Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Top Chef Masters Face Off

When planning our trip to Chicago we knew we wanted to eat at some places frequented by President Obama. One of the tough tables is Table 52 run by Art Smith. Soon thereafter we started watching the end of the Masters edition of Top Chef. Art Smith made it to fourth place, being done in by not being able to make a vegan desert. The eventual winner was an affable mustachioed chef who was dedicated to preserving and spreading authentic Mexican cuisine.

So here is a side by side comparison of two top chefs in the Windy City.

Restaurant

Table 52
P1040280


Frontera Grille
P1040314
Chef

Art Smith

Rick Bayless

Cuisine

Southern

Mexican

Claim To Fame

A favorite of Oprah Winfrey, this is where Barack Obama took Michelle for Valentines Day.

Widely considered the best Mexican restaurant in the country, Bayless won the Top Chef Masters.

Atmosphere

P1040276
The d├ęcor is made to resemble a genteel Southern home. With tables pressed close together, groups end up talking to each other. The service is very high end with all the waiters, servers and bussers working together seamlessly.

P1040328
Typically Mexican with lots of bright colors and adobe textures. Seating is first come first serve, so the line starts forming about 45 minutes before opening. By the time the restaurant is open, the line is literally down the block.

Food

For entrees we had blackened sockeye salmon which came served with a great zucchini ‘peperdelle’ and some sea scallops. But the star of the meal was the three-cheese mac and cheese. I’m a serious macaroni and cheese fan and have eaten a lot of high end flavors but this was one of the best ones I have ever had. We pried out of the wait staff that it was a sharp white cheddar, a yellow cheddar and parmesan cheeses. For dessert we split the hummingbird cake and still couldn’t finish it.

Since it was brunch, most of the dishes had an egg component. The best choice we made was to get the appetizer sampler which included these tasty little Mexico City style quesadillas and Bayless’s signature guacamole. For entrees we had Cazuela de Borrego, a lamb dish, and steak and cheese enchiladas. Several of the deluxe margaritas are shaken at the table with a lime as the shaker top. Two of those will make any brunch go better.

Chef Sighting

P1040273
Art Smith tours the dining room about once an hour chatting with guests, posing for pictures, and autographing cookbooks. He is friendly and gregarious.

P1040316
We had seen Bayless at his quick service restaurant Xoco where he politely posed for a picture but quickly went back to managing the open kitchen. As we were seated right at the opening of Fontera Grille, we saw him in the back surveying the crowd being seated. He quietly went to the back, not to be seen again.

Verdict

Table 52 is a fine high end restaurant with good food but it just feels a little forced. It’s too busy to be intimate and too fancy to be casual.

The Bayless empire also includes the aforementioned Xoco and the higher end Topolobampo, but the flagship Frontera Grille lives up to its reputation as perhaps the best Mexican food to be found north of the Rio Grande.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Next To Next To Normal

This post may contain minor spoilers for Next To Normal and A Steady Rain.

Playbill010We spent yet another weekend in New York taking in shows, as we are wont to do. Since my wife's taste and mine differ, we sometimes compromise on what we want to see. My choice for the weekend was Next To Normal, a rock opera about a housewife with bipolar disorder. I’m such a sucker for those frothy feel-good shows. With the Tony Award-winning score written by Tom Kitt who also did the blink-and-you-missed-it High Fidelity, I knew to expect some energy.

What we didn’t expect was the emotion. Alice Ripley, who won a Tony for her starring role, turns on the waterworks several times in the show. Our seats were so close that we could see that the tears (and her ankle tattoo) were real. My wife was blubbering along most of the time. At one critical point in the show a prop gets smashed. A piece of it flew into my shoulder and I saved it as a souvenir.

Playbill011But the show we were in New York to see was A Steady Rain (movie stars must like plays with ‘rain' in the title since we saw Julia Roberts in Three Days of Rain) starring Hugh Jackman (who we seen prance it up in The Boy From Oz) and Daniel Craig (James Bond and a Broadway novice). We didn’t even know what the play was called since we had just been referring to it as The Show With The Hunks. She was joking that if they did nothing but sit on the stage for an hour, it would be worth it.

She pretty much got her wish. The play is ninety minutes long without an intermission and the only props are two chairs. The two actors never leave the stage and give a Rashomon-like recounting of a series of increasingly brutal events that make Training Day seem like a episode of Adam-12. The two motor mouths have overlapping monologues as well as a few scenes between them. Only twice in the whole show did the two break character in the least when an unexpected audience laugh at one of the few jokes caught them off-guard.

