Archive for December, 2009

La Grenouille

December 23, 2009 Leave a comment

[Christopher Smith, The New York Times]

In my short post two Mondays ago about my parents’ 68th anniversary, I mentioned that they would be celebrating the next day at La Grenouille. They did, and they had a wonderful time. A week later — what do you know — La Grenouille is the subject of the weekly NYT restaurant review, its first NYT review since Ruth Reichl wrote about it in 1997. Sam Sifton, like Ruth, gives it three stars. And he writes a love letter to the city’s lone remaining great traditional French restaurant. I can’t resist quoting a couple of passages.

Back in the kitchen, the executive chef, Matthew Tropeano, spoons forcemeat pike into simmering broth. He naps the result with sauce and gives the plates to waiters who have known no other service. They present their customers a paragon of quenelles de brochet in the Lyonnaise style, a textbook example of classic French cuisine.

The dish is executed perfectly, a kind of beige-on-beige masterpiece devoid of irony or deconstructionist camp. (Only those without heart would call it gefilte fish.) It is delicious without being overwhelming, without being much more than ethereal pike, light as mist, buttery rice, a shellfish cream sauce with just a hint of nutmeg, a dab of American caviar. It is wonderful to eat at La Grenouille.

And the closing passage:

Let us stay happy through the end of this meal. Wise diners will, as they order the sole, also ask for the preparation of a soufflé for dessert, perhaps the one scented with Grand Marnier. (The unwise will ask for tarte Tatin and receive a wan example in return.)

During the winter of 1997, when La Grenouille was just 35, Ruth Reichl wrote in the restaurant’s most recent review in these pages that it was not for nothing that a parade of soufflés crosses the dining room each evening. “I don’t think there is a better soufflé in New York,” she wrote, and awarded three stars.

That is still the case. It is a magic-trick dessert, a dreamlike concoction from the night kitchen: perfection unsullied. And it stands, in its way, for the importance of La Grenouille. This is the bastion now. It is worth the expense to put on your best and experience it. It is part of why you are here.

I had the pleasure of eating at La Grenouille with my parents decades ago. I remember the gorgeous dining room, but not the food. Time to return. And see also the slide show with additional commentary from Sifton.

Categories: Restaurants

Near Miss

December 23, 2009 Leave a comment

[Roland Halbe, NYT]

The current New Yorker has a piece by John Seabrook about famed architect Zaha Hadid. In the print edition are photos of her, her recently-opened MAXXI building in Rome, and the still-to-be-built Aquatics Center for the 2012 London Olympics. Additional photos can be seen as part of the accompanying audio slide show at the New Yorker website.

The MAXXI is the National Museum of the XXI Century Arts, set just north of the center of Rome in the Flaminia neighborhood. It opened on November 12, a Thursday, our last full day in Europe. We had left Rome the previous Saturday, the 7th, and left Italy altogether on the night of Tuesday the 10th on the overnight train to Paris. So we missed all the excitement, just barely. Not just the opening, but the coverage as well.

Nicolai Ouroussoff, the NYT architecture critic, had a review on the 12th, with yet another slide show. He wrote:

Maxxi, which opens to the public on Saturday for a two-day “architectural preview,” jolts this city back to the present like a thunderclap. Its sensual lines seem to draw the energy of the city right up into its belly, making everything around it look timid. The galleries (which will remain empty of art until the spring, when the museum is scheduled to hold its first exhibition) would probably have sent a shiver of joy up the old pope’s spine. Even Bernini, I suspect, would have appreciated their curves.

The completion of the museum is proof that this city is no longer allergic to the new and a rebuke to those who still see Rome as a catalog of architectural relics for scholars or tourists.

i wish we had known to walk over to the museum. It wasn’t far from where we stayed. Indeed, the Hotel de Russie is just two buildings south of the Piazza del Popolo, on the north side of which sits the Flaminian Gate, the northern entry to ancient Rome, with historic Via Flaminia running north from there. A 2.5 kilometer walk up the Via Flaminia and to the left would have taken us to MAXXI.

