Friday, December 23, 2011

Sigh. Another Outrage.

During a soccer match in Holland the other day, some idiot ran onto the pitch and attacked one team's goalkeeper. The keeper, who had been looking the other way, turned to see the young stranger a few feet away and running at him. They both jumped in the air and kicked at each other. The idiot fanatic landed on his back, and the goalkeeper, in the space of maybe a second, took a step towards him, kicked him again, then moved to a different position as the idiot spun on the ground, and the keeper kicked him once more. Then others intervened and the incident came to an end.

Except that the referee of the match then red-carded the goalkeeper.

The goalkeeper's team was so incensed at their teammate's sending-off that they left the field, refusing to play any further. Officially, their justification was that they felt unsafe on the pitch, but everyone with the good sense God gave a turnip knows that the real reason they left was as a protest at the referee's politically-correct idiocy.

The Dutch football association, displaying at least a modicum of understanding about the natural reactions of a man toward an attacker, the sort of reactions that kept individuals alive in less law-abiding times when attacks like this were more commonplace, has ruled that the keeper won't face suspension. 

The referee should.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Mmm. Now, That's Coffee

The Cup
3909 Camp Bowie Boulevard
Fort Worth
(between Montgomery and Crestline)

When my friend Rick and I stepped into The Cup, I had one of those flashbacks that can make you think you've entered a time portal, and were going to be forced to relive an unpleasant childhood. Four women of a certain age, expensively dressed and absorbed in conversation, were seated in a circle between the door and the counter, with empty cups and a tray of pastries uneaten on the coffee table. I thought I had stumbled into that period of my youth, circa 1970, when life seemed to be infested with these society types, coyly issuing platitudes to one another, claws a-quiver in their sheaths, knives ready to hand in Italian-leather shoulder bags. I made it a point to find a seat out of sight of the group, who were probably no more lethal to bystanders now than they were then, but with whom interaction is to be avoided. Sadly, it was too chilly for the attractive patio out back, but we found our refuge.

We were just there to find a light breakfast and kill some time before the Kimbell Museum opened at noon, and I've always felt comfortable enough in Fort Worth's near-west side, an area where women dress for committee meetings while men dress for the stock yards, and everyone seems to be doing fund-raising for one charity or another, usually connected to TCU or the museums down the street. The Cup has not long been on the Boulevard; its pedigree stretches back only to around July, but it is a perfect fit with its surroundings: clean, tastefully decorated, only slightly fru-fru (which I'm sure most of its customers would call "understated"), with the air of an elegance that considers Camp Bowie Boulevard to be the winter home of knowledgeable Fifth Avenue denizens. The Christmas decorations were up: several dozen monochromatic silver ornaments hanging on ribbons from the acoustic-tile ceiling over the service area, an arrangement I found a pleasing contrast to the usual clutter of holiday gewgaws, doodads and whatnots.

Well, that's OK; we just wanted coffee and a little something to eat. We turned out to have made a fortunate choice. (Everybody gets lucky, some time.) 

The counter attendant was helpful, if not quite knowledgeable about coffee culture. When I asked her if their coffee was slow-drip, she shrugged and said, with a slight grin of confusion, "I guess." It turns out the correct answer was "no," which was what I'd expected. While slow-drip coffee is de riguer in snootier locations on the Left and Right Coasts, here in the Real World it's the sort of impractical, wasteful thing one associates with rom-com movies and snobs on the Left and Right Coasts. It was plain ol' high-quality drip coffee. 

The coffee is illy, an Italian brand, which appealed to my distaff side, and is good stuff even without the benefit of prejudice. It hovers between the burned-corn taste of American coffee, which I like when it's not too strong, and the bitter taste of dredged-up river-bottom that characterizes coffee in Europe and, from what I hear, other parts of the Old World. At The Cup, we were served fairly thick coffee that reminded me of the best I've had in Latin America. I'm not one of those people who view coffee as an art form; I think of it as a drink, one that forces me to relax while it cools, then revs me up with a dose of caffeine. This coffee did that, and did it well. 

For the light meal, I went with the vaguely named Breakfast Sandwich: ham and cheese with a poached egg on something called a "morning round," for about $4. I chose it because I wanted something to bitch about, and when the cheerful young lady behind the counter described it, I thought I had my subject. Alas, no; it proved to be not just good, but very good. The ham had a hint of rosemary about it; the cheese was good quality Swiss, not that oily corner-cutting stuff you often get; the poached egg was actually poached, and poached correctly, to just the right degree of doneness to give you all the flavour and none of the gelatinous liquidity of an undercooked egg. And the "morning round" turned out to be a sort of better Pepperidge Farms version of raisin bread, with a soupçon of maple sweetness. The whole thing got some time in a panini press and I was presented with a breakfast of exquisite flavour and texture. If I'd been hungry, I'd've ordered another.

Rick, who seemed on this trip to be on a quest for the Kolache Of The Gods, ordered a couple of sausage bagels, which are breakfast sausages wrapped in bagel dough to resemble kolaches. They must have been good — they certainly looked good: slightly reddish sausage links in admirably browned wrappings — because they disappeared before I could make a detailed inquiry.

We enjoyed another cup of coffee, and chatted with the shop's owner, a pleasant, sensible-seeming woman who is the spitting image of Van Cliburn's piano teacher's daughter (except, forty years younger). She, I suspect, is as much at home with the junior-league crowd that frequents her shop as she is with the boots-and-jeans crowd that passes by on the way to Denny's.
The Cup on Urbanspoon

Bitchin' Burger Joint?

