Sunday, June 19, 2011

Just a Link

Here is something I think everybody should read, no matter what their political affiliation.

What Seinfeld Has Done For Us

Sometimes it takes a look at other parts of the world to make you appreciate how things are here.

In 2008, a radio host named Jon Gaunt in the U.K. was interviewing a local official named Michael Stark. According to the BBC:
The pair had been debating the council's decision to ban smokers from fostering children when Mr Gaunt called Mr Stark a "Nazi", a "health Nazi" and an "ignorant pig".
Mr Gaunt lost his job, appealed the decision, and lost. The judge said that "The broadcast was undoubtedly highly offensive to Mr Stark and was well capable of offending the broadcast audience..."

I don't know about the "ignorant pig" part, but the term "Nazi" and the more specific "health Nazi" certainly seem appropriate. At least to those of us who have seen the famous "Soup Nazi" episodes of Seinfeld.

There were, according to the BBC story, 53 complaints from the public. It does not say how many of those complaints objected to the accurate, if metaphoric, description of Mr Stark and his Redbridge council as a Nazi; how many objected to the other metaphor; how many were offended at the notion that government can deny people the right to foster children because they have habits that are no longer popular; and how many thought the "ignorant pig" comment was demeaning of swine. I would go out on a limb and guess that no complainants in the U.K., which suffered great destruction in World War II, thought Mr Gaunt was demeaning genuine Nazis by applying the label to Mr Stark.
Redbridge Council During a Lull?
(photo by Maqi)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Not Oscar Material

X-Men: First Class
starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, January Jones, Rose Byrne, Kevin Bacon, Jennifer Lawrence
directed by Matthew Vaughn

Official movie poster
This movie is all top-class special effects and comic-book atmosphere. If you're a fan of the X-Men franchise you'll probably like it. I'm not. I thought it was over-the-top silly and a bald-faced and cynical product designed to separate the general public from their money in five-to-ten dollar increments. If I had it to do over again, I'd wait for it to hit the second-run houses.

Most of the cast did what they could with the material. The notable exceptions were January Jones, who did nothing with her character, and Kevin Bacon, who managed to avoid outshining his co-stars. I must have faith that he did this for the pleasure of playing a comic-book villain, and a fat, fat paycheck.

B, as in Bourgeois

Colton's Steak House & Grill
5 Eagle Mountain Boulevard
Batesville, Arkansas

This place was reluctantly recommended to us by our motel clerk as being "not too bad." It was, I'm afraid, only slightly oversold.

Them Texas flags ain't foolin' nobody
Colton's is a Little Rock-based franchise chain with a few dozen locations in five states. It seems to be the brainchild of a solid B student in the junior college's Restaurant Science program: everything about it is culled from one successful chain or another, from the buckets of peanuts on your table to the layout of booths and tables in the dining rooms. The atmosphere is fin de siècle trendy fused with aw-shucks hillbilly. If it weren't for the concrete floors, hard walls, and complete lack of sound-deadening materials, we would not have been treated to the cacaphony of the five squealing teeny-bopper co-eds in the corner booth, the audio from at least three televisions tuned to different channels, the canned-music soundtrack, and some unruly screaming baby in the other dining room. But credit where credit is due: when I complained about the noise to the waitress, she handled it with aplomb, and offered to turn off the television closest to us.

Alec Baldwin, who doesn't eat
in Independence County, Arkansas

(photo by David Shankbone)
Batesville, Arkansas, is in a dry county. Being sophisticated big-city types, we have forgotten what a hardship this creates for the casual restaurant diner, unable to drown the din in a nice relaxing highball. I'm sure that Congressman Wiener had just come from a meal in a dry county when it struck him as an intelligent thing to do, to snap a pic of his crotch with his smartphone and send it off to some little hotsie he was hoping to impress. Alec Baldwin, who suggested, too late to do the Congressman any good, that a martini might be a better way to unwind, obviously has not been to dinner in a dry county lately.

So we had to drink water. Local tap water is crystal clear and only slightly flavoured with treatment chemicals. I could get used to it, though it does make me really appreciate the Edwards Aquifer. Since we had the bucket of peanuts, we passed on an appetizer and went straight to salad, which was pro forma packaged. Not bad, but nothing to attract any real attention. Mostly just a salve to the guilt of not ordering the side of steamed veggies or green beans.

