Monday, October 31, 2011

French to the rescue --- that's a new one

Last week it was reported that Veolia Transportation may (triple underline "may") be interested in taking over the Port Authority in the future.

I, for one, would like to welcome our new French overlords.

Veolia Transportation is a sector of the overall Veolia conglomerate that includes a wide variety of functions like water, wastewater, transportation, energy, etc. The headquarters is in France, but they are a global megacompany with plenty of offices here in the United States.

Veolia Transportation is running public transportation systems in New Orleans, Vegas, Phoenix, San Diego, Atlanta, Baltimore, and Toronto. By all accounts, those systems are doing fairly well.

The Port Authority in Pittsburgh is so underwater, to use the parlayance of our times, that there is a common perception that the only way for them to be successful long-term is to go bankrupt. This will get them out from under the long-term legacy costs of pensions and retiree healthcare. In cold, bloodless theory that sounds like a great way to rectify the problem. Just the scorch the earth and let the pine trees grow anew from the enriched soil.

But those are good hardworking people that worked a long time to get those benefits. Are they in some cases overpaid? Sure, they are. But no one put a gun to the head (I think) of the Port Authority's management team to approve those Collective Bargaining Agreements over the years.

Part of my problem with the Port Authority is that they have no vision. Well, I shouldn't say that in light of the new North Shore Tunnel/Connector/Money Pit getting ready to open soon. The inevitable leaks in the tunnel under the Allegheny River will start probably 1 month after it opens. Their lack of vision stems from not realizing the demographics of the region and how they fluctuate, then adapting to those changes.

Trying to do light rail, by piggybacking off of the PENNDOT High Occupancy Vehicle lane up I-279 North, to the northern suburbs is about 20 years overdue. The "T" in the South Hills is a decent enough system, but the North Hills line could have less stops and higher speeds.

They could also link the "eds" and "meds" more efficiently to downtown and some of the more popular places to live in the City, thus making it easier for students and young professionals to live in the City and work at the various medical centers or go to schools in the Oakland/Shadyside area.

Would Veolia do any of this? Maybe, but probably not. But I would feel a heck of lot better getting a fresh set of eyes on the problem and trying to revive the patient currently on the operating table that is the Port Authority.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Mussel Up

DB~'s favorite restaurant is Point Brugge in Point Breeze. Nearly every time she eats lunch with her aunt, this is the place they go. Point Brugge is probably the most underrated restaurant in the city -- you never hear about or see any advertisements about it, but it is constantly filled to the gills with people waiting outside (sometimes the wait is 1 hour plus).

Point Brugge is a Belgian themed place, with their speciality being mussels served with pomme frites (french fries, basically). I've always asked DB~ if she would like me to make her mussels here at home, but she has always demurred.

I decided this past Sunday to "surprise" her and make us mussels for dinner. I say surprise because I can never surprise her and she guessed it when I told her I was going to make her a special dinner. A little frustrating sometimes.

I did some research ahead of time and it turns out that mussels are a real pain to get ready to cook. If you get them fresh, they are actually still alive, which was a shock to me. I thought it was like shrimp or crabs, but inside those little black shells is a living...mussel, I guess. So if you get them fresh you should put them in water so they can take in the water and filter out sand inside. They also have little fuzz that needs to be sometimes cleaned off, too.

I'm not one to shy away from work when preparing food, but when DB~ found a 2 lb bag of fresh frozen mussels at Wholey's for the same price as fresh, fresh mussels in a 2 lb bag...well, that's an easy choice.

I went with a Mussels Provencal recipe. Here's what I did:
Diced 1 shallot
Diced 1/2 white onion
Sauteed the shallot and onion in 3 tbsp butter in a deep saucepan

Diced 2/3 cup of celery
Diced 1/2 cup of red pepper
Once the shallots and onion were soft, I added the celery and red pepper plus 1 cup of wine to the saucepan and stirred it up.
Put a sprinkle of black pepper over top

Once that mingled together over medium-high heat, I added 1 lb of mussels to cover the base of the saucepan then covered with a lid. After 6-8 minutes, the mussels popped open (indicating they were cooked) and I took them out with a slotted spoon.