Oh, and not only that, but we just missed Hadid herself. From the New Yorker article, we learn that “Hadid arrived in Rome three days before the MAXXI’s opening ceremony, … ensconcing herself in the luxurious Hotel de Russie, just off the Piazza del Popolo.” Darn. That would have been fun.

Categories: Architecture, Travel

Alpha to Zulu

December 20, 2009 Leave a comment

Two weeks ago, I wrote a short post drawing attention to a post by Mark Liberman at Language Log. Underlying his post (and mine, though I didn’t have much to add) is the standard letter code used in radio communications, the one in which a word or name is attached to each letter — alpha to ‘a’, bravo to ‘b’, and so on.

I always wanted to commit the code to memory. I figured it would be handy. I love listening to flight controllers using it when I fly United. (You know, you can plug in headphones on planes with audio systems and listen on channel 9, provided the pilot lets you, as the controllers whose frequency the pilot is on tell planes what to do. “Delta 823, descend to 7000 and head 120. United 35 heavy [That’s us!] descend to 3000, follow the 757 ahead of you, cleared for landing.” Or whatever. I can never get Gail to listen. It’s great to hear a change in your heading, then feel the plane bank and descend. And then, when you land and switch over to the controllers in charge of taxiing, they tell you to taxi to Bravo Romeo 60, or some such thing. I could be a better listener if only I knew the code.

Not only that, I would know what to say on the phone when I have to spell something or recite letters. This just happened last night, when I was talking to a JetBlue representative about Joel’s cancelled flight and she asked for the flight’s confirmation number. Well, it’s not a number. It’s six letters. But she must have known that, so I didn’t argue that it’s not a number. I read the letters. And when I said ‘D’, she heard ‘B’. What to do. I said “D as in Denver”. Why Denver? If only I thought to say “Delta”.

I will now. This afternoon, I typed out the list of code words, printed it out, and worked on memorizing it. My memory has generally served me well over the years, but not when it comes to straight memorization of lists like this. I can repeat details of conversations with accuracy. I can’t learn song lyrics or poems. I can name the US presidents in order, but I have a context for that. History. Thanks to a very coarse knowledge of US history, I know not only the presidents but when their terms began and ended. A list of 26 random words and names is more of a challenge for me.

I wasn’t making much progress until Gail got home from Costco. I gave her the list and had her test me. I failed miserably. Then I took back the list, suggested that she try, and she proceeded to out-do me. We went back and forth on it, and after our practice session, I could do it. This is great. Now I can’t wait for my next opportunity to read out letters to someone on the phone.

Next up: memorize the 32 teams in the 2010 World Cup soccer draw, in their eight groups of four. After the draw was set a couple of weeks ago, I printed it out and posted it above my desk at home. The countdown clock at the official website tells me that I have 171 days and 18 hours to complete my task.

Categories: Language, Sports, Travel

Fin du Programme

December 19, 2009 Leave a comment

Joel is on his way home now, after 16 weeks abroad. We’re not sure when he’ll make it, thanks to the snowstorm on the east coast, but in an hour he should reach Boston. And his return weekend began just as his departure weekend did, with Friday lunch at Rover’s. Sixteen weeks ago, Joel joined us at the last of our roughly bi-weekly summer lunches there. The next day, he flew overnight to JFK and on to Boston, and a day later he flew overnight to London and on to Paris. We hadn’t been back to Rover’s since, but yesterday we went again with friends from Tacoma. Jett discovered my blog last month and thereby discovered Rover’s as well. She was eager to try it, so we went with her and John. As we went to sleep last night, Joel would have been starting his journey from Grenoble to Lyon, where he was to fly to London, wait 4 hours then fly to Boston. It’s amazing how little snow has fallen in Grenoble. Or maybe it isn’t amazing, but it’s been a surprise to us. Unfortunately, snow fell today, which perhaps is why his flight out of Lyon was 1 1/2 hours late. Still, he had plenty of time, and anyway, his flight out of Heathrow was delayed over 2 hours because of de-icing problems. The upshot is that he will land in Boston, according to British Air’s website, at 8:20 PM or so Boston time, or 2:20 AM back in Grenoble. The storm that shut down airports in DC earlier in the day and reached New York later in the day still hasn’t reached Boston, so I don’t anticipate any trouble tonight. Tomorrow’s a different story, with his flight out not leaving until dinnertime.

