Procrastiblog

May 1, 2011

Papparoti, He Wrote

Filed under: Food, Travel — Chris @ 6:04 pm

In my post last week, I totally forgot to mention one of our favorite parts of visiting Vietnam: Papparoti. They sell “Malaysian style buns,” delightful fist-sized pastries with a nugget of butter (or buttery substance) in the center, topped with some kind of (supposedly coffee-flavored) streusel, served hot out of the oven from a counter on the sidewalk for less than a dollar. We ate at least one of these every single day we were in Hanoi.
Top - Pappa Roti, Glen Waverley AUD2.20
Somebody in New York needs to get on franchising one of these immediately. They’ve already got them in Australia and Pasadena. (Pasadena, for Pete’s sake. Are we going to let those jerks lord it over us?!) This has all the makings of a white hot foodie fad that would last six months and end in bankruptcy. Doesn’t that sound like something you would like to be involved in?

Creative Commons photo courtesy of avlxyz on Flickr.

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April 17, 2011

Vietnam

Filed under: Not Tech, Travel — Chris @ 11:47 am

I’ve posted pictures from our recent trip to Vietnam, highly recommended if you like street food, motorbikes, and rice paddies.

Among the Rice Paddies

A few quick tips:

  • Visa-on-arrival is definitely the way to go. I spent a week trying to call the embassy to arrange a regular visa and got nowhere. Then I went to Visa-Vietnam.org, filled out a form, and 24 hours later I had all my paperwork. And, for some reason, it’s cheaper than a regular visa. The only “catch” is you have to stop at the office at the airport to pick up your visa before you go through passport control. It added a grand total of maybe 10 minutes to the process.
  • Halong Bay is pretty nice (although we were cursed with mediocre weather), but you should know what to expect. We were hoping for something more like our boat trip in Kerala—a few relaxing days drifting on the water and being served surprisingly delicious meals. The two and three day tours that are sold by every tourist shop in Hanoi, on the other hand, really are tours with tour guides, excursions to crowded attractions, and scheduled thirty minutes pit stops at road-side handicraft emporia. If you’re tour-averse, as we are, you’d be better off to make your own way to Halong City or Cat Ba and then rent a private boat for the day. (I have no idea how much that would cost, but the package tours aren’t cheap anyway.)
    Coffee in Halong Bay
  • It will surprise no one, having been featured on international television and hyped to death on the Internet, but Phương’s bánh mì in Hoi An really is the best I’ve ever had. It’s very different in style and flavor from the classic New York bánh mì—less emphasis on crisp veggies and cilantro, more layers of meaty flavor, with an ingenious fried egg on top. Oddly, it was the only bánh mì we had in Vietnam that could hold a candle to Ba Xuyên (although, of course, there was embarrassment of other kinds of delightful food).
    The Phương Special

December 19, 2010

Faking It

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 7:20 pm

Not much to say about Top Chef this week. The Elimination challenge was interesting but unfair, for a couple of reasons. First, Wylie Dufresne probably spends weeks or months working over a dish before he puts it on the menu at wd-50; can you really imagine anybody in the world meeting his standards with just a day to think about it and a couple of hours in the kitchen? Second, there’s a real mismatch between contestants and styles of food—Angelo was clearly in a much stronger position going into this challenge than Fabio was (even if Fabio’s whining about how impossibly difficult it is to cook French-Vietnamese fusion cuisine instead of pasta pasta pasta is irritating and dull).

Angelo snorts some heirloom tomatoes

That said, some of the contestants managed to acquit themselves well against long odds and others just choked. Carla smartly made a pretty traditional plate of shrimp and grits, attractively plated. There’s no chance that dish would ever appear on the wd-50 menu, but I’m sure it tasted good. Dale T. made a similar play: a solidly delicious dish that basically ignored the parameters of the challenge (how exactly is dumpling soup avant garde?). Both bets paid off: you don’t go home on Top Chef if your food tastes good (unless the next guy’s tastes better); and you can always win if your food tastes great, even if you kind of cheated.

Stray thoughts:

  • Angelo: If an Italian thinks your pants are too tight, your pants are too tight.
  • I can’t think of the last time I wanted to eat a Top Chef dish as much as I want to eat Dale’s dumpling soup.
  • As I predicted, it’s not looking like a good year for The Rules. I don’t expect to see many pasta salads from these chefs.

