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Cinnamon, the Anti-Spice

Friday 23 January 2015

A big part of food is anticipation. You know (or think you know) what you’re about to eat, you look at it, smell it, and then, finally taste it. Your entire life to that point tells your brain “this is what it’s gonna be like”.

And then there’s cinnamon, lurking in a dish like the spoiler in a movie review, waiting for the unsuspecting eater to bite…and be disappointed. You wanted sweet! Or savory! Or umami! Anything but this nasty, acrid, don’t-want-it-in-my-mouth tree bark that may be the cause for 92% of holiday season stress. Think of it: you’re anticipating sweets and happiness and all things good going into the winter, and BAM! Cinnamon, the evil step-spice of the culinary world, comes back for its annual attack on our taste buds.

Thank goodness, ten more months until That Spice becomes fashionable again.

 

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The Return of Monday Fried Chicken

Monday 12 January 2015

When last we met–really, the last post before the hiatus–our favorite Monday restaurant in Ashland (Larks) had removed their quite good fried chicken from their lunch menu. This was cause for wailing and gnashing of teeth (without even good fried chicken on which to gnash!), so we stopped going there, which probably wasn’t a hugely bad idea anyway.

Several months later they came to their senses and re-instated the fried chicken at lunch, which Herself again orders, although now as a Caesar salad with fried chicken on top–call it the Atkins version of Portlandia’s Put A Bird On It. I am going for the house salad, which involves not-so-bitter greens, hazelnuts, dried cranberries, and a slightly sweet vinaigrette. With some grilled chicken, it’s three courses in a single bowl.

But now we are spending a bunch more time in PDX. I wrote about this
several times before, but we have been staying up in the great rainy northern end of the state even more since then. Let’s say that the transition from the Bay Area to Ashland full-time was a little more of a unit step function that we had anticipated, and the ringing after the impulse was causing settling problems. PDX is a forty minute flight from Ashland, so we were singing “only forty-five minutes from Nordstrom” faster than you can say TSA Pre√.

We carry our traditions with us. Eastern Europeans brought bialy and bagels, Chinese railroad laborers brought what they thought was mom’s home cooking, barbecue has its meaty tendrils all the way back to Neanderthals.

We being people who mostly eat bagels, not boil them; eat dim sum, not push the carts; eat barbecue, not…well, we do smoke a fair amount of pork shoulder…the point remains, we bring the tradition of what we eat with us and seek out the local variant. So we had to seek out a local version of Monday Fried Chicken Lunch.

PDX has a lot of fried chicken, almost all of it boneless, some of it quite good, so the problem came down more to choosing the best from the rest than separating the fowl from the foul (yeah, I really did that). Key criteria are close to downtown to minimize travel during the Monday lunch window, inside seating to avoid being rained on while eating, and a reasonable price.

After sending many chickens to their oily, crispy demise in the search, we finally settled on one winner: Vitaly Paley’s Imperial. Like Larks, this is a restaurant in a hotel, but being a Paley product, goes way beyond the usual diner-in-a-dorm. High-end full bar, amazing exec chef, and the occasional Russian-themed pop-up dinner set this apart from many hotel restaurants.

So here’s a picture of the same fried chicken, as served at the 2014 Portland Feast event this past September. It was served by Chef Paley himself, and was a reminder that sometimes the best things are the simplest.

Imperial also does a nice sausage du jour, made in house. Charcuterie and similar meat products are a big deal in PDX, where half of restaurant menus are vegan and the other half have bacon in everything (same restaurants, same menus; facing pages). Today’s was a really nice kielbasa, just a little spicy and properly smoky; somewhat of a departure from the watery, bland kielbasa I remember from my childhood, and much, much better.

Fried chicken at Imperial keeps us on familiar ground at the start of the week.

Stay dry.

Resuming course

Sunday 11 January 2015

So it’s been a while. I’d cite a busy work schedule, or fascinating personal life that so totally engrossed me that posting was impossible, but…nah.

