Faine Opines

Southeast Asia, liberation technology, drones, and pontification

Month: June 2014

Monterey Bay Aquarium: Tentacles and Photos of Tentacles

 

spotted jellyfish

Between the last post and this one, I’ve graduated with my Masters, finished a thesis about drones (surprise!), and have traveled to the East Coast to see family. This made me embarrassingly remiss about blogging.

Here’s some recent photos from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Myself, my cousin Laura, and my friend Curran all made the trek down there during my graduation weekend, intent on viewing the anticipated glories of the Tentacles special exhibit for ourselves.

Find the lurking baby cuttlefish.

Find the lurking baby cuttlefish.

I’ve had a slightly weird life-long love affair with tentacled creatures of the deep, starting with a childhood in which I had no teddy bears but a remarkably diverse assortment of plush tentacled sea life instead. I was insistent at an early age that Things With Noses Aren’t As Cute, and would become extremely offended if someone dared portray an octopus with a bullshit faux, circular nose. Mostly, I found them fascinating: as intelligent as cats, able to change color at will, and remarkably effective, sneaky predators.

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 1.41.34 AM

My love of cephalopods has persisted into adulthood: I had a giant squid battling a whale on the cake my mom got me for my undergraduate graduation, while my family exchanges clever squid-themed gifts whenever we find ourselves in the same geographic location. Becoming a scuba diver only made me fall more deeply in love: seeing the real thing jetting about the ocean floor, lurking in coral, undulating.

I encountered a cuttlefish in the Philippines last summer — a tiny little job, about the length of my already-small middle finger. It was hovering by a piece of coral and took cranky note of my existence: I had spotted it and begun squealing in glee quietly to myself through a regulator.

Brittle star tentacles.

Brittle star tentacles.

I drew closer and the cuttlefish nonchalantly positioned itself behind the coral, operating under the assumption I wouldn’t be able to see it. This didn’t work, and when I peered at it from the other side, it grew irate, turned black, and blasted a miniscule, delicate spurt of ink into my face.

This is probably the cutest thing that has ever happened to me or will ever happen to me.

Lurking giant octopus.

Lurking giant octopus.

In any case: the Tentacles exhibit was really excellent. A short entry-way with a display of Greek pots with squid on them and popular portrayals of these beasts throughout history, and into the exhibits: giant octopi, bigfin squid, stumpy cuttlefish, chambered nautilus, and many other delightful, odd creatures.

The Aquarium mastered the care and breeding of jellyfish and has used its considerable resources and scientific knowledge to do the same for some rather unusual species of cephalopods: there are critters here you are unlikely to have previously viewed through the smudged glass of some also-ran aquarium.

They're hard to photograph. Had to outsource to Wikipedia.

Flamboyant cuttlefish are hard to photograph. Had to outsource to Wikipedia.

My favorite by far was the flamboyant cuttlefish, a flip-phone sized creature that is colored in orchid-like purples and yellows. In severe contradiction to the floral beauty of its exterior, the flamboyant cuttlefish is the Pug of the ocean: it trundles slowly and with seemingly great exertion to wherever it is going, on two inward turned tentacles. They look unlikely in that adorably awkward way so favored by human onlookers, and as we observed, that pathos-laden lack of grace applies to hunting: they don’t seem to be that hot at it.

As we looked into the aquarium, a clear plastic tube appeared and emitted a few dozen tiny pink shrimp: lunch time. The shrimp found their way to the yellow sand of the bottom and we crowded around in anticipation. But the cuttlefish did not gracefully devour them.

Gorgeous chambered nautilus.

Gorgeous chambered nautilus.

They trundled. They trundled towards the shrimp with staunch, lugubrious intent. A cuttlefish feeds by jerking a tentacle out from its center mass of tentacles towards the prey, and then yanking the hapless victim back into its (hidden) beak – the effect is rather like a frog.

Unfortunately, the flamboyant cuttlefish kept missing. They would jerk out a tentacle, and miss the shrimp by a few centimeters, and the shrimp would fail to notice and jet away. The cuttlefish looked frustrated, and the shrimp looked almost pleased, if it’s possible for a shrimp to be pleased.

moody giant octopus

One shrimp actually hopped onto the back of one of the more hopeless cuttlefish, after evading a particular miserable attempt at tentacle-grabbing. The cuttlefish immediately became alarmed: it shifted from magenta to a deep, blackish purple — angry colors, the species equivalent of yelling “Oh Shit.”

The shrimp hung on, and the cuttlefish tried backing up, propelling itself with little ineffectual squirts of water. The shrimp hung on. Another ferocious backwards puff, and the shrimp finally became dislodged. The cuttlefish reared up, positioning its tentacles in a savage, cobra-like display, rippling with black and purple and white. Surely it would learn. Surely it would submit.

The cuttlefish came closer, and the shrimp hopped on its back again.

cuttlefish couple

More great exhibits awaited: graceful bigfin squid with giant eyes, lugubrious giant squid, steampunk animated displays explaining what it’s *like* to be an octopus. We even got to watch cuttlefish have weirdly rough sex, preceded by an aggressive, ink-filled slugfest between at least a dozen combatants.

You must go see this exhibit. It is more entertaining than anything on television, or at least equivalent to YouTube.