As we like to do, we hung around outside the stage door in hopes of getting an autograph or a picture. Daniel Craig kind of zipped out of there, but I did manage to catch one brief shot. Hugh Jackman signed a few things and my wife got her Playbill passed up to the front while I managed to capture him about to duck into his SUV.

DanielCraig Jackman2

IMG_1110With the stars gone, we headed back to the Booth Theater where Next To Normal is playing right next door to A Steady Rain. When that show let out the cast graciously came out to sign autographs. We were stuck in gaggle of teenage girls hoping to see Aaron Tveit who does the recurring character of Tripp Vanderbilt on Gossip Girls. They went away disappointed because Aaron slipped away despite having signed autographs after the matinee.

IMG_1099When the rather lovely Alice Ripley came through the line, she was signing posters and playbills but holding off on posing for pictures. But when I showed her the piece of wood I got hit with, she remembered my wife crying and posed for a picture with her.

Bonus Celebrity Stalking: Right round the corner from these two shows, Jude Law is appearing in Hamlet to burnish his Serious Thespian credentials. As any high school English student will attest, that is a very long play and was about the last show to get out that evening. While I was getting some more pictures taken with my new best friend Alice Ripley, my wife positioned herself to see Jude leaving his show and she got this rather serendipitous shot.

Jude Law

My pictures from across the street take a little imagination and the visual clue of the giant poster in the background to make him out.

I always encourage people to see live theater if you can. Next To Normal is proof that you don't need singing mermaids or dancing tigers to do compelling mature-themed musicals with a contemporary sound. And while A Steady Rain is a celebrity-driven sell-out, the story was compelling. And it is conveniently right next to Next To Normal.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Glee-vangelical




My reputation as a showkiller is well earned. Over the years, new television shows that I like are doomed to cancellation. The more enthusiastic I am about them, the quicker they plummet in the ratings. Lately, however, my touch has been slipping. The Big Bang Theory is now entering its third season despite my unbridled passion for it. My wife claims she doesn't need to watch it since she lives it, but when she does she laughs louder than me. It seems she has absorbed all the nerd-references by osmosis over the years.

My latest obsession is teen musical soap opera Glee. Each episode is a mini-Broadway production with elaborate dance numbers featuring classic rock or hip-hop songs performed by a cast astoundingly deep in triple threats. The female lead is Lea Michele as the Tracy Flick-ish (mandatory Election reference when discussing twisted high school tales of ambition) diva of the show choir.

Lea Michele has genuine Broadway DNA since she was the lead in the Broadway show Spring Awakening (which I also rave about). So when a picnic tableaux unfolds on the auditorium stage, 90% of the television audience is asking 'What the fuck?", while I and hundreds (well, perhaps dozens) of Broadway queens are doubled over laughing hilariously. That bit was an exact match of the seduction/rape scene in Spring Awakening that closes Act 1. I don't consider that a spoiler since that pose is one of the iconic Spring Awakening poster images.




Ultra-inside jokes like that are not an accident. This show is just bursting with pop cultural asides that take multiple viewings to catch. I have to apologize for the crappy quality of the screen captured video above but it is the best embeddable clip from the show, at least until the Fox legal department finds out about it. But all the episodes to date including the extended directors cut of the pilot are available on the official website as well as Hulu.

This show demands loyal viewing. A premature ejaculation joke in the third episode becomes a plot point in the fourth. And while the musical numbers are still the focus of the show, the storylines are getting sudsier.

Despite the full court publicity press from Fox and the critical enthusiasm, ratings are still below Jay Leno's nightly turd. Don't wait until you have to buy the DVD. Watch it now. And tell everybody you know to watch it. Become a Glee-vangelical like me.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Bruce Vs. Bono

It's no secret to readers of this blog that I am a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. What is not as obvious is that my wife is an equally big fan of U2. She has been listening to Bono and the boys since 1983, long before their break-out Live Aid performance and the groundbreaking Joshua Tree album.

This year for our 23rd anniversary (traditional gift: rock) we went to Chicago to see U2 kick-off the North America leg of their 360 tour. Earlier in the year we had traveled not quite as far to see Bruce support his latest album. How do these two rock stars stack up? Let's look at the shows and compare.

