July 10, 2009

Top Chef Masters: Digging a Hole

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 1:30 pm

Wow, 0 for 3. Obviously, the “most famous chef” rule of thumb is not working. I would say one should always choose the stony-faced female chef, but all of the remaining chefs are men. (That’s a total of 3 female Masters out of 24, for those keeping count. And 2 of the 3 advanced to the Champions’ Round. (Cindy Pawlcyn was insufficiently stony-faced.))

Next week: Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson, Michael Chiarello, Nils Norén, and Rick Moonen. MacKinnon-Patterson is young and all the winners so far have been old. Michael Chiarello is a food and lifestyle celebrity, not a restaurant chef (i.e., he’s soft). Rick Moonen is a seafood chef (Rule #3). I’m picking Nils Norén, who was the Executive Chef at a really good restaurant (Aquavit) and who has to look his French Culinary Institute students in the eye.

P.S. Top Chef: Las Vegas will premiere August 26! That will make six seasons and a spin-off in less than four years. Doesn’t Bravo have any more housewives or spoiled rich kids they could put on TV?

P.P.S. Bravo, the unofficial network of The Gays, totally succeeded in confusing me on the point that Neil Patrick Harris’ friend David Burtka is his boyfriend. Why would they be cagey about that?


July 1, 2009

Top Chef Masters Prediction #3

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 12:34 pm

My predictions aren’t turning out so good. I abandoned the “most famous chef” heuristic after the Wylie Dufresne debacle. So I went with Wilo Benet based on, oh, let’s say intuition. Things were looking good in the Quickfire, but who knew the producers would throw Rick Bayless a slow pitch over the center of the plate, offering him the opportunity to make tacos de lengua, which he’s probably made thousands of times (beside which, tongue is by far the most palatable of the four kinds of offal in attendance).

Next week: John Besh, Anita Lo, Mark Peel, and Doug Rodriguez. I’m going back to the most famous chef: John Besh. He beat Mario Batali on Iron Chef, after all (and was almost an Iron Chef himself).

[UPDATE] In observance of the birth of our glorious nation, there will be no Top Chef Masters this week. Feel free to watch a repeat of The Fashion Show instead.

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 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.

March 25, 2009

BSG Predictions Wrap-Up

Filed under: Battlestar Galactica — Chris @ 8:27 pm

Now that things have ended, and ended well (set your expectations, people), let’s revisit our predictions and see how we did.

  • H and Zohar are 0-2 on the true nature of Starbuck. In fairness, I must note:
    1. They were totally spot-on about the nature and origin of the Final Five, an aspect of their elaborate theory that I chose not to discuss in my previous post.
    2. They weren’t actually wrong about Starbuck, per se, it’s just that the show did not actually provide any explanation of the true nature of Starbuck (although the strong implication is that she was an angel/ghost/other paranormal entity).
  • I was 2-2 on the existence of Daniel and his further insignificance to the plot. (Whether he will come up in Caprica remains to be seen. RDM is fronting like he won’t, but I find that hard to believe. (I’m actually really interested in how the hell the last season of BSG is going to square with Caprica, which seems to be about the invention (or re-invention) of Cylon and resurrection technologies.))
  • Over on Twitter, I predicted that Galactica would be resurrected ala Starbuck’s Viper. Completely wrong.

What all of our wrong predictions share in common is the assumption the writer’s would feel obligated to explain some significant number of lingering mysteries (e.g., the head characters, Starbuck’s resurrection, the opera house vision, “All Along the Watchtower”) in the finale. As it turned out, they referenced all of these things, but they didn’t explain any of them. Instead we got: God did it. Any prediction rooted in physical phenomena and empirical explanations was bound to fail.

I think the finale would have been better and more satisfying—even absent any additional explanation—if my resurrection prediction had come true. I was pretty convinced it would through the first hour of the finale, right up to “there’s got to be some kind of way out of here”—especially with Tori and Cavil’s deaths immediately preceding that last fateful jump. When they made the jump, they could have arrived at Earth-Veldt with Galactica and all of the major characters resurrected. Voila. That’s what happened to Starbuck: she jumped to the magical coordinates and she and her ship were resurrected. Maybe they’re all dead and Earth-Veldt is heaven. Maybe their cindered corpses are right next to Starbuck’s on Earth-Prime. Who knows? No need to explain. The rest of the episode can proceed unchanged (with the exception of the fact that you have to deal with Cavil, Boomer, and the rest of the Evil Cylons being Not Dead. Easy: they’ve been converted to goodness and light by this dramatic turn of events (if you can trust the Centaurians, you can trust them, can’t you?). This can be dispensed with in about three lines of dialogue).

Overall, I feel like I didn’t get X-Files’d, parly because the BSG crew did a pretty good job of tamping down expectations (at times with a sledgehammer) and partly because I honestly didn’t care all that much about the mythology. I only wish the last season had had more episodes like “The Oath” and “Blood on the Scales” and fewer like “A Disquiet Follows My Soul” and “No Exit”. Still, a bad episode of BSG was better than… going out on Friday night.

My life now lacks a one-hour drama (except for Mad Men). What’s good on TV?

