Sunday, February 8, 2015

Travelogue: The Fowler Museum and Ramayani

Date: Saturday, January 31, 2015
Location: Los Angeles (primarily UCLA and Westwood are)

My cousins and I are close. We like to get together every now and then. Somehow, I end up planning many of our day trips, but I don't mind. It gives me a chance to steer the agenda to my objectives. Mwahaha. Aren't I devious?

In this case, I wanted to do some research. I'm setting a book I'm writing in April, "Counterfeit Diamond," in a magical version of Dutch-colonized Indonesia. It's not the easiest country to research, but I did discover that the Fowler Museum had Indonesian artifacts and that there was an Indonesian restaurant nearby. I presented my agenda to the cousins ands was surprised by their enthusiastic response. So the date was set and we were off.

The Party of Intrepid Adventurers (minus Krystal who took the photo)

Seven of us went on this adventure: me, Mitchell, Krystal, Kevin, Alyson, Nathan, and Nathan's girlfriend Cindy. Mitchell and Krystal picked me up around 9:30, while the rest of the party set off in a second car a short while later. It was a warm, sunny, clear day, and since it was Saturday, the traffic was relatively light.

Stop 1: California Donuts (Korea Town)

This was actually the pick of my cousin Kevin.

California Donuts, a corner donut shop in Korea Town, in an unremarkable block, distinguished by the line of people trickling onto the sidewalk. If you squeeze past them and stare at the case, you'll see a wide variety of donuts with toppings that will bring out the inner kid in you. 

Our First Stop

 Green-frosted donuts, pink-frosted donuts with sprinkles, donuts topped with Saturday morning cereals, donuts with cookies crumbles, donuts topped with bacon. They also have an Oreo donut in the shape of a panda, but those were unavailable today.

Our car arrived first. Parking in the parking lot was out of the question, but fortunately, we found a spot along the sidewalk of a nearby residential zone after only 5 minutes of mostly stress-free searching.

The line went fast, and while we were still deciding, it was time to order. I bought a box of six mostly normal donuts, figuring that everyone else would buy only one or two specialty donuts and fill up on my cheaper ones. That didn't really pan out. As it turned out, it was almost impossible to buy one.

Afterwards, Krystal and I stood in the parking lot, taking selfies and not caring a wit if we looked like tourists. Mitchell directed the second car to the parking lot. Once we all had our donuts, we set our boxes on the trunk of Mitchell's car, cut them into fourths with plastic knives, and began passing around donut pieces like hors d'oeuvres.

Donut tailgate party!
 Here are some of the donuts we ate:

   Maple Bacon Bar (The boys loved it. The girls weren't so keen.)
   Fruity Pebbles (The cereal provided a nice crunch.)
   Snickers (A whole Snickers bar was baked into the donut, along with toppings of chocolate chips and nuts. It was too much.)
   Samoa (Based off the girl scout cookie, with coconut flakes and chocolate on top. Taking a bite of with a piece of the real cookie was good, but the rest tasted ordinary)
   Cinnamon Toast Crunch (I thought the frosting was a normal glaze randomly colored purple, but it actually had a different, slightly creamier flavor. It was pretty good.)
   Japanese Green Tea (Matcha has a distinctive strong, bitter flavor that was missing here. The Matcha could hardly be found.)

We stood and we ate and those who bought milk drank it and we had a good time together.

Stop 2: The Hammer Museum (UCLA)

The Hammer Museum is a free art museum open to the public. It's on the part of UCLA that bleeds into the city. I wanted to go there, for three reasons. One, I like free museums. Two, it was conveniently located midway between my two true destinations: The Fowler Museum and Ramayani. Three, I discovered that parking was a mere $3 all day on Saturdays and Sundays. Score!

Inside the Hammer Museum
We all arrived by 12:30 and spent the next half hour exploring the galleries.

