Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Celtics vs. Lakers Preview

Has anyone noticed that the Celtics have played a creampuff schedule to date?

By my count, they've played exactly three road games against teams with winning records, and one of those was against the mediocre Pistons right after the AI trade. The results?

@Houston: Narrow victory (103-99)
@Atlanta: Narrow victory (88-85)

Contrast this to the Lakers and Cavs.

The Lakers have taken on the following good teams on the road:
  • Denver, Dallas, New Orleans (twice), Phoenix, Orlando
The Lakers are 5-1 in those six games, with five convincing victories, and were an in-and-out Vujacic 3FG from a win in the Orlando game.

The Cavs have taken on the following good teams on the road:
  • Boston, New Orleans, Dallas, Atlanta, Denver
The Cavs are 2-3 in those five games, and the New Orleans game wasn't even close.

Now it may very well be that the Celtics will waltz into LA and lay a beatdown on the Lakers. But until then, it's pretty clear that the Celtics have had the easiest schedule of the "Big 3" teams in the NBA, and I remain skeptical.

Hotel Review: Pepper Tree Inn

My wife and I have now been to Palm Springs twice for mini-vacations away from the kids, and both times, we've stayed at the Pepper Tree Inn.

While planning our first trip to Palm Springs in 2006, I found the Pepper Tree Inn on TripAdvisor, where it is still ranked #8 out of 74 hotels (and, knowing me, you won't be surprised to learn that it is less than half the price of the seven hotels ahead of it).

If you read the traveler reviews, you'll see that many people are repeat customers, and for good reason (and in fact, the hotel offers a special discount to returning guests).

I have stayed in many of the finest hotels in the world--the Four Seasons, the Mandarin Oriental, the Diamond Resort--and I still consider the Pepper Tree Inn as providing the best bang for the buck.

The best way to put it is that at the Pepper Tree Inn, everything is done right. The rooms are in perfect order (we always reserve a room with an in-room hot tub) and the cleaning staff keeps them immaculate. All the little things are done right, including the toiletries, which include just about everything you'd ever need and are of the highest quality.

Here's an example: One morning, as I went out for a scenic run, I noticed the staff carefully wiping down all of the poolside lounge chairs. Note that the outside temperature was about 50 degrees, and I'd seen exactly two people in the pool my entire stay. Doesn't matter--the lounge chairs are kept spotless so that they're ready in case the urge strikes one of the guests.

Speaking of the pool, one of my favorite things about the hotel is the outdoor pool. The pool uses salt rather than chlorine, which leaves the water crystal clear and eliminates the typical chemical stench. The staff seems to clean it obsessively--I've never seen a stray leaf in the pool. It's got a gentle set of steps on either side for lounging in the water. And most importantly, it's got a hell of a view.

I ended up swimming, despite the cold temperatures. The pool was a pleasant 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and it gave me an intense sense of well-being to go for a run, take a quick shower, and soak in the warm water while gazing at the nearby snow-capped peaks.

The hotel is also conveniently located on the main drag, Palm Canyon Drive, just a few blocks from where the main downtown shopping area begins.

We'll definitely be returning again.

Quote of the Day: Money and a Mercenary Army

"There are few problems in this world that cannot be solved with money and a mercenary army."
--Chris Yeh

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Restaurant Review: Tyler's Burgers

Recently, I saw a VH1 profile of AC/DC (yes, I sometimes watch got a problem with that?). Near the end, the interviewer asked Angus Young what the future held for AC/DC.

Angus, by now balding and middle-aged, but just as badass as ever, replied, "You can expect many more years of straight-up, toe-tapping rock and roll."

That's Tyler's Burgers in a nutshell. Nothing fancy; Tyler's offers classic American burgers, served on a great shaded patio, accompanied by classic fries, dished out by classic waitresses. A classic burger will set you back $6.75, with an extra buck for a cheeseburger. A big basket of fries is another $4.

Tyler's is always crowded, and we saw everyone from lone diners to families fulfilling their burger jones.

I enjoyed Tyler's, and my wife and I wolfed down our burgers in less than 15 minutes, with plenty of ketchup-slathered fries.

Alas, Tyler's is also a great example of the perils of relativity. While the Tyler's burgers were good, they weren't transcendent like the Ooh La La burger I'd had the previous day. So in the parlance of behavioral economics, Tyler's represented an A- to the A of Grill-A-Burger. At the same time, Tyler's burgers weren't clearly superior to the inspired creations of In-N-Out Burger, which provides straight-up, toe-tapping burgers for 1/4 the cost of Tyler's creations. Admittedly, an In-N-Out hamburger is considerably smaller than a Tyler's burger, but for that price, you could always just buy two. And In-N-Out's fresh-cut fries are definitely superior to Tyler's commodity frozen spuds, and again, half the price.

Plus, Tyler's doesn't offer animal style!

Restaurant Review & Recipe: Zin American Bistro

Zin American Bistro is just down the street from Pomme Frite, and the two present an interesting contrast in approaches.

