Sunday, August 23, 2009

TV picks (entertainment)

As the summer season winds down and the fall season is about to start, there's still a lot of tv that I'm watching and catching up on. Here are a few of my current favorites not mentioned before.

Mad Men
With plenty of emmys and plenty of buzz, I finally succumbed and bought the first season for my Ipod. I loved it. I then DVRed the second season marathon that ran a couple weeks ago, and now have the DVR set for the third season. I loved the first season, which was very dark in its theme about the way people are and the secrets they keep. I found that the second season catered more to what general fans liked, which was more about shocking stories and the whole 60's thing. While I still loved it, I liked the darker nature of the first series more. Then there's the gorgeous cast, including the jaw-dropping Christina Hendricks and the absolutely gorgeous January Jones. Then again, I could just have a thing for the way they made women up in that era because I also thought Kate Bosworth was absolutely gorgeous in Beyond the Sea.

I like most of Joss Whedon's stuff, although I'm not as crazed as most of his fans are. One of the shows that's almost always mentioned on lists about tv shows that were cancelled too early is his Firefly. Finally I decided to give it a try (it's free on Hulu) and I've spent pretty much the whole weekend going through the one and only season. Firefly is more of a western than sci-fi. I think it used the space theme as a way to expand its universe, since westerns tend to revolve around the same people over and over again. The random smattering of mandarin Chinese is amusing but annoying because the actors don't speak it well enough and I always end up having to look up what they said. While there are aspects of it that remind me of Andromeda, I'd say that the best comparison to a current show would be Leverage, which in itself is another good show that I'm watching, except with less of a procedural feel and more humor. Also, there's Whedon's signature character development that gives the feeling that the show is constantly moving foward. Morena Baccarin is stunning as the high class companion/courtesan Innara, although I wonder if any of that is her acting, because she also did look crazy in the How I Met Your Mother second season episode where she played a girl with "crazy eyes".

Dragon's Den/Shark Tank
For a guy like me who loves watching how business runs, I'm surprised that it took me this long to discover Dragon's Den, which is in its 7th season and can be seen on BBC America. The American version is called Shark Tank and premiered on ABC about 2 weeks ago. I love the UK version's cast of dragons and I like that it has a much more business/serious feel to it. Most of their participants make real pitches, with real sales numbers and forecasts. The American version is typical of most American reality shows of this type. I don't care to see a profile of the participants, where they're from, etc. In the UK version there's a short description and then it's straight to business. However, I do like both shows and I think the negotiations in the US version are much more spirited and has greater range which is great.

So I would suggest getting the first season of Mad Men on DVD (or similar) as it's well worth it. Firefly is free on Hulu and I highly recommend just watching the hour and half pilot at the very least, although like most Whedon shows it gets better as it goes along. I think Shark Tank is better than any Apprentice/talent competition reality show out there, but I also suggest watching Dragon's Den, and you can find full episodes of that on youtube.

Friday, August 21, 2009

I got a fcking reservation to the fcking dinner!!!! (food)

I just got the hottest food ticket in town. I'm not cursing for the sake of cursing. Four Fcking Dinners is in fact the name of the events. For specific details check out the article on Eater.

I got the reservation for 2 of the 12 available seats for Pascal Barbot. L'Astrance has been ranked number 11 on the S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurant list the last two years, and apparently is just a really hard reservation to get. It is quite expensive though at $300 a head, and with my mom visiting I'm not sure if she wants to spend that kind of money or really has that kind of palate. Then again, if she doesn't want to go, I'm sure that extra seat is so coveted that I wouldn't be shocked if someone made me an offer I can't refuse for it if I advertised its availability.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Quick view of the market (stock/trading)

I've heard more and more over the past week or so from these CNBC pundits and the like that they think the market is in or due for or heading towards a correction. I'm sure today's turnaround didn't help them sell that idea. My view is that there will be no correction, at least in the near term. Between the large amount of shorts still out there and the large amount of money that's still on the sidelines, I can see this market continue to drift up. However, even if there is a major pullback, I still don't see it as a correction. Rather, I would see it as reality setting in and people realizing that the high unemployment and downward cycle of the real estate market will continue to take its toll. Besides, where are all those toxic assets from before? They're still on someone's books aren't they?

So my feeling is that we're either going to keep going at this level and higher or we're going to fall off a cliff again. I just don't see some "correction" that pulls the Dow back to 8000 and then shoot back up to the highs. Anyway, just my thoughts.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Dinner at Marea (food)

There'd been a lot of hype about Marea. Michael White's extremely high end shrine dedicated to Italian seafood has received a lot of great reviews and was rumored for quite a while to be Bruni's 4 star swansong (which went to a very deserving Eleven Madison Park, one of my favorite restaurants in NYC). Just in case the Bruni rumors turned out to be true, I made a reservation in advance and went there this past week with a friend.