I put the mussels into bowls and poured the wine and vegetable broth (plus the veggies) over top of them.

I cooked the 2nd lb of mussels the same way, just added a little more wine to the pan to replace what was poured out.

The mussels were tender and tasty, but like chicken wings of the sea. You only get a tiny amount of meat from each one, but it was kind of fun to pluck them out with a fork and watch them float in the broth.

Next time I might try a coconut milk red curry broth as something different for my squiggle.

Friday, October 21, 2011

We went to a real Dive last night

I didn't feel like cooking at home last night, so DB~ and I braved the cold, damp rainy night and went out to eat. After brainstorming over email while at work, I went to Urbanspoon and searched the area around our house.

After sifting through the list, one name popped out that I did not recognize -- Dive Bar and Grille. After eyeballing the approximate location, it appeared to be in the old Devine Wine Bar in a strip mall off Route 19 (shared by Arhaus Furniture) next to that megachurch complex.

Looking at the menu online, it seemed very creative and the menu was very diverse with a lot of different options. I texted the choice to DB~ and she seemed game to try something different.

When we got there, it was in the location of old Devine and it sure seemed Dive used parts of the same sign for their sign. Eventually we asked our server that question and she assured us that was not the case, but that other people have asked the same question. What was true is that Dive did not change much of the decor from Devine, but that's not a bad thing. The cut stone border around the bar shelves is still there, the hightops and normal tables are still present, and the little alcoves with a couple of tables are still tucked away. They may have added some giant white ball lanterns from Crate & Barrel, but that's about it.

The music was an interesting mix of two stations: 90's rock and Top 40, so that appealed to me (90's rock) and DB~ (Top 40). The only problem is that it was turned up too loud, which makes me sound like an old man, but it was hard to talk at times.

Now that I've moaned and whined all over this post, let me say that Dive Bar and Grille is awesome and we will be going back again, probably with more people in tow. The food was outstanding.

We were there on a Thursday night around 6 pm, so Happy Hour was in effect until 7 pm. That meant appetizers were 1/2 off and we took advantage of it by selecting the Loaded Croquettes. These were a drool-inducing combination of a potato pancake (the potatoes were whipped smooth and then covered in breading and fried) and a loaded baked potato, as they were topped with sour cream, green onions, and BBQ shredded pork. The portion size is three croquettes, but I was so busy stuffing food I forgot to take a picture until the last one was left.

For dinner, DB~ selected the Mahi Tacos dinner. The tacos were chunks of mahi tuna, shredded cabbage, and a nice aoili sauce. For her two sides, she selected wilted spinach and the Sweet Potato Tater Tots. If you are reading this and live within driving distance of Wexford, go to Dive Bar and Grille and at least get a side order ($3) of the Sweet Potato Tots. Holy. Crapola. Sweet potato side dishes can go pear-shaped on you...fries can be soggy, fries can be bland pieces of cardboard, sometimes the potato by itself is not cooked all the way through.

Not here. They are scrumtrilescent coupled with a side of cinnamon butter to dip them in.

For whatever reason, slider dishes were half-off last night too. There's about 6 different options, so I figured I would take advantage of a $4 dinner (plus $3 for my side of tots). I went with the Cheese Steak sliders, which are shaved prime rib, carmelized onions, melted Mozzarella, and peppers. They were served open-faced in an interesting plating pattern.

Dive Bar and Grille's name was selected for its irony, but it is anything but a dive. Highly recommend this place, especially if you can grab some of this great food during 1/2 off happy hours.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Charm City Weekend - Fells Point

The Sunday after the wedding in Baltimore, DB~ and I went with my cousin on a quick tour around Fells Point in downtown. Fells Point was its own neighborhood based on maritime endeavors until it was incorporated into Baltimore. It was named after Admiral Fell, who now has a charming little boutique hotel named after him in the form of the Admiral Fell Inn.

