Upon hearing that Forbidden Gardens would be closing soon, I planned a stop on the way to Houston for a farewell visit to this distinctive attraction. I arrived on a windy, overcast afternoon to find the entrance locked and deserted, with a sign clamped to the gate about a weekend sale of their office furnishings and gift shop items.
Although I was unable to tour the grounds one last time, I still walked away with fond memories of the place. I had visited several times, mostly in the first few years of its opening, with my daughter Lucy, who was then around seven or eight years old. It gave me great pride, and some amusement, to show her some of Chinaâ€™s culture and history, in an outdoor museum in Katy. We oohed and ahhed over the magnitude of the terra-cotta army, and tried to pick out â€œrepeatâ€ soldiers, those with identical features. We marveled over the miniature Forbidden City, with its myriad courtyards and throngs of tiny people. The exhibit rooms filled with colorful period furnishings, clothing and a replica of the emperorâ€™s dining table also caught our attention, but our favorite of all was the half-man, half-dog statues seated at the entrance to one of the pagoda-topped structures. How Lucy loved climbing atop these creatures!
I snapped a few photos of what I could around the entrance. A forlorn-looking, slightly chipped gray horse stands on the hill overlooking the orange-tiled roofs. It felt somewhat like walking into a barren street where a grand parade had marched into town and left. One could still feel the presence of centuries of Chinese history on a remote patch of land in Katy.
In January 2010â€™s TH Taste, I wrote a brief mention of the Chinese New Year Feast hosted by cooking instructor Dorothy Huang, Martin Yan (of PBSâ€™ Yan Can Cook), and restaurant owner/chef Hoi Fung at his Fungâ€™s Kitchen in Houston. The event, held over two nights, was a sold-out success, and the team brought back this popular Lunar New Year banquet for 2011â€™s Year of the Rabbit. Luckily for me, I was able to attend this year, and it is truly a feast for the senses, as well as the appetite.
The evening opened with a trio of lion dancers, which snaked their way to and from every table, playfully wagging and begging for â€œlucky moneyâ€ from guests. Red envelopes were provided at each table for those wanting to contribute to the fun.
Following the lion dancers were several troupes of Asian girls ranging from five-year-olds to pre-teens performing traditional Chinese dances. Adorable and delightful!
We enjoyed a nine-course tasting immediately after the performances, with accompanying cooking demos of most of the dishes by Chef Fung, Martin Yan, and Dorothy Huang. Entrees included Chinese classics such as Peking duck (very succulent!), lobster in black pepper sauce, sweet-and-sour fish, and also Chinese style filet mignon, along with shrimp fried rice for good luck. After the sumptuous, scrumptious meal, our hosts greeted diners at each table and we toasted the Rabbit Year with red wine and cognacâ€”â€œganbei!â€ (cheers!).
Earlier in the day, I tried to visit the now-shuttered Forbidden Gardens, and mourned the passing of a Houston-area Chinese cultural treasure. Could Fungâ€™s Kitchen New Yearâ€™s Feast somehow mark the birth of another?
Itâ€™s the last day of January, and though itâ€™s warmÂ in AustinÂ right now, the National Weather Service says a cold front will roll in tonight, followed by really cold temperatures later this week. Instead of stocking up on hot chocolate, though, Iâ€™m planning my annual trip to southeast Texas this weekend to scout out the first wildflowers of the season. My mother, who lives near Edna, has already spotted coreopsis along the roadside, and my sister tells me that bluets are out, too. Yes, all those early bloomers will probably freeze their petals off this week, but I canâ€™t resist looking for them. I make a trip home each year around this time with that in mindâ€”I think of it as a Texas twist on Groundhog Day. And some years Iâ€™m rewarded by seeing a splash of phlox or even an overachieving Indian paintbrush.
Of course, the fact that the magazine staff is working on the April issue (which always has pages and pages of wildflower photos) during January and February also colors my enthusiasm. Thereâ€™s nothing like seeing all those gorgeous images to put you in the mood for the real thing. And thankfully, in Texas, itâ€™s almost wildflower season, no matter what the National Weather Service has to say.
Earlier this winter, my friend Chris and I decided to broaden our cultural horizons with a post-holiday trip to the Dallas Arts District. Our original plan was to visit the Nasher Sculpture Center, but the cold, drizzly weather didnâ€™t really lend itself to walking outdoors, so our itinerary shifted to the Dallas Museum of Art.
Iâ€™m a fan of primitive and folk art, so I was happy to check out one of the traveling exhibits, African Masks: The Art of Disguise (until Feb. 13). It included lots of great sculptural costumes from around Africa. Then, knowing we couldnâ€™t possibly see it all in a day, we attempted to choose which galleries to view. We ended up meandering through the second floor visiting modern design, early 20th-century decorative arts, into Pacific Island art and past some wonderfully detailed Japanese sculptures. We even came upon a re-created villaâ€”fully furnished with artwork on the walls.
