Ask the Audience: Presidents Day Spellings

Today is a federal and state holiday that goes by many names. While according to U.S. Code the official name of the holiday is “Washington’s Birthday”, a name also recognized in New Jersey (which also celebrates Lincoln’s Birthday) and New York State, the holiday is often referred to colloquially as [Presidents Day]. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be a common spelling, and even esteemed sources are inconsistent in their uses, reporting it as Presidents Day, President’s Day, or Presidents’ Day.

Each has a decent case. Presidents Day is for honoring U.S. presidents just as we say (and write) Veterans Day, using an attributive noun. President’s Day adheres to the official designation as Washington’s Birthday (though Washington’s actual birthday doesn’t magically fall on the third Monday of February every year). On the other hand, we could have a holiday of all U.S. presidents, Presidents’ Day, and teach our kids the plural possessive at the same time.

What does our audience think?

Restaurant Review: Szechuan Gourmet (NYC)

I spent Saturday afternoon shopping for groceries with my parents in Flushing, Queens, in preparation for tomorrow’s Chinese New Year feast. More about our Chinese New Year dinner to come.

Flushing has become New York’s largest Chinatown, and the good Chinese restaurant scene has also largely shifted to Flushing. It’s evident in its greater diversification in Chinese regional cuisines and its recent press from the New York Times, Anthony Bourdain, and foodies as a destination for cheap, delicious, and most importantly, authentic eats (e.g. Xinjiang BBQ cart and Xi’an Famous Foods in the basement food court of Golden Mall). Julia Moskin from the NY Times reviewed Dongbei (or Northeast China) cuisine in Flushing this week, and while I’ve never been to Dongbei, I wanted to correct a fact [mis]represented in the article:

The Dongbei talent for mixing meat and fish bubbles away in Mr. Chen’s hot pot of pork belly, cellophane noodles and firm tofu, adorned with a whole fried fish (always served with the tail facing the most honored guest at the table).

I think this is incorrect. I’m 99.999% certain that the custom is in fact to serve the fish with the head pointing to the most honored guest (or most important person) at the table. This makes intuitive symbolic sense (head of the fish, head of the table, get it?), and from a culinary point of view, the head is where the best morsels of a whole fish are located (the cheek, and the top of the fish just behind where the head ends). This is the way I’ve always seen it, in America at Chinese dinners and with family in China. I also trust in my dad’s confirmation of my impression, as someone who grew up in China, has had to serve/orient the fish appropriately during important dinners he’s hosted in Beijing, and as someone who’s been the ‘most honored guest’ at a table before and has had the head, not the tail, facing him. As a bit of an aside, there’s some ceremony in formal dinners in China. With large parties and large tables, a lazy Susan is often employed, so the new dishes brought to the table are put next to the MHG first, and only after he or she has sampled it does it get rotated to everyone else. Another fun fact is that when toasting and clinking glasses, it’s proper form for the less important clinker in each pair to clink his/her glass slightly lower, as a gesture of respect. ::edit:: I was worried about regional customs, but today, fortuitously, one of our dinner guests is actually from Jilin province in Dongbei, and after questioning him he said that it was indeed the head that should point to the most important person at the table. He added that another custom was that if the most honored person didn’t eat the fish first, the person who did eat the fish first should jing or toast that person, and this is sometimes used as a pretext to start a conversation.