Peace Burger Dive Bar & Grill
1228 William D Tate Avenue
Grapevine, Texas
(just outside the construction area, near where all the world's freeways come together)


During a short trip up to North Texas to see the Caravaggio exhibit at the Kimbell (which we both recommend enthusiastically), Rick and I drifted up the freeway to the homogenized northern suburbs of DFW, intending to mock the grotesque excesses of the ridiculous-sounding annual Christmas exhibit, Ice! At The Gaylord Texan, and to wonder how much of a carbon footprint was required to chill a 140,000-square-foot exhibit hall in Texas to nine degrees fahrenheit for two months, so that kids and their oblivious environmentally-conscious parents could have a little fun to relieve their lives of high-paid corporate drudgery. As it happens, the feeling of superiority promised by such a venture could not overcome our revulsion toward the mechanics of getting to the display. So we never saw the ice, only the SUV-choked parking lot, and the shuttle buses ferrying visitors back and forth. But I'm sure it would have been reprehensibly spectacular, or spectacularly reprehensible, in keeping with the Gaylord chain's theme of excess in everything that might make a buck.

But the visit to Grapevine wasn't a total loss: I did pick up a new art-glass sculpture by Kevin Doerner from the Vetro Glassworks on Main Street. And saw the new Sherlock Holmes movie. And found Peace Burger Dive Bar & Grill, making an unlikely trifecta of enjoyment amid the postmodern dross.

Nestled in a strip-mall like a John Birch Society mole, Peace Burger succeeds in making its customers comfortable enough with themselves to face the car-culture that dominates the surrounding prairie. Its plate-glass front, darkened with film to increase the interior's separation from the mundane world outside, is almost covered with bumper stickers, some of an iconoclastic bent, others celebrating lifestyle choices from, presumably, the owners' younger years: surfing, the Grateful Dead, New Orleans. Tables for four line the outer walls of the cozily dark dining room, with high-top tables in the central area of the concrete floor. In the back is the bar, and behind that, the kitchen where irreverently-named dishes like Voodoo, Mexi-Dog and Piggy are prepared. The bar offers eight, mostly mainstream, beers on tap, plus a full selection of hard liquor attuned to the taste trends of the thirty-something crowd, who know what to like because they read about it in GQ and Cosmo. The service is competent, with what a certain Dane once called an antic disposition. In our waitress's case, this was signified by the hot-pink T-shirt she wore (for sale at the counter) with the legend, "Buy me another margarita, you still look ugly."

We started with a couple of handfuls of peanuts from the barrel by the door. Rick, who is from Florida originally and doesn't get out much, had never been to a place that embraces what was once, long ago, a widespread custom in the less sophisticated parts of the country (i.e., Not New York): throwing the peanut shells on the smooth floor, where they are trodden underfoot and swept away upon closing. Eating peanuts this way, with the faint hint of sinfulness their mess produces, makes the leisurely consultation of the menu a pastime. That, and an ice cold beer. 

In the fullness of time, at the appropriate juncture, after giving full play to all considerations, and when the moment was ripe, we made our choices. First, we would split a Beach-N Quesadilla; then we would split a Havana and a Texas Steak "sammitch." Meanwhile, we would enjoy our beer and peanuts.

The quesadilla arrived first. It was a large flour tortilla folded over chunks of beef, with cheese and peppers and served with a side order of fries. It was cut into four barely-manageable strips, which made it flimsy and messy, a challenge to our dainty sensibilities. But because it was so good, we allowed ourselves the mess. It was the best thing we had at Peace Burger. The fries were good, too; thin-cut and slightly crispy, hot and not greasy.

Our other choices, while sounding more promising, disappointed. The Havana, Peace Burger's take on a traditional Cuban sandwich, would have been much better if the dill pickle chips had been forgotten in the kitchen; their overstated taste was both intrusive and jarring. Instead, it appeared the kitchen had briefly forgotten to take the sandwich off the press, as the hoagie roll was slightly burned on both top and bottom, just enough to convince me that a proper kitchen manager would have insisted that the sandwich be re-fabricated.

The Texas Steak sandwich ("Philly never had it so good! So good! So good!"), on the other hand, was made without obvious flaws, but neither did it possess any intrinsic exceptionalism. It was just a Philly steak sandwich, and not one such as Philadelphians argue over with great fervour and life-threatening passion. Just an ordinary steak sandwich, grilled with onions and peppers, with jalapeños and queso dip added to give it a vaguely Texan identity. 

All the burgers and sandwiches on the menu are five bucks. For five bucks, it appears, you get near-misses rather than greatness. Overall, the food at Peace Burger disappoints because of its unrealized potential; it's just good enough; while the atmosphere makes it a pleasant place to pass some time. 
Peace Burger Dive Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Coffee for a Cause

The Loft
4400 US 281
Spring Branch
(half a mile beyond Highway 46, on the northbound side)

It's just a coffee shop. It sits out on the highway in a limestone house (with a loft, yes, and a fireplace) to provide a meeting place for the locals, and a spot to relax, have a cup of coffee and some light refreshment. The need for such a place in that area is matched with the desire of a local church to raise money for causes it supports, a current trend in the coffee-shop trade. On the day we visited, the money raised was going to a project to build a home for victims of human trafficking, and to an anti-poverty project in Africa. It doesn't make the coffee any better, but it makes you feel better about choosing this place over any others. Because most of the work, if not all, is done by volunteers, the shop produces more money for the causes.

