Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Donovan's Burger Still Manages to Stand Out (food)

When talking about food and restaurants along the subway 7 line in Queens, people tend to think of all the ethnic foods available. From Romanian and Turkish in Sunnyside to Chinese and Korean in Flushing, and all the Thai, Filipino, Indian, Tibetan, Latin American, and many other offerings in between, there are plenty of restaurants that are well known to NYC foodies. The cluster of Irish pubs and restaurants in Woodside, however, don't tend to stand out as much.

The one exception is probably the burger at Donovan's Pub, which was put on the map when Time Out New York named it the best burger in NYC in 2004. Since then, it's kind of gone back into obscurity as the artisanal burger boom descended. People were interested in custom Pat LaFrieda blends and dry aged trimmings and forgot about the modest pub burger. Only recently did Donovan's Pub regain media attention through the changing of ownership. A couple of weeks ago, I saw it featured on the Travel Channel's Burger Land, a show hosted by well-known burger enthusiast George Motz.

I used to rather enjoy the burger at Donovan's, but then the quality dipped and I hadn't been back in quite a while. Now that it's back in the spotlight and under new management, I wanted to see if it could recapture its past glory.

A pint of Guinness is pretty much a must at any good Irish pub, and definitely so at Donovan's.

I usually get the hamburger with sauteed onions on top, which the waitresses always used to refer to as "fried onions". It comes with lettuce, tomato, and fries. They now offer a choice of regular or sweet potato fries, which is different from how I remember it. The fries are still like jacket fries, and I always order them well done.

It was a delicious burger. A sizeable 7-8oz patty that was somewhat loosely ground and packed, it was cooked to a perfect medium/medium-rare with a good grill flavor on the outside and juicy and beefy on the inside. The slice of tomato was thick and tasted fresh and in-season. Both the regular and sweet potato fries were good, well done as I had asked for and very crunchy on the outside.

As a matter of preference, I tend to like the old fashioned pub burgers like those at J G Melon's and Donovan's over the ground aged steak versions that are all over NYC now and cost in the high teens. I wouldn't say that this is a burger that someone should go out of their way to travel to eat, but among all the ethnic offerings along the 7 line, a satisfying, well executed, classic burger does stand out.

PS: I was originally going to try the burger at the new Ottomanelli shop nearby to do a comparison, but no longer have the desire to. Despite being practically empty, I had to wait a few minutes before the girl at the counter acknowledged my presence. When I then asked for a takeout menu, she just pointed to a stack of menus on the counter and went back to doing her own thing. The patties in the display case were preformed and did not look appetizing at all. I just don't see why I would bother when I know I'll enjoy myself eating at Donovan's.

5724 Roosevelt Ave
Woodside, Queens
NY 11377

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

2012-2013 NBA Finals Recap Part 1 of 3 (sport)

I feel that this year's NBA Finals was so good that it'd be a shame to just move on to the draft or the next sport without discussing it some more. It really had something for everyone, from casual bandwagon fans (the Heat and especially Lebron James) to the hardcore basketball fans (the Spurs and their amazing, but aging, team play). It was a back and forth affair with close games, routs, huge swings of momentum, iconic moments, and did not lack for drama. For the basketball purist, there was excellent team defense (mostly from the Heat) and excellent team offense (the Spurs' pick and roll game), along with excellent individual efforts from superstars and role players alike. Even though I'm not going to go into detail, I'm still going to split my recap into 3 parts. Part 1 will focus on game 7, while part 2 will go through the series as a whole, and part 3 will discuss the legacies of many of the players involved.

I thought this game 7 was one of the most remarkable final games of any sports tournament I'd ever seen, not just in basketball. To me, the thing that stands out about the final game of a long series is the finality of it. No matter what craziness there had been throughout the series, it all ends that night. What stood out to me about the game was how close it was throughout, and the building tension that time would inevitably run out for one of the teams. For most of the 4th quarter, Miami led by anywhere from 1 to 7 points, but never seemed to be able to pull away. I wrote that the Spurs would have to channel their inner Rocky, and they did just that. They took everything Miami could throw at them but were still within striking distance.

The beautiful San Antonio offense was already gone. Age and fatigue had caught up to the Spurs. Parker was so gassed (and possibly hurt) that Miami played off him on the pick and rolls, and he didn't have the legs to put up the midrange jump shot. The very jump shot that turned him from an all-star to a superstar was gone. Yet San Antonio kept finding ways to answer, whether it was Duncan down low or a vintage Ginobili drive or a Kawhi Leonard three. It was just grit and determination at that point, and as the Heat kept trying to pull away, San Antonio just would not go down. I found myself yelling "No pain! No pain!" at the television.

But there was no magical movie ending for the Spurs. They kept the game close, but couldn't get over the hump to tie or take the lead. Their last best chance came with the ball in the hands of Tim Duncan, but it was not to be.