December 12, 2010

A Fight to the Death

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 6:08 pm

Oh, Jennifer. You ran smack into Rule E (“Be prepared to defend your dish at Judges’ Table”) and got sent home ahead of at least a half dozen lesser chefs, including three on your own team who made clear cut, amateurish mistakes, but were prepared to fess up and beg forgiveness at Judges’ Table. It’s hard to credit Tom’s claim that Jennifer’s attitude had little to do with her elimination. If she had said, “Yes, my dish could have been improved; I was working alone because Jamie got hurt and I did the best I could,” there’s a good chance they would have sent home Tiffany or Antonia for serving undercooked frittate.

But damn, Jennifer was pissed. More pissed even that Fabio last week. Like, Dale punching a locker pissed. If she showed any previous evidence of that temper, I don’t remember it.

Jennifer does not appreciate your feedback

Jennifer does not appreciate your feedback

Stray thoughts:

  • H is still totally bent out of shape that Top Chef filmed in the museum—just steps away from her office—and nobody told her. (Hey, Top Chef producers: have you considered a Google lunch challenge?)
  • The Quickfire devolved into a sugary race to the bottom, didn’t it?
  • Tiffani’s inability to accept that the Elimination Challenge involved unreasonable constraints that she hadn’t anticipated was… odd. She’s seen the show, hasn’t she? (It may have been added in post, but Tom clearly says, “One team will be cooking with meat and meat byproducts, such as eggs and dairy, only,” back in the David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing.)
  • I always assumed there was bad blood between Top Chef and Katie Lee. How can she look at Padma without thinking, “If I was the least bit interesting, you’d be a nobody”?
  • I’m considering a new rule: don’t ever put anything in an oven. Ovens can’t be trusted.

December 5, 2010

Top Chef: All-Stars: Yes, Really, This is a Blog Post!

Filed under: Not Tech, Top Chef — Chris @ 6:57 pm

As it happens, the debut of Top Chef: All-Stars coincides almost perfectly with the end of my Ph.D career (I got it, BTW), leaving me free and unburdened by work-related guilt for the first time in many years. So welcome all to the triumphant return of Procrastiblog, now with 50% less Procrasti- and 100% more -blog. The plan is to cover this season of Top Chef on a weekly or near-weekly basis. Since I don’t have cable anymore and have to depend on the kindness of strangers for my Top Chef fix, expect the posts to go up over the weekends.

I’m looking forward to this season of Top Chef. There’s a good half dozen contestants I’d be happy to see win. We can expect the level of competition to be generally high—I’d be surprised if any of these old pros falls afoul of the rules. And we can count on Anthony Bourdain to be likeably dickish and amusing each week at Judges Table (Toby Young should take some notes on how to make forced pop culture references without coming off as congenitally unlikeable. I will miss Eric Ripert, though; he really classed up the joint).

Fabio Hulks out

Fabio Hulks out

But the All-Stars format doesn’t entirely change the normal course of a Top Chef season too much. We’d normally expect at least a half dozen hopeless caterers, moms, and seafood chefs to get slowly weeded out through the first half of the season. Instead, we have a eight chefs who are better than the average contestant, but not finalist material: Stephen (Season 1); Elia (Season 2); Antonia, Dale T., and Spike (Season 4); Jamie and Fabio (Season 5); and Mike (Season 6). It’s a shame that most of these contestants could have been replaced by stronger contestants from their respective seasons: Dave and Lee Anne (Season 1); Sam (Season 2); Stefan (Season 5); and Bryan and Kevin (Season 6). (The last three in particular could have been strong All-Stars contenders.) Of the non-finalist contestants, I’d say only Tre (Season 3), Jennifer (Season 6), and Tiffany (Season 7)—all upset eliminations—have any chance at all.

Some of the former finalists are looking surprisingly weak: it turns out Marcel (Season 2), Dale L. and Casey (Season 3) all had the good fortune to be better than average in weak seasons—even within his avant-garde niche, Marcel pales in comparison to chefs like Richard and the Voltaggios. Can there be any doubt that Jennifer, Richard, or Angelo could have disemboweled Season 2 winner Ilan Hall and served his guts in an ambitious but not overly fussy trio of offal?

Stray thoughts:

  • Isn’t a bit unfair and not all that surprising that the Quickfire win went to the only team with four chefs?
  • It’s also a little unfair that the second group being served got to know they were being piped into the kitchen when it came time to criticize the food. They were far less harsh. Is it a coincidence that the bottom three dishes came from the first group?
  • The rules of the Elimination challenge were somewhat unclear. Elia seemed to fall into the trap of sticking closely to her original preparation, whereas other contestants reproduced little more than the key ingredients. For example, Angelo jettisoned one of the key components of his original dish. And didn’t Tre get to rework the least problematic of his multiple losing dishes?
  • It remains astonishing the immediacy with which everybody who ever meets Marcel dislikes him. Even so, can we stop replaying the head shaving incident now? Especially if it’s going to be accompanied by self serving and not entirely regretful blather from the likes of Elia?
  • It was especially fun to see Bourdain make former fan favorite Fabio show his less genial side. (The prickly, aggressive version of Fabio should be familiar to anybody who watched last year’s Reunion Dinner.)
  • Have you noticed that the immersion circulators Marcel was mocked for wanting six seasons ago are now bog standard Top Chef equipment, used indiscriminately by everyone?
  • I wonder if Richard knows how to cook anything without using liquid nitrogen?

