February 2008 Archives

February 1, 2008

The Studio on the Radio

So Zach told me about a contest being held by the public radio station WNYC called "Show us Your Rehearsal Space." The theme was the difficulty of finding such space in New York, and the creativity musicians employ in finding a place to practice and making it their own. Contestants were to upload up to three photos of their space. You can see the whole gallery here. Yesterday I found out I was one of three winners of the contest, chosen for creativity in finding a place to rehearse. Today I was on the show briefly and then they played a clip of a song that I made with Maya, We are Perfect in Our Dreams. You can listen to the show at the above link; my part is within the first five minutes or so. Thanks Zach!

February 4, 2008

Notes From Spain: A Meal at Comerc24

Comerç24 is a restaurant in the modern Spanish trend of experimentation and presentation, but the menu is mercifully light on foams and airs. These descriptions of the dishes are from my notes; I won't be able to write very detailed reviews because the meal was months ago, but I will comment to the extent that I remember.

Getting there was a bit tough. I chose a walking route from the hotel that looked like the most efficient, but the map didn't show the claustrophobic and confusing nature of the curvy and narrow streets of the old city. To Maya it was an exhausting trek, and by the time we got there she was in no mood for experimental food (to be fair, she was also still jetlagged). Fortunately, she was soon won over. We got a testing menu called the "Menu Festival."

Complements: Breadsticks, Pork Cracklings, Parmesan Cups, Olives & Anchovies, golden Macadamia nuts. These were fun, though the pork cracklings were so loud as to be slightly embarrassing.

Sea bass ceviche with peach ice cream, spicy sauces. This was an incredible combination of flavors, one of the high points.

Tuna Tartare - Comerc24

Tuna tartare with caviar (pictured above). More basic but very tasty, with nice little pieces of fresh herbs.

Foamed Melon, frozen melon w/ thin-sliced Jamon interleaved w/ melon. One of their signature dishes and a technical marvel.

Cuttlefish Ravioli w/ mushroom and squid ink. Good, but not spectacular.

Hake w/ green apple sauce and spring onions. Perfectly crisp skin and tender flesh, and the green apple sauce was a great tart counterpoint.

Duck rice and foie gras. Hard to go wrong with foie gras, but I don't remember the rice being particularly great.

Oxtail w/ cauliflower and potato puree. The low point. Too much muddle in texture and flavor.

Coconut yogurt drink. Very refreshing, despite my aversion to coconut.

Yogurt custard with mango, berries, pecans, basil & crunchies. Sounds pedestrian, but it was wonderfully colorful and deliciously varied in texture and flavor.

Dessert at Comerc24

Quad dessert: chocolate ganache w/ salt, olive oil, and bread; chocolate brownie; orange muffin; pineapple on biscuit w/ singed cream. A great presentation, but the ganache, salt, and olive oil, with an insanely thin slice of toast, really stands out in my memory.

Comerç24
Carrer del Comerç, 24, Barcelona
+34 93 319 21 02
Online reservations accepted

February 7, 2008

Night of the 90s Indie Pop bands

I took a copy of AM New York today after seeing over someone's shoulder that there was a story about Nada Surf. Turns out Fountains of Wayne was pictured on the same page, and Mike Viola of the Candy Butchers is also featured on the next page--they're all playing shows in New York, separately, tomorrow. Clearly someone or something has invaded the nether regions of my memory and is using it, along with some terrible power, to control the New York concert scene. I came to appreciate all these bands in high school. With Nada Surf, I admit, I was initially drawn in by "Popular," but I stuck with them for several years. I first saw Nada Surf at the Knitting Factory in 1997 or so, and in the same show were the Candy Butchers and the Wrens, neither of whom my friends and I had ever heard of. We thought the Wrens were terrible at the time, but the Candy Butchers were fantastic; I can still remember fragments of the songs they played that night, despite not having heard them since (I tried to seek out their albums, but they were pretty elusive). The same group of friends introduced me to Fountains of Wayne. AM New York mentions that Mike Viola sang the title song in "That Thing You Do," and of course it was written by Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne.

I don't know if I'll actually go to any of the shows...it's been such a long time. Anyone else up for it?

