November 26, 2008

Scrapin' Up the Bits... 'Pity the Fool' Style

Perhaps I should spend more time tackling some of the interesting tidbits I come across as individual posts, but that's not always possible, which is where these neat little digests come in so handy...

To start with, two local items:

First, La Prima Espresso, that bastion of all that is good and delicious about sustainably produced coffee, has opened a new location in the Strip District. It's on Penn Avenue, right around the corner from the current location on 21st street. It's been open approximately a week at this point. In addition to continuing to produce the best espresso-based drinks in town, the new location features freshly made crepes, both savory and sweet.

Second, a new, organic-focused grocery store has opened in the Strip. Right by Nature is its name and organic and affordable is its game.

The store balances a mix of organic, natural and convention foods, a challenge that must meet the demands of available supply, and the needs of customers. ...

He said the store will be supplied directly by the farmers with whom he’s built long-time relationships, cutting out the cost of buying from distributors, which he estimated could reduce costs by 20 percent. To better establish his distribution system for Right By Nature, Stone expects to hire a few independent truckers, offering them a 1.5 percent equity stake in the business after they’ve worked a year. ...

“The people that need to eat healthy are the ones that some times can’t afford it,” he said, expecting the store to serve nearby urban neighborhoods such as the Strip District, Lawrenceville and the North Side. “We want to be an affordable grocery store.”

Moving outside of Pittsburgh
to danger on the nation's roads and highways, researchers at Johns Hopkins University have discovered a unique method for the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria: being stuck in a car behind a chicken truck!

A study by the Hopkins researchers found increased levels of pathogenic bacteria, both susceptible and drug-resistant, on surfaces and in the air inside cars traveling behind trucks that carry broiler chickens. ...

Typically, broiler chickens are transported in open crates on the back of flatbed trucks with no effective barrier to prevent release of pathogens into the environment. Previous studies have reported that these crates become contaminated with feces and bacteria.

Brings a whole new meaning to safe driving, eh?

On a completely different topic, Men's Health magazine rounds up the "20 worst drinks," not by flavor, but by calories and sugar content, among other things. Why bother doing such a thing?

[A] study from the University of North Carolina found that we consume 450 calories a day from beverages, nearly twice as many as 30 years ago! This increase amounts to an extra 23 pounds a year that we're forced to work off—or carry around with us.

One of the liquid offenders was VitaminWater, which I don't drink often, but which I totally love. It clocks in at 130 calories, same as a 12 oz. can of Coke, which, BTW, happens to make VitaminWater. Oy.

Other offenders include:

  • Sunkist (worst soda)
  • Minute Maid Lemonade (worst lemonade)
  • Starbucks Venti White Hot Chocolate (worst coffee alternative)
  • And the Worst of the Worst, the Worst Drink in America according to Men's Health magazine, clocking in at 2,300 calories, 108 grams of fat... Baskin Robbins' Large Health Bar Shake.

Speaking of drinks that are likely chock full of calories, don't forget to purchase your compliment of holiday-themed beers. I recently spent a ridiculous amount of money on six packs of the following:

I highly recommend them all, in addition to Penn Brewery's St. Nikolaus Bock, which I really enjoyed last year.

And, finally, the inspiration for this particular digest, the one, the only, Miisssssterrrrr TEEEEEE! That's right, while flipping through the channels late Friday night, I learned that Mr. T has ventured into the world of cooking-related devices with his one and only... wait for it... FlavorWave Turbo Oven.

Now I understand that George Foreman -- also black, also still somewhat fit and muscular for his age -- has had tremendous success with his portfolio of grills. [Clarification: I understand that he has, in fact, sold a bazillion of these grills. I don't, however, understand why. Please continue reading.] But, aside from those with approximately $120 burning in their pocket for a potentially funny gag gift, who the heck would buy this thing?

The infomerical, of which I caught approximately 30 seconds, does include Mr. T's signature line, though, something along the lines of, "I pity the fool that try to cook that frozen piece of salmon."