We’ve had a sheet of paper posted in the kitchen all fall with the various scheduled non-academic events that have been part of his program in Grenoble. It’s in French, but one doesn’t need a lot of French to interpret such items as Excursion à Paris, début des cours, Excursion à Annecy, Diner Thanksgiving, or Soirée cinéma. Today’s listing, the final one, is Fin du programme. It’s time to take the list down. But maybe we’ll leave it up until Joel returns, so he can see how we tracked him. And I never did ask if he went on the Visite les caves de la Grande Chartreuse à Voiron, which took place when we were in Rome without the list at hand, so I didn’t ask at the time. The caves are where monks produce chartreuse liqueur. They’re not far from Grenoble, between the Chartreuse and Vercors mountain ranges.

As for yesterday’s lunch, it was once again superb. I’ve written about our visits to Rover’s several times. I won’t say much more here. I started with a salad, frisée and poached egg with bacon, which just happens to be the very salad I had at one of our best meals of our recent trip, in Paris, a meal I have yet to write about. I followed up with the black cod accompanied by Brussels sprouts and bacon ragout. And dessert was chocolate orange mousse torte. I couldn’t have been happier. Well, except for that brief moment when I got my initial look at Gail’s plate, with leg of lamb and lamb sausage on cous cous. Boy, that looked amazing. I almost ordered it, but I hadn’t had Brussels sprouts in so long, so that tipped me over to the cod. I figured Chef Rautureau would have only the best, and I love good Brussels sprouts. No complaints. I think I missed something really special though.

And just this minute Joel called from Logan Airport’s taxiway. He has landed in Boston. It’s not snowing there yet. I think the storm may track more to the east from New York, over southern New England, so he may get lucky. I’ve seen predictions of 4-8 inches, which shouldn’t cause too much trouble for Logan, unlike down in DC today, where there was over a foot and almost every flight was cancelled.

Categories: Family, Restaurants, Travel

What’s one class?

December 17, 2009 Leave a comment

The feature sports article two days ago in the Wall Street Journal raised the question of whether the NCAA men’s basketball tournament should be expanded from 65 teams to 96. In the article, Darren Everson covered some familiar ground, but he had one quote near the end that was a real jaw dropper. I’ll get to that, but first, if needed, let me review a bit about how the tournament works. You might wish to skip the next few paragraphs.

There was a time when only 8 teams participated in the tournament. The number of participants grew slowly, hitting some peculiar numbers as well as more obvious numbers such as 16, 32, and 64. (The tournament operates on a single-elimination basis: you lose, you’re out. If you want to avoid byes, you need fields whose size is a power of 2.) As the field grew, the governing premise became that the champion of each Division I basketball conference would qualify. In addition, at-large teams would be selected. Most of the at-large slots are filled with teams from the major conferences, even as many as 6 or 8 teams from conferences such as the Big Ten, the Pac 10, and the Big East. Minor conferences may get only one team in the field. To complicate matters, almost all conferences now hold an end-of-season tournament. The regular season league records are used to seed the teams, but the winner of the tournament is the one regarded as league champion and automatic qualifier to the NCAA championships. Thus, an undefeated regular-season leader may have one bad night in the league tournament and fail to get the automatic NCAA bid. If the league is not regarded as a strong one, that team may then fail to get in as an at large-team as well while teams from power conferences with much weaker records qualify. A lot of attention is given to difficulty of schedule, and on this basis it can be argued — and often is — that those power conference teams with weak records really are stronger than the teams from minor conferences with great records.

Why 65 teams? A few years back a new conference was added, meaning a new automatic bid was established. In order not to reduce the number of at-large bids, the field was expanded. And how does a 65-team draw work? Well, in selecting the at-large teams, the responsible committee basically ranks every team in the country, or anyway every team under consideration. Thus, two teams have rankings of 64 and 65. These two meet in the “play-in” game early in the first week of the tournament. Whoever wins joins the other 63 teams in a standard 64-team, single-elimination draw.

