Book Review: Sirio

Sirio is the autobiography of Sirio Maccioni, proprietor of the famously exclusive Le Cirque in New York. It begins with his childhood as an orphan in Tuscany during World War II and chronicles his ascent through the ranks of the restaurant industry over five decades and four countries.

I like nice restaurants, and I have a soft spot for a good Horatio Alger story, so I thought it would be a fun read. And I really enjoyed the first half of the book. His tribulations as a busboy and waiter in the postwar restaurant scene, at the verge of the nouvelle cuisine, are interesting social history and a ripping yarn besides. A brush with the forbidden ortolan and chasing down a cruise ship in a Cuban police boat are fun grace notes to the series of ever more responsible jobs that are the hallmark of the up-from-poverty narrative.

Around halfway through, however, with the closing of the famous Colony, where Sirio had been maitre d’, and the opening of Le Cirque, his own venture, the snap begins to fade. In a way, there’s nowhere left to go but down, and the youthful exuberance and relentless progress fades into an endless series of battles with the New York Times restaurant reviewers and his own chefs.

You can’t edit a man’s life, of course, but I would have loved more pages on the scrappy waiter and fewer on the beleaguered restaurateur.

First published on LiveJournal

Saturday night in the barrio

It’s been observed by folks who know the area that Jen and I basically live in the barrio. I think all our neighbors aside from the family in the other half of the duplex are Mexican or Central American, which is pretty typical of large swathes of Redwood City. As I’ve noted before, I think it’s kind of cool living in a town with ample opportunities to eat a taco with brains or tongue. (Not that I do, but I like having the option. As I think about it, I think that’s part of why I wanted to come back to the Bay Area; it’s an excellent part of the world to be in if you like having options that you have no particular desire to pursue.)

I think we’re the edge of something; on our side of the street and to the west, it’s mostly single-family homes. On the other side of our street, it’s mostly mid-grade apartment complexes (I was about to say low-grade, but then I realized they’re not really any more decrepit than the place I managed when we first moved to California. My standards have drifted upwards).

Ordinarily, there’s no special flavor to the neighborhood other than the flock of pushcart ice cream vendors and the guy who sells things resembling the love children of a Cheeto, a pork rind, and a pretzel off the front end of a bicycle. As the weather warms, however, a certain community feel emerges.

Tonight, while I was walking to the local 7-11 for some milk, I discovered that one of the local youngsters (I say this because I’m pretty sure he was younger than me; anywhere from 15 to 25 would have been possible) has converted his garage into a streetside pimp lounge. Mood lighting, frathouse-grade couch, warm colorful fabrics draped over everything — the whole nine yards. And it’s a garage that opens to the street. He and his friends were just lounging around, one of them freestyling to a beat they had running.

Across the street, some kids were doing doughnuts on a motorized Big Wheel; meanwhile, some of the grownups in the same complex were doing the same thing.

I like this neighborhood.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Review: Bluewater Grill

888 El Camino Real
Menlo Park, CA 94025

Bluewater Grill is a nice-looking seafood place along the route by which I take Jen to work, and on several occasions we’ve said, “We should go there sometime”. Well, tonight we finally got around to it. And this is not your grandfather’s seafood restaurant.

Oh, wait. Yes it is.

The food wasn’t bad, mind you. It was just … unexciting. The free bread was an uninspired sourdough. It was warm, which was nice, but the crust was unexciting and chewy and the crumb was uniform and bland.

We ordered wine and appetizers to start with; Jen had a glass of Pinot Grigio and a cup of clam chowder, and I had a glass of Riesling and a bay shrimp cocktail. The waitress warned us that the Riesling was sweet, but I like sweet wines (what can I say? I’m a wuss). Jen’s wine was good, and the clam chowder was tasty but very rich. My shrimp cocktail was also good, though I probably would have eased up on the cocktail sauce a little. I’m not sure what to think about my Riesling. I now understand what they mean by wines having “apple notes”, because my wine tasted like cider. This was OK — I like cider — but it was a little weird. Still, so far so good.

In passing, I want to note that there was a massive box of Old Bay on our table.

For the entree, I ordered grilled catfish, and Jen ordered scallop and shrimp skewers. We both got sliced tomatoes and sauteed spinach as sides, because we are people on a diet, not professional food critics. And here is where Bluewater Grill didn’t come through for us.