Our entrées were New York strip with loaded baked potato (an extra charge for the loading seemed kind of nickel-and-dime-ish) at $19, and a ribeye and shrimp combo for $20. The New York strip, ordered medium, came out somewhere between rare and medium rare. Other than that, it was a good piece of meat: maybe not USDA Prime, but acceptable, except for the price. The potato was large enough to be respected but not large enough to be impressive. That is both good and bad, depending on whether you feel you should be impressed by a baked potato. 

What do those ratings mean?
The ribeye was a fatty piece of meat. My dog would have been very happy if I'd served this meat at home, because he has a thing for big chunks of beef fat. I used to, myself, but have outgrown that particular vice, and so was unhappy at having it placed in front of me. It was, at least, properly cooked to medium rare, as ordered. 

The shrimp, five of them, were medium sized, battered in corn meal and fried artlessly. They were just shrimp, served with a mediocre cocktail sauce in a little plastic tub. Their main function is to remind the diner that Arkansas is a long way from the Gulf, and there are no shrimp in the Mississippi River. They are as good as one would get at, say, Red Lobster or some similar chain. They do not justify their cost.
Colton's Steakhouse & Grill (Batesville) on Urbanspoon

Nearly Perfect

Little House Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor
309 South Walnut Street
Bernie, Missouri
7 days a week, 6am to 9pm

I'm not entirely unaccustomed to stumbling on good home cooking when I travel. Since I stay off the freeways as much as I can, going from one small town to the next, I get to see just about every restaurant there is, because they're all, or nearly all, on the main road through town. And the type of unpretentious cooking they do is often close to perfect by local standards. I've found great little cafes in almost every state of the union, but every now and then I find one that's close to perfect by any standard, including my own version of arrogant culinary snobbery.

Little House is such a place. It sits modestly aside Highway 25 in rural southern Missouri, not even in the biggest town in a nearly-empty-seeming county in the Bootheel. We pulled in for lunch with no great expectations, and were surprised by just how good a place can be.

The dining room is extremely clean and neat. It seemed to have a new coat of bright yellow paint on the ceiling and green on the walls, which were decorated with contrasting shutters, a few tasteful arrangements of plastic flowers, and a few nicely-calligraphed down-home mantras. A couple of locals were planted in what must surely be their regular tables near the front of the small dining room; we took up station near the back. 

The young waitress was quick to bring us menus and drinks. The foods offered were ordinary: burgers, sandwiches, a few regular plate lunches and some daily specials. The hamburger, billed as being a quarter pound, was three dollars. My companion went for the double cheeseburger, at $4.25, plus potato wedges and a soda. I went for the hamburger steak plate lunch, which came with roll, mashed potatoes and green beans for $6. I also splurged with a Coke float for the ridiculously low price of $2.

The double cheeseburger had to be way, way more than a half-pound of good-quality beef, grilled to juicy perfection. It was, in the words of my friend, the kind of burger he would make at home on the grill on a good day. And he's a pretty good cook. The potato wedges were so far from greasy that he would have sworn they were baked; he may have been right. In any case, they were delicious, and nicely seasoned. 

For my part, the green beans were unremarkable, barely seasoned and cafeterial, but not too overcooked to be good. The mashed potatoes were entirely traditional, the gravy on them was delicious and neither too thick nor too thin, as it often gets when left sitting around in the kitchen too long. (Since we were there after the normal lunch hours, it wouldn't have been surprising to find it had thickened or, consequently, been recently thinned.) The hamburger steak was cooked medium, which is a little more than I would have asked for, had I been given a choice, but it was still juicy and well-seasoned. It, too, was about a half pound, much more than I expected for the price, which is the key fact about Little House. 

What does that mean?
I've often given high marks for food, for ambience, and for service, but this is the first time, I think, that I've ever been so pleased with a restaurant's prices. Maybe that's a consequence of being long out of my home territory, where low prices are the rule more than the exception. But I have to think that these prices are about as low as any I've seen for good-quality food in any place I've ever been in America. And from someone who's been to a whole lot more of America than most people (and who has thoughtfully eaten at least as much as most people), that should count for something.

