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


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.

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.


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