Rin’s Thai

Area street maps don’t show it, but locals have long known of a shortcut that leads from downtown Sonoma directly to Bangkok. Here’s the trick: head east on East Napa Street to number 139, enter, eat. Now, it might only look like an elegantly preserved Victorian home, but trust me, it’s a portal to Southeast Asia – at least conceptually. The moment the aroma of sumptuous Thai cuisine wafts into your nose, you’re instantly transported. Sure, it may not be Thailand proper, but the authentic menu infused with a wine country sensibility is tantalizingly close enough – and the moderate prices are certainly cheaper than airfare.

Formerly located on Broadway, Rin’s moved to its current location five years ago and is run by an garrison of family proprietors – Robert and Yupa Garrett and Anthony and Arisa Kamindr, whose warm and friendly hospitality is felt the moment one enters the well-appointed former home. This helps in creating a cozy atmosphere (attracting more than few first dates this particular evening) and reminds that Thai cuisine, despite it’s exotic trappings, is ultimately comfort food.

Once seated, the journey begins with a bevy of choices from the starter menu. Standouts include the prawn wraps, an interesting spin on the battered and fried variety more often in seen in Thai restaurants. The crustacean is wrapped in the square of light dough, of the sort usually used for spring rolls, then lightly fried. The result is an airy and crisp confection, which comes well-paired with a cucumber salad.

The sesame chicken salad, shredded and grilled chicken tossed with carrots, zucchini and bean sprouts and served with a sesame soy dressing, also makes for a zesty start. Ditto for the vegetarian salad rolls, which finds lettuce, tofu and rice noodles wrapped in rice paper. The appetizer has a snappy, garden-fresh quality to it and brought my companion to share her observation that many Asian-style cuisines end up sodden with oils when exported to the West – but not Rin’s – where most of the dishes have a refreshing “lightness” to them without sacrificing heartiness.

Likewise, the ginger chicken is a refreshing, piquant interpretation of the classic dish, rife with the spice that is its namesake. Surrounded with julienned carrots, green onions and mushrooms and a whisper of garlic, the sautéed entrée is an incredible bargain at $9.25.

An occasional special is a crispy salmon filet served in a creamy green curry. In a seldom seen treatment of the fish, the filet was presented with a light and flaky coating on the outside but remains delicate inside. The dish went marvelously well with the 2004 J. Vineyards Pinot Gris. For that matter, everything went well with the stalwart 2002 Ravenswood Cabernet (of course, many local wines are represented on the generous list), though I wisely switched to the imported Thai beers when moving onto the curries.

Indeed, no trip to a Thai restaurant is complete without a sampling of the spicy standby. At Rin’s, I tried the Gang Dang, a red curry with notes of pepper and spice pleasantly blunted by coconut curry, with just enough heat to chase away one’s autumnal blues. It comes brimming with green beans and choice of meat, seafood or vegetable (I went with the chicken, which maintained its subtle flavor without being overwhelmed by the curries). We finished with fried ice cream – a feat of engineering, wherein a scoop of ice cream is dipped in a sweet batter then is deep-fried so quickly the ice cream hasn’t a chance to melt. This proved a perfect balm for my lips, which often swell to the size of a bee-stung super model’s whenever curry comes near. I tell ‘ya, there’s nothing sillier than a restaurant reviewer saying “kith me” to his dining companion.

Tourist Bored

At the Wine Exchange, a hybrid tasting room and speakeasy the Contessa and I visited yesterday, a pony-tailed day-tripper was wagging her wine-stained tongue about locals and tourists landing on a curlicue query about how tourists are perceived in Sonoma. A wizened gent smoothed the Hawaiian shirt over his broad belly (an ironic wardrobe choice if not for its touristy trait, then for the squally clime wringing over the valley), smiled kindly and said to her “We look at them as visitors, not tourists” just as the cash register made a sonorous ca-ching.

Now, mind you, I’m only a notch above a tourist myself, the total time of my official repatriation from Los Angeles (by way of several Bay Area beds) has crested only seven weeks at present writing. Despite my Petaluman provenance, I have to admit the young woman’s question caused me a slight pang of anxiety. It wasn’t the kind of unease one suffers when a buddy is sent up to the principal’s office for a mutual crime, which, for a moment, this seemed similar. It was, in fact, a sort of pale stage fright. Townie or tourist? In an effort to explain the sensation to myself, I did some minor dredging and yielded this:

“Modern tourist guides have helped raise tourist expectations. And they have provided the natives—from Kaiser Wilhelm down to the villagers of Chichacestenango—with a detailed and itemized list of what is expected of them and when,” historian Daniel J. Boorstin wrote in his 1961 book The Image. “These are the up-to-date scripts for actors on the tourists’ stage.”