The volunteers who staff the shop are uniformly cheerful and friendly. I suspect that if we stopped in more than once in twenty years, we'd begin to develop relationships with these people, finding the points of common interest. But even as strangers passing through, we felt welcomed and cheered by the attitude of the staff. And the place itself is airy and clean and nicely decorated, adding to the pleasure we took in being there.

The food isn't particularly remarkable. Breakfast tacos, made up in advance and wrapped in foil, are in bins on one side of the room. There is a bakery case with various small treats, all home-made for the cause, and all reasonably well done. I selected a sausage kolache that looked more like a biscuit, and a potato-and-egg taco. The kolache had a very nice, slightly sweet flavour in the dough, and was filled with a tasty portion of sausage, nicely seasoned. The taco was, well, a tad bland, but at least the egg wasn't dry, as so often happens when tacos are made and stored in that fashion. Rick also had a sausage kolache, along with a ham-and-cheese kolache which wasn't as good, and could have used a little more ham in it.

The main draw, though, is the coffee. There were four types on offer, one of them decaf. I went with the breakfast blend, a nice medium-strength drink. Rick's choice was the Texas Pecan coffee, which smelled heavenly and made me regret my choice.
Loft Coffee House on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Words. Words. Words.

MSNBC, one of the self-appointed arbiters of cultural affairs in the 21st Century, has posted an article saying that LAX is the "most social" airport in the world, because more people check Facebook from there than from any other airport.

Remember when "society" actually involved personal interactions with other people? Facebook, and other, similar, social media, are the opposite of "social." 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Does Anyone Else Smell Fish?

I haven't really been following this child-sex scandal out of Pennsylvania, the one involving a former coach who reportedly had sex with one or eight or forty underage (way underage) boys, sometimes actually in the Penn State University's football facilities. I know, just from not living under a rock, that the American media gets really excited, throbbing and pulsating with ratings lust, every time someone does something of a sexual nature that can be reported on ad nauseam. So I try to take it all with a chunk of salt.

Penn State University; photo by G. Chriss
I have to wonder, though, about this one: according to the reports I've read, in 2002, an assistant in the football program told head coach Joe Paterno directly that "he saw Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy in a locker room shower."

That statement strikes me as incredible. I think if I were Joe Paterno, who, as I understand it, is a decent, upstanding guy with at least an ordinary sense of right and wrong, I would have found the allegation hard to believe. (I'm assuming, obviously, that he had no personal knowledge of any unusual sexual inclinations of the ex-coach.) Saying a man is "raping" a boy in the locker room is shocking, but in the real world, such as we have it these days, I would (1) suspect the guy making the report is exaggerating, maybe because he, like so many others in our modern world, thinks overreaction is always the appropriate reaction; (2) consider that the guy making the report might have some ax to grind where this ex-coach is concerned; and (3) find out what my obligation was in dealing with this report that I am reluctant to believe. As I understand it, Paterno's obligation was to report the matter to the University higher-ups, which, again as I understand it, is what he did.

My only point here, besides a general contempt for the salivating of the media when its nostrils catch the whiff of musk, is that "raping" a boy is such a shocking thing that I'm amazed so many people kept quiet about it. I'm a skeptic. I suspect there is much, much less to this whole story than the media wants there to be.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

The ongoing protests against the insidious culture of greed, and the lack of accountability that comes from the separation, in recent decades, of risk from reward, have a laudable objective. And it is refreshing to see a sizable number of people taking part in political action that is not orchestrated from behind the scenes by nefarious angry activists, like the Tea Party is. (I say that, even though the objectives of the Tea Party are, to some extent, also laudable.)

But the Occupy movement — if that's not too grand a term for it — lacks focus. Its participants don't to agree on what they wish to accomplish. 

Of the many greed-related ills our society suffers from, I doubt that any is as ultimately damning as the growing disparity of wealth in this country. Money is power, and the concentration of money in relatively few hands is threatening to undermine some of the beliefs needed for a large democracy to continue. It has already shown its power in the very strength of the Tea Party, and in the reactionary anti-union legislation in the Midwest and California, and in the intransigence of some Republican members of Congress, who forget that "politics is the art of the possible," and in the dangerous recent holdings of the Supreme Court in political cases.

But the disparity of wealth is unlike other serious problems, in that it has a relatively easy fix.

Under present law, compensation paid to all but a few executives of a business is deductible from taxable income as a cost of doing business. Thus, Mega Corp. can pay its Vice President in charge of Sucking Up a million bucks in salary, and deduct that million bucks from the profit the corporation has to pay tax on. It can also deduct the $35,000 it pays its janitors, but the tax savings from that are paltry.

All the government has to do is limit the amount of compensation deductible as a business expense. I would recommend using a multiple of median income to determine how much can be deductible, say two and a half times the national median. Under that formula, Mega Corp is still free to pay its VP-Suckup that million bucks; but the rest of us don't have to forego the taxes on that exorbitant salary. (And yes, VP-Suckup still has to pay taxes on the income. Unfair? Nope. Just a cost of doing business.)

Limiting the deductibility of high salaries would, over time, lessen the disparity between the high and low ends. If a business finds it worthwhile to pay people more than the deductible amount, they can do so, but they'll just have to factor in the tax considerations in a slightly different way.

Similarly, the favourable tax treatment of interest and dividend income should be capped. There are still a number of older people who depend on these sorts of income for their survival, but beyond a certain point, their survival does not require further subsidies from the general population in the form of lower tax rates. I see no reason why interest and dividend income beyond, say, that same two-and-a-half times median income, should not be taxed at regular rates. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

Gorgeous

My cable-modem connection isn't fast enough to do this video justice. I hope yours is.


