Riding That Train, Italian Wine & Late Night Jazz: The Streets of LA

Living in Southern California certainly has its benefits. The weather is perhaps the best in the country, there’s great live music, entertainment and most of the airports, even the smaller regional hubs are well served by the airlines. So when one needs to flee southern California, there are always many options.

Another benefit of Southern California is both its extensive freeway system and the backroads that twist and wind through canyons, mountains and across distant valleys and deserts. Whether driving a car or riding a motorcycle, chance are you’ll find a road that suits your immediate needs. California was built on the notion that the automobile provided independence, freedom and even an extension of one’s personality. Though to this writer perhaps the ultimate freedom is provided my the motorcycle, to realize this liberty one needs to get far away from the super-slab freeways.

But when does such motor culture become a liability and the automobile, or even the motorcycle an obstacle to personal freedom and liberty?

Simple. Friday afternoons in Southern California.

And this past Friday I was forced to make difficult decisions. A late night Thursday voice mail from my NYC-based friend Charlie posed interesting questions and appealing options:

“Allan, not sure what you’re doing tomorrow, but I’m going to be in Los Angeles for just one night and would love to see you. Perhaps there’s a bottle of wine you’ve been dying to try, a new restaurant you’d like to explore or somewhere with an interesting wine list you’d like to visit. Let’s get together,” Charlie said.”And if it works out I just might let you check out my new iPad.”

It’d been months since I’d seen Charlie, and nearly a year since we cracked open a beautiful bottle of 1998 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo from Valentini — certainly one of the world’s finest white wines and one of the rarest, too with less than 30 cases finding its way to North America each year. So sure, the thought of connecting with him was great. But the thought of driving to downtown Los Angeles on a Friday afternoon turned my stomach.

Then, with far greater speed than Apple can sell its iPad, I had a brainstorm. Armed with the info that Charlie was staying at the landmark Bonaventure Hotel, I mined my memory and remembered a notable Italian restaurant with a unique wine list just blocks away. Though I’d never been to Drago de Centro, chef-owner Celestino Drago, with several restaurant concepts in the LA area perhaps was a celebrity chef before it became trendy. Drago Centro was not only just a few blocks from The Bonaventure, it was about a mile from Union Station. Would it be possible to take the train from San Diego to Los Angeles, both of us avoiding Friday afternoon traffic and thereby setting the stage for the consumption of only good Italian food and wine and not an ounce of fossil fuel? It was worth a try.

It’s railway transportation (Amtrak and local service) that separates Southern California from Charlie’s east coast locale. San Diego is about 120 miles from Downtown Los Angeles. From New York City in all directions about 120 or so miles will get you to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Hartford, Connecticut, Wilmington, Delaware and the suburbs of Albany, New York and many cities in between. Looking for rail service between Philadelphia and New York City? The Amtrak site shows almost 50 daily departures. But on the west coast, you get 13 departure options with Amtrak Rail service between San Diego and Los Angeles. So planning and timing is critical.

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The guy sitting next to me on the Amtrak Zephyr rolled his eyes and said “not again!” as the conductor announced our train, scheduled to roll into Union Station at 6:45pm, would be nearly 30 minutes late. I was 15 minutes late for our 7:15 reservation at Drago Centro. But there was Charlie. In one hand a glass of Vermentino from Sardinia, in his other Drago’s impressive wine list. He hands me the iPad. “Sometimes these wine lists are hard to read in the dimly lit interiors of city restaurants, so I downloaded the list from Drago Centro’s website,” he says smiling. “What shall we order?”IMG_0180.jpg

For the both the doubters and curious, who haven’t been able to figure out “why the iPad”, the uses of Apple’s new tablet computer become clearer and more innovative every day. Even with the help of modern technology, choosing a wine from Drago’s 25 page wine list is a time consuming, yet thoroughly enjoyable process. I let the server know that while we were ready to dine this evening, I needed to be cognizant of the clock as I needed to make the last train to San Diego — at 10:10pm. With the help of Drago Centro’s sommelier we settled on a bottle of Nerello Mascalese, an ancient red grape varietal indigenous to Siciliy and usually grown at high altitude in volcanic soil. Tonight’s Nerello Mascalese was grown on the slopes of Mount Etna by the Murgo Estate who’ve been growing grapes and making wine there since the mid-1800’s.

Though the sommelier was quick to notice the first bottle he pulled from the cellar was sadly corked, he promptly presented a second. Charlie and I agreed to split two starters and a primi and segundi piatti — sort of creating our own tasting menu. The wine was medium in body, showed a touch of minerality and spice with rich red fruit and pared nicely with the scallops and baby octopus salad we’d ordered as starters. While we matched the second and third courses with a wine from my cellar — a rich, seductive and big 2006 California syrah from The Red Car Wine Company called The Fight a perfect complement to both the le pappardelle al fagiano, a hearty pasta in a rich morel mushroom sauce with roasted pheasant and the la labatina di vitella, an impeccable grilled veal chop with perhaps the best sweetbreads we’d ever tasted.

I was advised it was 15 minutes before 10pm, as we shared a glass of the syrah with the waiter and sommelier. While only about mile away, I opted for a taxi to ensure I’d get to the station for my 10:10pm train. Though I had abandoned a half-glass of syrah and arrived at the station at 10:09, the Amtrak service agent informed me that my train had already departed. Amazed and my jaw wide open, I stared at her in disbelief. My train earlier in the day departed late and arrived in Los Angeles late. But this train was early or simply on time? This can’t be happening. The bubbly and cute woman at the ticket window giggled as she advised there were no more trains until morning. But I could take a bus. When? Her eyelashes fluttered as she told me 3:30 AM. What?! That’s more than five hours–longer than the initial train ride and my dinner with Charlie.

