Top of the Mark Holiday Drinks

Hopkins Hotel Lobby

After attending the unveiling of the Gingerbread House at The Fairmont, I visited the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins Hotel.  My best friend Wendy and I were advised by friends to stop by their penthouse restaurant aptly named Top of the Mark.

Candy Mansion 01

Located directly across the street from the Fairmont in Nob Hill, The Mark Hopkins hotel is named for one of the founders of the Central Pacific Railroad.  In 1875, Mr. Hopkins built his wife Mary her dream house: a lofty Victorian mansion complete with turrets, gingerbread trim, and a built-in pipe organ.  Created by visual merchandising students from The Academy of Art San Francisco, is a quarter-scale model of the famed mansion completely made out of candy.

Candy Mansion 02

Sadly, Mark Hopkins would never see the elaborate abode.   He passed away shortly before the home was completed in 1878.  His widow, Mary, moved into the  forty room mansion residing there for three years, then relocating to Massachusetts.  She developed a close relationship with her mansion’s interior decorator, Edward Searles.   The two were married in 1887.  This created a scandal of the era as Edward was much younger than Mary – twenty years younger.  After Mary’s passing in 1891, Edward donated the Hopkins Mansion to the San Francisco Art Association.

Candy Mansion 04

The Hopkins Mansion had a grand, but brief life.  In 1893, it became the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art, its vast rooms now being used as galleries, classrooms and studios.  It stayed a creative conservatory until 1906, when it’s demise came about in a fire resulting from the infamous earthquake of that same year.  Less than a year later, a temporary structure was erected in its place by the Art Association.  It was also discovered that an enormous water reservoir was directly underneath the house.

Candy Mansion 03

In 1910, hotel investor and engineer George D. Smith purchased the land.  He tore down the temporary structure and begin creating a luxury hotel, The Mark Hopkins, which was completed in 1926.  In 1939, Mr. Smith decided to convert the eleven-room penthouse in a skyline lounge called Top of the Mark.   Situated on the 19th floor, the restaurant boasts spectacular views of the city and amazing martinis.

Mark View 02

The view above is right outside the elevators on the 19th floor.

Mark View 03

This was the view right next to our table.   Just exactly how is The Mark Hopkins an example of good feng shui?  First off, we have the spectacular views from every window.  Peaceful landscapes are some of the best examples of feng shui art, and here we have aristocratic cityscapes as far as the eye can see, with hills in the distance.  Simply breathtaking.  Next there is the flow of architecture.  In cities with good macro feng shui, most of the buildings rise and diminish in size gradually, thus supporting a natural, calm flow of energy over and around the structures.  San Francisco does this for the most part.  While the Mark Hopkins does stand out from the crowd (pun intended), there are enough tall buildings situated close enough that the energy flow is beneficial and auspicious, not jarring and uncomfortable as in other highrises.

Top of the Mark Cocktails

Our table was near the half-moon bar on the far side of the lounge.  Of the extremely vast list of martinis offered, we chose to be festive and stick with their holiday options:  The Twelve Days of Christmas.   Wendy went with the Ten Lords a-Leaping, a mixture of cranberry juice, vanilla vodka, Chambord and fresh raspberries.  Sensational and sophisticated.  I opted for the Four Calling Birds.  Comprised of Beefeater Gin, creme de banana, and Galliano, this drink was heavy on another ingredient – grapefruit juice.  I’m not a fan of grapefruit, but I thought it worked in this libation.  Refreshing and tropical.  On a separate visit, my friend Amy tried their Nine Ladies Dancing, which she said was amazing.   These drinks are available through January 1st.

Mark View 01

For more information on Top of the Mark, and a complete list of hours and holiday events, please visit their virtual advent calendar here:  http://www.intercontinentalsanfrancisco.com.customers.tigertech.net/ICHotelsSF/TOTM/2013-HOLIDAYS/events.html

And to all of my readers out there, I wish each and every one of you a wonderful and highly auspicious New Year.  2014 holds some great things in store for all of us!

