June 20, 2009

Top Chef Masters: Lost Supper

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 1:27 pm

Congratulations to Suzanne Tracht (aka Chance the Gardener). It’s interesting the extent to which she, like Hubert Keller, pretty much dominated the competition from the get-go. That said, it doesn’t seem quite fair that Chef Tracht’s Quickfire-winning amuse bouche had the least representation of vending machine ingredients, using Fritos and Dr. Pepper as accents in a dish composed primarily of micro-greens and shallots. The other chefs’ plates had a vending machine protein right in the center of the plate. (I’m not sure I even consider a salad an amuse bouche, but what the hell do I know. It beats fruit gazpacho in  Granny Smith apple bowl.)

With Wylie Dufresne choking on the Quickfire, my predictions get off to a rocky start. I don’t expect things to get any better through these first rounds, since I’m just making wild-ass guesses. (Speaking of Wylie Dufresne, can I just say that I am so, so sick of the molecular gastronomy debate, and particularly the “I’m not a fan of your arid, soul-less approach to food, but this dish happens to be delicious. I nevertheless refuse to admit there is any problem with my a priori commitments,” style of criticism you saw in evidence from James Oseland and Gael Greene toward Wylie Dufresne. I say this as someone who has eaten at Drufresne’s restaurant and didn’t particularly like it. The idea that there are certain ingredients, techniques, and tools that can’t be used to make proper “soul-ful” food is just… ridiculous.)

Next week: Rick Bayless, Wilo Benet, Ludo Lefebvre, and Cindy Pawlcyn. My prediction? Wilo Benet. Because I like the name Wilo.

P.S. Can Jay Raynor please replace Toby Young on the regular show?

P.P.S. Can Elizabeth Falkner please come over and make me some cookies?


June 14, 2009

The Last Word on Bánh Mì

Filed under: Food — Chris @ 1:43 pm

It has come to pass that bánh mì are passé—featured on the front page of the New York Times Dining section; available outside of Chinatown, in Midtown, the West Village, and Park Slope; dismissed by Tom Colicchio (who gives no evidence of having ever actually eaten one; he’s tired of hearing about them). Well, we’ve been covering bánh mì from the very beginning on this blog, since before the dawn of bánh mì history, and we think there are still a few questions that remain to be answered.

Question #1: There’s a new bánh mì shop right down the street. Do I really need to make a special trip to Lower Manhattan or Sunset Park for the “authentic experience”? A bánh mì is a practically fool-proof sandwich. With one exception (see below), I have never had a bánh mì in New York that was not at least tasty. Hanco’s in Boerum Hill and Park Slope makes a damn good sandwich, one that I’m happy to eat on a regular basis (not least because they will deliver it to my door).

That said, the best bánh mì I’ve had by a fair margin—and I’ve tried nearly all the top contenders here and here—is at Ba Xuyên in Sunset Park. The difference is in the construction and in the careful balance of ingredients: you need just the right snap and vinegar from the pickled vegetables; the tangy sweetness of the aioli; a few shadings of peppery, meaty flavors (preferably a combination of grilled, marinated meat and pâté); the crunch of the bread, with a bit of heft and chewiness; fresh hot peppers and cilantro, of course; and, finally, you need all of these components to be layered so that the reach your mouth in roughly the correct proportions in every bite.

Most bánh mì go wrong in at least one of these categories. Hanco’s has a nice combination of flavors undone by lop-sided construction, so that one’s choices are to alternate bites of vegetables and meat or to reconstruct the sandwich from first principles. Baoguette has nice ingredients (and an interesting variation on the traditional meats, presented in chopped, cubed form, rather than as slices), but falls short with bread that lacks snap and flavor. Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich inexplicably omits the aioli (or maybe I got a reject?), throwing the balance of flavors off.

Ba Xuyên gets everything right, and their sandwiches cost about half of what you’ll pay at the shop in your neighborhood (the sandwich is probably about 50% bigger too). If you have enjoyed bánh mì elsewhere, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. Take the R train to 43 Street and walk through Sunset Park. The shop is one block past the park on Eighth Ave at 43rd St. I recommend the grilled pork (#7) and a milk tea with pearls. Walk back to the park and sit on a bench while you eat, taking in a beautiful view of New York Harbor.

Question #2: Is there a “fancy” bánh mì worth eating? I first posed this question back in December, after having been disappointed (twice!) by the bánh mì simulation on offer at Sidecar Lounge. I’ve since tried the bánh mì at Momofuku Ssäm Bar and can report it is a damn fine sandwich that fails the balance test, as sketched above. It relies very heavily on the dark, peppery flavor of nicely grilled pork and generous slathering of pâté, and gives less emphasis to the fresh, vinegary bite of pickled vegetables or the chewy crunch of the bread. I wouldn’t warn anyone off it (as I would the Sidecar version), but it’s not my favorite dish on their menu (which would be pork buns, duh, or the spicy rice cakes). Nor is it my favorite bánh mì in town (not by a longshot).

Arguably, what Num Pang and An Choi are doing is also an attempt to “elevate” the bánh mì (although I suppose lumping Num Pang in with bánh mì is a bit imperialist). I haven’t tried the latter. The former are very, very good, totally worth a try, but quite expensive by bánh mì standards (the sandwiches are only $7 or 8, in general, but they’re also not quite a meal in themselves).

June 12, 2009

Top Chef Masters

Filed under: Not Tech, Top Chef — Chris @ 3:47 pm

To cover it, or not to cover it? That is the question. On the one hand, this blog has suffered from a lack of content since Top Chef: New York went off the air in February. On the other hand… Well, I like the fact that the vibe is more laid back, good natured, and collegial; that the skill and ease of the contestants genuinely earns the “masters” label; that the “critics” (not “judges”) are more respectful and attentive; that the tenor of the conversation runs towards “here’s why this dish wasn’t perfect” as opposed to “here’s why you’d have to be an utter fucking fool to think this dish could ever work at all.”

