Friday, November 21, 2008

Water cooler talk

I will be going to Boston next week for the fall bridge national championships. Still looking for someone to take me in for thanksgiving dinner if I get eliminated in the blue ribbon pairs event. Anyway, here are some interesting tidbits discussed while hanging around the office the last few days. These thoughts and opinions on the current economic situation come from a number of different opiners.

1. On the CDS market, a coworker says, "So it's kinda like I can buy fire insurance on someone else's house, then set it on fire and collect all the insurance money."

2. After reading online that Platinum Grove Asset Management froze its largest fund, I'm beginning to wonder at what point should they just take back Myron Scholes' nobel prize? "Nono, stop saying you're a nobel winner to get backers so you can blow up another hedge fund."

3. There is speculation that the huge drop in oil (and other commodities) was sparked by China basically deciding it did not want to pay those obscene prices and started buying up certain currencies to force the unwinding of all the carry trades.

4. While there is now talk of deflation, one coworker strongly believes what Jim Rogers describes as an "inflationary holocaust" will come into being soon enough. I think I was one of those people who originally agreed that Bernanke was going to lead us into stagflation. I still blame the severity of the current situation going foward on Greenspan and his handing out of money, "believing that banks would protect shareholders' interests first".

5. A few of us believe that continuing overleveraged bets and the many instruments that facilitate these bets are a big reason for the consistently high volatility and the selling strength seen at each new low. There are more and more stories every day of executives liquidating to meet margin calls. As if the SKF wasn't crazy enough, there is now the FAZ, one of a group of 8 new TRIPLE-leveraged ETFs from Direxion. It used to be that all manner of derivative bets were side bets. Now, they've all become the main bets. One huge bid in one of these short-oriented leveraged ETFs is enough to send 200 programs chasing over each other to hit the bid in the corresponding stocks. It's hard to analyze which stock you want to short, then borrow it, then manage the risk. But now, with a touch of a button, you can get short the equivalent of 100 stocks without any of the hassle. Who's going to still trade actual stocks?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Dinner at Esca

Since I'm hemorrhaging money every time I go into the office to trade, I might as well spend some in an enjoyable manner. So this past Friday, I decided to try out Esca. Esca is not a very big restaurant, and the named chef, David Pasternak, is in the kitchen most nights. From most online accounts, he seems obsessed with freshness, and many chefs speak very highly of him. The restaurant specializes in seafood, especially crudo, an Italian style raw fish dish.

The place did not really exude a date place type of atmosphere. The bar is small and kinda just thrown in there, with about 6 seats (but they have Hangar One vodka!!). The restaurant is located right off the theater district, and as expected most of the diners there when I went at 5:30pm were of the pre-theater crowd. The kitchen is remarkably efficient given the space, keeping things up at a good pace for the people who have to make their shows and slowing things down for people like me who were there to enjoy the food. The waitress mentioned that most solo diners like me who came for the food tended to come from within the restaurant industry.

Ok, let's get to the food. The basic tasting menu is $75 and includes one sample of the crudo. For a $25 supplement, 5 additional samples of crudo were provided. A spanish mackerel bruschetta with cannelloni beans was provided for each diner to start.

The 6 crudo were:
(I think Belon) Oyster
Mediterranean snapper
Fluke with black radish
Horse mackerel with a dried tomato sliver
Razor clam with scallions and peppers
Sea urchin with caponata oil in its own shell

Most of them were simply dressed with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Simple and definitely fresh flavors. I was disappointed with the razor clam that seemed too covered with other stuff and the piece was too small to really get much flavor. The portion of sea urchin was also small.

Next was the Spaghetti Neri. This is on the regular menu. House made squid ink spaghetti with cuttlefish, green chilis and scallion. While there wasn't much in the way of extras (cuttlefish piece) the flavor was fantastic. It's easy to make a sea urchin pasta taste good because of its creaminess, but not all chefs can make a squid ink pasta that manages to really get the taste through. This was very very tasty.

