Monday, January 3, 2011

Food for Thought: Favorite Films 2010 (updated)

Here are my favorite 2010 films In no particular order:

1. The Black Swan (US)

2. Inception (US)

3. The Chaser (South Korea)

4. The Fighter(US)

5. The King's Speech (UK)

6. The Secret In Their Eyes (Argentina)

7. The American (US)

8. True Grit (US)

9. Mother (South Korea)

10. Carlos (France)

I Also Liked: The Kids Are All Right, Fair Game, The Social Network, Somewhere, Unstoppable, Casino Jack, Un Prophete, Machete, Salt, Shutter Island, Greenberg, The Town, The Ghost Writer, Monsters, Winter's Bone...

TV: Sherlock (ongoing BBC mini-series) Holmes I-Phones and Watson blogs.

And about The Social Network. For a film that tells us that Facebook founder Zuckerberg insisted on no advertising and now is worth
$50 billion, I'm disappointed to learn that most of that dough is from advertising. Why didn't scriptwriter Sorkin tell us that? And how much of Z's worth is from selling info submitted by users, by which an obtuse Zuckerberfg has created a "firestorm," according to a June 2010 article in PC World? (For specifics, see While the film is well done on most levels, this Citizen Kane for our times ("Rosebud...err...Erica...") dumbs down the actual social effect of the website by totally ignoring the issue of privacy. This omission must have been a calculated choice on Sorkin's part, since so much of the script deals with how the site can make money, and its hard to believe that the "social marketing" scheme, which is presently being used, did not come up.

Confession: I have yet to see Vincere, White Material, 127 Hours, Another Year, Toy Story 3, etc., etc. But, hey, no one's perfect!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Top 10 Restaurants in Khon Kaen, Thailand

I've been in Nepal for nearly a month, so I'd better write up my list of top Khon Kaen restaurants while they're still fresh in mind. Since I didn't visit any of the restaurants in the better hotels, nor any of the better chains in the malls, this is a list of stand alone restaurants that I continued to enjoy after several visits during my three month stay.

1. My favorite is Ban... on Prachasamosorn Rd., past Soi 20, between a Jiffy gas station and Cactus Resort. Across the street is a red shirt gathering place and FM radio station. I ate there many times and enjoyed both the Thai and the Western food. Best hamburgers, best fish and chips, and best down home Thai chicken and fish dishes, all at low prices. English menu available.

2. For pizza, I liked Pomodoro, on the left side soi right next to the Pullman Hotel, the town's 5 star hotel. (Khon Kaen is a city of over 200,000, the heart of Issan, with one of the largest universities in Thailand.)

3. Right next door is De Lite, a beautiful indoor-outdoor restaurant with the most romantic jazz-influenced Thai music in town. Good for an after dinner drink, but they don't serve deserts and I haven't had much luck with their food, although I liked the tom ka gai as well as the fish cakes I found on their English menu.

4. Further down the soi, past an upscale nightclub on the right (U-Bar) you come to Bee-Gin at the intersection. Good coffee, great deserts, a limited menu of Thai food (not translated into English), a beautiful outdoor space with a live jazz-Thai trio as well as a modern enclosed room, plus an outdoor pool table and a covered bar.

5.Not far away on Prachasmran Rd. is Di Dine, a super-modern European bistro with maroon clothed tables in a glass box and a European chef with the tallest toque in town. I kept ordering tender medallions of beef with sauted veggies and perfect french bread. English, etc. menu and fair prices for the quality of the food.

6. Down that street past Rad nightclub and left on Ruenrun Rd. takes you to Livin' on a Jet Plane (I kid you not) with a super-modern indoor space and a typical Thai outside space, but larger. The food is good, if a bit pricey, and I have yet to find a favorite, but the big draw here is real jazz. The large bandstand is situated so that the glass wall can be rolled open on sultry evenings, and the band turns around to face the large, outdoor crowd. It's one of the two really cool places I've visited in town.

7. The other cool place for food and jazz is called Smile, and it's situated across the street from Bung Kaen Nakhon lake, which is just a few blocks away from downtown. Smile is a huge, multi-leveled, indoor-outdoor space surrounding a very large pool with tables on all sides. It would be impressive anywhere in the world. Jazz is played inside one of the three-story high glass wings of the building and piped around
the grounds outside.The Thai-Western menu is large and in English. I had a fine beef tips and noodles dish, heavy on the noodles and the price. Large desert selection. Definitely a date place. (Google for its web site.)

