Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas Haul

Yes, I know, Christmas is about more than presents. But I don't think you need me to sit here telling you the story of the three magi or the birth of a son to a virgin girl in a small town in the middle east. That story's best left to the professionals.

Anyway, I'm bored and thought I'd throw up some pics of what I got for Christmas (stock photos, of course):

Of course, the obligatory:


And seriously:

That last one I think was kind of half joke, half serious on the part of my wife. She had fun looking at it too.

So what'd you get?

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Dancing With The Green Fairy

Tonight, I had my first taste of absinthe.

As you can see, it's Lucid, one of only two legal brands available in the United States. (More on that in a bit.) Lucid is real absinthe, not absente, missing no ingredients and distilled in the traditional way. It's imported from France for the US market and is a new product this year. No, it obviously doesn't have a very traditional bottle, but then that's about the only thing about it that's not.

Absinthe, of course, is most associated with the bohemian era of 19th century Paris. It was declared illegal in most of the world around 1915, including a large part of Europe and the United States. While it was popular with artists and writers, it gained the reputation among the mainstream of a hallucinogenic drug, dangerous to both the mind and body. Even though there wasn't really any evidence that absinthe specifically or directly caused serious health problems, its use scared conservative governments into banning it. (Sound familiar?)

Obviously, this prohibition just made the legend of absinthe grow. When I was in college, there were all sorts of stories floating around about people who had imported illegal absinthe from underground distilleries in Europe and then promptly gone insane immediately after drinking it. Of course, nobody could actually verify these stories because the subjects in question were always locked away in mental hospitals. Absinthe's effects were said to be like really bad acid ("bad" as in bad trip bad, not as in weak). Of course, we all wanted to try it... but nobody knew where to get it. (This was in the early days of the internet; there was no such thing as an "absinthe store" online.)

Absinthe's been making a little pop culture comeback lately too. One of my favorite movies, Moulin Rouge, features it pretty heavily, in all its da-glo green glory. The film even stars Kylie Minogue as a sexy, modern "green fairy":

The cast in Moulin Rouge are seen setting their absinthe on fire before drinking it - a practice that real drinkers at that time and modern purists apparently wouldn't be caught dead doing:

Anyway, fast forward from 1915 to 2007 and absinthe's legal again! I think that deserves an exclamation point, because this was a ban that lasted longer than the prohibition on any other drug we have, and now it's gone. Actually, it wasn't absinthe itself that was illegal; it was quantities over 10ppm of the chemical thujone that were illegal. Modern chemistry and testing techniques have now revealed conclusively that most vintage absinthe was already below this threshold, and modern absinthes replicating the original recipes are too. So, voila! Absinthe is, by default, again legal in the United States and much of Europe.

For an absinthe to be sold in the United States, it needs to go through testing and have its thujone level certified. So far, two brands have: Switzerland's Kubler and France's Lucid. Seems appropriate - these were the two biggest absinthe-producing countries in the classical era. If these brands prove popular - and the guy at the liquor store tonight told me they have been - then you can bet more brands will go through the testing and certification process for sale here.

A little digression. There has long been a liqeur available called "absente". If you go in to a liquor store and ask for absinthe, this is probably what they're gonna give you. It even happened to me tonight at a store that actually carries Lucid - they first pointed me towards the absente. Absente is not absinthe. (Neither is "Czech Absinth", by the way.) Absinthe must be made with grande wormwood or it's not absinthe, and absente is not. It's made with southern wormwood. This herb has no thujone (hence its legality) and it tastes different. It would be like making wine with, I dunno, pomegranates instead of grapes. They're both berries, but that doesn't mean they're the same. It wouldn't be wine, it would be some sort of fermented pomegranate juice.

There's a full "ritual" that goes along with drinking absinthe, and it involves creating a "louche" by pouring water over a special slotted spoon into a special glass full of just the right amount of absinthe. Absinthe glasses often have individual chambers showing just how much of each ingredient to pour in, and the slotted spoons are made such that they fit right over the lip of an absinthe glass and allow for a sugar cube to be placed for the water to pour over (the sugar cube is optional).

The louche is important - you can't just drink absinthe straight. Well, you can, but I don't think you'd want to. For one thing, it is extremely strong, both in flavor and in alcohol content - Lucid is 62% alcohol, or 124 proof. But also, there is a chemical reaction that happens when you add water (as you can see the guys in the movie above doing) that releases the infused herb flavors from the alcohol molecules. It's actually really interesting to watch, because it turns the absinthe from almost crystal clear to a milky white (or green). I've never seen a drink where adding clear water changes the liquid from clear to opaque.

We haven't bought our accessories yet, so we had to just use wine glasses and a fork. Kinda low rent. Worked well enough, though.

Here's a glass of straight Lucid absinthe:

You can see it's not really bright green, almost more of a dull yellow. Some absinthe is greener, but anything that's really bright like in the movie still above is artificial. (I'm sure they're really drinking Hi-C or something anyway.) There is artificially-colored absinthe out there, and I'm not gonna say there's anything wrong with it, but I prefer my things natural. Neither of the legal absinthes in the United States are bright green. From what I've seen, Lucid's pretty typical color for a natural verte or "green" absinthe, though - you could think it was greenish tinted, and I could see where the drink would get a reputation for being green based on this. But it's obviously been exaggerated over the years.

Here we are making the louche. I think next time we're not gonna use sugar... it probably depends on the absinthe whether you'd want to or not. Lucid's pretty sweet even with the tiny bit of sugar we used (only the very top of the cube dissolved in the water).

You're probably wondering at this point what it tastes like. Well, the most prominent flavor is anise, which is like liquorice. To me, it tastes pretty similar to J├Ągermeister, which I always associated with college frat parties. I'm not sure if I like it yet. You only need to use a tiny bit in each glass, so I've still got plenty of the bottle left to decide.

And how's the buzz? Well, no hallucinations, I'll tell you that. It does feel somewhat different from being drunk on alcohol alone, though. It's a heavy feeling; it's like feeling drunker than you really are. I felt pretty trashed after finishing a glass, but I was able to talk normally and move around normally, so I wasn't really that drunk. I will say that it was a little disappointing, though - I'm still here, not in any insane asylum. And I wrote this only a couple hours after drinking it - does this sound like the ramblings of a drunk person suffering from hallucinations? (Wait, maybe I really am in an insane asylum!)

