Saturday, June 28, 2014

Our European Adventure, Part 3 - Tuscany: Pisa & Florence!

It's funny. As I said in my last Europe blog, Tuscany was my absolute favorite place of the trip. Strangely though, when asked what the worst place of the trip was, the answer would also be located within Tuscany. Where is that, might you ask? That would have to be Pisa.

I'll never forget...the street sellers chasing us through the parking lot

After leaving the castle in Chianti, we began our drive to Florence. Before arriving in Florence, however, we decided to detour to Pisa. As we passed Florence and got on the tollway for Pisa, we accidentally drove through the wrong toll lane. At the time, we didn't know what that meant. Were we going to be chased after by the Italian police for not paying the toll? Were we going to get a ticket? We really had no idea what to expect. As we kept driving, nothing happened and we relaxed. When we got to the toll exit, we tried to go through the correct lane but suddenly realized what we did wrong: we never got a tollway ticket to insert into the machine. Whoops. As we tried to insert money, and it wouldn't accept it, a bunch of cars began pulling up behind us. Finally, Gwith pushed the help button and luckily the person on the line spoke English. They explained that since we didn't have the ticket, we would be charged €25 on our credit card. After numerous honks from the row of cars behind us, we were finally let through.

As we continued our drive, Gwith realized the gas meter was running lower and it was time to stop at a gas station. Unfortunately for us, we had no idea how to use the self service station, or which gas we needed. A friendly Italian motorcyclist came over to us and tried to help as best he could. He didn't speak English but he was able to point out which type of gas our car used. After he left, Gwith fiddled with the machine until he finally figured out how to use it. I took the opportunity of this stop to use the restroom at the station. The people in the store were really creepy and I was glad to get out of there quickly. Or at least as quickly as I could. I couldn't figure out how to use the bathroom key! It wouldn't turn, no matter how much I tried...and when I finally got it, I was almost stuck in the bathroom for good!

European Adventure Blog in Tuscany
European Adventure Blog in TuscanyIn retrospect, the creepy people should've been a warning for Pisa! When we arrived, we drove into a parking lot surrounded by street sellers. We kept driving towards the back of the lot to get away from them but as we parked, we could see one walking towards the car. We got out as quickly as we could. Unfortunately, we couldn't avoid him. We managed to continue walking, ignoring his efforts for conversation, and zigzagged our way out of the parking lot, past a large group of other street sellers. Once we were at the Leaning Tower of Pisa, it was cool. We had our fun taking photos with the tower and watching hundreds of other tourists doing the same. Was it worth the photo? Maybe. Maybe not. Basically, I'm glad I went because now I'll never how the urge to do it again. Before we left, we went into the McDonald's to use the restroom. To actually use it though, Gwith had to buy food to get the bathroom code. He wasn't exactly excited to eat McDonald's, because as he said, it tastes the same pretty much everywhere. Once we got back to the parking lot, Gwith stopped at the machine to pay. While we were standing there, the street seller approached us again, trying to sell us sunglasses. Gwith looked at him and told him he didn't need a pair. The man responded, "You have money for parking. You can buy these sunglasses." Gwith continued to shake his head and refuse. I clutched my purse and we walked back to the car, with the street sellers following behind. We were so relieved to get back into the car and leave for Florence!

I'll never forget...the amazing wines of Chianti

Our first night in Florence, we wandered to a local restaurant to eat dinner. Our dinner was mediocre but the real highlight was randomly meeting a couple from New York who knew an acquaintance of Gwith's from Auckland! It's crazy how small of a world it really is.

The hotel itself was quite strange. We stayed at Hotel Silla, and we're still convinced it was once a hospital and we were staying in the psychiatric ward. There were numerous alarming factors that led us to this conclusion. First of all, the layout of the Hotel screamed hospital. Secondly, the lock on the bathroom door had been removed. Thirdly, there was a public restroom in the corridor. Fourthly, there was a gate in front of the many steps to get down to our floor. Still not convinced? Here are some pictures:

Interesting hallways at Hotel Silla in Florence

Our hallway led us to a gate at the hotel in Florence.

Aside from the weird hotel layout, the people working there were at least friendly and I was pleased with how many gluten free options they provided me for breakfast!

The next morning, we headed out for our wine tour! We were thrilled to find out the tour guide was an American, only because we could actually understand her throughout the tour! Our tour group was full of very nice people as well and it was all around just a great, relaxing day. From the moment our tour begin, I could see Gwith's face light up with excitement. As our guide taught us about Chianti and the wines, I could practically feel Gwith soaking up every last bit of information.

The view from the second winery.
The first winery we visited had some of the best wines we had ever tasted. We ended up buying a bottle of the white wine, and in retrospect, I wish we had bought a bottle of our favorite red as well! We did take a picture of the bottles however, and got a information sheet for supplying the wines in our restaurant, Aroha. We are really hoping we will be able to provide some of these delicious wines! I could go on and on just about the wines but I can't forget the amazing cheeses and olive oil as well. I can not thank our guide enough for explaining the differences between real olive oil and the handful of fake olive oils sold in the USA. It was an eye opening experience for me and convinced me to find truly pure olive oils back home. It's appalling how many brands label themselves as "pure olive oil" but still use a mixture of olive oil and canola. Ironically, while Italian brands sold in Italy cannot get away with this, a large amount of the Italian brands exported to the USA, do. Here's a helpful tip for finding olive oil: Besides researching the brands, a pure olive oil should give you a fiery sensation in the back of your throat while tasting it.

While touring the winery, we learned about the use of sulfites in wine. While most wines already have natural sulfites from the grape skin, the wines sent to the USA have additional artificial sulfites added to preserve the wine longer. It was amazing to discover the difference between drinking wine in Italy versus back home. We had no next day headaches or sleepiness. The alcohol content was also lower and therefore, far less affecting. As a huge lightweight who can't normally go beyond half a glass, I'm living proof of this. I tried multiple wines at the winery and found myself doing okay.

