Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Bucs Trying to Corner Market on Animal Named Players -- Get Byrd and Buck

Today the Pirates obtained Marlon Byrd and John Buck from the Mets for Dilson Herrera and a Player to be Named Later.  Rumors are that the PTBNL is on the 40 man roster and both sides want to wait until September so he doesn't have to go through waivers.

I guess Neil Huntington was inspired by the Furry Convention last month and wanted to corner the market on animal players.  Apparently Jake Fox was unavailable and the Angels weren't willing to part with Mike Trout just yet.

Byrd is having a resurgent year.  At age 36.  With a prior suspension for PED's.  But whatever.  I'd walk through Hades wearing a napalm-laced suit to get to the playoffs at this point.  Even if he turns into a pumpkin, he'll at least strengthen the bench as a 4th OF.

Buck....he's a catcher.  He's been ice cold since May 1st, batting .206/.290/.302 (592 OPS).  He hit 10 of his 15 HR in the first 25 games.  But he's a "veteran presence" and may allow Hurdle to unglue Tony Sanchez from the bench and use him as a pinch hitter periodically.

As for Dilson Herrera, I had him currently as the 11th best prospect in the system.  This is his age-19 season and he's showing nice power for a 2B.  He's not a shortstop, despite what you may have read about the trade.  He doesn't have the arm to play SS long-term.  Herrera is not in the echelon of prospect to make me regret this trade, even though I have reservations about Byrd and Buck.

If Byrd can solidify RF and the 5th spot in the batting order, plus help the Bucs win some games down the stretch, then trading Herrera is no big deal.  The Pirates are on the verge of doing great things in 2013.  If everything breaks right, Herrera is still 3-4 years away.

Flags Fly Forever.  Good, not great, move by Huntington and the Pirates today.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Everyday Noodles

On Friday night, DB~ and I checked out Everyday Noodles in Squirrel Hill.  It's a Chinese noodle house that is known for their soup dumplings.  Amazingly, it is a dumpling with soup inside of different types of broth (we got pork and crab).  Even more amazingly, our server told us that these have only been typically available in either New York and California.

I will admit that there is a certain level of skill to proper make these.  But...c'mon.  Nowhere between the 3000+ miles of NYC and LA is there some Chinese person that can craft a soup dumpling?  There's over 1 billion Chinese people...I'm sure one in Kansas City could whip these up, right?

We were seated at a communal table with a family of four from O'Hara -- a wife, husband, 5th grade girl, and 2nd grade girl.  Each of the girls was given their own ball of dough to "make" their own noodles.  It certainly kept them entertained.  Watching these two girls (the older one was using chopsticks) attack their noodle bowls at dinner was really cool.  There's no way when I was 10 would my parents have taken me to this type of place and no way would I have enjoyed it.  Times they are a'changin'.

The great part about Everyday Noodles is that not only is it relatively cheap -- we got 3 things for $25 and could have just done two, probably -- but it is fast AND good.  We were seated, ordered, and finished our meals within 45 minutes.

Aside from the aforementioned dumplings, which are the picture at the top of the post, we ordered Five Spice Eggplant.  We were a little stumped how they made it:

We guessed the filleted off the eggplant skin, leaving just a little "meat" and then soaked them in soy sauce and five spice mix (star anise, chinese cinnamon, cloves, pepper, and fennel) to get them pliable.  Then they rolled them up and chopped them into sushi-esque bite size portions.  They were served cold.  The soy-five spice sauce covering them was delicious.

We also ordered a bowl of Dan Tzu Noodles with Minced Pork.  There was a little broth at the bottom that you stirred into the noodles and sprouts mix.  I avoided the brown egg, because I don't like eggs and it was brown.  I loved the noodle dish, but it wasn't DB~'s favorite.  She preferred the eggplant and dumplings.

I can't stress enough how awesome the dumplings were.  When you bit into them, the soup just oozed into your mouth.  It was a neat way to combine two great parts of Chinese cuisine.  I'm still not convinced that there's not a Chinese person in Colorado making soup dumplings right now.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

DBS Euro Trip 2013 - Paris, the Things

This is the final post of the Euro Tour recap.  For this final one, these are the structures and/or places.  The most well-known and prominent structure in Paris is, of course, the Eiffel Tower.  Designed by Gustave Eiffel, who also did a little sculpture known as the Statue of Liberty, is a breathtaking landmark adjacent to the Seine River.