Kittens on Snowy Wall

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Gingerbread at the Fairmont

Fairmont Entrance

Never before have I stepped inside a house comprised mostly of gingerbread – yes,  gingerbread.  Every year, the legendary Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco transforms its lobby into a holiday paradise.  This includes the annual construction of a grand Victorian manor of gingerbread, icing, and other materials (some edible, some not).  I had the fortune to visit the Fairmont for the Official Opening of the Gingerbread House on November 30th.

Gingerbread House

Standing twenty-two feet high and twenty-three feet long, the Mansard style home almost touches the lobby ceiling.  Feeling very much like Hansel from the famed Grimm’s tale, I walked through the doorway of the impressively festive abode.

Gingerbread House Tree

Through the front windows of the house, one can see a room in Santa’s Workshop, everything the right size for elves.  A small lighted tree illuminates the front, with a four-car train traveling the surrounding track.

Gingerbread House Second Story

The second floor of the home boasts a larger tree, elaborate lights, and a roof with a widow’s walk.  Is that Santa I see upon the chimney?

Gingerbread House Detail

I love the attention to detail the home was given.  Thick icing in shades of green, red and white frame the windows.  Unlike most gingerbread houses, there was a surplus of edible building materials for the guests at the event.  One could eat the cake, and have it too, so-to-speak.   I was able to sample some and it was sheer holiday perfection.  It went amazing well with the hot chocolate that was also being passed out.  Notice another view of the elfin workshop through the window.

Gingerbread House Back Entrance

The back entrance to the house opens onto the Fairmont’s Laurel Court Restaurant and Bar.  They are hosting a Gingerbread Tea Service on the weekends through December 15th, and then every day between December 16th through December 29th.  For more information regarding the Gingerbread Tea, please visit the Fairmont website:  http://www.fairmont.com/san-francisco/promotions/gingerbread-house/

Gingerbread House Nutcracker

A life-size tall Nutcracker has his own room in the tower of the home.  I estimate him to be about five feet tall.

Ice Nutcracker

A Nutcracker carved of ice was on display for the opening.   Beautiful and exquisite.

Nutcracker Collection

On loan from the San Francisco Ballet is the Molinari Family Nutcracker Collection, on display throughout the holidays.  Which nutcracker is your favorite?

In fact, there is even a friendly competition between The Fairmont and the Westin St. Francis, as to who has the better gingerbread creation.  I haven’t seen the other house, but it is much smaller in size and more castle-like.  As for feng shui purposes, The Fairmont’s Gingerbread House creates a full-fledged environment.  How, exactly, is this specific gingerbread house good feng shui?  Well, unlike most gingerbread constructions, one can actually walk through this one (they are typically much smaller).  The house is also structurally sound.  Following building codes, a wood frame acts as skeletal support, with the gingerbread and other materials then applied.  And then there is the smell.  The aroma of gingerbread fills the lobby’s environment.  This fosters a sense of festive holiday cheer.  And the closer one is to the house, the stronger the fragrance.

Fairmont Tree and Santa

The new addition this year to the house was the Gingerbread Doghouse.  Located over in the kid’s section of the event, I was unable to get a good photo of it due to the crowd.  This area was ideal for kids to make their own fanciful buildings and drop off letters to Santa Claus in his designated mailbox.  However, he was there in person if one’s Christmas List needed immediate attention.   A beautiful tree takes center stage in front of the main entrance.  Decorated in golds, silvers and cobalt, it harmonized perfectly with the gilded resplendence of the lobby.

Fairmont Mirror Bird

I loved the carvings on the mirrors and walls of the entry hall.  Above is a close-up of the birds attached to the golden mirrors that hang throughout.  Simply stunning.

Fairmont Reindeer

Topiary sculptures covered in lights adorn the roof the lobby’s front desk.  The Gingerbread House will be on display through January 1st.