There are some who say that it's absinthe with high thujone levels that can cause hallucinogenic effects, and that's what sets them apart from brands like Lucid. There's a big debate about this, though, because there's no evidence to support it, and like I said, there's plenty of hard physical evidence now that popular historical brands of absinthe had very low thujone levels. It's thought more likely that it was cheap brands of absinthe laced with artificial chemicals that caused these and other side effects.

Oh well, so the legends probably aren't true. Just another one of my young adult fantasies dashed! But still, you know what? I love the history, I love the ritual. I'm gonna try to make myself like this stuff.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Best Ramen in New York City

Or at least, the best I've had.

Let's review. So far, we've been to:

Minca on 5th St. between A and B
Menkui-tei on 54th St. between 5th and 6th
Setaga-ya (haven't written that one up yet) on 1st Ave. between 8th and 9th
Menchanko-tei on 55th St. between 5th and 6th
Ippudo, on 4th Ave. and 10th St., which wasn't open at the time I originally wrote this. More on them later.

There are actually two "ramen districts" in NYC - one around the East Village, another lesser-known one in midtown. The midtown restaurants are actually more authentic, and less trendy.

This is Menchanko-tei, again. We went back, just like I said we would, and this time I got the Hakata ramen.

It's pretty much exactly what I want from ramen. Pork bone-based broth that's rich but not too thick or salty, then your basic thin, firm but not too firm noodles, pork, scallions and a couple other vegetables I can't quite identify. There are a lot of noodles in there too - I was stuffed after eating it. It's not piled high like the bowl I had at Yo! Teko-ya in Tokyo (go on, click that link if you haven't seen it, it's pretty awesome), but it's still pretty full up with food. The pork was nice and tender, not too fatty, the vegetables all crunchy - not like they'd been sitting in the broth for weeks.

My wife got the miso ramen:

Now, about Ippudo, which seems to currently be the ramen shop with the most buzz. And in some ways, I can see why. The dining room is very trendy - which Menchanko-tei most certainly isn't. Ippudo's broth is maybe slightly richer and more flavorful. I'd say overall they were pretty equivalent.

But there are a few things I didn't like about Ippudo: the noodles and the quantity of ingredients. Also, no gyoza! This is a sin. (In fact, their menu overall is pretty simple, not that that's necessarily a negative.) Their noodles are obviously dried - they were still dry when they were served to me, and they never fully softened. (Menchanko-tei's may be dried as well, but I couldn't tell if they were.) And both my wife and I only got two small pieces of pork in our soup, and hardly any vegetables. Their ramen is basically just broth and dried noodles. It tastes really good, but it's a little unsatisfying in the end. And all that tips the scales in Menchanko-tei's favor.

But Ippudo is most definitely the best ramen in the Village area. If you're down there and don't feel like trekking up to midtown, hit Ippudo.

A little backstory on ramen broth: there are different types of broth, some of them more or less popular in different regions. Hakata ramen is popular in Hakata, Fukuoka, of course. Tokyo is more of a shoyu (soy sauce base) town. Miso's popular up north, around Sapporo. It's also my wife's favorite, even though she's from the Tokyo area. Most of the ramen restaurants in New York will do all types of ramen broth, although not all equally well. I'm basing my qualitative judgments on Hakata ramen, although my wife has agreed with my rankings.

Every time we go to a ramen shop in New York, we seem to do a little better. Our first time out was a huge disappointment. But each successive restaurant has been at least as good and in most cases better than the last. If you do go to Menchanko-tei, just make sure you order something on the menu that's actually called "ramen" - their own special noodle dishes, while good in their own right and also ramen (just their own style), aren't really what I expect from traditional ramen noodles.

UPDATE: If you've been here before, you know that Menchanko-tei had a problem with their liquor license for a while. That's sorted now. The beer is back!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Radio City Christmas Spectacular

Last night, we went to see the Rockettes. Ok, we really went to the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, but come on. Nobody goes to that to see the sheep and the donkeys. They go to see the Rockettes.

I've never gone before because frankly I'm a football-watching heterosexual male, and anyway I've always thought it was a show for tourists. There are a lot of things tourists do in New York that New Yorkers wouldn't be caught dead doing. Hanging out in Times Square, for example (on New Year's Eve or any other day). Buying electronics at shady shops along 6th Avenue. Going to one of Disney's theatrical shows. In my mind, I put the Radio City Christmas Spectacular in that same category.

But, you know, there are things you do when you get married.

In some ways, I was right. It is a show for tourists, and there's a lot of fluff and a lot of filler. But that doesn't make what the Rockettes do any less impressive. They are amazing to watch. And it does feel like a pretty authentic New York experience; I mean you can feel the history both in the hall and in some of the dance numbers.

I honestly wasn't completely sure what to expect. I've seen the Rockettes on TV, of course, doing their leg kicking thing. I somehow got the idea, which I think is probably pretty common, actually, that that's pretty much all they do. I wondered how this could be exciting for an hour and forty minutes.

But it's not all they do. They are incredible dancers, both individually and together. I have a huge amount of respect for them now that I've seen the show. They dance incredibly complex routines, in perfect synchronization and in a number of different styles, from jazz to tap to ballet to can-can to, I dunno, what I can only call "Solid Gold". (Truthfully, their last number is straight out of the 80's.) These routines are incredibly long, incredibly detailed and occasionally outright dangerous.

It's tough to find any videos on YouTube that don't just focus on the kick line that ends most of the dance numbers... this is one of the few there are, showing part of their tap routine:



One of their most gasp-inducing acts isn't a dance at all, but the moment when all 36 of them fall like slow-motion dominoes at the end of the "March of the Wooden Soldiers". You can see a video of this here. (Sorry, the poster has disabled embedding.) You can see that the one bearing the brunt of the weight has to be propped up by four or five Rockettes behind her - these are muscular girls, and that's probably about 700 or 800 lbs. worth of Rockette being crunched together at the front of that pile!

