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  • October 31, 2012

    Austin, part 2 : Uchiko

    Did you read part 1 of my blogification of Austin, covering the UT-Baylor football game?  If not, you can read it here.  But on to part 2, Fancy Meal Number 1: Uchiko.

    Back in 2009, I blogged about dinner at Uchi, at the time Austin’s best sushi restaurant.  My overall assessment: it’s pretty good, but it couldn’t touch the sushi at Jinpachi in Los Angeles.  Uchiko is sort of a spin-off restaurant of Uchi, owned by the same person (Tyson Cole, who, if the comments on my Uchi post are to be believed, actually commented on my review of Uchi), but with a different executive chef, Paul Qui, who recently won Top Chef season 9.

    Let me just get this out of the way: Uchiko is just about perfect. The fish is incredibly fresh (and always celebrated, rather than “hidden” for the benefit of those who fear raw fish), the flavors are creative, the presentation beautiful (pics on the way), the service first-rate but friendly and casual.  It’s the best Japanese food I’ve had outside of Japan or Los Angeles.  I think it’s better than a meal at Morimoto in New York (as in Iron Chef Morimoto).

    A photo note: these pictures were all shot with the Canon 5D Mark III and the new 24-70mm f/2.8 L II lens. This is the first meal I’ve shot with this lens. The restaurant was very dark – a bit too dark, considering how beautiful the food looked – but other than a bit of noise in some shots (these were shot at ISO 4000, and I didn’t run any noise reduction software), at this size at least, you wouldn’t guess that the lighting was so bad. (I do think they could turn up the lights a little.)

    We started with grilled edamame with sea salt. Yes: grilled.

    Next: Crispy brussels sprouts with lemon chili. It doesn’t photograph particularly well (but it would if they’d TURN UP THE LIGHTS), but damn, these were amazing. Easily the best brussels sprouts I’ve ever had. The bar for that may be low, but trust me on this: if you’re ever in Austin, you need to go to Uchiko even if it’s just for these, with their incredible sauce.

    Some sushi: madai sashimi: Japanese sea bream, san bai zu, meyer lemon, and garlic. This fish was a little bit less tender than I like, but it was by no means tough, and the combination with the lemon and garlic was bright and perfect. Those things enhanced the fish, rather than hid the fish (which was my complaint at Uchi).

    This is maguro sashimi and goat cheese — tuna sashimi, fuji apple, goat cheese, and pumpkin seed oil. Goat cheese with apple is always delicious. Add tuna and it only gets better (although I’d prefer not to be served tuna in general due to overfishing).

    Tempura! This is “tempura nasu” – togarashi (a Japanese chili pepper) with white soy. That sauce was on the right was spicy and damned yummy, like a Japanese BBQ sauce.

    Tiger cry! :'( Yes, the dish is called “tiger cry.” It’s cured wagyu beef, rice paper, red pepper, charred green onion, and the yuckiest vegetable: cucumber. I didn’t eat this one because CUCUMBER IS YUCKY.

    This is pork jowl with brussels sprout, kimchee, preserved lemon, creme fraiche, and romaine. It was like Super Bacon.

    Kaki ebi : prawn, persimmon, trumpet mushroom (me, I want a damn trombone mushroom), and kaffir lime.

    We had a selection of nigiri (fish with rice). This one was sake toro, or salmon belly. That’s ginger on top. This was spectacular.

    Suzuki yaki : grilled Mediterranean sea bass, tomato, mint, and thai chili. This was exceptional – but I couldn’t get it into focus. I can’t even blame the alcohol because the one bummer about Uchiko: they don’t have a full bar. I was hoping for some creative Japanese cocktails — maybe something with ginger, another cocktail with yuzu, who knows — but they only have beer and wine. Bummer. Great dish, though.

    Tennen kanpachi crudo : amberjack, cucamelon, grilled grape, and sorrel. Another perfect dish with the fish enhanced — rather than buried.

    Wagyu shortrib nigiri with fresh wasabi — not that awful fake wasabi that comes in a tube — the junk you’d find at bad sushi restaurants.

    Aki dashi : creme fraiche, yuzu, saikyo miso, and kohlrabi. It was very pretty to look at, but it was one of the less interesting dishes, tasting mostly just like a good fresh cold soup.

    Hama chili : yellowtail sashimi, sliced thai chili, and orange supreme.

