Saturday, July 25, 2009

We Have Street Meat!! (food)

It's like someone read my post about neighborhood food and decided to come save me. Since yesterday, a halal food cart has set up two blocks away from my building. They will open from 7pm to 4am daily and offer options of chicken/gyro/kofta/falafel over rice or on pita. The platters with rice cost only $5, which is terrific considering how overpriced this neighborhood is.

The food was good. I had the chicken and gyro over curried yellow rice. Most of the stuff was curry-flavored, so I didn't even need that much white sauce. I also liked that they cooked the meat with some broccoli, as I'm a huge broccoli fan. I'm just really happy to have a cheap meal option that's close-by and can be relatively healthy.

I did have some street meat recently that wasn't so cheap, but was quite amazing in taste. It was from the 45th St and 6th Ave Kwik Meal cart, the winner of Midtown Lunch's Street Meat Palooza 2. For $7.50, you get lamb over rice (I ask for yellow rice) that has real chunks of lamb and not just mystery gyro meat. The tzatziki-like white sauce has a nice tang and you must ask the guy for the green hot sauce, which you have to apply yourself. They also serve tiger shrimp over rice for $8.50 and salmon or tilapia over rice for $8.

There are a lot of food carts and trucks in NYC, with many providing truly great food. It makes sense for a place like this. With such high rents, why open a restaurant and force your diners to pay $13 for something they would be very happy to eat at $7? I'm waiting for someone to do a documentary on eating one month of food from NYC's mobile vendors.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Easy on the typing

My doctor just diagnosed me with ulnar tunnel syndrome in my left wrist. It's essentially the same as carpal tunnel syndrome, except that the carpal tunnel affects the first three fingers while the ulnar tunnel affects the ring finger and the pinkie. So I will probably go easy on the typing for a while, and I guess I won't blog until after I come back from the D.C. bridge nationals.

I will be in a wrist splint and on cortisone pills for a month. If it doesn't get better, my doctor's going to send me to the hand surgeon.

Monday, July 20, 2009

NYC Pizza (food)

I decided to try out a couple more highly regarded NYC pizza places.

Artichoke Pizza (1st Ave 14th St)

Artichoke Pizza is a relatively new slice joint that has gotten comparisons to Di Fara. Opened less than two years, it's gotten quite a following and very good reviews. First, I had the sicilian slice. This was excellent, and as close to Di Fara as I've had anywhere. This was definitely better than any other silician or grandma slice I've had although I still can't say that it beat Di Fara's square slice. They use a similar, if not the same, type of pan for it, creating a brilliant blackened crust that has no taste of being burnt.

I also had the signature artichoke and spinach slice. This was not for me. This was not a red sauce pizza with artichoke and spinach as toppings. Rather, it was more like the ubiquitous spinach and artichoke dip put on round pizza dough. It wasn't bad, but to me paled in comparison to the sicilian slice. The good thing about this slice is that it is huge. One slice will easily feed two people.

The prices aren't bad either, with the artichoke slice at $4 and the sicilian slice at $3.50. There are many places to get quality pizza in NYC. However, it is very hard to find quality slices. This is a quality slice joint and I'd be much happier walking down to first avenue to get their sicilian slice than making the trek out to Di Fara and then still having to wait.

Una Pizza Napoletana (1st Ave 12th St)

There's a wide range of opinion on the pizza at Una Pizza Napoletana. Most of the criticism tends to deal with the price and lack of value. People were complaining back when it was $17/pie (it's quite a small pie, around 10-12 inches), and now it's $21/pie. Yet that doesn't seem to keep it from being busy. I got there at around 6:30pm on a weeknight and there was already a line of about 8 people. Because I was by myself, I managed to squeeze into a seat in the small restaurant. The place seats about 30 and most of the restaurant has a view of the pizzaiolo.

Much has been made about the owner/pizzaiolo Anthony Mangieri. He is the only one there allowed to make the pizza, and there's even been a short documentary made about him video here. There are only 4 types of pizza, no substitutions, no plates for sharing, and they close when they run out of dough. I decided to go there because word had appeared on serious eats that Mangieri was thinking about selling and starting a new place in Jersey or San Francisco.

I ordered the margherita, with San Marzano tomatoes, mozarella di bufala, EVOO, fresh basil, and seasalt, and waited patiently. As you know, I love to watch a master craftsman at work, so even though the place was a bit cramped, I stood in the middle of the restaurant to watch Mangieri do his thing. There was not much to the pizza making itself. He simply stretched the prepared dough, added a ridiculously thin layer of tomato sauce, added the cheese, basil, salt, and finished it with olive oil. What happens after the pizza goes into the oven, however, is spectacular. The chef works each pizza, spinning it around constantly, moving it to different parts of the oven, lifting it up toward to the roof of the oven and down, all to ensure the desired spread of heat on the pizza.

The pizza arrived hot and bubbling. There were a couple of charred blisters around the crust (tasteless burnt carbon, not like the tasty char on bbq), but nowhere near enough to ruin the pizza. The pizza is not cut, and you are given a fork and a serated knife. After I cut into it and had a few bites, I felt that I "got it". If you eat this and don't understand why people say it's one of the best pizzas in NYC, you don't get it. If you cut it into quarters so that you can hold it in your hand like a slice of pizza, you don't get it. If you complain that the pizza is limp and not crisp, you don't get it. This is not so much a pizza, in the way that we usually use that term, as it is a bread steak. Yes, a well-seasoned filet mignon of bread that is enhanced by its toppings.

When you get a bite that has a little of everything - the thinner dough in the middle, the thicker dough on the crust, the sauce, the olive oil, the basil, the cheese - it's amazing. Are there enough of these bites to make it worth $21? Not really. But then again, I understand that I'm paying for the chef's passion and technique. I think that it's a unique taste experience that's harder to replicate than one would assume. I definitely recommend giving the place a try, but there's no guarantee that you'll "get it" the way I think I "got it". As I walked out, the line now had about 20+ people and one of the two servers had to come outside and give people plastic cups of water on the warm evening.

UPDATE: It's been confirmed that Mangieri has sold and is moving to the west coast. A branch of Brooklyn-based Motorino (also with good reviews) will open in its place.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Restaurant Week Report Card

Yes, it's that time of year again. I went to 4 places for lunch this week, and the reports that follow will be in the same format as this post:
Everything is pretty self-explanatory anyway, and the prix fixe yes/no just means whether the restaurant normally has a lunch prix fixe even when it's not RW.

Sushi Samba (Park Ave location)

I've only been here once previously for dinner on the company dime what seems like a lifetime ago. The menu looked interesting so I decided to give it a try. For the starter I had the seared otoro kobe beef with warm honshimeji mushrooms, ponzu gelee, and truffled tofu crema. Very thin slivers as expected, and the ponzu gelee was way overpowering. For my main I chose the organic berkshire pork tenderloin with feijoa purée, quince, and yucca chips. This was a sizeable portion of a medium well pork tenderloin and it was quite good. I saw some people at another table get the sushi assortment and it did not look particularly appetizing. For dessert, I had the tapioca coconut soup with açaí sorbet, passion fruit, and ginger crumbles. This was also pretty good. When it's not RW, they have bento boxes, but no real 3 course set lunch.

Food: 3 Value: 3 Ambiance: 3 Prix Fixe: No


This was the place where Ryan Skeen last left his mark and a special burger recipe before he went to Irving Mill. The place wants to be a casual restaurant, but just gave me the feeling that it was sloppy. To start, I had the greenmarket gazpacho with tzatziki and fennel crouton. This was nice and refreshing, with the tzatziki a nice touch to add some depth to it. Then I had the burger, which came with mayo, onion, pickles, gruyere, frites, and greens. The burger was quite good, but not spectacular, and was pretty small in size, although that was kind of expected. For dessert, I got two scoops of chocolate stout-flavored ice cream from the Greene Ice Cream Co which was okay. In the end, this just did not feel like a $30 lunch to me.