As a structure, it's extremely impressive.  The wide base rises majestically to a point way above your head, but it never seems like it dominates the surroundings because of the large Champ de Mars park around it.  People picnic and lay out on blankets here to enjoy the Eiffel Tower.  At night at 10:00 pm, they light the Tower up with a series of "sprinkle lights" that people turn out in droves to see.  There's a ride to the top that we unfortunately did not do.  To compensate, DB~ took approximately 86 pictures.

We used the omnipresent Metro to go over to the Champs Elysees and see the Arc de Triomphe.  Instead of trying to re-enact Frogger across the giant roundabout, we took the underground tunnel and popped up right under the Arc.  This one we did tour and walked up nearly 200 steps to the top.  You get unbelievable panoramic views of Paris from up here.  The level of detail on the exterior of the Arc is impressive, as well, with inscriptions and engravings.

To the east of the Arc is Notre Dame and the Louvre.  You can probably spend 3-4 days at the Louvre.  We did it in 3-4 hours.  You can get a map with the "highlights" on each floor and just kind of cruise around from there.  The line to see the Mona Lisa is 20 deep and the mass of humanity got to be a little too much for me, but DB~ sifted through the people and got a nice shot of the Mona Lisa.

About 10 minutes from the Louvre is Notre Dame on the little island in the Seine where Paris started out hundreds and hundreds of years ago.  Notre Dame started construction in 1163 and finished nearly 180 years later in 1345.  The scope and, again, level of detail is something you just may never see be built again.  That baroque style and level of artistry just is not done anymore.

The final "thing" is Moulin Rouge (the Red Windmill) in the neighborhood of Montmarte.  Frequented by Van Gogh and Lautrec, along with copious amounts of absinthe, the Moulin Rouge is a classy burlesque joint.  We watched streams of middle aged people pour in for the 7 pm show.  The area around Moulin Rouge is extremely seedy, with strip joints, sex shops, and general debauchery as far as the eye can see.  Just one block parallel to the street where Moulin Rouge is located is a standard, albeit artsy, street in Paris with the ever-present array of bakery, fruit stand, butcher shop, and clothing stores that ensures you never have to leave your neighborhood.

Paris is one of the world's greatest cities.  The people were friendly enough to us, even as I was butchering their language at every chance I got.  The buildings, the food, and the general romantic nature of the city makes it a Top 5 city in the world.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

DBS Euro Trip 2013 - Paris, The Food


Paris is pretty much one of the world's greatest food destinations.  Depending on your level of haute cuisine, French is widely considered the most technically sound and artistic cuisine of the world.  We didn't eat at a Joel Robuchon restaurant, but we still had some darn good meals.

DB~ has a friend that lives in Germany and she and her husband periodically go to Paris, because...hey, why not?  She gave us the choicest of choice recommendations for a place on Rue de Rivioli (Ravioli Street as we called it) named Angelina's.  Of course every time DB~ talked about Angelina's, I thought of Angelina Jolie.  She always seems French to me.  Or snooty.  Either one.  But she was super hot and super cool in Mr. and Mrs. Smith and that's one of my favorite guilty pleasure movies, so there you go.

Angelina's is known for their hot chocolate and pastries.  I thought it would be like a fancy little cafe/bakery.  Turns out it is a super swank tea room that I felt slightly under-dressed for, even though I had a collared polo shirt on with my shorts.  The hot chocolate is of such quality that it's like an angel is letting you drink it directly out of their mouth after that angel rubs up against a unicorn and then rubs a panda for good luck.  It's a viscous liquid that is not watery in the least bit and only augmented in flavor by the amazing whipped cream you can ladle in at your own discretion.

We both got "brunch" type things here.  I got a quiche, even though I really don't like eggs, because it seemed like the kind of joint that knew how to make me like an egg or two.  It had goat cheese and chives in it.

DB~ completely out-ordered me by getting a Croque Madame, which is a broad, flat sandwich with ham and cheese, topped with an egg.  It was decadent and delightful and hella 'spensive for a lunch.  But, when in Rome.  Or Paris in this case.