Sliced Beef and Tripe with Chili Peanut Vinaigrette

Back to the review. One of my favorite places to eat in Flushing with my parents, or with friends, is Szechuan Gourmet. Szechuan Gourmet also has a Manhattan outpost (at 21 W. 39th Street) that received 2 stars from Frank Bruni in 2008, but in my estimation the Flushing branch is the superior, and more adventurous, in flavor. The convenient Manhattan location, though, has become somewhat of a destination for Columbia debate team “alumni and friends” dinners with Josh, Matt, Caitlin, Ryne, Frank, etc. I’m told that esteemed economist/blogger Tyler Cowen, who enjoys spicy food, is a fan of the Manhattan Szechuan Gourmet as well. Neither restaurant does much in decor, and both employ the kitschy decorations commonly found in medium-class Chinese restaurants (I’ve never actually been to in a ‘fancy’ Chinese restaurant in the U.S.). As a badge of authenticity, the menu was comically rife with spelling errors. The drinks section, for example, was plagued with offerings of “Heinken” “Sappolo” “Tingtao” (seriously, this is a Chinese brand!) and “Dite Coca”. The level of spiciness could be modified to the “guest’s teste”. The focus of the restaurant is pretty clearly on the food.

Continue reading

Chinese Currency Revaluation is Overrated

I am always frustrated by the amount of China-bashing that goes on in the United States media. Robin Hanson recently blogged about his survey of the top articles on China written in the NYTimes and Washington Post. He concluded:

Yup, top US newspapers are in full fledged China bashing mode.  Anyone think a list of the last ten articles about Britain or Canada would be nearly as negative? The odd thing is that this media tries so hard to appear objective.  Yet they are blatant about the most obvious bias one should expect from national news: a bias toward negativity about rival nations.  Apparently we are most blind to our most obvious biases.

China has a lot to be criticized for, to be sure, but is all the scrutiny deserved? Its human rights record lags far behind that of the United States and other European countries, yet there are far worse (where’s the daily coverage of Sudan these days?). It’s portrayed as obstructionist in climate change, yet the U.S. is just as unwilling to engage in substantive reform, and we’ve blogged in the past about what the U.S. should be doing even without Chinese cooperation. It’s China’s fault that we had this housing crisis; if only their obsession with saving all the time didn’t provide us with so much cheap credit! China’s investment fuels our deficit spending… not our wildly spendthrift Congress. Most disappointing is how much the U.S. worries about China, when we should be spending more time worrying about ourselves: our education system, our economy, our civil rights record. Whatever happened to personal responsibility?

The most common criticism of China that seems to pop up everywhere I look is China’s policy of keeping its currency, the RenMinBi (RMB), or Yuan, pegged to the U.S. dollar. According to some economists, including Paul Krugman, this keeps China’s exports artificially competitive, and according to less scrupulous minds, hurts American manufacturing and is responsible for our giant trade deficit. But as you suspected from reading the title of this post, those claims are overrated.

Continue reading

Restaurant Review: I Trulli

After collecting some suggestions, I presented a list of Restaurant Week finalists to my friends that included Butter, Mesa Grill, maze by Gordon Ramsay, le Cirque, Patroon, One if by Land, Po, I Trulli, and the Russian Tea Room. As you can tell, I have a thing for celebrity chefs and bad television.

I had I Trulli on the list because I thought I remembered the name from a frantic planning-for-Valentine’s Day research spree several years ago, when I was looking for the “most romantic” Italian restaurants in New York (that year we ended up going to the Central Park South standby San Domenico, now relocated and renamed). We ended up choosing I Trulli largely because it was one of few places still taking reservations for the day and time we wanted (though several on that list are extending their RW specials through the end of February).

I Trulli, 122 East 27th Street, New York, NY

So last Thursday, Caitlin, Ryne, Rob, and I met at I Trulli. We were seated promptly, and spent some time admiring the decor. The restaurant had the dim, warm lighting typical of Italian restaurants, the shadows creating a sense of privacy and intimacy for each table. We enjoyed a crackling fire, and the burning logs (cedar, I think) seemed to perfume the dining room. The fireplace itself was interestingly designed; it was open on two sides, so from one dining room you could peer through the flames to the other part of the restaurant. The set-up reminded me a bit of the set-up of the Robie House, where an opening cut above the fireplace’s mantle connected two sides of the house, and somehow made the space seem bigger, more open, and more inviting.