    This is “jar jar duck” : Countryside Farms duck, candied citrus, endive, and rosemary smoke. It’s tough to capture the smoke on film, and even if I could, you’d still miss the aroma, which was the best part of the dish.

    We had three desserts. This is “fried milk” : chocolate milk, toasted milk, and iced milk sherbet.

    Sweet corn sorbet. I loved this one. It was so… corn.

    And this is peanut sorbet with concord grape, sourdough, miso dots, and cognac.

    The service was great. I asked for a copy of what we’d been served — we had the waiter pick all of our courses for us — and they prepared the menu by hand and brought it out to us about 15 minutes after we finished eating. As an added nice gesture, they brought us glasses of sparkling wine to drink while we waited.

    If I can find any complaint about Uchiko, it’s the lack of a full bar with a mixologist as brilliant as the chef. Considering only the food, though, this has to be one of the best restaurants in Austin, if not the entire southwest.

    There’s another great new place in Austin: Barley Swine. And that’ll be the next blog post…

    4 Comments

    October 30, 2012

    Sandy was here

    Hurricane Sandy has come and gone from Boston, and in our neighborhood in Cambridge, we made out okay – at least at our house.  I took this picture from our front porch last night after the rain had mostly stopped. (You can see that the trees are still blowing.)  Photo note: Check out the cool starburst effect on the street light, thanks to shooting at f/20.

    This the fence that separates our house from the one next door. Not so bad.

    This afternoon, I walked around the neighborhood to see if our neighbors had gotten through this as damage-free as we did. This is the house next door. I’m glad I didn’t park my car under that tree.

    And the house after that, where branches fell and took down the power line to their house.

    You can see the wires and the metal tube that normally secures them to their house. Ack.

    And the next house on the block, where this tall (but thin) pine tree fell over onto the house.

    This house appears to be fine, with only a lot of branches down.

    Same here.  Presumably nobody had parked there.

    Rounding the corner, the sidewalk is blocked, but there’s no indication any of this landed on a house or car.

    The next street, though…

    Yeah, that doesn’t look right.

    There’s nothing to see here. I just really like this house.

    This sign has fallen over, but no amount of wind can lean Cambridge so far that it becomes Romney country.  (In fact, this sign is leaning even further to the left than it was before the storm.)

    It’s tough to tell if this tree hit the house or only took down the fence. Also note: this is the second Prius within the same block. And further note: that little girl’s pants have the word “Peace” on them. Like I said: Cambridge.

    This house, directly behind ours, already has a perfectly clean sidewalk. I guess if you can afford a house with a turret, you can afford to hire people to clean the property immediately after a hurricane.

    I’d parked our car in front of our house last night, hoping to keep it away from largest trees, which is tough in this area, and it appears to have made it through the storm with only a few hundred leaves stuck to it.

    We were very fortunate. We never even lost power, but the next three houses on our block had problems ranging from a damaged fence to a tree falling onto the house. And this is nothing compared to the devastation in New York and New Jersey and Connecticut.  Our thoughts go out to everybody in the path of this monster – a hurricane wrapped in a nor’easter with a blizzard on the outside (or as AEJ called it, “a weather turducken”).

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    October 27, 2012

    UT-Austin, part 1

    I lived in Austin for three years – from August 2008 until June 2011 – and loved my time there *. We made a lot of good friends, ate a lot of good food, and gut-remodeled a house.  (Pictures of that finished product are here.)  We moved to Cambridge, Mass, last summer, and I hadn’t been back to Austin until last week.  I was a guest of the University of Texas for five days, and it was a jam-packed trip that I can’t fit into a single blog post, so this will be part 1.  Or: “UT Austin, Part 1: Sporty Day.”  (And when you think “John Mackey,” you really should think, “sporty.”)

    * not all time in Austin was loved. Any time spent outdoors between March and November: not loved.

    It was Saturday, and most Saturdays during the fall in Texas are Game Day. This was a big one, with UT hosting Baylor. Fortunately, it was a night game. (Seriously, there’s no humane reason to have a day game in Texas, ever. Even for this night game in October, it was 82 degrees when the game started. Have you seen my hair? I have bangs. You know what doesn’t work well with bangs? Sweat. You know what happens when you take somebody who has been living in 54-degree-in-October New England and stick them in 84 degree, humid weather? THE BANGS GET SWEATY AND NASTY. Not cool, Texas. Literally not cool.)