Little House Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Saga Continues: Day 3

It feels like ages since that last travel post; so hard, after ten days or so, to go back and recollect what all we've done. But here goes:

After a restful night (I assume; actually, I can't even remember where we stayed, except that it was in southwestern Nebraska, in a town called McCook), we were up and off, first to an excellent and inexpensive breakfast in a little cafe in a depressed little farming community called Bartley, to eavesdrop on the local kafe klatchers as they traded reminiscences about the pranks they pulled when they were in high school; then to the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima.
This shrine was built by a priest who had been a prisoner of war, and who swore he would build the shrine if he survived the German camp. He did, and he built it. It is mundane in many ways, but lifted above the mundane by the presence of beautiful gardening all around, and an excellent bronze of Rachel. What her connection is to the B.V.M. I couldn't say, except that both were women and both figured in the Bible. That seems sufficient for the good Catholics of Arapahoe, Nebraska, and I'm disinclined to grouse about it any more than I've just done.

Heading east from there, we came to the small burg of Superior, just above the Kansas line, where the draw is an entire building at the Nuckolls County Museum dedicated to the work of a single man: one Marvin Marquart, a bachelor farmer who, lacking the distractions imposed on us more worldly men, carved, assembled, and painted over three thousand model airplanes in the space of about fifty years. Some hang from the acoustical-tile cieling, but most are displayed crowded together in glass cases, wingtip to wingtip, arranged by nationality. While Mr Marquart's painting skills were rough at the outset, they got much better, although his hands apparently started to shake with age and the detail suffered slightly toward the end. Still, it is a most impressive display, and as a life's work it is far, far more than most of us can point to. It makes me glad for television and the Internet, and at the same time sad for those same things in my own life. (It also makes me very glad to have married, especially someone who likes soccer.) (And that reminds me: my special someone, playing forward for a new team, scored a goal yesterday. Congratulations, and I hope it's just the first of many.)

After that it was straight in to Kansas City, as the two odd sights I'd picked out along the way ended up not seeming worth getting off the highway for. This impression seems justified, in hindsight, as it pertains to one site, but I wish now that I had stopped to see the other. Fortunately, there are still counties in nearby southern Nebraska that I haven't been to yet, and it'll be just a short side-trip to visit Belleville, Kansas.

That got us in to Kansas City; we spent the weekend there, having dinner with friends at Accurso's Italian Restaurant, and visiting the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, one of the most impressive public collections I've seen, and watching, at perhaps the least inviting sports bar in the entire world, Barcelona beat Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League final. Boooo! Hisss!

overpriced ceiling
It being Memorial Day weekend, we stayed through Sunday to attend the annual concert and fireworks show at the Liberty Memorial. After a short tour of the city between home and show, we got there early enough to get a reasonably good parking place and a reasonably good spot on the lawn, where we were eventually joined by sixty-six thousand of our closest friends in the town. Ahead of the show, David and I toured the refurbished Union Station, which is now part Amtrak-station, part entertainment venue. I heard that the price tag for the restoration was $250,000,000, which smacks of snouts in the public trough and leads me to think we should be able to require absolute transparency for public works, or the right to sue for recovery of excess costs -- and sue not only the beneficiaries of the unrighteous public largesse, but the political creatures that made it happen.

Anyway. So the Air Force sent a band to perform a warm-up act, and then the KC Symphony took the stage, with a couple of overfed specialty acts. I was expecting a concert of familiar patriotic tunes, but what I got instead was a medley of familiar patriotic tunes interspersed with new music of a purportedly patriotic flavour, not perhaps coincidentally written or arranged by the performers, who get royalties for music that likely would never otherwise be performed. I won't go so far as to say it was bad music; just that it was not as good, not as entertaining, as a rousing string of Sousa marches would have been. And I'm wondering what rock I was sleeping under while Amazing Grace became an appropriate tribute to our fallen warriors.

One other thing I noted: at the start of the show, the audience rose, as requested, for the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. Later in the show, the audience rose, unrequested, and as one, for the playing of God Bless America.

The concert ended on a definite high, with a marvelous performance of Tchaikovskiy's 1812 Overture, complete with the requisite actual cannons, followed by, at last, the Sousa march I craved; in this case, The Stars and Stripes Forever. And by one of the better fireworks shows I've seen.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Amerigreek Steak House

Log Cabin
201 North Main Street
Galena, Illinois

Galena, Illinois, is a gentrified overgrown one-street country town. Some time ago, it was rediscovered by the artsy-fartsy crowd and gussied up to look like what it looked like in its prime, nearly 200 years ago. Except, of course, without the horse droppings, cigar smoke, noise and poverty of the American frontier. Another Disney version of history, ready for the tourists who like to be abed by ten.

