Friday, April 29, 2011

Tusca - If you like bad service, here's your place

As I stated in the last post, DB~ and I went down to the South Side last night to do a little pre-race scouting of the territory. After we were done it was 8 p.m. and we were hungry. We saw a cool looking new place on Carson (around 14th'ish Street) called Local, but we couldn't find a parking spot. We turned down Dish Osteria because we wanted to save it for a dinner with her aunt. Eventually we headed back to our starting point at South Side Works and landed at Tusca.

The only other time I was a Tusca was in early December 2007. I went with one of my married couple friends to see an uplifting little movie called There Will Be Blood. After the movie, the 3 of us went to Tusca to have some dinner. At that time, we just got some tapas (small plates) to share between the 3 of us. That night my friend and I dubbed that place as There Will Be Hunger, because tapas is a rip-off. You pay way more money than just getting an entree and you're still not full.

But this time DB~ and I went thinking we would get entrees instead. Things started off promising with our female server. She greeted us and got our drinks relatively quickly. That would be her high point. DB~ got the Mediterranean Salmon and I order the Shrimp with Polenta. Her salmon dish came out from the kitchen and we waited for mine....and waited...and waited...and waited until at least 8 minutes passed by. Our server didn't seem the least bit apologetic/enthused/interested when she flopped my "entree" down on the table. I had told Squiggle to start eating, but she still held back a little, making her dish not optimal temperature.

My dish was tiny. It had 4 small shrimp served on a bed of flavorful polenta, but the whole thing was on an appetizer plate for $16. No side dish, no salad, just this. DB~'s salmon was awful according to her. The texture and feel of the salmon was not well-prepared. The seasoning was OK she said, though. She did have a nice creamy risotto with her dish.

The worst part is that our server never came back once. Not to check on our dinners, not to refill our drinks. The place wasn't full when we got there and by 9 p.m. certainly wasn't that busy. She just was a terrible server.

She dropped off our check without ever asking if we wanted dessert, coffee, or an after dinner drink. And then after we had our credit card in the holder and she back for the check, she asked if she could clear our plates (which had been sitting there for at least 15 minutes...a huge peeve of mine).

DB~ and I agreed to only leave a 15% tip exactly, which is basically a huge middle finger nowadays to a server. Congratulations, you are in my top 5 worst servers ever.

Tusca -- There Will Be Hunger and Bad Service

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Go on, I Dare you

It's pretty well established at this point that DB~ and I are huge nerds, but we're also athletic (sort of) nerds too. We enjoy hiking, geocaching, kayaking, watching DB~ stomp me at basketball, that kind of stuff. But we really enjoy competition first and foremost, especially if it is modeled after The Amazing Race, DB~'s favorite show.

Last year we teamed up to do Urban Dare Pittsburgh (15th out of 95 teams) and Diamond Dash (8th out 200+ teams) within a month of each other. In October of 2009, we recruited one of my friends and one of her brothers to come in 1st place at Transit Treasure Hunt in downtown Pittsburgh. Each of these combines solving puzzles or clues and doing challenges then quickly either running the course around the city or riding a bike, like during Diamond Dash.

This year, Urban Dare is on Saturday, Diamond Dash is May 21st, and Transit Treasure Hunt (after a year hiatus) is in mid-June, so we're pretty psyched for these three. We just got back from doing some scouting of the South Side. We catalogued key memorials, pieces of public art, restaurants and bars with funny names, churches, and parks.

Both of us felt we didn't give our best effort last year. DB~ tripped and did a yard sale 10 minutes into it on the North Side, right by Bettis 36. She ripped her jogging pants and bloodied her knee. I wrenched my knee pretty awful about halfway through and peg-legged it the rest of the way. We also should have planned our route better at the start of Urban Dare.

If you are reading this and did Diamond Dash last year (there's approximately a 0.002% chance of both those things occuring), we were the team where the guy did the whole race on an adult tricycle, due to my irrational dislike of bicycles. I broke my leg when I was 10 after falling off my bike and have never been on one since, but because I love DB~ so much I told her I would ride a trike for Diamond Dash. She rode a bike like a normal person and I rocked the heck out of that trike.