The Fairmont Hotel San Francisco

950 Mason Street (Nob Hill), San Francisco, California 94108  

415 772 5000

http://www.fairmont.com/san-francisco/promotions/gingerbread-house/

Fairmont Carollers

Samovar

Samovar and Tree

In addition to being a feng shui consultant, food and wine connoisseur, and writer, I also hold a BFA in Theater Performance.  A few years back, I was in a production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya when I first heard of an intriguing item called a samovar.  For those unacquainted with the term, a samovar is a large metal or brass urn  with a spigot, used to boil water or tea.   Of Russian origin, they first hit households around the 1820’s, gaining quickly in popularity,  Nearly every Victorian home in Russia possessed one.  Although the originals used coal to heat the water, modern-day versions are electric.  In Uncle Vanya, it is mentioned directly by the playwright in Act I, and in most productions used as a set piece during the scenes that take place in colder months.  (The production I was in sadly did not have one.)  Having only seen pictures online of this vintage kitchen appliance, I was surprised to find a tea house in San Francisco named for this very illusive item.

Samovar Signage

Samovar has three different tea lounges located throughout San Francisco.  I frequent the one bordering the Castro (pictured above).  My best friend Wendy and I came here for an incredible brunch.   One can order items individually, or one can do a tea service,  We both went with the British Tea Service, which was the most “brunchy” of the options.

English Tea Service

We each received a small tray with a steaming pot of their Breakfast Blend Black Tea, a stimulating and robust brew that was incredibly delicious.  This also included honey, cream, and coconut nectar.  The evaporated coconut palm nectar is the brown granules that look like brown or unrefined sugar, but it’s actually healthier for you.  Imported from farmers in Bali, Indonesia, coconut palm nectar is the sap of the coconut plant dehydrated into crystals.  The result is coconut palm sugar which is low on the glycemic index, and full of potassium and micro-nutrients.  It can be substituted for table sugar and in baking.  I found it to be just as sweet as sugar, and went perfectly with the Breakfast Blend.

Tea Service Caddy

The food for the tea service was presented on a three-tiered tray.  (I think I need to invest in one of these for my own home use.)

Quiche and Salad

A savory and mouthwatering vegetable quiche was presented alongside a salad with mixed greens.  Their quiche selection changes somewhat depending on the season.  I loved every bite.  The salad had a pleasing vinaigrette with complimented the quiche perfectly.

Oat Scone and Cream

Cherry Oat Scone – A decadent scone with oats throughout, served with preserves and clotted cream.   I could consume one of these every day.  It was fluffy and not overly dry as scones can sometimes be.  Samovar uses only the evaporated coconut nectar for their baking (there is no refined sugar in any of their baked items).   The amount of cream-to-scone was the ideal ratio, and really made the whole meal truly British.

Fresh British Fruit

An offering of fresh fruit concluded the feast, and accompanied the aristocratic scone ideally.

Asian Statue in Niche

The environment of Samovar is one of peace and contentment.  Choice pieces of art, like the elegant statue above, grace  the room, providing a sense of beauty and culture.  The statue is also a brilliant example of the earth element, due to its earthen material.

Samovar Curtains

Billowy curtains shield patrons from the sun’s rays, and help to foster a more intimate atmosphere between seating arrangements.  I also love the lantern in the window, and the high ceilings that allow chi to move freely throughout the space.

Restroom and Curtains

I really like how Samovar has concealed the bathroom with bamboo.  One knows it’s a bathroom, but it doesn’t feel like one is sitting near a bathroom.  I also like the further use of curtains to conceal unsightly storage.

Red Brick Wall and small Samovar

The elements of fire, earth, and metal are in perfect harmony here.  The red of the walls, the brick and the smaller, metal samovar coexist in a beneficial manner because each of these elements feed into one another.

There are many health benefits to drinking black tea.  Of the three main caffeinated tea categories, black tea Samovar Menu Flowerhas far less caffeine that its green or white counterparts.  The low amounts of caffeine found in tea can help stimulate blood flow to the brain without overcompensating the heart, which helps to increase energy levels.  And, unlike coffee, tea releases it’s caffeine slowly over time rather than all at once.  Black tea also contains L-theanine, an amino acid that helps one to focus and relax.  Polyphenols in black tea, which contain antioxidants, help oral and heart health, and may aid in the prevention of certain cancers when consumed on a regular basis.