Atmosphere: A beautiful space on Central Park South that turns out to be a lot bigger than it first appears. The color scheme is great and gives off a very classic vibe without using black. The place is just beautiful everywhere and the bar has a backlit golden onyx that works really well without feeling out of place compared to the dining room. The only thing that felt a little out of place was a big tv (not turned on) that hung on a wall near our table, as we were far away from the bar. I guess that could be in preparation for someone hosting a grand new year's eve event there. There is the buzz that every restaurant should strive for, not too noisy, not too quiet. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Service: This was probably the best service I've had in a long time in a full restaurant. Water was refilled at a ridiculous pace and bread was offered a few times during the meal. We ended up sitting and chatting after the meal for quite a while (we were there a total of 4 hours!!) without even having coffee or drinks and were never rushed. When I asked for the bathroom, a runner walked me over to the stairs that led down to the bathroom (and strangely enough a private dining room) area. The only thing that I thought could be improved was to have the actual waiter describe the food instead of the runners, as the accent made it hard to hear the full description.

Food: We both had the 4 course prix fixe ($89+certain supplements) and I added a couple dishes as well.

Amuse: House cured Alaskan salmon with black plum, wild celery, truffle oil, and olive oil. I couldn't really taste the truffle oil. This was solid, nothing spectacular.

Communal pre-app: Sea urchin on a slice of toasted bread draped with a thin layer of lardo and a little sea salt. This was really really good, but as can be expected, really really heavy. I think just a touch of citrus somewhere would have taken this to a much better place, especially at the start of a meal. This was ordered and not part of the prix-fixe.

Bread: Olive focaccia, sourdough, 7 grain. No butter. I tried the focaccia and the sourdough. Nothing spectacular.

First Course: My friend had the marlin crudo with caviar and cream. The fish was fresh but I've never been really wowed by crudo the way I can be wowed by sushi/sashimi. I had the lobster-filled squid with slow-cooked tomato. This was amazing. Perfectly cooked squid covered a stuffing of lobster that provided the perfect texture accompaniment. The tomato gave it so much flavor as it all worked together. My friend was also very impressed.

Second Course: I ordered the spaghetti with crab, santa barbara uni, and basil. While this was good and the pasta was very good, I much prefer Esca's version of uni pasta. My friend had the lobster ravioli with mushroom and asparagus and it was amazing. The best lobster ravioli I've ever had. Real lobster taste and texture and eating it together with the mushroom and asparagus was perfect. Lobster raviolis are usually underperformers in my book but this was the real deal.

Added Pasta Course: The fusilli with red wine braised octopus and bone marrow is the signature pasta dish that every review I've read has raved about. Indeed it was wonderful, but perhaps because I thought the sauce was a little too heavy with the marrow, I felt that the first few bites were much better than the last few bites. The pasta was also a pretty dense fusilli.

Main Course: My friend had the grilled swordfish which I did not try, but he said it was very good. I ordered the brodetto di pesce, an adriatic seafood soup with mussels, clams, scallop, langoustine, spot prawn, and striped bass. The soup had great flavor and every piece of seafood was perfectly cooked. Perfect for someone who wants a little bit of everything.

Dessert: I went the safe route and had the affogato with zabaglione gelato. Affogato is always satisfying though never particularly impressive. My friend went with the torrone gelato, which is an Italian nougat with very strong almond flavor. I stole a little bite and I loved it, especially since I'm a big almond fan.

In the end, Marea certainly lived up to the hype. No dish was a pure miss, while several were truly stellar. The price point is comparable to the top level of NYC restaurants, with Daniel, Eleven Madison Park, etc. but the quality is also there. Marea has definitely found a spot on my list of places to recommend/take people.

Some quick online poker thoughts (gambling)

With both Full Tilt and Pokerstars having their online poker championships and offering reload bonuses, I jumped back in to play for a little bit. For a full time grinder, these reload bonuses are great. However, for a casual player like me, it takes a long time to clear any bonus. One of the things I wonder about is how many casual players go after the bonus and forget about the bigger picture. For example, a guy like me hasn't played in a long time, but decided to jump back in with the deposit bonus. If the deposit bonus is 100, and I'm up 500, why should I keep playing further to clear the rest of the bonus? I've already done better than the bonus, and I wasn't planning on playing full time to begin with. I wonder how many people (like me) continue on and end up clearing the bonus but with worse overall results.

