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Infinite Jest (The First 16%)

I’m not a big book reader anymore. It’s a matter of focus. At home there are a million different things vying for my attention: TV, movies, games, the internet, my wife, family, friends. Whenever I think about maybe sitting down to read, one of the myriad other things I could be doing grabs my eye and off I go.

Vacations, however, are a different story. Especially when they involve beaches and not many plans other than eating. And, what a coincidence, I just happened to have one of those no-plans-lots-of-beach-and-pool-time vacations! A couple of months ago, I polled Twitter about Infinite Jest, having seen it come up a few times on sites that I frequent. The overwhelming response was something like “It’s great, but dense, and I never actually finished it.” (Well, one co-worker had, but he was literally the only one).

I decided I would give it a shot, because what the hell? It’s only just over 1000 pages, after all.  I actually started reading Infinite Jest 3 days into the vacation, stalled slightly by finishing up the last half or so of Neil Gaiman’s most excellent American Gods (which, by the way, I recommend reading if you haven’t).

Here are a few notes and observations from my reading thus far (my Kindle tells me I’m about 16% of the way through).

  • David Foster Wallace has a way with language. I love how he uses (and sometimes creates) words. They paint vivid pictures of the characters he is portraying. The way he changes his use of language between characters creates a window into the minds of these characters. I’m also a fan of how he stretches my vocabulary (a bit more on this later).
  • Similarly, the way he stretches sentences to their absolute limits gives you a very clear picture of how each of the characters thinks. You will at times find yourself reading a sentence that stretches multiple pages (an English teachers worst nightmare!) These are not always easy to read, but they are extremely effective at conveying a state of mind.
  • The end notes are not always as helpful as you would like, but I suspect that is not merely oversight. Everything about this book so far seems extremely calculated. You are given as much information as the author wants you to have at any given time, and no more. Any insight you think you glean on your own is almost certainly planned. Think you’ve figured out a plot point or some secret that is being hidden? It seems more often than not it is spelled out for you shortly after. It makes me think DFW is having a good time making people feel like they are smart, only to remind them that maybe they aren’t as clever as they think.
  • The comedy in the book ranges from the subtle to the absurd. Things like “The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment” and the Wheelchair Assassins are contrasted sharply with very subtle plays on words, or obscure jokes about tennis that 99% of the non-tennis playing population will surely miss, or an I-have-no-idea-how-long end note listing the entire filmography of one of the main characters, in which descriptions range from full cast/crew lists and plot descriptions, to “Untitled – conceptual – unfilmable”. I am not finding myself laughing out loud yet, but I’m very often smiling.
  • Reading this book on a Kindle is, I think, maybe the best way to read it, especially if it is a model with touch. End-notes are accessible by tapping on their number, and another tap sends you right back to where you left off. Looking up definitions of words (which you will absolutely need to, and frequently) can be done by tapping and holding on the word. None of the free dictionaries you have installed know the word? Two more clicks and you’re looking at the Wikipedia text. Instead of a 1000+ page book, an O.E.D., and a medical dictionary, you have one small e-reader. Fantastic!!!
  • This makes me miss playing tennis in high school. Badly. I need to do something about that….

I’m going to make a concerted effort to continue to read before my next beach vacation, and I do have a couple of 9+ hour flights to/from England coming up. I’ll try to write more about the book later. There’s a specific chapter that I think is maybe some of the best writing I’ve ever read (J.O.I.’s father talking to him in the 1960s, if you’ve read or at least tried to read the book). I’d like to dive into that I think. The bit about Brando is….I don’t have words.

The Restaurant at Meadowood

I’m going to get this out of the way up front. If you’re here because you want to know if you should eat at The Restaurant at Meadowood, the answer is yes. You can stop reading, make a reservation, and go. Nothing I write will be able to adequately convey the food and the experience. My barely adequate grasp of the English language will fail me. And even if I had something approaching talent in this area, nothing short of sitting in that dining room, eating the food, and letting the experience wash over you will truly be sufficient. It is, simply, spectacular.

Alright, now that I’ve hyped this experience up to an unreasonable level, let us begin.

Unlike The French Laundry, The Restaurant at Meadowood was a bit of an unknown quantity to me. We had 3 reservations for our trip to San Francisco & Napa Valley, and this one I had made last. I’d seen the name when I’d looked through the Michelin Guide for San Francisco – one of two 3 star restaurants in the area – but didn’t look into it any further. We had reservations for Saturday and Sunday, but not yet for Monday, Kendall’s actual birthday. I combed through the James Beard nominations, dozens of food blogs focused on the San Francisco area, anywhere I might find ideas. I couldn’t make up my mind. Then Kendall talked to her friend Anne Marie Canlis, and it came up in the course of the conversation that we’d be staying in Yountville, going to The French Laundry, we’d be there several days. She recommended Meadowood. She would be there not long after us, she was excited to go. A recommendation from the Canlis family is not one you ignore! I decided that was where we’d dine that Monday, knowing nothing other than it came with the Canlis stamp of approval.

I was a bit worried, however, that we might not be able to get in. After all, I’d already been through the ordeal getting a reservation at The French Laundry not long before. This was, after all, another 3 Michelin starred restaurant. Their reservations opened up 2 months in advance.  We were less than 6 weeks from our trip. Surely they’d be booked up by now. One very easy phone call later, we had our table! No muss, no fuss, even options on the time! WHAT?

Six weeks later, I turn the car off of the highway onto a small two lane road, lined with old growth vines. The vines give way to trees, two lanes become one. The sunlight fades as we roll into the forest that is home to Meadowood. Several hundred yards further down the road we come to a stop by the guardhouse that marks the beginning of the resort. I roll down the window and am greeted by an employee asking why we’ve joined them this evening. Oh, dining at the restaurant? I’ll call ahead and let them know you’re coming. Just follow the signs!