I’m compelled to reflect, despite my current failure to garner mention in the visitor’s guide (the theatrical program to this drama, to extend Boorstin’s metaphor), on what a tourist might expect of me – a small town newspaperman and filmmaking manqué on self-imposed exile from Hollywood, embedded in the wine country. Probably just some over-stuffed chicanery like a scarecrow in a vineyard, I’d presume. That’s if I register at all on the palette of local color – perhaps I’m only ultraviolet on the rainbow – a few nanometers shy of visible…

“Who cares?” chided the Contessa when I shared the thought. She swirled the last ruby slug of zin in her glass and put a twenty on the counter.

“And if a tourist strikes up a conversation with me, tell me then, Contessa, what role do I play?”

“Act like you’re lost,” she sighed as a raven lock fell across her eyes like curtains about to close the show. “And click your heels together and say ‘There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home…”

“What if I am home?”

“Then everything would be black and white wouldn’t it, darling? And you wouldn’t be fretting about local color, now would you?”

Noria Jablonski Finds Voice in Oddities

Noria JablonskiWriters are drawn to their craft for a variety of reasons — some have a story that must be told, others do it for a buck. For Petaluma’s Noria Jablonski, it was a nagging feeling.

“I had been teaching high school English in San Francisco for three years and I realized that I was a hypocrite. I was helping these students find their voices and tell their stories, but I had never done that for myself,” reflects Jablonski, whose first collection of short stories, “Human Oddities,” ($15) was released in October by Shoemaker & Hoard Publishers, an imprint of Avalon Publishing Group in Emeryville.

“I really hadn’t had a chance to live my own life yet,” says Jablonski, 35. “I had no ambitions to be a writer. I just wanted to teach. I knew that when I was 15 years old. … And I did, I’m very goal-oriented.”

When her goal became to be a writer, a determined Jablonski set her sights on graduate programs in writing. In her estimation, however, there was one stumbling block.

“I sucked. I just wasn’t any good. At that point, I was just really concerned with telling my own stories,” says Jablonski, her eyes rolling behind her cat-eye glasses. “My writing didn’t have this urgency to it yet because I hadn’t really figured out what my ‘crisis’ was. It was after three years of being rejected by M.F.A. programs that I finally figured out what I had to write about. That was the body and bodies in crisis, in transit and in doubt.”

Jablonski’s own experience with corporeal distress, hers and others, gradually brought her to that revelation: As a young girl, she was plagued by recurring ear infections that led to repeated surgeries and the loss of half her hearing by the age of 3. The specter of her father’s terminal illness also informed her observations of the body afflicted.

“That had been my primal experience,” Jablonski says. “There’s also this legacy of body shame and fat-phobia that I feel the women had passed along in my family. All of these things sort of came together and I decided this is what I needed to write about.”

The result, “Human Oddities” is a melange of nine short stories that trod such twilight territory as tummy tucks gone awry, conjoined twins down on their luck, and a monkey eviscerated on a beach. Jablonski tells these tales with a voice that is laconic and witty, soothing the reader into accepting the stories as completely normal.

Elizabeth McCracken, author of “The Giant’s House,” writes on the jacket of the book: “These are beautifully written stories by an author who understands that the odd is no more unlikely or unlovable than the normal, and that those among us who are statistically improbable deserve light, language and a certain loving ruthlessness.”

In many ways, “Human Oddities” is like a novel shattered into nine jagged pieces. Themes and motifs recur throughout an ever-changing narrative that yearns to knit like a broken bone. Characters reprise their roles, repeated notions take on mantra-like significance.

The book has been something of a Rorschach test for readers, each coming away with a different take on the often-provocative material.

“It’s been really interesting to me seeing what people bring to the book and how much, on some level, these reviews that I’m reading reflect the lives of the reviewer — because it’s as if people are reading different stories altogether,” says the author. She adds with a smile, “That’s been, in some ways, disturbing to me.”