And so the finality and inevitability of time running out came over the Spurs. Even Duncan knew it. Him slapping the floor in frustration was about as much emotion as he'd ever demonstrated on the court in his career.

In a series marked by back and forth adjustments from two of the best coaches in the NBA, it was, in my view, the team that made the last adjustments that won. I had written in my Finals preview that "Miami pulling out the first game actually delayed the realization that they had to constantly adjust to what Indiana was doing." Similarly, the Spurs almost winning game 6 put them in a situation where Miami was the one to react in game 7, while San Antonio was trying to do the same thing and hoping the result would be different.

Shane Battier became a key player and San Antonio didn't realize it early enough to close out on him better. Both Lebron and Wade were dribbling to shoot, but the Spurs defenders were still playing off them. Whereas in previous games Lebron's jump shots were out of rhythm because his motion was often awkward and indecisive, it seemed to me that during this game he dribbled solely with the intent of getting himself into rhythm for a jump shot, knowing they'd give him the shot. I felt at the time that the Spurs' defenders were right to continue to let him shoot, but that they had to worry a little less about the drive and do a better job of disrupting his rhythm.

I also felt that Boris Diaw should have been in during the final half of the 4th quarter. I understand that Popovich was looking for offense since his team had been trailing, but I think the problem really came on the defensive end. I don't think Miami was ever shut out for three straight possessions during that entire final stretch. So while San Antonio did an admirable job of answering everything Miami did, much of it was still trading baskets while down and with time running out. Since they were going to play off Lebron anyway, my guess is the 6'10 Diaw would have been better at affecting the shot from far away.

Between the coaching and the tired and hurt players, the game was indeed rather sloppy. Especially when you consider the level of play that we had already seen from both sides throughout the series. But that allowed the humanity of the players and their determination and will to shine through. It's why we don't watch a bunch of robots playing sports, and it was a fitting final game to an epic NBA Finals series.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

How Do You Write the Ending to the 2012-13 NBA Finals? (sport)

The Miami Heat pretty much have to win game 7, right?

How else do you follow the epic game 6 that happened? The story writes itself. The best player in the world and the most prolific shooter in NBA history combined to lead the Miami Heat to an amazing comeback. The San Antonio Spurs choked away the game by failing to make free throws and get rebounds. During the postgame show, even Magic Johnson said that it was one of the 2 or 3 greatest games he's ever seen in his 30-year career. However, the significance of all this fades away if San Antonio wins game 7.

Some of the most iconic games in sports history have come in the penultimate game of a series, with the final game being a mere afterthought as the winners completed their historic achievement. The Billy Buckner game was game 6 of the 1986 World Series and cemented the Curse of the Bambino even though there was still a game 7 to be played. The Bloody Sock game also came during a game 6, with game 7 of the 2004 ACLS at Yankee Stadium turning out to be quite anticlimactic. The Catch came during the 81-82 NFC Championship game, followed by San Francisco building a record 20-0 halftime lead in the ensuing Super Bowl.

"If you lose this game, you'll take it to your fcking graves." That, supposedly, is what Herb Brooks said going into the third period of the gold medal game during the 1980 Olympics, one game after the Miracle on Ice. It's not fair to compare the NBA finals to the top sports moment of the 20th century, but who knows if that's the level of motivation that the Miami Heat players have right now.

So is there a narrative where San Antonio prevails? Well, when two top athletes/teams face off against each other and go the distance, people often bring up Ali-Frazier and the Fight of the Century at MSG. Indeed, the huge back and forth runs that both teams have been on during this series have been described as haymakers. But Ali and Frazier were both dominant forces at the peak of their powers when they faced off. San Antonio is an old team that has had questions of retirement hovering around them. Miami, despite certain flaws, was built to be the most dominant force in the NBA. This isn't Muhammad Ali - Joe Frazier, folks. This is Rocky Balboa - Ivan Drago. The Spurs will have to channel their inner Rocky to win.

They have to play the training montage in their locker room. "No pain! No pain!"

They have to remind themselves. The Miami Heat killed Apollo Creed.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Mission Chinese Food NY: An Underrated Overrated Restaurant? (food)

Bill Simmons has written before about athletes that were deemed "underrated" for so long and by so many people that they soon became "overrated". In this age of social media and 24/7 access to everything, it makes sense that such a phenomenon is prevalent. It's so easy for something, whether a person, place, food item (the Cronut), or whatever it may be (Gangnam Style), to get a lot of hype and "go viral" very quickly. While I was eating takeout from Mission Chinese Food, I thought about how the reverse might also happen. It's probably a rarer occurrence though, for something to be so overexposed and deemed overrated that they fall back under the radar.

