Saturday, September 13, 2014

Legends Of The North Shore

Legends of the North Shore has been open since 2002, which makes it a successful institution at this point.  Neither DB~ nor I have been there, but it comes highly recommended.  It's spoken highly of as a North Side restaurant, so we decided to give it a shot tonight.

When we walked in, we were surprised by how few tables there were and how awkwardly the restaurant is set up.  Upon entering, the kitchen and small bar area are right there.  You have to squeeze through and half-turn if someone is sitting there, in order to get to your table.

Although the appetizers sounded good, especially the always-good greens and beans choice, we went straight to the entrees.  DB~ picked the Chicken Romano and I went with the Gnocchi Bolognese.  When they came out, we were a little taken aback by the size of the portion in relation to the cost of the entree.

DB~'s Chicken Romano was $19.95 and featured two small breaded breasts, topped with lemon and parsley.  There was a small scoop of mashed potatoes and some slivers of squash.  To us, it was overpriced for the portion size.  DB~ liked it, but didn't love it.

My portion of Gnocchi Bolognese was a normal sized plate-bowl.  The gnocchi were small, but delicate and not heavy.  The sauce was a basic meat sauce, with some chunks of ground meat in the sauce.  Again, nothing special and certainly not $18.95 worthy.  It seems like each entree was overpriced by $3.

Sometimes with legends, their status is over-inflated by past glories.  There may have been a time when Legends of the North Shore was at the top of their game, but unfortunately that time has passed.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Taking Delight in the Brewers' Collapse

Coming into the season, I thought Milwaukee would win between 73 and 78 games.  They were atrocious last year, due to key injuries, but they had some declining players anyway.  Their big offseason move was to sign injury-prone, under-achieving Matt Garza to a 4 year/$50M deal.  How would Ryan Braun fare now that he (hopefully) wasn't juicing anymore?  I didn't see a playoff contender.

Imagine my surprise when at the end of April the Brewers were 20-8 and far, far ahead of the pack in the National League.  I was telling everyone who asked that the Brewers' return trip to Earth would be coming soon, but they didn't really flinch until July.  At the start of July, they lost 10 out of 11.  Their record on July 12 was still 52-43 and they were still tied for 1st place, albeit after they were comfortably leading by 6.5 games at the start of the month.  The rest of the NL landscape was forgiving, as well, with most of the teams just treading water.  Maybe this was the start of the end?

Fast forward to August 25th.  The Brewers had rebounded to playing strong playoff-contender baseball again.  I was still baffled.  Their record was a robust 73-58 and they were 1.5 games up on the Cardinals in the division.  Barring a soul-crushing collapse, the Brew seemed destined for a playoff spot of some sort.

Enter the soul-crushing collapse.  From that day forward, the Brewers have lost (and are still in the midst of it) 13 of 14 games.  Their record is now 74-71 and they are not only 6 games behind the Cards for the division, they are 1.5 games out of the playoffs altogether -- behind the Pirates, which makes it even sweeter.

Is this just the law of averages adjusting with unblinking fury all at the same time?  Have injuries revealed their absolute lack of depth, both in the majors and minors?

Ryan Braun, still one year away from his extended extension of 5 year/$105M kicking in, is having a poor season and now his thumb pain is leading to his whole hand maybe needing surgery.  Shades of Jason Kendall's thumb injury, which was the real reason for Kendall's collapse as a hitter, are echoing.

Carlos Gomez is a terrible human being, so he's also easy to cheer against, even though he's having a good campaign.  I would love to have Jonathan Lucroy, especially with that ultra-friendly contract extension, but he's really the only Brewer I would rescue.  The rest of them all deserve each other.

Hopefully the Brewers continue to collapse, much like the 2012 Pirates did.  The only difference is that the Brewers don't have a wave of talent on the horizon (or a solid, young talent base in the majors) to give them hope for the future.

It couldn't happen to a better franchise.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Why Re-Signing Russ Martin Is Important

Russ Martin has built a time machine.  Or, to be trite, has discovered the Fountain of Youth.  Either way, Martin is in the midst of his finest season since his 2007 season with the Dodgers.  That year, Martin triple slashed .293/.374/.469 with 19 HR and 21 SB.  As a catcher, mind you.

This year, he's put up a .295/.417/.416 line with 7 HR and 4 SB.  But if you're a stathead (like me) then you may be interested to know that Russ's 2007 line resulted in a 122 Weighted Runs Created Plus (22% than league average), while his 2014 line is a 142 wRC+.  How can that be?  Because back in 2007, offense was greater around the league than it is today.  So by this metric, this is Martin's career season.

Martin is a free agent after the season and it is imperative that the Pirates re-sign him.  At the start of next season, Martin will be in his age-32 season and he will have 1000+ games as a catcher under his belt.  He will start to wear down eventually, so the Pirates have to be cautious with the number of years.

2 years, I would be ecstatic, but Martin is looking for his final big payday.  3 years would be great.  4 years would make me nervous.  5 years -- good luck with your new team, Russ.