Unfortunately, at the show we went to, one of them fell during one of the kick lines. It was so quick that my wife missed it - she just got right back up and kept going. It was pretty jarring to me, though, because they were so perfect otherwise. But they are human beings, and they can slip and they can fall. I don't think this happens very often, though... so I guess I should think of it as seeing something pretty rare.

As I was watching, I kept wondering to myself how this show hasn't been shut down through some misguided attempt at political correctness. These women are all highly skilled dancers, but let's be honest - part of the attraction is obviously just seeing a bunch of hot chicks in skimpy outfits doing eye-high leg kicks over and over. It's dead sexy in a classy, wholesome sort of way. It's like a Vegas show but it's marketed to families. I don't really understand how it's survived, but I'm happy it has. A lot of it feels like a throwback to an era when New York was both glamorous and unsanitized. The producers have even tried to retain as much of the original 1930's art deco styling of both the hall and the costumes as they can. And my wife found this "fun stuff" down by the womens' bathroom:


I guess those are probably some of their historical costumes. They didn't wear those last night, but they wore similar things.

Anyway, I really doubt you could start a show like this today in a major concert hall and have it be a long-running mainstream success. Which is a shame!

I do have some major nits to pick, though.

The scenes between dance numbers feel like they exist for no reason other than to give the Rockettes some time to breathe and change into a different outfit. I'm sure that really is true, but they could at least give some lip service to an attempt at some sort of story, to some half-decent songs, or to some good actors. The entire show outside of the dance numbers feels like a really, really cheesy afterschool special, revolving as it does around a jaded 14 year old kid who no longer believes in Christmas or Santa Claus. The songs in these scenes actually reminded me a lot of the music in the play written for "Waiting for Guffman" - if you've seen the movie, then you know that's not really a good thing.

I also was not a fan of some of the more obvious modern updates... there's a fairly long animated 3D scene (yes, 3D glasses and all) that feels gratuitous and unnecessary in a live show, and many of what I'm sure used to be traditional sets have now been replaced by digitally-projected backgrounds that just look cheap; like bad CGI animation projected with an outdated projection system. Come on guys, no shortcuts - build some actual sets.

And they do need to update that last number, especially since it closes the show. The classic stuff all works because it's classic; I'm not sure anything from the 80's can qualify as that yet. If they want to keep it modern, that's fine, but make it modern for this decade. Maybe they can bring the 80's back in 2030 or so.

Still, I loved watching the Rockettes, and I want to go back next year - with hopefully better seats. It's probably even too late to buy seats this year if you're reading this deciding whether or not to go, though maybe you can still get some nosebleeds. They go on sale in April (which we didn't know), so book early for next year.

The 2007 Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

A few people have actually stumbled on my blog this year looking for the New York City Rockefeller Center Christmas tree - instead, they find my own Christmas tree and probably leave disappointed. Well, here you go. This is the real deal.



As always, it's a beautiful tree. It's a little different this year, though; they're using energy efficient light bulbs, probably LED's. Both the tree itself and all the surrounding areas have them. It's a noticeable visual difference, though I wouldn't say it's better or worse. The light just has a little different look; a little bluer, and the lights are smaller but there are more of them.

You can also see it in the surrounding lights:

They don't have that warm yellowish tint like "white" Christmas lights usually do.

My wife and I see the tree every year. It's one of the things we did on the night we first met, so now it's tradition.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Public Service Announcement

This girl is my excellent friend and former co-worker:



Take heed, man. Your local coffee shop is a hotbed of criminal activity.

She's been in other things too - you can check out her reels on her web site here.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Are you watching The Onion video?

If not, then you should be. It only launched a month or two ago, but it's amazing how professional their stuff looks - and how funny it is. (The fact that it looks so real does actually help make it even funnier - it's a perfect parody in every way.)

A couple of my recent faves:


Poll: Bullshit Is Most Important Issue For 2008 Voters



In The Know: Situation In Nigeria Seems Pretty Complex



Medical Miracle: Man Lives Thanks To Heart Stolen From Dead Man


They just recently (like in the last couple weeks) launched "Today NOW!" and that's my favorite video from their small selection so far.

As with any great satire, their videos are hilarious mostly because there's more than a grain of truth in all of them.

Soho House


Earlier this week, my department at work had one of those "offsite brainstorming" meetings that are so popular in corporate culture. I'm not really here to talk about that, though. The nice thing about meetings like this (and they do this on purpose) is that you almost always end up going somewhere that you'd otherwise either a) never be able to afford, or b) never even be allowed into, or c) both. This was definitely an option "c" situation. We went to Soho House.

I'd never heard of Soho House, probably because I am not rich or famous or well-connected. This is one of those members-only clubs, though with a pretty distinct downtown Manhattan style. There is no sign outside. It shares in common with the old "gentlemen's clubs" that to get in at all, you need to be invited by an existing member and seconded by another. Even our corporate group had to be invited - we were the guest of a member who's a VP at my company. The dues are actually not ludicrously expensive ($1,400 per year), but the point is it's just damn difficult to become a member to begin with. And of course the food and drinks are still pretty outrageously-priced, even with the member dues.

There is also a hotel on the other floors that anyone can stay at... if you happen to have $495 a night to start, that is. It goes up from there. And good luck finding a room to book; it seems to be full pretty much all the time. There are only 24 rooms.

They have a roof that you can go to - unfortunately it's December so it wasn't really "open" when we were there, but we went up anyway. Here's the view:

Eh, not that great, but not bad. The Hudson River's off to the right, which is probably nice at other times of year. They also have a heated pool and spa up there, which were covered up for winter.

Some of the Christmas decorations:

The layout of the place is strange - it's hard to really get a sense of it in pictures. In the photo at the top, it just looks like a box, but that's only one corner of it. There are these individual rooms like the one above all around, but they're only separated by these glass walls, so the whole place feels totally open and somewhat industrial. It's basically a huge loft space, divided up into distinct areas. Like I said, it's downtown.

The design style is pretty eclectic, with everything from traditional brown leather chairs to retro-60's pieces to ultra-modern, almost IKEA type stuff. The floors are all rustic wood, the ceilings unpainted tin. The main dining room furniture is all natural, heavy wood. The overall effect is modern, but with a lot of authentic period details. Nothing's fake or "faux" anything, although I could probably live without the plastic chairs that pass for high style these days.