The spinach was OK, but swimming in oil, which made it a little unctuous for my taste. The tomatoes were quite good; firm and sweet and huge. Should you go, I recommend the sliced tomato side. Alas, my catfish was profoundly bland. It was cooked well — tender and moist. Just deeply uninteresting. You would never know it was grilled. Jen’s skewers, meanwhile, were similarly bland. It took a while to find any evidence of grilling on the scallops, and the pieces of seafood were spaced on the skewer with unappealing squares of bacon, charred at the edge and underdone at the center. Judging from the look of the food, they used the exact same seasoning on the catfish, the scallops, and the shrimp. That just doesn’t seem right.

We also had to ask three times for water, which was annoying.

In the end, Bluewater Grill seems to have good-quality ingredients, but not a lot of ingenuity in putting them together. If I were to go again, I’d focus on dishes where the flavor of the seafood itself is paramount. The shrimp cocktail was good, and I’d bet the raw bar might be tasty too. More assertive fish like salmon might also fare better with their chef.

Food Review: Mulligan’s

2650 Broadway
Redwood City

It turns out to be very difficult to review a bacon cheeseburger. It’s hard to pick what distinguishes a particular bacon cheeseburger from the many I’ve had in the past. However, I discovered this after I’d already ordered my meal at Mulligan’s, so I’d best make my best effort nonetheless.

They make a good bacon cheeseburger at Mulligan’s. It’s got a good heft to it. The bacon is good and thick. They cook it medium rare when you order it medium-rare. The beef is good quality and well-seasoned. They put mushrooms on mine; I’m not clear on whether that’s standard. Indeed, I wish they hadn’t. The mushrooms added unnecessary moisture to an already juicy burger. The wetness was in fact my only real complaint; I like a juicy burger, but I prefer not to be juggling napkins while I’m eating because my food is oozing onto my hand and I can’t put the burger down because the plate is covered in drippings. I think the mayonnaise was a contributor here as well. I like mayo on burgers sometimes, but mayo’s main value in sandwiches is as a moistener, and this burger was in no need of extra moisture.

I ordered a side salad. It was unexciting — green lettuce with some tomato and cucumber and a watery Italian dressing — but I don’t expect salad perfection from a bar/restaurant with seven TVs of football on.

Jen ordered the French dip. She said it was pretty good; the beef was not at all gristly, and they toasted the bun, which was a nice touch. However, Mulligan’s is one of the places where they put cheese and onion on a French dip, which Jen thinks makes the sandwich bitter and interferes with the true French dip experience.

She got fries as a side; I wish I’d followed her lead. The fries were crispy but not overdone — very tasty. A little salty, perhaps.

Each entry was, as I recall, $7.95, with the side included. On the whole, it was a reasonably good dining experience. There are a lot of places you can get decent bar-style food for eight bucks, but Mulligan’s is as good as most of them, and if the urge strikes while you’re in Redwood City, there’s no reason not to stop in.

Originally published at LiveJournal

Food Review: US Chinese Food

2490 El Camino Real
Redwood City, CA

I have a taste for bad Americanized Chinese food. I credit it to the year when a New Haven hole in the wall called Main Garden was my source for several meals every week. As such, I tend to hunt down low-end Chinese food wherever I go, in hopes of finding food both tasty, ample, and dirt, dirt cheap.

US Chinese Food isn’t a bad entry in the field. It’s a cheery, brightly-lit place as steam table cafeteria-style restaurants go; it lacks the plasticized aura of Mr. Chau’s (a local Chinese fast food chain, for those outside the Peninsula area). A combination plate, which includes an entree and either chow mein or fried rice (or half and half), is $3.95. The service is friendly and quick, and the food is pretty fresh for steam table food (they do one thing I haven’t seen before: they wrap half of each large tray in plastic wrap, thus staving off the inevitable drying out).

I had beef broccoli this time out. It was good, but not exceptional. The beef was fine; not delicious, but not rubbery or unappetizing. The broccoli was surprisingly fresh-tasting. Most steam table beef broccoli has been steamed to within an inch of its life, and this entry was actually firm and crunchy. I would have been a bit happier with this development if they’d used less stem; fresh crunchy florets are great, but you want broccoli stem a little more thoroughly cooked. The sauce was OK. Sweet and unassertive.

I got half and half for my starches. The chow mein was good — greasy, but that’s to be expected. My only complaint is that the noodles were a little…institutional. They were square, and a little doughy. Very filling. The fried rice was mediocre; nothing was specifically bad, but there was a flavor to it that just didn’t seem right. (It’s surprising to me that relatively few restaurants around here make good fried rice. Gin Mon back in Belmont made a darn good fried rice, and I’ve been to a couple places up in SF that were good, but a good fried rice seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Safeway used to make a decent pork fried rice, but these days they only seem to have chicken fried rice, which is not as good.)