But first things first and that's Urban Dare. I want a top 5 finish this year!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Cleaning out the Fridge (again, with more success)

Sometimes in the middle of the week I just stare into the fridge and think "what am I going to eat out this hodgepodge?" It's like I'm on a one-man, unjudged version of Chopped on Food Network.

I had a pork tenderloin thawed in the fridge, so I knew that was going to be the centerpiece, but my creativity tank was a little low. I decided to brush it with olive oil to minimize the charring and infuse moisture when I put it in the oven. After thinking of some lame sauce ideas, I decided to just rub the whole 1 pound pork loin with one of my favorite seasonings, Luzianne's Cajun Seasoning. It's a nice blend of paprika, cayenne pepper, garlic, and salt.

I roasted this at 400 degrees for 1 hour. At the end of that hour, I took it out of the oven and let in rest covered in the baking dish for 20 minutes while I continued working on the side dishes.

I had a box of lentil rice pilaf, but it said it was going to take 40 minutes to cook and I didn't feel like waiting that long. So I got some plain white rice and started that going on the stove. I went back to the fridge and saw some pureed tomato sauce that I had left over and wanted to get rid of. It was just a little too harsh of a bite, though, to put into the rice by itself. Went with a nutty, robust theme by adding a few shakes of and crushing some pecans I wanted to get rid of into the boiling rice. The tomato sauce had an interesting reaction once added -- it turned the rice a burgundy-brown. The rice absorbed the water and tomato sauce nicely and this turned out well.

I cracked a can of green beans and heated them on the stove, but I wanted to augment them too. I thought some crumbled blue cheese (also something I wanted to move out of the fridge) melted on top would be tasty. That prognostication came true.

I bias-cut the pork tenderloin and plated it with the rice and green beans. The tenderloin was cooked perfectly and had plenty of spice and flavor. Not bad for having no idea what I was going to make at 5 pm when I walked in the door. The judges on Chopped would have been proud.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The 2008 Draft - A One Year Too Early Look

It's commonly said that it takes 4-5 years to properly evaluate a baseball draft. So naturally, let's take a look at Neal Huntington's first draft one year too early.

The scouting rule of thumb is:
Draft 50 players
Sign 30 players
Get 20 to AA
Get 1 starter and 1 bench/bullpen guy from each draft class

Let's see how the Pirates 2008 draft class has done so far:
Drafted 50 players (check)
Signed 32 players (check)
Got 8 to AA so far (not great)
Got Alvarez to the majors as a starter (very good, even if he is starting slow this year)

There are 6 more players that have the strong possibility of getting to AA in the form of Robbie Grossman, David Rubinstein, Jarek Cunningham, Quinton Miller, Benji Gonzalez, and Calvin Anderson. That would make 14 players, which is still less than the rule-of-thumb, but would be a good group of 14 players from the draft.

Right now Chase d'Arnaud, Justin Wilson, and Matt Hague are in the holding tank at AAA awaiting a callup. It's quite possible that 1 of the 3 will at least be a bench guy and 1 guy will be a starter. That would be 2 starter and 1 bench/bullpen guy. That doesn't even account for the 6 guys mentioned above that have yet to reach AA. It's quite possible that 2 of the 6 will reach the majors and be at least a bench player.

So out of Huntington's first draft, it's very realistic to see 2 starters and 3 bench guys, at worst. That would be a very successful draft class and give us all confidence that future draft classes will be as fruitful.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

PlanIT Valley - Bring on the Arcologies

When I was a young nerd in my early 20's, fresh out of college with an engineering degree, I became addicted to Sim City 2000. It was a computer game in which you were given a empty canvas with terrain and were able to build a city from the ground up. Roads, power lines, water pipes, power plants, the whole nine yards. You designated what areas were zoned residential, commercial, and industrial and the appropriate types of structures to build. You needed to account for the proper amount of schools, police departments, and fire departments.

In short, you were god of this little city and could watch it grow before your very eyes, as long as you kept things running smoothly. The citizenry could riot against you, cause fires, floods may occur, even an alien invasion if you were so inclined.

