Sunday, August 26, 2007

Restaurant Review: Blue Ginger in Wellesley, MA

Four years ago I turned down the opportunity to visit Blue Ginger with a group of friends. I've been regretting it ever since. As soon as I found out that I was going to the greater Boston area, I made reservations. When we were able to book my wife to join me for a couple of days, I made a second reservation. I was finally going to be able to make up for four years ago.

Blue Ginger is owned by Chef Ming Tsai, host of such shows as East Meets West, Ming's Adventure and Simply Ming. He is also the author of a couple of cookbooks, including the Blue Ginger cookbook. This was not the first celebrity restaurant that I'd been to, but it was the first that I had truly looked forward to before walking through the door.

My first visit was with my old friend JackBrad, who I haven't seen since I finished cooking school and left New Hampshire four years ago. Expecting the traffic to be terrible, we gave ourselves extra time to get there. As it turns out, traffic was uncharacteristically relaxed, and we got there over an hour before our scheduled reservation. That considered, we were happy to wait. But the hostess decided to seat us immediately anyway, giving us a choice between "the foutain table" and "a table in the back". We opted for the fountain table, situated squarely between the hostess stand and what seemed to be some sort of prep room for the wait staff. Oh, and it was right next to the small fountain in the front of the restaurant.

The restaurant seemed to have been opened several years ago, with no rennovations since opening day. It was nice, but perhaps just a little worn. Not surprisingly considering the restaurant name, the water glasses were dark blue. The bread basket had sourdough, some kind of yellowish bread (challah?) and some kind of triangular, crispy sesame chips. The sesame chips were surprisingly flavorful. The yellow bread was okay. The sourdough was pretty good. The man who filled our water glasses made sure we never ran out. Our waitress checked on us regularly. It was shaping up to be a good meal.

We started with "Fragrant Thai Mussels with Lime Leaf and Green Papaya". Our waitress brought us a fresh bread basket, making sure to note that with mussels, the best part is dipping bread in the juice from the mussels. We did not attempt to dip the sesame chips, but the sourdough bread soaked in mussel juice was awesome. However, the yellow bread was not a good companion to seafood. In fact, it reminded me of a wet sock. Stick with the sourdough.

I went with the "Chile Rubbed Duck Breast with Fresh Plum Sauce and Peach Teriyaki", and on my second visit, my wife ordered the same. We agreed that it was easily the best duck we'd ever had. Remember when I said that proper duck should be medium rare? Thanks to this dish, I don't know that I will order duck anything but rare again. The spices that it was encrusted in were not overpowering as I expected. In fact, they were nothing but complimentary. While the duck was good on its own, it only got better when dipped in the accompanying sauces. It was served with a Johnnycake made with crispy duck confit and a grilled haricot verts salad that would be so amazing on its own as to make me consider vegitarianism. Fortunately, the duck helped me keep my senses about me.

On my second visit, my wife and I arrived just a few minutes early. There was a table just finishing up dessert, so we waited at the bar. I ended up ordering the house ginger ale while waiting, mostly because I'm a sucker for really good ginger ale. It was strong, but not spicy strong. It had obviously been made with fresh ginger, and just the right amount. I would really have loved it had it not been so sweet. In fact, it felt a little like drinking candy. I'm a big believer in very dry ginger ale, and this wasn't it. But it was still good.

We started that meal with "Crispy Fried Calamari with Thai Dipping Sauce". The calamari was good, though honestly nothing special. Its purpose was obviously to let the dipping sauce shine. Unfortunately, the sauce was little more than lime and cilantro, and perhaps a bit overpowering at that. Before long I had figured out just how much dipping sauce to put on each piece of squid, and it ended up being quite tasty overall.

I'm not a big fan of lamb by itself, but regardless I decided to try out the "New Zealand Rack of Organic Lamb with Three Mustard Sauce". The lamb was okay, but not enough to make me forget about the duck. Next visit, I will likely order the duck again. The veggies with the lamb were okay, but nothing to get too excited about. It makes me think that perhaps a little too much thought went into the dish, and it ended up perhaps just a little contrived.