September 15, 2010

The Top Chef: D.C. Blogging You Deserve

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 3:31 pm

Just a quick note to say the blog isn’t entirely dead, my thesis isn’t entirely finished, and I still have opinions about Top Chef.

It’s been a weak year, with some of the worst themed challenges of the show’s run and no especially strong personalities to root for or against. It goes without saying that none of the top three contestants this year could hold a candle to any of last year’s top three (Kevin Gillespie had more total wins than Ed and this year’s Kevin combined. And he came in third place). My predictions…

I’ve come to really appreciate Angelo’s high-strung energy; I believe he’s totally genuine and genuinely weird. But he’s been coming undone, Jennifer C.-style, and I have a feeling he won’t pull it out.*

I can’t stand Kevin. He’s an arrogant moron, never more so than in the baseball concessions challenge, in which he transmuted a strategic desire to screw Angelo into an torrent of moral outrage. With only one Elimination win and one Quickfire win (for a team challenge), he’d be the least distinguished chef to ever win Top Chef. (Side note: Kevin is chef at the only genuinely fancy restaurant in my hometown, so I was predisposed to like him. For future meals with my parents, I’m going to stick with Chick & Nello’s.)

Ed is… well, Ed is Ed. He’s not that great, but he seems to be pretty good. He’s a nice enough guy. And he’s on an upsurge (3 Elimination wins and 2 Quickfiers in the last 5 episodes). Like most Top Chef’s past, he will get the title and the crown, get razzed by the New York Times, and watch the also-rans run off with the fame and plum jobs.

See you next year!

* [SPOILER] (highlight to read) It’s more than just a feeling. Angelo is apparently participating in an upcoming Top Chef All-Stars series, so he’s almost certainly not the winner. [/SPOILER]

April 25, 2010

Iceland Report, Part 2: Haimaey

Filed under: Iceland, Not Tech, Travel — Chris @ 4:03 pm

A puffin

Today’s subject is Haimaey, the largest of the Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands). The key attractions on Haimaey are the lava flows of Eldfell, dramatic ocean cliffs, and lots and lots of puffins. The following are not attractions on Haimaey: nightlife, comfortable hotels, a large selection of quality restaurants, or accurate maps.

H recommends that you stay at the campsite on the North side of the island. I was intrigued by a little hostel that we passed on the Southern part of the island (here, I believe), but I can find no information about it on the Internet. Perhaps they don’t welcome foreign tourists.

The thing to do in Haimaey, if you’re not a rock climber (and I’m not), is to walk along the coast and spot puffins. The trail on the West side of the island starts rather vaguely near the golf course. Walk down Hamarsvegur to somewhere near the clubhouse, cut across the course to the top of the cliffs, then turn South. At this point, you’ll still be on the golf course and may be in the way. As you head further South, the course will end and you will find yourself on a reasonably unambiguous hiking trail, continuing pretty much uninterrupted down to the Southern tip of the island.

On the Southern tip, you are face with a choice: double back the way you came, walking up the Western coast, or forge ahead to the East, where the trail is not nearly so well marked and you will be blocked from making a full circuit by the airstrip in the center of the island. Taking the (bad) advice of The Rough Guide, we tried the latter course. It starts off well, with an interesting black sand beach, but then the trail sort of disappears. We reached a fence with no stile and were forced to scramble up a fairly steep hill and then improvise.

Not that it was a total loss. There were ponies

Feeding the pony dandelion greens

and sheep

IMG_0548

but in the end, we had to walk at least a kilometer back into town, sore and tired, along the puffinless road.

IMG_0577

A last word of advice: don’t bother trying the puffin, it’s not very tasty. Instead, have a delicious lamb “boat” sandwich with crispy fried onions.

April 8, 2010

Program Note

Filed under: Top Chef, TV — Chris @ 7:25 am

I will not be blogging about the second season of Top Chef Masters. First of all, I really should be writing my thesis. Secondly, I already have two series of posts that I’m months behind on. Lastly, it’s a good show and all, but everybody’s too good all the time, and mostly pretty nice. There’s hardly anything to kvetch about.