Here’s what happens next. The 64 teams are essentially divided into 16 groups of 4. Each group plays a standard single-elimination mini-tournament. The split into two pairs, who play each other. The losers are eliminated, the winners meet, and the winner of that game moves on. This takes place in week one of the tournament, with half the 4-team clusters playing their opening games on Thursday and the final game on Saturday while the other half plays on Friday and Sunday. This arrangement maximizes the number of games available for television. When the dust settles, 16 teams remain.

A week later, the scheme is essentially repeated. These 16 teams are said to have made it to the Sweet 16. They are split into four groups of 4, each group being sent to some major basketball arena in a big city. Two of the four groups play on Thursday and Saturday of week two, the other two on Friday and Sunday. Again, the set-up for each group is that the four are split into two pairs (as determined by the original draw), losers are eliminated, winners meet two days later, and one of the four teams moves on. The winners of the Sweet 16 round enter the Elite 8, meeting in what’s called the regional finals. The winners of the Elite 8 round go to the Final Four.

We’re two weeks into the tournament and four teams are left. They meet a week later, again in some major basketball arena, paired up according to the original draw. The Final Four games are played on Saturday. The winners meet in the championship game on Monday night. There’s no alliterative name for this round. No Terrible Two or Tough Two or whatever.

Let’s summarize. A team that gets to the Tough Two round will have spent a week playing in its conference championship, then a week playing in the rounds of 64 and 32, then a week in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8, then a week in the Final Four and Tough Two. That’s four weeks of high-pressure championship basketball.

Why 96 teams? Well, there are those non-power conferences that don’t get a second or a third team into the tournament even though it is deserving. Or the power conferences who get only 5 or 6 or 8 teams in but have more who are worthy. What to do? Add 32 teams. How would it work? You’d seed 32 teams at the top and they would get first-round byes. The other 64 would meet in pairs to determine 32 winners, who would be put into a standard 64-team draw with the 32 bye teams. I don’t know exactly how this would be timed, but it would add a week to the tournament for sure.

Sorry for the long build-up, but let’s now turn to the WSJ article. In it we learn another factor. CBS has exclusive TV rights and is unable to broadcast every game. With more games played, the TV contract could be split, perhaps between CBS and a cable network, with enough games for everyone to be happy. I’ll now quote from the article.

The NCAA has the right to opt out of its 11-year, $6 billion contract with CBS at the end of this season, which is the impetus for considering to expand the tournament and perhaps move it to cable. “We have an opt-out provision at the end of this contract year, so we’re simply doing due diligence on all aspects of that contract,” Mr. Shaheen says.

An ESPN spokesman said that if the tournament became available to the cable provider, “we would be interested if it made good business sense.” A CBS spokeswoman declined to comment.

TV experts say that the value in expanding the tournament is mainly in the ability to sell it to more than one network. “They could legitimately bring in two networks, saying it’s too much for one network,” says Rick Gentile, a former executive producer at CBS Sports. “I personally wouldn’t like to see it. There is an issue of diluting it. But if you get two networks involved, they’ll both pay a premium to be a part of it.”

For the smaller schools and conferences, the revenue the tournament can generate for schools is no minor issue—especially as some schools drop expensive sports like football. “It’s not about the rich getting richer,” says Mr. Elgin of the Missouri Valley Conference. “It’s about staying afloat and not dropping baseball programs and wrestling programs.”

There’s even a feeling in some corners that 96 teams isn’t enough. “I think we should expand even more,” says Baylor coach Scott Drew, whose team narrowly missed out on the NCAA tournament last season and lost to Penn State in the final of the consolation National Invitation Tournament. “Go up to 128. I’ve thought that for several years. There’s that many good teams, and it gives everybody one more game.

“To everyone who says, ‘What about a missed class?’—trust me, those players would trade a day of class for a chance to play in this tournament any day,” Mr. Drew says.