After that lunch, we went to the Louvre (future post alert!) and then stopped for macarons at another recommendation by our sister-in-law called Laduree.  It is this ultra-chic bakery that resembles an upscale clothing boutique for its display quality.  The macarons were fantastic (and expensive at $3 equivalent a piece), but much like Chez Leon in Brussels we felt that Pittsburgh has a fantastic near-equivalent in Jean Marc Chatelier's in Millvale.

The lasting memory of the whole Euro trip for me occurred outside Laduree.  It's one of those stories that if I ever forget it, I'll know that the onset of Alzheimer's is starting.  We were happily munching our macarons outside on the sidewalk, just a few feet from a large Japanese tour group being guided a Japanese guy so gay he must sneeze glitter, when a local n'er do well approached us.  He clumsily tried the "oh, did you drop this cheap ring on the ground" trick to me and I shooed him away.  He didn't get the hint and then tried to steal a macaron out of the open box in DB~'s hands.  She shot him the dirtiest of dirty looks, said "NO!!!", and then turned and ran away with the macarons, leaving me with a con man and all of our money.  But the macarons were safe!

We had two standout dinners in Paris.  The first was at a restaurant called Les Cocottes de Christian Constant.  Christian Constant is this restauranteur in Paris who has a bunch of popular restaurants.  This one specializes in food prepared in cocottes (or casserole dishes).  For an appetizer, we had a chilled cucumber soup with goat cheese mixed in the center.  It reminded us a little bit of the chilled avocado soup we make, but this was way better of course.

 For dinner, I had a pork shoulder with seasoned potatoes in a red-wine gravy.  DB~ had langustino and a fine risotto in hers.  We finished things up with a mousse in a cocotte.  Again, hey, it's Paris and if you don't get mousse here, where are you going to get it?  Both of us put this dinner in our all-time Top 10 meals.

Our final dinner in Paris was in the part funky/part skeezy section of town known as Montmarte, home to the Moulin Rouge.  DB~ found a great off the beaten path restaurant called Chez Toinette (via the always helpful TripAdvisor).  It was only open from 7 pm to 11 pm, so we made reservations for 7 pm that afternoon and got the last table.

Chez Toinette is a tiny 20 seat restaurant with an even tinier kitchen that puts out exquisite food with only 2 people, plus a host/waiter/busman with a great personality.  For our appetizer, we decided to go Full Paris and get escargot.  Yes, snails in general are gross.  But if you put those snails in a butter, garlic, breadcrumb mix and then heat that mix to high temperatures, you have a taste sensation.

For dinner, DB~ had a poached salmon dish with a small side of risotto.  Each of had a small array of steamed vegetables, highlighted by the tastiest carrots ever.  The carrots were cooked, pureed, then reformed into a carrot shape with seasonings.

I had a steak done in a red-wine sauce with the aforementioned vegetables.  The funny part about the meal is that two tables away from us was an American couple.  They were talking to another American couple.  We left at the same time as the first couple and chatted them up.  Turns out they were from Philly and were talking to another Philly area couple.  So three Pennsylvania tables in a tiny French restaurant.  It's a small world after all....

Of course there were many other little treats we sampled in Paris, such as crepes and chocolate and sandwiches, but these were definitely the highlights.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

DBS Euro Trip 2013 - Paris, Gettin' Around

Typically, my posts are arranged chronologically; it's just the easiest way for me to work through my thoughts about a subject.  But as I was laying out these potential Paris posts, I thought it might be a better idea to group them by subject instead.

We got to Paris via the Eurostar high speed rail.  Our trip from Brussels to Paris was a brisk 1 hour and 5 minutes.  It's clean, efficient, hassle-free, and there's even a bar/restaurant car in the middle of the train.  We worked on our travel journal on the trip and I looked over my shoulder in amazement at the two young Asians sitting one row behind me and to the left.  They were boyfriend/girlfriend and identically dressed in striped red and black tops with yellow shorts (festooned with a Paul Frank monkey).  I mean....there's about no way I would ever consider wearing the same outfit as DB~.

DB~ had read so much about street crime and pickpockets in Paris that she had me wired for sound to the brim with tension.  When we pulled into Gare du Nord, I put my game face on and made sure our bags were secure, money in a safe spot, and we were ready to do this.  We opted against the Metro into town (too many bags to oversee on a crowded train) and waited in the taxi line instead.  When we got out of the station, it was hemorrhaging rain outside; luckily, we were under cover.

