Saturday, January 30, 2010

Pleasant surprises in the NBA this season (sport, NBA)

As I'm shutting down NBA2H unless I find a backer, I expect my NBA watching will dramatically decrease as well. So just a quick wrap up of some of the less obvious nice surprises this NBA season has offered up.

The obvious ones, such as the Grizzlies, the fast start of the Kings, Tyreke Evans, Brandon Jennings, etc. I'm sure you've already heard about.

I'm talking about things like the new-found parity in the NBA. Yes, there are still really bad teams like the TWolves and the Nets. But overall, there are many more competitive teams and even the Lakers and the Celtics, whom most consider superior to the other teams, are not running away with the regular season as in previous years.

The forgotten key to Charlotte, Stephen Jackson. Yes, Gerald Wallace is playing out of his mind and a deserving all star selection. But Jackson, who went to Charlotte in a trade that had people scratching their heads, has allowed the Bobcats to become a legit contender in the East.

The significance of the NBA D-league. A good number of players in the NBA that we know by name (not just scrubs) played in the D-league. This is very important for the NBA and will be even more important if Stern does in fact want to branch out globally.

The Dallas Mavericks. They have Roddy Beaubois, who will be a legit star (or at worst a Devin Harris). They play good team defense, with Marion finally accepting his role as defensive stopper. Jason Kidd, who essentially just runs fast breaks and sits on the three point line, is shooting about as well as I remember and has a ridiculous assist ratio. Dirk Nowitzki, who now camps out at the top of the key with his back to the basket, is the only player I've seen who uses that spot as his go to position (Pierce does some of it too though). Although Phoenix managed to stop them last night by having Grant Hill front Nowitzki and deny him the ball in that position. It's a team that feels like it's a mix up of mismatched pieces (Josh Howard, Jason Terry), but they get the job done, and Rick Carlisle actually has a very impressive NBA record that noone really talks about.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

NBA2H to take a long break (sport, gambling, NBA2H)

I'm planning to take a long break from posting my NBA second half plays. It's not even clear if I will come back to this. I want to thank the supporters and well-wishers. My last posting day will be tomorrow Jan 29.

It's mostly a case of burnout. I am not paid for these picks, but it feels like a full time job coming home every night, watching all the games, and making and posting picks in a timely fashion.

I feel that I have achieved what I set out to do, which was to record the picks and test whether the strategy was a winning one. After 350 bets over barely 8 weeks, a 57% overall winning percentage and +50 or so units, I believe that noone would challenge that I was putting up remarkable numbers. I will put up a summary post of the actual numbers and splits at some point.

I wonder if I was influenced at all by reading that Ferran Adria will be closing El Bulli for a 2 year break for what is essentially the same reason of burnout.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Dinner at SD26 (food)

What's old is new again. While not that long ago San Domenico was considered one of the finest Italian restaurants in the city, the times have changed and the Italian restaurant landscape in NYC has changed with it. So owner Tony May (and his daughter Marisa, whom I recognized in house the night we went) decided to do the whole thing over. It's now located just north of Madison Square Park and named SD26. It's still just as grand, with rumors that the whole move and renovation cost about $7 million, but it's definitely new, and some things are really new.

A prime example of just how new (or rather, modern) SD26 is, is this Enomatic Wine Dispensing Units system, where you use a smart card to record your purchase, grab a glass, and it pours 1oz, 2oz, or 5oz pours based on your selection. Neither of us gave it a try, but it definitely looked interesting.

The place is huge. The main dining room was big. There was a wine cellar below which could sit a table for private dining. There were also private dining rooms upstairs, which the hostess told me could sit about 65 and hold about 180 standing for a cocktail reception.

One of the first things that catch your eye upon entering the main dining room is the salumeria section with a good looking assortment of meats and cheeses.

The open kitchen runs alongside the main dining room.

The other thing that's new, or new to me rather, is the electronic wine list. The touch screen allows you to navigate through the wine list and read descriptions that would take up too much room on a traditional wine list. It's no IPad, but hey, still pretty cool.

On to the food. My friend and I were only in the mood for pasta that night, so we skipped the meats and cheeses, appetizers, and entrees. I know it's not a full review with only pasta, but I did that with Scarpetta too. When I think of really good Italian in NYC, I think pasta. That's just me.