I’m not sure I understood Coach Drew correctly. Let’s read that one more time. “To everyone who says, ‘What about a missed class?’—trust me, those players would trade a day of class for a chance to play in this tournament any day.” Yup. He really said that. Gosh. But, isn’t it true that a player whose team goes deep in the NCAA tournament will have missed a s..tload of classes already? Or am I missing something? Perhaps we should ask what the big deal is about missing a whole semester. It seems that’s pretty much what they’ll be doing anyway if the tournament runs much longer. And for students on the quarter system, the tournament will run from the end of Winter Quarter classes through finals and into the start of Spring Quarter. It does already — if they go to the Final Four. If I understand this correctly, in order to enrich a mainline TV network, a cable sports network, and additional universities (though not the student-athletes, as the NCAA mandates that we call the players), we will make it even more difficult for the athletes to function as students. (Not that it matters for the very best ones, who leave after freshman year anyway.)

Maybe I should be glad that Coach Drew was honest. He’s right, after all. The players would trade a day of class for a chance to play in the tournament.

Categories: Education, Sports

Calculus Cartoon

December 15, 2009 1 comment

Ted Rall’s latest cartoon (above) is the rare political cartoon with an embedded calculus lesson. We might well wonder, as Rall does, why we are so excited by the news that unemployment continues to increase, only at a slower rate.

Rates of change are exactly what calculus allows us to discuss precisely. Rather than being some forbidden subject, calculus is simply the language to quantify and discuss such matters. But even without studying (or remembering) calculus, we all understand the basic issues, at least qualitatively.

Given a quantity we wish to measure, like the number of people unemployed, or how far we have traveled from home, the derivative tells us how quickly this quantity is changing (increase or decrease in unemployment figures per month; increase or decrease in distance from home per hour, otherwise known as velocity). And the second derivative, which is what has been in the news lately with regard to unemployment figures, measures how quickly that first rate of change is changing. This is indeed a subtle notion, but one we talk about all the time. In the unemployment example, it is the rate at which the change in unemployment is going up or down. Thus, unemployment may still be increasing this month, but perhaps it is increasing more slowly than it has increased in recent months. That slower rate of increase is measured by the second derivative, and its slowing means the second derivative is negative. In the example of leaving home, we might be driving away, but the velocity at which we are driving is decreasing — perhaps we braked but haven’t yet come to a stop. This means the second derivative of the distance from home is negative. And we have a familiar name for that second derivative. Acceleration. So acceleration is negative when the velocity is going down, even though the velocity may still be large and we may still be moving rapidly away from home. Just less rapidly.

So that’s that. Simple enough ideas, but fundamental.

By the way, let’s say I desperately wanted to get home for dinner, but I had taken a wrong turn and found myself entering the freeway in the wrong direction, taking me farther away from home. I had no choice but to drive to the next exit, another five miles away. Alas, a couple of miles down the road, traffic slowed because of a car stuck on the side of the road. I would have to brake gently and begin to drive 20 mph rather than 55 mph. Thus, the rate at which my distance from home is increasing would have begun to decrease. I would continue to get farther from home, that’s for sure, but at a slower speed. Is this good news?

Categories: Cartoons, Economy, Math

Sixty-Eight Years!

December 14, 2009 Leave a comment

Sixty-eight years and one week ago, Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese. The events of that day prompted my parents to move up their wedding, in anticipation of my father’s joining the Army. Sixty-eight years ago today they were married.

How about that?

They don’t get out a lot these days, especially in the aftermath of my father’s fall and broken hip seven weeks ago, on the literal eve of our big trip. But they will celebrate tomorrow at La Grenouille, home of many a special meal for them.

Congratulations, Mom and Dad.

1. Why tomorrow? La Grenouille is closed today.
2. The photo at the top is from La Grenouille’s online gallery.

Categories: Family, Restaurants

The Guantanamo Suicides

December 14, 2009 Leave a comment

Gail and I love the CBS TV series NCIS. It’s the most popular series on television this fall, and for good reason. I was pleased to see an article in Friday’s Wall Street Journal analyzing just what makes it such a crowd pleaser, though less pleased to learn that “[m]ilitary officials get to read scripts of the show beforehand; they in turn provide cooperation with the producers.”

So much for fiction. As for the real NCIS, they released a heavily redacted report two Mays ago on the June 10, 2006, suicide deaths of three Guantanamo prisoners, a report now brought into question by the most recent in a series of Guantanamo studies by faculty and students at Seton Hall University School of Law.