Landscapes: Volume Two from Dustin Farrell on Vimeo.

You should also check out Farrell's "Landscapes: Volume One," at http://vimeo.com/16198274.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Promising

It must seem odd to say that a record of one win, one draw, and three losses is a promising start. That's the record the United States' men's national soccer team has amassed since the appointment of Jurgen Klinsmann as head coach a couple of months ago. 

His start, certainly, has not been as auspicious as we all dreamt it would. Judging from much of the team's press coverage since his arrival, he was expected to be a sort of coaching Jedi master, instantly turning a moderately good team into a world-dominating powerhouse in the space of ninety minutes. No surprise, really, that hasn't happen; and many people seem perplexed and confused by the team's poor showing in the win-loss table of late. 

File:Trainer Klinsmann.JPG
New US MNT head coach
Jurgen Klinsmann
Like all the team's fans, I'd love to see goals being pumped into opponents' nets with regularity, but I'm not really concerned about that yet. Because what I see are two developments that, to me, promise great things in the future, and address what I've thought for years was the US team's greatest weakness.

First is the new resolve shown by the US defensive backs. It helps that Oguchi Onyewu has returned to the field and is very close to being in his former outstanding form, but even without that, I have noticed that since Klinsmann's advent, the American defense no longer panics when facing sustained pressure.

How many times, when the US was on the verge of joining the elite of the international-football ranks, were goals conceded because our defenders thrashed wildly at the ball, or lost their marks, running around in front of goal like a toddler lost in a dark theater? I can't bear to count. 

But no more, or at least not yet in the "Klinsmann Era." Carlos Bocanegra, whom I've always thought was not that good, merely the best available in central defense, seems to have had a light bulb go off somewhere in his head. He has become solid: truly, reliably solid, instead of being, as before, just generally solid, a sort of American Titus Bramble. It's a shame he left it so late; it's unlikely he'll be up to the required level of play by the time the 2014 World Cup comes around. (He'll be 35 then; it's not impossible, but unlikely.) 

Steve Cherundolo, the right back, has long been, with Onyewu, our best defender, but he, too, is getting up in years. Finding a successor for him, as for Bocanegra, will have to be one of Klinsmann's priorities over the next couple of years, but in the meantime, his experience and level-headedness are beginning (at last) to be seen in others of the back line.

Tim Chandler, who plays his club football in Nuremburg, is a newcomer to the US defense, and a positive asset. Playing left back, he has shown solidity in defense and an aggressive attacking sense to match Cherundelo's on the other side. 

It's also good to see DaMarcus Beasley being used effectively again. He made a few appearances under former coach Bob Bradley, who inaugurated his move from midfield and forward positions to left-back; but in Bradley's time, Beasley never really seemed comfortable or useful in that role. Under Klinsmann, in the last two matches at least, he appears to be re-born as an outside back. He still has most of the speed that made him such a threat a decade ago, and seems to have matured as a player, outside the glare of the national-team lights. (It helps that he, too, is enjoying a stretch of good health.)

Even though the US defense has given up four goals in five games, while only scoring two, they have remained cohesive throughout opponents' attacks. That is a massive, massive improvement over what we often saw before. Glory is won in attack; games are won at the back. And Klinsmann's focus on developing, and quickly, that defensive composure is, to my way of thinking, the most positive development we've seen from the US national team since the 2002 World Cup. 

Second is the increase in the sharp one-touch style of play that marks all of the world's best teams. The US can't yet sustain that style of play through long stretches, but, especially against Honduras and Ecuador, it's starting to show up. Some of the new players coming in, most notably Brek Shea, seem well suited to the style.

I don't doubt that, as the team develops, we'll see continued stiffness in defense, improved possession skills in the midfield, and more successful finishing in the front. And then we'll all again believe that Klinsmann is a Jedi master.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Friday, September 30, 2011

Getting Old. Such a Pain.

I can never remember any more what the word eleemosynary means. I used to know that word. I even used to use that word, back when I was in college.

It seems unimportant, but it's frustrating not being able to remember things I used to know.

Monday, September 12, 2011

¡Magnifico!

Lola's
3312 Esplanade Avenue
New Orleans, Louisiana

Sometimes it's a curse: I live in a city, San Antonio, that is home to a fantastic array of exquisite food, and I am at home in a city, my native New Orleans, that is the Navel of the Culinary Universe. It's no wonder I'm a reluctant, yet willing, part of the obesity epidemic that's currently all the rage on 24-hour news channels that really need to fill the time. (You may have noticed that the Missing Or Murdered Pretty White Girl Channel, f/k/a Headline News, never mentions fat people unless they're suspected of committing the Murder of the Season.)

Other times, it's a blessing.

Tonight I felt the urge to treat myself to something really special, and Lola's seemed likely to feed that need. Oh, did it! Located in a funky part of the funky Mid-City district, this restaurant was a sort of uber-funky mix of Paris in the 1920s, San Francisco in the 1960s, Mexico City in the 1980s and New Orleans in the ... well, just New Orleans; no need to narrow it down further. It's not a large place; the dining room is the front part of a converted shotgun house; the kitchen is beyond. One neighbour is a 90-year-old Italian supermarket, the other is a private residence. 

