Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Vegas 2012

“I’m not used to paying you.”
Those are THE six words you never want to hear from a casino dealer. And of course, I did. Richard from Minnesota said this to me after winning one of my very few hands of Pai Gow poker at the Stratosphere. Bill, Andy and I know Richard a little having played at his table almost every year for the last six. The only game he deals as far as we can tell is Pai Gow and though he never recognizes us when we sit down, after playing for about 20 minutes he seems to vaguely remember us (though never by name initially).

That quote summarizes how the gambling went for the Vegas Vacation 2012. Craps wrecked me really fast the first time I played Saturday night downtown at The California and slowly but surely Monday afternoon at the Imperial Palace. Pai Gow wasn’t much better, save for the first table I played at when I got into town. I left up a whopping $30!!!!

If it’s too good to be true, it’s not, it just costs more money
I went rogue Sunday night for dinner. Bill and Andy aren’t into spending lavishly on dinners while in Vegas, which conflicts with my recently emerging love of fine dining. Thankfully this year I had the option to get a great dinner with a former student who now lives in town. We had dinner at RM Seafood in the Mandalay Bay. Chef Rick Moonen (of Top Chef Masters fame) is known not just for his great seafood, but for emphasizing sourcing his food from sustainable practices.

Let me say right here that this was one of the best restaurant meals I’ve ever had. Straight up foodwise, it’s top 10—easy. It was also THE most expensive meal I’ve ever had, which when we picked this place wasn’t what I expected. The entrees we were thinking about were in the $30+ range and neither of us were going to go crazy with wine/liquor/dessert/sides. Hell, the restaurant’s website says the check downstairs (there’s an upstairs and downstairs) averages only $40 a person, which is like $60 less than we paid per person at Gordon Ramsay.

After reading the menu for 10 minutes I was torn between the Cioppino and the Pacific Halibut. The Cioppino, which is a seafood stew popular in the Bay Area, featured calamarata, mussels, clams, king crab, shrimp, FOD. I don’t know what FOD is, but I wish I remembered to find out. The menu price was $36. The halibut was prepared with fennel silk, shaved apples and citrus ragĂș and it cost $32.

Andrea was torn between the Alaskan King Crab ($32) and the Diver Scallops with pork belly, eggplant, chicharrones $38). We decided to each ask our server what he’d recommend for each of our dining conundrums. Our server (who was preceded by an “assistant” who took our initial water order when we sat down) told us that he could include a small side of whichever we didn’t order as a primary on our plates. That sounded like the best of both worlds.

Looking back, I felt a dot of a doubt and I should have cultivated it (like George Costanza once suggested). The menu was kind enough to note that all specials (which when recited never include the price) start at $70. I kinda knew this wasn’t some freebie they were offering two non-rollers, but I didn’t ask what this would cost.

The food comes and it’s amazing. I shall never order Cioppino again because it’ll never come close to how good this was. The tomato-based (but far more complex than just that) broth was so good a giant bowl of that almost would have been worth the money. The calamarata (pasta) was perfectly al dente and had soaked up so much seafood taste that it was almost calamari like. And the mussels were so succulent. The halibut, which was easily as big as my palm (not a tiny taster size) was perfectly flaky and broke apart with a slight press from the side of my fork.

Since this was an indulgent meal, we shared all four of our dishes. Andrea’s scallops were stunning. Not quite as good as the scallops at Craft or Gordon Ramsay, but just a femto-meter (yes, I’m doing that pretentious thing I’d never let my students get away with) below on the scallop scale. Super silky and flavorful. I think the only reason I’d ding them that tiny bit is that they weren’t as consistently cooked as at Craft and they didn’t have quite as good a sauce as GR. Still awesome, as was the King Crab! Nothing rubbery at all and no over saltwater taste, which I’ve found to be my two biggest complaints about crab legs from time to time.

After eating such a perfect meal we get our check. And that dot of doubt that went uncultivated has died and been replaced by a weed of sticker shock. The bill is $201! That’s for one glass of white wine each (at about $16ish per glass), two mint teas and four entrees. Since we each had a full entree and then good-sized portions of second entrees we were charged for four. With tax and tip it was $250. EEEEEEEK.

Thankfully I was on vacation and this year I had saved more money than ever for Vegas so I paid and that was that. No regrets, not exactly, but I know better than to ever eat four entrees again. And yeah, this was one of those moments when I realized that I'm still not a fully actualized adult. :\

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Wonder Con 2012!