I guess Sim City 2000 was popular in Portugal in the late 90's, too, because outside of Parades, Portugal is growing an eco-city called PlanIT Valley. The city in its built-out state will serve 225,000 people in an array of eco-friendly buildings that are embedded with a host of sensors to monitor environmental conditions and adjust accordingly. The green building techniques and the energies that will power this city will make PlanIT Valley a zero carbon footprint community...a completely green city.

All this for the low, low price of $10 billion dollars, while the world is in the midst of the biggest worldwide recession in decades. However, PlanIT Valley has some backers already in the form of Microsoft and Cisco, with Microsoft reportedly putting $300M into the kitty.

The city will be a testing lab for the integration of information technology, urban planning, and construction. I'm not sure if I could handle the sensation of feeling like a lab rat being studied by someone remotely as I went about my daily business. In order to put 225,000 people on 4,000 acres, along with all of the necessary functions like schools/police/fire departments/etc, PlanIT Valley will be a densely built environment.

This reminds me of when your city matures in Sim City 2000 to the point that arcologies are introduced. Arcologies (a combination of architecture and ecology) were a city-within-a-city in the game. They were a way for you to fit 20,000 people into a small area by building vertically and containing functions within that arcology. Most of the arcologies available were benign and pleasant, but there was one that was dark and forboding. It did not have a lot of natural light and it affected your citizens. They almost became a sub-set of humans, it was said.

Reports are circulating that the world's population is expected to double from 6 billion to 12 billion in the next 30 years. That's unfathomable to me. It seems that some glass ceiling will be hit long before that happens. The Earth can simply not support that many people. As it stands now, there are vast tracts of land unable to grow food and clean water is scarce. How are we going to jam 6 billion more onto this little blue marble and have any semblance of life? I'm not even talking about the United States. Look at some of the cities in India and China...that's not exactly the model of good urban living over there. It will be primarily that part of the world experiencing the bulk of the population increase, too.

I watch and enjoy a lot of movies that have dystopian, post-apocalyptic futures. I fear that these escapes from reality are primers for what we are moving towards at a breakneck pace.

I'm not sure if PlanIT Valley is something to be admired for its vision or feared for it's depressing look into what our future may become. A race of people jammed into cities-within-cities like files in a filing cabinet. Unable to breathe the air, drink the water, or have more than a 10 foot radius of personal space.

Monday, April 18, 2011

New Stat - Wins Above John Russell

After watching the first 15 games of the season (well, watching and reading about the first 15 games of the season) it seems obvious to me that the Pirates have a different attitude and swagger about them. They had a pretty wretched homestand after losing 3 of 4 to the Rockies and then both games of the rain-shortened series to the Brewers. In recent years, that was the clarion call to begin The Suck.

But the Pirates went to Cincinnati and won 3 of 4 games against the division leader. Repeat -- on the road. The same place where they went 17-64 last year. In addition to the maturation of The Core Four of Alvarez, McCutchen, Tabata, and Walker there is a new man at the helm in the form of Clint Hurdle.

I was a fan of his from the moment I saw his confidence fill the room at the Pirate Fan Fest in January. He is a leader and has already shown that he will stand up for his team. He supports them when necessary and reprimands them when needed. In short, he is nothing like what John Russell was as manager.

After watching Hurdle lease, with the option to buy, space inside of Jim Tracy's head during the 14 inning game against the Rockies (in which Hurdle put McCutchen in the on-deck circle to psych out Tracy), I realized that there was no way in hell that Russell would have ever thought of that move. You could have gone 4 levels down into his sub-conscious like in the movie Inception and you still couldn't have convinced him to do that move.

This led me to conceive a new tracking stat...Wins Above John Russell (WAJR). It even has a cool pronunciation like "wager". Very similar to the widely-used Wins Above Replacement (WAR) which tracks how a player does versus a hypothetical replacement-level player fresh from AAA, WAJR will see how Hurdle does versus a replacement-level manager in the form of John Russell.

Every time Hurdle pulls a pitcher who's struggling, instead of "saving his bullpen" for the potential that he can use his set up man and closer for a mythical situation...that's a partial WAJR. When you start a guy who's hot, even if it's because of your gut feeling...that's a partial WAJR. When you own Jim Tracy in extra innings...that's almost a full WAJR.

