall, we were well satisfied with the meal.

I almost forgot: the kids were served plates of French Fries. I snaffled a few for myself and they were excellent. The service was good and the servers were attentive, quickly bringing us more salad as soon as a dish was emptied.

Itzk Hagadol’s concept of all-you-can-eat salads followed by limited amounts of meat is a new one for me. It’s charm is that when all the salads/side dishes are spread out on the table, it is a colorful feast for the eyes. I also like the idea of focusing on vegetables and eating  smaller amounts of meat. It is so different from the Brazilian rodizio where the staggering amounts of meat tend to leave diners overwhelmed; after a while, all the different cuts of meat begin to seem like each other.

One shortcoming of Itzk Hagadol fare, for lovers of spice like myself, is that the salads/ side dishes are all mildly seasoned, salty and sweet, sometimes very mildly sour and never, never spicy/ hot. The barely roasted jalapenos are unsalted and tasteless, and a spicy green salsa that accompanies the kebabs is  hot but one dimensional. Oh, for a bottle of hot sauce!

I was only a guest at the party and so cannot be sure about the cost but I have the feeling that it was expensive; probably around $40/person including tax and tip. Considering that restaurant food in LA is cheaper than in N.Y/ N.J and considering that most of the food consisted of vegetarian salads , this is not cheap. We had a good time at Itzk Hagadol and the food experience was unique but I don’t think it is one that I want to repeat any time soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Touching Gesture

My wife’s birthday happened to fall during our recent family re-union in Los Angeles. Generally, our birthdays are lowkey affairs but this one was celebrated in style with a birthday cake and plenty of gifts. After the Happy Birthdays had been sung and the cake cut and demolished, it was time for the opening of the presents. Six year-old Moira, my nephew’s daughter, sat herself down on the floor and handed them, one by one, to my wife, watching with the keen interest as they were opened and exclaimed over.

Later that afternoon Moira quietly went up to ” The Birthday Girl” ( Moira couldn’t pronounce her name) and said she wanted to give her a gift too. Taking my wife by the hand, she led her to the backyard. There, on an outdoor table she had arranged some beautiful flowers in a vase with more flowers strewn around its base. ” Happy birthday”, she trilled.

What a wonderful gesture. Many six year olds would have asked when they were getting presents themselves but Moira never once did so. All she thought about was giving. How rare is that?

Moira, you are beautiful inside and out.

May you always be thus.

 

 

 

A Mantra For Living

My wife and I had a great Thanksgiving, a family re-union in Los Angeles which was attended by all her siblings ( three sisters and a brother) and their children. It was also an occasion to celebrate the marriage of our nephew, Ron. He had gotten married earlier in a civil ceremony and this was an opportunity to get to know his wife and witness the solemnization of their bond. The ceremonies were to take place at the beautiful house of a family  friend and they were to be held outdoors to take advantage of the sunny California weather .You can guess what happened. It almost NEVER rains in Los Angeles but… two days before the event the weatherman predicted an 80% chance of rain. A mad scramble ensued and somehow our hosts managed to get a tent erected in their backyard along with the requisite space heaters. They must have breathed a huge sigh of relief but it was a little premature…

The outdoor heaters kicked on and off because the circuits were overloaded and the ground turned marshy because of all the rain. Also, the dining tables within the tent were so closely packed that it was difficult to move about or to replenish your plate.

Luckily, the rain held off during the actual ceremony and a good time was held by all, not least the wedding couple who were untroubled by the inclement weather and the attendant problems. They whole-heartedly enjoyed every  bit  of the ceremony and, thanks to their equanimity and good nature, so did we all.

I should not have been surprised at their sunny demeanor…

At a pre-wedding party the previous day, Ron and his wife had given each of the attending families a gift bag containing  some of the things that brought them happiness and comfort: a favorite video ( upbeat, of course), a bar of chocolate, a card game, bags of  spicy, salty crunchy snacks, a bag of rice ( to heat in the microwave and use as a heating pad) and sundry other goodies. All very, very nice but most importantly they came in a bag bearing the words” Everything is as it should be“. These are the words Ron and his wife try to live by, the words that enabled them to have a good time that rainy evening when others might have been in a sulk.