Mmmm, the wine collection!

And my co-workers enjoying a drink in the bar area after the meeting:

It was our intern's last day, so we were giving her a proper send-off. It looks like an all male crowd in that photo, but that's just how the picture worked out. There are two girls (and the arm of another) in the picture - see if you can spot them!

I also gotta say that I had a Vodka tonic - my drink of choice - and they had pretty much every brand of high-end vodka you could name. I ended up with Grey Goose, which I gotta admit does go down a lot smoother than Stoli or Absolut or any of the other mass market brands. And I was pretty tipsy after only one drink - which I'd better have been considering it cost about $20! (Not that I was paying.)

I looked around hoping to spot some celebrities, although let's be honest - you can see celebrities in New York just walking down the street. I've literally almost bumped into a few, especially when I actually worked in SoHo (Soho House is named after Soho in London, where it originated - the New York branch is actually in the meatpacking district). I did see a few people at Soho House that definitely looked familiar, but I couldn't quite place them. Probably character actors, theater actors or maybe even just corporate CEO's that I've read about and seen pictures of before.

It is nice to see how the other half lives once in a while, though this place isn't traditional luxury by any stretch. Downtown Manhattan has its own feel; you've seen it in movies and TV shows if you don't live here, it's that "warehouse chic" style that attracts media types and artists of various kinds. Some people who aren't used to it may not even understand the appeal. But it's like anything else; once you get used to it, you learn to separate the high end from the low... and this place is about as high end as downtown Manhattan gets.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Christmas Tree 2007

This weekend is Christmas decorating weekend. We're a little late, but we just got lazy last week, and I've got a policy of not even thinking about Christmas until after Thanksgiving. This is our second Christmas in this house, and our second tree. (Living in apartments, we never had the space before.) Here's Christmas tree 2007:

It's a little smaller than last year's tree, on purpose. Christmas trees are a real pain in the ass to haul around and set up. We just wanted something a little more manageable this year.

For my readers from Japan, that is a real tree. Fake trees are popular here too, but I won't have anything fake in my house. I just refuse. Everything in my house really works and everything is made of real natural materials, in most cases original to 1923. I have a real wood-burning fireplace, I have real wood floors, windows and furniture, and I have a real Christmas tree. This one's a Fraser Fir, just like the one we had last year.

Here it is on the context of the room:

We've also finally got some stockings over our fireplace. First time for that. I feel like we're finally getting to experience all the things normal people in this country experience every single year. It's amazing how many things you go without when you live in a New York City apartment that you don't even realize until you buy a house. Anyway, I'll upload a photo of that later - it's so homey! Feels like Christmas.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Booze Cruise!

Earlier in the week (on a Monday, in fact), my office took a holiday booze cruise. Yeah, just like in "The Office". Except that ours was actually fun, sort of, in that everybody got falling down drunk, and I got to see some of my bosses embarrass themselves on the dance floor. And nobody got put in the brig.

This is what it looks like when you try to take a picture of your boat after having three vodka tonics and about six beers:

Can you at least see a vague outline of the shape of a ship? It was called the ZEPHYR. Which means, I dunno, "fast" or something. But this boat was not fast at all. So, false advertising.

This is what happens when you try to take a picture of the Statue of Liberty from your boat with your cell phone after one vodka tonic and about three beers:

Slightly less bad!

Anyway, that's basically the extent of my visual documentation of the experience. Most of my time was spent drinking vodka tonics and beer. And eating the avalanche of free food that kept putting itself in front of me in the form of servers walking around with little serving trays full of fatty, buttery hors d'oeuvre. First class all the way, baby! It actually was a pretty nice boat, though. And hey, free food and alcohol!

In previous years we'd had our parties at a bowling alley. Which sounds pretty low rent, but the bowling alley we used to go to (Bowlmor Lanes in Manhattan) is a pretty cool bowling alley. They have a full bar and restaurant, they've got neon-lit lanes at night and college student waitresses that roam around the alley dressed up in sexy little Santa elf outfits with mini-skirts and fishnet stockings. In fact, last time we were there, another company was having their party at the same time as us, and I ended up stealing a bunch of their food (by mistake! I thought it was ours).

But one of the girls at my office apparently had a pretty grotesque bowling injury some years back that left her permanently (though not seriously) scarred and she therefore had to sit out.
It sounds strange and funny, and in a way it is, but it's also serious. I won't recount the whole story here for privacy's sake, and also to spare you your lunch. Yeah, it's pretty gross. I'm sure it had some bearing on the movement of the party to a boat.

I wonder if people in other countries have these things. At my office, the holiday party is mandatory. In previous years, that's always been implied, and a few people did end up blowing it off. Those people are STUUUUUUUpid. With a capital "stu". It's all about face time and schmoozing. It's politics. It sucks, it's dumb, but what are you gonna do? It's the way the world works. This year, my company's CEO finally made it clear with an email entitled "Lest there be any doubt..."

Anyway, it's always fun to see a different side of your co-workers - nothing like seeing a guy you've worked with for four years suddenly bust out The Robot!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Scary!

I work in a tall building in New York City. I don't worry much about most things that other people do working in a tall building, especially not terrorism - my building's practically invisible. It's totally unremarkable and would be an almost impossible target anyway (by either land or air).

But this crap drives me crazy - the video's not important here, just listen to the sound:


First of all, it sounds like "The Grudge" (or Ju-On, for you Asian cinema purists) - and I don't mean my co-worker's singing in the background. But I'm not thinking about a ghost coming to kill me, I'm thinking about the goddamn building falling down!

This isn't even that bad. When it gets really windy, it's like being in the hold of a pirate ship during a raging storm.

I know tall buildings are supposed to sway, but jesus. I'm only on the 8th floor! I can't imagine what it must be like up top.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Paramore


Should I be embarrassed for liking this band? Am I bleeding street cred even as I write this post? I honestly don't know. And I really shouldn't care.

(I do, a little bit.)

I'm a little late to this whole Paramore thing, and for all I know, it could be all downhill for them from here. Pop punk bands have a way of not sticking around very long, especially when they get big so young only to flame out just as quickly. Paramore also seems to have signed a pretty ridiculous deal with their record label - any time the record industry hails a deal as being good for business, you know they mean their business... not the artist's.