8. Kiwi Cafe is on the other side of the lake, and the name says it all. Western and heavy on coffee, drinks, and deserts, but with a short list of tasty entrees. It would be my wifi hangout, but it doesn't open until 5 on weekdays and noon on weekends.I love their salads, a fruit, nuts, and veggie burst of tastes. The building is a modern glass box of comfort and color. (I get my wifi fix each morning at an Amazon Cafe. Functional and comfortable, they're attached to Jiffy gas stations all around that part of Thailand.)

9. There's a neighborhood lake that takes up a square block off Sri Chant's Soi 31, and next to that lake is a Thai seafood restaurant that I visit regularly. Nuggets of deep fried fish are wrapped in lettuce leaves, showered with pea-sized chunks of onion, garlic, Thai veggies, and hot sauce, and washed down by Singha beer. Across the lane soccer is being played on a tennis court sorrounded by a net, aerobic dancers are grooving to Thai hip-hop music, and folks of all ages run around the lake.

10. All the way down Sri Chant, past the new Central World mall, over the railroad tracks and past Ram hospital on the right takes you to a large, funky restaurant that specializes in Thai seafood and Thai rock. Go there. (No English menu.)

Extra: If you take a left at Central World and go down a mile on the very wide highway, on your right you'll see a massive parking lot next to a very large wooden structure. While the Thai food is ok and the beer is endless, it features the most outrageous stage show in town, and
hundreds and hundreds of Thai people who know all the songs and dance like beings possessed. A similar but smaller venue across from
Rad, Top West, is a less chaotic substitute.

p.s. Sad but true, the only Khon Kaen restaurant entry in the very popular Trip Advisor is an ex-pat bar with a microwave, Seven's. It's a friendly bar with free pool, free wifi, inexpensive rooms upstairs, and a used book store across the street. A step up from the other two ex-pat favorites, Eric's and #1Bar, but a restaurant it's not.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Paris: Le Volcan and Hotel des Grandes Ecoles

I was moving some books the other day and found an interesting bookmark: the business card for Le Volcan, a wonderful French restaurant in the Latin Quarter that Christine and I discovered while staying at the Hotel des Grandes Ecoles not too many years ago. The hotel is located on Rue Cardinal Lemoine off the Blvd St Germain, a wide, private, cobblestoned walkway behind imposing green doors, opening up into its own little square filled with flowers that front a charming pink chateau. As you can see from the pictures on the wired2theworld website, the exterior is perfect, the rooms are small and old fashioned, and you're within walking distance of the Luxenberg Gardens, Notre Dame, the Louvre, and Shakespeare and Company, not to mention several jazz clubs, museums, art galleries, and famous bistros that surround St Germaine. That's if you turn right and walk down the hill towards the Seine. Turn left and you're in a little village of shops, restaurants, and town houses, and that's where Le Volcan is located, just two short blocks away.

We came upon Le Volcan late on a cold Christmas eve, just following where the streets took us, and entered with no expectations, since the place was deserted, as was the village around it. Although they must have been getting ready to close, we were taken to a side room with a fireplace, next to the kitchen, and looked through the white curtins at the silent street outside. The unrushed, smiling waitress who spoke no English gave us a menu, which included a number of fixed price multi-course selections. I don't recall what we ate, but remember that it was all exccellent bistro food at a reasonable price. The lady who writes wired2theworld has a picture of Le Volcan on her website and mentions that the restaurant was a favorite of some of the folks at the Grandes Ecoles when she visited two years ago. Here's what she wrote:

"Le Volcan (10, rue Thouin, 75005 Paris, 01 46 33 38 33,
has an 18 euro, 3 course menu which turns out to be one of the best values of the trip.

"Mom has Foie gras (+4 euro), salmon, and cappuccino ice cream and I have escargot (yum, garlic and butter!), a "gratin de aubergine" which is a ground beef and eggplant casserole (sounds odd, but it was really good) and a chocolate "charlotte" for dessert. The other diners are mostly French with a smattering of English speaking tourists."

Looking at Le Volcan's menu (see below), I probably had bœuf bourguignon, my favorite. I DO remember my desert, something I never had previously, but something I'll always remember: the Colonel (lemon sorbet with a side shot of vodka). Wow!