There's a stretch of that one street (Main Street) that has a restaurant in almost every space, it seems. They probably open and close with a regularity that would make sand dunes seem stable, but a few of them seem to have managed to stick around. We took the unanimous recommendation of our hotel staff and slid into the Log Cabin for dinner on a Friday night. Run by a Greek family, it did not so much feature Greek foods or styles as offer them here and there: feta cheese in the house dressing, a couple of appetizers, a couple of dishes. All dark wood and banquettes, the interior made a pleasant change from the slightly-humid, bug-infested evening outdoors. (Box elder bugs are swarming just now; they're harmless, but irritating like gnats.)

We started with a round from the bar, all of which were well-prepared. That would have put us in a good mood for dinner if the service hadn't been so ... uh ... expeditious. Considering that the dinner rush was long over by the time we sat down (but closing time was still a good way off), there was no reason for hurrying us through the courses; yet they did. Our salads arrived only seconds after our drinks; the main platters arrived immediately after. Our before-dinner drinks ended up being after-dinner drinks, and there are few drinks that can perform both roles with any kind of aplomb. 

What's that mean?
Fortunately for our moods, the salads were quite good, large bowls of fresh lettuce, tomato, cucumber, and all the other appropriate rabbit-food items. The dressings tasted home-made (house, with feta cheese, and creamy Italian). The coleslaw chosen by one of our group was even better: sweet, creamy, lusciously delicious. If I ever return to this restaurant, that will be my salad of choice.

For main dishes we had a plate of fried shrimp, one of pork ribs, and one of steak. The pork ribs were easily the best of the three, with a sweet barbecue sauce that brought out the flavour of the perfectly cooked meat. I don't ordinarily do messy food — watermelon, buffalo wings, and barbecue (and long pasta is on my "caution" list) — but I would make an exception for these delicious ribs.

Ranking next in the hierarchy was the shrimp. Present in quantity commensurate with their price, they were breaded in a wheat batter and fried quickly, tempura-style, resulting in very light, very tasty shrimp.

The weak spot of the meal was the New York strip steak. Thick and large but hardly tender meat, with minimal ribboning of fat through it, it was grilled a little beyond the medium-rare I ordered, and it had been rubbed with unusual seasonings — possibly Greek seasonings? — that I found gave it a slightly unpleasant aroma, and the drippings from the meat concentrated the flavour of those spices in a way that I didn't like. I thought the steak was a little overpriced at $26, but not enough to get worked up about. The less-than-perfect quality of the meat was more the issue.

(And while I'm talking about price, let me say this: I wanted to order prime rib, but was irked by the fact that that dish is offered at one price ("our everyday price," ironically, since it applies only three days out of seven) on weekends and another, lower, price the rest of the week. There is no acceptable excuse for that kind of institutionalized price-gouging.)

The accoutrements of the meal were good: good, soft bread; baked potatoes offered with melted cheese, sour cream, and plenty of butter; and a relish tray of a sort that I have not seen in ages, containing raw radishes, celery, carrots and green onion to munch on. There's a tradition that should enjoy a resurgence.

There were some service issues: we asked for utensils twice (there were only two sets on a table set for four), and finally had to swipe some from another table; our waitress was ready to walk away after only one of us had ordered a drink, and had to be stopped so the rest of us could place our orders; we had to ask twice for some of the dressings for our potatoes; and despite the unrelaxed speed at which things were brought from the kitchen, empty plates were slow to make their way back, and we had to resort to piling things on the next table in order to have room to eat. Listing the flaws like that may make them seem more important than they seemed at the time. In fact all they did was keep the service at the Log Cabin from being rated above average, because otherwise the server was pleasant and engaging, knowledgeable, and attentive to our needs. Taken altogether, I would say simply that the service here was uneven, nothing worse.
Log Cabin on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Unintentionally Retro

The Copper Kettle
1005 South Main Street
River Falls, Wisconsin

There are two kinds of retro restaurants in my experience of the world: the self-consciously and intentionally retro, which is to restaurant dining as the PT Cruiser is to driving; and the unintentionally retro, which is more akin to a white '65 Impala with red tucaroles. The Copper Kettle is definitely in the latter category.