Best wishes and happy Spring,
The proprietor

January 30, 2010

There is a Wizard and He is Going to Kill You

Filed under: Music — Chris @ 4:43 pm

I just finished reading John Darnielle’s great 33⅓ book on Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality. This bit does a pretty good job of summing up the difference between metal I like and metal I can’t stand:

[Sabbath’s songs were] about witches and devils and wizards and corpses. But there were barely any stories. Not like in Rush songs where if there was a wizard, or whatever, there would be a whole story, like a Robert A. Heinlein book. […] Rush songs they all have big stories and lots of things happen and there is some big meaning. On the first Black Sabbath album, the whole story in the song will be like, “There is a wizard and he is going to kill you,” or “There is a devil and you are the sacrifice.”

It strikes me that this quality, implying a story rather than telling one, is exactly what I enjoy in Darnielle’s songs. Sometimes, you just get a sketch of one crucial moment, as in “Heights” from Nothing for Juice:

When the seashells crumbled in your hand,
You looked up at me.
And the sand shifting underneath your feet,
Softened for you and, incredibly,
The sun went through from the sky.
And I was certain I was going to cry.
But then you reached up and you reached out,
We’d been staring at the water all day.
And then you touched me.
You were golden.
You were giving the game away.

Sometimes you get an isolated scene, devoid of any real context, that speaks simply of powerful emotions, as in “Noche del Gaujolote”, collected on Bitter Melon Farm:

All the birds were sleeping in their perches,
The little wind, swaying birches.
And the North American wild turkey
That your father brought home
Woke up and came towards us.

And the moonlight and the turkey waking up.
And the night air and the moonlight on your skin.
And the moonlight and the turkey waking up.
And the quiet yard and the turkey and the moon.
Unimaginable.

Darnielle’s critical supporters probably prefer to associate him with Raymond Carver. But Ozzy’s probably just as good a place to start.

January 23, 2010

Iceland Report, Part 1: Reykjavik

Filed under: Not Tech, Travel — Chris @ 12:40 pm

Here we are, just five months since I got back from Iceland, and I’m already prepared to blog about it. First up, some random tips on vacationing in Reykjavik..

  • Be prepared for schizophrenic weather. I’m pretty sure not a day passed that it wasn’t sunny and warm and one point and chilly and wet at another, oftentimes alternating between the two several times through the day. (This was in August. Can’t vouch for the other 11 months of the year.)
  • I didn’t go to Iceland expecting to eat anything particularly delicious—what I expected was to choke down some rotted shark or dried herring—so I was very pleasantly surprised to discover the lamb “boat” sandwich, a delightful combination of thinly sliced grillled lamb, crispy fried onions, various pickles, and the mysterious hlölli sauce (some kind of jazzed-up mayonnaise). You can get these at Hlölla Bátar, right in the center of Reykjavik, or at any number of takeout joints all over the place and they’re always pretty damn good even when they’re not great.
  • Crispy fried onions! They should be on everything!
  • Despite the all-important Bill Clinton endorsement and long lines of tourists and relentless hype from the world media, I’m not sure I’m on board with Baejarins Beztu Pylsur. It’s just a pretty good hot dog, albeit with lots of tasty crispy fried onions.
  • Skip the whale meat. It tastes like environmental exploitation (i.e., chewy and gamey).
  • The Nauthólsvík geothermal beach in Reykjavik isn’t particularly well advertised in the tourist literature, because it is publicly owned and absolutely free of charge. It’s a bit of a pain to get to if you don’t (as we didn’t) figure out the municipal buses, but it’s not that big a deal and it’s worth a trip. Walk South from the BSI bus terminal around the airport. You’ll pass a ball field, a University dorm (or something), and a discouraging shipping container or two. (You could, if you like, go by way of Perlan, which would probably make more sense.) They have a changing room and showers at the beach, with bins for your clothes (no lockers). The beach surrounds a small geothermally heated lagoon—the water is cool to warmish and doesn’t get deeper than 4 or 5 feet. There’s a hot tub built into the beach that spills over into the lagoon, but that seems to be given over to the splashing children. The adults congregate in a long, shallow hotter hot tub up near the changing rooms (though there’s quite a bit of splashing up there too, to be honest).
  • A lot of Icelandic beer is light beer (2.5% alcohol or less)—I think light beer is all you can buy in grocery stores and certain cafes. If you want a real beer, it’s safer to order one of the widely available imported brands, e.g., Tuborg or Grolsch.

[UPDATE] Also, you might be wondering: is the Blue Lagoon a tourist trap? Is it worth the money? Yes and yes! You should go! It’s totally fun!

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