Le Volcan

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Austin: Perla's

A California couple of my acquaintance enjoys eating dinner at the bars of fancy restaurants rather than at the tables. After visiting Perla's restaurant on busy, popular South Congress on the spur of the moment on a crowded Saturday night, I think I know why. Perla's is a new seafood restaurant next to Guereo's, scene of a visit by chowhound Bill Clinton some years ago. The Perla's folks took a modern building that used to house a Nissan dealership and turned it into a large, open room featuring walls of glass and tile, white tablecloths, and touches of blue, providing a clean, Mediterranean look. Last year Esquire Magazine named it one of the top new restaurants in the U.S., and featured a picture of the umbrellaed patio nesteled under large oak trees with the a neon "Perla's" in blue script at the entrance in the background.

As for the poured concrete and tiled bar inside, it's like sitting at a sushi bar, except that the view consists of dozens of different kinds of shelled seafood on a bed of ice being prepared by the staff. The menu changes daily, featuring fresh fish and shellfish flown in from both coasts. (Since our selection didn't taste like oil, we assumed that BP brand fish was not on the menu.)

Carol and I arrived at 7:30 on a very crowded Saturday night, and was told that the wait for an inside table would be two hours. The wait on the patio was a more agreeable 45 minutes, but we were hungry, so we opted for dinner seats at the bar, and we were seated immediately. The menu and our drinks came promptly, and sitting close together at the bar allowed us to hear each other in spite of the din around us. We also got to chat with people on either side of us at the ample, winding bar, something that doesn't happen when seated at a private table.

Although there was a selection of 16 different oysters from the Prince Edward Islands to British Columbia, we decided to split orders of items added to the online menu: halibut with mango salsa, chipotle roasted corn off the cob, and asparagus with mayo-based remoulade spiked with hot sauce. It was all good, and the waitress had no problem dividing the fish onto two separate dinner plates without any additional charge. The man on our left had a dozen assorted oysters on ice with a flute of champaign. The women on our right had Coriander grilled Ahi Tuna and Texas Bouillabaisse. Although the menu changes daily, it's so deep and so varied that many future visits are need to sample all of Perla's attractive offerings.

Perla's website

Esquire Magazine review

Thursday, July 15, 2010

New York City: Sam Sifton

Sam Sifton is the New York Times' replacement for food critic Frank Bruno. Sifton is a more than adequate replacement for Bruno, but has something that Bruno did not: wit and a literary style. Sifton came on like gangbusters with a style all his own and a sense of restaurant lore to boot. Look at the way he ends his review of "Torrisi Italian Specialties, a tiny and terrific new restaurant on Mulberry Street at the very top of Little Italy."

"No reservations are taken. The best strategy for a table is to go as a couple, either at 5:30 for the first service at 6, or on the hour thereafter, with the hope that you will be seated within 90 minutes. Larger groups should consult horoscopes and witch doctors for advice.

"It sounds awful, the waiting. But Mr. Carbone and Mr. Torrisi are in a burst of creative excellence, and reinventing themselves daily. Theirs is not the simple, pared-down Italian-American food of the Frankies restaurants — their cooking is too aggressively technical for that. But it is simpler than the inventive, luxurious new-Italian fare of Michael White at Marea or Mark Ladner at Del Posto. It is reminiscent most of the spirit of Gabrielle Hamilton at Prune, and of the early days of David Chang at Momofuku Noodle Bar.

"And how long can that last? The Torrisi project as it stands surely must run its course, the way any performance does, the way any combination of kinetic energy and art must eventually fall off its axis. (What happens if the money gets tight? No one counts on the tears.) Presumably Mr. Carbone and Mr. Torrisi will cook this way until it gets boring, and then will do something else.

"Which means the time to get to Torrisi Italian Specialties is now."

Alas, what can one write when the food at the restaurant under review is dreadful? Frankly, I wouldn't review it. Apparently, Mr. Sifton does not have the luxury of throwing up and moving on, so review he must. What else to do when you've spent over, perhaps, a thousand bucks of the boss's money on multiple visits and full tables. While he gave Torrisi two out of four stars, Sifton gives Kenmare none, but has fun doing so.

"The dining room is pretty enough, dark and cool, with white marble tables and a vaguely Mediterranean feel enhanced by big sprays of flowers. It is crowded nightly, first with dinner parties that seem pulled from rejected “Sex and the City” scripts and then with a late, late, late show of models and people with incredible collections of music and sneakers and phone numbers, accompanied by the people who went to college with them who now work on Wall Street.

"But the food is inconsequential....

"...a bread-crumb-crusted asparagus gratin with endive and fontina that tasted like a woody version of macaroni and cheese; and a weirdly tasteless Midwestern-style broccoli-beer soup with cheese and bacon croutons. It is difficult to imagine denizens of any precinct of New York’s night-life world eating these...The entrees continued the trend of mediocrity, time after time. A Milanese-style veal cutlet, essentially a breaded and fried laptop case, was served with lemon, arugula, ricotta salata and a garish, oily salsa verde....

