Friday, December 31, 2010

Bob's Garage - Come for the freakshow, stay for the sandwiches

A few weeks ago, a couple of work guys and I checked out Bob's Garage for lunch off Freeport Road in the nexus between the Waterworks and Blawnox. The one guy was waiting for the other two of us to walk into Bob's Garage (neither of us had been there) just to see the looks on our faces. When we walked in, the guy waiting for us said we had classic "What the f&$*?!" expressions.

If you haven't had the pleasure of going to Bob's Garage, it is currently decorated for Christmas. And by decorated, I mean it looks like Santa Claus exploded inside of the place. Every square inch of the exterior, interior, ceiling, and bar area is covered in some type of Christmas decoration. We asked the bartender how long it took them to do this and he told us it took 4 people, 10 days, working from 2 am to 8 am every night. That's 240 man-hours.

Surprisingly, the food is also halfway decent, too. This post isn't going to go into the culinary delights and ambiance of Bob's Garage. It's just a good place to grab a sandwich (their reubens are fantastic) and enjoy the garish nature of the decorations.

I was telling DB~ about this place and she was curious to check it out. We got some gift cards to Taipei, right down the street from Bob's, so after dinner on Wednesday we popped over to Bob's. She took the picture above and poked her head in as well. She was just as stunned as I was.

I've been driving by this place for years and never knew about it. It has no noticeable sign saying Bob's Garage and is non-descript to begin with. Aside from this time of year. Rumor is that they decorate for St. Patrick's Day and other holidays, but Christmas is definitely their time to shine.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Nakama - no signs of a recession here

Yesterday was DB~'s sister's birthday (happy 24th!) and she wanted to go out with some of her friends and the two of us to Nakama on the South Side. We made reservations for 6 of us at 8 pm (dining fashionably late, thank you) on a bitter cold December night.

We were running late, so we decided to valet the car, which is something I am loathe to do typically. The valet area was so crowded that the police officer on duty for extra security forced me to drop the girls off and circle around the block again. Grrr. After this extra loop, I gave the valet $7 for the privledge of him to hopefully not treat my car like the valets did in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

It had been a long time since I had been to Nakama, probably not since 2007. In my "previous life", this was a spot that my old group of friends and our spouses would go to for dinner semi-frequently, to the point that the co-owner Becky would come over and say hi to us when she saw us. I've since trimmed a huge section of those people, including my ex-wife, out of my life because I didn't like the person I had become. I equate it to the selling off of toxic assets by a bank. I had a little bit of trepidation about going there again, to be quite honest, but since DB~ had never been there I hoped I could "overwrite" my past memories with this night.

When I came in from the valet station, it was jammed solid with people in the bar area and waiting area. The people were spilling over into the raw bar/sushi area, which I'm sure made their dining experience less enjoyable. With the way people are constantly seeking the next hot spot or "it" restaurant, I thought that Nakama may have tailed off in business slightly, especially with the proliferation of teppanyaki-style restaurants in recent years. That's a big fat "wrong" on my part.

We were late for our original 8 pm reservation, so we had to wait until about 8:30 to be seated. The din in the main dining room was just as I remembered it. The clanging of the knives and spatulas. The hum of the overhead fans. The general loud voices of the all the diners. The periodic whoosh from the hibachi being lit up with a burst of flame from the chef, much to the delight of the patrons.

About 85% of the people were very well-dressed. This isn't a suit and tie/evening gown place; it's a place that you wear your clothes from Diesel, Abercrombie and Fitch, Dolce Gabana, or BCBGMaxAzria. Unless you're DBS and DB~ and you're wearing black dress pants and a black blazer from Macy's and gray pants and a shirt from Ann Taylor Loft. Most of the people are trying to be cooler than you -- dark black hipster glasses, sunglasses at night, cocktail napkins that some girls were wearing as outfits, guys with 5 o'clock shadows. I came to realization last night that most of the people probably were eating at Nakama and then heading down the block to the nightclub Diesel, because that's exactly what DB~'s sister and her friends were doing. (We did not accompany them because we are in our mid-30's and by 11 pm at least one of us is always ready for bed. Blah.)