November 12, 2008

Delicious and Dreadful

These stories really have nothing to do with much of anything other than I have some sort of connection to both.

First, from the New York Times, an audio review by restaurant critic Frank Bruni of Market Table in Greenwich Village in New York City. As the legion of long-time Lusty Bit readers will recall (cough, cough, snort, cough, chuckle, deep breath), my wife and I dined at Market Table last December on the first night of our whirlwind, two-day NYC visit.

I still remember the gnocci with bits of braised short ribs in a parmesan broth. To this day I can still say it's one of the most delicious things I've ever tasted.

Listen to the review and take in the pictures. If you happen to make it to NYC any time soon, Market Table is well worth a visit, not only because of the quality of the food, but because of the relaxed atmosphere and the top-notch service.

Second, and last, what can only be qualified as a scathing critique: Washington Post dining critic Tom Sietsma reviews the restaurant Redwood in Bethesda, Md., just outside of Washington, D.C. I lived in and/or worked in Bethesda for nearly our entire 12 years in the great swampland of Washington, and there was a time when not a weekend went by where we didn't eat out at some restaurant in Bethesda. There are tons of them, and more seem to open every time I go back for work.

Several months ago I walked by Redwood. With its mammoth windows and sheer size, from the outside it is something to behold. But according to Mr. Sietsma -- in whose taste I have unquestioning trust after many years of reading and taking action based on his reviews -- the food on the inside is just not very good.
A cake of diced beets and yogurt cheese isn't bad; it's just nothing I haven't seen or tasted in 100 other restaurants across the country. Mussels heaped in a heavy skillet are dried out and flavorless, an unpleasantness magnified by crostini that weren't so much toasted as scorched. Baked, stuffed clams, another way to start a meal, are smothered in a near-sarcophagus of breading. Although I'm not listening for them, complaints from nearby diners ("This isn't what I was expecting") reveal that I'm not the only unhappy camper at Redwood.
I'm somewhat fascinated by the restaurant industry. And I find myself not only thinking about whether I enjoyed the food at a given restaurant, but whether it has the right business model to succeed. Because of the sheer volume, Bethesda is a microcosm of the cutthroat, but often unexplainable nature of the restaurant business. Good restaurants that did all of the right things, at least from the consumer's perspective, would fail, while other restaurants that had mediocre food and service would survive, sometimes even thrive.

Sietsma touches on this in his review:
Now that I've eaten here several times, it's hard to explain the crowds. Maybe it's just a matter of location and good design.
In a place like Bethesda, which has become an epicenter of luxury living, it does appear that some restaurants can succeed, at least for a time, based solely on "location and good design." Places where, as the cliche goes, diners can see and be seen.

In Pittsburgh, from my limited experience, it's a mostly different situation. There are, from what I can tell, places where one can see and be seen, but there typically aren't epicenters of uber-activity where location and design alone are enough to draw in enough new diners to generate success in the face of mediocre food.

If anything, my concern is with the number of restaurants that have opened that aren't what the average person would consider to be affordable. Mio, in Aspinwall, for example, was Pittsburgh magazine's best new restaurant. But it's really expensive. It's not BYOB and I don't know if there is a bottle under $70. We had one fantastic meal there, but we don't get out very often, and there are now enough other quality restaurants to try that I don't see us returning there any time soon, in large part because of the cost.

And I don't think we're alone. On Chowhound, when "hounders" from other cities are coming to Pittsburgh and looking for recommendations, Mio is almost never mentioned by local "hounders." I have to chock a portion of that up to price, because the food was too good otherwise.

My hope is that, as new restaurants do open in Pittsburgh, more will pursue a business model based on affordable food. Provide a limited menu that changes enough to keep things fresh, and with a honest focus on doing everything well, instead of just a few stellar dishes and then other options that may be no great shakes, but at least they're what people expect. In a city like this, it seems, for nonchain restaurants to ensure long-term success in what will likely be a prolonged economic downturn, quality food at a good price seems to almost be a prerequisite.