Visiting the butcher legend, Dario Cecchini, in ChiantiIf the day wasn't already going well, our next stop made Gwith's trip complete. For lunch, we stopped at a butchery owned by famous butcher, Dario Cecchini. Besides being known for his skills and restaurants, he has also trained Gordon Ramsey and Jamie Oliver. Gwith was ecstatic when he got to meet him and take a picture with him. The real highlight though for him was the lard Dario made. It was creamy, buttery, and full of flavor. Seriously, Gwith is still talking about it even now. Ask him what the highlight of the trip was for him? He'll say "lard".

The following winery was absolutely beautiful. The surrounding scenery was breathtaking. While the wines at this location weren't nearly as good, we still enjoyed our time, nonetheless. Afterwards, our tour guide took us all to a small village to stretch our legs and walk around before heading back to Florence. There, Gwith and I wandered into a meat and cheese shop. Gwith's eyes widened with excitement when he saw all of the meat hanging from the ceiling. I, however, was most excited about the stonewalled cheese cave downstairs. It shouldn't be a surprise that we ended up buying some things while we were there!

A beautiful sunset begins to set over Florence.
After arriving back in Florence, we walked along the river during sunset to find Florence's most popular gluten-free restaurant, Ristorante Ciro & Sons. It also turned out to be Florence's most popular restaurant in general. People were lined up at the door just waiting to get in! We were starving but it was worth the wait in the end. I got to enjoy gluten-free garlic bread and lasagna, while Gwith had a seafood pizza. For dessert, we shared lemon sorbet which was served inside a lemon. We also overheard a very interesting and um, inappropriate, conversation at the next table. I would share it on here but it's not exactly PG-13 material. It's questionable if it even falls under an R rating.

The next day, we were ready to leave Florence. Florence on the other hand, wasn't quite ready for us to leave. As we pulled onto the main street in our rental car, we discovered all of the main roads were blocked off for a race. Needless to say, our GPS wasn't happy and didn't understand the circumstances. As we tried finding a way out of the city, we stopped to ask a police officer where to go. Unfortunately, he didn't speak English well and directed us backwards. As we continued driving around confused, we found another police officer to ask who luckily spoke some English. She directed us on how to leave the city. Of course, this didn't stop the GPS from trying to tell us to turn around every chance it got. We thought detouring in LA was a challenge. Nothing beats trying to detour in a foreign city!

Quick Tips for Tourists Going to Pisa and Florence

• Don't go to Pisa.
• Okay. Go to Pisa if you really want the photo but please go with a group, and preferably, on a tour bus.
• Also, clutch your things while walking around Pisa and don't talk to strangers...unless they're tourists taking photos of each other.
• Stock up on Gluten-Free snacks in Florence, if you're GF of course! They have hundreds of tasty treats sold in the pharmacies.
• Do a wine tour and do it with this company, Tuscan Wine Tours. You won't regret it.
• My husband would not be please if I didn't write this, so I have to: try the lard.
• If you're gluten-free, going to Ristorante Ciro & Sons is a must. Be smarter than us though! Make reservations in advance if you'd like a gluten-free pizza. They need 24 hours notice. Most likely so the dough can rise to it's fluffy delicious self, like the pizzeria in Rome.
• Walk along the river at sunset. It's beautiful.

Next up on my European Adventure blogs: why Venice and Disneyland have similar qualities and why Milan is AMAZING and my husband should keep me away next time...

Our European Adventure Blogs
Part 3: Tuscany - Pisa & Florence! (Now Reading)
Part 4: Venice & Milan! (Coming Soon)
Part 5: Switzerland - Zurich & Lucerne (Coming Soon)
Part 6: The Magic of Paris (Coming Soon)
Part 7: Why the Hilton in Belgium Can't Get Customer Service Right (Coming Soon)

Friday, June 27, 2014

Aroha: Light Speed Ahead!

Big changes are now beginning at Aroha. During the week, our final permit was checked off, giving us the go ahead to continue and finish all of the construction! As of next week, we will be ordering our equipment.

Before the rest of the walls go up, we stopped by the restaurant with my parents and wrote our names on the inside of the wall, along with an "In loving memory..." for my grandpa and Gwith's mom. It's nice to know this will always be there, inside our restaurant. We are so grateful for all that Pa and Janet did for us and we know they would be proud. On another note, check out our beautiful artwork! Stick figure smiley faces and heart faces have been a long standing tradition in my family since as long as I can remember. It seemed only natural to draw them on the wall as well...and of course, we couldn't help but draw Willow too!

It's amazing how fast time has flown by. In just a few months, the place has gone from an empty space, to full framework, to plasterboards and soon enough, it will all be complete. It's crazy how in just a few days, the rest of the walls and the ceiling will be covered! Once it's finished, I will be posting photos of each of the steps!

This past week, Gwith and I finalized each of the menus and we are excited about our unique twists on a few Kiwi classics! We want to keep you guessing and in suspense until the restaurant opens, so we can't give anymore details beyond that. All I can say is though, the menu sounds delicious. We've also worked on plating styles (YES! I said we!). I'm still very excited that some of my styles will be at the restaurant. Honestly, since I'm not a chef, I didn't expect that. However, I sat down next to Gwith and started drawing some styles and he really liked them!

Other exciting news happened to us this week but we can't talk about it for another few weeks. It's incredible though and we are beyond flabbergasted about this opportunity!

Next week, Westlake Magazine hits local stores, offices, and hotels with our cover story! We can't wait to see what it looks like! If you live in an area that receives Westlake Magazine, be sure to check it out. If not, I think they also have an online version to view.