Going to Comic Con in 2007 was one of the best weekends I've had since moving to Los Angeles and really one of the best weekends I've ever had. I bought lots of great merch (convention-exclusive Harry Potter, Nightmare Before Xmas and Futurama toys) attended an awesome Futurama panel, caught the Terminator Sarah Connor Chronicles pilot six months before it aired, and was part of such a fun and vibrant scene at the San Diego Convention Center. I haven't gone back the last four years because of scheduling, ticket buying fiascos the one time I was going to go, money and my original Comic-Con partner in crime, Scott, moved away. But every year when I see the photos, read the blogs and talk to the people I know who went, I have a small regret about not returning.

When I found out Friday that Comic-Con's little brother Wonder Con had moved to the Anaheim Convention Center this year (it's a one-time thing because the Mascone Center in SF is getting renovated) (and it was this weekend!), I was immediately interested. Fortunately, I learned that there were plenty of cheap tickets (only $10 online) available for Sunday and that Sunday's schedule included panels for my three favorite TV dramas: Alcatraz, Fringe and Once Upon a Time (all in succession beginning at noon in the main ballroom). So I bought a ticket Friday night, stayed up way too late Saturday playing my new snowboarding game on the PS3 and then got up early for the commute to Anaheim.

I'll do it snippety highlight style to get this moving:

• Parking was $12 at the nearby Anaheim GardenWalk outdoor mall and chain-restaurant complex. So $22 total to attend and it was a short walk. HOORAY!

• Since the doors opened around 11 a.m. Sunday and the first panel was at noon, I decided to be there for the opening. That way I could check out the convention hall with all the exhibitors hawking their scheit and then hit the panels and then return and go shopping. No purse today because I didn't think it'd be big enough. I went with my laptop bag instead.

• Steampunk has apparently been gaining some serious sway in the geek subculture. I was totally unawares until today how pervasive it is. So lots of people in great steampunk garb (think HG Welll industrial chic) and lots of people selling threads and accessories. This brings me to the quote of the day (non-celeb version): "It's a clothing line, not a costume line." That was the owner of Hilary's Gothic, Fetish and Steampunk apparel. Ironically, next to her was another seller of steampunk garb. That place's name: "Pendragon Costumes." Apparently, despite often being armed with guns and blasters, Steampunks are pacifists because both were still standing after the weekend.

• The runner-up quote of the day was also steampunk-related. "Hey folks, we're not a musuem, please feel free to touch everything in our booth, except him and her [as he points to his associates]."

• You find all sorts of clubs at theses Cons, which is one of my fave aspects. No one has to be embarrassed about the things that make them squeal a little on the inside. Hell, at a place like this you can squeal loud on the outside! (Well except maybe for people into the R-rated sex comics. I didn't see anyone stopping by that booth, even though they were amazingly drawn based on the posters hanging up at the booth.) My favorite club was the homemade R2D2 builders. They remote-controlled three or four lifesize, metal astromech droids around the hall. I'm not sure if this link is them, but I think it is. PHOTO in the album at end.

Best shirt award goes to a young woman who asked a question at the Fringe panel: "Neville would have done it in four books." I don't actually agree with her, but it was really funny. One of the Fringe producers even gave her a shoutout on the shirt.

Funniest panelists (tie): Joshua Jackson and John Noble. The son and father team from Fringe had the easy-joking manner of a well-rehearsed comedy team. They opened the Fringe panel with a compilation of Walter Bishop's funniest lines (so lots of straight-delivered talk of bodily functions, anatomy and food). Everyone swore that John Noble is basically Walter in real life. Joshua Jackson on what it's like to read one of the scripts (which get some edgy stuff past Standards) for the first time. "I think there's a typo on page 13, it says, 'vag-enda.'"

Best quote (celebrity) was from Jorge Garcia. Someone asked him whether his character on Alcatraz would be luckier in love than Hurley on Lost was since Hurley's GF was removed from the show pretty much immediately after they got together. There was some hesitation until someone noted that the actress who plays his potential Alcatraz love interest just got cast in a new pilot. "I got cockblocked by Kevin Bacon." That one slayed the room.