The standard trope is that the French are snooty and dislike Americans.  Our first impression of Paris was our cabbie and he couldn't be nicer or a better guide.  He was a young guy (around 28) from the Ivory Coast, but he spoke French primarily, although his English was workable.  He was energetic and quite a traveler.  He's been to parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe already, with plans to visit the States one day (he has a friend in Miami).  Whenever we didn't understand each other, I resorted to charades and/or sound effects -- my attempt to give the definition of "mean" made DB~ laugh/cringe at the same time.

After we checked into our hotel, the ridiculously hard squall ended and we hoofed it around town quite a bit.  It's a walkable city, but you can't walk from key landmark to landmark.  They're all pretty much evenly distributed throughout the reaches of the city.  We were lucky enough to be just a 10 minute walk to the Eiffel Tower, which is a sight to behold.

Once we got comfortable enough to warrant venturing into the "scary" world of the Paris Metro system, we took to it swimmingly.  In the course of our three days in Paris, we were in 19 different Metro stations and used probably 5 different colored lines.  Our hotel was right across the street from the Bir Hakeim station, which was a convenient stop for what we needed to do as it went directly to the Arc de Triomphe and the hub station of Charles de Gaulle, which gave access to many other lines.

We used the Metro at all times of day.  Morning, afternoon, late night and every time it was packed.  I think we both had seats only a handful of times.  We were very vigilant; at times we stood back to back to protect ourselves, but we never felt threatened.  The stations were massive.  It felt like we were walking underground forever at some stations when we had to transfer.  You were able to take the Metro to a station directly under the Louvre.  You just came right up and into the main lobby (with a high end mall, as well).

We saw plenty as we were walking.  It's definitely a city that you want to see all the architecture and landmarks you can, but we saved ourselves and our energy by using the Metro to the fullest extent possible.  When we got there I thought people were going to come out of the walls to steal our money, but we left feeling quite content with our Paris transportation experience.

Monday, August 12, 2013

DBS Euro Trip 2013 - Brussels, Part Deux

Part 1 of the Brussels post was my venting about how frustrating the city was for us (me).  I thought for a change of pace, I would highlight some of the decent things about the city.  As a city, Brussels is of course old, but it seems like in its modern history it peaked in the early 1960's.  There didn't appear to be many modern or newish buildings in the city skyline.

In fact, Brussels hosted the World Exposition in 1958.  As part of the festivities, Brussels commissioned a sculpture to highlight the event and showcase the city into the future.  Enter, Atomium.

Atomium is a 335 foot high sculpture made out of stainless steel and aluminum.  Each of the balls you see in the picture can be reached by either steps or escalators and are home to exhibit space.  Here's a pro tip for you -- if it is a scorching hot 95 degrees outside, going inside a metallic, non-air conditioned sculpture with other sweaty people is a terrible, terrible idea.

It's a very striking object north of the main city, but it was reachable by the subway.  Once we got off the subway, it was (surprise!) not easy to negotiate our way from the station to the entrance to Atomium.  We had to cross parking lots, cut through bushes and other oddities to reach it.  We did meet a trio of interesting Canadians from Nova Scotia (a guy, his daughter, and her friend) who added onto our paranoia about Paris by informing us they were pickpocketed on the Paris subways.

After sweating through our jodphurs at Atomium, we walked across the street to an interesting little park called Little Europe.  It's a thinly veiled propaganda statement about unity within the European Union, as there is a to-scale model of one (if not more) buildings from each country in the European Union, along with some handy facts about that country.  DB~ enjoyed the first two-thirds of Little Europe, but then reached her fun quota when she got overheated.  She speedwalked through the last one-third, barely looking at the buildings and countries.  I think I took a picture of each building.  We have this one boss photo where I'm pretending to step on one of the buildings like a giant rage monster.

That night was our last full night in Brussels, so we cleaned up (and rested) and went into town to a restaurant called Chez Leon, rumored to have the best mussels in Brussels, presumably aside from Jean Claude van Damme.

