Thursday, May 23, 2013
Here's a quick and approximate timeline of how Mayor Luke Ravenstahl spent his last 5-1/2 months:
Jan 1 -- City becomes embroiled in a scandal involving the Police Department. Eventually this reaches all the way to Chief Nate Harper. FBI investigates potential displacement of city funds into off-the-books accounts relating to the Mayor's security detail
Feb 1 -- Things look grim for the Chief, who resigns and takes the fall for the whole scandal. Ravenstahl maintains his innocence in knowledge of the scheme or wrongdoing on his part.
Mar 1 -- Ravenstahl, the prohibitive favorite as a sitting Mayor, pulls out of the re-election for "personal reasons". That sound you heard of March 1 was the exultant rejoicing of Bill Peduto, who is the clear-cut favorite.
Mar 15 -- Jack Wagner enters the race for Mayor and transfers over his State Auditor campaign money. That sound you heard was tearful weeping of Bill Peduto. All the old money, Democratic machine voters are thrilled.
May 1 -- It's found out that a major supporter behind attack ads on Bill Peduto (from the Wagner campaign) is a Political Action Committee founded and funded by Luke Ravenstahl. Post-Gazette outs him and Wagner's campaign takes a huge hit.
May 21 -- Peduto crushes Wagner in the primary, which in Pittsburgh is the election as the Republicans put just a token patsy up for Mayor.
So to recap:
Ravenstahl's Police Chief brings down faith in police and government
Ravenstahl may have known about it
Ravenstahl does not run for re-election, perhaps in exchange for not being investigated further
Ravenstahl can't withstand his pure hatred for Peduto, so he petulantly funds a smear campaign
Ravenstahl ruins Wagner's chances of winning, potentially
To be fair, if I became Mayor at age 26, I probably would have had syphilis by age 28. Yes, I know he was married at the time, but that didn't last. Most likely he was busy "polling" the voters at various nightclubs like the one he was recently photographed getting a lap dance in, surrounded by his bodyguards.
Ravenstahl abandoned the City during the Snowmagadden in 2010, on his birthday weekend, so he could (theoretically) go up to Seven Springs and have a huge hot tub orgy with dumb blondes and snow bunnies.
Ravenstahl was a joke of a Mayor and brought next to nothing to the table. Now at age 33, he's washed up from his only known line of work -- politics. What now?
The good news is that Bill Peduto has a vision, has ideas, and has an ally in County Executive Rich Fitzgerald -- Ravenstahl had none of those things. Although I don't live in the City, it's still My City That I Love and I'm hopeful that Mayor Elect Peduto can grow this region in ways Ravenstahl couldn't.
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
DB~ found an interesting 5K race that would go through Audubon Park, located in the Garden District. I signed us up for it the week before. DB~ really just liked the logo on the T-shirt and thought it would be a cool way to see some of the city. So we planned on Saturday being our time to run the race in the morning, change clothes after the race, then cruise around the Garden District in the afternoon.
We woke up at 6:30 am (this was a vacation, right?) in order to catch the 7:10 streetcar out St. Charles Street to Audubon Park, in time for the 8 am race. We were greeted by charcoal gray skies, thunder, and sheets of rain.
We went back to bed.
But at 7 am, the rain stopped and the skies turned light gray. So with no shower, we threw our race clothes on and ran out to get the streetcar at 7:20. Long story short, the tracks were under re-construction on St. Charles, so 3/4 of the way there we had to get off and get a bus transfer the rest of the way. Then we had to walk 1-1/2 miles to get to the start line of the race...for which we were late.
As we were walking to the start line, the racers were running towards us. We registered and half-heartedly jogged/walked the race. Then we ate steaming hot crawfish etoufee at the end. Naturally.
We didn't bring a change of clothes, thanks to our last second departure, so we were walking around the Garden District feeling gross and sweaty. With the temperature in the 80's and the humidity high, DB~ selected a pub called the Bulldog for our lunch based solely on their air conditioning blasting out on the sidewalk.
After lunch, we went to a great bakery called Sucre based on a recommendation from DB~'s sister, who was there during a work conference a couple of years ago. Sucre (French for sugar) is known for their macarons, just like Jean-Marc Chatelier in Millvale, so we wanted to see what all the hot fuss was about. We bought 8 of different flavors and ate 6 of them (I had 4) on the streetcar ride back to the hotel. They were quite awesome, but we both still liked Jean-Marc's better.