Scott Horton reports on the study at Harper’s and in more detail at the Huffington Post. The study is long, but his reports aren’t, and are worth reading in full. Horton reminds us that the “first official military statements declared the deaths not just suicides — but actually went so far as to describe them as acts of ‘asymmetrical warfare’ against the United States.” Yet, as Horton notes in the Huffington Post,

The new study exposes how the NCIS report purports that all three prisoners on the prison’s Alpha Block did the following to commit suicide:

• Braided a noose by tearing up their sheets and/or clothing.
• Made mannequins of themselves so it would appear to the guards they were asleep in their cells.
• Hung sheets to block the view into the cells.
• Stuffed rags down their own throats well past a point which would have induced involuntary gagging.
• Tied their own feet together.
• Tied their own hands together.
• Hung the noose from the metal mesh of the cell wall and/or ceiling.
• Climbed up on to the sink, put the noose around their necks and release their weight, resulting in death by strangulation.

At Harper’s, Horton concludes that the “NCIS report itself showed flagrant violations of Guantánamo’s own operating procedures and presented facts that are impossible to reconcile with its conclusions that the deaths were ‘suicides’ resulting from a ‘conspiracy’ among the three prisoners—one of whom was about to be released and return home.”

The Obama administration continues to take its time dealing with Guantanamo. The disgrace continues.

Categories: Politics, Torture

I Read Books, III

December 13, 2009 Leave a comment

I haven’t written lately about what I’ve been reading. I noted in my first post after we got home four weeks ago from our trip to Europe the hopeless magazine catchup task. And there was the TV show backlog too, but somehow that was easier to deal with than the magazines. It seemed like every time I brought in the mail, there was another New Yorker or New York Review of Books or Harper’s or something. The worst part of the backlog was that I was unwilling to start a book. Or maybe that was second worst. Worst might have been that I couldn’t decide what to read, or how to read it. How to read it? By that I mean, if there’s a book I’m interested in, do I read the physical book or, now that we have Kindles, in the electronic version on my Kindle?

Let me run through the options I faced before telling you what I did read. (I know, I’ve already provided a hint. Forget that for now.)
Read more…

Categories: Books, Technology, Travel

SousVide Supreme

December 11, 2009 Leave a comment

The NYT food section Wednesday had an article by Julia Moskin on sous vide cooking. Thanks to the SousVide Supreme, now everyone can do it at home with ease. You too can be Ferran Adrià. Well, at least you can imagine you are, though you’ll no more be Ferran than I’m Mickey Mantle.

Anyway, I’m writing about the SousVide Supreme because I’ve discovered that when I tell Gail there’s an article she should look at in the paper, she doesn’t always look. But she does read my blog posts, eventually. So, Gail, have a look at the link above. Should we get one? We would have to unearth our vacuum sealing machine to use as well.

Below is the article’s opening passage. I’m ready for sous vide crème brûlée.

Once you sous vide, you never go back.

That, at least, is the chant of a global pantheon of chefs — like Heston Blumenthal, Joël Robuchon, Ferran Adrià, and Tetsuya Wakuda — who have made this low, slow cooking method the standard in the last decade.

And last month, Fritz Cloninger, a technical writer in Jersey City, joined that elite company with a pork chop and a SousVide Supreme, the first self-contained sous-vide machine for home cooks, which has just come on the market priced at $449.

“My wife thought I was crazy to get this thing, but already she doesn’t want to eat anything else,” Mr. Cloninger said last week. “I even made a hamburger in it this morning.”

Sous vide combines the gentle, steady heat of poaching and an airtight seal, as in traditional methods of cooking in clay. “The food literally stews in its own juices: no air, no water, no evaporation,” said Wesley Genovart, the chef at Degustation, a restaurant in the East Village, who has experimented with sous-viding everything from carrots to crème brûlée.

Until now, home cooks wanting to try the method have had to improvise, with solutions from low-tech (a stockpot and a handful of ice cubes) to high (a chamber sealer and an immersion circulator, generating about $1,500 in start-up costs). But there seems to be an audience, however small, for an easier and cheaper way. The first 500 SousVide Supreme machines sold out via the Internet before shipping in November, according to the manufacturers. More are on the way, available for order online now, and scheduled to reach Sur la Table warehouses in January.

Categories: Family, Food