When I was a younger hellraiser, Fells Point was known as the South Side-esque area of Baltimore, with bars layered on top of pubs. The summer of my 21st birthday, I went down to visit my cousin and meet up with some friends from college. We partied in Fells Point one night and one of my friends from college did the most outrageous stunt I have ever seen in person. For purposes of this family blog, I'll just refer to it as the Squirrel Nut Zipper in the middle of a crowded bar named Bertha's.

I got so drunk in another establishment named the Greene Turtle that I had to be carried out and on another occasion we went down for a Halloween bar crawl to a bar that I can't remember its name. Perhaps the $10 all you can drink cover had something to do with that. Or all the naughty nurse/trashy pirate/Catholic school girl costumes. One or the other.

I also bought my first Tricky CD, Pre-Millenium Tension, in 1997 while in the midst of the Squirrel Nut Zipper bender of a night.

In short, Fells Point to me was party central and a semi-rough neighborhood with a lot of tattoo shops and proximity to drug dealers (not that I partook in that sort of thing).

But here we are in 2011 and Baltimore is cleaning up Fells Point and making it trendy. There are now establishments like a whisky bar that also serves sushi, an interesting furniture store called Su Casa, and a whole block of residential loft-style housing.

The bars are still there, but now they are augmented by Spanish tapas restaurants, Greek restaurants, and a great looking Cajun restaurant called Louisiana. And it is all a short water taxi ride away from the Inner Harbor. DB~ and I will probably go back in the near future and stay either in or around the Fells Point area.

Our little Fells Point is growing up. Sniff. Makes me so proud.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Charm City Weekend

This past weekend DB~ and I went down to Baltimore for one of my cousin's wedding. Most of my mom's side of the family moved to Baltimore from Pittsburgh in the '60's. We re-discovered that side of the family in 1984 and since then Baltimore has been like a second city to me.

Like all good cities, Baltimore is in the midst of re-vitalizing itself. The city is still rampant with drugs and crime, but they are doing a lot to rehab some neighborhoods (like Canton) and augment others (Fells Point).

One neighborhood that doesn't need any changes, though, is Little Italy in Baltimore off of Eastern Avenue. My mom's side of the family is Italian, so growing up we would go to Little Italy periodically when we would visit. Unlike Bloomfield in Pittsburgh, Baltimore's Little Italy is just Italian restaurants. And this past Saturday, every single one of them was packed to the brim. The family wedding was a smaller one, only around 85 people, so we had the entire upstairs of Chiapperelli's located on High Street.

The food was fantastic at the restaurant. This sure wasn't your typical Italian wedding at the fire hall. The appetizers were pretty good, but not spectacular, but the dinner was excellent. The salads were a light Caesar dressing with black pepper giving some bite. The dinners were family style portions of the following:
Penne in Vodka Cream Sauce
Sausage and Peppers

All were great, especially the penne and the meatballs. I'm not a huge fan of sausage and peppers typically, but I tried the sausage and was stunned by how soft it was. Sometimes you bite into a little fat pocket or the sausage is overcooked. But this sausage had none of that and the sausage was perfectly cooked and tender.

The lasagna was a touch watery, but it had excellent flavors and the ricotta cheese mixture was very smooth. The penne in vodka sauce had a yellowish-orange tint and wasn't drowned in sauce, which can be the downfall of that dish sometimes. Big thumbs up to Chiapperelli's.

Around 8 pm, I needed to get up and stretch and catch a breath of fresh air (it was a little tight seating arrangements) so I went outside to take in the scene. When I went out, I actually checked my phone to see what time it was. Sure enough it was 8 pm, but there was a car everywhere you turned and massive traffic backups when the valets would grab a vehicle to park.

After he caught his breath, I asked one of Chiapperelli's 5 (!!) valets if this was normal. He told me it was never this busy. I wandered a couple of blocks away to Vaccaro's. Vaccaro's is a famous restaurant that specializes in desserts.