By my rough estimate we are at 1.5 WAJR already, which would project to 16 more wins than last year. It's yet to be determined if Russell will lead the Pirates to a championship, but he already has them respecting themselves and giving them confidence. Eventually that will lead to gaining respect from the rest of the league. That might be worth a WAJR or two.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Development around PNC Park over 10 years

I have a poster in my basement of an aerial view of PNC Park and the surrounding North Shore on opening day in April 2001. The jewel that is PNC Park looked the same back then as it does today. Not a single thing has slipped at this park. But surrounding the park is a sea of jet black asphalt parking lots.

Last night I went to my first Pirate game of 2011. A friend of mine was coming in from Columbus and we set this up last month; I had no idea at the time that it would be the opening night of the Penguins playoff run!

As I was walking to the game from a parking lot adjacent to Heinz Field, I drank in all of the buildings that have sprouted up in the 10 year period of PNC's existence. The development by the Sports and Exhibition Authority, Steelers and Pirates, and Urban Redevelopment Authority has accelerated greatly in the past 5 years. The General Robinson Parking Garage was built to account for the loss of surface parking, due to the development of other various buildings such as Hyatt Place Hotel, Marriott Spring Hill Suites Hotel, Stage AE concert area, and two office buildings (one houses Root Sports/bars/restaurants, the other Starkist operations).

Obviously, it is better to have development instead of a sea of parking. That's part of what doomed Three Rivers Stadium -- the white elephant effect. It's almost as if the Pirates, whether consciously or not, are trying to replicate a Wrigley Field effect at PNC Park. Nowadays PNC Park is nestled into the North Shore, rather than standing out stark for all to see. Not that you overlook it, but it's just a lot more protected than in 2001.

As for the game itself, my friend sprung for seats in the Pittsburgh Baseball Club section, so we got some relief from the cold night by ducking into the interior bar and lounge area (which enabled me to check the Penguins score too). However, after the 7th inning we made a pilgrimage to Manny's BBQ behind CF. My prey was the new Pulled Pork Pierogie Stacker sandwich. How could I be disappointed in two of my favorite things combined into one sandwich? I envisioned making a love sonnet to this sandwich of ecstacy. I wondered if DB~ would feel that I was cheating on her if I professed my love to this delectable treat.

Much like the 6-0 loss to the Brewers, this sandwich was a big disappointment. Here's a cross-section of it after I put some of it in my CAKE CRUNCHER (that's for you 5'ish):

The pork didn't have a lot of flavor. It didn't have a lot of BBQ sauce, nor did it have a dry rub to keep the mess down and the flavor up. Also, the pierogie was extremely salty. The bun was fantastic. It hailed from the brioche family...maybe a 3rd cousin of some sort. The Pulled Pork Pierogie Stacker is going up against a Spicy Sausage/Provolone sandwich. I fear that in the second half of 2011 Cheese Chester, Oliver Onion, Jalapeno Hannah, and Sauerkraut Saul will not have to hear the tortured wailings of their cousins being devoured while they run the bases.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Wexford Ale House

DB~ and I are getting married later this year, but apparently the mindmeld has already started. She sent me an email in the afternoon that said "How about trying the Wexford Ale House for dinner tonight?", which was the exact place that I was going to send her an email about trying.

The Wexford Ale House is essentially a remodeled version of Poor Richard's Pub. In fact, the full name is Poor Richard's Wexford Ale House and the credit card receipt still says Poor Richard's at the top. Poor Richard's, and presumably the refurbished Wexford Ale House, was owned at one time by Richard Jahn, who also owns the small used car lot next to the W.A.H. I have a soft spot in my heart for that car lot as that is where I bought my first car -- a 1988 Buick Skylark, with burgundy plush interior, back in 1995 for $5000. That was my college car although I kept the eventual rust-bucket until 2001, 3 years after I graduated. Lot of stories in that car, including the one where my friend yakked all over the back seat and in my hair and my passenger's hair while we were driving through Oakland. We looked like Jules and Vincent from Pulp Fiction after Jules shot Marvin in the face.

Wow...what a diversion down Memory Lane!