Time is moving fast now and in just a blink of an eye, we'll be opening. We are still expecting the first week of September but we'll officially announce a date as we get closer.

Switching topics from the restaurant, I'll give a short update too on one of our leisurely activities of the week! At the end of last week, my sister's fiancee, Miles, hosted an incredibly fun interactive murder mystery party! We searched the house for clues, trying to regain our memories, and figure out which one of us was the killer. The best part, however, had to be when Gwith, our friend Ben, and I were running around the backyard trying to escape being chased by a crazy person (aka my sister). When we heard a noise, Gwith ducked to the side of the house, hiding in the shadows, while Ben and I hid under a tree. Suddenly, we saw my dad walking by. Oddly, he looked straight at Ben and I, didn't see us, and continued to almost walk past Gwith too. Gwith, being the silly guy he is though, decided to jump out and scare my dad. Little did he know my dad was actually the killer of the evening! My dad taps Gwith, walks off, and Gwith sits on the ground. Ben and I came over to grab him, when he looks at us and says "I'm dead." Whoops. The rest of the evening, every time my dad tried to lure us away, we'd eye him and shake our heads. He had no idea we saw the whole thing go down! It was hilarious and way too much fun! Miles plans to eventually sell some of his murder mystery games. I will keep everyone updated on their availability in the future. They are great for parties and we may even host one at the restaurant someday!

Anyways, that's it for this week's update! Next week, the news and updates will be flowing as Aroha really begins to take shape! Tomorrow, I will be releasing Part 3 of my European Adventure blog, so please check it out when you get the chance!

Reserve Now

30990 Russell Ranch Rd Unit C, Westlake Village, CA 91362
© 2014 Aroha Restaurant.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Sims 4: What the $!%# Do You Mean There's No Toddlers??

I haven't talked about The Sims 4 for months because honestly, there hasn't been much to talk about. The Sims Team has been repeating the same "highlights" for months: intuitive facial molding, quick building, and...emotions! With the arrival of E3, fans were certain this meant new news and were full of excitement.

I for one have been playing the game since 2000, the year it first came out, when I was 9 years old. Since then, I've bought every base game, expansion pack, and stuff pack on the day of its release to complete my collection. With all of the latest Sims 4 news, you'd think I'd be jumping up and down ready for September. Instead, every piece of the latest news has been about constant disappointments of what's not in the game or has been removed.

It all started with the custom design color wheel and patterns. I loved this aspect in The Sims 3 but when it was announced that it wouldn't be in The Sims 4, I made my peace with it. It wasn't the *most* important thing to have in the game and in all honesty, it would probably make Create-a-Sim less glitchy.

Next, it was announced that the public spaces will not be able to be edited. This is disappointing as while you can still have community lots and venues, the public spaces are supposedly where all the action occurs. I can't say I was ecstatic when they announced the loading screens between locations either, but again, I decided to believe the game will work better and faster than The Sims 3 for this reason.

Last year, EB World sent subscribers and email referencing the ability to create apartments in The Sims 4. As of June 14th, it was confirmed that apartments will not be in the base game either. Honestly, as much as I'd like apartments, I didn't expect them to be in the base game.

Two of the next announcements made me mad. Last year, The Sims Official Magazine announced the ability for sims to finally buy their clothes. During the latest trend however of nixing ideas, that one got nixed as well. The Sims team also announced the Woohoo skill last year. It sounded hilarious and awesome but alas, has also been removed.

All of these things have added up and dwindled my excitement for the new game. However, none of them compare to yesterday's news. And I'm not talking about the "no pools, no swimwear", which does suck because that's been in the game since the original.

I'm talking about no toddlers. Okay, I get it. In the original sims, toddlers didn't exist either...but that's why The Sims 2 came out. The life stages. Families could finally grow. You could raise your sim from a baby to a toddler, to a child, to a teenager, to an adult. As the most popular reason behind the game, this was of course carried over into The Sims 3. If anything, fans were hoping for more life stages, not less. As a game that's focused on its life-like gameplay, removing a life stage is a huge step back. By the cryptic SimGuru twitter comments, we can only assume they plan to add toddlers in during a future expansion pack just to get more money out of the fans.

"@SimGuruGraham: There's nothing preventing adding additional ages as the game evolves. CASt is a good example of a feature that is not technically feasible to add post launch."

I'd buy the expansion pack for other reasons but I will not buy it for something that should've been in the base game.

the sims 4, no toddler
The Sims 3: Toddler
Maybe some fans out there don't care. I don't know. But a lot of the community is in an uproar. Some of my favorite gaming moments of the Sims are raising the adorable toddlers. Teaching them to walk, talk, and the adorable father-daughter cuddle photos that cover my Sim's living room wall. I love putting my toddler on the playground ride and my toddler refusing to get off. I love my sim holding her toddler in the water at the beach, while splashing and playing. I love when my toddler's older sibling sits on the ground for a game of peek-a-boo or a hug. And I love when my sim reads to her little toddler on the floor. The amount of cuteness and joy the toddlers bring to the game has actually been incredible. To remove such an important life stage is baffling.

sims 4, no toddlers
The Sims 3: Toddler and Parent
I would consider myself a long standing fan of the Sims series. However, with this latest toddler news, I'm incredibly angry. This will probably be the first time in my life that I don't get the new game. It feels weird. This game has been a part of my life for so long. Buying it on the day of release has even been a tradition. But that's it. They've announced far too many disappointing things for the game and no toddlers takes the cake.

A tip for EA: Try announcing some good news, instead of just the same news, bad news, or saying "we can't discuss that yet". It might save a few fans...if there are any left.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Our European Adventure, Part 2 - Tuscany: Our Drive to Chianti!

