Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Year in Arts and Letters: Some Half-Baked Recommendations

The New Year, the New Year. Everywhere the New Year! The Old Year was already looked upon as dead; and its effects were selling cheap like some drowned mariner's aboardship. Its patterns were Last Year's and going at a sacrifice, before its breath was gone. Its treasures were mere dirt, beside the riches of its unborn successor!
Charles Dickens, "The Chimes"

It's the end of 2008 and Fosco has that same urge as every other blogger to write an end-of-the-year list. While Fosco admires the ambition of a project like The Golden Teddies, he just doesn't have the energy to pull it off. Also, as Fosco has admitted several times recently, he just isn't in close enough touch with culture (popular or otherwise) to feel comfortable choosing a whole bunch of definitive bests and worsts. So, instead of a set of lists or rankings, Fosco is just going to do a half-baked post on some things that he liked this year. Obviously, Fosco probably forgot some things; he also probably made some bad choices. But, to quote Don Rumsfeld: "Stuff happens." So let's get to it.

  • Fosco read a ton of books this year--after all, that's kind of his job. However, most of those books were school-related and so he consequently doesn't feel like recommending them here at Fosco Lives! (I mean really, who wants to know how I feel about La Déclosion?) However, Fosco did engage in a few "pleasure-reading" projects this year.

    Early in the summer, Fosco read through a giant pile of 9/11 novels (with an eye to possibly teaching a seminar on that topic at some point in the future). Sadly, the big conclusion here is that most 9/11 novels are pretty bad--even those that are supposedly good. In the category of 9/11 novels was one of the best-reviewed books of the year, Joseph O'Neill's Netherland. Fosco did not love this book.

    Now that it's the end of the year, Fosco is doing his annual pleasure-reading marathon. So far, he's read two clearly great books: Roberto Bolaño's 2666 and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.

    Fosco is only too happy to name 2666 as the best book he read this year, but this is really no surprise. After all, pretty much every media outlet named this book the best of 2008. Not to mention that it's the book that everyone is currently reading, from Ted Gideonse to Christopher Hayes to the Guanabee Book Club. Pretty much the only place that didn't love this novel was The New Yorker, but even so, they've started publishing Bolaño short stories. Fosco has never seen this kind of cultural excitement about a novel this long (or, at least, one that doesn't star pubescent wizards) and it's really kinda neat.

  • When it came to summarizing the year in pop music, Fosco tried for methodological rigor: he ranked his iTunes library by "Play Count" and looked for the 2008 releases in the resulting list. Sadly, what Fosco learned is that his 2008 year in music consisted mainly of songs released in 2006 and 2007. Oh well.

    Of songs released in 2008, it turns out that Fosco listened to these five songs the most:
    1. Bob Mould, "The Silence Between Us"
    2. High School Musical 3 Cast, "Right Here, Right Now"
    3. Mike Doughty, "Fort Hood"
    4. MGMT, "Kids"
    5. Taylor Swift, "Fifteen"
    Fosco is only too happy to recommend any of these singles and is even willing to take responsibility for recommending a country song! (Taylor Swift is just that good.)

    In terms of pop albums, Fosco would like to recommend three: Portishead, Third; Mates of State, Re-Arrange Us; and, wait for it... Kanye West, 808s and Heartbreak. Yes, that's right: Kanye West--a guy that Fosco had never even heard of six months ago and still probably couldn't pick out of a crowded room. Fosco listened to this CD by complete accident, but he just can't stop listening--it's really good. Of course, you have to like electronica. And you have to be able to tolerate the frequent and intentional use of Auto-Tune. But if you can handle that, these songs are incredibly catchy and enjoyable. Seriously. Now Fosco isn't the only one who enjoys this CD. Oz hates Kanye and was so skeptical of this disc, but then he had to admit sheepishly that it's really good. You have to trust me on this.

  • Thanks to the influence of Oz, Fosco saw more movies this year than he has in a long time. What was good? Well, he really liked Wall-E--especially the Hello Dolly! parts. Really, it was about time someone recognized how good some of the "lesser" songs from that musical are.