When I first ate the food at Mission Chinese Food, I felt the food was very overrated. Not that it was bad per se, but just underwhelming given all the hype. As someone who grew up with both the more subtle flavors of Cantonese cuisine and the concentrated flavors of Shanghainese cooking, I found the flavor profiles too muddled in some of the items from Mission Chinese. Dishes seemed confused in their composition, unable to decide between the more traditional Chinese form of one dish among many to go with rice, and the Western style of each entree being specifically balanced to stand on its own. In addition to being somewhat muddled, in some dishes the actually pretty good underlying flavors and ingredients were just hidden by too much numbing spiciness. I do understand that authentic Sichuan food is often like that. But being authentic does not make it good. Food around the world is often made a specific way out of necessity, whether it be due to ingredient availability or for adapting to the climate, and not necessarily to maximize taste in a vacuum.

So yea, overrated. Although I have to admit, I only tried a handful of their more well-known items. Like many Chinese restaurants (although they refer to themselves as serving Americanized Oriental food), there are a lot of choices on the menu. But what separates them from many other places is that they continue to add new items to the menu. It is this continued innovation that I think is underrated. Even if your initial reaction was similar to mine, I think there's enough potential there that Mission Chinese Food has become a bit underrated in their ability to broaden their repertoire.

Food: Core items that have been on the menu since they opened

For some reason the pastrami had a really strong smoke flavor. Even when I've actually eaten at Katz's the smoke flavor was not as overpowering as the pastrami was here. This was a decent rendition of kung pao, but I just didn't see how the kung pao elevated the pastrami or vice versa.

The broccoli here is Chinese broccoli, which is one of my favorite vegetables. But there's nothing special about this dish. No real smokiness came through in the oyster sauce, and the brisket was a pretty fatty slab that wasn't as tender as I would have liked.

The pork jowls were tasty, but this was another dish where I thought things were muddled and had no real identity. The fermented black beans were strewn here and there, but did not feel like a main component of the sauce. The radish provided some crispness to the texture, but was not assertive or bright enough to balance out the pork jowl.

The flavors here were decent, but I would have preferred a meatier cut of pork belly than the bacon. The rice cakes were ok, but once again I was confused as to their purpose. There wasn't enough in the dish where it asserted itself as a main starch component, and as an accompaniment I thought something with a crispier, crunchier texture would have worked much better.

The tofu was decent and the pork shoulder was flavorful and worked better than the usual ground pork. There was just too much sichuan pepper for my taste. Which is ok, except that on a subsequent visit when I asked for the dish to be made with less of the sichuan pepper, they told me they could not accommodate that request. Nevertheless, the numbing spice level has varied every time I've ordered it, and this is a delicious dish when they're not as heavy-handed with it.

While the ingredients were not particularly special in my view, the fried rice had pretty good wok hei.

Food: Newer items

This was excellent. It was well fried, sealing in the moisture of the (way more than expected) meat of the fish. It held up superbly for takeout. The hot pepper jelly was great, with the sweetness helping to balance out the spiciness, which was fragrant and not the numbing kind.

I assume this was their version of 蒜泥白肉, and it was a great rendition. The soy caramel really enhanced the umami in the dish, and the thinly shaved pork belly had an excellent textural mix of fat and meat. The menu says that this had sichuan pepper as well, but I didn't taste any, which was probably a good thing.

A tasty version of Thai pineapple fried rice. The bbq pork jowl worked better than I would have thought, and the pineapple pickle was nicely sweet, which went well with the curry. I was disappointed, though, that I could barely detect any dungeness crab. At $16 for fried rice, it was bad enough that I couldn't see any crab, let alone not taste any.

This was another tasty fried rice, and the good wok hei was not covered up by the schmaltz, which was one of my initial worries. However, given the richness of the liver and schmaltz, I would have preferred something brighter than radishes for contrast. I also would have preferred a lot more chicken heart pieces, which were excellent texturally with the fried rice.

Not all of the newer dishes were successes. This dish, which was actually more like a soup, failed on multiple levels. It was kind of like a tom yum soup, but the brine leaned more sweet than sour and the balance was off. The sichuan pepper once again did more to stifle the flavors than to bring them out. There was very little fish, and the bacon had an overpowering smokiness to it. It seemed like a bunch of interesting things that were thrown together, but didn't gel to become a coherent composed dish.

Service and Decor:
Honestly, I've never eaten at the restaurant. The decor is just so not my style. But I still experienced good service while getting takeout. On a recent visit, they only realized that one of the items that I'd ordered ran out by the time the rest of my order was ready. Not only did they allow me to replace it with anything else on the menu that I wanted, they even threw in an extra dish. There are a lot of nice restaurants that wouldn't do this, and I'd certainly never imagine it happening at any Chinese restaurant. I found that to be pretty impressive.

I do believe that Mission Chinese has been overrated and overhyped. (James Beard award? Really?) But that doesn't mean that there isn't a lot of underrated potential still there. It's also kind of hard to root against them given their business practices, such as free beer for people waiting in line and a donation of 75 cents to the Food Bank of NYC from each entree sold.