The amuse was a fennel soup with marinated anchovy. I found the soup lighter than I thought it would be, and I liked the marinated anchovy a lot. Some good flavors to start.

The first pasta that we got was the garganelli with american caviar, chives and fish veloute. This was a large (they offer pastas in two sizes) that we shared. The caviar had good flavor and was clearly the main attraction. But the supporting cast was terrific and I enjoyed every mouthful where there was caviar, sauce, and pasta.

Next was the chitarra SD26 with a tomato and basil sauce. The pasta had a perfect texture and felt like it was actually pushed through an old school chitarra. The sauce, however, was very mediocre and tasteless, and a waste of the lovely pasta. This was also a large sized portion which we shared.

No matter how new, some things never change. The signature pasta of the house, the "uovo" soft egg yolk filled raviolo with truffled butter. For this, we each definitely had to get our own.

Cutting open the pasta allows the egg yolk to ooze. This was a delicious and very decadent dish, each bite combining the spinach and ricotta filling with the yolk mixed with the truffled butter. From what I've seen online, this dish is actually one of the options available on the restaurant week menu, and if so is a must get. I don't think I will be going to any RW meals this season, however.

My dessert was the tiramisu. It was good. It was tiramisu. I've had bad tiramisu before, but I haven't had an exemplary one yet.

My friend's dessert was the extra bitter chocolate fondant with stracciatella ice cream. I didn't have any but he said it was good. As can be seen from the photos, the desserts were pretty big.

Assortment of biscotti to round out the meal.

While Sifton's reign as the Times food critic has seen more one and no stars than usual, I felt that this is one of those restaurants that was truly hurt by a one star review, especially when you compare it to Grimes' review of San Domenico 6 years ago. I don't think it's fair for me to give a full review having only had 3 pasta dishes, but there didn't seem to be anything beside the "uovo" that wowed me.

It's meant to be a busy place, for people to drink lots of wine (hence the wine vending machine) and eat a few dishes (hence the different pasta sizes), but I don't think it was intended to be the fine dining experience that San Domenico (which I'd never been to) might originally have been. Since I'm mostly (if not all) about the food, SD26 doesn't appeal to me as much, and I would agree just on the mediocre tomato and basil sauce that it is no more than one star.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Do the Saints have the right attitude? (sport, NFL)

So the Superbowl matchup is set. The clock struck midnight on the Jets' Cinderella story, as they still played really well but could not hold off the Colts. The Saints survived a tough back-and-forth game against a comeback master that went to OT despite 5 turnovers from the Vikings.

They kept talking during the post-game show about the Saints being a "team of destiny", but I don't know if that's enough to get them the win in the big game. It seems to me that the best attitudes to have are either the "nobody believes in us" of the Giants two years ago, this year's Jets, and the Patriots in their first superbowl, or the "been there, done that, get the job done" swagger of last year's Steelers, and the Patriots' repeats.

The Saints' high-powered offense makes it hard for them to play the "nobody believes in us" card, but I also don't see the swagger of a confident team. They were not able to take and press their advantage with the turnovers. It felt more like the turnovers were gifts that bailed them out every time it felt like the Vikings were about to take the momentum. When the Saints finally got a lead late, they played super tight and certainly did not have the swagger of a team ready to put the opponents away. If they don't get up a big lead on the Colts, I see Peyton and Co. grinding them down.

Maybe the Saints are the team of destiny, but it doesn't feel like they're playing like they believe it themselves.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Per Se exceeds expectations Part 3 (food)

Done with the main savory courses, we move on.

The cheese was good. I also liked the candied cashews. I thought they were better than using fruit or dried fruit to bridge the savory-sweet courses. The sauce, though, might have been too subtle for me as the spices in the curry didn't play a big role and I don't remember the sour component of the aigre-doux.

I loved this. I did not know buttermilk and thyme went this well together. Beyond this combination of flavors, the use of sorbet here was terrific because the water base made it much lighter and allowed the vibrant, refreshing flavors to pop out. The verjus pate de fruits and shortbread were ok but the star was the sorbet.