  • Fosco's favorite CD of the year was classical and so he's putting it in a category by itself. In 2007, Fosco was lucky enough to see the US premiere in San Francisco of the new John Adams opera A Flowering Tree. This fall, the two-disc recording of the opera was released. While Fosco will probably always love the sheer bombastic spledor of Doctor Atomic, A Flowering Tree is a much more beautiful work. It is delicate and assured and the story-telling is stream-lined and emotionally appealing. It contains some of Adams's most gorgeous vocal writing and one of his most transformative orchestral passages (the long final crescendo almost causes Fosco to stand up every time he hears it). If you have the opportunity to see this opera, I cannot recommend it highly enough. And if you can dedicate an hour and half to active listening, this recording should enthrall you.

  • How about something like "Blog of the Year"? While not everyone was as completely obsessed with the presidential election as Fosco was, I think you still have to recognize the extraordinary importance of Nate Silver's In retrospect, it's a brilliant idea: take the well-developed statistical tools that have been used to analyze baseball and use them to analyze politics. Silver's models turned out to be almost perfect in predicting everything from Senate races to the final Electoral College vote tally. In the world of political opinion, it turns out that there is nothing more comforting than strong statistical reasoning. The pre-election anxiety would have been completely unendurable without the existence of this blog/website.
So that's that. Here's to a 2009 filled with great books, great music, and great friends.

Memories of Rummy

Fosco suspects that, when history fully apportions the blame for all of the global evil done by the Bush Administration, the second-largest share (after Cheney's heapin' helpin') will go to Don Rumsfeld. Not that Rumsfeld was as diabolically evil as Cheney; rather, as far as I can tell, he mostly didn't give a fuck. No body armor for the troops? Fuck it. Torture at Abu Ghraib? Whatever. Too-small US troop presence on the ground? Meh. Looting? *Shrug*. And here's some proof, from Fosco's continuing series of excerpts from Vanity Fair's "An Oral History of the Bush White House":

Kenneth Adelman, a member of Donald Rumsfeld’s advisory Defense Policy Board: So [Rumsfeld] says, It might be best if you got off the Defense Policy Board. You’re very negative. I said, I am negative, Don. You’re absolutely right. I’m not negative about our friendship. But I think your decisions have been abysmal when it really counted.

Start out with, you know, when you stood up there and said things—“Stuff happens.” I said, That’s your entry in Bartlett’s. The only thing people will remember about you is “Stuff happens.” I mean, how could you say that? “This is what free people do.” This is not what free people do. This is what barbarians do. And I said, Do you realize what the looting did to us? It legitimized the idea that liberation comes with chaos rather than with freedom and a better life. And it demystified the potency of American forces. Plus, destroying, what, 30 percent of the infrastructure.

I said, You have 140,000 troops there, and they didn’t do jack shit. I said, There was no order to stop the looting. And he says, There was an order. I said, Well, did you give the order? He says, I didn’t give the order, but someone around here gave the order. I said, Who gave the order?

So he takes out his yellow pad of paper and he writes down—he says, I’m going to tell you. I’ll get back to you and tell you. And I said, I’d like to know who gave the order, and write down the second question on your yellow pad there. Tell me why 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq disobeyed the order. Write that down, too.

And so that was not a successful conversation.
While it's always nice to hear of someone within the Administration who was willing to criticize Rumsfeld, Kenneth Adelman is no prize pig. After all, he's the one who wrote the 2002 Washington Post editorial entitled "Cakewalk in Iraq," which not only promised a quick and easy victory in Iraq but also raised the troops' expectations of a warzone filled with delicious cakes. I don't have to tell you that those expectations have been horribly shattered. In fact, there is little evidence of any cake-related activity in Iraq (nor has there ever been).

(However, Adelman did endorse Obama in 2008, so I guess that's pretty good.)

What are you doing New Year's, New Year's Eve?

The Year was Old that day. That patient Year had lived through the reproaches and misuses of its slanderers, and faithfully performed its work. Spring, summer, autumn, winter. It had laboured through the destined round, and now laid down its weary head to die. Shut out from hope, high impulse, active happiness, itself, but messenger of many joys to others, it made appeal in its decline to have its toiling days and patient hours remembered, and to die in peace.
Charles Dickens, "The Chimes"

The recent reader of Fosco Lives! can be forgiven for thinking that Fosco is leading a jetset life (and we all know that kind of life is gonna kill you). However, the answer to Ella's question that titles this post is unfortunately not that exciting.