But they only just started playing them on my local K-Rock, which is what I listen to on the way to the train station in the morning. It's about the only regular outside source of new music I have these days.

Paramore's fans seem to be made up of mostly 12 year old girls. I have a habit lately of getting into bands like this, and it's starting to make me wonder. What kind of music are thirtysomething guys supposed to listen to? I mean I like Nirvana, I like the Foo Fighters, I like the Ramones, I like all those testosterone-driven bands from the 70's through the 90's, when I was growing up. I used to care about stuff like how "real" a band was too. I was pretty militant. Nowadays, I don't even know what "real" means or why it should matter, if the music's good.

And sometimes, I confess I feel like Jerry Seinfeld when he said, "I can't listen to a man sing a song..." In rock music, at least, the male voice is imprecise and brusk. When was the last time you listened to a male-fronted band and said, "I just love his voice"? To paraphrase another quote from Seinfeld, the male voice is utilitarian, it's for gettin' around, it's like a Jeep. Not to say various male vocalists don't fit their bands' style perfectly - Dave Grohl is still my idol - but I can listen to women sing just to hear them sing. I can't do that with a guy.

Paramore's got a re-release of their second album RIOT! that just recently came out, with a DVD and a CD together that contain a butt-ton of bonus material. I just ordered one myself; Amazon's got it for $14.99.

Everybody under the age of 15 has probably seen this a million times, but it was new to me a couple days ago (no, I don't watch much MTV anymore), and I love it:


Paramore - Misery Business
Uploaded by migite

Whatever happens to Paramore in the future, Hayley Williams is a fucking rock star.

UPDATE: MVI DVD received! And I'm honestly happy to hear that "Misery Business" is actually one of the weaker songs on the album. They really rock, and they're no lightweights. This is not straight-ahead pop music, for the most part - there's some real depth in both the performance and the songwriting. I mean they're no Pink Floyd or anything, but there's definitely more here than I would have expected. Most of their songs are not nearly as radio friendly as a lot of modern "emo" bands, though they still have some ridiculously catchy hooks to them. But when Hayley's singing stuff like "This is how we'll stand when they burn our houses down... this is what will be, oh glory", it's pretty obvious this is not just a cheesy pop band singing about bitchy teenage girls.

I've read a lot about them in the past week or two - seems like they take a lot of flak for pretty bullshit reasons. One article I read gave them a back-handed compliment for being "non-threatening", as in "parents don't mind their kids listening to Paramore because they are" - like that's a bad thing. Ignoring the vaguely misogynistic implication of that critique, what is wrong with this country that we think everything needs to be "threatening" to be taken seriously? I think if we figure that out, we'll get to the root of a lot of this country's problems. There's nothing wrong with bands that just want to be fun.

Paramore are definitely young, and they sound it. Even the title of their latest album, "Riot!", is a little trite. Their music and lyrics will mature even further as they get older, assuming they stay together. But I haven't heard this much raw talent in years, throughout the entire band. They're starting out from a point way beyond where most bands end up. I can't wait to hear what they've got in store through the next decade.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Sunday, November 25, 2007

No Country for Old Men


I'm a little late in posting this, but last week my wife and I saw Joel and Ethan Coen's screen adaptation of No Country for Old Men, and the film is definitely an experience worth a few words.

I gotta confess that I haven't read the book. Sometimes that's a good thing when coming into a novel-to-film adaptation, because you don't have any preconceptions of how the characters are supposed to look or which way the plot is supposed to go. Still, everything I've read suggests that this is a pretty faithful adaptation. I really wouldn't know, though - but I'd like to read the book now that I've seen the film.

What I do know is that this film is bleak. Not really in a bad way, but you need to be expecting it. I really wasn't, for some reason, and it was pretty obvious that the crowd of apparent retirees and Tommy Lee Jones fans in the theater with my wife and I weren't either. (We saw it on a weekday; I was on vacation, but most of the people in there with us obviously had every day off.) I overheard lots of people afterwards who clearly missed the entire point of the film and were instead fixated on little plot points that had really nothing to do with anything. I understand why the Coen brothers chose to make this film, because it's similar to many of their own original works where the plot, as complex as it is, is completely secondary to the characters and theme.

The bottom line is a lot of stuff happens in this film, almost all of it bad, and none of it happens for any reason other than to make a point.

Honestly, this is not a good date movie.

You might think this is a departure for the Coens, but it's really a return to form. If you've seen their first feature Blood Simple, then you know what I mean. No Country for Old Men is very similar in a lot of ways - lots of suspense, lots of violence, lots of dark visuals, a morality lesson hanging over everything - but with a much less conventional thriller ending. One other difference between the two films is that Blood Simple's characters were all essentially rational people on opposite sides of the same morality play, whereas No Country for Old Men sports a much darker take on human nature. Here, there exist irrational, psychopathic criminals that cannot be understood, and consequently cannot be stopped.

I think the Coens are probably the greatest filmmakers working today. I don't think they'll be fully appreciated until many years from now, probably not until after they're gone. Blood Simple holds up more than 20 years after its release for its teeth-gritting suspense - I really don't think anyone has done suspense better than the Coens since Hitchcock. Part of their genius is that their suspense scenes are so unpredictable - some end quickly and in surprising ways, others are long and drawn out to an uncomfortable degree. One of the things a film professor I had said about them is that they're among the few filmmakers who understand that human beings are hard to kill. In a Coen brothers film, killing somebody is an ordeal; it takes a long time, it's messy, and it's physically exhausting. That makes the few "easy" kills in their films that much more unexpected.

No Country for Old Men
features both kinds of scenes. It's really vintage Coens. It's not a very fun movie, but then not all of their films are. It's a statement.

Visit the official web site if you need a synopsis or more visual prodding to get you to the theater.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Beer Review: Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout

Something new today, and maybe a regular thing - heck, maybe the genesis of an all-new blog eventually. I'm writing a beer review.

There are plenty of people reviewing beer out there already. Why the hell should you listen to me? You're going to have to judge that for yourself. I will say I think my perspective's probably a little different than most - I'm not the same kind of beer snob that some beer snobs are. I love a good beer, but what is "good beer"? There are definitely things that are pretty easy to objectively measure and still other things that I think we can probably all agree on, but beyond that lies both the nebulous realm of personal taste and the purpose for which you drink beer in the first place. There's nothing wrong with a good lager while watching a football game.