During his time with the Yankees and into his first year with the Pirates, Martin was trying to sell out for home run power.  This year, he's made a conscious effort for contact and it has resulted in the fine line you see above.  If Martin, over the course of a 3 year deal, could even bat .270/.350/400, that would be fantastic for a catcher.

Martin is a good athlete, too, so perhaps he could get a break from squatting behind the plate by playing 3B or 1B periodically.  This would keep his bat (and his on-base prowess) in the lineup.

It's also important that the Pirates re-sign him as a show of good faith to the fans.  The Pirates are in the middle of a contention window right now.  Martin's on-base skills and pitch framing are things that are not sexy, but they age better than other skills like speed and power.

With record PNC attendances and the new national TV deals, there is plenty of money floating around Federal Street.  Yes, the Pirates have a big arbitration class coming up, but even if you take their $23M of commitments and estimate $28M for arbitration, the Pirates should still be able to afford $12-13M/year for Martin.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Rum Runner's Saloon

Sometimes buildings are built quickly.  Sometimes buildings are built slowly.  And sometimes things are built at a glacial pace, like Rum Runner's Saloon on Babcock Boulevard.  The offshoot of the North Park Lounge Empire seemed to take forevvvverrrrr to renovate the old Sunseri's restaurant on Babcock Boulevard.  They did add a second floor to it, but it's hard to believe that this wasn't some significant, unforeseen problem, because this place took a long time to open.

In July, it did.  Was it worth it?

At this point, you know what you're going to get with a North Park restaurant.  Solid food, big portions, lot of TV's to give you sensory overload.  By and large, Rum Runner's is cut from the same cloth.

The interior goes with the rum barrel theme, with the one wall having a series of deconstructed barrels.  It would have been very easy to run with a pirate theme or a beachy theme, but Rum Runner's showed restraint.  The main dining is small, with a series of TV's all tuned to some sporting event, but tasteful.  There's cut stone around the fireplace.  The remaining part of the main room is kind of plain, but maybe it's just that we were expecting clutter and were pleasantly surprised.

The menu is also restrained.  There are a limited number of sandwiches, salads, and dinners, but it looks like they're concentrating on doing a core number of dishes very well.  There's some creativity in the ingredients and dishes that doesn't exist at the other North Park restaurants.

There's a little bit of a New Orleans theme, as there's a Shrimp Po' Boy and some BBQ Grilled Shrimp on the menu.  Is this a nod to pirates that used to frequent New Orleans like Lafitte?  Not sure, because it's never spelled out explicitly.

For dinner, I went with the Grilled Chicken Wrap on the strength of the menu's ingredient description.  There was a Granny Smith apple slaw and bacon jam on the wrap -- not your typical lettuce, tomato, cheese, chicken wrap.

The bacon jam was the star here.  It gave it some smoky flavor to go with the sweetness of the base jam.  Rum Runner's also makes a good, crispy group of fries.

DB~ went with an appetizer of Fish Tacos, after we heard that the appetizers are all big enough for a lunch portion or a small dinner portion.  Three large tacos came out stuffed solid with a breaded cod fish covered in a corn salsa with a roasted pepper sauce, a hint of cilantro, and some cabbage slaw.  Those are ingredients you won't find at the original North Park or the North Park Clubhouse.

I was impressed by the grill marks on the tortillas, but they were still soft and pliable.  We both agreed that it was a huge appetizer, as she could only eat two of them (and a handful of my fries).  I ate the third one, of course.

For an appetizer, we would have gone with three smaller shells for perhaps $7.99.  Or two of the large tacos plus a handful of nacho chips for $8.99, rather than the current $9.99.

The upstairs was completely open with all the large windows, so perhaps we should have sat up there to check out that scene.  Maybe next time.  And there will be a next time -- Rum Runner's is a solid place to get a solid meal when you don't feel like cooking that night.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

If the Pirates don't make the playoffs, it's still a good season

The Pirates didn't improve at all at the July non-waiver deadline.  That's all right -- they were still in the thick of both the division race and the wild card chase.

Things took a decided turn for the worse on August 2nd when the neanderthal Diamondbacks retaliated for Paul Goldschmidt by plunking Andrew McCutchen in the back, which may or may not have been an aggravating factor in McCutchen tearing rib cartilage on a swing the next day.  This was on the heels of Neil Walker's back flaring up on August 1st, in the midst of his best season.

And just for added sport, Pedro Alvarez picked this time frame to become completely worthless by letting his mental weakness overcome his ability to throw from 3B to 1B.  Plus his bat has been less than stellar this year, too.

As of this writing, the Pirates are 62-55 and just lost their annual series to the Padres.  They're in possession of the 2nd wild card, but it's hard to see them fending off the Giants (and perhaps the Braves and/or Reds) without McCutchen for an extended period of time.  Getting Walker back too is vital if they want to be a legit contender.

Without getting healthy AND getting some reinforcements to the bullpen and bench, I fear that the Pirates will just miss the playoffs this year.  Perhaps by as little as one game, which will lead to an entire offseason of second guessing Huntington and Hurdle's decisions, plus lamenting all of the blown games.