Jablonski’s life as a writer arguably started in 1999 when she was accepted into the creative writing M.F.A. program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

“You have to learn how to write, and I think you have to do a great deal of study. I learned through mimicry,” she says. “What makes great writing is just a collection of stylistic tics.

“I thought, ‘I could do it, too.’ Part of being great was being imitable in some way. It was really through studying other writers, closely, on a sentence level, that I found my own style.”

Now that Jablonski has found her style (not to mention a publisher), she is also finding her work on bookstore shelves — a phenomenon that tries her modesty.

“It makes me feel shy, a little sheepish in a way. I was in a bookshop a couple weeks ago and they had a nice stack of (my books) sitting on the display table.

“I was with a friend and she said, ‘You should sign them.’ So I went to the information desk and asked, ‘Do you like it when authors sign their books?’ I couldn’t bring myself to say that I was the author. … My friend had to speak for me.

“They were really sweet about it and gave me a fancy pen and took me to a little private room where I could sign the books,” she says with a laugh.

Indeed, acclimating to being a published author has been an interesting process for Jablonski.

“It still doesn’t quite feel real yet and I don’t know that it ever will. Perhaps that’s a good thing. I keep waiting for this feeling that I’ve made it, that I’m somehow legitimate as a writer,” says Jablonski, who is in the midst of several other writing projects, including a novel. “I haven’t had that moment. I haven’t been able to bask in it yet. I think that’s actually a good place to be. On one hand, I want to be able to sit back and relax and go ‘shwoo, I did it.’ But on the other hand, I think it’s important to never feel I’ve arrived because it keeps me going forward. I don’t want to get too comfortable.”

Noria Jablonski reads from “Human Oddities” at 7 p.m. Thursday at Copperfield’s Books, 140 Kentucky St., Petaluma; (707) 762-0563; and at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 15 at Black Oak Books, 1491 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley; (510) 486-0698.

The Glariffee

Having recently become a Sonomanid, that is to say, a resident of burgeoning winetown Sonoma, CA, I am frequently pointed to aspects of our town’s authentic experience. When a comely young EMT from the welcoming committee tested my Sonoma mettle asking if I’d ever had a Glariffee, my first inclination was to say coyly “Not yet” and undo my belt. Fortunately, I embarrassed neither of us, but was left with the mystery of the Glariffee percolating in my mind. Until today. Assisted by Mr. Ferguson, I hobbled to the historic Swiss Hotel, which has loomed over the north side of the Square since the Bear Republic. There, I was told, lurked the Glariffee.

Lo, the Glariffee – sounds like something that crawled through looking glass of a Lewis Carroll poem to gyre and gimble in the wabe. You can trade your vorpal sword for a thin red straw as we discovered that the Glariffee – at least in name – is simply an abbreviated amalgam of GLAZED-IRISH-COFFEE. That much we now know. The actual ingredients of the Glariffee, however, remain a secret family recipe known only to 92 year-old Swiss Hotel proprietress Helen Dunlap.

“My grandmother makes it in gallon batches,” said manager and fourth generation hotelier Kristin Dunlap, when I chanced an impromptu interview. “She is the sole person who knows what’s in it.”

Rumor has it that the elder Dunlap makes the concoction in her bathtub. Moreover, the nonagenarian has yet to share her secret recipe with any of her descendents, which begs the rather rude question, “Does she plan to take it with her?”

“We don’t know,” young Dunlap replied wistfully, then added, when prodded to conjecture what the Glariffee might contain: “‘Glariffee’ is the actual syrup, we add Powers whiskey to it and a little water, shake it up and pour it in a tall chilled glass. It’s like an Irish coffee that’s chilled.”

Dunlap’s grandfather Ted invented the Glariffee with the owner of the Buena Vista, a San Francisco haunt known for its Irish coffees.

“He said ‘Well, you know, I love the Irish coffees, but sometimes you need a chilled drink,’ and that’s where it came from,” recalls Dunlap. “It’s the hallmark drink of the bar.”

Local lore claims that a son of novelist John Steinbeck actually named the cocktail, contending that “glariffee” is Gaelic for “cold,” which sounds suspiciously like something someone would say after having a few.