    Sorry. Had to get that out of the way.

    So, it was a night game, leaving the morning free for other activities like… golf! I’ve never played golf on a course that didn’t include a miniature windmill, but I went along as a spectator (which is both less stressful, and much, much cheaper) while Jerry Junkin (UT Director of Bands) and Steve Davis (UMKC Director of Bands, visiting for UT’s concert) hit balls.

    Fore! (Turns out nobody actually yells that in real life, and if you do, people get annoyed – especially if you yell it as a spectator while somebody is in mid-swing.)

    My favorite part about golf: the Golf Course Critters! (Why is there no cartoon called “Golf Course Critters,” about animals who live and play on an exclusive golf course? There must be an audience for that. Or even “Jack Hanna‘s Golf Course Critters.” I’d totally watch that. “Mitt Romney’s Golf Course Critters” : somehow less cute.)

    He looks so perfect, you might think he was stuffed, but no, this buck is actually alive.

    A river rat (AKA a coypu or nutria). I want him for a pet! Loki would love him! Loki could chase the nutria’s thick, juicy, nasty tail!

    Later that day — off to campus! I traded in my hybrid for this huge truck, just for the game.  (Few people know that my nickname is “Gommy.”)

    Big Bertha!

    I was told that I really shouldn’t be wearing a shirt with Baylor green on it. (I love my dollar-sign polo shirts — and the crazy thing is, when I put this shirt on that morning, it was blank, but the dollar sign magically appeared on my chest during the course of the day!) I was given a change of clothes.

    Before the game, Vincent DiNino — Director of Bands Emeritus, and conductor of the Longhorn Band from 1955-1975 — conducted the Longhorn Band in a warm-up. Vince is 94 years old. Dude is no joke.

    To the stadium!

    Here comes the band!

    Sideline access is a pretty sweet perk of my “job.”  Here’s Rob Carnochan, conductor of the Longhorn Band.

    UT President Bill Powers with Vince DiNino on the sideline before the game.

    Here’s Vince conducting the Longhorn Band in front of tens of thousands of people.

    94. He’s 94.

    Jerry Junkin conducts the national anthem.  (As you can see, it was blue hour.  If only there were a piece of music about that time of day…)

    It’s loud from here.

    Speaking of loud… This canon is fired every time UT scores. With over 50 points scored, this became tiresome rather quickly. BOOM. BOOM.

    A Longhorn Non-Varsity Band member.

    The Baylor Golden Wave Marching Band.

    My friend Isaiah Odajima, Associate Director of Bands at Baylor. He’ll be happy to have this photo when he records his first album, “God, Band, Murrica.” (The American flag is the background is a nice touch, I think.)

    Three conductors: Jerry Junkin, Steve Davis, and the wonderful Eric Wilson (Director of Bands at Baylor). Their relative heights are inversely proportional to the number of times they’ve performed my music*.

    * not to scale

    Friend and fellow photographer Christina — the official photographer of the Baylor Band.

    Christina taught me this fun backlighting trick, which I tried on this shot of Rick Espinosa, Assistant Director of Bands at Baylor. Rick can use this shot for the poster for his upcoming movie. In the film, Rick plays a football coach with the commitment to helping an underprivileged, mentally-challenged, young boy enjoy life and realize his potential.

    * Oops, that might be the plot for “Radio“, starring Cuba Gooding, Jr.

    The Baylor Band’s halftime show.

    The Longhorn Band’s halftime show.

    Me, Jerry, and Bevo!

    I have too many friends at both UT and Baylor to have had a “favorite” for the game, so I was mostly indifferent about the outcome, but I’ll say that UT won. I think the lesson here is that I’m good luck! Fund my visit to your campus during a big game, and YOUR TEAM IS GUARANTEED* TO WIN.


    * not guaranteed

    4 Comments

    October 15, 2012

    Squirrels Can’t Read

    Today’s update.  It’s a brief one.  Since the last post (where I detailed the differences between an iPhone camera and an SLR — did you read it?)…

    I prepared toppings for a pizza. “Pearls” seems a weird brand name for a company that sells black olives.  (Background: a vodka tonic with Grey Goose L’Orange.)

    Toppings were applied to the pizza.

    Loki snuggled.

    I turned on the fireplace for the first time this season. (It’s off now, because the temperature here in Cambridge has returned to 73 degrees.)