Back in present day, DB~ and I walked into the Wexford Ale House and were greeted by a clean and streamlined bar. Not a lot of clutter on the walls, seemed like it would a be a nice sunny place if the sun ever shines again in Pittsburgh. To the right was a small dining area, maybe 8 tables (with another 4 tables up front facing Route 19, I think).

We had a very attentive server who helped us through the very extensive beer selection they have on tap. They had a nice special where all of their $5 beers were $3 until 7 pm. DB~ had a Fransinkaner and I had a Long Trail Pale Ale. DB~ was a little peeved that I told her NOT to get a Hoegarden and to expand her horizons. She said "what about Blue Moon" (which is her 2nd favorite beer). I said to keep expanding and she picked that one. I'm not much of a beer guy, but even though mine had a hoppy flavor, I enjoyed it. DB~ enjoyed hers as well.

For our actual dinners, DB~ (being the good Catholic) went with the Tuna Melt. DB~ got a side salad in lieu of fries, but we saw other people had the fries and they looked good. She ate the whole thing and said she enjoyed it. This was after she wrapped her pickle up in a napkin, so that it looked like a pickle body bag. I went with the Guiness Pot Roast and chose diced redskin potatoes to go with it. It was such a chilly, dreary night that I wanted some comfort food. The pot roast, as it should have, fell apart when you cut it with your fork. I would have liked to have seen it already "shredded", but was OK with the actual slab of pot roast too. The diced potatoes, each the same size amazingly, were very tasty as well and the perfect compliment to this dish.

Overall, it is a very "meaty" menu with not a lot of seafood or veggie choices. Maybe one or two more would be a good idea, although I'm guessing the jumbo shrimp appetizer could easily be turned into a dinner portion. There were many other choices that we would have tried and I'm sure we will be going back.

After dinner, DB~ wanted to try the Penn Chocolate Meltdown beer that she heard about through Facebook. Our server brought a sample out in a large shot glass for her to try. As DB~ accurately said while I sampled it too, "it goes from beer to chocolate back to beer back to chocolate, all in 5 seconds". It was way too rough for me to drink a whole glass of that and DB~ agreed. There was a second attempt at chocolate beer brought to her in a shot glass that we can't remember what it was called. Squiggle described it having a more mocha taste to it. I think her craving of trying chocolate beers has been satiated.

I was only at Poor Richard's once and that was probably 10 years ago, but I remember it having little rooms (it is a house) set up with games and cards to play. Sadly, with an expanded kitchen and a bigger area for the servers to stage out of, those rooms are gone. It has a great bar and small dining area and is definitely worth a look-see, especially if you are a beer afficianado.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

2350 Osteria - a right-sized dining experience

In one of my recent posts, I wrote our trip to Spoon and how we were able to have access to the chef. This allowed us to sample a variety of appetizers and desserts, plus get to talk to the chef personally about our dinner dishes. It was a great experience and one that I thought I would never get to do for a long, long time.

Apparently one month is a long time.

DB~'s uncle noticed in the paper that one of the chefs at 2350 Osteria in the Strip District had the same last name as them. So the one uncle contacted the other retired uncle and these two went down for lunch a few weeks ago to grill this poor guy about his family tree. They struck up a relationship with him and set up a family dinner for others in DB~'s family to check the restaurant out and meet the chef.

DB~ has a large extended family on her dad's side. At one point I thought there may be 20 of us going down, but because it was a Tuesday night that number settled out to 10 people.

2350 Osteria (2350 is the street address and Osteria means small Italian cafe) is next to Cioppino and owned by those owners as well. We went to Cioppino a few months ago with DB~'s aunt, but I never blogged about it for some reason. Cioppino was fantastic, so I was curious to see what 2350 Osteria would be like.

There is nothing fancy about 2350 Osteria. It's very stripped down and the plates and silverware are very straightforward. Simple white plates and bowls, with Crate & Barrel-esque bread baskets. And that's just fine.

The chef brought us two antipasti plates to sample. One was the various meats (proscuitto, salami, soprasecca) and cheeses (provolone and mozzarella). The second had the olives, roasted peppers and picked vegetables. The picked cauliflower was excellent. I was shocked to see that the regular price for this plate would have been $6. Then when I looked over the menu, it was shocking and refreshing to see that the rest of the prices were low, as well.