February 8, 2008

Notes From Spain: A Meal at Cinc Sentits

Cinc Sentits is one of the best-regarded restaurants in Barcelona. It has the atmosphere of a temple of gastronomy: hushed, with few tables. At one point a cook walked out the front door and took delivery of something in a bin, bringing it back through the restaurant. We only caught a quick glance, but it was something big, possibly a whole skate. We had preordered the 8-course chef's tasting menu, and decided to get a bottle of their cheapest Cava to go with it. The same caveat applies that since this was months ago, my memories have faded a bit.

Cinc Sentits

Amuse Bouche: shot of canadian maple syrup, cava sabayon, cream foam, and sea salt. This tasted like butterscotch liquid. A great start for someone with my sweet tooth.

Gazpacho

Deconstructed Gazpacho: cucumber jelly, tomato ice cream and tiny tomato ice bits, bread. I'd heard about this dish, and it was extremely tasty and refreshing. Note the recurrent theme of micro-thin toast.

Mackerel Escalivada: roasted pepper, eggplant, romesco sauce. Escalivada is a very common dish in Spain. I enjoyed it but it didn't reach the heights of many of the other dishes.

Cinc Sentits

Shrimp, melon cubes, cold raw almond soup (ajo blanco). A great presentation. Shrimp are one of the great local delicacies in coastal Spain and this one was perfect. The almond soup had the most wonderful salty flavor, cut by the cubes of melon.

Foie gras torchon with glazed leeks, sugar crust, and balsamic reduction on the side. The crust on this was amazing, and all the elements complemented one another perfectly.

Mediterranean sea bass with orzo and pesto with mascarpone. This was certainly nice but it doesn't stick out in memory quite as much.

Iberian suckling pig with apple and balsamic reduction. Their signature dish, with a crispy crust and incredibly tender meat, and a carmelized slice of apple. Extremely rich and delicious.

Cheese course: La Cresa (or something like that) sheep's milk cheese, with orange and carmelized fennel.

Lemon dessert: lemon cake, lemon foam, lemon ice cream, and shaved vodka ice. A nice refreshing dessert with a great combination of textures.

Chocolate dessert: chocolate and nut mousse cake and hazelnut ice cream. Not the most adventurous dessert, but very well executed, and we didn't mind at all.

When we decided to order coffee and tea we got a bonus course: a chocolate drink with olive oil, caramel and sea salt; and a shortbread cookie with violet marmalade and blackberry.

The service was flawless and though it naturally was expensive, and it's a cliché to say so, it seemed like a bargain for what we got. In fact, leaving the exchange rate aside, this place is really not that expensive at all for the level of the food, and it's an experience we'll always remember.

Cinc Sentits
Carrer Aribau, 58 Barcelona
+34 93 323 94 90
Online reservations accepted

February 17, 2008

Notes From Spain: Miscellany

Eixample - Google Maps

The streets of Barcelona's Eixample (expansion) district were laid out according to a master plan by Ildefons Cerda. Their most striking feature is the chamfered octagonal blocks, creating square spaces at intersections, as seen above. These are intended to let more sunlight and air into the streets, and they do an excellent job of that, but I have two problems with them. One is about walking. Whenever we were walking a diagonal 'up and over' route, requiring some zigzagging, we would tend to get to a corner before realizing which direction we would cross in first. In New York you can stand right on the corner and make such a decision based on the timing of the traffic lights, but in the Eixample you have to walk a good fifteen feet to get to the next corner of the octagon and cross the other way. Even when walking a straight route, the diagonals add some Pythagorean distance to the journey. It may sound nitpicky, but during a whole day of walking I think it contributes significantly to fatigue. The other problem is reading street signs. The signs are on the buildings, on the long sides just off the diagonal cutout. They're pretty small. As you are walking up one street toward an intersection, it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to see the sign for the cross street, until you are about to cross it. Since you have to walk along the diagonal to get to this point, it aggravates the first problem. It's rather ridiculous to try to describe all this geometry in words, but hopefully if you visualize walking along the sidewalks you can see what I mean.

* * *

Several times I found that people in Spain working what we might consider to be menial jobs were incredibly happy and friendly, and not in an artificial way. At OpenCor, the only 7/11 style convenience store in town, an employee on the late shift in Valencia struck up a nice conversation with us and told us that he had lived in Madrid for several years. At the Oceanografic aquarium's concession stand, the cashier burst into laughter when she realized she had no idea which of our sodas was the diet one. We were also astonished to see a conductor step out of a subway train looking as youthful and clean-cut as any of the passengers. I hope no one will take offense at the idea that most New York conductors and operators could be described as "grizzled."