We slowly wind deeper into the forest. It reminds me of the location they used for Camp David in The West Wing, only with less wooden cabins. We pass tennis courts, short stone walls, and follow sign at a fork that points to The Restaurant. I stop the car in front of a single valet, who greets us and asks if we are the Gamble party. Right up the stairs, enjoy your meal!

We walk up short flight of stairs and enter through the huge, heavy wood doors into a large, round room that looks almost like the lobby of a hotel. Comfortable leather arm chairs, a big fireplace, books lining the shelves built into the walls, two doorways at the far end of the room, and two hostesses . They quickly approach and meet us in the middle of the room. Are you the Gambles? Excellent! No, you’re not too early. May I take your coat Mrs. Gamble? Please, follow me. We trail after her through the right hand opening which leads to the small bar. A few people are sitting at the bar itself, another few at the handful of tables in the corner of the room. They look like they are hotel guests, not people here for dinner. We walk past them, through a curtained doorway and into the dining room.

The dining room as seen on the Meadowood website: http://www.therestaurantatmeadowood.com/about

The dining room as seen on the Meadowood website: http://www.therestaurantatmeadowood.com/about

What a contrast to the night before! The French Laundry had been small and cramped, with low ceilings, tables in every nook and cranny, and a very traditional feeling decor. This dining room was almost cavernous! The room itself was a half circle, with windows lining the curved wall, and mirrors lining the flat one. It had a high, vaulted ceiling, with a pillar in the middle of the room. It felt so light, so airy, so open! Having done so little research into this place before the trip, I was floored!

We were lead to a table at the windows, and after sitting I took a long look out at the scenery. It was magnificent! We were looking out over what must have been a hole on their golf course situated at the end of a small valley. Trees lined the valley walls, wild turkeys roamed the fairway. Everything was beautifully green.  I looked back across the table with what I’m sure was a stupidly giddy grin on my face. This, I knew, was going to be good!

One of the few things I did know about the restaurant was that there was only one menu on any given day. When I’d made the reservation, they were careful to ask about any allergies (thankfully none!) or if anybody was a vegetarian (nope!) as you wouldn’t have the opportunity to order. What I didn’t know is that we wouldn’t even be seeing a menu until the meal was over! Our waiter greeted us and double checked on the allergies, then sent over the sommelier. You’re celebrating a birthday aren’t you? Would you like to start with a glass of champagne to mark the occasion? Why yes, in fact we would! Excellent, he’ll be back momentarily with a couple of glasses. In the meantime, I should look through the wine list and see if anything strikes my fancy.

If you haven’t noticed by now, everybody has been very, very friendly. But not the kind of friendly where you’re pretty sure they’re just putting on a happy face for the paying customer. No, everyone was genuinely warm and inviting. Each and every person we would interact with that evening wanted us to have the best possible time. Service at The French Laundry was wonderful, but here they take it to a whole new level. (Actually, this is something I believe Canlis excels at as well, and is one of the reasons I love dining there so much. But that’s another matter for another day). It is no wonder that they just won the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Service 2014. These people just understand how to take care of you while you’re dining.

A few minutes pass, and our champagne arrives, followed closely by the first of our amuse: radish fermented in champagne yeast. Delightful! These were quickly followed by our second amuse, which really set the tone for the rest of the evening.

Part 2 of our amuse. Yeah, that's a book it's sitting on. And yeah, you're supposed to look through it!

Part 2 of our amuse. Yeah, that’s a book it’s sitting on. And yeah, you’re supposed to look through it!

This incredible bite (pictured on the right), was kale with flavors of chorizo. I could wax poetic about this bite (and if you want me to, come ask me about it in person), but I won’t because I’m sure there’s some poetic waxing still to be had later on in the menu. But by now, you have hopefully noticed that the kale with flavors of chorizo is in fact sitting on the pages of a book. Not very practical, you may be telling yourself. Ahh, but there you are wrong. Because once you have finished savoring your small bite, you are free to peruse the photos they have carefully clipped into the book. There were about 8 photos they had placed throughout the book, all of the Meadowood Garden. We were told when they came back to clear the book away that the pictures will be used for a book that the chef is working on. (If i had to guess, I’d imagine it will be something like the latest book from Rene Redzepi – A Work In Progress.)

The sommolier came back and helped us choose a few half bottles to accompany the rest of our meal, and I went back to looking out the window and talking with Kendall about how this meal was comparing to The French Laundry the night before. The sun dipped further below the valley walls, the wild turkeys slowly paced the fairway, I finished my champagne, and course number one arrived.

Again, it has been two months since this dinner, and my memory is less than stellar, so I will once again refrain from detailing each and every course. For one, I don’t believe you are that interested in reading “It was amazing! Super delicious! YUMMMM!!!,” and whatever other words I dig out of the thesaurus  to describe something as very tasty. I’ll transcribe the menu in its entirety at the end of this post. For another, as I mentioned in my French Laundry post, I’m not a food critic! If that’s what you’re looking for, sorry that you wasted the last 1600ish words. There are some great reviews of this restaurant you can find out there.

That said, I will once again take a dive into what was my favorite dish of the evening, and perhaps one of the most creative I’ve ever eaten. About the time we hit our fifth course (12 courses guys! Not including the TWO amuse’s!) a member of the kitchen staff walks up to our table holding a wood crate – the kind you might see produce in at a farmers market – covered in a piece of burlap cloth. Lifting the cloth, he reveals a large loaf of sourdough bread. “This is the chicken for your first meat course.” And he lifts the top off of the loaf of bread revealing a whole cooked chicken nestled inside!