Another thing I've been wondering about is whether the key to success in online poker is really all about the bankroll and less about the actual skill. I think that's all it really comes down to at the low to medium levels. For example, in a game like heads up pot limit omaha, you can be frequently pushing all in with an average EV of about 45% (with the fold vig) but increase the variance enough that you'll just eventually outlast the opponent with one well-timed suckout. I assume most casual and semi-casual players who sit down to those games don't have more than 6 times the buyin for backup.

One of the things I tried was playing 50+2 turbo double or nothing sit n gos on pokerstars. After 142 of these, I had a 48% strike rate and decided to stop. I really just am not a holdem player. I do still believe that I know what I'm doing for pot limit omaha and pot limit omaha/8. If there are enough requests, I'd be happy to share my thoughts, strategies, and provide a primer for beginners.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Al Fresco Dining in NYC (food)

Although I could be biased due to my love of air conditioning, I never really got the whole al fresco dining thing. I mean, in the countryside, that's cool. But in the city? What's the point of eating on the damn sidewalk? However, I came across these two spots that are good for enjoying what is left of the summer outdoors.

Southwest Porch (Bryant Park)

In the southwest corner of Bryant Park, there is a designated area that is sponsored by Southwest airlines. They serve $7 good beers, $8 wine, and $9 cocktails. They also serve sandwiches made by Wichcraft especially for them at $9 for two mini-sandwiches. They give you bags of peanuts and the water is the canned water that they serve on their flights. The sandwiches are tasty, although a bit on the expensive side. I had the soft-shelled crab sandwich, which results in one whole crab between the two sandwiches, as well as the bratwurst sandwich, and both were good. It's a good place if you're planning to lounge for a while and just enjoy sitting in the park (they have couches and rocking chairs) sipping a summer cocktail.

Inside Park at St. Bart's Church (50th St and Park Ave)

I wasn't originally planning on eating outside, but the inside dining room was closed the evening that I went there. The outside terrace space is lovely and I'm glad that I got to experience it. Since you have to walk a few steps up and in towards the church, the big terrace space does not have that "eating on the sidewalk" feel at all. In fact, it was kind of surreal to be watching the yellow cabs go by and yet feel so detached from busy Manhattan.

The cuisine is generally greenmarket-driven, and the portion sizes for the entrees looked decent from what I saw around me. They have an assortment of simple plates, ranging from $5 to $7, with a selection of 3 for $18. So I went with two selections of 3, and just picked the most expensive ones to get some value. Cheese with music was a plate of large sticks of French cheese lying in a pool of vinegar and spices and served with toast. It wasn't particularly special. The beef tongue served with cucumber and a toast stick was nice, simple, smoky, and tasty. The country pate was very well done. It had vibrant flavors and it was the first time in a while that I had a pate/terrine where the meat was flavored well and I didn't need to be served three different types of grain mustards or stuff like that. The trout gravlax had a nice taste and good texture mix with the slightly bitter frisee salad that came with it, but there was very little of the fish. The spiced blue prawns were nice and fresh (2 to an order), with their heads perfectly fried so that you can just pop it in your mouth with the eyes, brains and all. The grilled calamari had a nice char on the outside and the fried tentacle was good.

That's the good news. Unfortunately, there's a good amount of bad news also. During the time that I was there, the church bell tolled every 15 minutes. The bread wasn't particularly good. The manager/sommelier had a pompous air to him while the service was definitely slow and inexperienced. The runner who poured my water looked at me like I was his mortal enemy. Music was blasting out of the speakers that are placed next to the bar area. Not overly loud, but definitely such that everyone could hear the music. They had it on some XM radio channel, which I assume was 90's music, since I heard House of Pain's Jump, The Humpty Dance, and Wonderwall. While I love those songs, I don't know if they're dinner music.

I didn't think the prices were too bad especially given the fact that it's directly across the street from the Waldorf Astoria. I would recommend it to people who like good food in an al fresco setting where you're both still in the city but at the same time feel like you're taking a step back away from it.

Sushi Taro in Washington DC (food)

I wasn't originally planning on having a big meal when I was in DC, but with no dinner plans one night and needing something to take my mind off the bad day of bridge I had, I decided to look for a place on chowhound. I found Sushi Taro, which actually had very differing views on chowhound, but seemed to suit my purpose and was within walking distance from the hotel.