Sucre and The Bulldog, I failed to mention, were located on Magazine Street which runs parallel (but a few blocks away from) St. Charles Street. Magazine is a lot like Shadyside in some ways and could have been in any city. There were a lot of great looking restaurants and some fun shops -- we went into a store that specialized in antique locks and hinges, but we were pretty sweaty and starting to get irritated at each other. It was time for a recharge.
Rather than wait for a bus, we walked back up to St. Charles to catch a streetcar back into town. As is our way, we randomly selected Washington Street to walk up. Halfway to St. Charles, we happened upon what is only the most respected restaurant in all of New Orleans known as Commander's Palace. It is an old money, grand dame type of restaurant that helped launch the culinary careers of Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse, among others. I never knew where it was located and we just randomly walked up on it. What are the odds?
Right across from Commander's Palace was Lafayette Cemetery, which is kind of creepy in a Scooby Doo sort of way, so we wandered through that to check off another thing from DB~'s list. This wasn't as old as say St. Louis Cemetery in the Quarter, but it was still old and still in poor overall condition, so it was a typical N'awlins graveyard.
After our showers and recharge at the hotel, we went down to Bourbon Street and got on a balcony overlooking the street. It was around 5 pm, but there were still people milling on Bourbon, still freaky street performers to shake your head at, and other oddities to ogle. We had some cheap drinks and lorded over the "commoners" below our balcony for an hour. Then we left to go to Cafe Amelie.
After Cafe Amelie, we had some final drinks (Olde Absinthe House and a return trip to Pat O'Brien's) and said our farewells to one of my favorite cities.
Monday, May 20, 2013
We were leaving New Orleans on Sunday morning, so for all intents and purposes Saturday night was our final night in the Big Easy. We had our fancy dress up night on Friday night at Broussards, so for dinner on Saturday the goal was to check off DB~'s final culinary box on the checklist -- Shrimp and Grits.
We did some online research at various sites like Urbanspoon, Chowhound, and Yelp and the consensus seemed to be either Cafe Atchafalaya in the Garden District or Cafe Amelie on Royal Street in the French Quarter. Since we were already in the Garden District during the day on Saturday, we went with Cafe Amelie.
When I called to attempt to make reservations early in the afternoon, the hostess said they were full , but we could try our luck as walk-ins. After spending some time on Bourbon having a pre-dinner drink (or three), we went one block over to Royal Street. The variation between Bourbon and Royal is amazing. Bourbon is a cacophony of noise, booze, and general debauchery. Royal is a serene street of art galleries, bookstores, jewelry stores, and restaurants. You can't even hear the dull roar of Bourbon when you're on Royal.
DB~ and I walked about 5 blocks up Royal until we got to our destination. Just a very small sign hanging above an ever-present wrought iron gate announced Cafe Amelie. This restaurant also had a courtyard, but it was an outer courtyard instead of an inner courtyard like many establishments in the French Quarter. Additionally, it was a slate courtyard, rather than brick.
There was no doubt on what DB~ was going to get, but I had a few choices to make. I ended up going with the bone-in pork chop, laced with maque choux sauce, and bedded on some creamy grits of my own. DB~ paired her dinner with an Amelie Mixed Salad.
Maque choux is a Cajun side dish, typically, that involves the trinity (onion, bell pepper, celery), fresh corn, and cayenne pepper. Some render some bacon or tasso (smoked Cajun ham) into the recipe as well. The vegetables all sweat and stew together to give a creamy taste. Here's my dish:
And here's DB~'s Shrimp and Grits:
The grits truly were fantastic and both of us agreed that they were among the best we've had. We wondered why more restaurants in New Orleans didn't serve them and she said that it is primarily a Low Country Dish (the Carolinas) and is just starting to get a footprint in New Orleans.
For me, my dinner experience at Cafe Amelie was a Top 10 all-time. The food was fantastic, but not the best I've ever had. The restaurant was gorgeous, but not the fanciest place I've ever been. I think it was just a wide combination of things that made it for me.
Being with the girl I truly love. Being in one of my favorite cities. Having the weather be just right in terms of temperature so that I felt like I was in perfect harmony in my surroundings.
I was at peace.
I didn't have 46 things running through my mind all at once like I usually do. I wasn't thinking about posting a Pirate-themed blog post or when was the last time I posted here on DBS. I wasn't worried about my family or friends or any external pressures. Didn't have to think about what to make for dinner, either. Didn't have to worry about driving anywhere.