Next was the Squalo alla Siciliana. Sicilian style mako shark. The preparation that I had seemed different than the version described on the regular menu. It was lightly breaded and cooked medium with some leeks and spinach. Great nutty taste and texture. I was very impressed by this dish.

The final fish course was a local wild striped bass with mushrooms and something else. The fish was cooked as best can be for a pretty thick cut of that type of fish with the fish skin perfectly crispy. However, there was nothing here that wowed me.

Next was a simple cheese course. I've been getting lucky with cheese courses it seems because this was really tasty yet simple. Buffalo ricotta with a slight drizzling of honey. The cheese was creamy without being heavy and the honey gave it that slight sweet and nutty flavor that just matched perfectly.

The dessert was an affogato di gelato. A vanilla gelato with some mascarpone cheese on top with a shot of espresso thrown in. A tasty typical italian dessert.

Overall the meal was great, the portions were just right, although I strongly suggest getting the crudo supplement if you choose the tasting menu. I will definitely be back.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Why do Americans love baseball?

This is a question I get a lot actually. Because if you bring people who didn't grow up watching baseball to a game, their first impression is usually, "this is boring". And that's because it is boring. So why do Americans love it so much? Besides the simple reason that it has history and culture on its side (that you grow up learning to watch and play baseball), I'm going to include here a phenomenon I've noticed (again it's a generalization, comments welcome) that might shed some light on this question.

The thing that I've noticed is that if I rank American sports based on popularity (not including nascar), it'd go something like this (again feel free to disagree):

1/2 Baseball
1/2 Football
3 Basketball
4 Golf
5 Ice hockey/Soccer
6 Tennis

Now, I'm going to throw out golf and hockey and focus on the team sports. My theory is that Americans prefer discreteness in their sports compared to continuousness (yes this is a word, I looked it up). Ice hockey and soccer are the most continuous of the sports on that list. The clock doesn't ever really stop in soccer while substitutions are made continuously in hockey. Basketball has a continuous flow back and forth, but each possession is limited by the shot clock. Football is separated into every down of every drive of every possession. Each point in the game can be modeled by time, down, position on field, score, etc. to determine the next course of action. Then there's baseball, where every pitch of every at-bat of every inning is separate, and baseball is the most individual of the team sports.

This leads to my belief that Americans love the game of baseball and not the sport of baseball. There is usually more athletic ability on display in the more continous sports, and those tend to be more popular around the world (rugby, soccer, hockey, basketball, etc.). But baseball (and American football) offers more climactic moments for a fan because of the discreteness of plays. For example, there's a lot of buildup and cheering when a football team is trying to complete a crucial 3rd down. But nothing beats standing up and cheering on as the batter has two strikes on him with men on base and two outs with the pitcher looking to get out of the inning. And when the ball is fouled off, we get to sit down then stand back up and do it all over again. So my belief is that there are more dramatic situations in baseball and that's a large part of its popularity.

Another thing to look at from the discreteness of plays is the buildup of the score. In basketball, soccer, and hockey, a goal is a goal. There may have been a complicated process (pick and roll, passes, set play designs, faceoffs, etc.), but most will just remember the shot that scored the goal. While that also happens in football and baseball (one big play or a home run), there's also the 13 play drive in football or the bunt/stolen base/infield hit scenarios in baseball that build up to that score and make it seem more exciting.

So yes, to me, baseball is a boring sport and I rarely watch a regular season game even if I have a monetary interest in it. But I love watching the big games in late September and October when there's just so much drama built up into it.

Dinner at Corton

With a review like this on Bloomberg including lots of name-dropping:

how could I not venture a taste?

The reviews on the web and among the food blogs have generally been very good for Corton, which only opened a little over a month ago. I usually believe in going to a new restaurant about 3-4 months in - after many of the kinks have been worked out, but before the named chef decides to leave. But this being a Drew Nieporent establishment (he's responsible for the way too many Nobus in NYC), it's already in great shape. In fact, he was there seating guests when I arrived for an early Friday sitting (6pm reservation for 1, easy to get the night before).

The atmosphere is wonderful. Simple black and white colors, comfortable sitting, and enough light to see everything clearly, while not too much that it would take away from a date ambiance.