But the lack of drama is going to be a problem.

As much as I like to act all contemptuous of the Hoseas, the Leahs, the Arrianes, and so on, and pretend they have no place on Top Chef, I’m in the snark business over here. Writing a snarky blog post about Top Chef Masters is going to be like preparing an amuse bouche with ingredients from a vending machine. I don’t want to turn out the blog equivalent of a Snickers bar with a Cheeto sticking out of it.

Let’s wait and see. Hopefully, somebody douchey or arrogant or humorlessly homosexual will turn up and make a run at the finals.

This week, Hubert Keller had everybody out-classed. In the Quickfire, instead of condescending to little-girl tastes (e.g., chocolate-covered strawberries), he put out a whimsical and appealing plate of meringue swans and parfait. In the Elimination, he had the good sense to stay away from cuts of meat that would need to be to be “seared” on a hot plate (somehow Tim Love got away with this. I suppose skirt steak is more forgiving than pork chops).

Christopher Lee made the rookie mistake of trying to make a risotto (Rule #4). Tim Love got a little cute, making a “pozole” without hominy (Rule #4.2.1); that one slid by because it just happened to be delicious. (BTW, why was James Oseland so desperate to convince us that he enjoys football and tailgating and all of the manly pursuits of men?) All four contestants cheated a bit by preparing a raw first course, untouched by dorm room appliances. Overall, the quality of the dishes look pretty high. I can only imagine the parade of insipid “duos” and “trios” that would have been produced by a regular Top Chef cohort.

Next week’s contestants are Wylie Dufresne, Elizabeth Falkner, Suzanne Tracht, and Graham Elliot Bowles.

Prediction: I’m going to proceed on the assumption that the most famous chef always wins. That would be Wylie Dufresne, I think. Though he’s going to have a hard time pulling off anything molecularly gastronomical.

June 11, 2009

Sans a iPod

Filed under: Linux, Tech — Chris @ 3:42 pm

I left my iPod Nano in the back of a cab a few weeks ago (yes, I was drunk). To punish myself, and to hopefully avoid some of the problems I’ve had using iPods with Linux (see here and here), I decided to buy a Sandisk Sansa Fuze. This is basically a generic Nano: an 8GB solid state media player with a small screen and video capabilities. It’s about $50 cheaper than the Nano and about 50% crappier in every dimension: it’s bigger and thicker than the Nano and suprisingly heavy; has a first-gen iPod-style mechanical scroll wheel and a misaligned headphone jack; the screen is noticeably low resolution; and the control is counterintuitive (the main menu items swoop diagonally from lower left to upper right—I still can’t wrap my head around which way to turn the wheel). It does have several features that the Nano lacks, e.g., a built-in FM radio and a voice recorder, which I plan to use approximately never.

My expectation that the Fuze would play nicer with Linux were met in one big way: in MSC (USB Mass Storage Device Class) mode, the Fuze looks just like a USB flash drive with some special folders set up (e.g., Music, Videos, Podcasts, etc.). Copying music onto the device is easy as pie. No need to worry about a cryptographic hash. No need to recompile Rhythmbox or Amarok. It Just Works.

My expectations were frustrated in other ways.

  1. Depending on who you ask, encoding videos for the Fuze is damn difficult or impossible on Linux. I haven’t really tried to solve this, because I can live without video (I only ever used it to stare at the pasty, inert, all-over inessential faces of various Bloggingheads), but the whole situation is absurd. You wouldn’t ship a music player that can’t play MP3s. Nor should you ship a video player that can’t play MP4s. (Yes, yes, I understand that MPEG-4 is a big, unwieldy beast that makes a mockery of the term “standard.” I even understand that video podcasts may use patent-encumbered codecs. But the answer to that is most certainly not to force me to run all my videos through a proprietary Windows-only media converter.)
  2. Connecting to the player in MTP (Media Transfer Protocol) mode required backporting libmtp 0.3.7 from the Karmic repository. This is no big deal, because the one and only reason I wanted to connect via MTP was to remove the lame music and videos that came preloaded on the player. (Media loaded in MTP mode can only be removed in MTP mode. Media loaded in MSC mode can only be unloaded in MSC mode.) The Fuze crashed when I tried to eject it in MTP mode. But I rebooted it and the files were gone, so I’m happy.
  3. Podcasts have a tendency to show up with strange, undescriptive code names. This might be Gpodder’s or the podcasts feeds’ fault, for all I know.

Overall, I’m content with the purchase. The Fuze is definitely Less Cool than the Nano. But next to an iPhone, a Nano is a pretty weak status signifier, don’t you think?

June 2, 2009

The Melody Osheroff Memorial Fund

Filed under: Not Tech, Tech — Chris @ 3:53 pm

Last Wednesday night, a drunk motorcyclist hit my niece and brother-in-law as they were crossing the street.

My brother-in-law, Aaron, lost a leg and may not regain the use of the other.

My niece, Melody, was killed. She was nine years old.

A memorial fund has been set up to help support the family during this crisis. Please consider making a donation. Even a small amount can help a lot.

PayPal - The safer, easier way to pay online!

Donations can also be made in person at any Wells Fargo location or mailed to “The Osheroff Family Fund,” c/o Wells Fargo Bank, 1590 Grant Ave., Novato, CA 94945.

NOTE: The Paypal account is managed by Ben Osheroff, Aaron’s brother. All proceeds will be transferred directly to the Memorial Fund.

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