DB~'s sister is the first person to get a repeat mention on the blog (aside from DB~ of course). The last time she was on the blog, it was when we went to Tamari for a sushi-Latin fusion experience. Asian food is not all she eats, I promise! DB~'s sister is a very quiet and reserved person typically, so naturally both DB~ and I were going to try and embarass her as much as possible last night. The first item on the to-do list was to get her to have a fancy drink out of one of their special panda mugs, but they were out of them and brought out a Buddha-looking vessel instead. Good enough. Then we ordered a round of Jager Bombs for the girls and us to put down. I won't ever tell her this verbally, but DB~ beat me by a millisecond in finishing the shot and slamming it on the table. The other 24 year old girls all delicately finished theirs and made faces while doing so, as DB~ and I laughed. At the end of dinner, I quietly mentioned to the server that it was her birthday, so they brought out a gong to set on the table and put a roman candle-sized sparkler in a bowl of ice cream while they sang Happy Birthday to her...of course attracting the attention of a good portion of the restaurant our way. Here's the Buddha-looking vessel her drink was served in:

The food itself was good as usual. You never leave Nakama hungry, that's for sure. All of us had some iteration of steak, shrimp, and/or chicken for our main portion of dinner. None of tried the Kobe Steak for $70 (!!!!). I've always been tempted to try the Chateaubriand, as I've never had it, but I was hesistant if that style of cooking it would present the best flavor of this choicest of beef cuts. At Nakama, and virtually all teppanyaki restaurants, you get an appetizer of either mushrooms or shrimp off the hibachi, a mushroom broth soup (which DB~'s sister wants me to reverse-engineer for her), a ginger dressing salad, either steamed or friend rice, and your main course. Nakama is a great restaurant, but it's not conducive to conversations aside from the people sitting directly next to you because of all the noise I described above.

It was good to go here again; I pretty much resigned myself to that being a part of my old life that I didn't need to revisit. But because both DB~ and her sister are such great and positive people, Nakama got a rebirth in my mind as a great place again. Happy Birthday to you and thanks for letting us be a part of your night with your friends...even if we are "old people".

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Elements - power lunch in the big city

As a lowly engineer, I'm not usually wined and dined. But at least today, my chains were released and a colleague and I were taken to lunch downtown by our IT consultants. The five of us went to Elements, which is the space previously occupied by Palomino.

Elements embraces the earth, wind, and fire aspects of nature as evidenced by their logo. Of course, as a downtown upscale restaurant it has a very urbane and chic interior design. The walls are a sage/taupe mix with pale purple ceilings and recessed lights that have dangling pendants. All of the servers wear black pants and cobalt blue shirts, which would have been an awkward coincidence if I wear my cobalt blue shirt and black pants as I originally anticipated on Wednesday. At the last minute, I switched to a purple shirt. So at least I wouldn't have been accused on slacking on the job as I sat down at the table to eat.

One of my lunch mates had been to Elements before for lunch and heartily endorsed two things: the pumpkin soup and the porchetta panini. I felt I had to get a glimpse of these warlocks myself, so that's what I ordered up.

The pumpkin soup is a pumpkin soup tinged with curry, intermixed with mint leaves with a scoop of crabmeat in the center. It was an intriguing mix of flavors that worked. Slight complaint - the soup came out with not an orangish/brownish tint, but rather a mustard yellow complexion. It was slightly off-putting, but the taste made up for it.

My lunch (pictured below) was the aforementioned porchetta panini, a thinly sliced section of the pork belly and side of pork. A piece of radicchio gives the panini some crunch, but I wished the meat itself had a hint more flavor. I'll leave my initial method of eating the sandwich to one of my lunch mates to explain, but suffice it to say I usually make things harder than they need to be. The sandwich was served with a side of fries that were heavily seasoned with an Old Bay type of mix. The element that was going on inside my mouth when I ate them was "fire", as in my mouth was on fire. Too much seasoning for my liking.

Two other people ordered the eggplant parm manicotti that was topped with a section of salted olives. There was a creamy sauce that it was bedded on, but I'm unsure what it made of. Both of them definitely enjoyed it. Here's a picture of the eggplant parm manicotti.

The highlight of the meal for me was the dessert we ordered (what the heck, it was on our IT consultant's expense account). For the past month, I have had an unsatiated lust for chocolate mousse. Today, for at least one day, I was able to quell the beast inside of me that constantly craves chocolate mousse. It was served as a rectangular shaped piece, alternating with chocolate cake and topped with a crunchy piece of toffee. Absolutely fantastic. Hats of to the pastry chef.

All in all, I recommend Elements highly. I would probably not order the fries again due to the excessive seasoning, but there are a multitude of other choices to choose from. Check it out even if you're not in town to close a huge deal or getting wined/dined by a consultant.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Blue Dust - venture outside the Waterfront

DB~ and I went down to the Waterfront to do a little shopping and take in a movie at Loews Theater (Love and Other Drugs -- pretty good). She asked me to pick where to go for dinner as I was staring at one of my favorite places, P.F. Chang's.