“What we have done is make a sourdough bread dough with nigella seed. Then we put the whole, uncooked chicken inside the dough after it has proofed. Then we baked the loaf with the chicken inside. We’ll serve it with some of the bread as well.” (We unfortunately did not think to take a picture of this. Too busy ooing and ahhing over it all.) My jaw just about hit the floor after he walked off!

The sixth course came, a beautifully rich chicken broth. This is now what I will forever crave when I am sick with the flu. No chicken broth or soup will ever be the same again. It also served to make me even more excited for the upcoming chicken.

It finally arrived, along with two pieces of the sourdough on a plate in the middle of the table. “I have to share the bread???” I thought to myself after taking the first bite. It was sensational. The chicken was even better. The sourdough had imparted it with a very (I’m sorry for using this word, it’s all I can really think of to describe it) umami quality. I don’t remember much else about the dish, but I have never tasted better chicken in my life, and don’t expect that I ever will again. That’s a sad thought, now I come to think about it.

Oh, hey look! I found a video that Bon Appetit did featuring this dish! You should check it out, very impressive. I should note the presentation is different than when we had it, but you will get the idea. And now I’m craving some of that chicken. Only it’s 11:15pm and I’m in Seattle, not St. Helena.

The remaining courses were delivered, perfectly spaced apart I might add, and each was unique and delicious. The olive oil coconut borage – a frozen “bowl” of unsweetened coconut cream filled with olive oil – was particularly memorable. But as all things must, the meal eventually wound to a close. As our waiter delivered our bill, he asked if we would like to view the kitchen before we left. Uhhhhh…..YEAH WE WOULD! (Though hopefully I said it in a manner more appropriate to our setting.)

A few minutes later we were walked to the back of the dining room, and through an automatic sliding glass door into the kitchen. The entire staff looked up as the waiter announced the presence of guests in the kitchen, and we were greeted by warm cacophony of voices. “Welcome!” “How was your meal?” “I hope everything was to your liking!” I looked around the immaculate kitchen. There seemed to be more people working in here than there were dining back in the dining room. Over to my right was *gasp* a table! You could EAT in here! And several people were! I recalled seeing a “chefs table” option on the website, for a mere $500 per person. A small twinge of regret. Behind me on shelves that would have looked at home in my living room were jars full of spices and a selection of cookbooks.

After a few minutes of ogling we were lead back past the bar to the entry way. Everyone we passed wished us a good evening. Our car was waiting at the bottom of the stairs as we exited. As we drove back down the dark, narrow road surrounded by trees, I smiled, and took a deep, satisfied breath. It had been an incredible night. The people, the food, the wine, the view. Everything had been perfect. Every dish spoke volumes about those who had prepared it, about what they believe is important about food. The service had been easy, relaxed, welcoming. Not one misstep the entire night.

As I sit here now, 11:34pm on June 3rd, 2014, a little more than 2 months removed from the meal of my life, I’m having a hard time picking out specifics. I couldn’t tell you exactly what each dish tasted like. I couldn’t describe to you exactly what made that oh so beautiful chicken broth so different from any other chicken broth. But I am left with a feeling. Something about the experience has stuck with me. Only one other time has a dining experience left such a deep impression on me, and that was L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris. What these two experiences had in common was that they changed the way I look at fine dining. These two restaurants don’t share a lot in the way of similarities- atmosphere, menu, service, even how you order are all vastly different. But what they do share are wholly unique perspectives, and total commitment to the diner.

As I tried to warn you at the beginning, I fear I have not done The Restaurant at Meadowood justice. But I don’t know what else to say. If you ever have the opportunity, go. It is not a cheap meal, but I can guarantee it will be one you won’t soon forget.

Until next time.

 

The Menu

amuse-bouche
whipped yogurt wild plum umeboshi shiso
raw spiny tail lardo caviar succulents
kohlrabi glazed in its own juice rye porridge mustard
sea cucumber wild onions whipped bean brown butter seaweed
cod okara vegetables of the moment
chicken broth
chicken baked in bread grilled puntarelle yeast
aged beef shiitake fermented turnip
young mimolette apple habanero
olive oil coconut borage
silken chocolate panattone
praline

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The French Laundry

As we walked down the street, nervous excitement swelled in my chest. It felt much like the first time I went to Disneyland with my family, way back in elementary school. Only this time, I was somewhat better equipped to deal with and contain my excitement. But the nerves were much more prevalent now. Unlike elementary school, it wasn’t just anticipation. I was worried: what if this wasn’t really going to happen? What if I somehow had screwed it up? This was a reservation that we had worked very hard to get, and one that you actually have to do some work to keep. I was pretty sure we’d jumped through all of the hoops, but still that voice in the back of my head questioned it. “Did you call in time? Are you sure they got the message? Is this the right time? Are we about to show up 3 hours late? Did you cancel the wrong reservation?” (The story of the reservation is one I should probably address, but not in this post.)

A photo op from earlier in the day

A photo op from earlier in the day

The fluttering in my stomach and the nervous grin on my face grew as we approached the unassuming building that houses one of the finest restaurants in the country. Scratch that, the world. The French Laundry grew closer through the darkness. The lights subtly illuminated the sign out front, showing off the restaurants name cast on a narrow strip of bronze. It was actually the 5th time that day we’d seen the sign, the first four coming on a quick drive and a longer walk through Yountville. This time, as we drew nearer, a middle-aged man and his son, probably in his early teens, walked out and wished us a good evening. The son in particular looked like he’d just done something incredible, something he couldn’t quite believe. I thought of myself at that age. I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to eat at a restaurant like this.

