Sunday, May 29, 2011

2010-2011 NBA Finals Preview (sport)

As I started watching the first few games of the conference finals, it became clear to me that we were heading towards a Dallas-Miami showdown. That was because both those teams had something the other two teams didnt. Championship swagger. That is something that every championship team in the last decade has had. The Lakers with Kobe certainly had the swagger of a team that knew they had the best player on the court and could turn it up another gear. The Celtics team with the new big three also had a swagger about them led by Kevin Garnett on defense. They knew they could completely shut down other teams. The Spurs certainly had that "been there done that" attitude, and they had a guy in Ginobili who was otherworldy in the things he could do. Even the Larry Brown coached Pistons team had fearless players like Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace, and Ben Wallace who believed in themselves way more than the media did.

So who are the players on Dallas and Miami who have shown this championship swagger? We all know about the superstars Nowitzki, LeBron, and Wade. But there's Jason Terry, who really thinks he's one of the three best shooters in the league. There's Peja Stojakovic, who puts up threes like he was still back in Sacramento. There's Shawn Marion, who has always been a very confident player, stepping up to play great defense. And for the Heat, Chris Bosh really started to have that swagger, and you could see it from the gleam in his eyes. This was a very different man than the one who admitted to feeling the nerves in Boston.

As for the teams that lost in the conference finals, you could see they just weren't ready. They didn't have that swagger, that body language that signified, "This is our time." While Chicago played hard and good team defense in the Thibodeau mold, they just didn't have that "we will shut you down" swagger. And when Lebron started guarding Rose in crunch time and their offense stalled, it was all over. As for the Thunder, I don't know if it's because they have a young team and a young coach, but they just never seemed to me to have that real sense of urgency in their approach. Remember last year's finals game 7? The Celtics played their hearts out and took a good lead in the 4th, but then the Lakers stepped it up and played defense that was amazing to watch. Odom and Artest trapping like Pippen and Grant used to. Completely stifling. There's plenty of talent on this Thunder team, but I just don't know if they really have one more gear that they can turn on which will signal that they're ready.

So what do I expect for this finals matchup? Lots of scoring. I'm actually pretty amazed that the over/under line in the first game is only 187. Dallas is so deep at every position with skilled players that I don't really see them being shut down for a long period of time in any game. Sure, they might go cold, but I don't see Miami being able to shut them down defensively. We can't go by the Chicago series because Chicago really doesn't score that much. Miami, as we all know, can score with the best of them in a fast paced game, and much will depend on the isolation execution and foul calling at the end of games.

My pick is Dallas to win in 6 games. I think they will dominate the boards with their true centers in Chandler and Haywood, and good rebounding small forward and point guard in Marion and Kidd. Furthermore, I expect that there will be one game on the road where Dallas just shoots lights out and builds too big of a lead. I think Dallas will be very smart about playing to their strengths, build their leads with the second team, and let Miami's big three get as much as they want, but only on isolations.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

All You Can Eat Tacos at Mercadito Grove (food)

Sometimes I get a craving to eat a lot of food. Not the refined, fine dining, high-end stuff, but just good food and lots of it. The best way to achieve this in NYC without going broke is to look for all you can eat (AYCE) deals. One such deal that I came across in my research was the AYCE tacos at two of the Mercadito branches in NYC. For $23 per person, you get all you can eat tacos of 10 different varieties. The deal is all night long on Sundays and Mondays while late night only on all other nights, so I brought along a few friends this past Monday to Mercadito Grove (Grove St/7th Ave) to try and sample everything on offer. Among the diners was KE from Donuts4Dinner, who took all the photos in this post.

Because AYCE just isn't enough for us serious eaters, one of us decided to order the ceviche sampler as well. The ceviches were interesting. Rather than just focus on citrus, they were accented with other fruit flavors which lent a sweeter taste. There was mahi-mahi with orange, shrimp with pineapple, and scallops that tasted of strawberry. While I personally wouldn't order them again, they definitely took an old favorite and reinvented some of the flavor profiles. Everyone had a different favorite of the three.

Then the tacos began. Tacos normally come four to an order, but we had five people and they were nice enough to make five to an order for us so we could sample everything easily. There were ten varieties on our menu, but they did not have the Pastor kind, so we had no pork that night. The restaurant is very small and the food took quite a while to come out initially when the place was full. As we kept eating and the place got emptier, tacos came out faster, hotter, and tastier. One thing that was consistent throughout was that the corn tortillas were very good.