Which brings us to Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout. I picked this up looking for something a little different than the pale lagers I usually keep around. I looked forward to a deep, dark beer, having read well of it at ratebeer.com, the Zagat guide of the beer world. There, it rated 4.04 out of 5, which puts it in the 99th percentile of all beers in the world. (Few beers ever break 4 overall stars, both because there are always reviewers who dislike even the best beers, and because within each review, the 5 star rating is itself an average of five separate criteria.)

Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout is a seasonal beer that's produced in limited runs. It's brewed in Utica like most Brooklyn beer. Like an Imperial Stout, it's intended to keep you warm in winter, and should therefore be drunk at a fairly high temperature - about 55 degrees or so is optimal. Well, my cellar's heated so it's not like I have an easy way to do that, but I did try to drink my first bottle before it had fully cooled in my refrigerator.

I gotta tell you, this is some crazy beer. Crazy. I have never had a beer this strong, and I'm no stranger to stouts.

It definitely looks nice when you pour it:

The head is quite frothy (not tight like a dry stout), with a deep tan color, and the beer itself definitely is jet black and thick. The aroma is almost totally roasted chocolate. It is quite fizzy; a little more than I'd expect from such a husky stout.

The flavor is not anything that I was prepared for. I admit that I'm a little more used to dry stouts than chocolate stouts, and this is one strong chocolate stout in both chocolate and coffee flavors, and in alcohol. Brooklyn Brewery makes a big deal out of using "six types of black, chocolate, and roasted malts" in the making of this beer - and I believe it. It is just overpowering.

It's also a little odd. The flavors just don't quite mesh - it's like pouring a chocolate soda into a dry stout, topping off with some espresso and then adding a flask of ether. All of these flavors remain completely distinct, and all of them are too strong both individually and together.

I have to say that I couldn't finish a bottle. My wife couldn't finish what I left for her.

And here's my rant about ratebeer.com. I looked at the ratings before buying this beer, but I didn't actually read many of the comments. Now, keep in mind their ratings are all out of 5. Take a look at a couple of these comments about Brooklyn Black:
Dark chocolate and burnt coffee taste, heavy and oily.
That guy's rating: 4.2.

Another:
Crazy thick, with lots of alcohol note.
Rating: 3.9.


Since when do comments like "crazy thick" and "burnt coffee taste, heavy and oily" equate with quality in any beverage? If you didn't know they were talking about beer, you'd imagine that must be a pretty disgusting drink.

The big problem I have with ratebeer.com is that the scale most reviewers there use is absolute - the thicker and stronger a beer, the better it is. There is no regard to beer category or style; a lager, being thinner and lighter than a stout, can be the best lager in the world but can never be as good as even a bad stout. Take a look at their top 50 - how many lagers (hell, how many ales) on that list?

Similarly, "light" and dry stouts are considered inherently inferior to Imperial or chocolate stouts, simply because the latter have more flavor. How good that flavor is is almost immaterial. I consider this the equivalent of rating one chef's dish more highly than another because it has more salt.

(My theory is that the most experienced reviewers there don't rate this way, but that it's mostly the rookies that do - as they try to show their manliness in drinking and enjoying the strongest beers around. They then have enough influence to skew the results.)

If you're a fan of chocolate stouts, then you probably don't need me to tell you whether or not you should drink this beer. Everybody else should probably avoid it, unless you're either out for adventure, or just a glutton for punishment.

Beer Run

I'm afraid I'm becoming a beer snob. In fact, today we had originally planned to hit up the Brooklyn Brewery for a tour, and just overslept. Plan B took immediate effect.

I used to hate beer - even the good stuff, I just couldn't handle the malt/alcohol flavor. It literally made me gag. When I was in college, I drank it to get drunk and I drank it fast, so I'd drink the cheapest, worst shit you can think up - I remember junk like Yankee beer, Czech Rebel, and Crazy Horse malt liquor. There was one brand - I can't think of the name right now - that was $4 per case. What the hell, the good stuff didn't taste any better to me.

10 years on and all that's changed. In fact, I'm becoming more than just a beer snob, I'm becoming some sort of meta beer snob. I think most of the other beer snobs rating beer on places like ratebeer.com are idiots; I don't think they have any idea what a good beer is even supposed to be, I think the whole conception they're operating under is just wrong. I'll explain in a later post (it's gonna get too specific if I do it here; I don't want to be reviewing beers right now.) The point I'm making here is that today, we went on an old-fashioned college beer run. A 30 mile beer run. That's how far out of the way we were willing to go to find a place that sold Hitachino Nest beers. Oh, and some other stuff:

McSorley's is one of our "default" beers; we buy it just to have some beer around. It's pretty inoffensive, but still has some decent flavor. It's Budweiser for beer snobs. I'm pretty sure this is supposed to be the beer they serve at the (in)famous McSorley's Ale House in New York City, hangout to New Jersey frat boys everywhere. I've been there, and it does taste similar to their "light" beer. The other stuff in the box is three kinds of Hitachino beer and six-packs of Hoegaarden, Brooklyn Brown Ale and Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout.

I'm gonna talk about all of these in individual blog posts, but just a few general things right now...

We actually have a good beer store right near us (it's where we bought the McSorley's), and they sell everything we've got here except the Hitachino.

It's pretty great having a place like this close by. I didn't even know places like this really existed before moving to Long Island - it's like a liquour store but just for beer. They carry brands from all over the world - just not Hitachino Nest. For that, we made the long (but interesting!) trek out to Shoreline Beverage in Huntington.

What's so special about Hitachino? Well, I'll tell you in my upcoming post about it. One of the things is that it's brewed right near where my wife's from:


As for the other beers we bought, Hoegaarden is probably the beer that started me down the path to beer snobbery, and I've only ever had it on tap before. I haven't actually drunk it in years now, so I'm not sure it's really as good as I remember - but it was the first beer I'd had that actually had some flavor other than malt and hops and alcohol.