    We had to get a new garbage can. It turns out that squirrels – even the neighborhood Harvard squirrels – can’t read.

    That’s about it. Have you been playing with the site’s new Ordering page? You really should. Shopping is super fun.

    I’m off to UT-Austin on Thursday. I’m excited to be back for the first time since we moved to Cambridge over a year ago. Who wants to have margaritas?

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    October 12, 2012

    iPhone 5 vs. Canon 5D Mark 3

    Chase Jarvis said the famous words, “The best camera is the one that’s with you.” The iPhone has become the most popular camera on Flickr, because there are like a hundred million billion iPhones, and it takes a very good picture. There have definitely been times that I wanted to take a picture of something and only had my iPhone with me, and it’s obviously better to have gotten the picture with something. The iPhone’s camera gets better with every generation, but can it replace an SLR yet?

    Just about every picture I post on the blog comes from my DSLR — currently the Canon 5D Mark III. My current go-to lens is the new Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L II. Is it worth hauling it around when I go on a trip, if I could just use the iPhone? “Hauling” is precisely what the Canon demands. This body + lens combo weighs 58.7 ounces — more than 3.5 pounds. That’s heavier than some laptops. The iPhone 5 weighs 3.95 ounces.

    Then there’s the price difference. A 64GB iPhone 5, out of contract, costs $849. That’s a lot of money. With a contract, though, you can get the 16GB model for $199. The Canon 5D III ($3459) with the 24-70mm f/2.8 L II ($2299 – assuming you can find one in stock anywhere) = $5758. In a word: WTF? (Is that one word or three?)

    So comparing the two is a little silly. One is a camera phone. The other is a dedicated professional-level camera. But even if it’s silly… let’s compare! I like to be silly – like when I talk in my cockney accent. (“Top o’ da mornin’, guvnah!” I’m afraid it’s even more embarrassing in person.)

    To make this as fair as possible, I didn’t post-process the images. The Canon’s shots are from the JPG files, not the RAW files.  (Processed RAW images would have more color depth, and better white balance, among other differences.) The trickiest thing was to produce similar framing between the cameras, with the iPhone having a different height-to-width ratio, and seeming to adjust its perceived focal length on the fly. Also, keep in mind that these are all JPG files resized for web viewing, so we’re not comparing a 2.38MB iPhone JPG with a 26MB Canon RAW. Still, the differences are striking.

    Let’s start with food.  Here are some cookies that I got from a local bakery today. (That top cookie, the “junk food cookie,” contains pretzels, chocolate chips, peanut butter cups, and Cheez-Its. I’ll let you know how that is. I predict: AWESOMETASTIC.) iPhone 5:

    And the same cookies, shot with the Canon:

    Another angle of the cookies — more of a macro shot. iPhone 5:

    The Canon:

    Here’s my favorite baseball hat. iPhone 5:

    Canon:

    Heading outside… This is the iPhone 5:

    The Canon (this is the closest I could frame the shot, since this is not a macro lens – but there’s no denying that the color is truer, and the shot much more detailed — and this is not even comparing full-size crops):

    You’re probably thinking, “that’s not fair! You’re shooting at, like, f/2.8, but the iPhone doesn’t let you set the depth of field.” True, but that’s a benefit of an SLR. To compare more closely, here’s a shot from the Canon at f/6.3. (This is also just a good general example of the difference between f/2.8 and f/6.3.)

    Here’s a tree across the street from my house. iPhone 5:

    Canon:

    Those are pretty similar, at least at this small size. The iPhone seems to do its best work when it has a lot of natural light (but so does every other camera).

    What about actual macro shooting? Here’s the iPhone:

    And the Canon:

    The background is much prettier with the Canon. And okay, I cheated. That’s a different lens: the Canon 100mm f/2.8 L IS Macro. (The IS stands for image stabilization.) If you need that lens to get that shot, you just added another 22 ounces — and $929.

    Let’s give the iPhone another try with a macro shot. Here’s the iPhone 5:

    And the Canon (again with the 100mm lens):

    Not surprisingly, professional camera gear costing nearly $7000 does a superior job when compared to an $850 camera phone (or, $199, base model, with contract), but the DSLR also weighs — if you have both lenses I used here — over eight pounds. The iPhone takes a damn fine photo, too.

    This blog post is kind of like comparing a single apple to a huge semi full of lead-plated oranges, now that I think about it, so… never mind.

    2 Comments