If someone were to ask me where my favorite place on the trip was, it would hands down be in Tuscany. Away from all of the tourist infested areas and amongst the beautiful vineyards, you find yourself in an incredibly relaxing oasis.

Instead of taking the trains, we decided to rent a car and take the road trip of a lifetime as we drove from Rome to Lido di Tarquinia, Siena, Gaiole in Chianti, Pisa, Florence, Bologna, and Venice!

Lido di Tarquinia and Siena Memories
I'll never forget...driving through a private community and the wacky GPS

From the B&B in Rome, we had a taxi driver take us to the airport to pick up our rental car. For some reason, the driver could not figure out where the Hertz pickup was and dropped us off at a random, empty spot at the airport, and told us to squeeze down the almost nonexistent sidewalk to get to the elevator. Well, we got to the elevator and surprise, surprise. It was the janitor's elevator. After looking around confused, we decided to keep walking towards the main terminal. As we approached, we saw the actual elevator leading up to the Hertz dealership.

Luckily for us, Hertz accidentally gave away the cheap Volvo we had paid somehow, we ended up with the brand new Audi A5 with only 10 kilometers on the clock. Gwith was ecstatic! Along with the car, we also paid to rent a GPS. As it turned out, the Audi was one of the few cars they had already equipped with a GPS. We sat in the car and tried to figure out how to use it. First, I had to figure out how to change it to English which was surprisingly not an easy task! Even more shocking, was once I changed the language setting, we still couldn't figure out how to use it. Gwith started using a weird method of manually locating a random place on the map and selecting it. With this method, it didn't give us any instructions and I had to keep turning the dial just for it to track us! We selected Grosetto since it was half way to where we needed to go. As we left the parking lot, we stopped at a stop sign and the car shut off. I can safely say we will never buy a car that shuts off every time you stop. Because Gwith couldn't figure it out right away, he had to turn the car off and start it back up again. For the next few days, every time Gwith stopped, he would leave plenty of space between the cars so he could roll forward every few seconds!

As we drove out of Rome, we saw the beautiful farming landscape. It was great to leave the hustle and bustle of the city and really explore the rural country. FYI, driving in Italy is a very interesting and different experience, even for us LA drivers! Apparently it is entirely acceptable to drive between two lanes, as well as honk twice if you want to pass the slow poke in front of you...and amazingly, they will politely switch lanes when you honk!

At the private beach
One hour into the drive, we somehow decided to get brave and detour off the highway and search for the beach. We ended up in a small beachside community called Lido di Tarquinia. We are still pretty convinced it was a private community that we accidentally drove through. Why? Mostly because it was gated and as a car went through the gate, we just followed right along. Whoops. We realized after the fact but decided to keep on driving through the cute suburban community. We stopped in a small lot and walked onto what was most likely a private beach. The water temperature was perfect. I don't know about the other coastal locations in Italy but I have to say, we are spoiled with the 17 Mile Drive in California. Nothing compares to it. Not yet, anyways. After our sneaky excursion, we jumped back onto the highway and continued as we passed Grosetto. Realizing we now had no destination on the GPS (and it kept telling us to turn around!), I decided to start fiddling with it as we continued on the highway. After many attempts, I finally figured it out and was able to add our castle destination! The GPS also started showing us the actual path we needed to take and listing the directions. We were so happy that we weren't going to be confused the next few days!

Roaming the streets of Siena
About an hour from the castle, we stopped in Siena for a walk around the medieval town. Finding parking was confusing but we finally figured it out, purchased a map, and walked around. The medieval streets really pull you back in time. It was awesome walking along the cobblestones. Supposedly, cars aren't allowed within the town, except for those staying at hotels, and yet there was a large amount of cars constantly driving down the streets! I really do wish they didn't allow any cars within the town. It would make it far more mysterious. While walking around, we stopped and bought some gelato and then continued to look around. As the clouds rolled in though, we realized it was time to head off. After all, we didn't want to end up in a storm while driving in a foreign country! Luckily, the clouds never actually opened up.

Gaiole in Chianti Memories
I'll never forget...the beautiful Tuscan Castle

On the castle grounds - camera in the grass!

Arriving at the Castello di Spaltenna felt like arriving into a fairytale. Before we even got there, we were just surrounded by miles and miles of vineyards. The castle and its surrounding grounds took our breath away. It was a beautiful oasis in the middle of Tuscany and we couldn't believe we were only there for one night! We honestly did consider canceling our next hotel just to stay longer.

Gwith hung the camera from a tree knob!
Our room was lovely. It included an enclosed stone wall balcony and the most heavenly memory foam bed you could ever sleep on. Looking out the window, all you could see were the rolling hills for miles and down below, the fresh herb garden for the restaurant. After settling in, we headed out of the room to explore the endless grounds. As we wandered around and took photos, we had to get creative with the camera! At one point, Gwith even hung the camera from a tree knob and set it on the timer! The photo turned out fantastic! Who knew a tree could be such a great couples photographer? The other crazy spots he placed the camera on included one of the rolling hills, as well as a ledge with a water well on the other side. Somehow, the camera made it through all of our crazy antics and we ended up with some amazing photographs.

After our photofest, we wandered to the bar, which was located in an old stone cellar. Gwith got a red wine made by at the vineyard and I got a white wine. I'm not much of a red wine drinker (or at least I wasn't until this trip!), but even I thought the red wine he had tasted amazing. It was so relaxing sitting in the courtyard sipping our glasses of wine. The next morning, after the greatest night's sleep of our entire lives, I had a massage at the castle's spa. The castle was the most relaxing part of our entire trip. I still can't believe we were only there for one night! We will definitely be returning one day!