For Fosco at his current age, New Year's Eve is a lot like Halloween: it seems like it ought to be a lot of fun, but no exciting plans ever materialize. Just as Fosco never gets invited to crazy Halloween costume parties, he also never gets invited to any jazz and champagne galas in luxury penthouse suites. In fact, most of Fosco's recent NYE's have been disappointing or completely pathetic. Even when Fosco seems to be enjoying a First Night, bad things end up happening.

Case in point: last year when Fosco was visiting Snow Town, he went to a lovely party at the lair of the BeeMaster and BeeMistress. There was much jollity and not a small amount of Rock Band. How could that go wrong? Well, it turns out that several of Fosco's (now former) friends decided to make a complete fool out of him in front of most of the rest of the partygoers (which Fosco did not realize until he was told several days later). Fosco doesn't forgive that kind of thing (file under: people I no longer talk to), which means he's glad to be staying in the Bay Area this New Year's Eve. However, there is still the problem of plans for the last night of 2008.

At this point, it looks like Fosco and Oz will be spending the evening... playing Rock Band 2. For one thing, there is the vexed matter of Metallica's "Enter Sandman" to deal with (N.B., it is impossible to play). Plus, both Fosco and Oz have purchased some rockin' clothes for their avatars that have not yet been worn. So there will probably be some costume changes and definitely some hair-dyeing. And, come to think of it, there is a Jimmy Eat World song that we still haven't played. And we'll probably pet our kitty, Isis, some of the time. Maybe we'll get takeout from Chipotle.

This all will be fun, of course. And Fosco is very excited to spend his first NYE with Oz. But at the same time, there is part of Fosco that would like to do something unusual to celebrate the beginning of 2009. Like go for a zeppelin ride! Or dance naked at a bowling alley! Or smoke meth and go swimming in SF Bay!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

NYC Journal: Bouchon Bakery

We've finally come to the last installment in Fosco's ongoing series on his pre-Christmas weekend in NYC with his boyfriend Oz.

Sunday morning brunch found Fosco and Oz at the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle to have brunch at Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bakery. Brunch was a real treat because Fosco and Oz were joined by Fosco's college roommate David Lat, former Wonkette and current managing editor of the Breaking Media blog empire. David is great fun to chat with and lives an interesting NYC life. In fact, he's something of a hero to Fosco.

As far as Bouchon Bakery goes, Fosco has read much criticism of the location. It's true that the dining "room" is an open space on a mezzanine in the middle of the Time Warner mall. And indeed, there is some resemblance to a mall food court. On the other hand, Fosco has never eaten at a mall food court with this view of Columbus Circle and Central Park:

The menu at Bouchon Bakery is very casual and quite affordable--focusing on baked goods and pastries, with a Gallic flair. Fosco ordered the Bouchon take on the traditional PB&J. This is CBJ: Cashew Butter and Apricot Jelly on Toasted Brioche (served with banana chips).

This was an excellent sandwich. Oh yeah, and that's hot chocolate in the background. Mmmm.

Oz opted for one of the daily specials, the Macaroni and Cheese:

Fosco wishes he had paid attention to the waitress's description of this Mac & Cheese because it was the best he's ever tasted. It was creamy and French-tasting. Exceptional.

For dessert, Fosco and David split some profiteroles, which actually should have been better than they were.

Well, at least they were beautiful.

And that, my friends, puts the exclamation mark on Fosco and Oz's weekend in NYC. Thanks for reading along.