We didn't have enough room for dessert on my second trip, but it would be criminal not to mention the dessert from my first meal. JackBrad and I both ended up getting a "Bittersweet Chocolate Cake" with a sugar crisp and cardamom ice cream. I highly suspect the cake did not have any flour in it, it was so dense. It might have had sugar, but not enough to call it sugary; just enough to keep the chocolate from being too much. The cardamom ice cream cut through the chocolate, making a pleasant contrast that was both smooth and spicy (but not hot spicy, of course). I wanted to order it again the second time, but I wouldn't have been able to hold it all.

The service was decent for my second visit (on a Saturday), but not nearly as good as my first (on a Tuesday). We did a lot of waiting, and I think the food might have suffered for it. It certainly didn't look any busier on Saturday. If anything, it looked just a tad less busy. It reminds me of Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential talking about how Tuesday is one of the best days a person can dine out. Blue Ginger might just have been proof of that. But all such theories aside, it was still an excellent meal.

If you happen to be in the Boston area, you would do well to stop by Blue Ginger. Make sure to call ahead, reservations are required. It's a little pricier than your standard Applebees, but worth every penny and then some. Ming seems to run a good kitchen, and his floor staff seem to think highly of him. He reminds me of why I became obsessed with food in the first place. Blue Ginger gets 4 1/2 Rhulmans.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Restaurant Review: India Palace in Chelmsford, MA

Perhaps a review of this place is a little premature, since I haven't actually eaten at the restaurant itself. But I have stopped by there twice this week, and will very likely stop by at least once or twice more before the week is over.

While driving from my hotel to the training center Monday morning, I noticed the sign for the India Palace Restaurant. It's hard to know me and not know my love for Indian food, so I made a note to stop by on the way home. That evening, I stopped in and asked for a menu for takeout. A very friendly conversation with the host ensued, and I ended up asking for his recommendations. Obviously a man of good taste, he recommended the chicken tikka masala, one of my favorite Indian dishes. I also ordered a garlic naan and a mango lassi. He placed the order and we continued to chat, mostly about Boston.

I told him that I was planning to venture into Wellesley the next day, and he recommended a couple of routes, including the MBTA. He even went into the kitchen to grab a cook who uses the commuter rail frequently to go into Boston. The cook was a native of India who spoke no English, and the host translated further advice for me. My food finally arrived, and I thanked him for the advice and wished him a good evening.

The tikka masala wasn't as spicy as I expected for "medium" heat, but it was still quite good. I don't suppose there was anything incredibly special about it, other than that it was really good. I don't know that I could ever get sick of it. The garlic naan was much chewier than I'm used to with naan, but also much tastier than I'm used to. In fact, I think it might even beat out the garlic naan at the Bombay House in Provo, UT. The mango lassi was unfortunately pretty unspectacular. Not bad by any means, but nothing to write home about.

I went back again today, low on cash and unable to pick up a garlic naan or a drink. The host recognized me instantly and asked if I had enjoyed my trip into Boston. This time we discussed India and Pakistan while waiting for my order. I discovered that he was native to India (which I had guessed anyway from his slight accent) and that he'd been living in America for about 6 years, in Manchester, NH. But you don't want to know about him, you want to know about the food.

I went with chicken korma, also a long-time favorite. It as spicier than the tikka masala, and at least as tasty. I was disappointed by overly-large chunks of chicken, but my sadness turned to gladness when I found that I could cut it with a fork. I also would like to have seen more golden raisins and cashews, but it was good nonetheless.

Have I had better Indian food? Yes. Have I had better service while receiving my Indian food? Not even close. I have yet to see what service is like when I actually eat inside the restaurant, but I have pretty high hopes.

The food itself was good, but the friendliness of the staff that I met, and their ability to make me feel like I was at home, even thought I was over halfway across the country from my home and they were halfway across the world from their home, raises their score a little. I award the India Palace Restaurant in Chelmsford three Bourdains.

Update: My wife and I were able to dine inside the India Palace Restaurant on Friday night. The service was even better than expected. Nobody came to our table without a smile. The host recognized me immediately, and make sure to check on us regularly. The food, which did not have to endure a 15 minute drive to my hotel, was significantly better. I had another mango lassi, and it did not disappoint. My wife ordered lamb saag, which seems to be her favorite Indian dish of late. The service alone was enough to bump up my review another half a Bourdain. So was the improved quality of the food. I'm officially upgrading the India Palace in Chelmsford to four Bourdains.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Restaurant Review: DishDash in Sunnyvale, CA

I was in bad shape. Silicon Valley was supposed to be a center of diversity, right? I certainly saw a lot of different ethnicities while I was there. But as near as I could tell, none of them could cook. After two failed attempts at finding Indian restaurants with my rented GPS, I finally found an Indian market selling samosas from a heat lamp next to the register. They were okay.