Even though I go back to Baltimore at least once every other year, this trip felt different. I felt like I was going back to the beginning of things, like I was re-discovering Baltimore for the first time. Maybe that's due to DB~ and how I wanted her to see the city with me and how I feel when I'm with her. Whatever the reason, I flashed back to one of our earliest trips to Baltimore when we went to Vaccaro's after dinner. I was probably 9 or 10 and my cousin Paul practically triple-dared me into ordering the Death By Chocolate dessert. It was a massive orgy of chocolate cake, hot fudge, and chocolate gelato. If I finished it, he would give me a dollar. I did.

So this past Saturday after the wedding reception broke up and before we went to the after party, my parents and DB~ and I went to Vaccaro's for dessert. At 9 pm, the line was out the door and into the center of the street. After a few minutes wait we were ushered in by an employee who finally split the line into take-out and sit-down.

When we settled in, I didn't realize I was going to be an idiot. Truly, I didn't. But we were telling DB~ about the Death By Chocolate and I was still kind of hungry after dinner...

Boom. There it is in the forefront. My dad's peanut butter gelato dessert is in the upper left hand corner, my mom's rum cake is the upper right, and DB~'s sensible single cream puff is to the right of the Mount Rushmore Of Chocolate. It was a huge piece of chocolate canoli cake with 5 scoops of chocolate gelato, drizzled with hot fudge.

"Don't eat so much that you get sick" was the warning from DB~. I laughed it off. I ended up finishing all but 3 bites of it. And true to DB~'s warning, I had some stomach indigestion later that night. But it was worth it, even if I didn't get a dollar this time.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Did I Sleep Into March 2012 Already?

With today's announcement by Pirate President Frank Coonelly that the Pirates would most likely not pick up Paul Maholm's $9.75M option for 2012, coupled with yesterday's announcement that Charlie Morton would undergo labrum surgery on his hip, most Pirate fans on the forums went into full-scale freak-out mode.

One particular poster respected by some in the blogosphere went so far to proclaim that the Pirates were sliding towards a 100 loss season in 2012.

This is October 12th, right? The World Series isn't even started, let alone over when free agency starts, yet some have bypassed the whole offseason and gone right to the ol' Pirates Suck Card.

Neal Huntington himself has previously said that the Pirates will actively explore the trade market this offseason. They will probably sniff around some 2nd tier free agents, as well. And keep in mind, this is Paul Maholm we're talking about. The same Paul Maholm that some of the same people decrying this move as "Pirates are cheap!" were busy slamming all during the 2011 season and predicting his eventual downfall.

These same people will also wring their hands and cry into their bushy salt-and-pepper beards when Ryan Doumit's dual options are not likely picked up. The same Ryan Doumit that is hurt all the time and in possession of some of the worst, if not the worst, catcher defense in Major League baseball.

The type to say the sky is falling on the Pirates' 2012 season should probably start in, say for example, 2012.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Kevin Sousa's Next Adventure

I've had an interesting range of feelings on Kevin Sousa and his culinary delights over the past few years. A few years ago, I went to Yo Rita! on the South Side and was underwhelmed by his genious being infused into foodie tacos.

Then a few months ago, we went to Salt of the Earth and I was moved by the artistry on a plate.

So in today's Post-Gazette comes word that in early 2012, Kevin Sousa will be opening a new restaurant in the heart of East Liberty called Union Pig and Chicken. It's not just any restaurant, either, it's a barbeque (I sure could go for a good barbacoa) restaurant.

Confession - I'm a recovering BBQ-holic. I've allowed it to recede into the background because DB~ isn't a fan of BBQ sauce and is a borderline vegetarian. When she goes out with her friends or has a night meeting, this place turns into the Kansas City Stockyards. Red meat flies all over the place, I rub BBQ sauce on my face, and roll around in baked beans. (Not all true).

I'm intrigued by Sousa's take on barbeque, as he wants to fuse different regions and flavors into something local. He has pledged no vegetarian dishes to the menu. Delightful.