Samovar also has a highly impressive website and blog.  In addition to having vast amounts of tea information, they also have a terrific online store where one may purchase any of their teas, as well as tea accessories (the teapot, tray, teacup and coconut nectar crystals pictured in the tea service can all be purchased).  They also have “tea gurus” who offer private tea classes.  The lounge has limited seating; I suggest making reservations beforehand (but walk-ins are also welcome).  On my next visit to San Francisco, I plan on trying some of their medjool dates stuffed with chevre cheese (Wendy swears by them), and one of their tantalizing rice bowls.  Until then, I will drink tea here in Los Angeles, read some Chekhov, and long for that delicious oat scone.

Samovar Storefront

Samovar Tea Lounge:  Mission/Castro

498 Sanchez Street, San Francisco, CA 94114

415 626-4700

Hours:  Daily 10:00 am – 10:00 pm

http://www.samovarlife.com/

Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree…

Christmas Tree Adorned with Lighted Candles

Since I was a child, one of my favorite holiday activities has been to decorate the Christmas Tree.  The days leading up to Christmas, I would take my sleeping bag and curl up in front of its protective branches, completely mesmerized by the twinkling lights and shiny ornaments until I drifted off to sleep.  As an adult, I don’t really do this so much, but the aesthetic beauty of Christmas Trees continues to enchant me.   For centuries, people have decorated their homes with healthy branches that remained green throughout winter.  To celebrate the Winter Solstice, the pagans in early Europe would decorate  their homes with boughs of fir, spruce and pine.  Druid priests in Celtic England would decorate their houses and temples with evergreen as a symbol of eternal life.  (Only branches were used, though, and never the whole tree, as that would have been too destructive for their tastes.)  The citizens of ancient Egypt would fill their homes with palm fronds to commemorate resurrection and rebirth.  But it was the Greeks and Romans who thought to decorate these branches, adorning them with bits of metal and religious icons.

Victorian Christmas Tree and NativityThe Germans were the ones responsible for bringing the whole tree inside the house, using fruit and candles as the main decorations.  There were many objections to the use of the Christmas Tree as part of the holiday celebration.  Many religious leaders and pious followers felt the symbol of the tree was far too pagan and unholy to use in Christian-based religions.  Despite these objections, Queen Victoria and her husband, German born Prince Albert, loved Christmas Trees.  They began to gain popularity, and by the late Victorian Era, they could be seen everywhere.  The Europeans preferred their trees to be three to four feet tall, whereas Americas liked theirs to reach floor to ceiling.

From a feng shui standpoint, there are many reasons why people are attracted to the beauty of The Christmas Tree.  For one, all five of the elements are represented.  Wood is represented by the tree itself.  Fire is symbolized by the glowing lights.  Metal and earth comprise most of the ornaments.  As for water, if one’s tree is living, then there is usually a water source at the base.  However, if the three is faux, then shades of blue can be symbolic of the water element.  Indeed, the use of color can work for all the elements here.   Another alluring aspect of the tree is the shape.  In feng shui, triangles are representative of fire, which humans are drawn to.  Most Christmas trees are triangle in shape.  The lights are also another fire aspect of the tree that beguile the beholder.  Not to mention the various kind of ornaments that adorn the branches – of which there is there is an endless variety.

Peacock Tree 08

Above are some photos of my Christmas Tree this year.  I went with a Victorian Peacock theme (I like peacocks).  One thing I use in decorating my Christmas Tree every year is fruit.   I have a collection of faux red apple ornaments (not pictured), as well as faux pears (which can be seen on the tree).  Faux fruit works far better than the real thing, as they tend to be heavy on the branches, and can become rotten, causing all kinds of issues.  Other examples of faux fruit I’ve seen have been glass strawberries, wax fruit and berries of all kinds, and red beads (these look like cranberries from a distance)  But if you want something edible on the tree, the fastest and easiest thing to add would be candy canes.  I do advise keeping them in their wrapping, however, to keep them fresh.  And then, there are some trees that are completely edible in of themselves.