The cafe down the hall from the training center was largely disappointing. As it turns out, it was also where I ate 2/3 of my meals in California. The only thing that really qualified as good was their falafel sandwich, which as advertised as being served in a pita, but was actually served in a tortilla. Judging by the flavoring, I wondered if the Arabic family that owned the place had intended a fusion southwestern American falafel. One night I ventured over to a Thai restaurant, and was completely unable to finish even half of my meal.

Quite frankly, I felt almost as if I was being punished for my attempts at eating not just the occassional adventurous meal, but for eating in California in general. By Wednesday night, I had given up. I walked over to the IHOP adjacent to the hotel and picked up some take-out. It was the most successful meal that I had eaten all week. Fortunately for me, my good friend Scott lives in Cupertino. On Thursday night, he took me to a restaurant in Sunnyvale that saved my culinary experience from a fate worse than mediocrity.

I was already feeling better by the time we parked in a crowded parking lot in downtown Sunnyvale. He had described DishDash as "Mediterranean", which I translated as "Italian/Greek". Nothing adventurous, but I like to think that Scott has good taste. The restaurant was crowded and noisy, and it looked perhaps a little more upscale that I had originally been willing to give it credit for. As I opened the menu, I realized that Scott had apparently been thinking of the South side of the Mediterranean, not the North where Italy and Greece are. This was definitely reminiscent of much of the Lebanese food that I had come to love. I must admit my excitement level suddenly spiked.

I insisted on ordering grape leaves as an appetizer. They were cold (I'm used to warm), but they were incredibly good. In fact, they were at least the second-best grape leaves I've ever had (mine are still the best; I guess I should post a recipe as soon as I get back home). The cucumber yogurt sauce was also among the best I've ever had, and altogether, my tastebuds had enjoyed an excellent implementation of a dish common both in Greece and below.

For my entree, I ordered something called "beriani". I had never heard of it before, but the menu description had a few key words that appealed to me: beef, potatoes, raisins, yogurt sauce, rice. After the grape leaves, this promised to be good. When it arrived, I must say I was a little disappointed. It literally looked like a large dome of yellow rice centered in a pool of what I initially thought was bechamel. It threatened to claim a position with the rest of the bad food I had eaten that week.

I was so disappointed with the presentation in fact, that I failed to remember that this dish was supposed to have beef in it, until I stuck my fork into the rice and found a chunk of it. Much to my surprise, the chunk of beef that I had found refused to stay together. It was literally falling apart. My first taste emphasized my newfound expectations: while just a tad bland, it was some of the most tender beef that I had ever put into my mouth. I couldn't stop. I can't say I entirely resisted the temptation to start shoveling it in. A golden raisin found its way onto my fork, and the flavor of the beef suddenly magnified, complimented by the sudden burst of fruit. I was so intent on eating my beef and rice that I almost missed the sauce around the side of the plate. Some rice in the path of my destruction had fallen into the sauce, and the sauce found its way to my tongue.

I stopped in shock. I tentatively tasted the sauce again. I instructed Scott to try some as well, with a piece of pita bread left over from out bread course. It was amazing. I couldn't figure out what it was about it. Was it bechamel? If it was, it was the most flavorful bechamel I'd ever laid tastebuds on. I rechecked the menu, which reminded me that it was an "aged yugurt sauce". I started mixing rice with it, and then beef, and anything else I could get it with. It occurred to me that this might be the reason the beef had tasted a little bland. When combined with the sauce, it became a thing of beauty unparalleled by anything I had even hoped to see that week.

Our waiter came over at about this point to ask how things were going. I told him that the food was really good. He thanked me and I said, "no, you don't understand! This is really, really good! You need to go back into the kitchen and tell them that their food is really, really good!" It was the least cliche way that I could think of to send my compliments to the chef.

While we were eating, we sipped on mango laban, a yogurt-based drink that I swear is spiked with just a touch of pineapple (the mango version, at least). It is now a goal in life to recreate that drink. If you're expecting it to taste like American yogurt, I hate to disappoint you. Something that sweet would just be too much. Mediterranean yogurts are saltier, creating a balance in this drink that causes an addiction, but encourages the person drinking it to take the occassional break from it to enjoy the rest of the food.