East Liberty is already arguably the top neighborhood for dining in Pittsburgh. With the addition of a Kevin Sousa restaurant (Salt of the Earth is technically in Garfield, not East Liberty), this will probably tip it over into first place hands down.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Pumpkin Gnudi

Around late September of every year, the murmurs start. Once the calendar flips to October, it is in full effect...Pumpkin Lust from DB~. At times it is like the end of the Michael Jackson's Thriller video, except DB~'s eyes glow orange instead of yellow.

Last year I wrote about a great new recipe I discovered called Gnudi. It's a gnocchi-like dish, except the dough is composed primarily of ricotta cheese. I thought it might be a good idea to try and incorporate some canned pumpkin into the recipe.

I used the standard recipe, but added 1/2 of a small can of Libby's canned pumpkin into the mix. I needed to increase the flour from 3/4 of a cup to 1 cup to account for the additional softness and extra liquid.

I split the ball of dough into two ropes, as usual, and then sliced them up into 1 inch wide disks. I got about 16-18 pieces out of the recipe. Instead of the cream basil sauce, I went with a melted butter and cinnamon mix to drizzle over the cooked gnudi. It just felt more like fall.

Both of us agreed that the recipe was a winner and DB~ asked me to make it one more time before Thanksgiving.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Something Wicked this way comes (thru my intestinal tract)

DB~ is a fan of musicals; I'm more of a theatre play man, myself (but more of a movie guy above all of them). Rent is her all-time favorite...I think she's up to seeing it 8 times...but Wicked may be her 2nd favorite with 4 viewings before Friday night.

DB~'s good friend and work associate organized a group of nearly 20 people to go to dinner beforehand and then go sit in 2 rows together at the Benedum. There was also the added bonus of 2 people being able to go back stage after the show to see the sets and costumes. To decide which 2 of us out of 20 would get the tickets, a blind drawing would be done at the restaurant by putting all of our names in a bag.

The restaurant selected for our dining pleasure was McCormick and Schmick's on Wood Street, next to Capital Grille. McCormick and Schmick's is perfectly fine, but it has always struck me as a stuffy, clubby restaurant where captains of business power lunch over a martini and a non-sustainably fished Chilean Sea Bass.

There are plenty of fine choices on the menu, including the Cashew Crusted Tilapia that DB~ selected, but I felt like having some Fried Buttermilk Jumbo Shrimp and fries with Old Bay seasoning. Just felt right. Foreshadowing!!

At the end of dinner, the selection for the backstage pass occured and guess who got it? That's right...your favorite baseball/city of Pittsburgh/food blogger and his Wicked-loving new wife.

Upon arrival at the Benedum, we settled into our balcony seats 2 rows from the front with a great view of the stage. And then approximately 2 song numbers into the show, the rumblings from somewhere within my 6 feet of large intestine started. Uh, oh. If I left to go to the bathroom, I would probably not be able to come back into the theatre until the intermission. So I started to think pleasant thoughts and focus on the love-hate relationship between Glinda the Good Witch and Elphaba the Wicked Witch of the West.

At intermission, I thought I had it kicked so I didn't run out and enjoy the finest porcelain toilet on the 2nd floor of the Benedum. Mistake. Two songs into the 2nd Act, I knew this wasn't going to work, so I asked DB~ for a Pepto Bismol tablet (she's like a mobile Walgreens with her purse).

That Pepto helped, but it was just a Band-Aid. But we still had the backstage tour after the show. We did a run through of the backstage area and it was very cool. We were there 10 minutes after the end of the show and everyone was already cleared out. All the costumes and makeup was off and the actors gone. The theatre and backstage area were dark. It was sweet to walk around the Benedum's stage and try to envision what it must be like during the actual production.

We asked our backstage guide (one of the flying monkeys, I think) how long it took to set it up when it came into town. He told us it takes a huge crew 2 days, working around the clock, to set it up. It takes 6-8 hours to break it down and put it in the trucks at the end of the run, which for the Pittsburgh leg was today.

It's a grueling tour with 43 cities on the run. I can't imagine what it must be like to do the SAME thing EVERY day for your job. Unfortunately, all the pictures I took with my cellphone turned out too dark to adequately put up here. Bummer...there was a nice one of the giant Wizard Statue Head.