This was indeed quite pretty, and tasted... well, like pink. I'm no synesthete, but I wouldn't be shocked if this was what pink tasted like. The different textures were good and the slight bitterness from the grapefruit worked well here. That being said, none of the flavors were particularly special, and after the taste bud-opening sorbet this was somewhat disappointing.

Another Keller classic that was just amazing in execution. A cinnamon-covered beignet with cappuccino semifreddo. How does a fried ball of dough completely covered in cinnamon end up this light? Light and airy, greaseless, with a light crunch and a soft interior. These were amazing, and I'm really not a fried dough kind of guy. I'm not a big coffee guy either, but mixing bites of both combined into this sublime match of textures and temperatures. Again, even with cinnamon and coffee, neither flavor managed to be dominant or overpowering.

For my main dessert I had the chocolate option. This was good as one of those "chocolate's best hits" desserts with juniper, chestnuts, sponge cake, cremeux, ice cream, etc. However, I didn't feel like the components themselves came together like other dishes throughout the night. I didn't think the chocolate ice cream was anything special either. I did like that for all that was on the plate, it still managed to be light, which was important considering how much food I had eaten to that point.

Still going strong, I was finally served this greek yogurt pot de creme with honey and hibiscus. This summed up the theme of the night. A balanced and light use of cream, sweet, sour, and strong flavors.

The hibiscus was at the bottom.

Assortment of chocolates, photographed here after I had taken my choices. There were 27 different options in all, with the first three rows repeated in the back.

My choices included brown butter and pear, baileys cheese cake, olive oil, cherry balsamic, raspberry, rocher and one other that I forgot. I still don't really know how I managed to eat them all at that point.

The three-layered tin had truffles and pistachio nougat, the bowl in the middle had chocolate covered hazelnuts. I was so done at (probably even much before) this point.

Before the night ended, the maitre d' showed me the kitchen. I was surprised to find it smaller and less "surgical" than I would have imagined. Then again, the prep kitchen was hidden from view. There was a good buzz of people working, and it's quite a thing that they power through service every night often until 1am and often serving large groups.

The meal was grand, the bill was grand. $275 with service included but not tax. Add another $30 each for the foie supplement and a glass of wine. While I liked the idea of having the service included, it is awkward if you feel your server deserves a little bit extra. I don't know what kind of message it sends if you were to write an additional gratuity of 5 or 10 more dollars.

All the food was done at a very high level, but I can definitely see why the well-known Keller classics pushed him into that upper upper echelon of chefs. While I was offered some of these courses even though they weren't on the menu, I recommend that you ask either way. Once they get you in there paying these prices, it does feel that they want you to truly enjoy the food that their talented chefs offer.

For Part 1, click here
For Part 2, click here

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Per Se exceeds expectations Part 2 (food)

Moving on to the savory courses, first came the bread and butter.

House salted churned butter from a small family in Oregon on the left, unsalted sweet butter from Straus family creamery on the right. I mostly went with the sweet butter, which was soft and really creamy.

The most delightful surprise of the evening for me were these Parker House rolls. Amazingly soft with a light sprinkle of salt, these were so good with the sweet butter that I had to get two more. I'm not really a big bread guy, so it was special to get something I enjoyed so much.

There was other bread as well, but I didn't have any.

For a $30 supplement, this is a must for anyone who likes foie gras. While many places will often serve seared foie gras with any one of these components (corn, apple, maple syrup), they made it simple by having everything you would want with foie gras all on one plate.

I think this photo is better at illustrating how big this piece of foie gras actually was. Just so good and so well done.

I'm not big on john dory. It is a rather mild-tasting fish after all. I thought this dish was ok. The takeaway from this dish was again the chef's impressive ability to balance components that are usually pretty strong such as artichoke, sunchoke, and capers.

This might be the best scallop dish I've ever had. The flavors were good (although I couldn't make the bottarga in the emulsion), but what made this dish was the textures coming together. I originally thought that the hen egg ravioli would ooze yolk, but instead the yolk in the ravioli was fully cooked, which was even better. With a perfectly cooked scallop, there already is a silky texture. Add to that the crisp of the fennel chip, the give of the pasta, and that middling crumbly texture of cooked egg yolk and you get just an amazing range of textures in one bite.