Food: 3 Value: 2 Ambiance: 2 Prix Fixe: No

Nobu (the original)

I had never actually been to the original Nobu, considering that it seems to always be fully booked well in advance. My friend and I showed up as walk-ins at 1:30pm (with lunch ending at 2:15pm) and managed to get a table easily, though it wasn't a very good table. It was different from what I expected it to look like on the inside, but I warmed up to the architecture. We both had the rock shrimp tempura with creamy spicy sauce to start and it was good. For my main I had the broiled black cod with miso which came with a bowl of rice. It's not often that you get to taste two of a restaurant's signature dishes in one RW sitting, so I liked that. The black cod (which is sable, not cod) was quite good and my friend said that it was better than the one he had at Morimoto for RW. My friend had the sushi assortment which was very good in terms of freshness, portion size, and variety. I had a couple pieces of the tekka maki (simple tuna roll) which was quite good. As I noted at the time, when you go to a really really nice sushi place, you rarely order something like a tekka maki. The dessert was an above average blueberry crumble, but nothing spectacular. I've always said that while Nobu was the innovator, so many of his dishes have now been copied everywhere that you don't really have to go there to experience that food. However, the original proves emphatically why it is still fully booked well in advance all the time.

Food: 5 Value: 5 Ambiance: 5 Prix Fixe: No

Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro

I'd never actually been to a Terrance Brennan restaurant, although I've always been fairly confident that I'd like his food. He offers a game-themed (as in wild animals) tasting menu every year at Picholine during the fall. The space is quite big and has a nice buzz. It is exactly how you would picture a nice bistro. They offer a prix-fixe menu year-round, so RW is just a way of helping them advertise that. I started with the sheep's milk ricotta cavatelli a la carbonara. I love cavatelli and this did not disappoint. A generous portion as well. I asked my server to choose between the chicken and the skate and he chose the sauteed skate wing. I tend to like firmer fish, but this was pretty good. Another generous portion with a lot going on in terms of flavors and accompaniments. Too much in fact, I thought, but I enjoyed it still. The server came by saying that the cheesecake is wonderful, but I thought that that would be too heavy. I opted for the creme brulee "le cirque", which was a good custard, but by design did not have a hard sugar crust on top. There was caramelized sugar, just not enough to make a hard layer on top. I was very impressed by the portions and would highly recommend this place for its prix fixe lunch even when it's not RW.

Food: 4 Value: 5 Ambiance: 5 Prix Fixe: Yes

Friday, July 17, 2009

Celebrities (VegasSummer 09, entertainment)

This post concludes my posts about my trip to Vegas. Ten days in Vegas really is a long time and it's so easy to feel out of touch with reality. I'm pretty sure during my first three nights there I asked people "what day is today?" at least 4 times.

The Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson deaths happened while I was in Vegas, and some of the chatter at the poker table were Michael Jackson jokes. I will include here a few of my favorites. If you are easily offended or just tired of them, skip ahead as there's more in the post after the jokes.

1. So Farrah Fawcett dies and arrives at the Pearly Gates. Saint Peter tells her, "You have lived a good life. I will grant you one wish." Farrah thinks for a little bit and answers, "I want all the children in the world to be safe."

2. Since Michael Jackson had so much plastic surgery, after his death they are going to melt him down and make Legos out of him so that little kids can continue to play with him.

3. CNN reports that Michael Jackson actually died of food poisoning. He ate twelve year old nuts.

4. Q: What are Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson getting for Christmas?
A: Patrick Swayze

Since I was alone I didn't go partying, and didn't see any clubbing celebs. My only celebrity sightings are in the two pictures below

The first picture is not clear, not only because my phone camera sucks, but because I took a quick picture from across the craps table and he left pretty quickly before I could get a better picture. If you look closely, you might be able to identify him from his famous accessory. Yes, that guy with the cap is wearing a clock. That is Flavor Flav. Former hype man for Public Enemy and reality show star with three seasons of his own show and the predecessor to 80% of VH1's current programming. They say he shows up at South Point every now and again.

On my last night at the Bellagio, as I was walking back to my hotel room at about 3am after losing as much as I was willing to lose, I saw this fellow who looked kind of familiar right next to the gift shop opposite the hotel elevators. I was so tired that I wasn't sure if he was who I thought he was, so after confirming with the guy who checks keycards at the elevators, I followed him into the gift shop and asked him, "Are you Phil Ivey?" He said yes and agreed to a picture. His expression was stoic as usual, and it was nice of him to muster up a smile as the gift shop employee was having trouble with the camera on my phone. He was taller than I thought he was. Turns out he's 6'2.

So the question is, which was the bigger celebrity sighting? My first thought was that it was clearly Flavor Flav, since Public Enemy was one of the most influential rap groups of my generation and the reality show Flavor of Love is pretty well known in pop culture. However, I've also noticed that some of my friends who haven't spent a lot of time in the states would still know Phil Ivey but have never heard of Flavor Flav. So who do you think was the bigger celebrity that I saw?

Dinner at Joel Robuchon Restaurant (VegasSummer09, food)

Since I decided to go on an all-out vacation, I had to go to the Joel Robuchon Restaurant. Right next door to L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon at the MGM Grand, this would be the pinnacle of my Vegas trip as my last dinner after 10 days away from reality.

Atmosphere: There is a reason that this restaurant is also called Robuchon at the Mansion. It feels like a private mansion as you step in through the huge doors. The black and white checkerboard marble floor reveals in its reflection the huge sparkling chandelier hanging in the middle of the main dining room. The lovely coloring scheme of purple, beige, and black is dotted with light red here and there. The main dining room revolves around an oval booth sofa lined with cushions and a large fireplace towards the inside end of the room. There are two private rooms on either side, one decorated with leaves and the other decorated with a sandy background. There were three problems I had with regards to the atmosphere. First, there were salt and pepper shakers on the tables. If I'm paying these kinds of prices, I expect the chef to have my food perfectly seasoned. Second, on the table surrounded by the oval sofa, there were black and white pictures in frames. When asked they told me these were pictures of celebrities who had dined there. While a little tacky for my liking, I can accept it. Except for the fact that the two pictures behind me were of Chuck Norris and Alan Thicke. Third is the dress code. I can understand jacket and tie optional though preferred, since this is Vegas and all, but I saw someone in there with jeans. Maybe I'm a snob, but a classic restaurant should be at least a strict business casual.

Service: Everything was as it should be. Water was refilled quickly and everything was described in detail. Food was brought to a separate serving table before being brought to the diner. At the slightest bit below par (explained below), the server strongly encouraged I get a dish replaced.

Food: Since I was splurging, I went for the degustation menu at $385. It used to be the only thing they had, but with everything the way it is, they now have set menus ranging from 2 to 6 courses with prices ranging from $98 to $195.

Amuse: Osetra caviar over crab in fennel cream

This was served in a caviar tin and layered with crab on the bottom and a ridiculous portion of caviar on top. The individual roe were bigger than the ones I've had before. This was a very good start to the meal, as the crab was fresh and sweet and was a good match for the nuttiness of the caviar. After my first bite, there was the tiniest bit of shell or cartilage, and as my server noticed this while bringing me my bread, she strongly suggested that I get it replaced. I normally hate to waste food, especially expensive food, but hey, extra bites.

The bread cart

A whole cart filled with bread. There were about 10-12 types. I can remember two types of cheese bread, one bacon bread, two types of baguettes, milk buns, saffron buns, basil focaccia, and rosemary brioche. I sampled about 6 of them. My favorites were the cheese bread and the saffron bun. The saffron bun was so full of saffron flavor I had thirds.

Salad of tomato, basil infused olive oil, tomato gelee topped with mozzarella

This was light with an interesting mix of textures. The most important thing was the presentation, which was stunning as the olive oil and mozzarella were polka dotted over the top of the gelee and provided beautiful colors.

Trio of asparagus: panna cotta with citrus oil, scrambled egg in a golden toast, morel royale with yellow wine

There weren't many pieces of the featured ingredient, but the scrambled eggs were really good. Beautiful presentation yet again.