• Award for almost being good goes to ME. I was making my final pass through the exhibitors' hall and the exit doors were in sight when I finally spotted some Futurama merchandise. The company that holds the toy license wasn't at WonderCon (though Toynami always does Comic-Con) so I figured I'd get out with only a $22 commitment and the gas. But then I spotted some Futurama stuff and $20 later I am the proud owner of the new talking Bender. And like most spenders, I thought happily of the $5 I saved off retail, rather than the fact I spent $20 I had told myself I wouldn't.

Oh well. A great time was had by all.

I don't like how Google has turned off Picasa for online photos and instead folded all photos into the DOA Google Plus.

So here's an old school link. It should work.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Top Chef restaurant tour: Wilshire

My favorite food shows are cooking competitions like Top Chef, Chopped, Next Iron Chef, Food Network Star or restaurant rehabs like Restaurant: Impossible or Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares (BBC version). As an amateur in the kitchen, I haven't been able to learn anything from these shows that I can use when I cook, but I have learned stuff. I've learned something about how to eat, which was a gap in my knowledge that I didn't even know I had, and more importantly I've learned where to eat. I'm lucky enough in L.A. to be in a city that has so many excellent restaurants. 

So far I've eaten at Craft, which is owned by Top Chef head judge Tom Colicchio; The Yard, where cheftestant CJ Jacobson is head chef; Red O, where Top Chef Masters winner (and fmr Top Chef guest judge) Rick Bayless designed the menu; Ink Sack, which is Top Chef Vegas winner Michael Voltaggio's gourmet sandwich shop; and Gordon Ramsay at the London West Hollywood. They have been wows across the board. The latest stop on Dec. 28 was Wilshire, where current season Top Chef competitor Nyesha Arrington is executive chef. Though Nyesha went out fairly early in the competition, it was because of her partner in a double elimination challenge and she is owning it on Last Chance Kitchen (web only). Plus having watched her land the job at Wilshire on the tv show Chef Hunter, I was intrigued.

Even on my parents' not-quite HD tv, Wilshire looked like a physically great space: modern decor with dark wood and an overall dark color palette, but not so trendy that it would feel dated any time soon and inside and outside seating. The restaurant's GM said on the TV show that they pride themselves on being a neighborhood restaurant with lots of regulars. As usual in my fine(r) dining forays, this is not a place that I could afford to become a regular at. But that's the point, right? It makes meals like this special.

We had 7:30 reservations on a Wednesday night. The dining room was less than a quarter full, but the outside dining area in back was had only a few open tables. Obviously, we didn't need the reservations that night, but we didn't want to risk having to eat at 6:15 like last year when we waited to long to make reservations at Red O and had to choose between 6:15 and 10 p.m. We were warmly greeted and immediately seated at a half-circle booth, though we all noted how nice the outside dining area looked particularly with our gorgeous weather. While Steph and Erin went to the restroom, Guianna quickly asked out moving outside and voila al fresco dining on Dec. 28. Suck it, east coast and northwest.

Our new server, sorry first server, comes to the table quickly and asks what we want to drink. The ladies start with wine while I go with Macallan 12. Btw, Wilshire has Pabst Blue Ribbon. PBR! We all munch on bread, which was good (chewy, with a good crust), while studying the menu and trying to decide on appetizers. (Apologies for not knowing what everyone ordered for this course. This is what happens when I wait to blog.) I was debating between the black truffle risotto and the chicken liver terrine, when our server told us about the scallop appetizer special, seared scallops with brown butter, asparagus and some other kind of sauce (again too much time passed). He strongly recommended it because of its bold flavors. Someone ordered pork belly, which she liked. But I think I came out the big winner with the appetizer course. The scallops were stunning. Guianna noticed that I made that foodgasm face. It's true. So succulent and though I don't like vegetables the asparagus was good and the brown butter sauce was so rich but not too heavy.

When it came time for my dinner, I debated between the butternut squash gnocchi, monkfish with cauliflower puree, pan-roasted halibut with trumpet mushrooms and duck breast. I've spent the last year developing a love for duck thanks to Beer Belly. Ultimately I chose the monkfish, in part because Steph and Erin were going with the gnocchi so I knew I'd get to sample some. I also asked our server to choose the wine. I don't know jack about wine really save for basics, like red sauces and dark colored foods go with red wines. Our server said he would choose something and asked a couple questions but I couldn't understand him very well because of the combination of the not quite loud, but noticeable conversational buzz (we think that we were the loudest in general though since there's a good buzz in the atmosphere we didn't think we were rudely loud), his accent and my slight hearing loss. But I think it was Austrian or German. Later he would say something else about it that seemed to contradict what he said earlier, prompting Guianna to remark that he didn't seem to know wine that well. Nevertheless, it was a wine that I liked and that paired well with my monkfish.