As I opened the door for Kendall and followed her inside my nerves reached a crescendo. This was the moment of truth. Did we actually have a reservation? As the door swung closed behind us, the woman behind the front desk greeted us warmly. Three steps later I was standing right in front of her, giving her our last name, and surreptitiously glancing down at the computer screen she was looking at. Was our name there? Were we in? A wave of relief and elation washed over me as I saw her highlight “GAMBLE, JESSE” on the list of the evenings reservations, and she asked us to take a seat on the velvet upholstered sofa while she made sure our table was ready. This was it! We were here! They were going to let us stay!

A bad cell phone shot of The French Laundry's entrance

A bad cell phone shot of The French Laundry’s entrance

The minutes ticked slowly by. Kendall and I chatted about the decor, the Relais & Chateaux books sitting on the small table next to our sofa, and how things seemed similar to or different from what we had expected and the other Michelin starred restaurants we had been to. The hostess asked us if we were ready to be seated, and we jumped up, ready to go (or whatever the “we’re at a super fancy restaurant, play it cool” version of jumping up is anyway.) But it was a false start as it turned out, not quite ready for us yet. So another few minutes ticked by on the velvet sofa, with the soft sounds of the dining room wafting toward us, just out of reach for a couple of moments more.

******

OK, hold it a sec. I started writing this post the night we actually dined at The French Laundry. The previous paragraph is as far as I got before I needed to get some sleep. It is now a little over 2 weeks later. Why the big delay in finishing the post? Well, it is what happened the next night. We dined at The Restaurant at the Meadowood. I have had the privilege of dining at some of the finest restaurants anywhere. Places you have to call up months in advance. Places where I needed to solicit the help of a French speaker. Places they tell you you’re lucky to get a reservation at once in a lifetime. And while I will always consider my night at The French Laundry to be something very special, The Restaurant at the Meadowood was, if not the best meal of my life, at the very least second best. There is still some debate in my head over whether that honor lies with L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon or Meadowood, but that’s merely academic at this point.

Why am I telling you this now? Mostly because it has drastically changed the post which I intended to write. I’m not sure I can really continue the post that you started reading, at least not in the same way. I am different now. I know that’s a bit of a strange thing to say, that a meal has changed you. But, at least when it comes to how I view the culinary world, it has. So if the tone or style takes a bit of a left turn when I continue the post you started above, you’ll know why. I’m going to try to continue telling the story as I experienced it that night, as close to the way I started telling it as possible, but we’ll see how that goes. Anyway, I suppose I should get on with it.

******

When we were taken to our table, for real this time, we walked through the very small, very tight dining room. It was obvious that due to the restaurant’s immense popularity that they had fit in as many tables as possible. After being seated at a small table by a window covered in dark wooden blinds, our waiter arrived with menus and a wine list.

I should probably take a moment to talk about the way The French Laundry does it’s menu. First, there is no a la carte option, but instead 2 pre-fixe menus: the vegetarian menu, and the chef’s tasting menu. I won’t mention the prices…you can go look those up yourself if you’re really curious. Each of the two menus is about 8 “official” courses, though I hear that can change from time to time just depending. For a few of the courses, you are able to make a choice between 2 different options, one of which is included at the normal price, the other for an additional, non trivial, amount.

I opened up the menu to take a brief look, but dove straight for the wine list, which happened to presented in the form of an iPad. Having done some research before hand, I knew they had a particular bottle of wine that I really wanted to get. It was a wine Kendall and I had at Joël Robuchon’s restaurant in Paris 2 years prior, and it was the wine that made me realize I actually DO like white wine! (At least when it’s good.) Within seconds I had located the bottle, made a mental note, and had gone back to looking at my menu. I was going to get the chef’s tasting menu, I was sure of that already, but what about the alternative courses? There were three courses that required a choice. I already knew I wasn’t getting the alternative for the first course. Thomas Keller prepares what he calls “Oysters and Pearls” at both The French Laundry and his New York restaurant Per Se. I very much wanted to try it. The second course, however, was a different story. As I read my options, the alternative immediately caught my eye. Macaroni and Cheese with bacon, cabbage, and shaved black truffle! Umm….YES PLEASE! And while the alternate for the meat course looked amazing (grilled Wagyu beef), I decided that the lamb option would be wonderful, and had the added benefit of not requiring me to wash dishes for a week to pay for our meal.

The waiter returned, we ordered, showed him the wine we would like, and we went back to taking in the whole thing. We were actually there! Really, truly, it was happening! I’d been thinking about this moment for two months! We listened to the soft chatter of the other diners, admired the wooden laundry pegs that had been pinned to our napkins when we sat down (and yes, we did bring those home), swooned over the amuse, and soon enough, the first course was arriving. I will spare you the details of each course – if you really want to know, you can ask me, I’m very happy to talk about the food – as I’m already 1400+ words in and we’ve only just begun to eat.  But I will say that from the first moment, the food was impressive. Beautifully presented, expertly prepared, each bite delicious.

The laundry peg in question, and a sneak peek at dessert!

The laundry peg in question, and a sneak peek at dessert!

I will also take a moment to talk about my mac and cheese. The best mac and cheese I have ever, and probably will ever, eat. And also the most expensive by a wide, wide, wide margin. Since we had sat down, every several minutes we would see a waiter walk into the dining room holding a large tray. On that tray rested what looked like a fairly large, red, wooden humidor. Another waiter would approach him, open the humidor, and remove from it a large, black truffle. He would then take from the tray a grater, turn to a diner, and begin vigorously grating truffle over their dish. Quite impressive! Well, my mac and cheese shows up, and out comes the humidor again. Our waiter withdraws the truffle, and starts to grate. And he grates. And he grates. And he grates some more! Now, I have seen truffles sliced or grated over dishes before, but never like this. He went at it with aplomb! I very quickly figured out why this mac and cheese demanded a premium. I had seen black truffles for sale at a market in San Francisco the day before, and it was $98 an ounce!