It was just me and DB~. The only decision I had to make was what type of cocktail we wanted to drink after dinner (answer -- whisky and rye for me, beer for DB~, followed by a final Hurricane for each of us).
Of course, all that ended on Sunday morning when we had to come home, but for one night I was at peace and truly happy. That's a hell of a pork chop.
Thursday, May 16, 2013
Prior to our trip to Mardi Gras World, DB~ and I ventured out into a very rainy New Orleans last Friday (first stop was a CVS to buy an umbrella). DB~ had a little checklist of things she wanted to do and tops on that list was eating beignets at Cafe du Monde, next to Jackson Square.
Beignets are little French donuts. Essentially, they're French funnel cakes that are dredged in powdered sugar. A typical order in the Big Easy is 3 to an order. We ate our beignets and DB~ had her hot chocolate as the rain poured outside on Decateur Street. We had a few minutes before our scheduled shuttle would arrive to take us to Mardi Gras World, so we walked up Decateur to Canal Street to get a lay of the land in terms of things to do later in the day.
After the trip to Mardi Gras World, the rain had stopped and the sun was out, so we perused various bookstores in the French Quarter. These stores are all jammed floor to ceiling with dusty old books and dusty old booksellers. I had hoped to find a good old timey map of New Orleans to take home, but there wasn't a lot of variety and the ones that were there were crazy expensive.
We had po' boys at Huck Finn's -- I had fried crawfish and DB~ had fried shrimp. It was a solid restaurant that had a nice selection of po' boys. There's no shortage of restaurants, in general, and restaurants that serve po' boys, but we made a good choice.
We crisscrossed the French Quarter all afternoon until we wound up at Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo. At least on the surface, the voodoo in New Orleans professes to promote positive energy and are amulets to bring either luck or money or love. I'm sure that in some backroom or back swamp, there are old school "sacrifice an animal to curse your boss" voodoo priests and priestesses.
DB~ loved the handmade dolls so she bought this one to bring love and patience.
After our purchases at the House of Voodoo and various other FQ establishments, we decided we stimulated the economy enough and headed across the street for some afternoon drinkin' at Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop. Said to be the oldest bar in the United States, it is said to have been open since 1772. The interior is lit only with candles and lanterns, even at night time. We had a few drinks and people watched for a while. The rain returned and we didn't much care.
We went back to the hotel and got cleaned up for our "classy" dinner (that's right...black blazer in the house!) at a "grand dame" restaurant known as Broussard's. We had reservations for 7 pm, but had to take a cab, because of the rain, and were 10 minutes late. It didn't quite matter as the restaurant was fairly empty.
We were skeptical because of this, but DB~ said it best "It's like Mallorca back home -- it needs freshened up". The food was great and the service was fantastic -- we had an actual French waiter who, you could tell, was a career professional waiter. Rather than just ordering a standard dinner, we went with each of getting an appetizer, soup, and salad in order to get a wide breadth of the restaurant.
I got Shrimp Remoulade, Chicken and Andouille Gumbo, and an Applewood Smoked Bacon Salad. DB~ got Crabmeat Broussard, Sweet Potato and Shrimp and Corn Bisque, and a Blue Cheese Salad. She had the better of the selections, as the hot crabmeat topped with brie and Herbsaint spinach was fantastic. The real stunner was the Sweet Potato soup. Its velvety texture was due to the puree on the sweet potato and the introduction of cream.
After dinner, we looked too good to go home, so we journeyed down to Frenchman Street to check out some live music at the clubs. At the Spotted Cat, we saw a trio featuring a guy on the washboard and a guy on harmonica. We walked down the street to Club Negril (a Jamaican bar) to see a blues-rock band (American) and had chicken tacos in the back made by a Honduran in a city that prides itself on being French. The final stop was a club called Vaso, I think, to see the final two songs of a set by high school playing upbeat jazz, including a cover of Bell Biv Devoe's "Poison".
And oh yeah, we walked right through the set of a commercial being filmed for Jeep featuring a traditional jazz band and an old man in a crazy tophat.
The sad part is that as we were connecting through Atlanta on Sunday, we heard about the Mothers' Day Parade shooting that took place about 10 blocks from where we were on Frenchman Street.
But that's what New Orleans is to me. Great on the surface, maybe a little edgy if you scrape off the top layer, and gritty all around you.
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
This past weekend, DB~ and I took a long weekend trip to The Big Easy, perhaps known to you as New Orleans. It was my fourth time there (it's one of my favorite towns and a town that I think everyone should experience at least once), but it was DB~'s first. To that end, I had to balance being a good "tour guide", but also finding some things for us to do that I haven't done before.