Band
Bruce Springsteen
Verizon Center
May 18, 2009
U2
Soldier Stadium
September 13, 2009
Blurry Overexposed Picture

More pictures

More pictures

Synopsis

Bruce is growing older but not up. He still sweats out every song.U2 is the biggest rock band on the planet through shear perserverance.
Opening ActThe same act that has opened for Bruce for over three decades: 45 Minutes of Silence
Snow Patrol, a group of fresh-faced Irishmen that mug and flatter the audience endlessly. I wonder where they got that from.
Stage Presence
Bruce runs his shows like a revival preacher for the Church of Rock. He knows how and when to pick up and slow down the pace.
Bono is out to save the world one stadium at a time. Less loquacious than he's been in the past, he collects causes like other rockers pick up groupies.
Set List

Official Site
Greasy Lake

Official Site

Stage Show
Same as it ever is. A bare black stage with the E Street Band scattered all over.
Redefining spectacle. The stage was a giant four-legged arachnid that looked like the set of Deep Space Nine had landed on the 30 yard line. I joked that it looked Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars were the real act.
Highlights

The midshow section where Bruce takes audience requests has metastasized into an entire schtick. The audience brings huge signs with clever pleas for their favorite songs. Bruce collects the signs he likes and then goes through them on stage before selecting a winner. This show's winner, a cover of 'Little Latin Lupe Lu' was obscure even by my standards. Later in the show he picked another one claiming to be a phone request by Obama for 'Rosalita'.
About half way through the show, the giant round video screen started doing its tricks. First it expanded into hexagons and extended to the entire height of the screen. That's tough to describe, but cool to watch. Then the screen lowers to floor level and starts spinning during 'Vertigo' inducing said feeling to the entire audience.
Amusing Anecdote
Not amusing as much as annoying. About three rows lower than us was a pair of guys with their own sign request that they kept holding up and blocking my view. They were clearly clueless that Bruce never picks requests from people in the middle balcony no matter how much they scream.
The guy next to us was telling us that he saw U2 in 1981 at bar. They got introduced as 'V2' which annoyed Bono. That guy was from Indiana. The couple on the other side of us had come from Cleveland. I'm not sure any actual Chicagoans were there.
Show Length
A little over two and a half hours.
Two hours to the second.
Audience
As much as I love Bruce, he does attract a certain obnoxious aging frat-boy crowd which is pretty varied in age but lily-white. About the only African-American there was playing saxophone.
Despite Bono's pan-global causes, there are more ethnically diverse Klan rallies. The only dark skinned person I saw was Desmond Tutu in a video bit during the pre-encore pause.
Noticeable Omissions
Bruce's body of work is too deep to please everybody but I have yet to see 'Hungry Heart' live.
While I can't point to any specific examples, they played seven cuts of the new album. I have to think there was some older stuff better than than a few of those cuts.

Proof I Was There



Other Reviews
Washington Post
At 59, Springsteen remains one of the most potent live performers in popular music, largely because he's among its most committed practitioners. He drains every bit of his creative energy whenever he's onstage -- all in the service of proselytizing the power of rock-and-roll, in which his faith is unwavering.


Chicago Tribune
The band was on its game. Not usually applauded for its sense of swing, U2 has shown an underappreciated affinity for getting down since "Mysterious Ways" belly-danced its way into discos during the early '90s. Because bassist Adam Clayton owns the best moments on "No Line on the Horizon," it was only fitting that the rhythm section ruled Saturday. Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen amped up the dance beats, and even Bono's vocals took on a more rhythmic sing-speak cadence.
Verdict

A show from The Boss is always a good time. He brings the bombast with a touch of genuine concern for the common man. A three-song nearly acoustic set in the middle of the show brought tears to the eyes, but by the closing notes of 'Rosalita' the whole house was rocking.
U2 knows how to do spectacle. The giant stage threatens to upstage the band at times but was underused in the second half of the show except as a billboard for Bono's increasingly busy bevy of causes which included Iranian protesters, a Burmese political prisoner, and impoverished Africans.
There is really no losing with either of these artists. Both are journeyman rock stars that bring long lively performances full of anthemic hits even if they do have to have to play songs off their current albums. But as another aging rocker once said, "If you don't play the new stuff, you never have any more old stuff."

See either of these acts when they are in town and you won't be disappointed.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Racist or Crazy?


I missed the Million Teabagger March in DC last week, but it has been all over the news. Part of the fun has been reading all the deranged signs various protesters brought with them. Ignited by Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst, some of the controversy has been over how much of the opposition to Obama has been motivated by racial animosity and how much is just genuine political difference.

Unlike Jimmy Carter, I'm willing to give most people the benefit of the doubt. My second favorite Avenue Q song is "We're All A Little Bit Racist". Nothing in American discourse is completely divorced from racial issues, but we can do our best to keep things in the background.