March 18, 2009

The Golden Shield of Law

Filed under: Politics, Tech — Chris @ 12:05 am

It sound like the legal system might be the next RIAA, doomed to stand athwart history, yelling stop:

Jurors are not supposed to seek information outside of the courtroom. They are required to reach a verdict based on only the facts the judge has decided are admissible, and they are not supposed to see evidence that has been excluded as prejudicial. But now, using their cellphones, they can look up the name of a defendant on the Web or examine an intersection using Google Maps, violating the legal system’s complex rules of evidence. They can also tell their friends what is happening in the jury room, though they are supposed to keep their opinions and deliberations secret.

A juror on a lunch or bathroom break can find out many details about a case. Wikipedia can help explain the technology underlying a patent claim or medical condition, Google Maps can show how long it might take to drive from Point A to Point B, and news sites can write about a criminal defendant, his lawyers or expert witnesses.

“It’s really impossible to control it,” said Douglas L. Keene, president of the American Society of Trial Consultants.

Judges have long amended their habitual warning about seeking outside information during trials to include Internet searches. But with the Internet now as close as a juror’s pocket, the risk has grown more immediate — and instinctual. Attorneys have begun to check the blogs and Web sites of prospective jurors.

Mr. Keene said jurors might think they were helping, not hurting, by digging deeper. “There are people who feel they can’t serve justice if they don’t find the answers to certain questions,” he said.

But the rules of evidence, developed over hundreds of years of jurisprudence, are there to ensure that the facts that go before a jury have been subjected to scrutiny and challenge from both sides, said Olin Guy Wellborn III, a law professor at the University of Texas.

“That’s the beauty of the adversary system,” said Professor Wellborn, co-author of a handbook on evidence law. “You lose all that when the jurors go out on their own.”

All of the lawyers or judges quoted in this article seem to think the question is: how can we make these people STOP?

The real question is: how are we going to adapt?

Instead of reinforcing the levees, let’s tear them down and let the wetlands do the work. Instead of “nobody looks at the Internet,” how about “everybody looks at Internet”? The jurors are encouraged to independently research the case. If a juror finds something she thinks is interesting or relevant, she has to present it to the judge so the lawyers can respond. Nothing gets cited in the jury room that hasn’t first been aired in open court. If that means the jurors have to work harder to look past prejudicial evidence, so be it. (It probably means the end of the exclusionary rule, but that was all over but they crying anyway.)

You think this idea is stupid? Give me an alternative, short of sequestering all juries five miles from the nearest cell tower.

March 13, 2009

Ricky Gervais meets Elmo

Filed under: Not Tech — Chris @ 8:21 am

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: my only real ambition in life is to meet a Muppet.

(via Andrew Sullivan)

February 26, 2009

Who Will Be the Least Mediocre Chef?

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 12:58 am

This was the weakest finale we’ve ever seen from Top Chef. As I predicted, Carla faltered and Hosea surged. As I did not predict, Stefan stayed in his slump. Both Carla and Stefan severely under-performed their potential (with Carla getting caught up in Casey’s all-powerful finale-hexing vortex), while Hosea was at the top of his game. Sadly, the top of Hosea’s game looked like a competent but pretty uninspiring meal, making him a contender for the all-time worst Top Chef (he and Ilan need to have a douche-off).

In the end, it really wasn’t even close. As much as the judges hemmed and hawed, and as much as Toby Young tried to make the presence or absence of dessert a deciding factor, you just have to look at the dish count (or at Fabio’s sad, resigned, European face) to see it couldn’t have turned out otherwise:

  • Carla: 2 good dishes, 2 bad dishes (the beef and the cheese course)
  • Hosea: 3 good dishes, 1 mediocre dish (the crudo)
  • Stefan: 2 good dishes, 1 mediocre dish (dessert), 1 bad dish (the carpaccio)

The only way you could make this come out another way is to double or triple count the best dish of the night (Stefan’s squab), or to weigh the full-season record of the contestants (Stefan’s 4 Elimination wins and 4 Quickfires vs. Hosea’s 2 and 1).

It is nevertheless gratifying to point out that Stefan went out on one of the original, bedrock rules: never make dessert. This goes double in the context of a three-course meal (“Did you really think that dessert was one of your three best dishes?”). It goes triple in the finale (“Is that the dish you wanted as your last impression on the judges this season?”). If Stefan had made just one more savory course—and it hadn’t sucked—the judges almost certainly would have given him the prize.

So, how did I do this season? Of 6 testable predictions over the course of the season, I got 2 right (ouch). They were Arriane’s elimination and Carla’s meltdown tonight. The successful Arriane prediction sent me off on a power trip: I repeatedly tried and failed to predict Leah’s demise.

Of 13 eliminations, 6 were clear-cut rule violations, 4 of them among the original Six Commandments. That’s not counting any Rule #0 violations or Radhika’s dismissal in Restaurant Wars (which was arguably but unprovably covered by Rule #10). That does count Eugene’s and Danny’s eliminations under Rule #8 (which, to be fair,  is kind of a catch-all for “don’t make an ass out of yourself at Judges’ Table”). That’s not bad, but I’d like to see some improvement next season. I will have to carefully study the outlier eliminations and come up with some more refined principle than “don’t make bad food.”

Favorite line of the night: Stefan on Marcel: “He’s a bit of a twat, but who’s not?”

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