We were seated immediately, and immediately took up the waiter's suggestion of house-made white Sangria, a sweetish concoction of wine and chunked fruit. It had a slightly fizzy quality to it, and we liked it enough to go through two bottles before dinner arrived. We had one order of paella, which takes about half an hour to prepare, so to fill the time we asked for an order of garlic shrimp. That arrived bubbling hot in a small iron pan, enough shrimp to keep the four of us busy, and enough garlic to keep away all the vampires in New Orleans for the rest of our visit. Not wanting to let a drop go to waste, we asked for another round of the excellent hot bread served here, which comes with a garlic aioli spread. (We thought it was garlic butter, but the waiter explained that it is a vegan concoction.)

In time our main meals arrived. First there was the seafood paella, teeming with mussels, shrimp, fish and other seafoods mixed in a plate of saffron arborio rice and vegetables, seasoned with red pepper. I had the seafood fideua, the same dish made with capellini instead of rice. It was both beautiful and delicious, definitely worth the wait: enough seafood so that there's some in every little forkful, the pasta just slightly al dente, the bright yellow of saffron, served with the mussels standing on end around a garnish of red pepper and parsley. 

We also had a dish of spinach linguine with chicken in a pesto sauce. It, too, was brightly flavoured, with artichoke quarters, tomato and olives in a pesto sauce over perfect pasta. The monochromatic look of the dish seemed less interesting to me than the other plates, but that didn't detract at all from the flavour.

Finally, we had a dish called pisto, a panoply of vegetables stuffed into a portabella mushroom. The black beans and rice that came with it were unadorned and uninteresting, but the rest of the dish was a fabulous, and fabulously complex, mix of tastes and textures. I always appreciate it when a chef takes things I don't much care for — in this case, eggplant and squash — mixes them with things I do like, and makes them enjoyable. This Castilian dish was certainly that.

I had looked forward to trying one of the house's desserts, but after all this food I just wasn't able. That, I guess, is just one more reason to try this place again. Maybe next time I'm in New Orleans.
Lola's on Urbanspoon

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Exotic, Thoroughly Orleanian, But Disappointing

Bennachin Restaurant
1212 Royal Street
New Orleans, Louisiana

This African restaurant has been on my New Orleans restaurant wish-list for months, so when the opportunity to try it came up, I jumped at it. It's a very, very small place on Royal between Governor Nicholls and Barracks Streets. There was only one open table large enough for four people. Most were tables for two, with one for six in the window.

The service was prompt at first, though later, after the tables all filled, the one server on duty was harried. Still, she got everyone served, correctly and as fast as things came out of the kitchen, though there was the distraction of the front door knob falling off, so that every time someone closed the door, someone from the kitchen had to come with a knife to open it. Eventually they put a sign on the door asking people not to close it, and the people seated closest made it their special mission to enforce that injunction. Lucky, weren't we, that the air outside was unseasonably cool, and the bug population of New Orleans appeared to have taken the weekend off. (Those facts, of themselves, makes me view the entire world in an uncharacteristically optimistic light, and may have influenced my reviews of this and other New Orleans restaurants.)

Looking around the restaurant didn't give me any sense of Africa. Other than a cheesy page torn from some child's book, a map showing the major cities in Africa, and a similar assembly of photographs of some of those cities' most touristy location, there was nothing to evoke the continent, and certainly nothing to evoke the two regions where the cuisine on offer originates, the Bight of Benin and Senegambia. The pretense that all Africa is a cultural unit may be comforting to descendants of slaves, and probably to young, white New-Age One-World types, but it has no basis in reality. It is a post-modern conceit, based on ignorance and given full play in this restaurant.

But that's neither here nor there where the food is concerned. While it may be fatuous to pretend that a tourist from Luanda or Lilongwe will be right at home here, the pairing of cuisines from Cameroon and the Gambia is no more incongruous that offering both Thai and Chinese in the same restaurant, a pairing that is less exotic only because it is more familiar to Americans, who, for the most part, are likely as not to see all those peoples and foods as Basically The Same, whether lumped together as Asians or as Africans. My own experience of Africa is not extensive, but it's enough to know that people widely separated geographically will have significant differences, and people who are widely separated politically will have significant differences, and people who are widely separated both geographically and politically will have vast differences. So will their cuisines.

For our dining experience, we started with drinks of ginger. Not ginger ale; just ginger water. It is still-water with minced ginger, served cold. The flavour is powerfully strong, requiring that you sip it slowly. It's not at all sweet, and the taste seems to vary in palatability as you drink it, but it is a generally pleasant taste. 

I can't quite say the same for the food. We had three dishes at our table. First was the dish for which the restaurant was named, bennachin, which I know from other sources as Jollof Rice, a delicious mixture of meat, rice and vegetables. This version was powerfully seasoned in a way that jolted at the first taste, then grew more tolerable with each successive bite. The quality of the meat (beef, in this incarnation; no pun intended) was reasonably good and the dish was satisfying in both quality and quantity. It was served with an unfortunate spinach sauté that tasted like canned spinach with some oil and onion in it. I found it inedible.

Next was ndole, a dish combining beef, spinach and peanuts in a sauce of garlic and ginger. It was tasty, and I thought it would have been good did it not seem to use beef that was well past its sell-by date. It tasted spoiled to me, though the person who ordered it thought it good, and had no ill effects later on. It was served with fried plantains, and coconut rice that was good but had no discernible coconut flavour to it.

Finally, there was shipa shipa, shrimp and rice covered in a tomato sauce seasoned with celery and onions. I found the sauce boring, except for the unpleasantly strong taste of celery. The shrimp and the rice were both unremarkable. Again, the person who ordered it thought it was good, but he did have ill effects later on. I don't know if this is a case of cause-and-effect, or simply a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy; you decide.