The scallop was pretty big.

This dish was good, but not amazing. A situation where I would have preferred less balance, and just more concentrated porcine flavor and more of the sweet and sour components.

This was remarkable. First, the vegetables were great. When I eat a composed beef dish at a restaurant, the vegetables matter a lot to me. Otherwise, I could just go to a steakhouse. The beef itself was spectacular in the way it was cooked. I would cut a bite, it had the right texture for a good chew, and as I was chewing, more juice and flavor would come out. Take a sip of wine, continue chewing, even more flavor continued to pop out. It never went dry. This dish is my perfect answer against all those people who must have their brand name beef on the rare side.

That's it for the savory courses. Next part, cheese and sweet courses.

For Part 1, click here
For Part 3, click here

Monday, January 18, 2010

Per Se exceeds expectations Part 1 (food)

Even on a holiday (Martin Luther King Jr's birthday) and even while in transition (chef de cuisine Benno is officially leaving at the end of January), the staff at Per Se did an amazing job. I'm going to have to separate this review into 3 parts like I did with the Barbot stint at Ko.

Atmosphere: The dining room was elegant with a simple color scheme and perfect lighting. It was a good mix of business elegance and warm comfort.

The famous blue door, an ode to the blue door at the French Laundry. You don't actually enter through it though. The glass on the side is actually an automatic door that slides open.

The large windows open up to a nice view of the surrounding buildings, while the fire really adds to that warm comforting feeling.

Service: Everything you would expect from a top tier restaurant. Knowledgeable staff who are friendly and helpful. I was offered champagne when I first sat down and finally stopped after two glasses. I chatted with my server a lot throughout the evening. She'd worked both front of house and as a cook in some famous kitchens, so it was fun listening to her talk about truffle hunting in Alba and other things. Dining solo, it was nice to be engaged in conversation throughout the evening. I thought it was a perfect middle between Eleven Madison Park and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, where they got a little too caught up in talking about the produce. She felt that I was someone who truly enjoyed food (and was taking pictures), and the kitchen was very generous the rest of the evening. I specifically tempered expectations of what kind of blog I kept (I don't pretend to maintain some big food blog to get extras), but they seemed genuinely happy that I was just enjoying my food so much. I don't even remember which of the dishes below were part of the original 9 course menu and which were extras. I think part of it is their understanding that this is a dining event (only the two menus, no prix fixe staple menu), and so adjust the service accordingly.

Food: Here we go.

The signature salmon cornet and gougeres to start. The marinated salmon and onion mixture was nice, but I was more fascinated by the tuile batter used to make the cornet. So simple (I think it was only flour, butter, sugar, salt, and egg whites) but so delicious and worked really well with the salmon mixture. The gougeres weren't as warm as I would like, but the burst of the liquid cheese center was terrific.

A terrific way to start the meal. The soup had terrific celery and garlic flavor. The crisps, confit, froth, and soup were a perfect range of textures coming together.

Another signature Keller dish. The caviar was bursting with flavor. While I feel that tapioca is often misused in dishes, the tapioca sabayon provided a perfect texture accompaniment here. Again, hitting a range of flavors and textures.

Oops, forgot to take a photo of this one. It was served in a vessel shaped like a sake carafe. While fluke is one of those fish that chefs love but I'm only ok with (like skate), the fish was fresh and I really liked the scallion slices that came with it. The moromi (mash that ferments to become sake) puree was not as strong as I would have thought.

This was the first dish where I thought I grasped the essence of the genius at work here. Similar to Barbot, the superiority here is about balance. A recurring theme throughout the night was how such strongly flavored components could come together in harmony without any one being overpowering. The fish was just right, and I could taste the different flavors coming together.

Another Keller classic. Hard to go wrong with this one. Smelled and tasted wonderful. I wasn't so hot on the chip though. I could kinda see the texture he was aiming for, but it just comes off like a stale potato chip because of how hard it was.

A birds-eye view so that we can see the black truffle "ragout". I can still remember the amazing aroma.

That's it for tonight. More to come.