Our only disappointment came with dessert, a dry baklava assortment that was in complete contrast with the rest of our meal. It was drizzled with some sort of rosewater reduction that honestly just tasted like burnt sugar. I can only hope that the rest of the desserts are up to par.

The next time you're near Sunnyvale, check out DishDash. Despite our baklava, I would go back in a heartbeat. Our drinks, appetizer and entrees were superb, and the wait staff was friendlier than expected, especially considering the rush. If can figure out how they make those mango drinks, let me know. I'm a man in need.

The baklava lost them a few points, but for amazing Mediterranean fare and an extra friendly waiter, I award DishDash three Giadas.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Top 10 In-flight Shows

I was at Best Buy last night, and I saw several copies of Premonition on the shelves. Normally I would just write it off as just another bad Sanra Bullock movie (as all of hers are). Unfortunately, I had the bad luck of being subjected to this movie twice, both times as an in-flight movie. While I did have the good sense of not plugging in headphones, I still had to listen to the awful preview, and it was kind of hard not to see bits and pieces of the movie every time I looked up from my book.

Let me give you a very, very brief synopsis of the movie, including a spoiler. Woman finds out her husband is going to die in a crash. Woman tries to keep her husband from dying in a crash. In the end he dies in a different crash, while she watches helplessly, because he was basically screwed to begin with. And yes, I was able to figure this all out without any sound. Why-oh-why did Delta Airlines feel it appropriate to show this movie on an airplane? And why did they feel the need to subject me to it twice?

If I'm going to be subjected to movies that make me question my safety (or sanity), while flying across the country in uncomforable seats, being fed bad food (prepackaged "snacks" not even up to the same standards as pre-911 in-flight meals), then there are a few shows that I think I would enjoy much more than Premonition:

10 - Planes, Trains and Automobiles
9 - Die Hard 2
8 - Cast Away
7 - Lost (Pilot Episode)
6 - Air Force One
5 - Airport
4 - Airplane 2
3 - Airplane
2 - Big Trouble

And the number one show I'd rather see on an airplane than Premonition?

1 - Snakes on a Plane

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Firefox Cookies... Again

Well, it would seem that the Firefox Cookies that I made last November are making the rounds again. This happens about once a month or so, somebody new will discover either the Ubuntu cookies or the Firefox cookies and post them somewhere, and my traffic will spike for a day or two. This last time was different, though. Somebody lifted the final photo of the Firefox cookies and posted it on their site, without bothering to credit the original source. Then somebody else found it and posted it on Digg, which is when I heard about it. By the time I looked at the Digg posting, there were already rants from some people who wanted the source code (Firefox is open source, why shouldn't the cookies be?), and a few other people who had posted links to the source code (turns out the cookies were open source too).

By this morning, somebody else had Dugg the source code (finally giving credit to me), but the load from Digg and from Flickr had cause my server to run out of memory. Fortunately, as soon as Neverblock noticed the problem, they rebooted my server and spotted me some extra RAM to make it through. I don't know how long I was down, but Neverblock was much better to work with than other hosting providers that I have used.

I appreciate everyone that gave me credit for my cookies. That's all I want, really. Credit for a job well done, with a link back to my site. For those who have asked: the cookies themselves are pretty generic. They taste just like sugar cookies. They're pretty good, but after the first dozen or so of them, one may tire of them.

I guess maybe it's time to make some more cookies. I already have plans for Utah Open Source Conference cookies (Sign up now! It is almost at hand!), but I've also been thinking about doing some kind of Gnome cookies. I never was too happy with how my hippen paste ones turned out, and looking at the Gnome Cookbook Project has inspired me. I'll be on the road for the next couple of weeks, so we'll see what happens when I get back.

Friday, August 3, 2007

One More Night...

The day had started well. I woke up almost five minutes before my alarm was to go off. I showered and packed, checked out at the front desk, and made my way to the training center, anticipating the last day of class. I got there a full fifteen minutes before the office manager did, and contented myself to wait in the much-too-small and surprisingly uncomfortable Ford Focus that the rental agency had subjected me to. Fortunately, it was air-conditioned.

