Wednesday, September 12, 2007

San Francisco, and a brief lesson in recent Thai political history

September 12

Let me return now to my recent trip to California. My visit with the almond folks ended on Saturday in San Francisco, and I had the option, after an almond dinner at Luella, of flying out on that evening’s red-eye, but instead I spent the evening in the St. Francis Westin and on Sunday I caught up with old friends from my Bangkok days.
Craig Stuart and Michael Carpenter were classmates at Princeton, but if I remember the story right they didn’t really get to know each other until they lived in Thailand, working through a program called Princeton in Asia.
Craig then, in 1993, I think, found his way into the offices of Manager, a business monthly owned by Thai media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul, where I worked.
If you have a good memory for Thai names and are a serious Asia-politics newshound, you might remember that Sondhi (I’m not being excessively familiar; it’s customary to refer to Thais by their first names) was instrumental in fomenting hostility against the government of Thaksin Shinawatra, which was ousted last year in a coup d'état.
Now that’s interesting because Manager had actually become the plaything of Pansak Vinyaratn, the once-and-future senior advisor to the Thai prime minister. He had fled the country after the 1991 ouster of Chatichai Choonhavan, whose think-tank he headed, and he also was to be the senior advisor of Thaksin’s government.
But in the early- and mid-1990s, Pansak and Sondhi were good friends, or allies, or something, and Manager had been handed to Pansak (unofficially, but completely) to do with as he liked.
What he liked was to create a quirky publication with unconventional ideas, beautiful photography and bright and curious young white people to do the words. It was an agreeable place to spend one’s 20s, and a big part of the enjoyment was that Craig was there — smart and curious, but always up for a drink.
As for Michael, he returned to the United States after his Princeton-in-Asia tour (and was the stateside director of the program for awhile) before he was lured back in 1995 with the launch of Asia Times.
Asia Times was an insanely ambitious newspaper — another project of Sondhi’s — that wanted to take on The Asian Wall Street Journal in particular and in general break the perceived stranglehold that Western media had on coverage of Asia.
Unfortunately, they forgot to market it and it all crashed and burned and was gone by July 1997. But in the meantime, it was a fun place to be a copy editor, which is what Michael and I (and eventually Craig) were.
Michael is inquisitive and enthusiastic and contagiously lovable, and returned to the United States in 1997 to get his MBA from Kellogg.
Craig would pursue journalism for another year or two before getting his MBA at Yale.
And they both ended up marrying Korean-Americans and settling in San Francisco, where Craig’s a banking vice president and Michael’s some sort of senior marketing guy. Another friend from our group, Jeff Cranmer, married the little sister of Michael's wife, Winnie, and he also lives in San Francisco, but he was in Vermont this weekend and couldn’t meet for brunch.
But I did meet with Craig, his wife Susan, their daughter Marlowe, and Michael and his daughter Anabelle at Yank Sing at Rincon Center for dim sum. The restaurant was Michael’s suggestion, and he’s one of the few people I trust when it comes to food, and not just because he’s from Louisiana. He loves food and pays attention to it.
His wife, Winnie, in case you were wondering, was overseas on business, as she often is.
I don’t recall what we had exactly, because we were busy catching up and watching the girls play, but Craig was kind of flummoxed that the servers seemed disinclined to serve us steamed items.
He marveled at their strategy of bringing plates to the table as though we’d already ordered them. Craig notices things like that — quirks in human nature that make them who they are, or that are just interesting tactics.
I spent the afternoon at Craig and Susan’s NoPa apartment and then in Golden Gate Park with Craig and Marlowe at what Craig says was the country’s first playground. It was recently redone, but somehow in kid-friendly, politically correct San Francisco, they managed to leave intact two gigantic concrete slides that require sand and big, flat found pieces of cardboard to slide down. I think that slide was Marlowe’s favorite feature of the playground, though she liked the swing, too.
Susan then looked after Marlowe while Craig and I went to dinner at LarkCreekSteak, Bradley Ogden’s newest restaurant, where we met chef Jeremy Bearman, drank Mourvedre and ate the following:

Summer bean and heirloom tomato soup with wilted arugula, Spanish style chorizo and olive soaked croutons
Jonathan apple, endive and fried Bellweather Farms Crecenza, Bronx grapes, La Quercia prosciutto and cider vinaigrette
Monterey bay, pan-sautéed calamari with garlic butter, lemon and Romano beans
Baked stuffed little neck clams with parsley, garlic, butter, anchovy and lemon zest
Certified Angus New York strip (me)
USDA Prime New York strip (Craig)
Malted “milkshake” panna cotta with salted caramel and Madagascar vanilla bean and various other chocolate desserts (in September the Lark Creek restaurant group celebrates its own chocolate festival)

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