Here's a shocker -- it was hot as hell's bells and the restaurant had no air conditioning (we didn't sit outside for reasons I can not remember).  I went with a simple order of mussels in a basic mirepoix of celery, carrot, and onion.  DB~ went with a slight variation on that, just in a white wine broth.  Each meal was served with frites.

Not to sound like a homer, but both DB~ and I agreed on a few things.  First, the mussels themselves were unbelievably tender and not rubbery at all.  This could be because the mussels are baked in a casserole type of container and not sauteed.  Second, the meal was not as good as mussels at Point Brugge.  The preparation of the mussels were not as good as the Brugge (although Chez Leon did have some interesting preparations such as an au gratin dish), as we just had some very basic dishes.  The other is that the frites were not as good as at the Brugge, mostly due to the lack of a good dipping sauce like the basil mayo.

The dinner was very good, so I complemented our snooty Belgian waiter by saying "We heard Chez Leon was the best place to get mussels in Brussels," to which he replied with no emotion:
"Yes, I know."

Brussels, ladies and gentlemen!  I couldn't get out of here fast enough and on the Eurostar to Paris.

Friday, August 9, 2013

DBS Euro Trip 2013 - Brussels, Part 1

Brussels.  Man...this town.

We wanted so hard to like Brussels.  We were both really pulling for it to be the underdog of the trip so that we could extol its virtues when we got home.  But no...that won't be happening.

We (mostly me) found Brussels to be an immensely frustrating town.  It started off immediately when our Eurostar train got into the Gare du Midi station and we intended to take the Metro to our hotel, just 2 stops away.  We walked through the train station in an attempt to find the Metro...and walked...and walked.  To no avail.  You would think a Metro stop would be well highlighted at the major train station in the town, but no.

So we took a cab, which was an experience in itself.  My French is passable on the best of days, but very basic.  I wasn't expecting to be dropped into a situation immediately and having to navigate along with our cabbie.  Our cabbie was a Moroccan...that spoke Spanish...and French...in Brussels, Belgium.  Naturally.

I told him the Pantone Hotel and the street (which was the side street, part of the problem, instead of the main street), but he couldn't find it.  He never even heard of it, then after 10-15 minutes mumbled "Oh...it's new, it was something else a couple of years ago."

We got to the Pantone and I was cranky.  The Pantone itself was nice, a very small 20 room boutique hotel.  Our room was not ready, but the desk guy said we had "the nicest room in the place on the top floor, just 2 rooms instead of 5 on the floor" so that was cool.  To kill time, we decided to go check out The Magritte Museum.

Rene Magritte was a surrealist painter.  His most famous work is what I call "Guy with Bowler Hat with apple in front of face".  It was a plot point in The Thomas Crown Affair and is one of DB~'s favorite artists.  On our way there, we decided to walk and check out the town.  It was blazing hot, at least 94 degrees out and we were drenched.  We actively sought out the shady side of the street and would cross repeatedly.

The day we got to Brussels was Belgium's Independence Day.  That was fun to see all the parades and people dressed up in the national colors.  We both got these paper crown/Burger King-looking crowns in the Belgium national colors to wear in an attempt to blend in a little bit.  We did catch a break in that the Magritte Museum's admission was only 1 euro that day per person.  Of course, the snooty guards outside made us take some convoluted path to get in and then a snooty guard inside made us check our backpack (for 2 euro!) in a locker.

There was no Guy with Apple at this museum -- it must be in a private collection or another museum, perhaps MOMA in New York like Thomas Crown Affair -- but there were lots of other great surrealist works by Magritte.

Perhaps the most famous attraction in Brussels is this odd little fountain a few minutes from the Magritte.  It's called Manneken Pis and it is of a little boy...pissing.  It's extremely old, like everything in Europe it seems, and has become the unofficial mascot of Brussels.  A local museum even dresses him up in different outfits on occasion and dedicates an exhibit to his sartorial choices, including Elvis Presley.

For some strange reason, DB~ was fascinated by this statue.  We ended up visiting it twice in the span of the 2-1/2 days we were in Brussels.  She kept hoping to see different outfits.  The weird part is the silhouette and likeness of Manneken Pis is put on T-shirts, coffee mugs, calendars, and a wide variety of other souvenirs.  It's like a whole city rallying around the Calvin (from Calvin and Hobbes) peeing on stuff likeness.