Then I realized just what freedom and liberty meant when it comes to being in control of one’s transportation; that is, having a car or a motorcycle. I was stuck. A taxi to San Diego would cost $200 or more. Hitch-hiking from downtown LA on a Friday night isn’t recommended. By the time I connected with Charlie, he had finished dessert and was on his way back to the Bonaventure. Suggesting that he could probably swing a deal on another room, I passed and suggested we find a dive bar and continue our conversations. Charlie’s east-coast time zone set body just couldn’t keep up.

The clean up crew at Union Station were clueless as to where I might kill some time other than getting horizontal on the wooden benches as the 3 or 4 others in my predicament had chosen. I couldn’t see waiting here for 5 hours.

So I did the next best thing: pulled out my iPhone.

The first list of results from Yelp didn’t sound promising. So I changed my search. Just over a mile walk, adjacent to nearby Little Tokyo is Blue Whale. The dozen or so reviews mentioned live jazz, good drinks and “chill out” atmosphere. Perfect. I started my adventure and trekked up Los Angeles Street, crossed over the 101 while gazing down on the madness of hundreds of cars screaming by, and over to First Street where I searched for my destination.

IMG_0085 - Version 2.jpgBlue Whale is tucked into a corner on the third floor of Weller Court, a three story building filled with Asian fast food places like Orochon Ramen, Marukai Curry House, a place called Giggle Giggle and several other gift, novelty and specialty shops. With barely any signage save a waist high sandwich board, I almost missed the place. Chris, the large-sized bouncer/doorman discounted the normal $10 cover since the jazz band had only one more set before Blue Whale would close at 2AM. inside the minimalist decor including a handful of black and white prints and a floor to ceiling wall covered in chalkboard complete with large clock hands sans numbers. But I was taken most by the quotes and verse from Hafez, Leon Shenandoah and others that were nearly laid out using clean typography on large white celing panels dropping from the ceiling at various angles providing interesting geometry. And below dozens of ottomans provided comfortable seating for listening and watching live music performance; or for simply reading verse on the panels above. I was especially taken back by this from Rumi:  


Listen, and feel the beauty of your separation,
the unsayable absence.
There is a moon inside every human being.
Learn to be companions with it.

Give more of your life to this listening.

As brightness is to time,
so you are to the one who talks
to the deep ear in your chest.

I should sell my tongue and buy a thousand ears
when that one steps near and begins to speak.

— Rumi (1207 – 1273)

The performance by a group of young and passionate musicians was led by drummer Zach Harmon, who I understand penned a number of the compositions the quartet played this late Friday night, though for the last number Harmon’s roommate, Bobby Wilmore stepped in added flair to the percussion by banging out on the congas. I learned that most of the band hadn’t played those tunes before. With eyes glued to his music stand guitarist Perry Smith fooled me. Blending improvisation tightly to the complex rhythm and time signatures, Smith seemed to get lost as he displayed his mastery of the six-strings. Without an official band name, I referred to them as Zach Harmon’s All Stars as the crowd stuck around for the obligatory and well-deserved praise and thanks.IMG_0089 - Version 2.jpg

Zach Harmon’s All Stars
Blue Whale, Los Angeles, April 23, 2010

Zach Harmon, Drums
Perry Smith, Guitar
Josh Nelson, Piano
Hamilton Price, Bass
Bobby Wilmore, Congas (special guest)

Blue Whale owner, Jun, explained to me that he’d been open less than a year. A competent chef (I didn’t get to sample, but I’m told) combined with great music and word of mouth that spreading nearly as fast as California wildfires in the fall have kept a steady, loyal and growing crowd. If you find yourself in Downtown Los Angeles waiting on a train, or just looking for great live jazz, head over to Blue Whale. Trust me, it’s worth the nominal cover charge to see talent this good up close and personal.

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Check out all my photos from Blue Whale & All The Musicians

I understand some of these musicians play in different groups at Blue Whale often. Even better the sweet and sexy bartender, Ava Gaudet, a Rhode Island transplant via Manhattan, revealed she sings and has a band. With pop and soul leanings, her sultry voice sometimes is as seductive as her smile. She and her husband are working on her debut album. She’s hot. You can check out her website and listen to her music on her MySpace page.

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As the clock slipped past 2AM I bid Jun, Ava, Chris and Zach farewell, promising to revist Blue Whale sometime soon and made way back to Union Station pausing to reflect on the static LA buildings silhouetted against a stark yet slowly moving blue sky.

When I arrived back at the station my bus was waiting, I boarded the bus and joined the other half-dozen and half awake passengers and slouched into the seat. Somewhere around the 101 and the 5 Freeway I must’ve dozed. I don’t know how long it took, but seemed almost minutes later when the bus driver shook me awake. “Hey!” he said, “this is your stop.”

I got home just after 5am and just before Sunday’s sun peaked out to greet the night. Had I made that train earlier I’d been in bed but would’ve missed out on Blue Whale.

I guess getting stuck in Los Angeles was bound to happen. Perfect for this sometimes nomadic adventurer, because the adventure starts when things stop going as planned.