The Internet connection was down, a situation that was quickly remedied by the training center's talented and intelligent staff. Class was as productive and interesting as it had been all week, and by the end of it, I truthfully told my students that I had been bragging to the other instructors about how great they had been. We finished class with plenty of time for me to get to the Newark International Airport.

I had two sets of instructions which told me that I needed to take Exit 13A. As I approached Exit 13, with no signage in sight referring to any lettered exits, I incorrectly assumed that I was to take Exit 13, which would then split off into Exits A, B, etc. I found myself instead driving through town, desperately hoping that the signs that I followed towards the airport were correct, as they took me through neighborhoods that made the most desolute areas of Utah seem like Disneyland. Somehow, amazingly, I was led directly to the airport, where Helpful signs led me to the rental car return without further incident.

I made my way to my gate, happily noting in my mind that I was nearly three hours early. With my trusty laptop by my side, I was not the least bit worried. Not, at least, until I looked at the screen by my gate. It seemed odd to me that the next flight scheduled to arrive at my gate was not to get in until a ful lhalf hour after mine was scheduled to take off. A nagging worry took up residence in the back of my mind until it was announced that my flight would be over an hour late. As I was scheduled to have an hour layover in Cincinatti, my level of concern was steadily rising. It came as little surprise when my flight was finally officially cancelled, as I stood in line at the ticket counter.

I was not far back in line at the counter, but the two poor souls who manned the counter found it necessary to spend a minimum of fifteen minutes with each distraught traveller, probably giving them the same type of news that they would give me when my turn finally came. As I approached the counter, I asked what the chances were of getting into Salt Lake tonight. "Not very good," came the quiet, yet somewhat fervered reply. He booked me for the first flight to Salt Lake the next day, without asking for approval, and handed me a list of hotels in the area which I could stay at. When I asked about a voucher, I was told as blatently as possible that vouchers were completely out of the question, but that the Airport Ramada would offer me a "distress rate".

I discovered that the distress rate was identical to that which they were advertising on their site, but had little choice but to accept it. The blow was softened considerably by the fact that my company (or possibly their client) would shoulder the cost. I found myself waiting impatiently in the summer New Jersey heat for the Ramada shuttle to arrive. As it came into sight, I knew immediately that I would not be getting on it. A mob of impatient travellers rushed the van, shoving each other out of the way. A loud woman argued with an old man with a thick accent, almost immediately calling security to have him taken care of.

The small, balding driver stood impassively, loading other passengers' luggage in the back before drifting towards the argument to find out what security had decided. All those involved ended up crowding into the van, as I quietly held back, preferring another 20 minutes in the stuffy New Jersey heat than to share any amount of space with any of them. I dredded the thought of running into them in the lobby when I finally reached the hotel.

When the next shuttle finally arrived, it was driven by a very tall, no-nonsense looking man with glasses as dark as his skin, sporting a sleek cellphone earpiece that equated him in my mind with dangerous bodyguards or Secret Service agents trying desperately and unsuccessfullly to look like "regular people". I wondered briefly if the hotel had sent him in anticipation of "any more trouble." I took the last seat on the bus, riding shotgun, barely edging out a less fortunate man who was just a little too slow to hand the driver his bags.

We arrived at the hotel and I grabebd my luggage as quickly as possible, as my fellow travellers struggled to collect themselves next to the van. I was first to the counter, more as a feat of competance over the rest of the shuttle than of speed, and informed the clerk that I had a reservation. As I set down my book on the counter, the clerk got excited, as he was also apparently a huge fan of Anthony Bourdain. As I scanned the lobby, unsurprised at how incredibly run-down the hotel was, my spirits were finally beginning to lift somewhat. I was given the keys to a room with a king-size bed and a TV with no decent channels.

Room service was quick, and the quality of the food matched my expectations exactly. My cajun burger was decently spicy, and my chicken fingers were nothing short of disgusting, and missing the accompanying honey mustard promised on the menu. In its stead, a good couple of handfuls of ketchup packets awaited me. By this point, I didn't care. The desk clerk had told me that in order to make a 7 o'clock flight, I needed to catch the 5am shuttle to the airport. Knowing that I needed to wake up at 4am (which is 2am mountain time, for those keeping score), my only intention was to get fed, get my story to that point typed up, and then go to bed.

We'll see how tomorrow goes.