So anyway…

I’m going to rant about LED Xmas lights. I have no problem with LEDs in general (full disclosure: I have a tiny amount of stock in Cree, a leading LED device maker) or even the general concept of LEDs for Xmas lights.

Xmas lights are A Big Deal in Ashland. People leave up strands of (usually) white lights and illuminate them all year. It’s A Thing that adds a beautiful element to Ashland’s residential neighborhoods.

I put up three strands of LED bulbs a couple of years ago to replace some incandescents that finally failed after a decade of service. I was thinking: LEDs should last forever (ask my TI watch from 1976); LEDs use less energy per lumen.

But.

Come this season, all three strands had failures: long sections of each strand had bulbs that were out or unusually dim.

LED light strings and incandescent Xmas lights share some common failure points: the bulbs can loosen in the socket, an excess of moisture at the connector can cause a short, the wiring harness can fail at a connectors (plugs and sockets). So LED strings don’t have an advantage there.

Incandescent bulbs since Edison’s original require a pretty strong vacuum to work at all. No vacuum, the filament burns out instantly. This makes a broken bulb easy to spot on the assembly line. It also makes a bulb unlikely to test as working on the line, and then fail due to a bad seal on the filament leads after being installed outside. It’s what’s called “mechanically stable”.

LEDs can come from the manufacturer encased in resin so that the silicon die itself (the “filament”) is never exposed to the air. But the contacts and other electronics in the bulb may not be so well protected; they rely on the plastic bulb to keep out moisture.

So there’s the problem: on the testing line, where it’s relatively warm and dry, before the product is shipped, either kind of bulb is going to pass the final plug-and-glow test. Every incandescent bulb has to have a good vacuum, and that will also keep it from failing when exposed to moisture (like outside, in the rain or snow). But an LED bulb can pass even if it has no protection against moisture getting in and eventually ruining the bulb. So when you put them outside, the same bulb that has to protect the filament in the incandescent light is of necessity a lot more likely to be better at keeping out moisture than the plastic bulb of an LED light.

Testing LED bulbs to the same rigor that an incandescent bulb has to have by design is hard. You’d have to expose the bulbs to heat, cold, and wet for hours at a time, and no vendor is going to do that (very expensive gear). And the warranty is short enough that the return rate during the warranty must be low, so there’s no pressure on the manufacturers to make a product that will really last for years under harsh outdoor conditions.

So I’m still a big fan of LED lights–inside, where it’s warm and dry. Outside, I’m staying with incandescent.

Stay dry.

We Leave Town For A Few Days, And Look What Happens!

Wednesday 5 February 2014

So we were in Portland for a long weekend (notes to follow).

We get back, head to Lark’s for our not-infrequent Monday lunch. They had been closed the prior week for…something. We don’t know, we don’t care.

So we get in the door, and notice that the specials list, usually two soups, a salad or two, and a main or two, is just a soup and one salad. “Today is the first day of our new lunch menu,” says the hostess, “so we have no specials.” Ok, let the chef focus on the new stuff the first day of a new menu, get settled, etc. We’re good with that.

Table. Menus. Water. Review menu for changes.

No fried chicken.

Look again, must be a mistake.

No fried chicken.

Ask the waitress, “Is the fried chicken really gone?” “Yes, although it’s still on the dinner menu.”

Waitress leaves. Concerned looks between us.

“Do we bail?”

“No, that would be rude.”

“You can find something else?”

“Hmm, yes, I suppose the Caesar with chicken.”

“Ok, because we come here almost entirely because you love the fried chicken.”

“Awww…”

I’ll leave it to you to puzzle out who said what, with the hint that Herself’s blog is called “Chickenfreak’s Obsessions”, one of which is fried chicken.

So we stayed, and had an adequate lunch (one Caesar with chicken, one trout salad). And while there is a wide selection of other dishes, and they had finally gotten around (after many years) to asking if one would like butter with one’s bread (used to just be olive oil unless one knew to ask), this will greatly diminish our lunches there. Probably to zero. The fried chicken was, for us, their signature dish, the anchor that pulled us in.