However, with every fiber I resisted the chance to choose Dan Dan Noodles and went with a place that we have been meaning to try for a while now, Blue Dust. It's located on Amity, which is the main road that you use to exit the Waterfront. But instead of going straight on to the Homestead Grays bridge, make the left and go across the railroad tracks. Blue Dust is on your left as soon as you go over the tracks. It's crazy how close it is to the Waterfront. (Note - the picture is a Googled image...our picture was dark, dreary, and slush on the sidewalk. Blah to winter already.)

You know a place is going to be quirky when they list on the door that their hours of operation are 11:37 am to 1:37 am. We were also greeted with a Mad Lib-esque billboard that told us to seat ourselves. We anticipated more of a Mighty Oak Barrel (not as expensive, though) type of restaurant with some tables and a small bar. However, it was actually more of a bar with an equal amount of tables. The bar scene was quite lively, even at 6 pm on a Friday. It was a pretty wide spectrum of ages at the bar and in the restaurant -- every type from post-college hipsters to mid-30's types to those in their 50's. DB~ wondered where all these people lived, as they sure didn't seem like they lived in Homestead. Maybe they were coming/going from the Waterfront like we were, but it seemed like some of them were regulars here.

The entire interior of Blue Dust has a mural of the Steel Valley at the height of the steel industry done in a faded deep blue paint (blue dust?). It was kind of fun to look at during dinner.

DB~ was pretty much immediately won over by not only half-price tap beers from 5 to 7, but the fact that she could get Hoegarten at half-price to boot. Seeing the tab with Hoegarten at $2.13 was refreshing.

As for the food, the word on the street is that the owner (an older man that we saw circulating) uses all the recipes that his family developed over the years. If so, his family had a very eclectic menu growing up, as there is Italian, Mexican (sort of the speciality), seafood, and barbecue on the docket. DB~ went with Eggplant Parmesan, which she loved. It had a good breading and tasty marinara sauce and was served with a portion of polenta. I chose something called the Homestead Surf and Turf -- half a crab cake sandwich and half a beef brisket sandwich. I found the brisket a little dry and it needed more sauce, but I loved the thought behind it. All sandwiches are served with nacho chips and homemade salsa.

Overall, we liked Blue Dust and would go back. The prices were very affordable for food and awesome during happy hour for beers. Next time you go to the Waterfront, go off the grid and check out Blue Dust. It will be worth the trip.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Amoeba Cities

A megalopolis is defined as a cluster of cities and their metropolitan regions that have 10 million or more people in it. Ground transportation links such as railroads and highway interconnect these cities and commute their commerce. I was surprised to learn that the United States has 13 megalopolises (or megaregions) within its borders or extending in some cases into Canada and Mexico.

Even more surprising is that Pittsburgh is part of the largest megalopolis in North America -- the Great Lakes Megalopolis. The Great Lakes Megalopolis is comprised of:
St. Louis
Kansas City
Grand Rapids

Whew! All told these regions had a 2000 census population of 53.8 million people, with a projected 2025 population of 63.7 million.

Now...I don't know about you, but I don't feel any kinship with my brethern in, say, Grand Rapids. Couldn't tell you much about Milwaukee and have no bond with Dayton. I've been to Akron and it really sucks as a city.

I'm wondering if in our current lifetimes we will ever see two cities actually expand towards each other, like amoebas blindly flailing away in the primordial ooze. Our closest major urban neighbor is Cleveland, which I have been to twice this year already. It has its share of problems, both financial and social, but it has promise as well. Cleveland is virtually Pittsburgh's sister city as it is.
The technology that will foster the amoeba city migration is high-speed rail. Currently it takes a shade over 2 hours and 15 minutes to drive from downtown Pittsburgh to downtown Cleveland (traffic not withstanding). That's at a cruising speed of 75 mph. What if you could get there in half the time on a dedicated high-speed rail line? What would that do for business? Imagine getting up at your usual wake-up time and going to Cleveland for a 9 am meeting. Heck, what would that do for pleasure? A Clevelander could dine at Salt of the Earth at 7 pm and still be comfortably back by the 10 pm news. A Pittsburgh could enjoy Lola and then sit back and be swept back home at 160 mph.

Our world is simply getting smaller. Information is available instantly at our fingertips now. We can Skype in with people anywhere in the world. Sadly, our businesses know no bounds -- products are made and sold everywhere in the world. But our transportation network, at least in the United States, is still modeled from the 1960's gas guzzling era.

High-speed rail came into the national discussion recently when these two forward thinking governor-elects, from Ohio and Wisconsin, turned down $1.2 BILLION dollars to construct high-speed rail lines in their states. These weren't planning studies, either. These were funds to construct high-speed rail linkages between the major cities in these states. Ohio turned down $400 million to link Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus. Wisconsin rejected $810 million to link Madison and Milwaukee. Both were concerned that the operating and maintenance costs would outweigh the revenue received.