Christmas Tree Crudite

Chef, author and spokesperson Jeanne Benedict created this amazing Christmas Tree Crudite  for LIVE with Regis and Kelly in 2009.  In addition to all of the colorful, edible vegetables, the base is made out of two cabbages.  The complete directions on how to make this stunning tree are located here:  http://www.jeannebenedict.com/recipes/christmas-tree-crudite/

Christmas Tree Rolls

Taste of Home has a tantalizing tree made from cinnamon buns.  I would play with colored frosting and tinted sugars to enhance the display.   Direction available here:  http://www.tasteofhome.com/Recipes/Christmas-Tree-Rolls

Christmas Tree Cake BC

Betty Crocker, than name we know and love, has several Christmas Tree inspired treats.  My favorite is the Christmas Tree Cake.  Although I would tint the batter green.  The complete recipe and cutting instructions are located here:  http://www.bettycrocker.com/recipes/christmas-tree-cake/6a22dadd-3b92-40b5-a5a9-df209ff3ef68

Lemon Basil Tree

Ms. Crocker also has a delicious looking Lemon Basil Tree I want to experiment with.  Although I’d add a couple of black olives and diced tomatoes for color.   Here’s the recipe:  http://www.bettycrocker.com/recipes/lemon-basil-tree/5fe297f9-df00-432e-8079-e7a8f1fc8a31

Cookie Jigsaw

Delish.com and Good Housekeeping have revived a mid-century favorite:  The Cookie Jigsaw.   Originally published in the December 1965 edition of Good Housekeeping, this nouveau take on the classic sugar cookie has each cookie as a puzzle piece for the celebratory Christmas Tree and a starry night sky.   I’d like to try this recipe for Easter as well, perhaps with the image of a giant Easter Egg.  The complete recipe is here:  http://www.delish.com/recipefinder/cookie-jigsaw-1658

As for the location of the Christmas Tree in the home, there are many options.  Each ideal location for the tree is different with each environment.  The main tree should be put in the living room or parlor, or a large room where the home’s loved ones and guests can congregate easily.   Unless you’re on a higher floor, avoid putting the tree directly in front of a window, as this can sometimes lure thieves to break into the home.  The best areas for the tree are the East, Southeast and South.  East is the area of each room that symbolizes family.  The associated element here is wood, and its associated color green, making it perfect for any plant, especially the Christmas Tree.  Southeast, being the area of prosperity and abundance, and south, being the area of fame, are also good options.  However, the southwest could also work, being the area symbolic of love, if your tree happens to be predominantly red, pink, or white.  As for choosing real or faux trees, they both have their advantages and disadvantages.  Real trees offer a stronger wood element to the environment, and give off a purely festive aroma of nature.  The water element is also present here to sustain the tree.  Faux options, however, last much longer than real trees, and some have bendable branches, creating a perfect display for ornaments.  I inherited my family’s old Christmas Tree years ago, which was originally bought back in 1992, and it still looks just as good as when it was first purchased.   I also advise that one keeps a close eye on their pets (and the occasional willful child).  Sometimes the branches and ornaments prove too much of a temptation to play with.

I realize that these recipes and tips are far too late in the season to be currently applied, but every morsel of information can be put towards next years Christmas celebration.  It was my goal to get this article finished weeks ago (and not on Christmas Day), but I got distracted by many a holiday party.  I would like to wish everyone reading this a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a Festive and Joyous New Year!