Looks like we’re heading elsewhere on Mondays. Luckily Amuse will be starting lunches later this year, and Taroko is also open on Mondays (along with others we haven’t been to in a while). And Smithfield’s has darn good fried chicken.

Change can be good. We can change; we can change where we eat.

Change what we eat? Don’t be absurd!

Ashland Restaurant Update, Early 2014

Wednesday 29 January 2014

The OSF season opening is in just over three weeks. 2013 was a hard year on Ashland restaurants; some good changes, but some significant losses.

GONE:

* Alex’s Plaza Restaurant: Closed just last week. No word yet on any replacements.

* Boulton & Sons: Gone. Replaced by The Lunch Show.

* CJ’s Bistro: Apparently closed–menu and website are down, business listed as being for sale.

* Happy Falafel: Closed, replaced by Campus Grill. We will miss their fries!

* Munchies: Closed. Space absorbed by Mix.

CHANGES:

* Amuse: Reliable rumor has it that they will start serving lunch in 2014. We ate there during a couple of their test lunches and it was excellent and competitively priced vs. Larks or Standing Stone. Fries so good they might assuage the loss of Happy Falafel’s fries.

* Chateaulin: Still in limbo. A notice for application for a liquor license was posted in September, and there have been signs of construction, but still not open.

* Deli Downstairs: Expanded into the former Larry’s Cupcake space.

* Mix: Moved all their baking operations downstairs into the former Munchie’s space. Upstairs is now all seating and the coffee bar.

* Playwright: Apparently on the market (http://www.realtytrac.com/property/or/ashland/97520/258-a-st/204228272). Anybody want to buy a pub?

NEW:

* Alchemy Restaurant and Bar: Replaced the prior restaurant at the Winchester Inn. DInners most days and Sunday brunch. We haven’t been yet but reviews are generally positive.

* Campus Grill: In the former Happy Falafel space, owned by the same people who own and run Red Zone.

* Oberon’s Three-Penny Tavern: On the Plaza. Renaissance-themed tavern. Music and drink, not much food.

* Salame: On the Plaza in the former Grilla Bites location. Meat, meat, more meat in a general Mediterranean setting. Really good, especially the charcuterie.

* Sammich: Sandwich restaurant opened by former chefs from Cucina Biazzi. Good stuff, way way way above most of the other sandwich-only places in town. They’re down on Bridge Street, just off Siskiyou.

* The Lunch Show: In the former Boulton and Sons space, providing some competition for Sammich and Deli Downstairs. Menu changes daily–I mean, the ENTIRE menu changes daily.

Cross your fingers for 2014!

Buy Local, Pay Cash

Friday 16 August 2013

So here’s a new challenge: buy local, pay cash.

This is about as simple as it sounds: buy local products from local merchants, and pay them in cash. That keeps as much of your money in your community, or the community you’re visiting if you’re traveling.

I am not advocating spending less, nor am I advocating cutting up your credit cards. You can do that too, but that’s not part of this. Nor is making your own clothes (hard) or trying to grow all your own food (even harder; ask a farmer). You don’t have to go without if what you want isn’t locally available, or if the locals are gouging (full retail is not gouging). Chains owned outside the local area are only marginally better than shopping on-line; the profits all leave the local area.

I’m still using my Amazon card at Amazon (3% rebate!), and yes, I’m still buying from Amazon when I can’t get it from a locally owned merchant. I’m still using a different card at restaurants that aren’t locally owned, and when traveling (don’t carry too much cash when traveling).

Some wag will now say “why bother? The merchant won’t discount for cash.” Doesn’t matter. It’s called “doing the right thing” and “community spirit” and “supporting the family down the street”. Getting the rubbish 1% back at a cost to the local community of 2% to 5%, and more if you don’t pay off each month–it’s worth doing this.

Have fun with that.