Jen got the General Chicken (one of the peculiarities of modern Chinese food is that there seems to have been a consensus, at least here in the Bay Area, to drop the whole debate about how to spell Tso/Tsao/Cho/Mo/whatever and just call the spicy-sweet fried chicken bits dish General Chicken. Better than Default Chicken, I guess). The general consensus is that it was pretty good. Not very spicy, and probably would be better if it were fresher; this tends to be generally true of fried chicken dishes in steam table restaurants. Jen agreed that the starches were unexciting; the square noodles seemed to bug her more.

Still, when all is said and done, it’s a decent Chinese lunch for 4 bucks a head, and the portions are quite hefty. They don’t take credit cards, but they have an in-house ATM. They have tables in the store if you want to eat in, and they have parking in back. I suspect I’ll be going back the next time I get the yen for a big mess of cheap Chinese.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Food Review: Tacos El Grullense

El Camino Real at James
Redwood City

Tacos El Grullense is a small, scuzzy-looking taco stand near the Redwood City Caltrain station. In accordance with the Law of Taco Stands, therefore, it has really good food.

The menu is simple: tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and tortas pretty much exhaust the options. Lest you think you’re in some sort of downscale Taco Bell, however, they offer many of the more exotic Mexican meats — sesos, tripas, and the like. (That’s brains and intestines, for the non-Spanish-speaking readers)

Jen got three beef tacos, for a dollar each. They were small, maybe three inches across, but the price was right, and I’m told they were excellent.

I got a torta, for $3.75. Tortas are Mexican sandwiches — not entirely unlike a taco on a grilled roll rather than a tortilla. They’re really good; tortas have become my measure of a Mexican place in the last few years. This may shed light on why I don’t like Chevy’s; they don’t have ’em.

The Tacos El Grullense torta is really, really good. The roll is a nice hefty round number, probably a good six inches across, grilled to just the right point between crispness and chewiness. The onions, lettuce and tomato are nice and fresh. And the beef is superb. Seasoned and grilled to perfection, and chopped coarsely. The salsa is excellent, too; hot enough to leave a low burn in your mouth, but not hot enough to make you stop eating.

Unusually for a torta, it doesn’t come with sour cream or guacamole. I was a little disappointed at first, but it does make the dish healthier, and I didn’t miss the fatty goo when all was said and done. The only real downside is that the beef is chopped small enough that some is prone to fall out; a saucier torta avoids that.

On the whole, however, I was mightily pleased. Good Mexican food for less than five bucks including drinks (sodas are a dollar each), close to home. I’ll definitely be going back to try some different dishes and different meats.

Probably the carnitas, though.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Holistic Technology: What’s Wrong with This Machine?

I decided to write this column after working as a hardware sales consultant for a year. Lengthy exposure to people’s concerns and complaints about their computers has led me to the belief that the biggest problem that people face in putting computers and other machines to good use is not a problem of user interface, nor a problem of intrinsic design. The problem is that people hate their computers.

They like what their machines do for them, but on a deep and abiding level, they hate the malicious chunk of metal and plastic with which they are compelled to interact in order to get the good stuff, and they fear the unpredictable ways in which it may cause them trouble. This creates what they call in personal-growth circles “bad energy”. As a result, people spend their computer time stewing in their own bad vibes, which impairs their ability to deal with problems which may arise as well as their ability to be productive with the machine in any way.

There is an ongoing effort to make computing more and more inoffensive, in an attempt to alleviate people’s technophobia. For the majority of users, however, the problem is not technophobia but misotechny — hatred of machines, not fear. No matter how non-threatening and easy to use you make a computer, misotechny will still stand between people and their machines.

Most people are smart enough to understand and learn computer skills far beyond the level of most users. The problem is that they don’t want to. They don’t feel they should have to. Psychological obstacles prevent them. What we need, therefore, is skills for overcoming people’s hatred of their machines, so that they can devote their energies to making their computers help them do whatever they want them to do.

This column exists to take a few steps in that direction. It’s aimed at the basic user trying to establish a better relationship with their tools, but I think anyone who works with computers may find something interesting from time to time. There will be a little bit of theory, a little bit of philosophy, and a little bit of technical advice. With a little luck, we can all learn to groove with our machines.