Here's one more installment of Fosco's favorite selections from Vanity Fair's "An Oral History of the Bush White House" and this one's pretty horrible. If you thought the 9/11 attacks only got hijacked for political purposes later (Hi Rudy!), you may be surprised to find out that it wasn't even 9/12 before some of the more cynical members of Bush's inner circle hatched their schemes. This is testimony from Richard Clarke about the Administration's immediate reaction to 9/11:

Richard Clarke: That night, on 9/11, Rumsfeld came over and the others, and the president finally got back, and we had a meeting. And Rumsfeld said, You know, we’ve got to do Iraq, and everyone looked at him—at least I looked at him and Powell looked at him—like, What the hell are you talking about? And he said—I’ll never forget this—There just aren’t enough targets in Afghanistan. We need to bomb something else to prove that we’re, you know, big and strong and not going to be pushed around by these kind of attacks.

And I made the point certainly that night, and I think Powell acknowledged it, that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. That didn’t seem to faze Rumsfeld in the least.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. It really didn’t, because from the first weeks of the administration they were talking about Iraq. I just found it a little disgusting that they were talking about it while the bodies were still burning in the Pentagon and at the World Trade Center.
And, of course, you just knew that Karl Rove would have dirty hands on this one:
Scott McClellan, deputy White House press secretary and later press secretary: I remember Karl Rove was out there talking at some events about how we’d use 9/11, run on 9/11 in the midterms, and that it was important to do so.
I don't know why Fosco is surprised by such obscene cynicism anymore, but he still is.

A Model of Reasonable Debate

You may have noticed that there are occasional disagreements in the Comments between Fosco and his good friend The BeeMaster (not pictured at right). Fosco and The BeeMaster go way back--in fact, The BeeMaster is one of the kindest people that Fosco knows. This may surprise you, as Fosco is pretty leftish and The BeeMaster is a fire-breathing conservative. But, stranger things have happened. In all honesty, Fosco likes to think that his ongoing discussion with The BeeMaster is a pretty nice example of Obama's dictum about "disagreeing without being disagreeable."

Most recently, Fosco and The BeeMaster have been sparring over Rick Warren and Obama. The BeeMaster has taken issue with this Fosco post on Warren and has responded in the comments section to that post. As Fosco was in the middle of a very long response to The BeeMaster's response, he realized that he should just make the whole exchange into a post on the front page of Fosco Lives!. And so here is The BeeMaster's original comment, followed by Fosco's reply. And yes, Fosco will happily append any additional response by The BeeMaster into this post.

When watching the Rick Warren interview in question:

it's a stretch to say he likens gay marriage to incest and pedophilia. In the same interview, he says divorce is a greater threat to the family than gay marriage. So following the same logic would bring us to the dubious conclusion that Rick Warren thinks divorce is worse than incest and pedophilia. Since this is nonsense, one of two things must be untrue. Either Warren doesn't think divorce is worse than gay marriage, OR he doesn't consider gay marriage the same as incest and pedophilia. Watching the interview, it's clear the latter and not the former is the case.

So what's the big problem with Rick Warren praying at the inaugeration? That he opposes gay marriage? Big deal - so does Obama.

The largest group opposed to gay marriage is evangelical Christians. Vilifying Rick Warren hurts, not helps, the cause of gay marriage. It casts its supporters as harsh and (ironically) intolerant. It makes evangelicals fear that, should gay marriage become legal, their churches could be forced to perform such ceremonies or that pastors speaking out against the practice would be accused of hate crimes. Rick Warren specifically mentions this fear as the reason he supported proposition 8. Being smeared for his view makes the point more profoundly than he could ever have.

The BeeMaster

It's true that I feel some ambivalence on this topic. For one thing, I don't think Rick Warren is the worst thing ever. For the most part, he seems like a pretty likable and reasonable guy (and strangely enough, Fosco looks a little like him--although Fosco has more hair). I can see why he's built such a large and successful church. Sure, I'm having a little fun with his hair plugs and the title of his book, but I even do that with people that I like.

And yes, I do recognize that Obama is opposed to gay marriage as well (as the numerous robocalls on my answering machine on November 4 reminded me). I'm not thrilled about that either.

As for the Warren interview in question, I recognize that he views divorce as a much greater threat to marriage than gay unions. Good for him! I wish that point were made more frequently.

However, that interview still includes this exchange:

WARREN: The issue to me, I'm not opposed to that as much as I'm opposed to redefinition of a 5,000 year definition of marriage. I'm opposed to having a brother and sister being together and calling that marriage. I'm opposed to an older guy marrying a child and calling that marriage. I'm opposed to one guy having multiple wives and calling that marriage.