Crispy frog leg, garlic and parsley puree

This was quite tasty and better than the L'Atelier version I've had before. The only problem was that this indeed a crispy frog leg, no plural. For a guy who grew up eating frog congee as a little boy, I always wonder why French restaurants make this ingredient seem so expensive. There was a small vegetable tempura that came with this that was good also.

Roasted lobster with green curry, uni on mashed potato with roasted coffee beans, truffled langoustine ravioli with chopped cabbage

The lobster was cooked perfectly and the green curry was a nice touch. The coffee and mashed potatoes were fantastic, but the uni needed more pop, more burst of ocean. The langoustine ravioli was one nice plump ravioli and I love the texture of langoustine as a dumpling filling.

Light pea veloute with peppermint on top of a delicate onion cloud

This is definitely a Robuchon thing, although I don't know if it's a French thing in general, to have a soup course right before the main meat courses. The onion cloud was essentially an onion foam, and there was tiny diced ham that went really well with it. Delicious, although I don't think I've had a soup at a Robuchon establishment that wasn't delicious.

Bone marrow with sweetbreads, corn, corn foam, and popcorn

An interesting combination, although there was very little marrow and I didn't really get the role of the popcorn in this. I think that popcorn is a tough texture to match with in a savory dish.

Pan fried sea bass with a lemongrass foam and stewed baby leeks

The only note that I have on this dish was the word "phenomenal". I remember being very very happy with this dish.

Sauteed veal chop with herb gelee, zucchini and fresh almonds

While this piece of veal and the jus had 5 times the flavor of the veal chop at Picasso, it was unfortunately 1/10th the size. Small piece of veal, big big flavor. The accompanying veggies were pretty meh though.

Spring root vegetables stew with Argan oil couscous

It was kind of weird to end the savory courses with a dish consisting entirely of vegetables. Everything was fresh and nicely cooked, but there was nothing special about it.

Strawberry compote infused with lime, tequila sorbet

Light predessert that was just right.

Nyangbo chocolate cake, light gianduja cream

This was very very good. For a guy who's not really into desserts, I was really enjoying this.

Coffee or Tea with mignardises

And a cart ends the meal just as a cart began it. The mignardises cart has 45 different selections. I chose to sample about 5 of them and got a box of about 8 more to go. They also gave me a whole loaf of raspberry pistachio cake to take home. I didn't taste either of the things I took away, giving it to the nice Pai Gow floorman back at the Bellagio.

Overall verdict:
To be honest, I felt really ripped off. The degustation menu used to be about $320 for 16 courses. Then they increased the price to $385. Now I pay the same $385 and I get 12 courses including the amuse? Not only that, where are my overpriced ingredients? I understand that a couple of the courses were served as trios, but where are my foie gras and shaved truffles? Argan oil is an expensive Morrocan oil, comparable in price to a good truffle oil, but more valued for medicinal properties than for taste. It's like having a bird's nest dessert at the end of a big Chinese meal. They use it to help justify the price, and it's good for you, but it's not a big taste thing.

This doesn't mean that I'm telling you not to go there. Just don't get the degustation menu. In fact, my advice would be to go for the cheapest option, the $98 two-course prix fixe. For $98, you will get the same amuse that I had, along with one meat or seafood entree from the a la carte menu as well as a dessert. Since my favorite dishes of the night were the seabass and the veal anyway, I don't see how you can go wrong with this. Furthermore, for that same price you can still have as much bread as you want from the bread cart and as much of the mignardises at the end to make sure you leave full. I think I would be extremely happy going back there and having the two course prix fixe. I guess I took one for the team.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Bellagio Hotel and Casino (VegasSummer 09, entertainment, gambling)

While a lot of things remained the same, there have also been a good a number of changes at the Bellagio, mostly in the casino. The rooms are still very nice, with a huge bathroom that has both a bath and a shower. The cable is decent, and still has the four Chinese language channels. The minibar is still just as expensive, with $8 for a bottle of Fiji water and $13 for an ethernet cable as they don't have wireless. I remembered to bring my own ethernet cable this time!

As for the casino, it's very clear how things have changed. I arrived on a Tuesday and it was pretty quiet in the casino around midnight. Things picked up somewhat towards the end of my stay as people were coming for the 4th of July weekend. Apparently it's a pretty big deal because a lot of Californians will go to Vegas during that time as Vegas' fireworks laws are less strict. Even then, the biggest sign that things were different was the fact that there are now $10 minimum tables at the Bellagio. I remember for the longest time that at best the minimums at the Bellagio were $25 and those tables would be filled. Now, even the $10 tables don't get that much action. Another difference I think I noticed was that when you used to ask for water while at the tables, they'd give you bottles of Fiji. Now, they give you small bottles of water with a Bellagio wrapper on it. Of course they still have Fiji available, you just have to ask for it specifically.

The only table game I played was Pai Gow tiles. This is actually a simple game hiding under a complex interface. I chose this game for a few reasons. One, almost all the dealers were friendly Cantonese-speaking folks. The night shift floorman was especially friendly and wrote me a couple of two-person comps for Noodles and kept offering me buffet and steakhouse comps. Second, this is the best game for sitting for long periods of time while preserving bankroll. 41% of the hands result in a push, and because of the necessity for hand-shuffling and stacking, only about 40 hands get dealt per hour. I ended down about 260 after playing 8 hours at 50/hand and 4 hours at 100/hand. Lastly, you're allowed to touch the tiles, feel the dots, and try to squeeze out the tile you want. I've always said that this texture part of gambling is a big attraction to asian gamblers, though I don't know why exactly.

I always suggest that people play Pai Gow tiles, and if the casino you're at doesn't offer it, even Pai Gow poker is a fun substitute. Here's an introduction to the game from one of the best casino gambling sites out there, wizard of odds: . Notice that even if you ask the dealer to set the hand the house way for you every time and you bank every time heads up, the house edge still only comes out to about 1.5%. If you play any of the more optimal strategies that he lists at the end, that number comes down a lot more.

Some things, however, don't really change. There were a couple of older guys who flew in from Hong Kong vacationing with their family. One of the guys was betting 5k-10k per hand. By the time i saw him again the following night, he had about 230k in chips in front of him. Also, while the floorman was more than generous with comps, when it came time for me to leave and deal with the pit and the casino host, it was like pulling teeth to get an extra $50 taken off my hotel bill. While the Bellagio is still probably the best place to play Pai Gow tiles, unless you're a big player in general, I don't see why you would want to stay and play at the Bellagio. The aura of superiority and luxury is gone.

Poker at the Bellagio: The Nonexistent (VegasSummer 09, gambling)

The poker room at the Bellagio is huge. It looked like there were about 40 tables, and since it was the WSOP, it was packed. I played there once before last year, but this looked to be completely different. I put my name on a list for 1/2NL, but in the end decided not to play any poker while I was at the Bellagio. The floor staff was not very friendly, but I guess that's understandable when two people have to run a 40 table poker room. More importantly, none of the tables looked very friendly either. Everyone there had that serious face on, whether they were real pros or wannabes. Unless it's a real event, I just don't like that kind of playing atmosphere in poker or in bridge. And because I'd already played plenty of poker at South Point, I just couldn't get myself up to sit there and grind. By this point of the trip, I just wanted to have an all-out vacation.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

My Ideal Neighborhood Food (food)

I understand that America is a car-based culture. Driving 10 minutes to go to your local fast food place is nothing out of the ordinary. I never learned to drive however, and I've always lived in neighborhoods where food is readily accessible by walking. However, the selections here in my current Long Island City neighborhood pale in comparison to the cheap and wonderful food available near my previous addresses in Jackson Heights and Sunnyside. There are certain cuisine types that I believe should be present in every neighborhood, and certain cuisine types that are in every neighborhood that shouldn't be.

I think that every neighborhood, especially in NYC, should have a good variety of affordable ethnic options. Of course, if your neighborhood is known for a specific ethnicity (Greek food in Astoria, Indian food in Jackson Heights, etc.), then that's different. Here are my picks for my ideal restaurants and food options that I want in my neighborhood.