As the waiter withdrew, I stuck my face right into the bowl to breathe in the aroma. Black truffle smells (and tastes) like nothing else, and I absolutely love it. I just basked in the decadence for a moment before mixing the truffle into the gooey cheese sauce. This….this was heavenly. Perfectly cooked pasta in a decadently rich cheese sauce, with bits of bacon and green cabbage (which was a lovely complement to the whole dish), and perfuming the whole thing was the black truffle. Delicious! Mac and cheese will never be the same again.

Me enjoying one of the desserts

Me enjoying one of the desserts

We shortly finished off the first bottle of wine – which it turned out was only a half bottle – and the sommelier helped us pick out two more half bottles that would take us through the rest of our meal. (Hey! We walked, ok? No driving! And there are a lot of courses! This is a multi-hour meal here!) The courses continued one after another. And the room got hotter. And hotter. And hotter! By the fourth course I was sweating rather profusely. Whether it was the halogen light bulbs I was sitting under, or the lack of air flow (the AC was definitely not on yet, it was a pretty cold week when we were there), or the tight confines of the dining room, it was getting uncomfortable. Kendall was also feeling the heat, and excused herself to the ladies room to try to cool off. The man I think was the floor manager for the evening came up to me while Kendall was in the restroom and asked if I’d like to take off my jacket (a jacket is required attire). I declined, but thanked him for the thought. A few moments later, our waiter came by and told me that he had asked the kitchen to hold things up for us after the next course, and asked me if we would like to take a few minutes outside to get some air. I very gratefully accepted!

This is exactly the sort of thing that earns you 3 Michelin stars! Yes, your food must be outstanding, but it is the attention to detail that sets you apart. Without prompting, he had seen we were getting a bit uncomfortable and taken the initiative to help remedy the situation.  This, my friends, is hospitality. Too few restaurants truly understand it. The French Laundry proved to me that they most definitely do.

We took our little stroll outside, and were able to peek into the kitchen through the windows in the garden. It was immaculate as you would expect, with each member of the kitchen staff moving in well rehearsed rhythms, setting out plates, juggling pots and pans, delicately plating pieces of fish or meat. After a few minutes we had sufficiently cooled down, and headed back inside for the home stretch. The last several courses came, and lucky for me Kendall was getting a bit too full to finish, so I did what any self respecting guy does in that situation, eat both of our courses!

Dessert finally came, and in true French style, it was not just one dessert. There were the two main desserts, and then the cookies, and at last the chocolate truffles. These were brought round in another very impressive box. Six different varieties, choose as many as you’d like. Kendall, being absolutely stuffed at this point, had to decline. So of course, they brought us a to go box with one of each in it! Again with the hospitality!

As we walked to the door, we were handed a folder containing copies of the menus from the evening, two small metal tins containing shortbread cookies, a copy of Finesse magazine (produced by the restaurant quarterly), as well as a couple of books featuring Relais & Chateaux properties, of which The French Laundry is one. It was undoubtedly the most stuff I’ve ever walked out of a restaurant with. We were thanked by no less than five different people for coming, and we exited into the cool night air for our walk back to the hotel.

I was very, very happy. Yes, I had been overheating for much of the evening. Yes, I was full to bursting, having eaten my 8 courses plus a couple of Kendall’s. Yes, my wallet was significantly lighter. But for me, there is nothing quite like a fine dining experience. And this, no doubt, had been a fine dining experience.  I let the memories of the evening wash over me as we walked back to our hotel, very content. It was a good night.

Little did I know that the next night, something would be blowing all of this out of the water. I’ll be back soon to tell you about it :)

Down the Rabbit Hole – Part 2

SNAKE? SNAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAKE!

SNAKE? SNAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAKE!

WARNING! May contain spoilers from Metal Gear Solid 1. If you care. I mean, come on. It’s been 16 years since this game came out. Statute of limitations is up on this one.

Boy are there some things your brain smooths over as time goes by. Things like how TERRIBLE games used to look! Metal Gear Solid was released in 1998, for the original PlayStation. SIXTEEN YEARS! I remember that happening! One of my classmates in 8th grade wouldn’t shut up about it! “This game is SO REALISTIC! The graphics are AMAZING!” Well, for the time sure. I mean, there were actual POLYGONS! (You can count them on every character model.) But boy, has that game not aged well. Characters move jerkily, textures are muddy, the whole game is in this fairly ugly brown/green/grey palette.

OK, so the game definitely doesn’t hold up in the looks department. It also has some pretty serious control issues. I constantly had problems aiming where I wanted to, particularly if it wasn’t at something directly up, down, left, or right. The camera control was atrocious – time and time again I’d get caught by a passing guard or auto-gun because I couldn’t see around a corner. Swapping weapons and items is a bear, especially once you have more than 3 or 4 of each. And WOW is controlling anything from the 1st person view (which a few boss fights heavily rely on) horrifically slow to respond.

“But Jesse!” you might be saying to yourself. “You JUST told us last time that you LOVED this game! What’s up with all the trash talk???” Don’t worry, we have reached the end of the bad stuff I have to say about this game! (Well, mostly).

The reason I loved this game wasn’t the gameplay itself, though that was pretty fun when you weren’t fighting the controls. And it certainly wasn’t the looks. The reason this game was so great was the crazy that is Kojima’s story! Once again, I’ll point you over this-a-way if you want to read up on the events of the game before we go on. …   …   …All caught up? Fantastic!