MOLE Chicken, sweet plantain, crema fresca, mole poblano sauce. This was pretty good. Not the best mole you'll have, but the depth of flavor was definitely there. The sweet plantains were a nice touch, contrasting all the other flavors of the mole sauce.

CAMARON Shrimp, roasted garlic, chipotle mojo, avocado. This was another good combination. The shrimp had a nice fresh texture while the chipotle mojo had a definite spiciness to it. The avocado was perfect here balancing both the textures with its creaminess and the flavors by cooling off some of that heat.

PESCADO Sautéed tilapia, grilled corn, huitlacoche, manchego cheese, tomatillo salsa. The fish was pretty good if you like tilapia. However, the flavor of the tilapia was very strong, and the muddy fish was pretty much all I could taste.

CARNE Rosemary marinated organic skirt steak, potato-poblano-cactus fundido, avocado crema. This was the consensus winner of the night. The steak was good with its simple marinade and the crispy potatoes on top made for a terrific bite texturally.

ESTILO BAJA Beer battered mahi mahi, mexican style coleslaw, chipotle aioli. Very good fish tacos. The fish was still hot and the batter very crisp, which was key.

Grilled red snapper with some pepper-based sauce. This item is different from the current online menu. The fish itself was very good and well-cooked. The sauce, however, was one-note and it really just tasted of peppers. I think this tied with the tilapia as the group's least favorite of the proteins.

RAJAS Black bean hash, rajas poblanas, crema fresca, cilantro, onion, chile ancho salsa. I personally found the flavor combinations very interesting, but the consensus was that it was too soupy and failed texturally.

CALABACITAS Grilled zucchini, black bean hash, cactus pico, tomatillo salsa. One of our group felt that this was on the bland side and requested hot sauce. Another felt that as a meat eater, this was decent for something that was all vegetables. I'm somewhere in the middle, sharing a little of both those sentiments.

There was one more taco that I don't seem to have a picture of. POLLO Grilled chicken, cactus salad, tomatillo salsa, avocado. While the mole was focused on the sauce, the accompaniments on this chicken taco had a fresher flavor and allowed the grilled chicken to come through.

Overall, it was a very good deal if you can eat a lot. As the crowd dissipated, the food came out hot, fast, and fresh. We probably ended up with a total of about 65 tacos among the 5 of us, and I personally probably ate at least 15. Our favorites were the steak, shrimp, both chickens, and the fried fish. Service was nice and friendly, although the food came out very slowly at the beginning when the place was packed. I think it's definitely a good time and I'd recommend it for a sizeable group of eaters with mixed palates. There's also plenty of outdoor seating for those into that. Actually, there may even be more seats outside than inside the restaurant.

Like I said before, AYCE just isn't enough for us serious eaters, so a couple of us walked around in search of dessert, and found Grom Gelato on Bleecker and Carmine. This cup was KE's and featured vanilla gelato and limone sorbet.

Mine featured a scoop of hazelnut and a scoop of the crema di grom, an interesting combination of egg cream, corn biscuit bits, and chocolate chip. I didn't get much of a corn flavor from the biscuit bits, but loved the added texture component.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

2010-2011 NBA Playoffs Conference Finals Preview (sport)

I don't think anyone saw the Dallas sweep of the Lakers coming, but I did pick one of the series exactly right. Oklahoma City was my pre-playoff pick, but I really can't say that any of these four teams look like a champion to me. I think that whichever one of these four teams steps up and plays at a level higher than they did in the previous rounds will take this.

Chicago vs. Miami

The two key questions for me are whether Chicago can generate offensive production down low, and whether one of Miami's shooters (not LeBron or Wade) can get hot. Miami's weakness remains on the interior, but Chicago does not really score down low on power. Boozer is more of a jump shooter while Noah is not a main offensive option, even though I expect he will get many hustle rebounds. Atlanta could not handle Chicago's tenacious defense, but a large part of that was that Atlanta's guards and forwards were not good passers out of the double team. LeBron and Wade are both terrific passers, so it will come down to whether their shooters will make those open shots off the double teams. I will also be curious who Miami uses to defend Derrick Rose. I highly doubt Bibby can keep Rose in front of him, and I think the most effective option will probably be Wade.