The Armand Hammer Collection, which was half-hidden on the third floor, contained a pretty thorough Who's Who of Western art. In one little room was stuffed paintings by Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, Remembrandt, and Titan, to name a few. Mitchell admired the huge religious paintings where the figures in the bible were dwarfed by the magnificent surroundings. I liked a pair of contrasting Van Goghs: dismal gray landscape of his home country of the Netherlands and his signature flurry of colors in France.

We also browsed a couple of galleries holding temporary exhibits. On the ground floor was a display of Francis Upritchad figurative sculptures of tricksters and non-conformist characters, including an old woman with face half in yellow and half in blue (could she be a Bruins fan?) and a green-faced red-head with colorful clothes. They were arranged near paper mache crocodiles and dinosaurs. I liked this exhibit more than the others, which showed a sculpture made of guns and a bizarre video.

Sculpture by Francis Upritchard
The people at the desk told us dancers were performing near the gift shop, but the first time we saw one, we thought she was injured. A woman, alone on the staircase, lay in such an broken position, it looked as if she'd taken a nasty fall. We asked if she was all right. She didn't answer.  Uncertain, we continued up the stairs and saw three more women in contorted poses moving very slowly. We figured it was art.  All the dancers were very quiet, and something about their windblown hair and dull faces made me think of mannequins.

Walking UCLA

By the time we got out of the museum, it was 1:00. I wanted to go to the Fowler Museum on the other side of the campus.

We walked. Why not? We're all young and in decent shape, and it was really just a little over a mile. The sidewalk was on a slight incline, but nothing too steep. Stores showed displays of Valentine's gifts and Bruins paraphernalia. But once we came to the campus proper, it was quieter, with shade trees and beautiful buildings.

I model a shade tree in UCLA
 We came to Bruin Plaza and immediately got distracted by the statue of a bear (UCLA's mascot), the Sports Hall of Fame, and, worst of all, a giant campus bookstore. That bookstore nearly sunk us. In an ironic, I was the one who had to tell everyone to stop looking at books and get going.

Up until then, the walk was straight north on Westwood Boulevard, but after Bruin Plaza, we turned right, up what looked like a hill with billboards advertising clubs. A million stairs loomed, but before we had to climb them, the route turned north again, to a grassy quad complete with lounging college students and--I kid you not--a brick castle in the background. The castle was beautiful, but we had no chance to check it out, because the Fowler Museum was straight ahead.

Looks like a brick castle to me.

Stop 3: The Fowler Museum (UCLA)

The Fowler Museum is another small, free art museum, but its focus is more on artifacts and non-Western art. Inside, the main corridors made a square around a courtyard housing a peaceful fountain and a some palm trees.

Fountain in the courtyard of the Fowler Museum
 The main exhibit was called Intersections, and featured artifacts from around the world. Surprisingly, most were made in the 19th and 20th century. Now, I was trying to research Indonesia, so I spent most of my time here, but I won't bore you with the details. Suffice it to say, I took notes on Indonesian betel cutters, textiles, puppets, and a video about the baroung, which looked like a Chinese New Year Dragon and is used in religious ceremonies.

Across the hall sat the second permanent gallery, Reflecting Culture. It housed silver treasures such as a piece by Paul Revere, a cup rumored to belonged to Rasputin, and a huge ship made of silver. Compared to the European highly ornamental plates, cups, and tea pots, America's silver pieces plain and boring.

Artifact in the "Intersections" display
I also wandered a temporary exhibition called World Share that included glass African statues, a bicycle piled high with boxes, razors suck in Styrofoam, a pyramid of colorful paper wads, and several bird houses nailed together on the wall. Actually, it was interesting, because the shine and colors would draw you in, but you wouldn't know what anything was until you took a second look.

There was also a display Contemporary Art from the Emirates, but I didn't have time to do more than glance at it.

Stop 4: Ramayani Indonesian Restaurant (Westwood Boulevard)

It was 3:45. Time for a late lunch, early dinner.

Walking south down Westwood Boulevard, we passed Thai restaurants, Japanese restaurants, Chinese restaurants, Greek restaurants, Indian restaurants, French restaurants, Persian restaurants, Lebanese restaurants, and a store called Nathan's Bagels that advertised falafel and sushi. But we were on a mission to try Indonesia food.