Mission Chinese Food
154 Orchard St
(between Stanton St & Rivington St)
Manhattan 10002

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

2012-2013 NBA Finals Preview (sport, gambling)

This is it. The NBA Finals. This is the third consecutive appearance for the Miami Heat. The Heat come into the finals off a game 7 win in the conference finals, just like last season. The Spurs' "Big Three" have never lost in the finals in their previous 4 appearances. This is San Antonio's first appearance since they swept LeBron's Cavaliers team back in 2006-07. Will LeBron be able to get revenge?

San Antonio Spurs (2) at Miami Heat (1)

The Matchup:
It's always about how teams match up against each other, and I think San Antonio actually matches up very well against Miami. While Duncan and Splitter aren't as long and as skilled a combination as Hibbert and West were, they are still stronger than Miami's big men and should provide solid interior defense and rebounding. Leonard will have the main task of defending Lebron, which I think is huge for San Antonio as their main offensive players won't be worn down from defending James. A lot of other teams the Heat have faced have defended Lebron with their best overall player, who also happened to be their best offensive player (eg. George on Indiana, Durant on OKC).

The Key Players (who will need to step up):
Mario Chalmers - Lebron will probably switch over to defend Parker on a few possessions, but the bulk of that responsibility should fall on Chalmers. More importantly, it would be huge if Chalmers could consistently attack on offense, not allowing San Antonio to hide Parker in their team defense.

Chris Bosh - I think Bosh will be more important to this series than Wade will be. While it was ok for him to perch out by the three point line in order to draw out Hibbert, that won't be necessary in this series. Duncan does a lot of helping in the San Antonio defense, and Bosh needs to be able to both score on his own and to cut to the rim constantly for follows. I think a lot of Chris Andersen's open buckets in the Indiana series will fall onto Bosh, and he needs to make them.

Danny Green - I firmly believe that Danny Green's cold shooting last season against the Thunder was one of the main reasons the Spurs lost that series. He went from shooting 16 of 35 (45.7%) from 3 point range in the first two rounds last season to shooting 4 of 23 (17.5%) in the series against OKC. If he is shooting well, he completes the well-oiled machine that is the Spurs' offense. Especially with Leonard spending much of his energy defending Lebron, Danny Green's shooting will determine whether the Spurs will have a complete offense, along with Duncan's post game and Parker and Manu's slash and drive games.

The Coaching:
Although a lot of people automatically think that Popovich is the better coach, I have always thought that Spoelstra himself was an excellent coach. There were a lot of game-to-game adjustments made in that Indiana series on both sides, and both coaches showed themselves to be in the top tier of current coaches. However, Miami has had to expose a lot of what they can do to survive the Indiana series, and that might prove to be just enough of an edge for Popovich to take advantage of.

The Intangibles:
When talking about fatigue in basketball, most people think about "legs" and running up and down the court. But the physicality of the game does take its toll, especially when you're constantly fighting against players who are bigger, stronger, and sometimes hungrier than you. While much has been made about the physicality of Indiana, people seem to have forgotten that Miami also played a series against a tough, defensive-minded Chicago team. Between those two series and what Lebron has had to do to will Miami into the finals, I just don't think the Heat as a team will be able to play anywhere near their best.

In the back and forth chess match that was the Indiana series, I believe that Miami pulling out the first game actually delayed the realization that they had to constantly adjust to what Indiana was doing. Once Indiana won game 2, Miami reacted perfectly to every wrinkle that Indiana added by winning all the odd numbered games. However, if San Antonio manages to steal one early, it might be too late for Miami to adjust and come back. San Antonio is one of the few teams that have played so well at home for so long that it shouldn't surprise anyone if they win their 3 consecutive home games.

Prediction: UPSET! San Antonio 4-1
Possible bets: Bet San Antonio to win the series. Current price around +200. Also a small bet for San Antonio to win the series 4-1. Prices vary by book but I think they average out to around +800. Don't forget that the finals have a 2-3-2 format, so if the Spurs clinch the title at home, they will have to do it in 5 games.

Let's look back and see how my conference finals predictions went.

Overall Series Predictions vs Actual Result:

Prediction San Antonio 4-3, Actual San Antonio 4-0
Prediction Miami 4-3, Actual Miami 4-3

I think I did another pretty good job. I got both winners right, and nailed the Miami series exactly. With two overtime wins, the San Antonio series was a lot closer than the sweep might lead one to believe. I was right that Indiana matched up well with Miami, and I still believe that if Indiana had home court advantage for the series they would have won it. The other bets however, have continued to produce mediocre results.

SAS to win the series. Win one unit.
Under in IND@MIA games. 3-4 for the series.

Overall results: 4-4 -0.4 units