It's cheap, the portions are big, and it's basic. Refreshing choices in the summer and hearty choices in the winter. This is the kind of food that you can eat every day, and can even afford to do so.

Pizza/Red Sauce
Every neighborhood needs a pizzeria, but do you really need a semi-fancy italian place? I mean, the top end italian food in NYC is amazing, but so many italian "restaurants" are barely serving food better than a good red sauce joint and just charging you for white tablecloths.

As Jennifer Lee noted in her talk, Chinese food might just be America's cuisine, since it's everywhere. Chinese food is efficient. Lots of combination platters, lots of options, and can be cooked to order to a certain degree.

2 Eastern Mediterranean-based cuisines
A lot of countries border or are near the mediterranean, but a lot of their cuisine is similar too. Greek, Turkish, Israeli, etc. types of cuisine share many common styles. This is why I want more than one of these places, and more importantly, at least one of them must be kosher or halal. This is important because then you will know for sure that their meat is fresh. The thing about this type of cuisine is you will often get good yet inexpensive bread, good simple meat, and good salad that's not doused in cream-based dressings. Very diet friendly.

Fried food
Everyone loves fried food. While there's really good fried food out there, normal fried food is usually enough to satisfy anybody. Whether it be a fish and chip shop, a fried chicken place, or anything along those lines, I think every neighborhood needs a place devoted to fried food. That way, they can get enough turnover to keep the oil fresh.

Every neighborhood needs a real diner. Nothing fancy, just good old American greats done simply and inexpensively. A lot of diners are mediocre, but even then, sometimes a simple open-faced turkey sandwich with stuffing and gravy is all you really want.

Taco cart
Fast, authentic Mexican street food. Made to order. What more do you need?

Many of the foods above are suitable for a neighborhood because they can be both sit down and takeaway. One other main criteria I use is that it should be a cuisine where the cheap version can provide just as good value as the expensive version of that cuisine. However, there are many cuisine types where the cheaper version and the expensive version are just too far apart in quality. However, many of these places pop up in neighborhoods all the time because of the built-in premium by association with the expensive counterparts.

There is no cuisine that has more of a built-in premium than Japanese food. $6 for gyoza? $5 for edamame? They're just blanched soybeans. Or how about those "designer" maki rolls that cost the equivalent of a full meal at other places? I'll travel for really good Japanese. I'll also have Walmart sushi if they ever have it because I'll know it'll be cheap and fresh enough with a high turnover. The in-between restaurant that's ubiquitous in NYC? No thanks.

Thai food also has a premium although I never understood why. There really is amazing Thai food in NYC. However, there are also plenty of expensive mediocre Thai restaurants all over NYC. Often times I'll have a craving for simple Americanized Thai food (like the pad thai they serve over here) and then I'll go up to the restaurant and can't justify the cost to myself and leave.

French/Modern American Bistro
These places feel like they're in the neighborhood so that you can say there's a nice restaurant in the neighborhood and the area is not a dump. However, my experience has been that these places usually try to do too much, often led by chefs who think they're much better than they actually are.

Did I forget anything? Is there any cuisine type that you'd really want in your neighborhood not on this list? Or are there other overrated cuisine types floating in your neighborhood? Let me know what you think.

Poker at South Point: The Weirder (VegasSummer 09, gambling)

Oh, yes. There's more! Well, this really is the end of it, but here's the stuff that I thought was crazier than the previous crazy stuff. The strange thing was that all of this actually happened on my last day of playing.

I was first playing during the late afternoon, and we started out with a full table. One guy was an annoying, talkative fellow. An older man from LA who clearly felt that watching poker on TV and the occasional pro live at the Commerce made him an authority figure on poker. He kept talking about how people overvalue their AK and giving out other random "advice". After he lost his first buyin of 100, I was very happy to see him rebuy for 200 more. Not much time went by and all of a sudden our table had dwindled down to 6 people when this hand came up. I held QJ offsuit and limped in the cutoff. The small blind completed and the aforementioned man was the big blind who checked. The flop came A K 10 with two clubs, of which I had none. It was checked around to me and I checked. The turn came an offsuit 9. At this point the big blind bet out 25 into the 6 pot. This is actually quite a problem. If I try to slowplay and call here, there are a large number of scare-cards that could hit on the river and minimize what I can get from him. On the other hand, he made such a large bet that if I raised (he had 120 more behind him), I might scare him off. So I took some time to think about this, and while I was thinking, the guy kept talking and talking. At one point, I heard him say, "You know you're drawing dead." Wow, really? He certainly sounded confident about his hand so I pushed all-in. He called and I showed my straight, which held up. He said that he had two pair, though we never saw his hand. He was mumbling about "can't believe you flopped a straight" as he walked away.

Later that evening, I sat down to play again as we started a new table. Barely three hands in, one guy straddled. With 3 limpers, I decided to raise it to 30 from the button with AK offsuit. The straddler was the only guy to call and we saw a flop of A K 5 rainbow. It was checked to me and I bet 40. He checkraised me to 100, and after some thought, I pushed all-in for 120 more. He called and the turn came 9 and the river came another 9. I asked if he flopped a set as I turned over my AK. He said he only had a king as he flipped over his cards, but as I leaned towards the pot, he added, "Oh wait, I have a 9. I didn't even know what my kicker was." Yes, I had just lost to running 9s to a guy who couldn't fold K9. I subsequently looked it up and the odds for hitting the running 9s were (3/45 x 2/44) = 0.3%. In fact, had he held a random 2-9, the chances of him beating me would have been 7 times more likely. I went back upstairs as fast as I could to get more money, but the guy left by the time I came back down. During this session, I also lost a buyin when I hit a set on the flop and the other guy's overpair caught a bigger set after the money went in.

Later in the night, I went back to the poker room as I was trying to avoid playing any more table games until I got to the Bellagio. So I sat in a 2/15 game. That was not a typo. There was a young guy in the 1/2NL game who made it 15 preflop 9 out of every 10 hands. It wasn't a dead raise as he saw his cards before he bet, but he was consistently firing away at it. After the flop he would usually keep betting and people would either fold or he'd hit some sick cards as he pretty much played any two starting cards with that raise. Well, it seemed like all I had to do was to wait and catch some cards or perhaps play back at him in position. There was certainly no limping speculative hands at this table. After a while, I got dealt aces under the gun and limped. A different player raised it to 15 and there were two other callers by the time it got back to me. I decided to reraise it 50 more and everyone went away. A pot of 48 is not bad for 1/2NL without even having to see a flop. I continued to sit there waiting patiently, folding my suited connectors knowing that I'd have to call 15 to see a flop. A couple of new guys came to our table, and it took them a while to figure out what was going on. One hand, I picked up QQ from the big blind. One of the new guys limped and the raiser did his thing. I called and the limper folded. This was heads up with the crazy preflop raiser. The flop came 10 5 3 rainbow, and I check called a flop bet of 20. I couldn't risk making a raise out of position because he could have started with any two cards, and I fully expected him to keep betting regardless. The turn came another 3, and I check called a bet of 40. The river came a 6 and I checked to him betting 100 on the river. I didn't feel very well, but there was nothing left to do but call, and luckily my queens held up against his 56 suited. The guy continued to play the same way and the table kind of broke up once his stack dwindled down to about 100, from a high of over 700.

Why I'm thinking about playing the lottery (gambling, entertainment, bridge)

I've been thinking about this for a while, but first, a topic that's indirectly related. While discussing my post Poker at South Point: The Normal, my friend, who plays a lot of poker, had some thoughts about a couple of the hands. Regarding hand 1, he said, "I can't believe that nit folded for 30. that's an awful raise - and you're not raising for info, you're raising for value. TPTK is the nuts live, so overpairs are the supernuts." Then he said, "hand 2, you absolutely have to bet middle pair for value on the flop. you have the best hand here an overwhelming majority of the time at 1/2." The thing in common I noticed about the two comments was the use of the term "value".