My only small complaint would the be the pace of service. I've learned that when fine dining, it's not about speed but about the experience. I would say that two hours is a standard amount of time to expect for a meal. But still, at this point it's about 8:30 p.m. and we're just getting kinda hungry. A couple who got seated after us had their entrees before us, only a couple minutes, though. As soon as we collectively noticed that it has been a while our server came up and apologized that things were taking so long. And then literally seconds later food runners brought our entrees.

The wait was worth it. The monkfish was amazing. Not as good as the scallops, but wow nevertheless. For the most part the perfectly moist pieces flaked off with just a gentle downward push from the edge of my fork. Swirling them in the cauliflower puree added an earthy creaminess. And the salting was perfect, just enough to enhance the flavors. So good. I tried one of Steph's gnocchi which was great. Not so good that I wished I'd ordered differently though. The texture was so light and pillowy, which is a word that judges on cooking shows use to describe great gnocchi and they're exactly right. And the butternut squash flavor was sweet and earthy. Mmmmmmmmm. 

And the portion was perfect sized. When I was finished I was just hungry enough that the desserts tempted me. Erin and I really drove the bus on dessert being the two least full. We decided to split an order of sticky toffee pudding and our server was smart enough to bring out four forks. Fantastic dessert. Very sticky, very sweet, rich but still balanced.

One cool thing about eating at Wilshire or The Yard is that Nyesha and CJ actually cook there regularly. We saw CJ while we ate at The Yard and Nyesha came out and said hello to the table next to us. She even posed for a photo. Guianna or Steph asked me if I was going to go up to her or ask for a photo. I said that I would talk to her but only if she came up to us. I don't think I would have done the photo thing, but looking back I think I would have.

Split four ways, it was $57 and change per person. My appetizer was about $14, scotch was $12, my wine was $9 and my entree was $26. Since mine was by far the most (it was the scotch that really elevated it since I was the only one to get two alcoholic drinks) I paid extra. But given how high the overall satisfaction was, I'd say totally well worth the price. And we even got free parking a block away! 

Thursday, December 01, 2011

World AIDS Day 2011 -- it's not over

When I was in sixth grade my mom's cousin, who was gay, died of AIDS. We took a family vacation to Arizona during his last few months. My sisters and I all had the chicken pox at the time, so my parents told us that Danny was so sick that we shouldn't be around him. It made perfect sense to me then.

I'm not sure how many years later, but I eventually figured out that Danny had died of AIDS, even though I don't recall being told. The only thing I remember is talking to my dad after I had realized this (I was late in high school or college) and he said that given how much people didn't know about AIDS/HIV they decided to be extra careful (I suspect to protect us and him).

Danny's death and my parents' mostly well-intentioned obscuring of it has had a lasting impact on my life. I've given to HIV/AIDS-related charities and continued to try to keep up on the latest research and statistics (though not to the extent that I could quote them to you right now). The most important consequence though was this story I wrote while a reporter at the Albany Times Union.

Click for more information about AIDS/HIV in 2011.


MIKE FRICANO Staff writer
Section: CAPITAL REGION,  Page: B1
Date: Monday, October 1, 2001
Albany A pastel chalk message was all Emily Parker could write to honor her brother.

Shielded from the truth about her brother Chris' death 15 years ago, Emily didn't learn that her brother died of AIDS until 1992. On Sunday, she tried to make amends by letting him and anyone else who reads her fleeting memorial know ``one day we will beat this.'' While scrawling her 8-foot-by-5-foot message, Parker fixed areas where people walked over it. She also took the time to brush the chalk so that it filled in the heart she drew evenly.

``It's a tribute to my brother, because I never really got to say goodbye,'' said Parker, 22, who was one of 1,500 walkers who participated in AIDSWalk 2001. This year's event raised more than $200,000 for education, research and patient care.

After the walkers finished the trek through and around Washington Park, dozens grabbed colorful pieces of chalk and transformed the asphalt in front of the Lakehouse into a rainbow of remembrances for ``Fred'' and ``Jim'' and ``Uncle Dan.''