I went with the 8 course tasting menu (actually 7 plus amuse) for $110. I will try my best to list the dishes and its components, but there were many parts to each dish so I could easily leave out some stuff.

Amuse of oyster in a gelee of it's own juices. Simple, clear flavor of oyster. This, however, would be very different from the rest of the meal, in which many flavors were used in each dish.

Santa Barbara uni in a konbu gelee with a cauliflower creme. Delicious starter with the slight bitterness of konbu working very well with the sweet uni. I would have preferred a crunch in this dish to go with the jelly and creamy textures, but overall very nice.

Braised octopus with burgundy truffle slices, in a potato consomme, with apple cider jelly cubes and a squid ink brioche tuile. The octopus was perfect and the broth was nice. Again the apple cider and tuile provided a wider range of flavor with some hints of sweetness and slight bitterness. I found them unnecessary.

Turbot in a spiced almond crust over an herb puree with a coconut citrus jus. Accompanied by squash puree, black garlic jelly cubes, and a side of small gnocchi with bacon and baby bok choy. The turbot was perfectly cooked but the almond provided very little flavor or texture as it was far from being a crust. The coconut citrus jus felt too strong for this dish and the constant theme of throwing in the sweet and slight bitterness on the side was not getting it done for me. I much prefer the turbot entree at David Burke and Donatella. The side was fantastic though. Simple flavors that go together well and excellent small gnocchi.

Scottish red-legged partridge au jus over red cabbage with sweet potato puree, a dollop of concentrated black garlic, and a side of partridge leg "royale" over a polenta cake. This was a much more successful dish with the partridge over some sweet red cabbage. I would have preferred a gamier meat to the rather chicken-like partridge, but the combinations worked well in this dish.

Small wedge of Brillat-Savarin with sour cherry pate de fruit, a chickpea chip and some celery root. This was my favorite dish of the night. Brillat-Savarin is a brie-like cheese that is wonderful. You can find a description of it on wikipedia. The combination with the sour cherry pate de fruit was amazing. This was also the first dish where it didn't feel like the chef was forcing 5 or 6 flavors into one dish and just let two terrific flavors and textures that went together shine.

Predessert of mango sorbet with some lime stuff. I'm not a big fruit person so I ate it but it didn't really do anything for me.

Creme cake soaked in orange custard with 3 fruits on top (i only remember one was fig) and amaretto ice cream. The orange custard/creme went really well with the cake and made me really enjoy the fruits on top as well, even though I don't actually like any of them. This was wonderful.

Gianduja Palette with coconut ice cream and yuzu. Chocolate and coconut are a good combination but I thought the yuzu was out of place, especially as it wasn't a very rich dense chocolate.

Finished off by a great assortment of petit fours. In fact after sampling every type they gave me a bunch of chocolates to take home.

Overall: To me it was hit or miss. As I've mentioned before, I like simple flavors that go well together. Some of these dishes seemed forced in the use of the extra sweetness or bitterness. I really liked the sides, which were more concentrated simple flavors. I think I would go back again but I would order from the prix fixe ($76 for 3 courses) and try to add the brillat savarin course. That way I'd probably end up with something closer to what I like. Overall it was a pleasant experience and there was a definite show of the chef's skills, and the service was terrific.

Because I was early for my reservation I walked around a little bit and came across a little girl and her father. It looked like they were looking for a place to eat but the places around there were all too "grown up". As the two of them were talking I overheard the little girl say, "Tribeca is not Manhattan". Thoughts anyone?

Been Away

My AC adapter for my laptop melted (again) and so I wasn't online at home for a few days. That was probably a good thing for my blog since my NFL picks last week would have sucked again. But I'm back and there should be a few posts coming soon.

A quick word on the election. Congratulations to Barack Obama for winning by a sizeable margin. That was the most important thing that he took a bunch of states away. As for his first address on Friday as President-elect, being 15 minutes late was not cool. The squawk guy on our futures feed from the pits seemed really pissed that he was late. Or he was probably just pissed as a Republican.