I ordered a Caesar salad for $3. The croutons were extremely light with a perfect amount of crunch. The dressing was tart, but not overpowering and there was plenty of shredded romano on top of the salad. I ordered the rigatoni, which was the house speciality fede pasta (a combination of macaroni and pasta, according to the chef) with a braised pork ragu and a couple of links of their homemade sausage. It was topped with a dollop of chilled ricotta. The portion was just the right amount to leave me full, with no leftovers, for $12. The sausage was amazingly tender. It didn't fall into pieces when I cut into with my fork, but at the same time it also cut into a perfect disk.

DB~ had the Riccolina ($10) which was the fede pasta with carmelized mushrooms, argula, and truffle oil. She loved her dish, too.

Both Cioppino and 2350 Osteria are located directly across from the Cork Factory, a hub of downtown living in a restored factory. I imagine that 2350 Osteria does quite well with the inhabitants of the Cork Factory for quick, easy, and affordable meals.

It's not fancy, but it's worth checking out this great little place. Here's to their success, especially if the chef truly is a future relation!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The DBS Book Corner - The Devil in the White City

I'm an avid reader, but in recent years it is more magazines, newspapers, and work journals. I wish I had more time to read books. DB~ is a voracious reader and can finish a 300 page book in a day...she's basically a speed reader. Frequently I ask her if she remembers what she reads.

Anyway, DB~ got a book at Barnes and Noble that she had heard was really good called The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. I had heard about it as well, as Leo Dicaprio has bought the rights to and will be the Executive Producer and lead role of H.H. Holmes (scheduled to open in 2013). The book juxtaposes two stories on parallel tracks relating to the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893.

The first story is the tale of famous architect Daniel Burnham and his herculean efforts to oversee, create, and build the World's Fair. Chicago had the fortune/misfortune of following the World's Fair in Paris, which unveiled the Eiffel Tower for the world. It was widely hailed as a masterpiece of a festival. Chicago fought off New York for the right to host the festival, but back in 1893 Chicago was viewed as a cow town of uncultured hicks. Sewage flowed into the rivers and black smoke filled the streets. The air was thick with the smell of butchered cattle and hogs. Burnham (and his artistic partner John Root) were selected to oversee the festival and supervise the works of a group of 6 other architects. Burnham basically built a city within a city, complete with its own police force, garbage collection, and fire department. It built buildings higher than had ever been attempted, all for a festival only lasting 4 months. It had canals, islands, and a roadway system...all built upon a desolate wasteland of a park space on the edge of Lake Michigan.

Chicago only had 2 years to design and construct the World's Fair. Burnham's vision was called the White City, due to all the buildings being painted white for effect. The White City was beset by design delays, material shortages, labor strife, and terrible weather. But somehow it all got done and was, overall, a success. The Chicago World's Fair "Eiffel" moment was the Ferris Wheel, designed by Pittsburgh engineer George Ferris. It was over 200 feet high.

The second story in the book revolves around a young man new to the city, named H.H. Holmes. Holmes' stated profession is a pharmacist, but young women have a habit of disappearing around him. Holmes eventually builds his own building that occupies a full city block and uses it to scam people out of money (pharmacy, hotel, storefronts) but also set up a murder hotel that he uses to dispatch at least 70 people, most of which were young, blond women.

The book is a fantastic look at what life was like, not only in Chicago, but in America during 1893. Everyone wrote letters filled with flowery language. High society dinners had 12courses, broken up with cigars and cognac. Hygiene was hit or miss at best.

As an engineer, I got a lot out of this book, especially the struggles with schedules and how you can never miss a deadline. Not only were the construction schedules insane, but they were working with machinery that is primitive by today's standards and labor that was uncooperative and unreliable at best.

There is no way that I could have done what Burnham could have done. He had the weight of the world on his shoulders. He had to not only represent Chicago (especially in the eyes of New York), but also the United States in the eyes of the world. He had to deal with deaths of those close to him over the course of that two year period. He was isolated from his family and became obsessed by the fair. In much the same way, but less murdery, that Holmes was obsessed with his work.

Highly recommend if you like history, architecture/engineering, psychopaths, or just a good ol' fashioned book.