Sadly, said AIDSWalk coordinator Linda Glassman, the list will get longer. There are 3,475 people in northeastern New York with AIDS and thousands more infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, according to the state Department of Health. Nationally, 774,467 Americans had been reported with AIDS and 448,060 had died of the disease through last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

``AIDS impacts a wide variety of people,'' said Glassman, noting that the infection rate has remained constant even while the death rate decreased.

When Parker learned that her brother died of AIDS, she was angry and sad and even a little glad that she hadn't known all those years.

``This way I remember him as my brother,'' Parker said as she recalled photos of him laughing and having fun.

While progress has been made, frustration abounds for AIDS caregivers, who must compete for limited funds with myriad other diseases and catastrophes. Throughout the last several year, AIDS has ebbed in the public consciousness following the limited success of drug ``cocktails'' in treating patients.

``But it's not a cure,'' Glassman said. In fact, strains of the virus are becoming resistant to the $15,000-a-year drug combination, which counts liver failure and fatty lumps among its harmful side effects.

``What happened in New York City was horrible, but each day across the world 8,300 people die of AIDS,'' Glassman said.

Now Parker, who walked for the first time this year with the Starbucks team, said that she wants to learn more about the disease and to do something concrete to help.

``I'm just really glad that people can do this at least,'' she said, ``so that other families may not have to deal with this.''

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Getting better about honoring my commitments

Since second semester of my junior year of college, I have a history of at least twice a year declaring "New Fricano." The first time it meant substituting tequila shots for beer because I was unhappy with my weight gain. (I just learned a few seconds ago that I was correct about shots having fewer calories! Hooray!!) Unfortunately, I didn't exercise and still ate like shit so I never lost an ounce.  Since then it has usually meant curtailing discretionary spending but also cutting back on fast food.

Last fall though it took on a new meaning—exercising more. Or more accurately ... exercising. One pair of work pants had become a wear-only-when-everything-else-is-at-the-cleaners item and my unshirted profile (see stomach chubb, or don't if you wouldn't want to be grossed out) in the mirror was making me embarrassed. The goal was to build up my endurance so that I could run 3-4 miles each time I ran and to run four days a week. Unfortunately, the day I chose to start it was already 90 degrees by 9:30 a.m. so my first run was about one mile, and I couldn't even make it the full distance without stopping to walk. After a month I had increased to only about 1.5 miles per run. Of course I was running only twice a week (at most). After a life of not running (boringness of running, love of inline skating, arthritic knees), it was hard to want to run especially in our neighborhood (lots of street crossings, narrow roads, hardly any street lights) at night.

The neighborhood we moved to last December helped me increase the running. With much wider streets, more street lights and fewer street crossings, I increased to two times a week (most weeks) and 2+ miles per run. And I was running at about an eight-and-a-half-minute-mile pace. But still ... I never pushed myself beyond that.

Then I went to Portland and Seattle this summer to visit my best friend from college, Bill. I got there on a Sunday night and for the entire week it was a taste-tastic vacation of amazing beer (no better city for a craft beer snob), indulgent food (I swear that every goddamned restaurant we went to served mounds of tater tots) and video games. The unsurprising side effect of my gluttony and sloth was that by late Thursday night I couldn't wait to get back to Bill's just so I could change out of the jeans I was wearing, which had become straight-jacketly constricting on my creeping chubb.

I have to give a quick shoutout to Bill who generously carts my ass around wherever I want to go pretty much and every time I'm there that includes hiking to the top of Multnomah Falls.

This year my friend Amy, who had recently moved to Portland from L.A., joined us. It was one of the things she wanted to do upon moving but hadn't had a chance prior to my visit. We had a great time and Bill was nice enough to email me this picture he took of us.

Well, I thought it was nice until I noticed that a fat guy (with no neck!) had stolen my identity. This made me feel worse than any photo of me since the one that appeared in my yearbook photo freshman year of high school. My reaction to that one was "Who is that ugly girl? ... Oh FUCK, it's me!" It was again "New Fricano" time, but this time there's no fucking around.