We Went, We Saw, We Ate

Tuesday 30 July 2013

So we’re back from Vancouver (bet you didn’t even know we’d gone). We were there for the annual fireworks competition; imagine big (think: the Mall in DC on the 4th of July) fireworks three nights, about a 30 minute program each night, staged by three different countries each year during a week-long festival that most local Chambers of Commerce would drool to have.

It’s the Vancouver Celebration of Light (note how artfully I dodge the commercial sponsorship) in its 23rd year. There were over 300,000 on the beaches, in the streets, and at the parks around English Bay. This year the contestants were England, Canada, and Thailand; England had the best music, all James Bond themed for the 50th anniversary of the James Bond film franchise; Thailand had some amazing fireworks; but Canada won with some rockets I’d never seen: ones that burst in the shapes of smiley faces and hearts, and the other huge chrysanthemum that kept blossoming until it was like a silvery fog (look here from about 14:34 to 14:58).

So Canada won the overall judging. Now, for our own judgements on where to go to watch the fireworks, here is our countdown:

RUNNER-UP NUMBER 2: Bard On The Beach Bard-B-Q. It’s live theater, it’s barbequed food, and it’s a fireworks show all in one evening! The production of Twelfth Night was exceptionally good, especially how the cast worked in the various distractions (seagulls, aerobatic aircraft, and a nearby rock concert) into their own performances. The dinner was fine; grilled salmon, selection of sides, barbecued chicken, various libations. The seats for the fireworks were fine. However, the view of the fireworks was somewhat distant (maybe three-quarters of a mile to the barge, as the crow flies) and through trees that obscured much of the action from the water, up to maybe 100′ (which is a lot; watch the clips). Also, the audio simulcast at the site was very poor, with lots of static and distortion. Also, if you’re staying downtown, it’s an extra-long hike back to one’s lodgings. Final ruling: I would definitely go back for the theater, but I’d go elsewhere to see the fireworks; even if there hadn’t been a problem with the audio, the view was not what I wanted.

RUNNER-UP NUMBER 1: Cactus Club at English Bay. A nice place to get dinner, some drinks, and watch the show. The food was great, and the view was quite good, although screened a bit by a security fence. Spendy; Herself allowed that if it had been the first night, She might have felt overcharged, but by the third night (and after a full week of traipsing around Vancouver) She said She was happy to have a place to sit to eat and watch the show.

AND THE WINNER IS:

Keg Lounge! The Keg is a chain of steakhouse/bars in Canada (and now in parts of the U.S.). They do beer, and meat. And some wine and a few veg things, but mostly beer and meat. Their location is ideal–the top of the English Bay Bathhouse, with a view that looks straight at the fireworks barge:Fireworks barge

The food is more than adequate–servers milling about with prime rib sliders, pigs on skewers, and lots of little tan things. Excellent bar food, served with plenty of wine (and beer), at the best location for seeing the fireworks. How could they lose?

We would definitely go back. I would say the only downside to Vancouver at that time of year is that if it doesn’t rain, it gets quite humid. The area had not had rain for 35 days straight, which apparently is very unusual for that time of year (or at least that’s what they tell the tourists). My theory is that a good rain every few days or so knocks the humidity down, and so a long spell without rain allowed it to build up. Who know, but I now have several cool cotton shirts that are perfect for the tropics.

What else did we learn? This was our first outing to Vancouver not in the dead of winter, so it was a novelty to see lots and lots of people out on the streets enjoying the sun, rather than the odd office worker wrapped in down and huddling from one building to the next. The big glass dome at Pacific Centre, usually also deserted in winter, was packed. The malls were packed, the restaurants were packed, everything was packed, including us, as we ate everything in sight and grasp.

We learned that traffic in Vancouver is a mess. The taxi drivers blame the new bike lanes, which were constructed at the expense of parking, traffic lanes, and sidewalk trees; I hope it was worth it. I blame the fact that there are no highways through downtown, or even close to it; it’s more like Manhattan than San Francisco or D.C. There are a few highways on the outskirts, but those get backed up way, way back to the boonies because they turn into the downtown surface streets. Note to self–allow much, much more time to travel by car than expected.