So I have come up with a new game. I'm going to show a bunch of photos from the 912 protest and you have to decide whether the sign holder is racist or just plain crazy. Again, I admit that these are taken wholly out of context and are probably not representative of most Americans or even the majority of Glenn Beck listeners.

1. Oprah The Puppet Master


2. African Lion:


4. Santa's Little Helper


4. Kenyan Birth Certificate


5. Trigger Happy


6. Spreading The Wealth


7. Unarmed and Dangerous


8. Strange Fruit and the Liberty Tree


9. Cap And Trade


10. Mr. President


11. Mein Fuhrer


12. Where's The Beef?


Hat tip to Malnurtured Snay who saw these guys on the Metro. Methinks they doth protest too much.

All photos are from this Flickr account and are copyrighted by the original photographer.

Thanks for playing our game at home and come again.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Bruce Sings The Clash


My favorite singer performing a song by my favorite band. It doesn't get much better than this.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Flight 93 Remembered


Flight 93 Panorama1
10:03 on a Tuesday morning
In the fall of an American dream
A man is doing what he knows is right
On Flight 93

Loved his mom and he loved his dad
Loved his home and he loved his man
But on that bloody Tuesday morning
He died an American
-Melissa Etheridge


IMG_7915Eight years ago, the fundamentalist Islamic enemies of Western civilization rolled out a new tactic designed to intimidate and terrorize the American people. Using hijacked planes as weapons, they committed suicide, taking with them thousands of innocent people in two proud American cities. They relied on our complacency and their knowledge of our procedures for hijacked planes aimed at saving as many civilian lives as possible.

That strategy worked for exactly forty minutes. When the passengers of Flight 93 heard of the atrocities performed by other hijackers, the stormed the cockpit causing the plane to crash in Pennsylvania rather than its intended target in Washington, DC.

IMG_7902If you take the back roads from Baltimore to Pittsburgh, a small easily missed sign points to the crash site. Across the road from the field where the inverted airplane smashed into the ground at 563 miles per hour is a makeshift memorial site anchored by a small National Park Service trailer. A gravel parking lot sits adjacent to a hodge podge of plaques and markers and memorials. A makeshift wall holds a few hundred of the thousands of articles left by mourners and pilgrims. A few rows of benches serve as an open air chapel for the volunteers that give an account of what we know happened that day on that flight.

IMG_7904Across the road is a barely visible American flag marking the location of the crash where a permanent memorial will be built. But memorials don't need granite or flags or rows of trees. They just need people to keep a memory alive. We will never know exactly what transpired on Flight 93, but it was a flight of heroes. Heroes that deserve to be remembered and honored.

I've backdated this post to the time that Flight 93 crashed. Let it always stand as notice that Americans will always fight back when attacked. More pictures of the temporary memorial are available on Flickr

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Personal Responsiblity


Barack Obama, September 8, 2009:
But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, the best schools in the world -- and none of it will make a difference, none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities, unless you show up to those schools, unless you pay attention to those teachers, unless you listen to your parents and grandparents and other adults and put in the hard work it takes to succeed. That's what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education.

I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself. Every single one of you has something that you're good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That's the opportunity an education can provide.


Mallard Fillmore, September 10, 2009:





Somebody has been sleeping in class again.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Anniversary Weekend

This is what my wife posted on her Facebook this morning:
Who knew that 30 years ago a red-headed guy in my 10th grade English class would end up having such a big impact on my life. Well, 23 years ago today, he continued to be my best friend and also became my husband. In the words of his favorite singer..., Bruce Springsteen, "Well brunettes are fine man and blondes are fun but ...I'll take a red headed ..man. Love you, Michael. Happy Anniversary!
Yes, it takes a red-headed man to get a dirty job done.


Unfortunately that performance was the show the day before I saw Bruce in DC on the Reunion Tour.