So since returning home on July 2, I've started the Mike Fricano body modification project. It involves running at least three days a week, but four if possible. I have increased my running distance to three to four miles per jog at a nine-minute-mile pace. I have stopped drinking at home (though I still drink plenty). I eat an arugula, cucumber and pepper salad almost every night before dinner thus keeping my entree portion size down and increasing my vitamin intake. I also have decreased my sugar-loaded Coffee Bean calorie fests (iced blendeds) from thrice (or even four times) a week to just once a week—a Saturday indulgence. I've even taken to counting how many potato chips I eat to make sure I stick to the recommended portion size on the bag.

The results have been awesome. I estimate that at least half an inch of chubb has disappeared from my waist; I can fit into those jeans very comfortably again and even those work pants. I have even started to enjoy running. There are nights when I'm driving home and I anticipate the feeling of driving home stinking of my own sweat.

The running, which usually happens around 10 p.m. has eaten into time I would read or blog, but I have no regrets. In my older age, I've had to learn to prioritize my desires. And right now, being unchubby is top of the list. This is not the sexiest post to renew my blogging, but I'm back!

Monday, July 11, 2011

I don't even like soccer or America but ...

... watching this feels a googolplex times more patriotic than wearing an Old Navy American Flag tshirt.

Thanks to Jimmy Traina at SI for this who got it from ... The U.S. women's soccer team pulled off a comeback win against Brazil Sunday as Abby Wambach tied the game with this impressive goal. The video below is the goal reworked to have Gus Johnson behind the mic. (Thanks to Kevin M., of College Park Md., for the link.)

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Fine dining

Dinner at Gordon Ramsay at the London West Hollywood was Saturday night. I was nervous all week because my longtime susceptibility to canker sores flared up with at least three in the back of my mouth (including a big one on my right tonsil that caused a throat sore enough that made eating hard). Thankfully by Saturday I felt like I was about 85 percent healed and knew I'd be able to eat mostly problem free as long as I didn't talk too much Saturday at work. Thankfully, my co-worker A. stepped up and ran the staff meeting pretty much on her own.

The London West Hollywood is a hotel just south of the Sunset Boulevard, a particularly swanky section of Sunset Boulevard—point of reference, I parked directly in front of The Viper Room (RIP River Phoenix). On a couple of the Yelp! reviews people complained about rather exorbitant parking costs (someone mentioned $20). I had a 30 percent off coupon courtesy of Blackboard Eats, but I didn't want to piss that away on parking.

Once we entered the hotel, everything was very tony in a more classic sense. There was brass/gold and lots of white, as opposed to the stark brushed steel, dark wood aesthetic. I dug that. Incidentally, when we walked into the lobby we didn't know where the restaurant was but thankfully we had our choice of two suited-up dudes just standing in the small lobby who smiled in the ask-me-a-question-I'm-here-to-help way. So we did and were directed down the hall that shot off to the left and then proceeded to the end and made a right.

When we got there for our 7 o'clock reservation the restaurant was mostly empty. Saturday at 7 p.m. is an earlier time, but I'd been working all day and figured why wait. As we checked in, I made sure to tell the hostess that I was redeeming my discount coupon and gave her my printout with the discount code. Nothing says I belong at a michelin-starred restaurant like pulling a six-folded 8.5x11 piece of paper out of one of my back jeans pockets to get a discount.

First thing that surprised me: Gordon Ramsay at the London West Hollywood (the actual name of the restaurant) is in the same place as The Boxwood Cafe. It's so the same space that when you open the menu you have the Boxwood menu on the left and the fancier restaurant on the right. Btw, the more casual cuisine at Boxwood (that's where you can order a burger) is still uncheap. The entrees range from $16 to $34.

The first decision was whether to get the three-course meal for $68 a person or the five-course for $82. Our waiter, Jose, who wore the standard uniform gray suit, white shirt, no tie. Jose had told us that the serving sizes were "European" meaning smaller as an enticement to order the five-course. After several minutes of deliberating G, one of my former students who now works for the city of SF, and I each decide on the three-course. I recalled my Craft experience of how a slowly consumed multi-course meal of smaller portions (meaning not TGI McOliveBee's Lobster size) could be perfectly satisfying.

As I've learned from my whopping five fine-dining sorties, the menu doesn't offer lots of choices, because the idea is that these dishes required lots of creativity and skill and some pricey ingredients so let's specialize in a few and just be aces with them. Suck on that Cheesecake Factory!