I like the spacious, but warm, feel of the DMA building. It offers lots of opportunities to wander through different worlds of art, andâ€”my favoriteâ€”to watch people interact with art. Not a bad place to spend a rainy day!
On a break, we took a walk around the vicinity and were pleasantly surprised at the proximity of the Nasher and the Crow Collection of Asian Art. I see another trip or two to this area in my future.[gallery columns="4"]
Side trip: Our excursion included a quick jaunt through downtown Waxahachie to check out the Ellis County Courthouse. Iâ€™ve always wanted to see this building in real life, particularly all those face sculptures on the outside. Iâ€™m not sure if these are likenesses of the legendary Mabel or not, but they sure are expressive! If youâ€™re curious, read about the gargoyles on the Waxahachie courthouse.
Upon its debut in 1965 as host to an exhibition game between the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees, Houstonâ€™s Astrodomeâ€”lauded by fans as the â€œEighth Wonder in the Worldâ€â€”nabbed a spot in the record books as the worldâ€™s first multi-purpose domed stadium (not to mention the birthplace of AstroTurf). Alas, the once-regal Dome now rests in the shadow of the much-larger Reliant Stadium at Reliant Park; the Astros left the Dome for Minute Maid Park more than a decade ago.
But city leaders are debating the Astrodomeâ€™s future, and the options are numerous: Demolish it and install a green-space plaza? Keep the shell and convert it to a multi-use venue, perhaps with an attached hotel? Create a mega-venue with a planetarium and an institute devoted to engineering and mathematics? What do you think should happen with the Astrodome? Weâ€™d love to hear your thoughts and memories. (You can see the current options being considered, complete with artistsâ€™ renditions of how redevelopment might look, at http://www.reliantpark.com/feedback.)
In the past few months, I've had the good fortune to dine at a handful of French-inspired brasseries and bistros in Houston, San Antonio, and Austin. And I just got wind of a new spotâ€”LÃ¼ke, the first Texas restaurant by New Orleans chef John Beshâ€”that is winning raves in San Antonio for such French favorites as mussels and seafood meuniÃ¨re, all rendered with a Louisiana twist. Then, as I wondered whether this new infusion of French cuisine is a trend or simply a coincidence, I learned of a new spot in Austin that focuses on French pastries and those jewel-like cookies known as macarons, which are giving cupcakes a run for their money nationwide as 2011's hottest dessert treat.
On a recent trip to Lubbock, I wasn't very enthusiastic when my friend suggested we have lunch at a new burger joint called Blue Sky Texas. I figured a burger is a burger; however, I quickly changed my tune when we went inside and I saw the menu. One of the featured items is a green chile cheeseburger. You can also get green chile-cheese fries and chile sticks (fried chiles). Yum. My taste buds were ready. These are menu items you don't find at most burger places. I went for the green chile cheeseburger, and my friend ordered something called Blue Sky "steak" and fries (two ground-chuck patties stuffed with grilled onions and jalpeÃ±os and topped with queso).
In an awards ceremony at Dallas' gorgeous Winspear Opera House last Thursday, the "Texas Cultural Trust nonprofit organization that raises private money to heighten arts awareness in Texas" announced its 2011 honorees for the 2011 Texas Medal of Arts Awards, which recognizes Texas talent in film, television, literature, journalism, music, theater, media, and the visual arts.
Hockey isnâ€™t normally on my radar, but I became a fan for an evening at a recent Texas Stars game at Cedar Park Center. The Stars went stick-to-stick with the Hamilton (Ontario) Bulldogs, but the experience went beyond the swift-paced, puck-whacking, Plexiglas-pounding action of the game. Booming music, the jumbotronâ€™s frequent fan footage (showing lots of happy kids and the kiss-cam), a roving burger-shaped blimp dropping coupons, the Chuck-a-Puck competition, a T-shirt cannonâ€”all further amped the excitement.
Find ticket prices and details on special deals at www.cedarparkcenter.com (remember, thereâ€™s also a parking fee). And go, Stars!
It would be poetic, I think, if I were to effuse that Iâ€™ve been fascinated with mobiles since I was an infant gazing at one dangling above my crib. But in reality, my introduction to mobiles came in grade school, thanks to a hippie art teacher who smelled of patchouli and patiently taught her ham-handed students how to make dancing (if lopsided) sculptures from twigs, painted acorns, and twine. I thought of her this morning when I read about the Nasher Sculpture Centerâ€™s exhibition of the works of Alexander Calder (1898-1976), whose first kinetic sculptures were dubbed â€œmobilesâ€ by colleague and friend Marcel Duchamp. (Interestingly, fellow experimental artist Jean Arp called Calderâ€™s stationary artworks â€œstabiles.â€)
The Nasherâ€™s show, Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy, runs through March 6. Along with more than 30 of Calderâ€™s works, the exhibition also highlights seven contemporary artists who were influenced by Calderâ€™s creative reuse of materials, hands-on production methods, and explorations of form, balance, color, and movement.