Here’s a gallery of my other photos:

 

 

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Bottega – Yountville, California

bottega kitchen

Bottega Napa Valley
6525 Washington St, Yountville, CA 94599

My family takes a bi-monthly or so road trip from Sacramento to Napa to go to restaurants and buy wine, which really translates into “spending a day pleasantly making fabulously wealthy people even more fabulously wealthy, sort of a wealthy-people vicious cycle of overeating.” If you detect a mild, self-loathing tone creeping into my food-blogging, you may be diagnosing something lurking below my soul. Not that I’m passing up the wine and cheese.

Anyway.

We had been meaning to try Celebrity Chef (TM) Michael Chiarello’s Yountville outlet for some time now. I’ve been vaguely aware of Chiarello for years, ever since he played the slightly menacing, goomba-esque presence on Top Chef, and roughly after his rustic lifestyle catalogs begin arriving in regular shoals in my parent’s mail-box.

An exceedingly clever businessman, the California native parlayed high-end Italian cooking into television shows, a winery, regular appearances in the media, a line of furniture, and God knows what else — picture a much gruffer looking Martha Stewart, although I know Chiarello has never been to prison. We made a lunch reservation at Bottega.

The restaurant is dark inside and full of brass and amber accents, creating a late-night feeling even when it’s high noon outside and getting progressively hotter. An open-style kitchen allows diners to watch the kitchen team move in a fast paced frenzy, slinging huge metal pots with preternaturally strong wrists. The warm color given off by the flames of the oven, interplaying wit the cold steel of the fixtures, lit them all in a delicate, Renaissance-like tone. It was good viewing.

We were seated quickly, thanks to our reservations, and began paging through the immense wine list and the rather interesting cocktail menu. Mindful of our planned itinerary of paying people well over $10 a pop to take small swigs of their fermented grape juice, we stuck with the non-boozey stuff — the ginger lemonade was surprisingly delicious.

The menu, true to form, is a combination of California local ingredients and contemporary Italian cooking, with ingredients like sea urchin and nettles bumping shoulders with ricotta gnocchi and grilled skirt steak.

bottega brussel salad

The shaved brussel sprouts salad was tucked into a small pyramid (and I do mean rather small) but had a delightfully spring-y taste, evading the uncomfortable chewiness of less worthy raw brussel sprouts preparations. The combination of egg, almond, pecorino cheese and Meyer lemon gave the dish an earthy, season-appropriate richness. I want to try to emulate this at home.

bottega meat balls

Meatballs, polpettas, whatever — these were excellent, composed of extremely tender grilled shortrib meat that fell apart with silky intensity when poked with a spoon. They were served with a hummus-like puree made from sunchoke, a somewhat under-adored vegetable. This is the kind of thing you would imagine yourself ordering in a simplified form at an Italian estate after slaying a slag sometime in 1723, or at least these are the fantasies with which I sustain my life. I should build more slaying into my routine.

bottega minestrone

Minestrone featured tender green chard, flatleaf spinach, nettles, and wild vineyard mustard, served in a prosciutto broth with potato and a slab of bread. Tasty, earthy, and violently rich in nutrients, this nevertheless struck me as not fancy enough for the setting — the sort of thing I’d probably be able to whip up some simulacra of in an afternoon in between bouts of pretending to write. You’re paying Napa restaurant prices — in my mind, you might as well try something that involves obnoxious procedure and cutting tiny things into even tinier things, thanks to the efforts of some poor prep cook who is perennially being shouted at for breathing.

bottega duck

I ordered the duck three ways because I have always been highly susceptible to duck. I will say right now this was a monumentally enormous restaurant dish, the sort of thing that you look at and think “Did they make some kind of mistake?”

But no, this is half a duck — the breast is roasted until tender and juicy, the leg prepared in a tender confit, and the liver (presumably deriving from a different duck) smeared on a sidebar crostini. Accents were watercress and a strawberry compote garnish, although these serve somewhat as afterthoughts for the duckfat-dripping main event. I managed to finish it. It might have been poorly advised. I did leave a small piece of pate on the crostini, which I looked at with both embarrassment and dog-like lust as it was taken away at the end of the meal. (This is probably a metaphor for something). This is not delicate or particularly sophisticated food, but you will be absolutely good on the duck front for a long while to come.

bottega corn

Less deliciously egregious was a pasta made with corn meal and mushrooms. It sounded rather interesting on paper but was too sweet in practice, producing a rather cloying effect. I don’t like overly sweet cornbread, and I resent it in my pasta as well.

cavatelli shrimp

Cavatelli was served with a sea urchin sauce and hefty head-on prawns. A delicate white bowl was provided for the little remnant crustacean skulls. It was almost as if they knew us. The sauce was delicate, had a bit of saffron in it, and had that delightfully buttery and of-the-sea essence that defines all fine seafood pastas. Would order again. Definitely the most refined dish of the meal.

No dessert. Both because we’re not really into that, and because I had just eaten half a duck with accompaniments. The existential shame was already complete.

The sizing of the portions is smallish but not quite on point if you’re hoping to do a true Italian-style meal, with a small starter, a pasta course, and a main dish — judging by the quantity of the duck, this would induce almost instant gout and possible death. I am not sure if this is a bad thing.

Inexplicably, there is no pizza oven here. There is a large wood-burning oven, but I remain unsure what it is for. Maybe creating rustic clay pots.

Would I return again? Yes. Celebrity chef foolishness aside, the food was good and the menu items interesting, and I’d like to poke around what they’ve got on offer to a greater extent.

Also, they sell black truffle potato chips in the store next door. You want to get those. Eat them slowly while you read Piketty and contemplate what has brought you to this place.

 

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