If the Pirates do miss the playoffs, it's not time to rend garments and gnash teeth, though.  The Pirates will have had their 2nd winning season in a row and their outlook for 2015 is incredibly bright with more prospects headlined by Kingham and Taillon on the way.  It will be a huge disappointment if they miss, but isn't the alternative of watching a losing season even worse?

(Who am I kidding?  It would suck huge if they missed the playoffs by one game.)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Grit & Grace

Last night, DB~ and I went to Grit & Grace, the newest venture from chef Brian Pekarcik and owner Richard Stern.  The two of them chef/own both Spoon and BRGR.  Spoon is one of our favorite places we've been, even though we've been there just once.  Both of us were eager to check out Grit & Grace.

Spoon is refined, modern American cuisine.  G&G is more casual, trying to play off the energy of nearby Market Square.  They actually have a very creative sign outside to court lunch traffic saying "Think Outside the Square".

G&G is in the space previously occupied by Taste of Dahntahn.  If DB~ and I weren't at that place right before it closed, we wouldn't have known it was the same space, because they completed gutted the place and started over.  It has a sleek, clean look with taupe and celery colors.  They have dark teakwood slats layered in patterns against the wall to give added depth and texture.  DB~ liked the recessed shadow boxes filled with doorknobs and hinges.

DB~ went with the American Dim Sum menu that G&G is known for.  There were five options last night to choose from, each of them $5.  She went with three of them -- pork belly, smoked tofu on soba noodles, and a tomato/bulger salad.  She ordered them one at a time, but we were both disappointed by the lag time between the dim sum girl returning to our table.  True dim sum, served by tiny Chinese ladies that bark at you, is virtually served continuously on wheeled carts that are pushed with the labored resignation of knowing you are tiny, old, and soon ready to die.  Ahem.  Scratch that last part.

I went with two small plates.  First was my siren call of short rib.  This one was served on a biscuit imbued with cream cheese and topped with a scallion shaving.  It was divine.  I wanted to line my pockets with foil and steal a basket of them.

I also went with the Chicken Meatball Ramen.  It was a very large serving with two chicken meatballs, two pieces of chicken thigh that practically fell apart at the touch of the fork, shavings of kimchi, pieces of daikon, all in a rich broth full of flavor.  I really liked this a lot and shared with DB~.

Overall, I would say G&G is 'very good' but not 'great'.  I guess we just expected more from the chef/owner of Spoon.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Pirates Need For A Frontline Starter

Imagine it's October 1st and the Pirates are getting ready to play in the Wild Card Game.  Who do you pick to pitch?

  • Liriano, who has been inconsistent and ineffective for most of the season?
  • Cole, who has been hurt and oddly non-dominant for most of the season?
  • Morton, who is prone to one bad inning it seems every game?
  • Locke?  Volquez?  Worley?  Do you really trust any of these three in a one game playoff?
Then think of the Dodgers (Kershaw/Greinke), the Cardinals (Wainwright), the Nationals (Strasburg).  These teams all have bonafide aces to throw out there, guys who are locks for 8 innings in a crucial game.

The Pirates need a name pitcher.  I hope that Cole comes back from his rehab stint in early August and becomes that guy that we all hope he can be.  If so, that would be a bonus.  But right now, the Pirates need a horse.

Neal Huntington has been collecting prospects like they're Star Wars toys in their original packaging.  When he breaks open one and deals them one year, then I'll know that the front office and ownership both believe the Pirates are a World Series contender.  This year, if he deals Taillon, Glasnow, Kingham, Bell, or Meadows, that will signal to me that they are making a run and not worrying about the future as fastidiously.

There's a lot of big names out there, but most are out of the Pirates' price range for 2015 and beyond (Price, Lee, Hamels).  I see two that are viable candidates -- Lester of the Red Sox and Kennedy of the Padres.

Lester is a low end #1/high end #2 level pitcher.  He's got about $4.3M left this year and is then a free agent.  The money this year shouldn't be a problem, since I calculate that the Pirates have $8M left from their original offseason spending pool when they were rumored to have $19M last offseason for free agents.

The Sox want one premium and one other top 10 prospect for Lester.  I'm comfortable trading Bell and someone like RHP Adrian Sampson for Lester.  The Sox had a great deal of interest in Bell during his draft year, but avoided him due to the infamous note his mother sent to all 30 teams asking them not to draft her son so he could go to University of Texas.  Bell would be a loss, but that sting should just motivate the Pirates to win more.

Kennedy is a #2 pitcher and not as flashy of a name as Lester, but he would be an upgrade for this rotation.  The Padres are said to be seeking an ML-ready starter for the rotation and a prospect for him.  Since Vance Worley is basically found money for Huntington, why not include him?  Worley has 3 more years of control and has revitalized his career.  Imagine him in Petco.  I would also use Universal Trade Chip Adrian Sampson in this scenario.

The Pirates have rebounded amazingly from their April malaise and positioned themselves well for the playoff run.  It's time to solidify it.