Somewhat curiously, our ordering preferences converged. Three of us chose the oven roasted mussels gratinato, three of us chose the lamb, and three of us chose the zeppole (though none of us had the same combination of dishes).

I ordered the mussels, though normally I stray away from mussels that are not freshly steamed/cooked in some way (and even when they are steamed open, I’ve seen unscrupulous chefs simply pry apart the ones that didn’t open spontaneously; finger wag at Potenza in DC!). These mussels were split in half, with one half of the shell removed, and the mussel packed with a mound of garlicky bread crumbs, herbs, and parmesan. Next to the mussels was something I initially mistook for a tamale–it turned out to be a lemon that had been wrapped in that yellow netting, to prevent any seeds from coming out upon squeezing. I know some chefs don’t believe in garnishes that aren’t intended to be eaten; what would they think of something patently unedible belonging on a plate! For dinner, I had the lamb chops, braised lamb shoulder, and “potato and catalogna tiella”, which apparently is Italian for potato gratin. Though Ryne and Rob didn’t think much of the lamb, I thought it was pretty good. The lamb chops were perfectly cooked medium rare, and I love any braised meat. In this case, the braising liquid that came with the pieces of lamb shoulder served as a nice sauce for the lamb chops as well, which I found a bit underseasoned on their own. The zeppole were fried well, light and airy, and the slightly sugary bites were complemented by the bitter marmalade of honey and citrus, heavy on the pith.

My favorite mark of service, the frequency of water refills, was happily present throughout the meal, and even after we finished. One service point was while we were not rushed with the check, the waiter, after clearing our plates, never brought us the check at all. We ended up chatting for maybe thirty or forty minutes before finally signaling that we wanted it. I’m curious to find out what people think is the best strategy here, from a restaurant’s point of view–you don’t want to seem like you’re pressuring the guests to leave, but I do think that you should present the check in some discreet manner after dessert, while making it seem that guests can still linger for as long as they want. Alternatively, the most successful restaurateurs know that they make their money by maximizing their covers–increasing the number of tables in a given space, and flipping tables as soon as possible without sacrificing the atmosphere.

Overall, the meal was good, but agreeing with my friends, I didn’t think it was great. Most of the meal items could have been passed off as nice hors d’oeuvres at at a fancy party, but as dinner were merely acceptable. I Trulli seemed like a great place to go for ambience and decor, and the regular menu is probably very solid. However, for someone who appreciates really intense flavors, seasonings, and interesting ingredients, I don’t think I Trulli was very exciting, and one experience there is enough for me.

I Trulli: 2 / 5

122 East 27 Street
New York, NY

World Cup Fantasy League

My favorite sport is baseball, but I’ve only been following it since 2001. Back in those halcyon high school days I used to hang out with my friends from the cool table on Friday afternoons, and we played Magic the Gathering, Risk, and Super Smash Brothers Melee. They also enjoyed baseball, and I remember my first experience watching full games being the Yankees vs. Diamondbacks World Series.

The following summer, my friends invited me to join a fantasy baseball league, and that’s where I truly began to love baseball. It was the competition that drove me to learn about the game;  to this day I pore over statistics before draft day, and (having always been too stingy for StatTracker) manically refresh box scores throughout summer nights until the last game on the West Coast concludes. Fantasy, and the research it demands in order to become a good player, helps turn a casual fan who knows a few Yankees into a full-fledged fan of the sport, who can rattle off half-a-dozen players for every team in the MLB, and tell you the averages and ERAs of the top players.

So I’d like to propose the creation of a Fantasy World Cup league, so people could get excited about the World Cup and have a few horses in the race (aside from the U.S., which will be lucky to make it out of the group stage). The idea is simple (and inspired by a recent Bill Simmons podcast): 8-players. Snake draft for the 32 countries. The teams you draft are the teams you’re rooting for, and we can design some system of scoring for games won, goals scored, etc.

Josh and I will play, so we need 6 more. Who’s in?