I arrived and asked to look at the menu first. Most of it centered around different kaiseki menus, with prices ranging from 70-110. There was also an a la carte menu, which kind of put me off at first because the prices looked very much like NYC prices. I decided to sit down anyway, even though the only seat available was at the bar (the alcohol bar, not the sushi bar). I wanted to have a piece of chutoro sushi and a piece of tamago (egg) sushi to see the level of their sushi chef, but they served everything in orders of two pieces. So I ended up getting an order of the tamago sushi.

It is often said that the best evaluator of a sushi chef is through his tamago. It's like judging a chef based on his omelette. The ability to cook eggs perfectly is something every top chef should hold dear. More importantly for a sushi chef, the tamago is essentially the only thing that he actually cooks. You get to have a good sense of the chef's skill (fluffiness and layering of the egg), his palate (tamago can often be too sweet), and his devotion to his craft (that he spends time on handmaking it). In the end, tamago never really wows me, but it's a good way for me to estimate the skill of the sushi chef. In this case, the taste was good, the egg had it's own branding (some japanese writing torched on like how you brand a cow), and the sushi rice was good, though not great.

From these two pieces, I decided that I wanted stuff from the sushi bar, but I wasn't thrilled by the rice so I opted for the sashimi kaiseki. The sashimi kaiseki was listed at $70, but I wanted the good stuff, so I asked if I could have it upgraded to $90 worth of food. My feeling is that if I'm already paying $70, what's another $20? But doing this allows the restaurant to know that they're dealing with someone who really likes good food and is willing to pay for it, not just order whatever set meal they offer. Luckily for me, the bartender was not only a bartender, but also a manager of the restaurant, and he could tell that I knew good food. After some discussion, we decided that I would not get the kaiseki, which is more about small plates with both hot and cold food, but get a $90 sashimi omakase instead.

They prepared everything on one huge platter, so I was given one of the kaiseki starting dishes while I was waiting. It was pieces of vegetables suspended in a gelatin, which they told me was made completely from seaweed. It was surrounded by a corn puree, which I found needed to have a stronger corn flavor. It was a pleasant starting dish. While I was waiting, the bartender/manager as well as the hostess would walk by and tell me how envious they were of what I ordered and what will be on the platter that's going to come out. Hearing that obviously made me feel better about my choice, but it also surprised me in that it sounded like their customers usually don't order like this. Endless omakase is pretty common in many of the nicer NYC sushi places, although I guess it's more common for sushi than sashimi.

The platter came and there was indeed lots on it. I'll list the basic stuff first. The number represents how many pieces.

2 wild japanese snapper
2 dry mullet roe
3 katsuo (bonito)
1 uni (sea urchin)
3 ika (squid)
2 tako (octopus)
2 toro

Those are the more common things and they were all very fresh. The following is the stuff that was so truly Japanese that I've never had before or the stuff that really wowed me.

White salmon, which I've had before at Sushi Yasuda, is not common at all. While the natural color of farmed salmon is white (they add colorants to the feed to get that orange/red color), wild salmon that is white comprises only 1% or so of that general population. Its flesh has a higher fat content and is more buttery in texture than regular salmon.

Kochi, known as bartail flat head, was something that I've never had before. I'm not big on the texture of raw flat fish, but at least this was new.

Bakurai, which came in a little shot glass, is a mixture of sea pineapple, uni, and the preserved offal from the sea cucumber. It's definitely very Japanese, something that I've never had before, and certainly I think something that they would serve to only a select number of their clientele. It's best with sake, so the manager was kind enough to pour me a small cup of sake to go with it.

Hamo Junsai consisted of hamo, which is grilled pike conger eel, suspended in a jelly filled with junsai. Junsai, known as water-shield, is a fresh-water lily prized by the Japanese as a summer-time delicacy due to its slippery texture. This was quite good, and very much a situation where you get a bit of the culture with the food.

Ayu meat covered with bits of its liver. Ayu, known as sweetfish, is a small fish known for its sweet flesh. But the thing that truly made this one special was the liver. It had a very interesting taste that I couldn't give a description to at the time. The manager told me it was his favorite fish liver, liking it even more than ankimo (monkfish liver) which I love. The liver was also something that he said they didn't put into the dish for everyone.

Last but not least on the platter was live lobster. I was impressed by this one in the way that the chef had cut it. There were good chunks, not just slivers, and when I bit into those pieces, the texture was crisp but also had enough bite that it reminded me of eating cooked lobster.