* * *

Piscine

This is the municipal swimming pool at Montjuic, the huge hilltop park at the southern end of Barcelona. It was used for the 1992 Olympics, and is still sometimes used for competitions, but for the most part is open to the public for a few Euros. We had no idea it was there until we found it while exploring. We had quite an adventure attempting to actually swim there, involving confusing signage, a second swimming pool, and bathing suits left on funiculars, but finally made it, and it was well worth it. When do you ever get the chance to swim with a view like this without being friends with billionaires or belonging to an exclusive country club? If I had to give one tip for anyone visiting in warm weather, this would be it.

* * *

Trio

The City of Arts and Sciences is reason enough to visit Valencia. It's an amazing piece of architecture and urban design, and the open space, pools of water, and harmony of shapes make it a very soothing place. As Maya put it, you just can't imagine something like this existing in New York City; we can't have things this nice because we would wreck them.

Opera House

February 20, 2008

I get so excited

JV alerted me to some recent activities of Fred Thomas, our favorite musician from our Ann Arbor days, and one of my favorites anywhere. When we were in college he was primarily playing in Lovesick, Flashpapr, and Saturday Looks Good To Me--three bands as different as you could imagine in sound, but all incredible in their own way. His shows were a musical education. Nowadays he's living in New York and more of a solo act with frequent collaborations. He has a blog/band called City Center where he often posts new songs. And of course a MySpace page which also has songs and blog entries, including a discography, which is awesome because one of my favorite albums of his is on a CDR and I had no idea what some of the songs were called.

Fred's an inspiring person all-around, and his talents at recording (I don't know how much he does at home vs. in studios, but I give him the credit either way) are as amazing as his melodies. Sadly I couldn't make it to his recent show with Calvin Johnson and Karl Blau, but I'm hoping a rumored show in April with Deerhoof will pan out.

February 21, 2008

Sushi Robots One Two Three

Maki Maker

I bided my time in capturing this image of a sushi robot at Yummy Sushi in Rockefeller Center. A security guard is usually posted nearby, and they and cameras don't mix. But I walk by every morning and evening--their secret could not remain safe for long. The robot is the oddly shaped metal box left of center. I've never seen it in use. I'm guessing the process involves loading of a stack of nori in a slot, and dumping rice in the top. The robot spreads the rice in an appropriate layer, the operator puts the other ingredients in the middle, and possibly the robot then rolls it up, but that functionality might be reserved for fancier models. Apparently these are more common in Japan, and very common at conveyor-belt sushi restaurants.

Linkage: Images of a sushi robot catalog. The inside story of making the sushi robot. Sushi Robots for sale at Korin, with prices ranging from $3,500 to $15,000. Get ready for 2,800 rice balls per hour.

February 23, 2008

A caution for fare watchers

When I plan a trip these days, I like to watch the plane fares for a good while before buying, since the fluctuations in price can be so big and unpredictable. In the past I would just refresh a search on Expedia or Travelocity as often as I could. This time I used Kayak.com, which searches a whole bunch of sites, mostly specific airlines, and offers a nicer interface and daily email alerts.

In this case I was looking for flights to Paris with departure on March 15th and return on the 22nd. The day after I started getting alerts, the lowest fare dropped from $590 to $533 on Air India, with the next lowest being $590 on Swiss Air. I've heard not such great things about Air India, and I was expecting it to drop further, so I watched and waited. Last weekend, it was a month before the trip and nothing had changed, so I decided to buy. I clicked on the link to airindia.in and was told that no economy seats were available; only "executive" class, for five times as much. Okay, no big deal, I thought. I went back to Kayak and clicked on the Orbitz link, which had a price of $544. The price was there in the search results, so I clicked "Select." Then I got this message:

Because flight availability can change rapidly based on traveler demand, the flight you selected is no longer available. Please make another selection. (Message 100)

and a revised set of search results with the $590 Swiss Air at the top. That's annoying, I thought. I tried the link to cheaptickets.com. I got the same exact message, even the same code of 100. At this point a panic started to set in. The Swiss Air flights had annoying departure times and layovers in Amsterdam or Frankfurt or something. But they would have to do; I figured the Air India flight had just filled up so I had to move fast. I went back to Orbitz and selected a Swiss Air flight. The same thing happened. Crap.