Where Pomme Frite represents an attempt to reproduce the atmosphere of a typical Franco-Belgian bistro, Zin American Bistro is clearly designed to provide an upscale dining experience.

Zin is decorated in an elegant, contemporary style, with walls that are covered with original works of art. The lighting is low, and provided by numerous mini-halogens scattered across the darkly painted ceiling. Everything about the restaurant feels carefully considered and chosen.

The first thing you notice when you're seated is the extensive wine list. Zin received a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for 2008, and it shows. The wine list runs in the hundreds of wines, and each page of the list includes a wine-themed quote, many of which had me chuckling. I can't remember who said it, but I particularly liked the clergyman who reported that the secret to his long life was that he drank a bottle of wine every day, except for when he was feeling unwell, in which case he drank two bottles.

Feeling a bit overstuffed from several days of hedonism, my wife and I skipped the dinner wine, though we did end up ordering a fine tawny port for dessert--more on that later.

We began with bread and shallot butter. The bread was a crusty sourdough--good for me, though not for my wife, who hates sourdough. The shallot butter was decent, but a bit too hard to start; it seemed to have come straight from the refrigerator, and I would have preferred having a softer, more spreadable temperature.

For appetizers, we got the Wild Mushroom Truffle Soup and the cheese platter. The truffle soup was good, but a bit bland. I found myself eating it with the sourdough crust to add some texture and snap.

The cheese plate, on the other hand, was outstanding, with lessons we can all take away. While the cheese plate only included three cheeses; a Stilton from Maine, a classic Manchego, and a generous helping of blue cheese, it came with a wonderful variety of accompaniments, including two types of bruschetta (I use the term to denote grilled bread with oil/butter, not the tomato-based bruschettas that seem to predominate these days), a pool of varietal honey, candied walnuts, grapes, cantaloupe, strawberries, and most surprisingly, pineapple.

The key is the variety of accompaniments, including several I had never seen with a cheese plate before (I'm used to grapes, apples, and pears, but certainly not pineapple!). I had a wonderful time trying different combinations. My wife's favorite was bread, Manchego, honey, and strawberry. My preference was bread, blue cheese, honey, and pineapple.

The great thing about this dish is that it should be relatively easy to replicate at home, either for private enjoyment, or as an elegant course at a dinner party. Just pick up 3-4 cheeses from Costco or Trader Joes (don't forget the blue!) and prepare a plate with those cheeses, some honey, and a variety of fruits. I'm thinking that peaches, cherries, and kiwi would also make for an interesting experiment. Perhaps you could even offer an accompaniment bar, and let people decide on their own palette of flavors!

After the cheese plate, dinner itself, while very good, was somewhat anticlimactic. My wife got the Buttermilk Fried Chicken. She found it quite excellent, with great flavor, no greasiness, and accompanied by the best creamed spinach she'd ever eaten. As she noted, she ate every single scrap of edible meat, which indicates how tasty she found the meal.

As for me, I kept up my assault on the burger world by getting Zin's Kobe Beef Burger With Fiscalli Cheddar. The famed beef came on a sliced batard rather than a soft roll, along with fries and three mayonnaises: plain, roasted red pepper, and garlic. It was so big and unwieldy that I ended up asking for a steak knife and deconstructing the burger and eating it in bites.

I had come into the meal warning the server that I didn't think I would eat more than half of my entree; instead, I ate the entire burger, alternating bites with fries dipped in the red pepper and garlic aioli. In the end, however, I felt that the burger, while good, wasn't quite as good as the Ooh La La burger from Grill-A-Burger.

For dessert, we opted for the classic Apple Tartine with vanilla ice cream. I thought that the tart was outstanding, with caramelized apple pieces adding to a unique and intense flavor. My wife, on the other hand, hates caramel, and so was disappointed, though she still ate a significant portion of the crust with ice cream, which she pronounced excellent.

We also had a Gould Campbell 10-Year Tawny Port which was spectacular, not surprising given GC's long history. I can't do justice to the port, so suffice it to say it was the best I can remember tasting, and I've tasted a number of them.

Overall, my wife decided that she liked Pomme Frite better than Zin; I think that had we not ordered the truffle soup, or opted for a different dessert, it might have been closer, but I can't contest her judgment. But I do think that Zin's cheese plate was outstanding, and I can definitely recommend their wine list. Zin also offered great service. I'll offer two examples. One, because I was using the red pepper and garlic aioli, I basically didn't touch the mayo. When I asked one of the staff for more condiments, he brought me a tray, but left the plain mayo cup empty--a clear recognition of my particular dining habits. Two, at one point, my wife went to the restroom. I took the opportunity to glance about the room to gather some details about the ambiance for my review, and a hostess immediately came over to ask if I needed something.

If you love wines and good service, and if you don't hate caramel, Zin is probably a great place to have a meal!

Restaurant Review: John's

Short and sweet: John's Restaurant is *the* place for breakfast in Palm Springs. Classic diner, super-clean, great food, and absurdly low prices.