While that's valid, it's also short-sighted. Companies and residents alike would flock to the opportunity to have that much freedom to move goods and be transported. It would be a model for the rest of the United States, especially in this era when everyone is trying to prove how green they are compared to the next guy. High-speed rail is king in Europe, where gas prices are nearly double what they are here. But therein lies the problem...we are a nation suckling at the teat of the oil industry, both domestic and foreign sources. Until we wake up and realize what we're doing, we'll never see what we are missing.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Bryan Adams, Pittgirl, and one strange night

Periodically, DB~ is able to score some tickets to various Cultural District venues thanks to a connection. Yesterday, she texts me "Want to go see Bryan Adams?" By myself, "no", but I sensed that the answer for "we" was "yes". Besides, I owed her one for dragging her to see Electric Six at Brillobox this time last year.

So we met in town for a great dinner at Six Penn, which I anticipated would be the crux of my post tonight (DB~ had a lobster/crab risotto, I had a Cracklin' Pork Shank that was sublime), but what I thought would be a staid and boring acoustic concert by some Canuck turned out to be an enjoyable night. Especially for the wide spectrum of people that turned out for the show.

As soon as we got to the Byham and arrived at our seats, neither of our rear ends graced the cushion before we got turned to each other and whispered "Hey, that's Pittgirl!" Sure enough, we were sitting 3 rows behind Virginia Montanez and her husband. DB~ was a big fan of Pittgirl until she revealed her identity and then the mystery was all gone for her and she sort of lost interest. She was representin' by wearing a black and yellow scarf. Wiz Khalifa would be proud.

The interesting thing that we noticed is that Pittgirl is hearing impaired. She wears a hearing aid in each ear, but had her hair up in a ponytail tonight, revealing them to us sitting behind her.

I came into this show thinking I didn't know many Bryan Adams songs, and I probably knew only 60%, but he does have a lot of hits that you sort of forget about. But the hooting and hollering ladies in the racuous crowd sure didn't forget about them. I had no idea that even in his early 50's (my guess) that he was still a sex symbol. He has kept himself in remarkably good shape, especially for his age.

This show was on his Bare Bones tour. It was just Bryan, his guitar, and a piano with a player named Gary. And a sound tech, who for the first half of the show was the unofficial 3rd member. I don't know if Bryan Adams is a perfectionist or just fussy, but he switched off his guitar to have it tuned at least 4 times and he asked to have the piano re-tuned 2 times. Normally, this would have ruined the show for me, but during these interludes Bryan would interact with the crowd. At times it seemed like we were at a comedy show. He would humorously stare down people who were late arriving down front, answer people who would incessantly shout out requests, and ask for the house lights to be turned on so he could check out the crowd.

DB~ was sitting next to a lady who would just keep screaming "Puerto Rico Loves You!!!" over and over. DB~ also was grossed out that she smelled like she stepped right out from the Phillip Morris cigarette testing lab to come to the concert.

There was also a very inebriated lady with a white flower in her hair who kept trying to storm the stage and was repeatedly restrained by security. At one point she blurted out "I'm gonna be a grandma!" These were just some of the many oddballs in the crowd that ranged from late teens to early 60's in age. Very eclectic.

I realized as you listen to these songs stripped down that all of Bryan Adams' songs are about 1 on 1 interactions with a girl. All of his lyrics are like the first 5 minutes of conversation that a guy has with his girlfriend at various points in a relationship. In a way, it reminded me of a quote I heard from the lead singer of Semisonic in the late 90's. He said "I write all my lyrics as if I'm whispering them into my wife's ear."

As for the stage, it was also bare bones. There were only a few spotlights on Bryan and his pianist, Gary. At times, there were some footlights that shined up on them, which reminded me of a Norah Jones concert I went to a while ago. It was a very simple, yet elegant setpiece of English lamposts and mellow amber lighting. I felt like she was singing to us from the streets of London.

I imagine that during his heyday Bryan Adams was a chain smoking, womanizing a-hole, but time smoothes out many rough edges. I found him to be without any pretensions and quite engaging. He invited people down from the balcony to the few prime seats empty in front of him. At one point, a wiseacre in the balcony shouted out "Freebird!" so sure enough he and Gary cranked up an impromptu version of the classic, much to the delight of the crowd.

At the end of the night, someone gave him a bouquet of flowers and someone else gave him a Terrible Towel. Frankly, I'm surprised no woman tossed her panties on stage. It was that kind of night.