That was a very sweet message and I'm lucky to be as in love with my wife as the day I married her.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

BooksFirst - August 2009


Books Bought

Venus On The Half Shell by Kilgore Trout
One Fearful Yellow Eye by John D. MacDonald
Dress Her In Indigo by John D. MacDonald
Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine by Tom Wolfe
Crazy Hair by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson
What's So Funny by Donald Westlake
Of Mice And Men by John Steinbeck
100 Years of American Newspaper Comics by Maurice Horn
Vermillion Sands by J. G. Ballard
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams

Books Read

The Masters of Deception by Michelle Slatalla and Joshua Quittner
This Is Not A Game by Walter Jon Williams
Persepolis 2: The Story Of A Return by Marjane Satrapi

Comments

As you might surmise by the length of the Books Bought section, I went on a bit of binge this month. While in Pittsburgh, we kept ending up in the Oakland area which is home to Pitt and Carnegie-Mellon. Where there are good universities, there tend to be good bookstores. I found two within blocks of each other, Townsend Booksellers and Caliban Books. At nice used bookstores I almost feel obligated to buy something, anything. The 100 Years of American Comics was a particularly serendipitous find since I fancy myself a comics aficionado. My test search in these cases is Travels With Farley, an obscure west coast comic that my scoutmaster claimed to be the inspiration for. 100 years had quite a good entry on it, thus proving its comprehensiveness.

A book that has been on the bookshelf next to my nightstand (as opposed to on the tall stack of books on the floor next to the bookshelf next to my nightstand) is The Masters of Deception which was cowritten by Joshua Quittner. Quittner was an early journalistic pioneer on the cyberspace beat once famously registering and holding ransom (for charity) McDonalds.com. I don't know where he is now, but MoD is a inside look at what the subtitle calls The Gang That Ruled Cyberspace. Hyperbole aside, the book is now a great nostalgic look back at the pre-internet world where dial-up modems and BBSs roamed the earth.

As a 'gang' the Masters of Deception were fairly tame by today's standards. A lot of the book deals with petty feuds with other hackers like the equally preposterously named Legion of Doom. These were kids playing with toys and trespassing into places they didn't belong. Their biggest crime was stealing phone card numbers so they could modem dial long distance into remote corporate servers. Only one ended up serving time and the rest went back to their nerdy post-adolescent lives.

I read the book nearly a decade and a half after the events it describes trying to think how the online world has changed. Bulletin boards have all but disappeared but the concept lives on with the ubiquitous message boards like 4chan and others. With broadband everywhere and services like Skype available stealing long distance phone service is a fool's errand. Real hackers can do identity theft far more maliciously now. It makes one yearn for the simpler days when the virtual world was young.

Walter Jon Williams is one of the most under-rated writers in science fiction. I met him at a meet-the writer brunch at Magicon (the 50th World Science Fiction Convention) where he talked about how he kept challenging himself as a writer. No two books of his are alike and even within the genre he is tough to pigeon hole. He has written cyberpunk, urban fantasy, space opera, and flirted with mainstream cross-over books.

The protagonist of This Is Not A Game which is set ten minutes into the future is a woman that could be a thinly disguised authorial avatar. A mid-level science fiction writer whose career is destroyed by bad publishers, she falls back on her college fantasy role-playing buddies to set herself up as the director of elaborate publicity stunts that are part online treasure hunts and part LARPs Gone Wild. When she uses her online resources to crowdsource her rescue from a third world country, she realizes she is onto something bigger than just games.

One of the clever gimmicks of the book is that the "This Is Not X" construction carries through all the chapter titles in rather appropriate ways. For example, the "This Is Not A Flashback" chapter is the chapter AFTER all the flashbacks. The story itself is a bit predictable but not without interesting characters and a well-plotted if perhaps a bit underwhelming denouement. Williams deserves some break-out success but he has written better books than this one, which still is not bad at all. I am loathe to use the cliche phrase 'page-turner', but I read this entire book over a long weekend. I wish I could find more books this engrossing.

Another quick read was Persepolis 2. When I finished the first book in Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel memoir, I was frustrated when it ended right as she went off to school in Europe. The second volume covers her high school years in Europe where she defies her prim Iranian upbringing and sleeps around and develops a drug habit. Upon returning to Iran, she enrolls in art college only to be frustrated by the Kafka-esque morality police running the country. For example, anatomy drawing classes must be taken with the models completely covered in burkhas. As a graphic novel, the stark black and white line drawings are very evocative and add just the right mood to the narrative.

The book gives very interesting insights into both the Iranian people and the Iranian theocratic government both of which seem to be strongly at odds with each other in many ways. I have a half-joking half-baked thesis that Islam is just Christianity, only six hundred years younger. The laughable-if-it-weren't-so-tragic censorship and religious intolerance of Iranian society (and perhaps more so in Saudi Arabia) reminds me of episodes in European history ranging from the Inquisition (which nobody expects) and Cromwell and the Puritans ruling England. Because it covers more time and more episodes than the first volume, this half of the story is a little more disjointed. But it is a fascinating and compelling look into a creative mind suffering under both too much freedom and far too little.