Oh, oh! Time to go. The Top Chef premiere is on! God, some times I hate being a food dork!

November 6, 2008

Hope in the Hill District

On Nov. 4, I served as a volunteer poll watcher. I was assigned to a polling precinct along Bedford Avenue in the Hill District. This post has nothing to do with food. It’s just a recounting, not even in chronological order, of an interesting experience on what by many measures was a historic day.

It’s almost like a family reunion. The hugs flow. You’d never guess that many of these people see each other on at least a weekly basis. The mood is celebratory before anybody can be sure a celebration is even in order.

They’ve come to help Barack. Because that’s how the people here refer to Sen. Obama. He’s not a last name. He’s hope. He’s a friend. He’s what they’ve been waiting for.

“How you doin’, honey?”

“Today is a blessed day.”

“Mmm. Yes it is.”

There are other, almost alarmingly redundant, exchanges.

“Where’s the baby, sugar?” A question posed by the election officials – that is, the five 60-something women who might be more accurately described as the electoral matrons of this particular 5- to 6-block precinct in one of the poorest sections of Pittsburgh -- to numerous young women who, without a doubt, have only recently gained the legal right to vote.

“I just got off work. She’s with my mom.”

Others have their babies with them, often slung on a hip or waddling along beside them, boys in jeans and miniature knock-off Timberland hiking boots and pleather bomber jackets, girls with brightly colored pants and shirts and beads blooming from their hair. From the conversations, it’s apparent that many of these young voters have grown up in the Hill District. And now they have their own children. And all I can think: Do they have any hope of leaving, ever?

* * * * * * * * * * * *

“I’m not going in there if she’s in there, that nasty woman. No, no, no, I’m not!”

Out of the poll stomps a prospective female voter, maybe late 40s or early 50s, a pinky peach sweatshirt with something about God on it, a sheer black headkerchief, wide-set eyes with pin-point pupils, and a scowl that practically drops off her face.

Back in through the double doors, and back out, more shouting, more insults. One of the electoral matrons is a nemesis, a long-held revulsion of apparently uncertain origins.

If there were going to be confrontations, my poll watcher manual explained, they were supposed to be between some outsider, somebody “challenging” another’s right to vote or trying to intimidate them into a voting a certain way or not voting at all.

Instead, the confrontation is between two insiders, one of whom is torn between her disdain for another and her desire to vote for Barack. Her perceived enemy, one of the election matrons, is paying her little mind. She’s got other voters to process.

After some more raised voices and stomping and scowling -- and some tag-team diplomacy involving myself and another poll worker volunteer whose lived along Bedford for 40 years and knows or at least recognizes nearly every person who has come in to the polls -- the aggrieved party signs her voter card, gets her stub, and casts her vote. Outside, a picture is taken on a disposable camera, the scowl transformed into a crescent-moon smile, to commemorate the day she voted for Barack, nasty woman or no.

The young voters have come today. Babies or not. Jobs or not. Some times with their moms.

It doesn’t take much to recognize that this is not a typical election day on Bedford Avenue. One young voter. Another. Another. Finally, a quiet young black man with a jacket that says “New Orleans Voodoo” across the back shuffles to the check-in table, yet another first-timer. Without being asked, he presents his identification. He is, not surprisingly, known to the matrons.

Before he can move to the machines to vote, the suggestion is made to give a round of applause for the young voters.

“It’s so nice to see these babies,” one of the matrons says.

“They ain’t babies today,” another replies.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The voting machines are both feared and embraced.

When the polls opened at 7:00 a.m., they were not functioning (“Why it always in the black communities the machines don’t work?”). With about 10 people in line, nearly half say they don’t want to use an emergency paper ballot. In black communities, they say, paper ballots get mysteriously thrown away.

Even so, the machines are typically approached with trepidation. Some voters are almost reluctant to touch them, scared they might accidentally vote for the wrong candidate and even more fearful that, if they do, they won’t be able to remedy the situation.

One woman is convinced something went wrong and her vote for Barack won’t count. The distress is very real.

“He needs that vote!”