And of course we had to get some Brooklyn beers, given that we'd planned on taking the brewery tour today. The Brooklyn Brewery is a really interesting company - really young (only since 1988), but already making some world-class beer. Most of their stuff is actually brewed in Utica, not Brooklyn, but they do brew about 30% of their beer in their namesake borough. Their standard Brooklyn Lager is now sold pretty much everywhere throughout the country and at all types of stores, and it's probably the best beer you can buy in a supermarket (that includes the major imports). If you don't live near a real "beverage store", then you really ought to try a Brooklyn Lager from your supermarket sometime. It's a real beer, and American, no less!

We wanted to try some of their other stuff, though, hence the Brown Ale and the Dark Chocolate Stout, which were rated pretty highly on ratebeer.com. The stout, for its part, has a rating of 4.04 out of 5, which is very high for that site (puts it in the 99th percentile) considering it's a pretty tough crowd and it's an average of all user reviews. Not many beers ever break the 4 star mark there - in fact, not coincidentally I'd probably say only about 1% ever do.

I'll put up some mini-posts on my thoughts about all of these beers over the next couple days. I will just say that so far, I'm not agreeing with ratebeer.com on much.

Portable GPS - how did I ever live without this??

Before we moved out to the "inner suburbs", my wife and I - and just I before that - lived in the middle of New York City. A lot of you probably know the old adage that New Yorkers don't drive, and it's true. I was born in New York and I've lived there off and on for a total of about 20 years, and for about 19 of those years I did not own a car. Every time I did break down and buy one, I realized why I didn't have one before and promptly sold it within just a few months. $1,000 worth of parking tickets and a $4,000 suspension repair bill will do that to you.

For most people, transportation in New York City consists of the subway. And while I know the NYC subway can be confusing for people new to the city, the fact is still that any given train goes to the same place every time you get on it. When you step on an "A" train, you don't generally have to worry about where it's going - it's going the same place it went yesterday and the day before that. Whole areas are defined by what subway line they're on. When you ask someone where they're from and they tell you a neighborhood that sounds unfamiliar, the common follow-up question is "what train do you take?" And if an area has no subway line, well, it's "the middle of nowhere" - even in New York City!

So when we moved out to Long Island, we were pretty unprepared for real freedom of movement, and having to actually find our own way everywhere. My wife's from a rural area so she's a bit better at it than me, but she doesn't know this area very well either. So we were like the stereotypical couple pulled over on the side of the road, lost and fumbling with maps on almost every trip. Finally, a couple of weeks ago, after getting lost on the way to an unfamiliar car dealer (our automobile needed some fixin') and ending up two hours late for our service appointment, I resolved to buy a portable GPS unit.

Long story short, I ended up with a refurbished Magellan Roadmate 2200T. My budget was quite low, and this model had text-to-speech (it pronounces street names), which most budget models don't. So far, it's awesome. I wrote up a full review at Epinions here, but the condensed, big-picture version is that this is a life-changing device. We're taking trips we never would have before, seeing and doing things just for the hell of it that just seemed impossible. Today, we went to a beer store 30 miles away in a town we'd never been to before, just to buy beer. (More on that later.) I mean, we feel like we can go anywhere and do anything now.

Someday, people like us are gonna be telling our grandkids about the olden days when we actually drove around not knowing where the hell we were or how to get where we were going. And our grandkids are gonna look at us with wide eyes and go "wow!" (Or, more likely, they're gonna tell us to shut up so they can concentrate on their video games.) Eventually, everybody's gonna have one of these things - it's gonna be standard equipment in both cars and in cell phones and probably other kinds of devices too. It's just such an incredibly useful piece of technology.

The good news too is that prices are really coming down. Our 2200T cost $169 refurbished from Buy.com, although you can get new, non-refurb models (though without text-to-speech) from various companies for $199. By next year, I'll bet you'll see one or two for $99.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Siouxsie Sioux - the original high priestess of goth returns

As you stare at this photo, try to reconcile it with the fact that this woman is fifty years old:

Yes, that's Siouxsie Sioux, and yes, that's a new photo. Feel free to click through to the big version for the full effect. I hope I look that good when I'm 50. She looks the same as she did when I saw her live in 1996 and 1991. She looks fantastic.

I mean, come on, this shot below was taken almost 30 years ago!

Talk about aging well. She looks better now!

I must have been asleep when word of her budding solo career first broke. So it's old news now, but if you're living a sheltered suburban life like me, you may be interested in knowing that she's got a new album released simply under the name of "Siouxsie" called "Mantaray". There are a few song clips at her official web site here.

I'm glad to see her back on the scene. Maybe she can teach some of these goth posers stinking up the airwaves these days a thing or two.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Guitar Hero

I made this video today to be part of a project that a guitar discussion forum I belong to is putting together, where all the members are recording themselves and taking photos of their guitars and then a guy is going to edit them together and put them on YouTube. But he's only taking the audio (it'll play over the photo), so this video's going to be lost if I don't post it somewhere myself. So, here it is! Just a quick ten seconds or so, proves I can sort of play, at least.


I'm playing my interpretation of the chorus to Chatmonchy's "Tobiuo no Butterfly". I don't think I've quite got it exactly right, but I like the way it sounds anyway :)

And for those of you who are arriving via Google, that is a Japanese (CIJ) Fender Jazzmaster, unmodified. I'm playing it through a little Marshall practice amp with only in-amp distortion applied.

Here's the original song if you want to see what I'm playing (first chorus starts at the -8:03 mark):

Monday, October 29, 2007

New York Ramen Part 2 - Menchanko-tei and Menkui-tei

After our somewhat disappointing visit to Minca a few weeks ago, we've been on a little bit of a quest for good New York ramen. Before we head back downtown to Setaga-ya and maybe one or two others, my wife wanted me to try two midtown ramen shops she likes, Menchanko-tei and Menkui-tei.

I'm happy to report that it is possible to get good ramen in New York, although I honestly still haven't found anywhere that equals Yo! Teko-ya in Odaiba. And the biggest problem is still the beer!