The prices were not extraordinarily high per se. Had the food lived up to its potential, they would have been extrememly reasonable. But this, it seems to me, is a case of a restaurant pricing foods as though they were something really special, then serving up mediocrity at those same prices. Just because the cuisine is exotic, perhaps unique in the area, doesn't mean we should pay premium prices, if it just ain't good. And I don't think the food at Bennachin is all that good.
Bennachin Restaurant on Urbanspoon


Friday, September 9, 2011

Worth Searching Out

Dog House Grille
2200 East Second Street
Gulf Shores, Alabama
(off Highway 59, just south of the Intracoastal Waterway bridge)

In my entire life — and I've been 49 for more years than most people — I don't believe I have ever sought out a hot-dog place. I mean, I like hot dogs, but they're not my idea of a meal, really. Not like a burger, or a good plate of enchiladas, or pasta. So when I go out to eat, the idea of actually seeking out a hot-dog place on purpose has just never happened.

Today, though, I had to contend with this damned notion of democracy and majority rule, and hot dogs won. (I diplomatically abstained, having caused the entire discussion by reading aloud, a few days ago, some of the review comments made on the Dog House Grille's page on Urbanspoon.) So off we went.

No, that's not Laura.
At first sight, it wasn't inspiring. Set in a strip center on a secondary thoroughfare, a few doors down from another place that I vaguely recalled had received good marks, for what that's worth, the Dog House Grille looks to be your standard Early 21st-Century American strip-center eatery. Step inside, and you are immediately reminded of every sandwich shop you've ever been to. I can think of two non-chain places back home that, I'm sure, were laid out by the same architect (if architecture has anything to do with it). Walk to the counter and place your order with the reportedly attractive (or, to quote the review, "smokin' hot") young lady, and wait to be enlightened.

In addition to a wide selection of hot dogs and other sausage-shaped meats, the Dog House offers burgers and other sandwiches, and a full breakfast menu. (O! that I had known that this morning, when I settled for the local disorganized Hardee's franchise restaurant!) But we were there for the dogs, and dogs we had.

The Yeilding (sic) Frito Dog is a weiner with chili, onions, peppers, jack cheese and Fritos. Surprising, how good such simple things can taste. The chili was the flavour-maker, but the cheese, soft and sticky, was what really shone in the mix. The New York Dog is inadequately described on the menu as "mustard, grilled onions and sauerkraut," which simply doesn't do justice to it. The onions were not just grilled, they were caramelized in a way that most Cordon Bleu chefs hope to master. They were superb. The kraut was moist and tasty and completely unobtrusive — you know how sauerkraut can just jump up and shout and stomp its little feet and throw a tantrum; this kraut didn't do any of those things, it just laid itself back and surrendered itself for your enjoyment.

My choice was the Chicago Dog, a frankfurter topped with mustard, relish, big chunks of tomato, diced onion, a little celery salt that I could have done without, and hot peppers, served up in a soft bun with a pickle spear. Yes, this was worth driving a little ways to find. It was so much more than a mere hot dog, it was a meal. 

Customers' pleasures at the Dog House Grille don't end with the main courses; the side dishes are fries, sweet-potato fries, and onion rings. We tried them all. The fries were good, but had more salt on them than I care for. The onion rings were sweet and crunchy and coated with a delicious batter. But the stand-out of the offerings was the sweet potato fries, crinkle-cut and lightly salted, which may be the best I've ever had. At least, I can't remember better ones. 

And all of this came to around six bucks a person. I'd call that a deal.
Dog House Grille on Urbanspoon

The Gulf Shores Trip

Click here to see the on-line photo album.
Can any trip be more perfect than this latest trip to the Gulf Coast? Well, okay, you're right: the latest trip is always the best. But this one was particularly enjoyable.

We arrived in Opelousas, Louisana, on Friday, September 2, as Tropical Storm Lee wandered around offshore, unable to decide where it wanted to go. Growing up in Louisiana gives you a sense of what weather to fear, and this little tropical storm didn't quite rise to that level, despite the breathless hyperbole of the Weather Channel's presenters. We spent a pleasant evening with our friends, the Nepveaux, including a delicious seafood dinner at the Steamboat Warehouse, up the road in Washington. By the time we went to bed, the wind was picking up and the rain was starting to come down pretty steadily.

In the morning, the rain was pouring down and the wind was blustering, but it still wasn't enough to deter us. Although we had to creep down the freeway at 30 miles an hour for a good while — and occasionally even much slower than that — by the time we crossed the Atchafalaya Basin, the wipers were off. This storm was relatively disorganized, meaning that it had narrow bands of bad weather widely separated by areas of calm.

We picked up Nancy and Jeff at the airport in New Orleans, and after a stop for lunch at the Bulldog, we headed off to Alabama. That drive, which would normally take about three hours, took five, including a slightly scary stretch (negotiated at less than 20 miles an hour) along the Mississippi coast. But all we faced was heavy rain; the winds were strong but not dangerous, and there was no flooding on the roads. When we arrived at our condo, the parking lot was under about four inches of water, but we even managed to avoid having to deal with that. We got rained on a little while we unloaded the car under the portico. Big deal. Then I found the one parking spot that would allow me to get out of the car without stepping in the water. I felt lucky.

about 25' high
We spent the next day and a half sitting in our condo, mostly, watching the waves outside. Most of the time they were only around four to six feet, high enough to excite us City Folk, but not really anything to get worked up about; but occasionally, when the wind would pick up, some got much higher, though it's hard to tell how high from the shore, without a ship on hand for them to break against. All I had to go by was that I was on the second floor, 12 or 15 feet above sea level, and I'm about 6' tall. Some were higher than that. Bands of heavy rain and high winds continued to pass over us, including one that took one of the deck chairs from our balcony, never to be seen again. During the calm periods, we got out for walks on the beach and a trip to a local seafood restaurant for dinner.