New Year's Cherub in Lily Pond

Victorian Los Olivos

The 1880s were a time of tremendous growth in California, with people immigrating here from the East, as well as various parts of Europe.  One Easterner who believed his future was in California was Alden March Boyd.  Due to health issues, he was forced to drop out of college.  He visited Europe, as well as various locales in The Sunshine State before purchasing a small ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley.  Wishing to improve the quality and landscape of his home, he planted an estimated five thousand olive trees, calling his estate Rancho de Los Olivos.  The name had a nice sound to it, and when the Pacific Coast Railway completed their line extension through the area in 1887, they decided to call the town Los Olivos.  Although more commonly known nowadays for its wineries rather than olives, the picturesque town is thriving with tourists and elegant architecture.  Most Victorian dwellings have high ceilings – usually around 9′ to 10 tall’.  The added ceiling height helps to regulate indoor temperatures.  It also, from a feng shui standpoint, helps to better circulate the flow of chi (energy) within the indoor environment.   Many of the new condo and apartment buildings being constructed today have returned to using historic design elements – including 9′ ceilings.   Those Victorians knew what they were doing.   Most modern ceiling heights are 8″, which is not bad.  But 9″ is more optimal for chi flow.

On my recent trip to Los Olivos, I visited the Qupe/Verdad/ Ethan Tasting Room.  Housed in a beautiful Victorian style building (above), the wines here were rich and luscious. This is a family business, with the patriarch of the family, Bob Linquist, as creator of Qupe Vineyards (pronounced cue-pay), while his wife Lousia makes the Verdad label, and his son Ethan makes – you guessed it – the Ethan label.   As impressed with the wine as I was, I was really taken with the layout of the tasting room.  They use a variety of vintage design styles here, especially focusing on that of Gustave Stickley.   A furniture designer, Stickley visited Europe in 1898, where he was introduced to the Arts and Crafts movement of the era.  The Arts and Crafts movement was somewhat of a rebellion against mass production, focusing more on products that were hand constructed by small groups or individuals rather than in factories.  The design style features simplistic lines and influences from natural surroundings.  Here at Qupe, it can be seen in many ways, from the classic mission style furniture, to the elegant Qupe motif of a poppy.   As you can see, wood and fire are the dominate elements used in the tasting room decor.  Nostalgic reproduction lamps act as a perfect example of fire energy, with the light green walls representing wood.  The wood furniture and bar are beautiful to behold.  I also really liked the carved front door, and the side table that uses a wine barrel end as its top surface.

As I meandered through the space, enjoying the tastings of the select wines I sampled, I noticed a bookshelf of wine.  I immediately felt comfortable and at home.  Of the wines I had, my two favorites were the Verdad 2009 Tempranillo, and the Verdad 2007 Tempranillo.  Both held a mellow and spicy appeal that warmed my soul.   A bottle of the latter came home with me.  The Qupe 2010 Viognier was also intriguing.

A private  chamber in the back provides more intimate tastings on the weekends.  Keeping true to the Arts and Crafts theme, I noticed a cunning wine rack made from barrel slates and reclaimed wood.  Not only it is green in its design, I’m guessing it’s also handcrafted locally, and fits in perfectly with the Stickley style.  I would have this in my home.

In feng shui folklore, the poppy is a symbol of romance and loyalty between lovers.   Displaying two together, especially in hues of red or orange, can help to draw romance to an area.  Poppies also symbolize sleep and rest.  Upon the suggestion of wine connoisseur Ann Johnson, Bob Linquist settled on the poppy motif in the window above to symbolize Qupe Wines.  Found in a vintage design book of the Stickley School of Design, the motif was meant to be embroidered on bed linens to help one sleep.   And Qupe is the Chumash word for poppy.    The elegant poppy motif is also on their over-sized wine glasses, which are available for purchase, or as a gift with a new wine club membership.

If you happen to be in the Los Olivos area, I highly suggest visiting the white Victorian house of Qupe/Verdad/Ethan Wines.  Unlike poppies, their wine will not put you to sleep – but could help to transport you to a more nostalgic time.

Qupe /Verdad / Ethan Tasting Room

2963 Grand Ave, Los Olivos, CA 93441

805 686-4200

Hours:  Tasting room open daily 11:00 to 5:00

http://qupe.com/