Modigliani: Of Brush and Ego Strokes

On his deathbed, Picasso is alleged to have whispered “Modigliani,” the name of the Italian painter with whom he shared a tumultuous friendship in the Paris of the 1920s. Amedeo Modigliani, known chiefly for his sensual, primitive-looking nudes, succumbed to a lethal trifecta of tuberculosis, addiction and poverty 50 years earlier at the age of 35. Much hay is made from Picasso’s apocryphal utterance in director Mick Davis’ new film “Modigliani,” a three hour visual love letter that, like its subject, is both beautiful and flawed — but not fatally so.

Paris between the World Wars has long been a point of fascination for filmmakers and no wonder why — the period is rife with sensual imagery and was a veritable group photo of marquee names. “The Moderns” comes to mind as an early attempt to capture the era as does “Henry and June,” which inspired many a self-styled anachronist to scrawl nonsense into a moleskin notebook and set off an epidemic of soft-core bisexuality among the caf? set of 1990. The sprawling “Modigliani,” however, yields little of this kind of effect, neither spurring one to paint nor live in some Parisian garret, which, granted, cannot always be expected. However, it may spark an interest in film editing, for somewhere in its bushels of footage lurks a great movie. As it stands, “Modigliani” is a really good film larded by subplots that do little to obscure the fact that, ultimately, the film is a bio-pic.

Like many films of this genre, “Modigliani falters in terms of story ? or at least choosing one of the several woven here in a contingency of subplots that never quite come together. The film relies on what can be called the “The Amadeus” model of bio-pics, after the Oscar-winning Milos Forman picture that set the bar for artist biographies. It’s like one of those analogies on IQ tests: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is to Amadeo Modigliani as Pablo Picasso is to Antonio Salieri ? except the polarity of the professional envy is reversed. In this film, Picasso, an awesome talent in his own right, is already established and on his way to making a fortune, whereas Modigliani can hardly stop carousing long enough to get out a nude or two. Then he dies.

Ah, but it’s a great death thanks to Andy Garcia who plays the title character. Though the reek of Oscar-bait occasionally wafts in, Garcia deftly depicts the artist’s turmoil over his failures and jealousies (not to mention his sketchy love life). He performance appears effortless and is a joy to watch though sometimes it’s hard to believe that the character could bottom-out so easily. Not that Garcia doesn’t deliver, it’s just that he is one of those actors blessed (or perhaps cursed) with such a likable face that it’s hard to imagine the dude ever having a bad day.

Lauded in the film’s press materials as “Britain’s only Iranian stand-up comedian and actor” Omid Djalili does a superb turn as the arrogant Picasso. In a scene where Modigliani signs up for an art competition and silently challenges Picasso to do likewise from across a cafe, Djalili masterfully conveys intrigue, pomp and dread with a single expression on his apple-cheeked face. The scene sizzles between the actors as Djalili’s haughty Spaniard plucks a grease pencil from Modigliani’s pocket and autographs the sign-up sheet on the wall with his now-priceless signature. This moment is almost enough to recommend the film in and of itself and is testament to director Davis’ ability to generate palpable synergy between his players.

Throughout, some paint-by-numbers flashbacks attempt to hitch some Freudian hoo-ha to Modigliani’s personal travails but results in little more than a projection of his inner child wagging a finger every time he passes a bar. A subplot regarding Modigliani’s illegitimate offspring being shipped off by an anti-Semitic father-in-law seems grafted on, though the aforementioned art competition bolsters the third act with some wonderful drama and director Davis artfully manages not to telegraph who is going to win.

Production designer Giantito Burchiellaro succeeds in making Bucharest, Romania (an inexpensive shooting location) look like post-World War I Paris and cinematographer Emmanuel Kadosh’s verite-style camera work adds both verisimilitude and immediacy to the film. And yet, one always feels like the characters are behind glass. Perhaps it’s the briskness with which we meet them or how historic milestone moments are merely glossed. Such luminaries of the era as Jean Cocteau, Diego Rivera and Gertrude Stein have walk-ons but there is little context to frame them so they blur into Davis’ canvass like so many dollops of pigment.

Modigliani’s introduction in the film culminates in a telling moment between him
and Picasso when, after he publicly humiliates his friend and rival, Picasso asks “Why do you hate me so much?” and Modigliani replies “I love you, Pablo, it’s myself I hate.”

Likewise, one may love Modigliani, but merely like the film that bears his name.