Everything is as it should be“. What a wonderful thought! At first, it might seem the same as ” Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be” or ” It is what it is.” To my mind, it’s similar but not exactly the same. Where the other two have an element of fatalism, of bearing up under difficult circumstances, this is more positive. It carries a sense of ” God’s is in His heaven and all’s right with the world” and is something to bear in mind, good times and bad.

It is a mantra for living.

 

 

Nail Biters and Cakewalks

The common wisdom is that a true sports fan craves close games that are not decided until the final seconds. Not for him the one-sided blow-out. What gets his heart pumping is the touchdown on the final play of the game or the three pointer that swishes through the net even as the final buzzer sounds.

I guess that I must not be a true sports fan because, when MY teams are involved, I would like nothing better than a game decided in their favor well before the end. Just win, baby !If I have no rooting interest in the game, but only then, do I enjoy a close game, a nail biter. Otherwise the tension is too much; I simply can’t bear to watch. I am in some august company here. When Jerry West was the GM of the Lakers, he wouldn’t sit in his box seat but would stand in the tunnel or passageway so that if the Lakers were flounderingr, he could leave quickly and spare himself the agony of watching them go down in defeat.

That said, I must admit the ending of the New York Giants- New Orleans Saints game left  a bad taste in my mouth. To recap, the teams were tied at 13 when the Giants Victor Cruz caught a long pass inside the Saints 10. There was only a minute and a half to go and the Saints were out of time-outs. The Giant coaching staff proceeded to milk the clock before calling a time -out with one second left. Their kicker then made a chip shot field goal to give them a 16-13 victory.

Happy though I am that the Giants won, I am not thrilled with their tactics. What they did was the smart thing to do, particularly since they lost five or six games last year after blowing fourth quarter leads. Understandably, they did not want to score early and give the dangerous Drew Brees a chance to pull off a win. Still, it was not a fully satisfying victory, even for this Giants fan.

P.S I was talking to a friend, a Philadelphia Eagles supporter and he came clean to me. The Bears – Eagles game was a one-sided no- contest but he admitted watching it until the final kneel down. Perhaps I am not so unusual or so awful after all…

The Wait is Over

Happy days are here again!

The 2016 NFL season started yesterday and I couldn’t be happier. Ever since the Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl in February, there has been something missing on the sports scene for me.

There was a time when I used to follow all the sports, pro and college, but year by year my interest in them has fallen off one by one. First to go were college basketball and football : too many teams and the personnel kept changing every season. Now I only watch March Madness. Next to go was baseball: too long a season and by the time the World season rolled around I was focused on the NFL. Tennis lost much of its charm when Roger Federer was sidelined. Pro Basketball did hold my interest until recently , primarily because of the San Antonio Spurs and the Golden State Warriors who play team basketball. Not for me the thuggish power basketball of the rest. All that’s left is NFL football. BTW, I was so absorbed in watching pro football yesterday that I completely forgot that the final of the U.S. Open was also being played yesterday. I only read about Stan Wawrinka’s victory over Novak Djokovic this morning. Go Stan !

Yesterday, I binged on pro football, watching two full games and parts of two others. I rarely watch games in their entirety but, yesterday, I watched the Cincinnati Bengals nip the New York Jets 23-22 and the New York Giants win a squeaker over the Dallas Cowboys 20-19. And, at night, I watched parts of Green Bay’s win over Jacksonville and Arizona’s surprise loss to the depleted New England Patriots. I am really indebted to my long suffering wife who sat through all this without complaining.

Those who live abroad will no doubt be mystified with Americans infatuation with football but, for those of us who watch it and understand its nuances, no other game comes even close. Soccer is understandably the most popular sport in the rest of the world but, for me, the lack of scoring is a decided shortcoming. What bothers me is not so much the paucity of goals but the decisiveness of that first goal. The team that scores first goes into a defensive shell as it tries to make the 1-0 score stand up. Compare it with American football where anything can happen at any time and often does. Yesterday’s four games were all decided in the closing moments and could have easily gone either way. The scoring for American football ( 7 points for a touchdown and 3 points for a field goal) is devilishly clever and ensures that no team can sit on a lead for most of a half.