We got in on Thursday night around 9:30 p.m. and immediately dropped our bags in our hotel room and headed to Bourbon Street so DB~ could see a touch of that spectacle. After doing some time traveling at Pat O'Brien's, thanks to the ridiculously strong hurricanes, we turned in and planned to get up early to explore the French Quarter.
When we got up on Friday, it was pouring rain. In a subsequent post, I'll detail our Friday in New Orleans, but this post will focus on one of the cooler things we did down there and that's go see Mardi Gras World.
This was a good activity to do when raining and it was something new to both of us. After a short shuttle ride to the warehouse, we went inside and signed up for the tour. It felt a touch steep at $20/person, but it was definitely a cool experience. If you've seen a Mardi Gras parade, whether live or on TV, you've seen how intricate and ornate some of the floats can be. What I didn't know is that some (or most) of the bigger Krewes (social clubs that sponsor the floats) contract the float building out to Mardi Gras World.
For the larger mega-Krewes, some of these floats can hold 40-70 people. Since these parades on Mardi Gras and the two weeks leading up to it can be long, some of them even have bathrooms hidden on board. The floats are quite heavy at 20 tons and are pulled by tractors, under the theory that if a tractor has a problem they can always just hook another one up rather than delay the parade.
Not all Krewes are created equal. Rex is the oldest one and Orpheus is one of the newest (started by Harry Connick, Jr. in 1993). The Krewe of Endymion is the largest at 2,700 members with a huge waiting list. Considering that the yearly dues can be $500 to $2000 and up, plus the cost of attending the post-parade balls and other expenses throughout the year, it's an expensive hobby to be in. Those dues and fees go to the creation of floats. Some Krewes may have up to 14 floats in a parade. Each float can cost $10,000 to rehab an existing theme or $50,000 to $80,000 to build from scratch.
Originally, I thought Mardi Gras World would just be a big warehouse we would see some floats, but it was much more than that. There were about 6-10 artists working on actively creating floats for the 2014 Mardi Gras, even though it is in early March 2014. Some Krewes submit the ideas for next year the day after Mardi Gras is over. No rest for the wicked.
The main art pieces on the fronts of the floats are called "props" and are made out of either fiberglass or styrofoam/paper mache. They are then painted painstakingly to create the theme of the float. These props are made by cutting out 4' by 8' sheets of styrofoam and then gluing them together, then cutting them into the desired shape with an electric knife.
While there, we observed an artist re-purposing a globe into what would be the red Angry Bird for a 2014 float.
We also watched a short 15 minute movie explaining the traditions of Mardi Gras and shopped in the conveniently placed gift shop. When we were done after an hour and a half, the rain had stopped and we went on our day through the Quarter.
Tuesday, May 7, 2013
DB~'s parents invited all the kids, including DB~'s sister in town from North Carolina, to dinner on Tuesday night at the Beacon Hotel in Penn Township, Butler County. I'm not sure of the exact address of this place, but I'm pretty sure if you address a letter to "Middle of Nowhere" it will get there.
We were all going to try the "1st Tuesday of every month" Shrimp and Crawfish Boil special at the Beacon. Set up outside are huge stockpots with crawfish, shrimp, potatoes, and corn boiling away with appropriate seasonings all through the water.
The menu on this night is rather simple. It's "do you want shrimp and crawfish or just shrimp with your boil. And how many people do you want to get it for -- one or two?" I think you could get crab legs with it, but nearly everyone is there for the boil. The server brings out a tray filled with the aforementioned goodies (my one brother-in-law and I split a shrimp/crawfish boil for 2) and dumps it on the craft paper strewn on the table. Some clarified butter is provided to everyone along with a roll of paper towels. No plates, just like it should be.
It's a rather simple meal, but it was very tasty. The shrimp were deveined, peel and eat shrimp to keep them moist. The interior of the restaurant hasn't been touched since the late 1970's, so don't expect much in decor. There are original arcade games like Ms. Pac-Man and they're not there as ironic statements -- they're there because they never moved them out.
DB~'s favorite touch was the little old man named Cooney who was playing dixie tunes at an old, old upright piano in the corner. She wanted to give him some of her shrimp, I think. It took quite a while to get out and back from our house, but it was a good experience.