One of the other good things was that when I asked for hot rice to accompany the seafood, they actually brought me really hot rice, that was still steaming out of the bowl. As I talked more with the manager while he and the other servers continued to look at my platter in amazement, he told me that the place had originally been an izakaya type of place, but that they renovated it to focus on kaiseki and fresh fish flown from Japan because it was unique in DC. Much of the negative comments on the boards were from people who preferred the old casual izayaka style instead of the more expensive kaiseki style. He also pointed out that Komi, the restaurant next door, was the best restaurant in DC. I couldn't snag a reservation on such short notice, so perhaps I'll try it next time. Overall this was quite a meal. It's really nice for me to have something that I've never had before, and I felt that the price was very good.

Monday, August 3, 2009

DC Nationals (bridge)

This was the first nationals I'd been to since the one in New York in 2004. I hated the weather, which was hot and humid throughout and very muggy. The hotel I stayed at was clean, but we had actual keys, not key cards, and the dampness was persistent in our room throughout. While it wasn't bad, I didn't think the price I was charged was justified. Food was pretty good overall. The nearby chinese takeout place was above average and there was a decent thai place and a pretty good falafel place within walking distance. There was one really nice expensive dinner, but that will come in a separate post.

I managed to get talked into playing one midnight loose and snooze KO, which we won. I also participated in a puzzle hunt, which we won. It's like a scavenger hunt where one clue leads you to the next and so on. It turns out that the puzzle hunt (mostly played by caddies) has always been a tradition at the DC nationals, especially since the setup of the Marriott is really nice for such a game.

Not much to talk about bridge-wise. I didn't play particularly well, but felt I was pretty good during the 2 day Open Swiss. I lost my mind on one board during the whole event, and that really was about it. We got blitzed in the penultimate round so we withdrew so everyone could catch their buses and trains. I'll describe three hands here, but only one of them would be a real bridge problem.

The first hand is from the midnight KO. Playing with a new partner with very little discussion besides 2/1 and DONT, I pick up ♠Ax xx x AKQxxxxx. Partner opens 1and I bid 2. Partner rebids 2 and I rebid 3. The auction then goes all pass. LHO leads the ♠K as dummy comes down with ♠J9x KQJx KQxxx x. Partner says that she usually plays this auction as nonforcing, and we didn't have time to discuss it. I usually err on the side of bidding game in those situations, but it's ok because if I lose, I get to snooze. I win the ♠A and cash the top club. RHO shows out. Yup. 4-0 clubs and we win on the hand as well as the match.

The second hand is from the first day of the Open Swiss. Playing against a team of French nationals, I hold ♠Qx KJxxx xxx Axx with favorable vulnerability. Partner passes, RHO opens 1, and I bid 2. I think the pros very much outweigh the cons for a bid like this. Partner is a passed hand so we're likely not missing game. The colors are favorable and make it harder for the opponents to double me if I bid too much. I gain the advantage of taking up space while partner won't hang me for preempting nonvulnerable opposite a passed hand. Also, in the Zia sense of things, declarer might misguess the ♠Q because of the preempt. In fact, that is what happened. The opponents pushed themselves up to 5♠, then misguessed the position as LHO held J87x opposite RHO's ATxx. Partner did a great job of covering the ♠J when it was led, and after I'd shown up with the KJ and A, declarer went up with the ♠10 on the second round of trumps.

The third hand was also from the first day of the swiss, and it was against a team that I knew well, consisting of Patrick Huang and client with a pair of Hong Kong players. I held ♠Kxx Axx AT98 KQx V vs. NV. Partner opened a 15+ to 18- 1NT, and RHO overcalled 2♠, showing spades and a minor. I didn't think I'd pick up a suitable penalty, so I decided to ignore the bid. I think that normally I'd invite with this hand. However, I thought that it was close enough given our range that it was worth it to take a shot at 6NT given the extra information from the overcall. What would you bid?

So I bid 6NT and partner's hand was ♠QJx KJxx KQxx Ax. Do you want to be in this slam?

Well, either way, the hearts were Qxx offside (RHO was 5305) so there was no play. At the other table, perhaps in response to having gone for 800 on their first board, the player holding my cards bid 3NT over RHO's 2♠ overcall. Talk about taking the low road, he was practically digging an underground tunnel.

One of the other things I noticed during the nationals was that the 0-5000 mini-Spingold lasted a full 6 days. Since I really like long KO matches, I started thinking whether I should consider entering that event next time. Actually, I came to this conclusion. I play very little bridge right now and assuming it continues, I'm never going to be in "fighting shape" when I get my ass over to a nationals. Half-assing it and then getting my head kicked in in the high level national events isn't really the way to go. Perhaps when this event rolls around next time if I am still not playing much bridge overall I should just put together a good team and play it and get some enjoyable long KO matches out of it.