Long story short, we ended up paying $716 for an American flight with a brief stopover in London. Not at all what I was hoping for, and nearly twice what I paid for a direct flight on Air France three years ago. I can only assume this is due to the exchange rate, fuel costs, and whatever else is crappy right now. But a week later, the $533 Air India fare is still showing up on Kayak.com! What the hell?! I suppose I can't blame Kayak, because it also shows up on Orbitz with the same error message. So whether intentionally or not, Orbitz and some other sites are not doing a great job with data integrity, and my advice is not to trust search results until you're convinced you could buy the fare right then.

I just noticed now that Farecast has added predictions of fares to Europe, which is fantastic. Unfortunately, they too are infected by the bad Air India fare.

February 24, 2008

Tools and Resources for Learning Spanish, pt. 1

Without further ado, the detritus of my two-year off and on effort to find good ways of learning Spanish.

The Manhattan Times
This is available to few, so I won't linger on it, but it is a newspaper that publishes articles side by side in English and Spanish. So I would read in Spanish and then look at the English version whenever I got stuck. In the process I got to know the machinations of my local Community Board rather well. This was a good way to see how the language was used in real situations, but I found that my retention rate for less common words that I had to look up was not very good, and eventually reached a point of diminishing returns.


Las Puertas Retorcidas (The Twisted Doors) by Kathie Dior
I found this book on Amazon and it seemed like a great concept: use a scary story to give the learner a visceral emotional connection to the language. From personal experience I think this has a lot of potential: some of the words and phrases that stick out the most in my mind from foreign languages are ones that have come up in embarrassing or other emotional situations. Unfortunately, the execution left a lot to be desired. The story was pretty childish and so I didn't experience much emotion at all. The illustrations appeared to be a combination of clip art and rudimentary Photoshop--in one, the villain looked to be dressed like a Pilgrim at the first Thanksgiving, while in another, he looks to have emerged from a medieval dungeon, dressed in rags. Worst of all, the book gave the reader no real way to learn. There were simple lists of vocabulary, basic grammatical lessons, and "tests" in each chapter, but no exercises. All I could do was read the vocabulary, wait several hours, and then test myself on it, and repeat until I got it all right. This got incredibly dull after a while. Some chapters had no grammar instruction at all, and some vocabulary items would be taught repeatedly, while others occurring in the text would not be taught at all. Needless to say I do not recommend this book.

studyspanish.com
I found this site pretty early on and kept going to back to it. Any site that has a link on the front page to "Just show me the free stuff" is okay in my book. They have a ton of material for free as well as a pay area, but more importantly the quality is great. The grammar section has clear and extremely thorough explanations, followed by text and audio exercises that let you hear a native speaker from Spain as well as one from South America. This site might be the best standalone learning tool that I've found so far. The only drawback is that much of my studying time comes during my commute when I have no web access.

501 Spanish Verbs
This is one of three books I found on the street a few years ago. It's a good reference, and also has a very thorough instructional section in the front that goes through all the tenses and their uses.


Breaking out of Beginner's Spanish by Joseph Keenan
This is the kind of book I always like to find about a language. It could never serve as a standalone studying tool. But it's written in a casual, narrative style that's very easy to get through, and offers more information than any textbook about how to use the language in the real world and sound like you know what you're doing. Sections include "10 Ways to Avoid Being Taken for a Gringo", a list of tricky false cognates, a good explanation of verb tenses, how to talk about other people and get the right message across, and of course, obscenity. The only trouble is that sometimes I enjoyed it so much I failed to realize that I wasn't retaining much of the material or incorporating it into my use of the language. But in an immersion situation, where this isn't as much of an issue, "Breaking Out" would certainly be an indispensable resource.

Coffee Break Spanish
I started using this site with Maya fairly late in the process. The Scottish accents of the hosts are as infectious as a Belle and Sebastian vocal, and they vanish impressively when they go into Spanish. But after a little while it was hard to find time to listen to the shows, and I got impatient with the amount of time spent on small talk and other non-instructional material.

In the second part, I'll have an assessment of the Rosetta Stone software.

 
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