Saturday, May 4, 2013
DB~ was out on Thursday night, so I watched a documentary that I didn't think she would be too interested in called Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The documentary, all in Japanese with English subtitles, is about this little Japanese sushi master (Jiro) that has been making sushi for over 70 years.
His restaurant is located in the Ginza Street subway station in downtown Tokyo and seats only 10 people. The main driver of the documentary is a food critic named Yamayoto, who claims to have eaten at every sushi bar and restaurant in Tokyo, and is of the belief that Jiro is the finest one of the them all.
I've long admired the artistry of sushi, which is what drew me to putting this movie in my mental queue in the first place, but it is revered as an art form over in Japan. Yamayoto refers to Jiro's sushi as minimalist and says that "Ultimate simplicity leads to purity". Jiro's sushi consists of hand formed rice (itself a full time job -- more later) and a piece of fish on top. Each piece is then slowly brushed in one simple movement with what I believe is soy, giving it depth of color and flavor.
The 85 year old Jiro (as of this movie at least) is single minded and borderline manaical when it comes to his daily routine and execution of his craft. He takes the same train, at the same time each day, and stands in the same spot on the platform. Every. Day. He only takes off when it is a national holiday. He never takes a vacation.
Keeping in mind that he's 85 and has been doing this for 70+ years, he still says he trying to improve every day and that he has not served the perfect meal yet. As for that meal in question, his menu has no appetizers and no bar component. It is a 20 piece tasting menu that costs 30,000 yen. My yen to dollar conversion is a little rusty, so I looked it up during the movie....that comes to $300 U.S. dollars. You don't linger at Jiro's restaurant either, as he keeps the train moving. He says that a fast eater can be done in 15 minutes, so that's a really pricey experience!
Jiro is not a 1 man operation. His son Yoshikazu, himself at least 50 years old, has been patiently at his side lo these many years waiting to take over full time. He is a master sushi man, as well, and handles going to the fish market each day in lieu of his father. Jiro went every day to inspect and select the fish until he was 70, as he had a heart attack and collapsed right there. After that he gave up smoking and turned that duty over to Yoshikazu. There are also 4 "apprentices" who work in the kitchen as well. They will work as apprentices for 10 years (!!) under Jiro and then be considered to have enough skill and acumen to be their own sushi masters. Some apprentices have lasted only 1 day under Jiro.
In a very Japanese custom, Jiro's other son Takahashi decided to forge his own path as a sushi master, rather than serve under his father and older brother. His restaurant is located in Roppangi Hills, which I assume is another neighborhood in Tokyo. The restaurant is an exact copy of Jiro's, except it is a mirror image in its layout, due to the fact that Jiro is left handed and serves food from left to right, while Takahashi is right handed and serves right to left.
Jiro's attention to detail is so fine that he notes if a person eats with their left or right hand after their first piece of sushi and then adjusts where he places the plate at the counter accordingly. Jiro's restaurant, all of 10 tables and located in a subway station, was awarded 3 Michelin stars in 2008 -- the equivalent of saying that it is worth traveling to this COUNTRY to try a restaurant. And who does Jiro look up to? Joel Robuchon. All roads lead to Robuchon.
The rice is the secret component to his sushi. They cook their rice "under pressure" by putting heavy lids and other vats filled with water on top of the rice as it cooks. To say nothing of the top of the line rice vendor that they deal exclusively with, of course. All of Jiro's vendors are fiercely loyal and honored to be working with him. Each of them is considered an expert in their specialty, whether it is shrimp, tuna, squid, or rice.
Jiro was abandoned by his parents at age 9 and forced to be on his own, which is absolutely mind boggling to me, especially in such a rigid country as Japan. There's a piece in the documentary where he goes to visit their graves with Yoshikazu and he says he doesn't know why he visits people that never loved him. It is heart breaking to see such a strong and solemn man just want to be loved.
As I was watching the movie, I found myself thinking of my cousin Ken from Baltimore. Just Jiro he is an older guy (he's around 82) and he's also continuing to work in his field to keep himself young. For Ken it is adult literacy and he also is constantly working to improve his own skills to help other people. Neither of them takes vacations. Plus they both wear those "old man caps" that Jiro wore throughout the movie. People who are so focused at staying on top of their games, sometimes to the detriment of their relationships with other humans, is fascinating to me. There's something to be said for dedication, but there's also something to be said for enjoying the rest that life has to offer. That is a foreign concept to Jiro. He has dreams and visions of sushi while he sleeps.
Much like his sushi itself, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a delicious bite-size of a movie at only 80 minutes.