I know that poker players love talking about EV and I certainly know enough about it, with my Bayesian stats background. Also, as another friend said, "In poker, EV tends to equal EU. It won't always, but on any given hand, it probably does." But in this case, it really was about EU. It's about utility. I'm perfectly happy to sacrifice expected value for other things that mean more to my personal utility. I wasn't out there to play 3000 hands/week and grind out a second living. I was out there to have some fun, play some cards, and maintain a +EV without risking much capital if I could avoid it. Keeping the pot size variance down when the hand was speculative was very important for me. Everybody has their own style that maximizes their playing ability, ie. personal utility.

This topic also comes up in bridge. While discussing bidding with a potential partner, he would frequently retort, "Bob Hamman doesn't bid like that." Bob Hamman also plays Flannery and I believe he is the only world class player that plays standard carding. Two things that most modern experts would classify as technically inferior (and hence not maximizing EV, right?). But when you play as well as Hamman, the things that matter are comfort and reducing randomness. The marginal return on pressing that edge is much smaller than the utility created from avoiding randomness and additional comfort. I've read somewhere that the Italians tend not to preempt at the 3 level for fear of generating random results.

Okay, back to the lottery. I was once told the story of a statistics professor who won a third prize in the lottery. One of his students asked him, "Sir, you're a statistics professor. You know that the odds are against you. So why did you play?" The professor replied, "Well, somebody's got to win it." That is true, and you only have to win it once. Or maybe not. There have been many stories and documentaries about people who won the lottery only to end up worse than before. What's the problem there?

The point I want to make is that I think more middle-class and upper middle-class folks should be playing the lottery. These are the people who, if they won the lottery, would buy real estate, spend on education, invest in businesses, and donate to charity. I think it would be better in terms of both personal utility as well as social utility. However, it is also in these educated circles that people think of playing the lottery as a waste of money and think of its horrible expected value. Insurance, however, is also bad from an expected value point of view, and yet everyone has it or wants it. I just want a dollar and a dream.

Dinner at Picasso (VegasSummer 09, food)

During my stay at the Bellagio, I decided to go all out and have a real vacation, so I made sure to eat at Picasso and Robuchon (review coming later) at my first available opportunity. Picasso is at the Bellagio and is open Wed-Mon. It is most famous for showcasing actual works of Pablo Picasso in the restaurant. A food fight in here could cost hundreds of millions of dollars!

Atmosphere: I arrived for my 7:30pm reservation and it was still light out. The windows looked out onto a ground level view of the Bellagio fountains. The room itself was dimly lit except for where it showcased the artwork. The flowers and carpet were very colorful, but it was clear that the Picassos were meant to be the visual attraction. Every time the fountain show went off, it sounded like there was a mild typhoon outside.

Service: It was excellent but nothing beyond what I would expect at this price (outside NYC especially). The tables were well-spaced and the ratio of servers to tables was just right to provide attentive service without them being all over you.

Food: The stuff that really matters. During the summer, they only offer a 4 course prix fixe and a 5 course degustation menu. I asked my server for the best dishes here, emphasizing that I was more interested in skill than in ingredients. He pointed to 4 possibilities from the prix fixe and one item from the degustation. Since I already had my eye on the choices my server recommended, I went with the prix fixe and added the one dish from the degustation menu.

The amuse was a cold corn soup, with a little skewer of hard-boiled quail egg and osetra caviar as well as a little skewer of smoked salmon with creme fraiche and cucumber. This was very good. A nice fresh start to the meal and the sweetness of the corn soup matched very well with the saltiness of the caviar and salmon.

The first course was poached oysters garnished with osetra caviar in a beurre blanc vermouth sauce. Delicious, but I thought what really made the dish was the sauce. I asked for another piece of their very good French bread to soak up the rest of the caviar and sauce after I was done with the oysters.

The second course was roasted langoustine with roasted zucchini, crispy artichokes, tomato confit, and piquillo pepper vinaigrette. I love langoustine and this was perfectly cooked with good flavors and a terrific mix of textures. I thought that the tomato confit and pepper vinaigrette were a little strong for the delicate taste of langoustine. Nevertheless, it was an overall delicious dish.

The third course was the added course from the degustation menu. It was the sauteed "A" steak of foie gras with obtuse poached cherries on PX gelee and crushed almonds. At this point I ordered a glass of pinot noir which was actually from California by Soter. I only knew of his Oregon stuff but this was very good too. The seared foie gras was lovely and showcased again the chef's great use of sweet with salty. While many places use foie gras with fruit, I thought the addition of the almonds really gave it something else.

The fourth course was a roasted milk-fed veal chop with rosemary potatoes and au jus. A generous portion of bone-in veal was tasty, but did not wow like the other dishes. I would expect to be able to have something like this in many restaurants in NYC.

Strangely enough I wrote in my notes that there was no dessert. I'm pretty sure I had something since dessert is included in both the prix fixe and the degustation menus. Perhaps it was just not memorable, as is often the case with me and desserts.

Overall: My mind wandered more towards what would happen if someone threw their food at the artwork rather than admiring the Picassos on display. I found the sounds from the fountain show to be distracting, and do not particularly care for restaurants that are too dimly lit. That being said, it's a wonderful atmosphere for a date. The food was excellent and a terrific value for the price. The 4 course prix fixe is 113 while the 5 course degustation is 123. The sauteed foie gras added a la carte was 25. I would definitely recommend going there and plan to be back if I somehow found money to go to Vegas again.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The South Point Hotel and Casino (VegasSummer 09, entertainment, gambling)

I stayed there for the first 6 nights of the Vegas trip, and I actually liked the place a lot. It's away from the strip, but there were a good number of things to do on the property. With a theater, arcade, bowling, spa, and full casino as well as a poker room, I didn't really need to be back near the strip. Most of the people who spent their time there were families. There were many dads in the poker room, gambling away while their wives were at the spa and their children at the lanes or arcade. The rooms are a nice size and while the bathroom was not as nice as the Bellagio, the water pressure in the showers were comparable. While I would definitely recommend staying on the strip if you were with a bunch of 20-30 year olds looking to party and do whatever it is that hopefully stays in Vegas, I would recommend South Point for a relaxing quick family getaway.

While I clearly spent a lot of time in the poker room, I also played a decent amount of table games. I started off mostly playing 10-25 a hand, usually at Pai Gow Poker or Baccarat. The only really big players I saw were a table of Vietnamese people who were playing about 2-3k per hand of Baccarat. At one point, I was down to the last 400 or so that I would spend at the tables there (knowing that I still had to go to the Bellagio afterwards for 3 more nights) and of course I decided to play 200 a hand of Pai Gow Poker. Well, I managed to stay afloat long enough to hit a ridiculous run where I won 8 in a row and got back to even for my time at the tables there. I got up after the dealer started talking about the streak, as I'm superstitious enough to feel that talking about it will jinx it. My seat would have won the next one but lose the one after that, so it all came out to be about the same.

With that run of hands and a bit more time put in at 100 per hand, I decided that I'd done enough gambling and would only play poker on my last day there. I went to the pit with the Pai Gow Poker early that last afternoon and asked what the pit bosses could do for me. They told me that because I booked my room through a third party, they couldn't take any nights off, but they comped whatever I'd charged to the room previously, and comped me a big lunch at the Oyster Bar. After that, I wasn't in the mood to go to the poker room, so I decided to check out the spa. They had day and multi-day passes, but if you book some sort of spa or salon treatment, then you get to use the spa for the rest of the day as well. So I chose the cheapest thing on the menu, a manicure for $25, since my nails were way too long at the time anyway. I didn't quite like the manicure, but the spa was a good time. The spa pass included use of the gym (decent sized with normal range of machines) as well as the spa which included a lounge, jacuzzi, steam room, sauna, showers, and complimentary drinks and fruit.

After the spa closed, I went back to the pit to see if I could get a dinner taken care of as well. They told me that they usually give out one comp a day, but managed to get me another full meal at the Oyster Bar. I was happy with that as I didn't think that I had given them that much play besides that one big run during Pai Gow Poker. Then again, 200 a hand was a lot compared to most of the players there. Being in NYC all the time, where everyone feels like a tiny goby in a vast ocean, it was good to be a little bit of a bigger fish in a small pond. One of the interesting things about Pai Gow Poker there was that they let you bet multiple hands with the ability to set them all yourself, as well as bet a different amount on each hand. I think that someone with a good memory and a strategy to use that extra information could take good advantage of that.