Before the appetizers came they brought us a canape of very thin crustini to dip into the silkiest thing I've ever ate—mascarpone, white truffle oil and olive oil. Several Yelpers said that this was their fave thing. I don't think I'd go that far, but still ... this was unlike anything I'd ever eaten and the best example of textural contrast I've ever eaten.

The canape was a big contrast to the standard dinner bread, which had a too-hard crust and was otherwise just slightly above average. :(

Then come the official appetizers. Sadly, I forgot what kind of Pinot Noir I ordered. I remember only that I allowed our waiter to choose it and that it cost $22 a glass.

I order the Tagliatelle with Charred Octopus as my appetizer. The pasta was perfectly al dente, the tomato sauce had a tiny hint of sweetness but wasn't too sweet. Still it was just well-cooked pasta, right? Wrong, with the octopus it was fantastic, though charred outside it wasn't dried out or too chewy. The octopus was cut into thin slices, like penny-sized and the charring added a texture and smokiness that mixed great with the pasta.

G got the foie gras with toast and a smoked ice cream, which neither of us remembers the precise flavor of. She said it was excellent though.

Entree: Scallops and Pork Belly with multiple vegetable purees. Double SAD:, I don't remember what specifically. One was green and one was reddish though. Seeing the three sauces, the two huge diver scallops resting on juicy pork belly and one of those towers was topped with a shiny golden fried quail egg, whoa. You definitely eat first with your eyes. The waiter explained that my dish was very complex and had "lots of flavors" happening.

The scallop was super juicy and the flakey pieces slip off so smoothly when cut that the butter knife was more than sufficient to slice it. It was so fresh that eating it solo was tasty, but combined with the pork belly and purees, it was divine.

G got the chateuabriand, which according to the internet and our waiter, is the best part of a cow. It's the thick center of the tenderloin. I don't eat mammals, but since this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I caved and tasted two small bites after G offered. We of course wanted to share as much as possible. (I think G had some kind of pork app, because I didn't try that.) The steak was very good, though since she ordered it medium, it wasn't as juicy as I used to eat steak. Nevertheless, if I had chateaubriand every time mom force fed me steak as a kid, I'll bet that I'd still eat beef.

I'm such a beef and high-end dining novice, that I didn't even know that this was a cut of beef that you could get, let alone that it was considered among the very best.

After that came dessert. G and I each ordered the chocolate cylinder. It's about 2.5 inches tall and thin, like an old school film canister. Inside there's roasted marshmallow that's crispish on top and melty below--think Smorelike--and then under that some caramel crunchiness, maybe peanuts. To the side is almost a golfball hazelnut ice cream. The hazelnut was by far the star of the dessert, which was otherwise good. Of my fine dining experiences, this was easily the most average dessert.

In fact, the average note of the dessert pushed this experience down below Craft and Silfur (in Reykjavik) on my list of best restaurant meals ever. Still, though, it was amazing. I mean, we're talking like distinctions between 98, 97 and 96.

Two last things, they forgot to apply my 30 percent off discount when they brought my bill. I didn't notice at first and just gave them my card. In part because I wanted to get going since I'd already gone past my two-hour meter by about 5 minutes. But when I was about to sign I looked more carefully and the bill was $224 pre-tip. WHAT? Thankfully, once I told Jose he cancelled the first charge and they re-ran my card. The new bill was only $156ish. Whew! Much better. Since we're instructed to tip based on the original bill, it came to about $98 a piece. This is the most expensive meal I've ever eaten, but totally worth it. It was outstanding. And, I managed to avoid the parking ticket!
Great comment from my friend Kerri: I assume these dishes weren't coated in a thick layer of cheese. You forgot to include that in your differences with TGI McOliveBee's Lobster. I'm with you on pulling out the folded coupon. I hate that feeling.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Internet makes us all famous

In this video, my friend Rich from Newhouse is a wingman in this extreme eating challenge. Here's his blog post about the challenge. I admire Rich for writing a brief blogpost rather than a Fricano. Interestingly, I'd never heard of Scrapple before this. I wish I hadn't.

Monday, April 18, 2011

What dead quantum mechanics cats can teach us about teacher evaluations

One of my favorite books is Moneyball my Michael Lewis. In it, Lewis profiles Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane's methods of scouting baseball players and composing a major league team and drafting new players for the minor league farm system. Working in one of baseball's smallest television markets and having one of the smallest budgets, Beane has pretty consistently put together teams that are very competitive with his large-market competitors like the New York Yankees. They don't win championships at the same rate, but are one of the standards for how to run a small-business in a big-business world.