I canâ€™t think of a more pleasant place to experience Calderâ€™s graceful sculptures. With its spare and light-filled interior galleries and al fresco sculpture garden filled with beautiful and thought-provoking installations, the Nasher makes artworks accessible and relevant to lifeâ€™s experiences. So I know that when I next make it to Dallas, and when I walk amongst the mobiles as they rotate on gossamer threads, Iâ€™ll be back in art class, surrounded by classmates with braces and awkward hairdos, assembling sculptures from garden flotsam. The weight of one acorn could throw the whole thing off-balance. Alter one variable, and the whole project shifts. Could I have known back then that a mobile could be a metaphor for life itself? For more on the Nasher, see www.nashersculpturecenter.org.
Iâ€™m not really a football fan. Those are fighting words, I realize, in some parts of Texas, where pigskin rivalries divide families, coworkers, and even strangers in line at the grocery store. I do look forward to the Super Bowl every year (so Iâ€™ve marked my calendar for this yearâ€™s 45th anniversary game up in Arlington on February 6), but thatâ€™s mostly because itâ€™s my annual excuse to eat lots of Velveeta-and-Rotel queso.
So for those who know me well, itâ€™s always a surprise that I adore the television show Friday Night Lights, that sleeper quasi-hit show that won raves from the critics but never really took off with television audiences. My non-expert opinion is that it suffers an identity crisis: Most people think of it as a sports drama, whereas truly itâ€™s a story about relationships, and itâ€™s perhaps one of the of the most authentic depictions of small-town Texas since Larry McMurtryâ€™s The Last Picture Show.
It doesnâ€™t hurt that the show is set in Austin and surrounding areas. Thereâ€™s the Continental Club! Franâ€™s Hamburgers! The Landing Strip of all places! That megalachurch near my house! Itâ€™s fun to try to figure out where each shot was filmed.
Location-spotting: This, along with the curious charms of actor Bradley Whitford (you know, the guy who played Josh Lyman on The West Wing, and Danny Tripp on the rollicking Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) is what drew me to the new Fox buddy-police-comedy The Good Guys, which is set in Dallas and filmed in Dallas. The plots are gossamer-thin, but Whitford plays a pratfalling rogue Texas cop with gum-smacking panache (with Tom Hanksâ€™ son Colin as the straight-guy sidekick). Never mind; the true star of the show is Dallasâ€”sleek office buildings and tony downtown restaurants, Fair Park in all its Art-Deco glory, rough-around-the-edges barbecue joints along Riverside (formerly Industrial)â€¦. I wonder if Dallasites have the same fun trying to identify filming locations for The Good Guys as I do for Friday Night Lights.
A few years ago, as I swam laps at the YMCA in Austin, I came up for air to find a sickly beagle circling the pool, watching me. Somehow he had wriggled between a break in the fence andâ€”I like to thinkâ€”decided Iâ€™d make a fine new owner. First, though, I had to nurse him back to health, and for that, I have Animal Trustees of Austin (ATA) to thank.
Along with other symptoms of neglect, my rescued beagleâ€”whom my husband and I named Oscarâ€”had an advanced case of heartworm disease, a dangerous disease that left untreated, leads to death. Treatment is expensive and grueling, but since I eventually adopted Oscar through a rescue organization called Austin Hound Rescue, I was able to take advantage of the mightily reduced treatment cost offered by ATA.
So Iâ€™m pleased to hear that â€œCelebrating Paws,â€ a new program offered by Lake Austin Spa Resort, not only benefits spa visitors who bring their canine friends but also donates 100% of pet guest fees collected throughout 2011 to ATA.
As part of the program, animal behaviorist Dr. Patricia McConnell will speak about the documented health benefits of pet ownershipâ€”including lower blood pressure and reduced stress levelsâ€”during spa stays February 2-6 and November 2-11, 2011.
McConnellâ€™s topics will include â€œThe Power of Pets: What Science Has to Tell Us about Our Love for Animals,â€ â€œAre You Thinking What Iâ€™m Thinking? Whatâ€™s Really Going on in a Dogâ€™s Brain,â€ and â€œThe Other End of the Leash: Understanding How to Communicate with Your Best Friend.â€
Other pet experts participating in the program include dog trainer Cara Shannon, who will lead classes in manners training and etiquette and author Susannah Charleson and her dog Puzzle (both members of the Metro Area K9 Rescue in Dallas), as well as canine photographers, massage therapists, and professional dog-walkers.
Iâ€™ll be honest: Oscar wouldnâ€™t stand for one moment for a pedicure, but a massage is another matter.
For details about canine programs at Lake Austin Spa Resort, call 800/847-5637; www.lakeaustin.com.
And now Iâ€™m curious: whatâ€™s the most indulgent thing youâ€™ve ever done for your dog?