In all, I would say that if you're flying way across the US to Las Vegas from the East Coast or going there to party it up, stay on the strip and do the sightseeing and the clubbing. But if you were taking a short trip there with your family or just to get some gamble on without fully indulging in "Sin City", then I think it's a nice place and good value for money. Another place that the dealers talked about away from the strip was Red Rock Casino, which is about a $50 cab ride from the airport. However, I was told that if it was on the strip the property would be comparable or even better than the Bellagio, so perhaps that's a place worth trying out.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

More Las Vegas Food (VegasSummer 09, food)

Taking a break from the poker posts, here's a post about some more of the food from my trip to Vegas. This post will talk about one dinner outing and all the other non-event dining I did when I was out there.

Musashi Japanese Steakhouse

I'm always in search of good teppanyaki (frequently called hibachi cooking in the US). In fact, last time I was in Hong Kong I specifically went looking for a decent one. The problem is that teppanyaki in the US almost always seems to end up with Benihana and that is meh at best. So when I heard about this place on some travel channel show, I knew I wanted to try it when I was out in Vegas.

It's located in some strip mall behind the Flamingo. Strangely enough, within the same block are locations of three of the more prominent US steakhouse chains, Morton's, Ruth's Chris, and Smith & Wollensky. The place is divided into two sections, a restaurant with a sushi bar on one side and the teppanyaki grills on the other. There was a foul stench as we entered the restaurant, something like a burst sewer pipe, but luckily it did not permeate into the teppanyaki room.

Their main attraction is Kobe beef, which they advertise as being the only Kobe beef in Las Vegas actually from Japan. I assume this just means that they don't go through a US supplier. A 4oz portion cost $85 while a 9oz portion cost $135, so I went for the 9oz portion. After I asked them to bring out the meat for a look, three other diners (including the friend I was eating with) opted for the Kobe as well. The food and the sauces were very good. I'm not big on the show aspect of teppanyaki, which is more of a big deal here in the US than, say, in HK, but he did some entertaining tricks. Since teppanyaki is a communal experience, it helped that our fellow diners were very friendly. The fried rice was also very good, and while the prices didn't look cheap, the portions were generous. There are supposed to be a couple of other good teppanyaki places in Vegas, but they're mostly in hotels with a higher price tag while this place has more locals dining.

Burger Bar

Located in the Mandalay Bay shopping center, this burger-centric restaurant was created by Hubert Keller, owner-chef of Fleur de Lys in San Francisco and the first week winner of Bravo's Top Chef Masters. The highest priced item on the menu was a $60 burger with American wagyu meat, foie gras, perigord truffle sauce, and slices of black truffles. I opted to create the same burger without the slices of truffles, for about $34. It was very good for the first few bites but then just got boring very quickly. The truffle sauce was the real deal although it cost $5. The foie gras wasn't bad but wasn't particularly great. The burger was not particularly flavorful, though that could have been from being overshadowed by the other add-ons. We also had an order of sliders, which I really thought were flavorless, with a bread (I say bread, not bun) that just did not work for me at all. I also had a shake which was good and not too sweet. Overall, the burgers weren't great despite the generally favorable reviews and I'm beginning to doubt all this West Coast love for In-N-Out. The other thing of note was that of the topping options, there was only crispy bacon, no slab bacon.

The Buffet at the Palms

We ate there for lunch after getting tickets for the IMAX Transformers 2. I kind of knew what to expect given the $11 price, but it was just bad. The options were very limited and nothing looked particularly pleasing. The carving station was actually carving corned beef (instead of some type of roast beef or prime rib) and yet still served au jus with it. The dough in the pizza was horrendous. I mostly ate salad and pasta. Stuff that I almost never eat at a buffet.

The Buffet at the Bellagio

I'd been there before for lunch and was not impressed, but I'd heard that dinner was much better, although $35 is definitely not cheap for a buffet in the US. Went after the crab legs to start, but there wasn't much flavor or sweetness to them. My guess is that they'd been too frozen, and that since everyone ate them with drawn butter, many people probably didn't mind. The selection was pretty good, with 4 different meats on offer at the carving station, although the lamb that I got was also pretty tasteless. The only thing that I really liked was the made to order spicy tuna hand roll. Crisp nori covered a spicy tuna mix that was not heavy on the mayo. The only other good part of the buffet was that I discovered that chilled smoked salmon with room temperature/warm drawn butter and a squeeze of lemon is an amazing combination. Maybe I'm just spoiled by amazing US$50+ buffets all over Hong Kong.

Silverado Steakhouse at South Point

Nothing special although I only ordered the prime rib. Everything was USDA prime and dry-aged, but not particularly flavorful. A nice touch was that even the house salad was mixed at the table. Good pretzel bread in the bread basket. Wouldn't be a steakhouse that I purposely visit, but I can't complain too much since this meal ended up being comped.

Hot Dogs at South Point

In the sportsbook at South Point, there's a little hot dog stand that's open till about 10pm. It serves all-beef hot dogs that are about the size of what they call a sausage at most NYC dirty water hot dog carts. Topping choices include ketchup, mustard, raw diced onion, and relish. They were really good and really convenient being about 2 steps away from the poker room. They were also a fantastic deal at 75 cents each.

Oyster Bar at South Point

I will explain my comp situation in a later post about the two hotel casinos that I stayed in, but for now, just know that I was comped two $50 meals at this Oyster Bar, one for lunch and one for dinner. The comp wasn't for $50 as much as an app and an entree and two drinks and the server just pointed me in the direction of the most expensive things on the menu. For lunch, I had the jumbo shrimp cocktail and their version of a cioppino, which was a seafood mix (with lobster) over a soupy tomato base with linguine served in a bowl. The cioppino was actually quite good in that none of the seafood managed to get overcooked and it was just a nice simple rustic taste. The jumbo shrimp cocktail were really jumbo, looking to be about 5.5 inches spread out. Those were so good that when I went back for dinner, I ended up having another two orders. For dinner, I had more of that shrimp and a dozen oysters. While the oysters were very meaty, I found them to be lacking in flavor, and almost a chore to finish.

Noodles at Bellagio

I enjoyed Noodles the last time I stayed at the Bellagio, but I'd heard that they changed the head chef since my last visit. With two $90 comps, there was a lot of ordering, a lot of eating, and a lot of taking away, back to my hotel room and even onto the plane. I had the Hainanese chicken which was good, probably more so because I miss it than it being a superior version of the dish. I had some fermented eggs (the century eggs as people like to call them) which were nice, as well as a Cantonese-style roast duck and wonton noodle soup at the recommendation of the floor guy who wrote my comps. That was really good in that they were the best wontons I've had in the US. For the dishes that I took away however, it seemed like there wasn't much care put into the cooking. I ordered water spinach and chinese broccoli with garlic twice, and every time it seemed like they were just simply blanched. I also ordered the crab meat with XO sauce over rice noodles, with extra XO sauce one time, and both times there really wasn't much in the way of XO sauce.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Poker at South Point: The Weird (VegasSummer 09, gambling)

Before I get to the tales of the weird, here's a hand I played and I want you to guess what I had:

I limped UTG and a middle position player as well as the button also limped. The small blind completed and the big blind checked. The flop came A 4 5 and it was checked around to the middle position limper who bet 10. Everyone else folded and I called. The turn was the 5 and I checked again to the middle position player who bet 20. I thought for a little bit, then asked the bettor how much he had remaining in chips. Upon hearing the answer of 80 more, I thought some more, then moved all in over the top. Any guesses what I held?

So during four of the six nights I was there, there was a guy on vacation who was also in the poker room every night. He was recognizable because he was very talkative and decently loud. While some of the regulars got annoyed, I didn't mind him at all and I knew that at the very least the table he was at would be friendly and fun. As some of my bridge partners know, I'm capable of playing at a pretty good level while chatting away.