Pensacola Historic District

NAS Museum
Pensacola Light
Once the storm passed, we had gorgeous, gorgeous weather for the rest of the trip: warm enough to get out on the beach, but cool enough to really enjoy it. First thing we did was drive down the shore to see Pensacola, Florida: their little historical district and the Naval Air Station's museum and lighthouse. From the top of the lighthouse, I could see Fort Pickens, across the bay, where I'd first met my friend Brian Kirby several years ago — we were both renting bicycles to ride out to the fort — and down the beach to the high-rise condos and hotels in Gulf Shores, 20-some-odd miles away. It's a fairly rare treat to have air that clear when I'm up in a tall tower.

Win, Place and Show

Another day-trip took us to Fort Morgan, one of the old defenses of Mobile Bay

Dauphin Island has an interesting little aquarium focusing on estuarial life

Bellingrath Gardens, which was once a private estate, is a famous botanical experience, created by the owner of the local Coca-Cola Bottling Company back in the 1930s
We also went into Mobile, where we saw the USS Alabama

and other military vehicles, like this B-52

Mobile has some charming older parts
After our week in Alabama, we spent a few days in New Orleans

Mostly in the French Quarter

Statue of Joan of Arc in Decatur Street

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Not Just In It For the Beer

The Bulldog
5135 Canal Boulevard
New Orleans, Louisiana

An unplanned stop for a late lunch in New Orleans landed us at this nice mid-city pub. While the big draw of this place for the locals is the huge selection of draft beers (and don't think we didn't appreciate that bit of luck), the food was pretty good, too.

We tried the pulled-pork sandwich. It was well made but covered with a too-sweet barbecue sauce. The meat was served in large chunks on an ordinary hamburger bun.

We also had an excellent grilled chicken sandwich, a moist, marinated and butterflied breast on the same dressed hamburger bun.

Our other choice was the Philly cheese steak wrap. It was mostly meat, with enough unidentifiable cheese to give it cohesion, and some tasty sautéed onions and peppers. It was served with a side of beef juice, but the nature of the wrap's construction made it a choice between eating it dry (too dry) or having it fall apart as you try to dip it. Considering how messy it turned out to be to eat, I might as well have poured the juice over it.

The culinary stars of the show were the sweet potato fries. They were cut to a nice size, between Wendy's and a steak fry, and fried to perfection: crispy along the edges but soft inside.

The prices were reasonable, but unremarkable. The service, both at the kitchen and the bar, was typical New Orleans surly. Being an Orleanian by birth and, to some extent, upbringing, I can say that it is this common up-yours attitude that makes me proud to call myself a native Texan, Born in Exile.
The Bulldog (Mid-City) on Urbanspoon

A Port In A Storm

The Shrimp Basket
301 Gulf Shores Parkway
Gulf Shores, Alabama

We blew into town with Tropical Storm Lee, and after portaging our stuff into our condo, went off in search of dinner. It being The Coast, we wanted seafood, and this is the place we chose. It's one of 11 locations this local chain has along this stretch of coastline.

It was pretty late in the evening, which might explain why the place was filthy. The table had been bused, but the floor was littered with napkins and bits of food. The dining room wasn't particularly large; certainly not large enough for the number of tables and chairs stuffed into it. The management may have taken this into consideration in their hiring policies, as the employees were, without exception, lithe young women who would look as much at home in bathing suits on the nearby beach as in a grease-pit seafood house. Management may or may not have standards of physical appearance, but certainly it has standards of competence, and these young women knew their jobs and did them with easy competence and gracious hospitality. They were quick to accomodate a request for something not on the menu; and they did a good job sliding unobtrusively behind the chairs of some of the restaurant's grotesquely fat patrons. This place seems quite popular among those who have to buy two seats on a Southwest Airlines jet.

There's also an outdoor dining area, but even if there were not a tropical storm passing through town, I don't think it'd be the place to dine. Laying aside the shredded awning (which appeared to have been shredded during some previous big wind event) the proximity of the busiest street in town suggests that it's no place for people without earbuds to enjoy themselves.

The food was just the tiniest bit above average for this sort of restaurant. The seafood is available grilled or steamed, but clearly it's all about the fried food. At our table we had a grilled chicken platter, billed as two chicken breasts but consisting of surprisingly greasy chicken tenders; a fried clam po-boy, which was good; and mahi tacos, which were also good; the chicken platter and the tacos were both served with small, tasty, garlicky hushpuppies. I had the fried oyster po-boy, which was nicely dressed and loaded with oysters that were coated in a tasty batter and fried just right. I had a side order of new potatoes, which were also well-cooked, although coated in what seemed to be a cheap flavoured butter substitute (which may have been the same stuff that made the chicken seem greasy).
Shrimp Basket on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Search Is Ended!

The Roller Skate, 2008
Some time back, I wrote a little piece about my inability to find anything worthy of replacing my little roller-skate. Seems no new convertibles have the combination of looks, luxury, legroom and, most importantly, trunk space that I need for the kind of long trips I take down the back-roads of North America.