Quick Tips for Tourists Driving Through Tuscany

• The Italian drivers are insane - they drive between two lanes, they speed, and expect you to move to the next lane if they want to pass you.
• Drive like an Italian and you'll surprisingly feel a lot safer.
• Pay attention to the signs - certain signs warn you about upcoming speed traps (in Italian, of course!).
• There are toll booths everywhere. Make sure you go through the correct lane and grab the ticket otherwise you'll be charged through the roof!
• Staying in a castle is a must.
• Get creative with your camera but seriously, don't sue me if it breaks. I still think we got lucky...
• Visit Siena if you like medieval towns. It's awesome.
• Close your eyes. Relax. Open your eyes. Take in the amazing location you're in. No matter where you are in Tuscany, it's most likely the most beautiful place you'll ever be.

Next up on my European Adventure blogs: Why Pisa was terrifying and our wine tour from Florence was amazing! Plus: Detouring in a foreign country with a crazy GPS, is not all it's cracked up to be.

Our European Adventure Blogs
Part 3: Tuscany - Pisa & Florence!
Part 4: Venice & Milan! (Coming Soon)
Part 5: Switzerland - Zurich & Lucerne (Coming Soon)
Part 6: The Magic of Paris (Coming Soon)
Part 7: Why the Hilton in Belgium Can't Get Customer Service Right (Coming Soon)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Aroha Restaurant: We're Going to Be in Westlake Magazine!! (Plus: Some Major Changes and Ben's Birthday Surprise)

This is the first morning all week that we haven't had multiple meetings and appointments before noon! I'm so happy to be able to sit down and share with everyone the latest updates on the restaurant.

First of all, and this is probably the greatest news EVER, we're going to be on the back cover of Westlake Magazine for their July/August Food & Wine Edition, and have a two page spread about us and Aroha. We had our interview a couple of weeks ago and on Monday, we did our photo shoot at our restaurant and the Westlake Yacht Club.

I have to say this now: I felt like a supermodel by the time our amazing hair and makeup artist, Nicola Gerboc, was done! And major props to her for getting my hair to stay like it did! My hair normally hates me when I try to style it, so the fact that she got it to not only stay, but stay for hours and through the wind, is a major attest to her talent.

For the shoot, Gwith and I brought two outfits to switch between. I, of course, brought my new dress that I bought in Milan, as well as a beautiful yellow one from Cache. Our first stop for the shoot was at the Westlake Yacht Club. In my life, I've done three photo shoots prior to this: our engagement photos, my CD cover, and our wedding photos. This, though, was the very first time I experienced a shoot like this. Our photographer, Jane Gibson, would come over to me and pose with me to instruct Gwith and I on how to pose. We were constantly being directed in how to angle our shoulders and our heads for each shot. I felt like a model for the day and truly loved it. Poor Gwith though was having trouble dealing with the sun and the reflector. He has a terrible habit of sneezing from the sun. So, I'm sure half of the photos are of him with squinty eyes! Part of me is waiting to see the cover and see his eyes closed. I'm assuming that won't happen but you never know, right?

We haven't received the photos yet from the shoot, but Nicola did take some amazing shots from her phone!

There's a possibility we'll be doing a follow up article with the magazine once the restaurant in opened. We had so much fun doing this one and are excited to build a friendship with the magazine. For more information on Westlake Magazine, visit their website. The magazine reaches approximately 40,000 readers each month throughout the Conejo Valley and surrounding cities including Westlake Village, Calabasas, Hidden Hills, West Hills, Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks, Lake Sherwood, Hidden Valley and North Ranch Estates, Malibu, and other neighboring communities. Besides being available at multiple hotels and businesses throughout the areas, it can also be found at Gelson's, Barnes & Noble Bookstore, and various Ralph's and CVS stores within the area.

Aside from the fun photo shoot, we've been dealing with plenty of things for the restaurant as well. We met with the permit office on Tuesday and hopefully, by the end of this week, we will have our final permit done. Once that is finalized, the construction can really start moving forward and we can place an order for all of our equipment! Getting this permit will be a huge stress relief but it's also going to be a huge push towards our opening. Once we have it, there is literally nothing in our way between now and our currently planned, September opening.

Yesterday, we met with our landlord to discuss a few things, including the landscaping he will be doing outside the restaurant. Next week, we will be meeting with him and his landscaper to discuss the look of the entire outside. We are beyond honored to be included this decision. Tony is an awesome landlord and we are so lucky to have him. Currently, this is what the outside looks like:

Take a look, soak it in, because in a few months, it won't be remotely recognizable. I'm not going to spoil anything, but believe me when I say, it's going to be beautiful.

Outside of the restaurant, we somehow made time to see some friends, including our friend Ben, who we kidnapped for his 19th birthday yesterday. (HAPPY BIRTHDAY BEN!) Gwith seriously called him up and told him he had five minutes to get ready, before we picked him up, and took him to his favorite restaurant for lunch. Because he keeps thinking I'm going to post a photo of him on my blog, I thought it was time I finally did...and I've decided to post two just to make up for lost time.

Ben meeting Willow for the first time 
Lunch at Mandarin Lotus, the best Chinese Fusion restaurant on planet Earth
In the next few days, I'll be writing Part Two of Our European Adventure, covering our time in the beautiful area of Tuscany! Here's "Our European Adventure, Part 1 - Chicago & Rome", for those of you who haven't had the chance to read it yet.

I look forward to sharing more updates about the restaurant in the upcoming weeks and be sure to pick up a copy of Westlake Magazine next month to learn more about us and Aroha!

Reserve Now

30990 Russell Ranch Rd Unit C, Westlake Village, CA 91362
© 2014 Aroha Restaurant.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Our European Adventure, Part 1 - Chicago & Rome!