The chief way Beane did this was to quantify baseball in a statistically relevant way. Though ironically, baseball was the sport that produced more statistics than any other (which geeks like me memorized as kids), most of the numbers we memorized had little to do with predicting future success or measuring how a player made a true statistically valid impact on the game.

Like anyone who wants to do something new, Beane met resistance from lots of veterans who said "we've always done it this way." But his success validated his change in thinking and influenced many teams to adopt what have become known as "moneyball" strategies. Combine those strategies with actual money and you get the Boston Red Sox of the past 8ish years.

Anyway, I was so taken with Beane and his assistants' application of rigorous statistical analysis to a seemingly complex sea of numbers and variables, that like many who paid him to speak to their companies I started thinking that we just need better analysis and more things can certainly be quantified. Moneyball wasn't about baseball, it was about re-thinking and the power of math and education. In a weird way, I got so drunk on moneyball that I started half-equating climate change deniers and Creationists with those old baseball scouts who just wanted to keep doing things the way they've been doing them.

When the L.A. Times published an investigative series about using value-added analysis (my short definition: seeing how much students improved from year to year on standardized tests) I was so impressed by the apparent rigor of it, that I started coming around to believe that this type of analysis should be PART (about 20 percent maybe 33 percent) of teacher evaluations. Sadly for the L.A. Times its methods have since been called into question by one of the people it quotes in the story as someone who backed up the Times' numbers and conclusions.

What does this have to do with dead cats and quantum mechanics?

This article in The Economist, which basically says that what-many-now-see-as-the-MBA-ization-of-education has historical roots in failure. The Economist piece by I can't tell who (dammit Economist be better than that), notes that a couple centuries ago some Germans wanted to get better timber yield from their forests so they took some rudimentary measurements and eventually planted one species exclusively in very dense rows. At first huge success, but then the disaster of unforeseeable (at the time because of our lack of understanding about soil microbiology) consequences, like high susceptibility to disease and depletion of soil nutrients because one kind of tree will want the same thing.

But the greater premise, which the above example merely illustrates, is that efforts to "read" a population consequently beget efforts to transform that population to make it more "readable."

Finally, here comes the dead quantum mechanics cat. In 1935 Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger, developed a paradoxical thought experiment that essentially said if you put a radioactive substance that has a 50-50 chance activate in an hour and a cat in a box, after an hour the cat could be dead or alive, or is in fact dead and alive. Ultimately he didn't argue that it's both simultaneously, merely that one's conclusions are dependent on observation.

The Economist notes: Daniel Koretz, the Harvard education professor recognized as the country's leading expert on academic testing, writes in his book Measuring Up that Campbell's Law is especially applicable to education; there is a preponderance of evidence showing that high-stakes tests lead to a narrowed curriculum, score inflation, and even outright cheating among those tasked with scoring exams.
So by trying to measure teacher's competence with a students' standardized test how can we not be redefining the very nature of teaching into a way that no longer measures competence at inspiring students to explore, drilling cogent facts into them, encouraging ethical intellectual behavior, and demonstrating the importance of common sense?

The Economist piece closes by citing examples from South Korea and Finland (a country lauded in Waiting for Superman, though sadly the most important lessons of Finland aren't advocated for, instead the documentary pushes testing!); these countries "[rely] more on systems of peer review and intensive comment and training from in-school "master teachers", as well as making teachers' jobs involve much more time planning their lessons in groups with other adults.

I agree with the blogger who posted this on The Economist website. The common sense of using master teachers to do more in-service training is so obvious that it almost hurts. I haven't totally given up on a form of value-added analysis being incorporated into evaluations but I'm thinking much more like 10 percent. If we're sincere that children are our future and our most precious resource, then we need to invest in them with hard money. That doesn't mean using MBA cost-cutting and efficiency findings. It means hiring more teachers and aides and yes, perhaps even more assistant principals to serve as these "master teachers." This also would create additional middle class professional jobs, and the people who fill those jobs would spend money ... and create tax revenues and ...

My favorite thing about the Internet is the availability of information, specifically information that makes me rethink about important topics. And this piece in The Economist has certainly got me doing that.