The place looks, at first impression, thoroughly up to date. Then you notice that you enter, not next to the bar, but through it. The dining room is off to the side, and the patio is beyond. We opted for the patio, it being a fine late-Spring evening in western Wisconsin. (We probably would have picked the patio back home, too, but we would have sweated through the evening as the temperature grudgingly gave back that third digit.) Out there we found a plastic dog guarding plastic roses and plastic tulips, all unabashedly placed as though fashionable, and with no sense of irony.

We had to start with an order of fried cheese curds, just because my friend Rick, who is on his maiden voyage to the midwest, wasn't sure he should believe us when we said there was such a thing. He was unimpressed: snobbishly so, I would say, and I put his dismissive attitude down to a lack of timely medication. The cheese curds were nicely done. Yes, they are somewhat reminiscent of fried mozzarella, just as an old Karmann Ghia convertible could be considered reminiscent of a Jaguar E-Type -- they're both European and only nominally 4-seaters, and both were available with steering wheels and gear shifters. I, who have at least had a few cheese curds in my life, the recent parts of it anyway, consider these tasty little beer-battered morsels to be well above average in the cheese-curd universe. But then, everything tastes good fried, right?

We ordered drinks all around, something we don't normally do back home. They were delivered by our waitress in good time, precariously balanced on a tray in a manner that set the mood for the evening. By the time we left we were on our way to a close friendship with this child of exile who claims unconvincingly that she can, in fact, remember the '70s. (Not because she was spaced out during those years, but because she was too young, if she was alive at all. You don't have to clarify that for any other decade in human history, except possibly the '60s.)

Our choices for dinner started with onion soup and house salad; roast beef with mashed potatoes; a Reuben sandwich with fries; and the chicken Kiev, a dish I have not seen on a menu since the 1970s.

The onion soup was unusual, in that it was made with a light broth instead of the de rigueur dark beef broth. The onions weren't carmelized, and the cheese sprinkled (sprinkled!) on top was either mozzarella or a travesty of Swiss. It was a thoroughly unauthentic concoction, and the greatest failing of the evening, but even at that it was enjoyable. The salad was perfectly ordinary, not quite as fresh as it could have been.

The Reuben sandwich was well made: plentiful corned beef and a goodly serving of sauerkraut on a superior quality pumpernickel bread, but presented as though no one in the kitchen has ever given the least thought to making a plate attractive. It was just put on the plate with a pile of fries and served, artlessly. Well, that's okay, I guess, but how easy would it have been to make it look more attractive? Extremely easy, as my friend Rick demonstrated before eating. A little presentation doesn't hurt, and it doesn't have to be fru-fru (the opinion of too many chefs notwithstanding; it's the student-loan debt talking, with them). The fries, by the way, were pretty good, although completely unsalted; cut medium-thick, with the skins, and fried the right amount of time in new oil at the proper temperature.

The pot roast was plentiful, and made just like most people's grandmothers would have done it. The mashed potatoes were made with the skin left on, and seasoned with garlic. Made with butter and milk and left slightly lumpy, so you know it's not fake mashed potatoes, and not made with a food processor. The meat required no knife; it yielded at the mere sight of a fork waved purposefully at it. And there was almost too much of it, despite the extremely reasonable price.

The chicken Kiev, that classic dish of the 1970s, was served as though it was still 1978. I suspect that the chicken breast was rolled around the seasoned butter in some distant food-processing factory, not the Copper Kettle's kitchen: it was simply too perfectly formed to be made in house. The batter on it was underseasoned and had the gritty quality of dry corn meal. In addition to being stuffed with butter, the dish was laid in a bed of butter and topped with a butter sauce. I haven't seen that much butter all in one place since Dr Atkins made his debut. It was, of course, delicious. I only hope my cardiologist doesn't read this.

What better way to top off a trip back in time than to order drinks that haven't been ordered since Styx broke up? A Colorado bulldog for Rick, a Golden Cadillac for me. Mine was all vanilla ice cream and no discernible liqueurs; Rick was happier with his. (He is out on the front porch now, still being happy.)

On the way out, the plastic dog bit me. I kicked him, but he didn't yelp. Stoic, he is.

[Since I'm writing this post on someone else's computer, I don't have access to my usual graphic for ratings. I will give this restaurant three chili peppers for the food, four for the service, three for the ambience, and three and a half for value. What's that mean? All in all, it was a pleasant experience, and I would be comfortable recommending the place to anyone looking for a meal in western Wisconsin.]
Copper Kettle on Urbanspoon