Right next to M.P. was one of the more recommended waffle shops in Brussels, so we tried one out.  DB~ loves the Leige style waffles at Wafflelonia in Squirrel Hill, so she just got a basic waffle with Nutella for 2 euro.  I splurged and got whipped cream and Nutella on mine for 3 euro.

They were excellent.  Here's a good waffle story and one that sort of sums up our (mine) frustration with Brussels.  We were looking for a different waffle place that was supposed to be the bees knees called the Maison Dandoy.  We got the address off the Net and used our ever-present Brussels downtown map to find the intersection (many of the streets sound the same) and we looked all over for it -- only to realize we had our back to it and it was closed for the night.  We just chuckled to ourselves.

Monday, August 5, 2013

DBS Euro Trip 2013 - Portobello Market and Buckingham Palace

After our marathon Death March the day before, where we estimated we walked 7-10 miles that day, our final full day in London we bought a 1 day Underground pass.  Well worth the investment, especially because we used the heck out of it in that one day.

We got up and rode the Underground to the stop closest to Buckingham Palace called Victoria, just a couple stops from our hotel.  Our goal was to see the Changing of the Guard ceremony; DB~ was hoping to see the announcement of the new Royal Baby.

The Changing of the Guard ceremony is full of pomp, that's for sure.  Hundreds and hundreds of people cram against the fence on the sidewalks surrounding the huge roundabout outside the Palace.  At the entrance to the Buckingham Palace roundabout are two pillars, each inscribed with one of their main territories or overseas "subjects" -- we saw Canada and Australia.  I think these are the Dominion Gates.  There are other gates with other countries on them, but we weren't sure of their significance, such as India and Pakistan (perhaps former colonies?).

The ceremony itself involved guards riding in on horseback wearing their normal military uniforms, then going into a side area to change into their "beefeater" outfits.  When they reappear, there's a whole thing of marching and signaling to the current guards, plus measuring out the extent of their area to protect through marching.

Then...a royal marching band came in and started playing...."Walking on Sunshine" by Katrina and the Waves, followed by some Lady Gaga (I think), and some other pop songs.  It was...odd, to say the least.  This was followed by some dirty and rude Indian guy sneezing on DB~'s back of her neck.  This was followed by DB~ telling me it was time to go.

Using the Underground again, we did a transfer to a second line to the Notting Hill station.  Not so secretly, DB~ hoped she would see Hugh Grant milling about randomly.  What we were there for was the Portobello Market.  We thought it would an outdoor flea market of sorts, with some boutique shops on the street.

What we got was a 2 mile long road (at least) jammed with between 10,000 and 20,000 people surveying all sorts of antiques, old books, clothes, food markets, and food vendors of food from all around the world.  Literally, all around the world.  Venezuela, Netherlands, Ghana, Morocco, Jamaica, India, and tons of other countries were represented.

We walked until we felt we saw it all, even though there was more road left.  I bought a couple of James Bond vintage edition books -- one for my father-in-law and one for my friend, the two biggest Bond fans I know.  DB~ got a cool set of old typography wooden blocks that she made spell "LOVE" on a wooden stand.  I think that's for me and not The Bachelor/Bachelorette series, but I'm not 100% on that one.  With all of the people jammed into this street and crowded against each other, I can't imagine how much merchandise is swiped during a typical Saturday.

After the Market, we rode the Underground to Westminster Abbey and walked to some other areas relatively close to our hotel.  That night we went up to Southbank to a restaurant called Giraffe, which was pleasantly good.  It felt a little chain-y and slightly like a London version of Cheesecake Factory, but the food was very good.  For our last night in London, we drank on a cool floating bar across the street from our hotel.  It was a renovated boat called the Thamsis Bar, decorated all colorfully and funky.  We were jammed on there with a bunch of other Brits, just chit-chillin' on a Saturday night.

London was a super cool town.  I would absolutely go back there, as I felt we only got the tip of the iceberg on the attractions.  We didn't really do an inside tour on any of the facilities.  Instead we just saw the exteriors on all of them.  There were lots of other restaurants that we wished we could have eaten at, as well.  Plus, we didn't see a show in the West End -- DB~ is a huge theater girl and I...love DB~ so I go to the theater with her sometimes.