Prediction: Chicago in 7

Dallas vs. Oklahoma City

After watching the Thunder's series with Memphis, I don't think they're ready yet. While Westbrook is capable of doing amazing things, I don't think his decision-making is there yet, and I think that without a perfect series, Oklahoma City can't win. Dallas is so deep and has so much firepower that the Thunder will have to keep pace with the scoring, and not just rely on solid defense. The problem is that Perkins and Ibaka can be offensive liabilities, and it just won't be enough in my opinion.

Prediction: Dallas in 6

Friday, May 13, 2011

Momofuku Duck Lunch (food)

I strongly believe in not going to new restaurants shortly after they open. While this is contrary to the whole NYC thing of going to trendy, new openings, I just find that restaurants need a good amount of time to work out details in service and the menu. I do make exceptions, however, and usually when it's a casual concept or a specific specialty, it's actually more important to get there early. Too often, once word gets out, too many customers leads to a decrease in product quality, service efficiency, or value. That's why I strongly recommend going as soon as you can to Momofuku Ssam Bar for the new duck bar lunch.

They moved the Milk Bar across the street, and where the Milk Bar used to be, they are now serving rotisserie duck items from 11:30am to 3:30pm on weekdays. You order from the counter, pick up your food on trays when they call your number, get your own utensils, and find a seat at the all-communal tables. They have people cleaning the tables and refilling water regularly, and tips can be left on the table or in the jar at the counter.

$13 gets you the rotisserie duck over rice. There might not look to be a lot of food here, but you get half of one side of the duck breast. The vegetable filling the rest of the bowl was red mustard frill. It's certainly not cheap, but it is delicious.

The duck is cooked to a perfect, tender, pink. The duck is juicy and the flavor is fresh. The skin is crisp, and reminds me of good Chinese style barbecued duck, except that it's not as sweet and hasn't been hanging all morning. The rice and greens are extremely satisfying after soaking in some of the flavorful drippings of the duck breast. Just a spectacular, simple dish.

There are other items and accompaniments on the menu, but I decided to go somewhat healthy with the broccoli salad. The smoked eel vinaigrette was not particularly strong, providing only a slight smoky flavor, and the crispy rendered duck skin added some crunchy texture. It was served chilled, and for $5 had a decent amount of broccoli, when you compare it to similarly-priced sides at Otto or Torrisi.

A look at the rotisserie. The ducks cook at the top, and the fat drips down onto the basket of potatoes below.

A closeup of the ducks cooking. Because they continuously put ducks on the rotisserie, a couple of customers after me had to wait a little longer as they had just put fresh ducks on. I'm not sure how they would handle it if there were a lot of customers.

All the duck carcasses with their breasts cleanly removed.

It is not cheap for something so deceptively simple, but it is delicious, the duck has a very fresh taste to it, and it's definitely worth a visit.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Spring Greens at Blue Hill at Stone Barns (food)

Farm-to-table cuisine has been very popular lately, with Jean-Georges' ABC Kitchen winning the James Beard award for Best New Restaurant. But what's even better is going to the farm itself. That's why I made a reservation well over a month in advance for Blue Hill at Stone Barns, to catch them during the spring season. That foresight paid off with a wonderful meal featuring some terrific and fresh seasonal greens.

Being in the city for so long, it's easy to forget that there actually is fresh air, light blue sky, white clouds, and greenery out there.

The main entrance to the restaurant and farm center. Rustic and welcoming.

The restaurant proper is actually quite big, with a sizeable kitchen.

The interior keeps the rustic feel while being elegant, with a large floral centerpiece and interesting support beam structure for the roof.

The farmers' feast begins with an array of amuses from the garden. First were dried and salted slices of potato, kale, and ramp leaves. Great crispy texture without frying. An excellent start.

When the vegetables are this fresh, you don't need to really do anything to them. Featured here are carrots, radishes, asparagus, and turnips.

A preview of the spring greens that would be featured in our meal. Spring has taken a while to come this year, so they were as enthusiastic to see the green vegetables as we were. On display here are ramps, asparagus, and fiddlehead ferns. It turns out that we managed to visit at just the right time, since ramp season is short (about 6 weeks) and fiddlehead season is even shorter (about 3 weeks).

Mini asparagus burgers in sesame seed buns were delightful small bites, but I don't think asparagus is a good flavor for this preparation.

Grilled asparagus with sesame seeds was a better preparation, adding a nice light smoky flavor to the asparagus.

A really refreshing herb spritzer. Kind of like a ginger ale, but with a milder flavor that still invigorates the palate, and much easier to drink.