Alright, so just what is it about this admittedly crazy and over the top story that I was so drawn to? First and foremost, it’s the characters. Yes, a lot of the voice acting is over the top, but in such an awesome, 80s action movie kind of way! Every interaction you have with Liquid Snake almost like watching Alan Rickman in Die Hard. There is no subtlety in that relationship, and I love it. And don’t forget the whole Solid Snake / Liquid Snake reveal! Twin clones? Made from Big Boss’ DNA??? One totally ignorant of the others existence. The other, seeking revenge for wrongs unknowingly committed against him by the brother that doesn’t even know he exists. One designed to be the ultimate expression of the ultimate soldier. The other, given every proverbial short end of every proverbial genetic stick. But which is which??? (If you haven’t read the story summaries of the first 3 games at this point, you probably should. I mean, even if you have, all of this may not make a whole lot of sense. I know I’m still trying to wrap my brain around it.)

Then there are the crazy, self referential exchanges that go on. Multiple times throughout the course of the game, characters will break the fourth wall with you: “Press the X button to regain your life! Don’t use a turbo controller or I’ll know!”; “I’ve got it! Use the controller port! Plug your controller into controller port 2! If you do he won’t be able to read your mind!”; having to contact a character for saving, who will literally ask you to “Save your data! I feel like something bad might happen.” It’s all incredibly quirky and fun. I literally laughed out loud at several of these moments.

Now, to be totally transparent, I used a walk through to beat this game. Again, I’m in it for the crazy, not the challenge. That said, even without it much of this game isn’t very difficult. My final play time was just over 8 hours, and I wasn’t exactly blitzing through it. The boss fights are, for the most part, downright simple. A few are frustrating, but for all the wrong reasons. For example, the 2nd time you fight Vulcan Raven, you are in this large room filled with big containers that break it up into a bit of a grid. He has a giant minigun that does a fair amount of damage to you, and a huge field of vision. Throughout the fight, he will, seemingly at random, patrol around this room, shoot you if he sees you, but not really attempt to follow you. The strategy for the fight is, essentially, shoot him in the back with one of your two rocket launchers repeatedly, while keeping your distance and running away from him after every shot.

Sorry for the terrible size and quality

Sorry for the terrible size and quality

Here’s where the games camera and controls really hurt. The fight itself isn’t very difficult, but the room is large enough that you can’t see the whole thing on your radar, so unless he’s pretty close to you, you don’t know where he is. The 3rd person camera view isn’t much better. If you look at the image to the right, you can see what I mean. Unless he’s pretty close to you, in a pretty sizable room, you’ll have a hard time locating him until he runs back at you. One of the rocket launchers is basically a fly-by-wire system. You shoot a rocket, and then take control of it. Every time you turn, it slows down and gradually re-accelerates, and it has a limited range. That’s all well and good, when you know where he is. Otherwise, you blindly fly the rocket around the area, hoping to run into him from behind (if you try and shoot him from the front he just shoots down the rocket). With either better camera controls or a larger range on the radar, the whole thing would have been far less frustrating. As it was, the fight took far longer than any other in the game for me, simply because I had such a hard time locating the boss.

One other boss fight to mention, and it’s the 2nd to last one against Metal Gear Rex, piloted by Liquid Snake. This fight I actually found to be a bit more challenging….at least if you did it the way you were supposed to. You’re essentially fighting a massive mech that is shooting at you with homing missiles, machine guns, and if you get too close, a laser. There are two phases to the fight – one where you have to target a specific spot on the mech’s shoulder with a stinger missile while the mech is running around and shooting at you. The second phase the mech is immobile, but still shooting at you with all the same weapons. The way you’re supposed to do this fight (and the way that ended up killing me several times), is to shoot the mech, dodge all his shots, use a grenade that stuns it for a few moments, shoot it again, rinse, and repeat. What turned out to work much more efficiently was to ignore the mechanics of the fight entirely, just stand in one spot, and blast away one shot after the other with the missile launcher. As long as you have a few healing items in your inventory, you can do this very safely. I was consistently able to get through phase one of the fight, but kept dying on phase 2. After 3 or 4 times having to start the fight over again during phase 2, I decided  just to try blasting the thing. Lo and behold, it keeled very quickly. Kind of disappointing, really. Didn’t quite expect to be able to brute force the penultimate boss quite so easily.

Perhaps my favorite thing in the entire game was the live action video that played over the end credits. If you’ve read up on the story, you know that this whole series has a very anti-nuclear bent to it. So, after you drive off into the sunset on a snow mobile with the girl (or guy, if you didn’t save the girl), they start to play all these Alaskan nature videos! You see flyovers of giant evergreen forests, panning shots of babbling brooks, a mushroom popping out of the ground, eagles soaring, fish jumping, flowers blooming! It’s almost as if Kojima is screaming at you, “SEE WHAT WE MIGHT DESTROY WITH THESE EVIL THINGS??? DO YOU SEE?????”

Actually, my second favorite part happens right after this as well. The credits are over, the screen goes black, and all of a sudden you hear two people start to talk. In what is perhaps the most blatant “we’re going to make another one of these!” moves of all time, it’s revealed that there is ANOTHER cloned brother! And…GASP! He’s the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES! Dun dun DUNNNNNNNN! You also find out that Solid, who Liquid had thought was the “perfect” clone, was actually the imperfect one after all! THE TWISTS! THE TURNS! THE SHOCKING REVEALS! Oh Kojima, I love you so much! Never change, OK?

It is exactly this kind of crazy, over the top, stupidly dramatic, shove your ideals in my face, totally nonsensical, and utterly BEAUTIFUL storytelling that made me love this game. There are times it takes itself far too seriously (video of the Alaskan wilderness), times when it totally doesn’t (really bad bathroom humor), and times when I just can’t tell (all of this cloning nonsense). Taken as a whole, it’s far from perfect. But I think it’s pretty great. I can’t wait to dive into the next one! I’ll probably write about that too, because I have faith in the crazy that is Kojima!