As everyone who knows me has heard, this Jaguar XK-8 is not the car I wanted. My dream car is a 1961 Series 1 Jaguar E-Type roadster. My first-runner-up dream car is a 1949-1953 Jaguar XK-120. My second-runner-up dream car is a 1954-1957 Jaguar XK-140. Those are the three most beautiful cars ever to come off any assembly line, anywhere.

First Choice
Unfortunately, they don't come with mechanics, and while I can change the oil (or could, if I needed to) and change a tire (and have, too many times) and put gas in the tank (again, done that too many times), that's about it. So when I got to the point where I felt I could afford that sort of indulgence, I decided that, I'm not the kind of guy who can keep one of those gorgeous classic Jags up and running. Not to mention that those old brakes fade when they get wet, and you have to put additives in the unleaded fuel we have now, and there was no such thing as anti-lock brakes, or crumple zones, or all the other things we now take for granted, when these cars were built. And comfort was a luxury undreamt-of in a roadster back then.

Second Choice. Photo by Paul Fisher.
Hence, the roller skate. It's almost as pretty as an E-Type, and much nicer for long road trips. It has a modern suspension system, and air conditioning, anti-lock brakes and traction control and all kinds of bells and whistles that didn't exist as concepts when the E-Type was on the drawing board. And, despite Jaguar's well-deserved reputation as "the prettiest car you'll ever see broken down by the side of the road," it's been a good car. Still is, even with 130,000 miles on it. It's only broken down twice in the years I've had it: once while in warranty, when the rack-and-pinion was replaced and the new one lost a seal after 12 miles and had to be replaced again; and once in the Upper Midwest, when the insulation on an electrical line wore through and blew the fuse for the fuel pump ... over and over, until at last I had it towed to a Jag dealer in suburban Detroit, where the problem was identified and repaired. (That problem, I thought, was the sort of thing a first-year Electrical Engineering student would have known how to prevent.)

But I come from a time when you didn't keep a car past 100,000 miles. They just didn't last that long. I know, intellectually, that these days they do, and I figure I ought to be able to get 200,000 miles, or close to it, out of that car. They're all highway miles, you know, very little city driving on those wheels.

But emotionally I'm already grieving for the Roller Skate, which I feel will die any day (or become too expensive to keep; same thing, in a car), and some time back I started looking for a replacement car. But I found nothing. Everything is too ugly, or fails on some essential criteria ... most often, the trunk space with the top down.

But now, everything is changed. The search is ended. My next convertible is out there, just waiting for me. Not only is it a gorgeous, luxurious convertible, it is actually even prettier than the 1961 Jaguar E-Type. It is the Eagle Speedster Lightweight.
Handmade by the world's premier restorer of classic Jaguars, this all-new car captures the beauty of the E-type and marries it to the most current technology.
And it's only about $800,000.

I figure in a few years, when my little roller skate finally does give out, I ought to be able to pick one up second-hand. In the meantime, I'm saving up my pocket change.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Worth A Dollar

Fast Five
directed by Justin Lin
Starring Vin Diesel
Paul Walker
Dwayne Johnson
Jordana Brewster

Today I packed away all my pretensions at sophistication and taste and went to see Fast Five at the second-run cinema. The shedding of all ideas of intellectual capacity and artistry was necessary to give a movie of this ilk any chance at entertaining. Had I gone into the theater with some expectation that there would be any sort of high art in this movie, I would have been severely disappointed. Had I paid for a full-price ticket, or even a bargain matinee ticket, for this piece of ... well, let's just call it computer-generated imaging, I'd've been really pissed off.

This movie is not intended to entertain adults. It is intended to entertain virginal adolescent boys, who fantasize about touching women and driving really, really fast with no unfortunate consequences. It's intended, in other words, to get the video-game generation out into the public realm, where they might at least see and be seen by non-virtual representations of other people. There is a little touching of women in the movie; it actually plays, if I may use the term loosely, a meaningful part in advancing what passes for plot. Other than that, there's no sexuality, unless you count mention of a pregnancy of a character who may or may not be married. In other words, just enough sex to tease a 14-year-old middle-school student, who has some idea of what causes pregnancy, and who's always nursing a semi anyway, and doesn't need anything explicit to produce a more tumescent state.

No, this movie is about cars. Exotic, high-priced cars that seat two and can drive off a moving train without suffering a dent, or studly second-generation muscle cars that can drag a giant steel bank vault around the streets of Rio de Janiero fast enough that police cars in pursuit can't catch up. 

The supposed plot is complicated enough that it would take at least three sentences to describe with any kind of completeness. Luckily, though, it's not worth that kind of investment of time or energy, as any of the many SUVs in the film (all of which are destroyed, of course, save one) can be driven through the holes in the plot without leaving a mark. The whole thing is executed with an artless stiffness by people who might have learned acting at the local junior college. They were selected more on the basis of appearance than ability. They are good enough to pull this picture off, since they can at least remember the words they're supposed to recite. Suffice it to say, then, that the good guys win, the bad guys lose, and crime pays big if you do it with honour and panache. There are a number of references to things that apparently happened in earlier films in the franchise; if you're like me and haven't seen any of them, you won't know what they're talking about, but don't let that worry you. None of it matters.

I'm sure this movie is now available at DVD rental boxes everywhere. If you're fourteen, literally or figuratively, or want to be for a few hours because the wife is out of town, or whatever, by all means, run down and rent a copy of this action-packed film. Call up your buddies from college (or junior-high) and get together to watch it. Just remember to use coasters.