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The great Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that traveling is a fool's paradise; that no matter where a person journeys in search of intoxicating beauty, he finds the same sad self from which he fled.
Me -- well, I haven't had a vacation since November, so just about anyone's paradise would be fine. Unfortunately, my current schedule doesn't allow for such indulgence, and my self, sad or otherwise, will remain right here at my desk. Which is why I was thrilled when my Uncle Jim invited me to join him during an eight-hour layover at San Francisco International Airport. Schedule be damned, I figured: If I couldn't go anywhere, I could at least squeeze in an afternoon of simulated travel.
Oddly enough, the airport has always been one of my favorite parts of vacationing. I enjoy the hustle, the bustle, the excitement of a journey about to begin, the maddening delays, the crushing sense of helplessness. And, as it turns out, Jim is one of my favorite uncles, a warmhearted soul who signs his e-mails with an always well-meant "Peace." An English teacher/tennis coach at Chaminade-Julienne High School in Dayton, Ohio, he was returning from a 12-day trip to South Korea, where he'd spent 3 1/2 years in the Peace Corps in the 1970s. Perfect, I figured -- I could do a little foreign correspondence and catch up on family business while treating him to some of SFO's fine cuisine.
Setting off on a sweltering summer afternoon, I parked on scenic Level 2 of the airport parking lot and made my way quickly to customs, where tall, blond Europeans stood shoulder-to-shoulder with stiff-turbaned Sikhs. I could almost hear the strumming of Indian sitars, and see the midnight sun circling slowly over Lappish plains. By God, if I couldn't go anywhere, it was as if by some miracle the whole world had come to me.
Jim and I made our way along the arrivals sidewalk as the cars and buses and cabs jostled one another like bulls in the hot Pamplona sun. Inside, the departures terminal was a bit more tranquil, possessing the cool, quiet aura of Notre Dame. But when Jim checked in, he found he was able to get on an earlier flight, reducing his layover to just under an hour. Oh well, I figured, so much for my eight-hour vacation -- a 50-minute, 3 o'clock dinner would have to do.
Since it was located right next to the gate from which Jim's flight would be departing, we chose the Bayview Restaurant ("Chinese and Italian Specialties"), a vast oasis of calm marked by potted plants and a fake carnation on every table. After procuring seats with sweeping views of the tarmac, we eased back and let soft, classical music soothe Jim's travel-weary soul. In the distance, I could see a thin, blue sliver of bay topped by a smoggy, yellow haze. I knew I should have brought my camera, but as they say -- it's the memories that count.
A lot has changed in South Korea since Jim left 22 years ago, he informed me as we scanned a menu divided into two categories: North Beach Highlights and Chinatown Favorites. Back in the '70s, the highway system was just beginning to take shape, and televisions were the hot item to acquire. Now, freeways run through most of the country, and cell phones are all the rage. OK, I figured, that's enough foreign corresponding: Jim's flight was leaving in 40 minutes.
We began with a bottle of Fetzer Sundial chardonnay ($22), a rich, dry, fruity wine into whose bottle our waiter inserted a thin piece of aluminum before filling our glasses. When we asked what this miraculous device might be, he told us it was a "no-drip pourer." Ah, but travel does expand the mind.
For appetizers, we sampled both ends of the Bayview's multinational spectrum. Though the breaded, deep-fried butterfly shrimp ($8.50) with sweet and sour sauce were disappointing, having a decidedly fish stick-like flavor, I was definitely impressed with the bruschetta ($4.50), two monstrous hunks of focaccia bread topped with tomatoes, black olives, basil, and Parmesan cheese. Even more impressive, however, were the pot stickers ($4.95), thin-wrappered, pan-fried dumplings filled with ground pork and served with a tangy soy vinegar sauce. If only we had such delights back in San Francisco, I lamented.
As we waited for our entrees, Jim told me more about Korea: High-rises tower over once-rural landscapes, coffee shops have largely replaced the traditional tea rooms, and consumption of alcohol is in many ways the national sport. My kind of country, I remarked, as I poured us each another glass of drip-free chardonnay. When selecting our entrees, we abandoned the multicultural theme and dined strictly Italian. Jim enjoyed his garlic shrimp pasta ($11.95), a collection of hulking, juicy crustaceans sautéed in garlic, olive oil, and white wine and served over a bed of rich fettuccine Alfredo. I chose the fresh salmon pasta ($13.50), poached, flaked salmon and fresh vegetables (broccoli, zucchini, shreds of carrot) sautéed in white wine and served over linguine with "naked sauce." The salmon was perfectly done -- light, tender, juicy, fresh -- and the vegetables were pretty tasty as well. As for the naked sauce, it was so light, so delicate, so nearly invisible, it was like my linguine wasn't wearing anything at all.
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