"Not that many people are actually eating, though. There are enough pretty young things and the people who chase them at Kenmare to recall Bret Easton Ellis novels, Scissor Sisters songs and the whole first season of HBO’s “How to Make it in America.” The incessant rumbling of the nearby Lexington Avenue subway vibrates up into a table-hoppy, air-kissing, haven’t-seen-you-since-Quogue bubble of nighttime excitement. No one pays attention to dinner."

Sam Sifton's writing is a lot of fun, but with so many good restaurants that probably won't be reviewed in the NYT, it's not right to give up space and the readers' time to losers. I promise not to do so, that's for sure.

--Torrisi Italian Specialties

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Austin: Uchiko, Tacodeli, No Name Coffee

In the six months I've been in Asia, hip, upscale, ultra-modern restaurants and coffee shops have spring up around town, many in rehabed strip centers. Reminds me of Bangkok. For lunch today I went to Tacodeli, on North Lamar across from Central Market, whose name sounds like old-shoe Austin (you saw "Slackers,"right?), but its extensive menu is anything but. I had The Jesse Special, migas in a corn tortilla with Monterrey jack cheese and fresh sliced avocado. It came with spicy salsa dona. Shannon, my daughter, ordered an Otto, refried black bdans, bacon, advocado, and cheese on a whole wheat tortilla.. Everything was super fresh. For drinks, we had Budda's Brew, a local fermented tea that supposedly is good for you. It probably is, because it tasted pretty awful. In spite of that, Austin Chronicle said Tacodeli is the best place in town for a taco lunch, and Texas Monthly listed it as "Best of Austin." Shannon said I should come back for dinner and try the Cowboy Taco, beef tenderloin, carmalized onions, roasted peppers, and queso fresco. This place isn't your mother's Taco Deli, that's for sure.

Next door at the No Name Coffee (it has a name, but I've forgotten it), I had wonderful, regular Americano. This industrial modern room is so hip that the barrister gave me a choice of three kinds of espresso for my Americano, kinds of coffee I never heard of. "Surprise me," I said. For desert, I had the best coconut macaroon puff ball ever. This place was so upscale that the deserts in the fancy case had no prices. I guess they figured if I had to ask the price, I couldn't afford it. Unlike Tacodeli, the noise level here was quite high, with the shrieks of modern moms bouncing around the room's rock solid surfaces.

Then it was time to check out Uchi's new, Northern outpost. (Same strip, next to Floyd's Barber Shop.) Uchi is a nationally known japanese contemporary sushi restaurant run by executive chef Tyson Cole that is so cutting edge its web site contains pages on its philosophy as well as biographies of its principals. Zagat gave its "brillant creations" 28 out of 30 points, and it has been reviewed in Bon Apetit and Saveur. Uchi downtown has an old Austin deco feel, housed in a converted residence, but Uchiko was disigned from the ground up, has a fine art, japanese modern feel, and bills itself as "japanese farmhouse dinning," with a reworked Uchi menu, its outer walls visually closed from the shops and trafic around it. I'll have to give it a try before leaving town again.



Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Georgetown, Texas: Monument Cafe

For my money, the Monument Cafe is one of the great restaurants of Texas, with its high quality downhome cookin'. Off the square in this small Texas town not far from Austin, it's been newly built but has retained both its character and its food quality that made the old building on the way out of town a local favorite for over a decade. Unlike the decline of the rebuilt Frisco restaurant in Austin, if anything, the Monument has improved.

The Monument's visual theme is Twentieth-Century Streamline: lots of chrome and glass bricks with black and white tile and black leather booths in a room that seats around 100 and fills up fast at noon and six. The retro look is a nice contrast to the free wifi with electric outlets at each booth.

For lunch on a recent Saturday, Christine and Bill had burgers with french fried sweet potatoes and sides of chili, Carol had blackened salmon, and I had truck stop enchiladas. At the Monument, all entrees come with a choice of three sides, selected from a blackboard bulging with favorites.

For desert, Christine and I split a slice of dark chocolate pie with a pecan crust, Carol had a coconut cream pie slice, and Bill had a fried pie, cherry, with a side of Amy's ice cream. All of the deserts are homemade. The food was simple, fres, and good. Our server was friendly and attentative. The bill was far from breaking the bank.

Monument Cafe website