On his last night playing, he tried to get the people at the table to play a 2-7 sidebet. For those who don't know, it's a simple side game where if someone wins a hand and shows 2-7 (it can be a hand where everybody else folds), everyone in the bet has to pay off a predetermined amount to the winner. It wasn't for anything crazy, just 5 per person. We only had 4 people willing to play and there was a woman who said she wanted to play but that a sidebet like that can easily mess up her play. After a little bit of trying to persuade people to play, one guy said he'd play if it was for 10 per person. With that, the woman agreed to play and we had 6 of us in the sidebet. While the floor did their job of telling us that sidebets were not allowed, we kept going anyway. Now that there was a 50 bonus riding on the 2-7 in a 1/2NL game, it made it worthwhile.

The weirdness began on a hand that I hadn't even been paying attention to. After two limpers, the woman on the button makes a nice sized raise. On the flop, the early limper bets out, and after a call, the woman makes a big raise again. After the turn, it gets checked to the woman who bets about 2/3 of the pot and is then check-raised all in by the early limper for about 80 more. She seemed visibly troubled, and then said, "I call. See, this is what that stupid bet made me do!" as she turned over 2-7 for a pair of 7s, drawing dead to the other guy's set. It's one thing to take a stab or even two stabs at it with 2-7. It's another to call an all-in drawing dead for 80 more. The weirdest thing was that she had been playing really tight, smart poker for an hour and a half before this.

She went all-in and lost about a few hands later. She seemed to be able to laugh about the incident, but she left shortly after. After she left, we managed to get the whole table in on the action. One guy won the 2-7 with a decent-sized preflop reraise while another won with a preflop raise and a flop bet on an AK7 board that scared everyone away. A couple guys took stabs at the 2-7 on the flop, but gave up on it fairly easily and didn't go down in flames like the woman did when faced with resistance. The first 2-7 hand that won post-flop was, well, have you figured out my hand from that first question I asked? I did indeed have 2-7 on that hand, and the middle position limper folded an A face up.

But there was one more weird little hand before I decided to call it a night. The talkative fellow raised it to 11 UTG, which was his regular raise. One guy called and I called from the button with J3. The big blind called as well and four people saw a flop of A 10 2 rainbow with no diamonds. It was checked to the preflop raiser who bet 20. For some reason it felt like a standard continuation bet to me, so I decided to float him as everyone else folded. For those unfamiliar with the term, floating essentially means to call an opponent's bet with nothing with the intention of taking the pot away from him on a later street. See here. The turn was the 9 and it was checked to me so I took a stab at it with a bet of 30. He said, "Good hand." as he folded 2-7 face up and added, "You couldn't let me have this one?" I showed him my complete bluff and we had a good laugh about it. His 2-7 was actually well ahead!!!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Poker at South Point: The Normal (VegasSummer 09, gambling)

I stayed at the South Point Hotel and Casino for my first 6 nights in Vegas. It's off the strip and was the best value that I found on Hotwire. I will write a more detailed post about the hotel and casino later. The poker room at the South Point was a small area, perhaps able to fit 11 tables at the most. During the 6 nights I was there, there were at most 3 1/2NL tables going and only once did they get a 2/5NL table going. Most of the players were locals, about 60% I would say. Not local pros, but rather just locals and local dealers who wanted to play without dealing with the strip traffic.

The floor staff was friendly and most of them as well as some dealers knew me by sight by the third night. Unlike poker rooms on the east coast, most of Vegas seems to rake rather than count time. At the South Point, there was a high hand jackpot. This is hit when you use both cards in your hand (must have pair for quads) and hit quads, a straight flush, or a royal flush. These were then divided into suits or which quads you hit (2-A). The hand did not need to reach showdown, but there needs to be $10 in the pot to qualify (of which $1 went to the jackpot). During the time I was there, the diamond royal flush was the biggest draw, having reached over $6k from not having been hit for over a month. The comp system was time-based, with $1.5/hr for the first 4 hours, then $.75/hr after that, with a $9 cap per 24 hours. By the time I left I had $30 in comps (still there I never took them), and that didn't even include the times when I forgot to clock in or out. So you can imagine how much time I spent in that poker room.

Most of the tables were friendly, and whenever possible I tried to get onto a friendly table. There were players who were pretty blatant about their tendencies. One old asian woman, who seemed to be a regular, regularly overbet her top pair while check-calling her draws. For example, if there were 5 limpers to the flop and she hit her top pair of Qs, she'd bet 25 into an 8 pot (1 for rake, 1 for jackpot). She even bet like this when she hit the nut flush on the flop! One of my friends said that 1/2NL in Vegas during the WSOP was probably more like .25/.5 online. One of the ways in which this was true was that preflop raises were all over the place. Raises of 12/15/20 were very common with a wide variety of hands and had a wide variety of hands call these big preflop raises.

In the end, the one tendency that really seemed to matter was an analysis of continuation bet patterns. The key things to know seem to be how often people continuation bet, how many more shots they were going to continue to stab at it, and how often they would call a raise of the continuation bet with two overs that missed the flop. I found that if you were playing against people who can play a little, clearly have read a book or two, you were better raising the continuation bet if you had a piece of the flop. On the other hand, playing against the cowboy or the truck driver, you were better placed to just call the bet.

Below are some hands and plays I made that I found interesting. Hope you do too. For all of these, I played 1/2NL and bought in for 300.

Hand 1.

Holding KK in the cutoff, I raise it to 12. Button calls, and flop comes ♠Q ♠5 2

I bet 20, button raises 20 more.

At this point I want to see where I'm at, so I raise it 30 more. I'm in no hurry to raise it too much. I find that especially on the flop, noone ever feels priced out to chase in a raised pot. But if I run into a monster, I'm willing to let go of it without committing too much. After considerable thought, she mucks her hand. If she had raised again after that length of thought, I would have folded easily. After I showed her my K's she said she had AA. From her tight play that I observed afterward, it would not surprise me at all if she did have AA.

Hand 2.

Holding J7 in late position, I call an early position raise to 7. Heads up, the flop comes T 7 2 rainbow. Preflop raiser checks to me and I check. I'm not in a tournament trying to amass chips to survive blinds, so I don't feel a need to bet here. If it's clear he caught up by the turn, I can let this go. If not, I feel that I am vulnerable to a wide variety of plays back at me and dangerous turn cards if my flop bet doesn't get him to go away. The turn is another rainbow 5 and it's checked to me again. This time I'm fairly confident I'm ahead and bet 10. The guy now check raises 10 more. I'm still not convinced that his hand suddenly got better or that he'd been slowplaying the whole time, so I call to get more information. The river came a K. This is a very dangerous card. If he had just been making a play back at me with AK, KQ, KJ, he will have caught up. He bet 25. However, there was a wonderful tell that I caught here, something that you won't get online. He reached for his chips to bet BEFORE the K hit on the river and his motion did not slow or change in any way as the K hit the felt. This felt to me like he considered his hand purely a bluff and the river not to have mattered, so I called. He mucked his hand, saying, "You call, you win."

Hand 3

Holding J8 on the button I call a raise to 12 from UTG. The flop comes Q T ♠3

The preflop raiser bets 20, and I did not sense a lot of confidence. I decided to raise here to 50 on the sense of weakness, knowing that I'm ok to call if we do get our chips in the middle. The preflop raiser thinks for a while then pushes all in for 100 more. I call and he flips up JJ. Unless he was very confident he was pushing me off the hand, his play was pretty atrocious. He's drawing extremely thin if I have a Q, and even on this hand that he caught me with, he's no better than 53% to win the hand. One extra inference, is that if I had AK or KJ or even AJ I was not likely to want to chase him off the hand, to get my chance at $6k high hand jackpot. I think this makes his play even worse. Of course I missed and he won the hand.