I give MGS 4/5 stars. And now this is, apparently, a review. Of a 16 year old game. You’re welcome internet!

Down the Rabbit Hole – Part 1

What am I getting myself into???

What am I getting myself into???

WARNING! This post may contain spoilers – though really are they spoilers when we’re talking about games that are more than a decade old?

Sometime last week I decided I was going to do something a little crazy. I was going to play through the Metal Gear series for the first time! I talked to a few people about it before hand – some were enthusiastic, some laughed at me and told me I was crazy. I’ve only ever played one Metal Gear game until now – Metal Gear Solid 4. And I didn’t even play that one all the way through. My knowledge of the series going in boiled down to just a few things:

  1. Kojima is a crazy person! (For those that don’t know, Hideo Kojima created the series)
  2. The story is insane (as if written by a crazy person….)
  3. The games are not chronological after the first few (see image above)
  4. At least one of the main protagonists is a dude named Solid Snake
  5. They are stealth-action games

That’s it. That’s 100% of my knowledge going in. The time I’d spent with MGS4 did more to confuse me about the story than it taught me. I put it down after a few hours, not because it was bad, but because I was too confused by what was going on. I had no context! Characters were introduced that I was supposed to already know and didn’t. Events were referenced that I’d never heard of. Places were visited that you’d supposedly been before in previous games. It just was too much.

So what brought me back? Well, for the last couple of years I’ve been a big fan of a gaming news and review site called Giant Bomb. They do a weekly podcast that is ostensibly about gaming, but is actually just about whatever randomness the guys want to talk about that week. It’s hysterical! Because it’s only out once a week, I’ve resorted to going and listening to older episodes between the new ones. During some of their earliest podcasts, MGS4 was released, and they talked quite a bit about it. The conversation mainly focused on how crazy the story of the series was, and how insane Kojima is. On top of that, they all really enjoyed playing MGS4. OK, I’m in! Where do I sign? I really want to see this insanity unfold!

So I went out and bought a copy of Metal Gear Solid The Legacy Collection which includes TEN Metal Gear games (only missing a few handheld entries in the series, and the two games that have been released post-MGS4). After rushing home, I dug out my PS3 and got it hooked up again, then dove right in to Metal Gear.

Big. Mistake.

I’ll spare you the details – mostly because I’ve tried to enumerate the details 3 times already while I sit here writing, but each time they quickly got out of hand – but suffice it to say that the game was stupid hard for all the wrong reasons, even looking at a walk through. I didn’t have the patience, and the game just wasn’t that fun for me. Instead, I jumped over to Wikipedia to get a summary of the story. Mostly, you’re introduced to our protagonist Solid Snake, and a few of the people who will surround him and inform the story as we progress.  If you want to know what happens, you’re probably better off going here and reading about it, than having me regurgitate it for you. I’ll wait while you go check that out……

……

………

Back? Great! Let’s continue! This post is getting long as it is.

Naively I think to myself that surely, Metal Gear 2 has to be easier to play these days than Metal Gear was! EHHHHHHH! WRONG! While some pretty big improvements had been made (like a map that shows you enemy locations!), the game is nearly as stupid hard as the first. (I’m seeing another post in the near future about the difference between the hard games of yesteryear and the hard games of today). So I head right back over to Wikipedia for another primer in the Metal Gear lore. It’s more of the same, really. Espionage, betrayal, and a healthy dose of anti-nuclear proliferation (a theme that I’ve been assured runs rampant through the series).

Now, this post has gone much longer than I originally anticipated. This wasn’t supposed to be a novella! So, in our next episode, I’ll be recounting my time with the 3rd game in the series (and, SPOILER, one which I actually finished and quite thoroughly enjoyed) Metal Gear Solid 1. There’s more espionage! There’s more betrayal! And dagnabbit, there’s more of that anti-nuclear message! Lets see how deep that rabbit hole goes, shall we?

Heroes of the Storm!

WARNING! This is a post about video games. If that’s not your bag, turn back now.

I was very fortunate and was given access to the Heroes of the Storm alpha that’s going on right now! Not being a huge fan of MOBAs in general (I’ve played League of Legends, DotA, DotA2) I didn’t really know what to expect. I’ll have more thoughts as the Alpha progresses, but so far, it’s amazing! It takes all of the stuff I hate about MOBAs, and fixes them! This game surely won’t be for everyone. I’m sure a lot of DotA2 players will be annoyed by the absence of items, how “few” characters there are, and the different level mechanics. But this looks to me to be a gateway to that realm of gaming, much like Hearthstone is for CCGs.

More to come, but for now, if you’re interested at all in Heroes of the Storm, check out some of the streamers on Twitch and see what you think.

Lunches, my white whale

Call me, Ishmael? Please?

Call me, Ishmael? Please?

TLDR; skip to the bottom, I’m asking for some ideas.

“Call me Ishmael. Call me whatever you want, just don’t call me late to lunch!” Especially when that lunch is an awesome hot dog, or a jerk chicken sandwich, or fried chicken, or waffles! I may not be haunted by a giant, ghostly white whale that destroyed my ship and took off half my leg, but much like Captain Ahab I do have a nemesis: food trucks! For the last 18 months or so they’ve been coming to a few different locations at work, plying their delicious wares.

Now if you read my last post then you know this is a bit of a problem if I’m going to follow my 3 step plan for making everybody love me again! Oh…wait…that’s a different plan. We don’t talk about that plan. What I mean is, if I’m going to stop eating lunch from a food truck on a regular basis, I need a bigger harpoon.