After a few minutes of reassurance, of walking through the story several times, she’s satisfied that everything is all right.

The occasional neighborhood feuds aside, the mood is resiliently festive. Voters are smiling, lingering among the sunlit trees outside the community center that have been dispensing golden leaves throughout the day, gabbing with friends after they’ve finished voting, even escorting back others who have yet to vote.

But fear quickly disrupts joy. Two police cars are circling. The children and adults in the projects across the street stop. Breathing gets slower. Eyes locked on the black and white. Over the next 10 to 15 minutes, the same two cruisers move through the streets in and around the community center with intent, like hyenas waiting for an injured wildebeest to fall.

The manager of the community center -- another long-time Hill resident who has been joking and catching up with acquaintances as they come in and out of the polls throughout the day -- yells to somebody across the street, although who is not clear.

“Where my kids at?”

Are they young kids who she doesn’t want to get caught in any potential crossfire? Or are they older kids who she fears might be the hyenas’ target?

The same woman has been handing out goody bags to the children of some voters as they exit the polls.

“I got something for ya’. Go into my office and get a bag.” Halloween extras and a t-shirt in a brown lunch bag.

Soon the police are gone.

Late in the afternoon, voters trickle in to the poll in small bunches, coinciding with the arrival of Port Authority buses. By 7:00, the poll is quiet. The matrons are tired. I’m tired. Adam, an entertainment lawyer from New York and a poll volunteer who has been manning the sidewalk outside all day, is tired.

The quiet also reflects a growing sense of tension. Is it going to happen? Will the impossible actually occur?

The minutes wind down to the poll closing. The TV in the center manager’s office is reporting the first results.

I keep coming back to something I heard earlier, one of the matrons outside on a cigarette break talking to an anxious friend.

“We’re going to have a truly blessed day, so don’t let nobody steal your joy.”

November 1, 2008

Scrapin' Up the Bits... Spooktacular Style

A little bit 'o everything here. No need to mince words. I'll just get to it.

First, and this is not the first study to reach this conclusion, but a new study from the United Nations concludes that, in Africa at least, yields on farms that are organic or "near-organic" have superior yields compared to large industrial farms.
The study found that organic practices outperformed traditional methods and chemical-intensive conventional farming. It also found strong environmental benefits such as improved soil fertility, better retention of water and resistance to drought.
Next, and this is very late in coming, but if you didn't read Michael Pollan's latest in the New York Times -- a letter to the next president -- please do so now. It's quite long, but well worth the read. At the heart of this letter is a central proposal, to return to a food system based on the power of sunshine.
Yet the sun still shines down on our land every day, and photosynthesis can still work its wonders wherever it does. If any part of the modern economy can be freed from its dependence on oil and successfully resolarized, surely it is food.
More locally, Cafe Allegro, a Pittsburgh dining standard bearer for the better part of the last two decades, is closing. I never ate there, and had heard its better days were behind it. Nevertheless, it's sad to see.

Meanwhile, the Passport Cafe, a restaurant where I have only eaten lunch, gets raves from the City Paper.
The subtitle of Passport Café, a year-old restaurant in an upscale strip mall on Perrysville Highway, is "Global cuisine, local harvest." Worthy, to be sure, but ... not to put too fine a point on it, but lately every other restaurant we visit seems to tout a variation on this theme. What then, we wondered, would distinguish Passport Café? Let us count the ways.
That's a long way from this Post-Gazette review from nearly a year ago, not long after the restaurant opened.
With all this effort, I expected to be impressed. Instead, I found myself perplexed and disappointed.
When we eat steaks anymore, I've given up on the grill. Instead, I opt for the cast-iron, seared first on the stove top, and finished in the oven. While I enjoy a burger, the ones I make at home are just never that great. I place part of that blame on the grill and its lack of temperature control. I know it sounds like heresy, but I've been thinking if, for burgers, we should likewise abandon the grill altogether.

This, however, convinces me that a combination approach, may be worth at least one try. Now if I could only find those brioche buns!