It's the strangest thing. The entire time we were on vacation it felt surreal. I loved every single moment of our trip to Europe but it was hard to believe we were there. Now, though, when I'm sitting around at home, or in the car, I drift off. I flashback to our trip and all of the amazing memories I have...and it finally feels real.

Chicago Memories
I will never forget...running in the rain.

The Giant Bean!
Before leaving for Rome, we stopped in Chicago. It was both of our first times there and I have to say, we absolutely loved the city. Our only mistake was dressing for the plane (jeans and short sleeve shirts) on an incredibly hot day! Luckily, Chicago has people like us in mind. They have a lovely little river in Millennium Park for passerbyers to stick their feet in and they have huge water features for people to run through. Of course, we didn't want to get to wet so we just walked beside the fountains and felt the mist. It didn't stop my jeans from getting wet though and turning my white tennis shoes blue!

For lunch, we enjoyed a lovely picnic in the park, with duck prosciutto and three delicious cheeses we picked up at a local cheese shop. Afterwards, we wound up walking along the Chicago River and on a whim, kayaking on the river! It was really fun, although the wind made it pretty challenging! We were slowly pushed into the wall a few times.

Our favorite memory of Chicago though will always be the rain. That night, after dinner, we stepped out of the restaurant to walk back to the hotel, and it was raining. We of course decided, "This isn't so bad, we can make it back to the hotel in 20 minutes." We had to get back before 7:30, when the Hilton's bag storage area closed. As we were walking though, the rain began to pour! So much for not walking through the water features earlier that day. We were completely soaked in a matter of seconds. We kept running short sprints and grabbing shelter every chance we could get. Finally, we were running out of time and tried getting a cab. Not a single cab would stop for us. Luckily, we grabbed shelter next to an apartment complex and the doorman was nice enough to turn on the "cab light". We finally got a cab to stop and we headed down the street to the hotel.

Rome Memories
I will never forget...the longest walk in the history of man kind.

There are so many stories to tell. So many incredible moments to share. So I don't ramble on for too long (this is a blog after all), I'll try to stick to the highlights.

Our first night in Rome, we were lucky enough to have an amazing restaurant right next door to the Star of Rome B&B we were staying at. Of course, we couldn't go to the restaurant without managing to have a mini adventure. When we got to the door of the B&B to leave, Gwith grabbed the door handle to open the door and the handle fell off. Screws and all. Luckily, he managed to fix it and we headed into the small manual elevator (where he couldn't resist playing with the doors and almost getting the elevator stuck), and then went to the restaurant. We were staying about a 30 minute walk from the Vatican so our location wasn't touristy at all...which made the food beyond incredible. First of all, the most remarkable thing about Italy is how healthy I felt from the food. Everything is cooked with olive oil, the flavors of the dishes aren't overpowering, and most importantly, for the first time in years, I felt good when eating. I didn't get the stomach aches I've grown accustomed to over the years. Now, we are well aware it's because the Italians don't use corn in most of their dishes or canola oil and their food is 100% organic. Coming home and switching to pure olive oil and organic food has already made a huge difference. So thank you Rome, for helping me finally figure out my diet issues after all of these years!

Me, trying espresso, and hating it.
Our first full day in Rome is to blame for our sore legs the rest of the trip. That's right. I'm pointing my finger at you, First Day. Originally, we were planning to spend the day in Pompeii, so we took a cab to the Termini Train Station. Once we were there, we discovered we had to get a ticket to get a ticket. Kind of like at the local deli. Except way more confusing and way less organized. The numbers would pop up at random and after an hour of waiting, we decided to skip Pompeii and walk around Rome instead. And walk we did. For seven hours. SEVEN HOURS. This from two people who pant walking to Jamba Juice, which is only a 15 minute walk from our house. I don't know how we survived this day but somehow we did and honestly, we had a blast! From the train station, we walked to the Colosseum and then stopped at a local restaurant for a bite to eat. We wandered the streets a little to find this place and avoid the tourist traps. The food was tasty but honestly, the real highlight of this stop was definitely the bathroom. I know that sounds weird but after I used the bathroom, I went to wash my hands. I couldn't figure out how to turn on the sink and instead, saw the soap container, not realizing it was soap, and spun it, assuming it was the water handle. The metal container spun straight into the sink, making a clattering sound that apparently rung throughout the entire restaurant. Lesson learned: Italian sinks sometimes turn on by foot pedals.

Tiber River
After eating a quick bite, we headed back to the Colosseum. We loved walking around and it was definitely an awesome sight to see. But in all honesty, the walk after the Colosseum was what I'll always remember. I'll always remember walking along the bridges, against the picturesque Tiber river. I felt like I was in a fairytale amongst the ancient buildings & bridges, the water, and the hovering trees. Clearly during this part of the walk, I was avoiding staring at the graffiti!

We continued our walk and detoured to a tourist free district called Trastevere in search of gluten free pizza. The GPS on my phone put us on the wrong street and we almost couldn't find the pizza place. With a little persistence though, we did find Ristorante Mama!, which will forever have the greatest gluten free pizza known to man kind. I'm so used to my gluten free pizza in the states having the consistency of a cracker. Thin crunchy crust. Not here. For the first time, I was able to enjoy a gluten free pizza with a thick, soft, crust. Gosh. Just typing about it is making my mouth water. Want to know the secret? They let it rise for 24 hours! That's probably why no pizza place does that out here. I don't think they'd have the patience. But seriously, if that's how long it takes to make something that tasty, they should have the patience. Because seriously, Ristorante Mama! needs to come to California, like ASAP. While sitting outside at the restaurant, a group of young school kids came walking by jabbering away in Italian. It was so cool to see a part of real Rome. We even saw a group of locals playing soccer in the street on our walk leaving Trastevere. By the time we got back to the B&B, we seriously thought our legs were going to die. With no will to walk more than a few feet, we decided to go to the restaurant next door again.