I really like fiddlehead ferns and these were lovely. The season is quite short and they are only edible in this immature form, as they develop toxins as they grow.

This was a very smart and playful dish, displaying the skills of the chef beyond just picking things from the garden. The ramp leaves surrounded a cube of semi-liquid vichyssoise that burst with flavor.

Our last bites were meats that DC does not eat, so he got an extra turnip all for himself.

Our charcuterie included venison (on the left) and beef loin. The venison was remarkably flavorful and fatty.

We also got the famous "face bacon" which had good porcine flavor but excelled in its greaseless, crisp texture.

Another preview of ingredients featured grains, including red fife, emerald wheat, and spelt. The grain for the season was red fife, which would be featured in our first full course.

RED FIFE BREAD WITH ASPARAGUS MARMALADE, FRESH PEPPER, AND RICOTTA This was absolutely incredible. The bread was warm and almost muffin-like in texture, with a real earthy flavor of whole grain. The combination of bread with the soft ricotta, marmalade, and pepper had a comforting effect with the earthy taste lingering on the taste buds for a while.

They made special mention of what the animal feed was that generated the milk for this ricotta cheese, but I forgot what it was. It had a mild, smooth flavor that harmonized with the bread which was the main attraction.

GARDEN SALAD This featured more beautiful vegetables brought together by a light dressing of lime vinaigrette with egg yolk. Simple yet delicious. Real farm-to-table.

GRILLED WRECK FISH WITH SHIITAKE MUSHROOMS AND RAMPS The fish had a wonderful texture that was firm yet tender, but not in a flaky manner. This robust texture, and its robust flavor, matched well with the delicious and assertive shiitake and ramp sauce.

The potato and onion bread was outstanding. New loaves were continuously brought into the dining room and the bread was always served and carved warm. It had a beautiful crunchy crust that somehow gave in and melted away without requiring much chewing. The potato and onion flavors were noticeable in the crust and the soft fluffy interior as well.

For the bread service there was carrot salt, spinach salt, and a terrific butter.

FRIED EGG AND VEGETABLE STEW The egg was coated in panko and fried beautifully, resulting in a light, delicate, and greaseless crunch on the outside, revealing a lovely oozing yolk on the inside. The stew, filled with beans, more fiddleheads, stinging nettle, and other vegetables, was really earthy. If I had to describe what green tasted like, this would be it.

POTATO GNOCCHI WITH ASPARAGUS AND BALSAMIC They seemed more like potato raviolis or perogies even, as the pasta and the potato were two separate layers. Everything was fine, but there was nothing particularly outstanding and I didn't like the execution of the pasta.

BERKSHIRE PORK BELLY WITH SALSIFY AND LETTUCE I liked the salsify and lettuce, and the sauce was quite nice. But the Berkshire pork belly was not particularly distinguishable from pork I can get at other fine restaurants in Manhattan. It was delicious, as it's hard to mess up pork belly, but it did not wow me as a meat course as a farm fresh chicken might have.

GRASS FED BEEF LOIN WITH CARROTS DC does not eat pork, so they served him beef. The grass fed flavor does come out, but again, I just didn't feel like I needed to trek all the way out there for these meat courses.

A quick walk outside to breathe in the fresh night air before the sweet courses began. Real stars in the night sky!


ORANGE SORBET WITH CASSIS, RHUBARB, AND ELDERFLOWER JELLY I thought this was just too sharp and one-note, but SC loved all the components and thought that it worked well as a predessert palate cleanser.

COFFEE GRANITE, CHOCOLATE SORBET, AND MILK FOAM The flavors were solid, and the textures and temperatures mixed well together.

MILK CHOCOLATE AND CHESTNUT CAKE It was actually DC and SC's anniversary, so the kitchen was nice enough to send this out for them.


Also, our wines for the evening, expertly chosen once again by DC in collaboration with the sommelier.

Overall, it was a wonderful meal filled with wonderful ingredients. From the start of the meal to the egg and vegetable stew, they showed off the produce spectacularly. The pasta, meat, and dessert courses were good, but not spectacular, and did not give the sense that they were worth travelling some distance for. Blue Hill is a hard restaurant to rate, because every dinner can be somewhat different based on the available produce. While there wasn't much cooking technique being shown off, it could also be because of the limitations on what they would use. My recommendation would be to figure out what season's ingredients appeal to you most, whether it be spring green vegetables, summer-autumn tomatoes, winter root vegetables, or whatever, and plan a trip accordingly.