Ramayani was the name of the restaurant we sought. I was supposed to be blazing the trail, but I got distracted by my second-take of Nathan's Bagels and fell behind. Suddenly the alarm was called. "There it is!"  My party disappeared into a store front. 

Alyson models her meal in Ramayani

 I barely had time to glance at the yellow awnings, before I found myself stepping inside, going 'round the wooden statue of the dancer, passing the shelves of exotic groceries, and being seated in a long table in the corner. One side faced a window and the wall showed a painting of a woman in rice fields. The restaurant was clean and beautiful, our waiter was extremely polite, prices were affordable, and the food came quickly.

None of us had ever eaten Indonesia food before, so I made it a rule that we all had to order something different and taste each other's food. This, however, made getting good nearly impossible, for as soon as a dish came, we were passing it around the table like a Thanksgiving meal, scooping sample on our plate.

Here's some of the food we ate:

   Otak Otak--gourmet fish cakes grilled in banana leaves (They arrived rolled up like cigarettes with a side of sweet, peanut satay sauce. The white steamed cake had a mildly pleasant fishy flavor.)
   Guimie Dan Pangsit Goreng--braised noodles topped with chicken and mushrooms sauce served with fried wontons (The noodles were chewy and toothsome. It also came with a clear broth.)
   Ayam Sauce Ramayan--crispy chicken pieces smothered in a sweet and tangy barbecue sauce (The chicken was crispy with just the right amount of char, and the sauce was sweet and thick and tasted of pineapples. Yum!)
   Gule Kambing--lamb stewed in a curry of 15 aromatic Indonesian spices (The curry wasn't spicy at all. The lamb was tender, with hardly any of that funky aftertaste lamb tend to have.)
   Nasi Goedeg--young jack fruit and coconut milk stew served with a combination plate of chicken curry, egg, and rice (This was mine, and I think it had the most exotic taste. The jack fruit was floral and unusual. The stew also housed something nutty and dense--tempe, perhaps--and stewed meat. The hard boiled eggs had an interesting a sweet and spicy red pepper relish on top of it.)

Otak Otak
On the whole, the food was reminiscent of Thai food, though it seemed a bit sweet, rather than spicy. Our meal was delicious. We ate it all up and were satisfied.

Then it was time for dessert. Now, the menu contained many perfectly nice foods, and we did in fact order Ice Shanghai, a combination of mixed fruits, mung beans, and grass jelly topped with vanilla syrup and condensed milk. The grass jelly was brown squares that tasted odd but pleasant, and the mung beans were green with the texture of firm gelatin and no flavor at all.

But something less pleasant lurked on the dessert menu

Ice Durian--sweet durian, brown sugar, and coconut milk

Food Dare: Durian

Durian is the infamous food that Andrew Zimmerman, who made a living eating boiled sheep heads, wouldn't eat. I saw an episode of Chopped where the judges described it as smelling and tasting like garbage. So, of course, I had to taste it for myself.

The waiter tried to warned us. He said that very few people enjoyed the taste.

"That's fine," I said. "I like trying new things."

Fruit Feared by 1000 Chefs
The Durian arrived in a parfait glass, lurking underneath a crush of ice. The mix of fruit chunks and juice looked an unappetizing sludge color. It didn't reek--we had to press our noses to the glass to sniff in any aroma at all. I was relieved that the garbage smell was closer to moldy water than chicken fat on a hot day.

Believe it or not, my heart actually pattered in my chest as I thought about tasting it. I gripped my spoon, but I was robbed of the drama of the moment, when someone took the cup and unceremoniously downed a big spoonful.

The boys hated it. The girls were more tolerant. Alyson said it tasted like raw onions, which it sort of did. First it tasted of raw onions, then of custard, then back to raw onions, with the faint odor of garbage lingering in the back of your nose. I didn't like it, but I will go on record saying it was not the worst thing I ever ate. Natto (slimy fermented soy beans) was much more disgusting.

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