Gwith at the Vatican
The next day, because we're insane, we decided to go to the Vatican. Oh wait. Not just go there, walk there. And yes, our legs were still practically numb from the day before. By the time we made it to the Vatican, we were already exhausted and ready to call it a day. It didn't help that the Pope had apparently given a speech that morning so St. Peter's Square was as crowded and claustrophobic as San Diego Comic Con. It was actually scary trying to get around the crowds. Luckily, we booked a tour and got to skip the lines!

Because neither Gwith nor I are religious, and therefore the Vatican has no significant meaning to us, we got to enjoy just walking around taking pictures with the many statues. Gwith's photos were the best. He was really able to nail the expressions!

The Sistine Chapel was an interesting place to go in mainly because everyone was supposed to be quiet and the priests kept shushing the crowd. They had a panic attack when someone dropped their tour guide listening device. It was so loud, they all began frantically rushing over to stop the noise. I'm not gonna lie, it was crazy to see. The real highlight to me though was St. Peter's Basilica. It was incredibly beautiful and definitely worth seeing.

That night, when we arrived back at the B&B, we felt like we could barely move. We were eager to go back to our trusty restaurant downstairs but our host at the B&B informed us that they were fully booked that night. He suggested another restaurant that was a 15 minute walk up the hill. When we mentioned needing a cab, he went beyond his host duties and offered to drive us there himself! It was so nice of him and something we will never forget about our last night in Rome.

For those of you traveling to Rome and reading this blog, I would highly recommend just walking around the city and adventuring off the map. We only had two full days so we had to squeeze in all of the touristy stuff, but if you have more time, try to get the tourist stuff out of the way and really just experience the city. Watch out though for the pickpockets. Every tourist site says this and in our opinion, if you look out and are aware they exist, you'll be fine. I kept my large purse over my shoulder, with the zip facing me, and my arm tucked underneath. Gwith, when we were in a crowded area, kept his hand in his pocket over his wallet. Together, we survived the entire trip without getting anything stolen or an attempted pickpocketing. It also helped that we used the phone app, MapsWithMe (no internet necessary), throughout the trip. Instead of pulling out a giant map and looking like a tourist, we pulled out our phone and stared at it like every local Italian does.

Quick Tips for Tourists in Rome

• Drink Red Orange Juice (even if you hate orange juice like I do, you'll love this, trust me).
• Explore the Outskirts of Rome.
• Get your Eurail pass stamped somewhere else on the trip if possible. Termini Train Station is just too insane.
• Do not stop and talk to the many people trying to sell you items.
• A little extra walking outside of the tourist spots will take you to some of the best restaurants in Italy.
• When crossing the street, put up your hand at the cars. The drivers will actually stop, for the most part. Basically, pay attention and cross when you can!
• Scooters may zoom past you on the pay attention there too.
• Pickpockets are out and about and some try to sell you items. Always buy from shops or market stands if you need something like an umbrella.
• Use your phone map if you can, walk like you know where you're going (even if you sometimes don't), and always say no when someone approaches you to sell something. Pickpockets want to con you. If you can't be convinced, they'll give up and try someone who can be.
• Keep your hand covering your wallet and your arm around your purse when in crowded areas.

The castle we stayed at in Gaiole in Chianti.

Keep an eye out for my upcoming European Adventure blogs! The next one will be covering our drive around Tuscany, including Lido di Tarquinia, Siena, and a castle in Gaiole in Chianti!

Our European Adventure Blogs
Part 3: Tuscany - Pisa & Florence!
Part 4: Venice & Milan! (Coming Soon)
Part 5: Switzerland - Zurich & Lucerne (Coming Soon)
Part 6: The Magic of Paris (Coming Soon)
Part 7: Why the Hilton in Belgium Can't Get Customer Service Right (Coming Soon)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

24: Live Another Day - Enjoyable? Definitely. Predictable? Absolutely.

Now that 24: Live Another Day has been back for 7 episodes, I feel this overwhelming need to discuss it. First off, I'm really enjoying this new season. The acting is well done, the overall plot is exciting, and frankly, who doesn't love Yvonne Strahovski or anything she touches? Just seeing her play a CIA agent makes me pretend she's Sarah Walker (Chuck) all over again.

My biggest pet peeve though with this new season is the extreme predictability. It would've been nice to see the writers finally break out of the mold they had for all eight seasons, and unfortunately, with it being a short 12 hour day instead of 24 hours, these predictable plots have exposed themselves far sooner than they should.

Before the season began, I predicted the following things: someone in the White House will be conspiring with a trusted member of the CIA to kill the president (my eye was always on Benjamin Bratt), the president will be threatened to be removed from office, someone will commit treason, the president's life will be threatened, the CIA will undoubtedly be compromised at some point during the day, and the days events will revolve around either a missile or a deadly toxin.

I know what you're thinking. Wow. Quite a few things on that list have already happened. For those of you who never watched 24 before, you may have found all of the plot developments shocking. For those of us who watched every season, I'm going to assume that you know what I'm talking about.

Not a season of the original show passed without each of these events taking place. Some seasons were less predictable than others and it had to do with that season's progression. In season 1 and notably season 7, Nina Meyers and Tony Almeida were two characters written to develop trust with the viewer. Nina, of course, had it easy. It was season one and unless you saw the later seasons first, it was very unlikely you would predict that Jack's confidant was the mole - especially since the writer's didn't even decide until almost the final episode!  Tony, was a different animal entirely. For the first four and a half seasons, Tony was a trusted and beloved character. So during the events of season 7, his evil turn was all the more shocking. I'm still sitting around hoping that 24 will return for another season just to redeem Tony!