These restaurants are within a block of each other, on 55th between 5th and 6th and 56th between 5th and 6th. (That's a whole lotta 5's and 6's.) This is not a really heavy Japanese area, but it is probably the largest business district in Manhattan, so both shops no doubt get a lot of lunch traffic from both Japanese and American customers. We went both times on a weekend evening, so neither restaurant was all that full. (Menchanko-tei was when we first got there, but it turned out to be one party of about 20 people filling up most of the restaurant. Once they left, it was pretty quiet.) By that time, the office crowd has left for the weekend, and all that remains is mostly local neighborhood foot traffic.


Menkui-tei was up first. This is a pretty dingy-looking place - perfectly authentic, to me! - with a long counter near the kitchen and some pretty basic faux-wood tables along the walls. The decor is pretty low-rent and the facade outside is absolutely filthy, but that didn't bother me - it's pretty much what I expect from a ramen shop anyway. I ordered the spicy ramen, knowing I'd probably regret it, but I just can't resist when I see that on a menu. Here's what it looked like:

The spicy ramen doesn't come with all of the vegetables and other stuff that their regular ramen does. It's got basically pork and scallions, if I remember right. My wife ordered a shio ramen, which has a little more stuff, although it's hard to see it.

My broth was not to be messed around with. It was so spicy that I couldn't even drink it on its own. It tasted really good, though, and as long as I was eating something in the broth rather than the broth itself, it was the perfect amount of spice. The noodles themselves were slightly harder than I'd like and were obviously not fresh, but they weren't bad. The pork was better than Minca's and not as fatty, but it had been stewing in the broth a bit too long and was a little too chewy. I was a little disappointed that I wasn't completely full when we left (I probably should have ordered a ramen dish that came with a bit more "stuff").

Here are the noodles themselves:

I showed some photos from Menkui-tei in my post about my quest for real Japanese beer in New York. This beer problem has become a theme now - ramen almost has to be served with beer and gyoza does too, and I can't seem to find good, or sometimes even any beer at ramen shops in New York.

Tonight, we went to Menchanko-tei, and the first thing we were greeted by was a sign saying they had lost their liquor license. I don't even know how this can happen, but they had absolutely no alcohol of any kind. The sign advised customers to just go and buy it somewhere else and bring it in. The problem is they also have a sign saying they won't seat partial parties during peak hours, so we either had to both go - and delay eating (there was a line at that point, with people behind us) - or just live without it. We decided to live without it, although neither of us were very happy about it. It was Saturday night!

Anyway, Menchanko-tei is actually originally from Japan - Hakata, apparently. It's a small chain that's owned by a parent company that also runs a few other restaurants - including several more in New York, one of which you may have heard was shut down for health violations. No, this is not that Menchanko-tei.

The place looks pretty rustic, and not faux-rustic either. I had some misgivings about whether or not it was actually a ramen place - most of their dishes are not called "ramen", and they have about an equal number of dishes on the menu called ramen as they do called udon (two each, by my count). Still, my wife assured me that everything was ramen, unless it was specifically called udon. (This is apparently a little different than most ramen shops in Tokyo, which serve nothing but ramen or udon, rarely both.)

I ordered the Tori Kara Menchanko - probably kind of a mistake:


Looks pretty good, right? Well, it was pretty good. But I didn't really like any of the stuff I got in the soup - my fault, they have plenty of combinations available and I didn't need to pick this one. Their standard Menchanko ramen comes with scary-looking shrimp still in the shell, so I wanted something else - and the Tori Kara is a fried chicken ramen. Here's the miso ramen, which comes with everything their regular ramen has:

I didn't take a picture of the noodles, but they were very thick. I had my suspicions for a while that it was actually udon, until my wife looked it up and proved to me that what's ramen and what's udon has nothing to do with thickness and everything to do with the ingredients used to make it. But these were some thick ramen noodles. They weren't bad for what they were, they just weren't really my preference.

One thing I didn't like was that the meat and vegetables in the broth had obviously been stewing in there for quite some time. They were not fresh, and the meat was tough while the vegetables were almost gelatinized. I like ramen where the broth is made separately from the rest of the dish, and then it's all combined at the end. That way, the meat stays tender, the vegetables are nice and crisp, and all of the flavors come through.

I will say that the broth at Menchanko-tei was pretty amazing. I drank nearly all of it. No, I don't think it's because they stewed all those ingredients in it. The flavor of their shoyu broth comes mostly from soy sauce, mushrooms, scallops and seaweed - all ingredients not actually in the ramen that they serve. But the downtown ramen shops could probably take a lesson or two from this place in how to make a good broth.

Oh, and I gotta mention the gyoza - this place has some of the best gyoza I've ever had. They were crispy without being crunchy or tough, they held together well when eaten, and they had a really fresh pork taste.

Well, the quest for great New York City ramen continues, although both Menchanko-tei and Menkui-tei are perfectly edible. I have a suspicion that Menchanko-tei is actually the better ramen shop, although I need to go back and order something more to my liking to confirm that.

UPDATE: We went back to Menchanko-tei, and I had the actual "ramen" (everything on their menu is ramen, but they have a few bowls that are actually called ramen). I tried the Hakata Ramen, and I'm pleased to say it's the best ramen I've had so far in New York. It really came close to matching Yo! Teko-ya.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Cecel's Cafe Crepes - finally made it!

You may have read my earlier report on making your own Japanese crepes, where I mentioned being shut out of Cecel's Cafe Crepes. This is the one Japanese crepe shop I know of in Manhattan, so we headed back there this weekend to see if they'd reopened after their "renovations". They had - so what's the verdict?

I think the only grade I can really give is "incomplete". The place was obviously being run by the owner when we were there, and he had a sign up looking for help. He didn't seem all that confident in making crepes himself, and while ours tasted good, the crepes themselves were kind of a mess and they actually had too much stuff. They were a little too sweet and a little too floppy.

He's got a setup that replicates anything you'd see in Tokyo, and he's got the right flavorings, all fresh. (We cooked our fruit when we made crepes at home, but usually in Japan, it's fresh and raw.) He just needs some good crepe makers. I'll try this place again in another month or two and see if he's got himself some help.

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.

About Me

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I'm married. I like to travel. I have no kids. I have a house... that I'm bad at maintaining. I used to collect classic video games. I own a lot of musical equipment that far outstrips my ability to use it. When I was younger, I was in a band. I like gadgets, and I'm an Android guy. Someday, I would like to live on a different planet.

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