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!