Jack and Tony Almeida (Season 7)
This season, I'd be lying if I said I didn't see Benjamin Bratt as the mole from a mile away. First of all, with only 12 episodes, they had no time to develop him as a trusted confidant. Instead, he's been the guy trying to get Kate to leave, the guy who miraculously survived the explosion (hello, if that isn't a clear sign, I don't know what is!), and the guy who's trying to get the job done without actually getting it close to done. I'm sorry, but he's had mole written all over him. It reminds me of how easily I predicted the turn of Dana Walsh in Season 8. However, with a much less annoying character. Thank you for that, 24: Live Another Day! I can't say that I was at all surprised that he was conspiring with Adrian Cross. That guy had evil written all over him from hour one.

I will give the writers props for figuring out a new way to kick the president out of his presidency. Instead of being forced out by a conspiring White House employee, Heller has taken it upon himself to remove himself due to his illness. While they still had to figure out a way for the president to be forced to resign, I'm glad it was finally his own decision and not someone else in the shadows. Of course, they then followed it up with him deciding to sacrifice himself to Margot Al-Harazi. It was the only move the writer's could make that would make sense with the current situation. I get that. But again, this isn't the first time someone important has decided to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the country. I'm looking at you Ryan Chappelle! Even Heller decided to sacrifice himself for the greater good in Season 5. So this development may not have been shocking, but at least it was consistent. I couldn't help tearing up as I had flashes of Audrey's reaction to his near death in Season 5.

The one moment I was truly surprised over was the survival of Jordan Reed in the latest episode. I really did assume he would get shot and that would be the end of it. I have no idea what their plan is for him and I look forward to seeing it roll out.

To be honest, after eight seasons of a similar story, it would be hard for them to not repeat some story lines. The only way to shock the viewers would probably be to turn Jack evil! Which would be horrible but kind of awesome as far as twists go.  I've also begun to trust Kate. However, I think it would be more shocking for her to actually be 100% good at this point. I honestly believe that with 24 episodes instead of 12, they may have been able to smooth out these predictable moments. Without the extra hours, the storyline has been moving too quickly and there hasn't been enough time to develop the characters. While 12 episodes work very well for shows like Dexter or Homeland, those shows are about growing stories throughout a period of months and the characters twist and turn throughout the season.

For 24, they only have one day to develop. One day to earn your trust. And for 24, that's what the show always relied on. Earning your trust and taking it away in a shocking moment.

What do you all think? Have you predicted anything this season? If you have, do you think it's because of the writer's using the same formula or because of the short day? I want to hear your thoughts!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Huge Updates as Aroha Moves Forward

It's hard to believe we've only been back from our incredible European tour for two weeks! So much has been going on, I don't even know where to begin.

We arrived back on May 28th and went straight to the restaurant. While we were away, there was a lot of progression. The construction crew has finished up the gas lines, some of the plasterboard is already on the wall frames, and as of yesterday, they have completed the plumbing system.

The construction team working on the plumbing lines. 
Plasterboard on the Walls!
Amongst all of the progress, we were also happy to take our Beer & Wine notice down. We are now in the final stages of getting our license! In the upcoming weeks, we will begin refining our wine list and testing other wine suppliers in California. We are excited to bring a range of organic and biodynamic wines from New Zealand, California, Italy, and France. After our wine tour in Italy, we can not wait to add a few delicious Chianti wines from the small wineries! We also were able to tell a noticeable difference between natural sulfite and artificial sulfites in wine. The most noticeable observation we had were the lack of headaches! While most imported wines have artificial sulfites added for preservation, we are making it our mission to only provide wines with natural, organic sulfites from the grape skin.

In other beverage news, we're going to be importing sodas that are exclusively available in New Zealand called Aroha Specialty Sodas! Not only is the name obviously perfect, the flavors are unique and delicious as well. Some of the flavors include rhubarb, feijoa, elderflower, and green current.

This week, we've had some amazing opportunities arise thanks to our lovely friends at the Conejo Valley Chamber of Commerce, which I can't wait to announce in the upcoming weeks! Due to all of the excitement, I did a full update on our website with all new information about the restaurant and New Zealand cuisine. The logo got an update as well: I changed the heart to red to match our future building sign! We are also getting closer to pinning down our opening week. Currently, we're eyeballing the first week of September but depending on our progression, it may be as early as mid-August.

Yesterday, thanks to Westlake Magazine, we attended our very first polo match in Santa Barbara! I wish I could say I watched the game, but Gwith and I ended up having such a good time chatting with the other guests that we probably only watched the match for a couple of minutes. I did go out on the field during halftime though and stomp on the grass. I had to. I grew up on "Pretty Woman" and I'd be lying if I said I didn't always watch that scene thinking it looked like fun! The strangest part of the day was when we met a man named Howard, and we were told his family invented the earplug. I almost fell over because my grandfather had told me for years that our cousins invented the earplugs! My grandfather was first cousins with his grandmother, apparently. It was such a surprise to end up meeting a distant family member who I had only heard about! It's such a small world. The real irony is on the drive up to Santa Barbara, Gwith turned to me in the car and said, "I wonder if there will be anyone we know there?" I told him how unlikely that was... I'll never doubt the possibility again.

Gwith and I at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club

As I was dawdling on the internet before, searching our restaurant on Google, I came across an article written three days ago by Conejo Valley Guide talking exclusively about Aroha! We are over the moon about all of the publicity the restaurant is already getting!

Thats all of my updates for today but I do promise to sit down in the upcoming days and talk all about our trip, because there is so much to talk about!!

Reserve Now

30990 Russell Ranch Rd Unit C, Westlake Village, CA 91362
© 2014 Aroha Restaurant.