Hand 4

This hand caused a lot of laughs at the table and perhaps even made its way into someone else's story about playing poker in Vegas. I was bored and straddled to 4. A solid player raised it to 20 from early middle position and another called on the button and it was to me. The preflop raiser was not a random and so I put him on a range of 99 to JJ. I looked down at my cards and the first card I saw was ♠A. Well, I thought, this seems like a great time to make a squeeze play. As long as my read was right, even if I couldn't get the raiser to lay it down preflop, I still had a chance to hit my A. So I raised it 60 more. The preflop raiser thought for a while, tried to get some information by looking at me, and then decided to just make the call. I was pretty sure I could get him off the hand when all of a sudden, the button caller now went all in! To make it worse, his raise was only 25 more, so I didn't get another move. The flop came 853 with two hearts, and I decided that it must be easier to try to beat one person than two, so I pushed all in for 200 more. After much hemming and hawing, the preflop raiser mucked QQ face up. Everyone at the table was sure I had KK or AA. The turn and river came 7 and 2, so I was pretty sure I lost either way. The all-in guy turned up AK! I think that's an atrocious play for a cash game, so I wasn't really expecting it. So I look at my cards and turn over... ♠A♠2. Pair of deuces takes the pot! Everyone had a good laugh about it, and everyone else at the table still swore they thought I had KK or AA. Even the AK guy realized that if I hadn't made my play, he wouldn't even have had a chance to win against the other guy's QQ, so he took it in stride. Besides, the flop gave me a gutshot draw so it wasn't as horrible a beat as it might have seemed at first.

And yes, even that hand was still part of "the normal". In the next post, we'll get to "the weird".

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Categorizing when reviewing (random daily thought)

Often when you ask me whether I liked something, whether it be a restaurant or a movie or whatever, you will hear me say "it's good for what it is". I always find that it is more useful to rate something among a comparable subset of goods/services rather than just giving a blanket opinion.

For example, the NY Times reviews restaurants on a 4 star system. However, there are restaurants where a 2 star review would probably be the highest it could possibly achieve while a 2 star review would be devastating for certain restaurants. This is the same for the Zagat Survey. The only qualifier is usually a price range listed after this main review component. I think that every review site should have a value/worth rating. I've eaten at ridiculously expensive places as well as many cheap places. Personally, I often find good value at both ends of the spectrum and very little value at the places in between.

Another thing I try to avoid is comparing apples to oranges. My friend who saw O with me didn't think it was anything special, saying that he wanted more energy and that he would have a better time at a concert with high energy fans. While the prices are comparable for a night out, I wouldn't make this direct comparison. I understand that there are subjective preferences. I'm sure I have friends who would feel out of place at said concerts that my friend would love. So when I try to give my opinion on something, I try to qualify the event as best I can with as objectively comparable events as possible. And this is why you'll frequently hear me say that something is "good for what it is", and if you're not sure what I think "it is", then you should ask.

Non-gambling Entertainment (VegasSummer 09, entertainment)

There are a lot of things to do in Vegas other than gambling, and with my early exit from the WSOP tournament, we decided to enjoy some of these other forms of entertainment. There was a bowling alley in my hotel and I had a coupon, so we bowled a few games. It was during this time that I checked my phone and found out that Michael Jackson had died. I knew about Farrah Fawcett earlier, but this was really shocking as it was unexpected.

Besides bowling, we watched Transformers 2 on IMAX at the Palms and two nights later caught O at the Bellagio. I thought Transformers 2 was all right though everyone compared it unfavorably to the first one. I don't know if the big screen helped at all during the fight scenes. With the mishmash of shooting, transforming, and kung-fu type fight scenes, it was hard to figure out what was going on. I often couldn't tell whether something was a punch or a kick. While we were waiting to watch Transformers 2, we rewatched Pelham 123. I thought it was ok the first time I saw it, but upon further review, there were just too many stupid plot points and characters. It just wasn't very good.

We were 15 minutes late to O, but I was still amazed. Everything worked, from the acrobats to the clowns, and some of the aquatic acts were truly spectacular. If you've never seen a Cirque du Soleil performance, I highly recommend it. And even if you have, I'm sure O would compare favorably. However, I suggest reserving your tickets online or preferably getting comped. It was my friend's last night in Vegas so we bought same-day tickets at full price for mediocre upper level seats. I don't know if I can justify paying $170 for that considering everyone else in the theater probably paid less than we did.

Friday, July 3, 2009

WSOP Event #48 (VegasSummer 09, gambling)

This was the $1500 PLO8 that I really wanted to play. The result was disappointing as I lost rather quickly. Everyone started with 1500 in chips with two rebuys of 1500 each that can be taken at any time in the first three levels. Blinds started at 25/50 and the second level was 50/100. There were at least three pros at my table and I'm pretty sure the pro directly to my left has a WSOP bracelet and ended up being the chip leader after the first day. Nobody at our table took any early rebuys.

It didn't help that I didn't get much in the way of cards. I was dealt A2xx only once during my hour and a half of play, and it was A2KT where everyone folded to my preflop raise. Any kind of speculative hand that I had (eg. 2345 double suited) in position would completely miss the flop. There were only two flops that I really hit. One was quads which I bet the whole way as the other guy chased an A3 low and caught on the river. The other hand I flopped the nut low with a flush draw and gutshot straight draw. The pro that called my bets had top two pair and the second nut low. The river counterfeited my low, filling his gutshot and leaving me without even half the pot.

For my first live tournament experience, I thought I learned a lot. I think if I played a similar event again I'd be more comfortable and more patient. Of course I would still need to get some cards and hit some flops, but I think I learned a lot more about the difference in live and online tournament play.

L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon (VegasSummer 09, food)

Only an hour off the plane and barely checked into my room, my buddy calls me and says that he and his friend are going to L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon. As many of my readers know, I love all the L'Ateliers, having eaten at four of its worldwide locations (NYC, LV, HK, Paris).

So off we went to a huge meal on my first night in Vegas. I opted not to have any wine since I was playing the WSOP event #48 the next day. We decided on the "discovery menu" and added one of the miniburgers each because it's one of my favorite items on the menu and it was actually cheaper than the price on the NYC menu.

Foie gras parfait with port wine and parmesan foam
this amuse is one of the best things at L'atelier and I can never get enough of it.

Smoked salmon in an herb gelee with light wasabi cream
this was everything I would want in a starter. Light, tasty, with a kick from the wasabi cream and a good mix of textures.

Poached baby Kusshi oysters with French Echire butter
we all agreed that this was the least impressive of all the dishes.

Maine lobster in a tomato sauce and green asparagus
well-cooked and tasty, one of my friends said that this was his favorite dish. I liked it but was not blown away.

Foie gras ravioli in a warm chicken broth with herbs
this was much better than the one time I ordered this in NYC. For some reason the flavors melded much better this time. Great dish in cold weather.

Mackerel filet, baby artichokes, ginger oil
this was the most impressive dish for me. Just spectacular flavors and a perfectly cooked piece of fish.

Beef and foie gras burgers with caramelized bell peppers
wonderful as always. the flavors, the fat, the meat, it all just goes so well together.

Entree choice of foie gras stuffed quail or hanger steak with fried shallots
i've had the quail many times so I decided to try the hanger steak. It was very good but I'm not sure I would ever order it a la carte.

Peach confit infused with Moscato d'Asti, apricot milkshake
this was good but it was heavier than we all expected for a predessert.

Acai granitem, light caramel cream
good dessert to round out a great meal.

The discovery menu was $148 and the extra burger was $16. Unless you go crazy, I never find L'atelier to be overpriced for the consistently high quality of food.

Back from Vegas (VegasSummer 09)

Just came back from Vegas today, and will start posting my thoughts about the trip. I'm mostly going to go in chronological order, and will discuss food, hotels, gambling, etc. I know that it probably would've been more fun if I had updated in a more real-time fashion, but I only paid for internet use 1 out of every 3 days anyway.

The posts will be labeled VegasSummer09 in case I mix other posts in between.

I wish everyone a happy 4th of July weekend, and I think that Kobayashi will be very good value this year as a bet. It's his last year as he is retiring, and I imagine this means that he can go all out and extend himself without worrying too much about future repercussions since he won't be competing anymore.