For Part 2, click here
For Part 3, click here

Center/Power Foward Combos (sport, NBA)

The Memphis Grizzlies continue to be a team that I enjoy watching and rooting for. They're young, they score a lot, and they also lead the league in rebounding. I've mentioned before that I think their starting 5 is one of the few that have above average talent at every position. As I look at that lineup some more, I notice some similarities with the Lakers. A tall, skilled, center who can play on both sides of the rim and shoot. A power foward with terrific offense from the post who can also rebound well. A tough-as-nails shooter/scorer who can play terrific one-on-one defense while wanting to be the main crunch-time guy.

As I look around the league, I also notice that there aren't many center/power foward combos like the ones that these two teams have. Many power fowards who play with good legit centers tend to play like small fowards. Guys like Kevin Garnett, Rashard Lewis, Antawn Jamison, and Troy Murphy. On the other hand, it seems that in recent history, some teams with good power fowards have focused on defensive centers. Think Ben and Rasheed Wallace, Karl Malone and Mark Eaton.

So what are some other center/power foward combos that are both good at scoring/rebounding while staying true to their positions? The twin towers of Tim Duncan and David Robinson certainly come to mind. I also think that Larry "Grandmama" Johnson is often forgotten because of his injury issues and the fact that he played in an era with very little scoring. He played with two of the five best centers of that era in Ewing and Mourning. However, the best frontcourt of all time is still probably the trio of Bird, McHale, and Parish. Any others come to mind?

With the success of the Lakers and Memphis this year, perhaps this is the way to go in the future? The Clippers have also done very well this year with Kaman and Camby, and although Camby is a legit defensive beast, people forget that he can find ways to score too. The one combination that clearly doesn't work is Al Jefferson and Kevin Love. I think that's because Jefferson isn't a legit center and Love isn't a legit power foward. They need to blow that thing up or get a real defensive center in there.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Dinner at Soba Totto (food)

I had actually never been to any of the restaurants in the Torys group before. Well-known for tasty and authentic Japanese food, restaurants in the group such as Yakitori Torys, Yakitori Totto, and Aburiya Kinnosuke have made a good name for themselves. I wasn't actually planning on going to Soba Totto, but Yasuda was closed for the holidays and it's across the street.

Atmosphere: Soba Totto manages to give a feeling of authenticity and rustic comfort while at the same time is just sleek enough for being in Midtown. The bar is separate from the main dining room, which consists of both tables and a long counter in front of the yakitori chefs. A raised glass partition helps to block out the smoke while offering a nice view of your skewers of food being cooked.

Food: Soba Totto offers both the yakitori that the group is famous for, as well as handmade soba. As is the case with places like these, I wanted to try everything, and I kind of did.

Beef sukiyaki skewers with scallions and quail egg. I don't quite get the raw quail egg thing. This was ok but a little too sweet.

One of the main problems with cooking scallops in this manner is that it is very easy to end up with a chewy, rubbery, texture. That was the case here, but I don't really see how to avoid it. The sweetness of the scallop was nice but the highlight was the coral (roe) which had developed a nice slightly charred crunchy exterior.

I usually like small oily fishes, but this smelt wasn't anything special.

Now we get to the free range chicken. These are part of the special "limited menu" as there are less of these parts per chicken. From left to right, the chicken oyster (which they describe on the menu as a rare part of the thigh), soft knee bones (think cartilage), and the liver. All three were terrific and I would recommend ordering these three together because of the spectacular textural contrast. The chicken oyster was super tender while the soft knee bones offered up some good chewing and the livers had great flavor.

Chicken skin. I would have preferred it if they were crispier, but this is definitely great for accompanying a cold beer.

Tsukune, which is essentially minced chicken. They describe it as a chicken meatball, but I would say it's closer to sausage. Think something like an adana kebab. This was tasty, but I've had better.

The special limited hand-made soba (I think only a limited number of orders per day) was very good, but definitely pricey. I think for $18 I would rather have the soba at Matsugen. In the upper left is the laminated page they provide describing how to best enjoy your soba. I found it amusing that at the bottom of the page it says that slurping is necessary to enjoy the full flavor of the soba.