This metaphor isn’t holding up quite like I’d hoped…

In this case, “bigger harpoon” means some delicious, minimal prep required once in the office, lunches.

(TLDR folks can start here.) I need suggestions for exactly this type of thing. What are your favorite things to make for lunch? I can handle a sandwich every once in a while, but those get old fast. I’d love some recipes I can make on a Sunday, and that I can use a couple different ways throughout the week. I’m cool spending a few hours on the weekend shopping/cooking, if it means I don’t have to get up an extra 30 minutes early to put something together. That’s pretty much a non-starter. Daddy needs his beauty sleep after all!

So what do you have for me, internet? Hit me! Links are awesome. Your secret, not-posted-anywhere-on-the-internet-but-in-the-comment-section-below ideas are even better! And they’ll stay secret, because lets be honest, nobody else is reading this yet ;)

Getting back in shape

WARNING! This is the first of what is likely to be several posts about me trying to get into better shape. I’m mostly writing these posts as a way to try and hold myself accountable. If I put this stuff out there, I’m more likely to stick with it. I’ll try to avoid making them too boring for you guys. And I would appreciate a bit of help and input :)

I don’t do New Year’s Resolutions. They just don’t work! I mean, the intent behind them is good. You want to make a change in your life. The new year is symbolic of the new you (queue image of the old guy with a long beard standing next to a baby).

Oh yeah...I can add these now, huh?

Oh yeah…I can add these now, huh?

See, the problem is that making a big change in your life sounds great in principle, but they’re very difficult to stick to. Old habits die hard and all that. So I’ve stopped trying to make big, sweeping changes, opting instead for attempting smaller changes. Now, I won’t lie to you.  I’m bad at even making small changes in my life. Especially if those changes entail giving up (or even cutting down on) my favorite foods, reducing my gaming time to work out, or having to get up any earlier in the morning. Combine this with 4 years at a desk job, and I’ve put on a few pounds. How many, exactly? Let’s just say at 6’3″, I’ve traveled north of the 3lbs per inch mark. I’ve decided it’s time to work that number south.

I’m going to guess that many of you have shuffled off at this point. Another post from some random person on the internet that wants to lose weight. But if you’ve stuck around this far, we’re getting down to the meat and potatoes (see, this is why I’m having trouble losing weight, even my expressions are food related!). I need your help to keep me accountable to some of the changes I’m trying to make! “What do I need to do to help you out?” you may be asking yourself. Well….not a lot, actually. Here’s what I’m thinking.

I have what are the beginnings of a plan:

  1. Go to the gym! I’m doing OK on this one so far. Since New Years, I’ve averaged a little more than once a week, only missing weeks for illness. My activity of choice has been swimming. It’s a fantastic workout, something I find much more interesting than a treadmill, and it’s very easy for me to measure my progress. First week I swam I struggled hitting 500 yards in my 30 minutes. Yesterday I hit 1500 yards in 30 minutes! Still a long way to go, but progress is encouraging. (Nothing for you to do here, other than read about my occasional experience.)
  2. Drink less. I used to have a beer most nights after work, a glass of wine once or twice a week with dinner, then cocktails/wine when I’m out with my wife for dinner. Add in occasional nights where you’re at a bar with friends, and it adds up pretty quickly. Now 99% of the time I was drinking responsibly, but it’s just a lot of extra empty calories that are working against me. For the last couple of months I’ve been trying to only drink on 2 occasions: out to dinner, or out with friends. I’ve mostly kept to it, and I think it’s helping, at least a little. (Nothing much to do here either! Maybe give me crap if I try to order “just one more” when we’re out together. See, isn’t this easy!)
  3. Bring my own lunch to work. This one I’m absolutely terrible at. For a brief few weeks last year I’d try making myself something on Sunday that would last me at work through the week. I got so bored of what I was making that the whole thing fell apart. What I really need are good ideas, easy recipes, and something to keep me interested in the face of the delicious food trucks that constantly show up outside our office. (This one I could use immediate help with!)

So there’s my plan. Work out, drink less, eat better at work. Pretty straight forward, and none of these changes are too big. I’m already doing 2 of them pretty well! With some help from you guys, maybe number 3 won’t be so bad either! So what do you have for me? What are your favorite things to take with you for lunch? How do you do your lunch planning? How do you stop yourself going to get fried chicken from the food truck every Wednesday? No…really…how do you do that?

Umm…..hi, I guess?

I can’t say that this is the first time I’ve tried to start a blog. I also can’t promise I’ll actually follow through this time. But if I do an honest assessment, I think this one has a pretty good chance of sticking. In the past I’ve always tried to have a very narrow focus (for example: Starcraft 2, photography, my random thoughts, etc, etc, etc). Very quickly, with each of those attempts, I came to realize I didn’t have the time to dedicate to any one of those topics. That in turn led to those blogs being dropped even more quickly. This time I’ve made the decision to go with more of a shotgun approach. I may not be able to dedicate enough time to do nothing but write about food, but I sure eat enough that I can come up with something to say a few times a month. Same goes for video games, or photography, or whatever else. It being early March, I’d wager that at least one of my early posts will revolve around the Sounders (first match on Sunday! WOO!)

I’ll end this first post with a few photos, because I guess why not? Come back soon, there will be more. Probably. Definitely. Maybe. Yeah…..

Seahawks 747 over the Super Bowl Rally at CenturyLink
Downtown Seattle from Kerry Park. Maybe you recognize it from the header?

 

 

Pre-Posting Edit: So I decided it would be a good idea to change my WordPress install location before I sent out my first post. HUGE MISTAKE! I screwed it up and uhh…it all went away. Fortunately installing WordPress and getting everything setup for a second time goes much quicker. This is why you don’t do this stuff at 11pm after a full day of work and a trip to the gym.

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