My wife got the Pancake Combo: 3 pancakes, 3 eggs, bacon or sausage (she opted for sausage). Only $5.25. (I didn't get anything because I knew I'd end up eating some of the pancakes, and I was still stuffed from the previous night's dinner)

The pancakes were perfect--extremely light and fluffy, while the eggs and sausage were great examples of their genre. The sausage weren't the typical links; fat and juicy, with a twist--red pepper flakes to give them an extra kick. The eggs weren't oily or contaminated with grease from previous fact, my wife noticed that they cooked everything to order, and immediately wiped down the grill as soon as they were done with her food.

I think we've found the place we'll go for breakfast any time we're in Palm Springs. Next time, I'll be trying the country scramble: "Country-style potatoes grilled with peppers, onions, scrambled eggs, cheddar cheese, and your choice of ham, bacon, sausage, mushroom, chicken breast, or turkey breast." Total cost? $6.95.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Restaurant Review: Grill-A-Burger

Our quest for lunch began with a major disappointment when we discovered that the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog outlet in Palm Springs had closed down. My wife, a born New Yorker, absolutely loves Nathan's, and we have to get it wherever we go. What makes the closure of the Nathan's particularly ironic is that it was still under construction the last time we visited Palm Springs about 2 years ago, and she was specifically looking forward to eating there on this vacation.

Hey, you should grab happiness wherever you can, right?

At any rate, after the disappointment of Nathan's, it was up to Grill-A-Burger to salvage the day. Still hankering for hot dog, my wife got the Bronx Dog (an all-beef hot dog with spicy mustard, grilled onions, and sauerkraut) while I opted for the Ooh La La burger: A thick patty on toasted herb bun, topped with onions grilled in red wine, boursin cheese, and bacon (along with the usual tomato and lettuce). We also shared a 1/2 order of sweet potato fries, though the owner warned us that it wouldn't be enough.

The Bronx Dog was a fine example of its genre, though my wife noted that she could have gotten two Nathan's dogs for the same price. But the Ooh La La burger was fantastic.

The beef was juicy and flavorful, fully cooked without losing any of its tenderness. And the combination of the red wine grilled onions, boursin, and bacon was terrific. And it was HUGE. I'm pretty sure it was at least a 1/2 pound patty.

I ate the burger accompanied by the sweet potato fries, which I dipped in a spicy aioli. Both the fries and aioli held up well when compared the the fries and horseradish mayo at The Counter. The fries seemed to be identical (perhaps the same supplier? The Counter started in LA....) but the spicy aioli was even better than at The Counter because it included a subtle kick.

Grill-A-Burger makes a great burger, and you should definitely check it out if you get the chance.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Restaurant Review: Pomme Frite

On the rare occasions when my wife and I get to take a vacation without the kids, one of our great joys is the opportunity to eat in a fine restaurant without worrying about rushing home to relieve the babysitter.

Tonight, we dined at Pomme Frite in Palm Springs. Pomme Frite, which classifies itself as a Belgian bistro, offers traditional bistro food and ambiance. When we sat down, we noticed, for example, that planks from wine crates had been used to cover the wall of our booth--an unusual but appropriate touch.

We began the meal with the traditional bread and butter. But the bread was hot, with a perfectly thick and chewy crust, and the butter was a garlic herb blend. After a long day of travel and shopping, it was delicious.

For an appetizer, we shared the Roasted Beet and Goat Cheese Napoleon, which consisted of fresh goat cheese sandwiched between thin slices of roasted red and golden beets, finished off with finely diced beets and a sweet roasted beet and red pepper sauce. While I had never had these flavors together before, the combination was outstanding, and after we finished, I was already plotting out how to try to reconstruct it in my own kitchen. (I may start with this recipe from Wolfgang Puck.

For the main course, my wife got the classic Steak Frites, while I went with the Roasted-Garlic Stuffed Chicken. The steak frites consisted of the classic flatiron steak (which came topped with another round of the delightful garlic herb butter), Belgian-style pomme frites (so much crunchier than common french fries), and a small mixed-green salad. The steak frites compared well to the rendition I usually eat at Bistro Elan, though I think I still give Bistro Elan the nod here. The chicken, which was indeed stuffed with about 10-20 cloves of garlic, rested on top of a roasted vegetable stew (tomatoes, peppers, squash). Both went well with the frites, which came with traditional mayonnaise, American ketchup, and an aioli which seemed to have hints of both mustard and chilis. We accompanied the meal with a Belgian Pilsner from Stella Artois.

To round out the night, we shared Almond Cake with Red Berries, Chantilly Cream, and Creme Anglaise, and paired it with a 2004 Black Muscat, "El Dorado Noir" from Ferrari Carano. The almond cake was a light pastry, almost like a puff or popover rather than the heavy cake I had expected, and the two creams were lightly sweetened, so that the dessert was refreshing rather than cloying. The black muscat was incredibly sweet, with a fiery aftertaste, and was strong enough that its flavor improved in conjunction with the cake.

Overall, it was a fine evening with outstanding food (and outstanding company, of course!). I often tell people that I'm happy with a meal if I come away with one new discovery; this meal provided two--the beet and chevre napoleon, and the black muscat. We'd happily return to Pomme Frite another occasion.