I do agree that ( American) football is a violent game. I am not one of those who glories in punishing hits that knock a player out cold and I do feel a sense of guilt when I read about the effect of concussions on so many players.  But those qualms diappear fast when I get absorbed in a football game and watch a running back break multiple tackles and gain 20 more yards. Or when a wide receiver catches a pass at full stretch and takes off for the end zone. And of course there are the moves and counter-moves that coaches orchestrate for the sideline. When I was new to football, one old timer explained that it was like a giant chess game with real people instead of plastic pieces, played on a football field instead of a chess board. He also told me that once I understood the nuances of the game, I would be hooked. How right he was.

P.S Some takeaways from yesterday’s games:

  1. I was very impressed with the play of the young quarterbacks, many of them rookies. Carson Wentz ( Eagles) and Dak Prescott ( Cowboys) were two among them ; too bad their teams are in the same division as my favorite N.Y. Giants.
  2. Jimmy Garappolo, who stood in for the suspended Tom Brady, was very impressive in his first pro start. He was a second round draftee last year and makes me envious of the Patriots ability to recognize talent in the college ranks. Remember, Tom Brady, a future Hall of Famer, was a sixth rounder.
  3. The Arizona Cardinals are a good team and I was hoping they would knock off the Patriots, who were playing without Brady and Rob Gronkowski as well as some of their linemen. Didn’t happen. I don’t like Belichick but there is no denying he is the best in the business.
  4. Way too early to make predictions but it looks like the rebuilding N.Y. Giants are a  middling team that has a good shot at winning the weak NFC East.

 

An Ordinary Woman

( Some months ago I read a memoir by a woman who wrote obituaries for a small town newspaper in Alaska. In it , she described how she went beyond the cold hard facts —  born/ married/ career highlights/died/survived by — and tried to find the little things which truly defined the deceased. There was one life in particular that she wrote about which created a deep impression on me. It is the subject of this post. Unfortunately, I did not make a note of either the author’s name or the title of the book and have been unable to find it again at the library. What follows is from memory and ,thus, a little skimpy in detail but it doesn’t really matter.)

Her name was Hannah. I don’t know her last name but it’s unimportant. As a young girl, Hannah emigrated from Sweden sometime in the years before World War II. She was not much educated and didn’t know anyone in America but she was young and willing to work hard. She found work in the Swedish embassy in Washington D.C.as a cook and general purpose worker. She worked there for several years, built a good reputation and ,somewhere along the way, she married a partially disabled man named Carl. She was well liked at the embassy and , in the aftermath of the war, she was told of an opportunity in Alaska where an abandoned military  property was on sale, cheap. Scraping together her savings, and with the help of friends, she bought the property with the idea of converting it into a hotel. She, and Carl, then moved to Alaska.

Those first few years were hard as Hannah and Carl toiled from dawn to dusk to keep their heads above water. Money was scarce and they had to do everything themselves. They  fixed things, they painted, they cooked , they cleaned without stop. There was never any spare time but Hannah somehow found the time to plant a vegetable garden which supplied them with many of their needs. She also planted beds of flowers which transformed the building and gave it a welcoming look. Hannah had always been a good cook and the simple but abundant fare that she laid out began to attract the attention of travelers. Tourists began to  stop over, at first for the food but then for overnight stays. At times, as many as sixty  famished  guests would turn up for breakfast and Hannah would serve them all with the help of only one girl who worked part time.

Things got better but Hannah and Carl continued their frugal, hard working ways. In order to rent out every last room, they themselves slept on cots in a cramped cubbyhole just off the kitchen. Work consumed their days; there was no time for much else. They never took vacations or went on cruises. They never had time for hobbies but  Hannah had fun when she could. She had been a good skier during her childhood in Sweden and, whenever the hotel ran short of supplies, she would strap on her skis and ski over the frozen roads to the grocery store in town.

Hannah and Carl had only one indulgence. Occasionally, business was slow and rooms were vacant, they would commandeer the best room in the hotel and make the beds  with fresh linens. Then , after long hot showers, they would collapse onto the soft beds, so different from their usual cots, and sleep the deep, dreamless sleep of the weary. This one detail vividly paints a picture of them, makes them come alive in ways nothing else could.