Still curious about other items on the menu, I had the kobe beef tongue on the left and the berkshire pork with lemon and mustard on the right. These were both fantastic. The pork was delicious and fatty and went well with the lemon and mustard. The kobe beef tongue was delicious and tender as you would expect beef tongue to be. I don't really get the kobe thing though. I'm sure just that name alone is justification for them to charge $8 for that skewer, but just how different is kobe beef tongue compared to regular beef tongue? I mean, I doubt the guys who massage the cows massage their tongues as well.

In summation, it's a great place to go have a drink with some friends and eat some great Japanese drinking food (rather than Western bar food). However, if you're a big eater like me, those $3 skewers add up really quickly, and the portions aren't exactly big. After t/t I think my meal was $80+.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Is it so hard to teach visualization? (bridge)

I read the ACBL Bridge Bulletin to kill time. Some of the contributors are great, including Cohen, Kantar, Stewart and Bird. Some I just don't bother to read. How is it that Karen Walker is still on habit 9 of her 12 habits dissertation? It seems like that thing's been going on forever. Then there are some that I read even though I strongly dislike what they're teaching.

One of those in the last category is Marty Bergen. I don't think he's been relevant to real bridge for a long time now, and I think the rule of 20 is one of the worst bidding ideas that hit the bridge world in the past decade. I believe that the key skill for successful bidding is the ability to visualize partner's range of hands and bid accordingly. I know it's hard for the I/N player, but I don't think what Bergen is teaching them instead is any better. In this month's article, Bergen discusses re-evaluating after a fit by using his Bergen Points. To calculate the Bergen Points, one only needed to do "adjust-3" (i don't know what that is, but it consisted of counting 5 upgrades and 1 downgrade on his example hand), then adding/subtracting points for "quality suit", "length points", "short suits", "6+ trumps", and "side suits". How is learning, memorizing, then calculating all these things for Bergen points easier than learning to correctly visualize how partner's hand might mesh with yours for trick taking purposes?

I just find it irresponsible that a famous bridge teacher continues to teach things that don't help improve the students' actual bridge game.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Dinner at OBAO (food)

Was in the midtown east neighborhood and decided that it was my turn to weigh in on OBAO. One of the newer restaurants in Michael "Bao" Huynh's rapidly expanding empire, this one seems to have caught the most blogger attention in the last couple of months. Huynh has been opening restaurants at a crazy pace since that first Baoguette, which I like but haven't been to in quite a while. OBAO's cuisine is pan-asian, focusing on a mix and match of different Asian styles with a simple menu of appetizers and rice and noodle dishes.

This is the spare rib on sugar cane skewer. I took a bite while I was reading and only after swallowing did I bother to look down and realize it was undercooked. I sent it back and got a new one, which was acceptable but not really blasted either. I don't know why they need to do that, since it's a pretty thin strip of meat that should be tender fully cooked. The sauce was rather tasteless, the glaze was pretty sweet, and the sugar cane didn't really add anything. It wasn't even that great to gnaw on, which I usually like.

Next came their version of the pad see iew, consisting of flat rice noodles (the equivalent of chow fun at chinese takeout places), kalbi short rib, a little egg, mustard greens and green mango kimchi. I was actually surprised by the portion size. It was pretty big for $11. The kalbi was ok, thin and dry at times with the usual sweet flavor. The greens felt like chinese broccoli which was a bonus. The dish was more like a chinese version of chow fun than a thai version of pad see iew. What really made the dish for me though was the green mango kimchi. It had a nice texture and a terrific sour and spicy flavor that went really well with the slightly greasy (in a good way) noodles.

This was the Lao yellow rice with duck confit and golden chives. It sounded interesting on the menu so I ordered some to go. It smelled wonderful when I opened up the container. This dish was actually very good in its execution. I could easily imagine dry pieces of confit and dry rice but all of it was moist and flavorful.

Normally, I expect something to be comped when the kitchen sends out undercooked pork or chicken because of how dangerous it is. That did not happen here. Maybe the tapeworm will just help me lose some weight without exercising. While I only tried limited parts of the menu, I would say that it's worth going to if you're in the area, especially for the noodle and rice dishes. The portions for those dishes are generous, and they are well executed. I can still remember the green mango kimchi.