Thus, they passed their days. Carl passed away when he was in his early seventies. Hannah sold the hotel shortly thereafter and retired, living into her late eighties. And that is their story. I did tell you Hannah was an ordinary woman. Alone in a new country, without much education, she made the most of the limited opportunities she had. As the adage goes, when life gives you a lemon, make lemonade. Her accomplishments may not seem like much, but how much more admirable is her life than those of the celebrities or the sports heroes we read about. Celebrities become famous for being notorious ( think Kim Kardashian) and sports greats are very often duds off the sports field. Hannah, on the other hand, lived an exemplary life worth emulating by all of us. Honest, genuine, industrious, simple, she achieved the modest goals she set herself.

Yes, Hannah was an ordinary woman but she lived an extra-ordinary life.

We don’t have a very large garden , just a double row of shrubs outside our front porch. But, no matter the size of a garden, there are always weeds; yesterday, I was involved with the chore of removing them. The weather was great for gardening – sunny with a slight breeze – and I stuck to the job until I thought I was done. When I stepped back and surveyed my work, however, I saw that there were still some dried leaves tangled in the bottoms of the shrubs. Determined to do a perfect job, I bent to my task again. Ten or fifteen minutes later, confident I’d gotten every last weed and dead leaf, I surveyed my handiwork… and saw that I had still missed a few in the back.

About this time I remembered a book by David Viscott, a psychologist, the first chapter of which describes his experience weeding his vegetable patch. Every time he ” finished” the job he noted that there were still some weeds he had missed. Viewing the field from a different angle, or a different angle at which the sun hit it caused him to see it in a different light and to note what more had to be done to complete the task , to get every last weed. I don’t know the lesson that Viscott got from his experience but I know what I learnt ..Never strive for perfection in every task, particularly those mundane tasks where perfection is not critical.

Weeding involves a lot of bending and, until yesterday, I’d never realized the effort that it entails. I must have spent perhaps 30 minutes bending over and, let me tell you, my back hurt. I began to appreciate those who spent most of their day hunched over; people like  rice farmers, the women and men who transplant rice seedlings hour after hour, day after day while standing ankle deep in cold water. We, who are fortunate to have ( or to have had) white collar jobs do not often consider what it is like to do a repetitive physical job; or how little such jobs pay now that the higher paying manufacturing work has been outsourced abroad. Aside from the low pay, there is  the sheer boredom caused by such work. In the film Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin is an assembly line worker whose sole job is to tighten nuts with the help of two big spanners, one in each hand. When he leaves the factory at the end of the work day, still carrying the spanners he comes across a pretty girl whose  dress has two large decorations that look like nuts. They are strategically placed on the front of her dress and you can imagine the rest…. she flies screaming as Charlie goes after her with the spanners.

Even the act of standing throughout an 8- hour shift demands a lot. The girls at the checkout counters, the sales girls at the cosmetics counters in department stores, the post office workers who sell stamps and other sundries, are all stressed in ways we cannot imagine. Yes, we white collar workers are lucky.

While I was weeding, I glanced over at my neighbor’s garden. Not for him, the basic shrubbery that comes with the house. He recently hired a landscaper and completely re-did his garden. All in all, he now has more than 40 plants and shrubs, including two hydrangeas and four rose bushes. There are also two trees. The garden looks very nice now but I wonder what will happen with time. You see, my friend put in the garden because he very much admired his cousin’s garden and wanted to emulate it. The trouble with gardens is that they demand a lot of work. the weeds have to be removed, the bushes pruned , the mulch beds redone, and the plants watered if it does not rain for a few days or if it is very hot. It is a never-ending job and , if one doesn’t enjoy doing it, it can be a burden. My friend has never really gardened so he will probably have to hire a gardening service. A bigger problem is how the garden will look when the trees and shrubs have grown. They have been planted pretty close to each other and , in a short time, the garden will look overgrown in spite of all the pruning . No, I don’t envy my friend his garden. Several things come to mind: Too much of a good thing is bad is one . Another is Less is more.

 

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