BELIEFNET: Do you think those are equivalent to gays getting married?

WARREN: Oh , I do.
Now Warren is too savvy to use the normally-accepted words for his three examples, but he is clearly talking about
1. incest
2. pedophilia
3. polygamy
And then he explicitly agrees that these three examples are "equivalent to gay getting married." Now none of these may be as threatening to marriage as divorce (presumably because they are all much rarer), but he still makes this comparison (and has had ample opportunity to retract/clarify--especially in this transcript which includes several retrospective Warren clarifications.

So, while Warren's rhetoric may not be as inflammatory as some of the opponents of Prop 8, it's pretty clear that he wants to equate gay marriage with incest, pedophilia, and polygamy.

As for the question of whether Prop 8 would require churches to marry gay couples, I just can't understand how this keeps getting cited. As far as I can tell, every church can determine who they want to marry. Churches can set rules about marriage that go beyond (or even contradict) civil laws about marriage. The one I know best is the Catholic Church, which reserves the right to set all kinds of conditions on marriage. You can't just walk into a Catholic Church and get married. I believe the Mormons are the same. In fact, I suspect that there of plenty of churches in the South that would refuse an interracial marriage (and could legally do so).

Of course, civil authorities are not amused when rogue Mormons try to marry young girls to old men, but that's more of a case of certain child protection laws trumping religious freedom (something that, btw, pretty much all Americans agree on). And besides, that's a case of the State invalidating a religious marriage, not of the State requiring a religion to perform a specific type of marriage.

This is different, I also want to note, from recent cases in Connecticut where justices of the peace are required to conform to the law and marry gay couples. In those cases, justices of the peace are civil, not religious, authorities (although they may also have their personal religious beliefs). Civil marriage is an entirely different thing from religious marriage, and civil officials are required by law to perform any marriage that is legal. Religious officials are NOT required to perform any legal marriage, nor will they ever be.

I think Rick Warren is a smart guy and I just don't believe he is worried that his Saddleback Church will be forced to marry gay couples. He knows the difference between civil marriage laws and religious discretion in the case of marriage. I think he is bringing this up purely as a scare tactic.

As for hate speech argument, I still think Rick Warren is smart enough to know better. He's being cynical here. He knows the difference between hate speech and "politically incorrect" speech. I'm going to use race to make this point. When an old school Southern-fried racist says that Black people are inferior (or that they shouldn't marry white people), that's bigotry but it's not hate speech. Hate speech is speech that is intended to incite violence. So if Warren says that gay people shouldn't get married, he may be wrong (and he may be bigoted), but there is no court in this country that would call that hate speech. Now, if he were to say that his churchmembers should get a baseball bat and "teach gays a lesson," then we'd be in the realm of hate speech.

Now I'll be the first to agree that some gay activists (and, strangely enough, some evangelical conservatives like Huckabee) are trying to elide the distinction between bigotry and hate speech. But even liberal courts know better than to let this distinction slide. For all of the supposed liberal or conservative biases in the federal judiciary in the last twenty years, federal judges are still surprisingly protective of First Amendment rights (for which we can thank the ACLU?). All of this is a long-winded way of saying that, unless Rick Warren plans to call for gay-bashing, he doesn't need to worry about being prosecuted for hate speech. And this is the part that pisses me off: he knows this. He's a smart and sophisticated guy. Or at least, he should know this. Which leads me to the conclusion that Rick Warren is arguing in bad faith.

When it comes down to it, if Rick Warren were just to say "I oppose gay marriage because it goes against my religion," I would have to accept that. I might disagree with him. And I may try to question whether Rick Warren is interpreting the Bible correctly. But I would have to be civil about it. Because, when it comes down to it, Rick Warren would be telling the truth and trying to communicate with me in good faith. And I recognize that Rick Warren does this most of the time. But when he resorts to using scare words and prophesying legal problems that will never materialize, I have to question his honesty.

All that being said, I definitely agree with The BeeMaster's assertion that gay-marriage activists have to deal with evangelical Christians in a constructive way (and Fosco hasn't always done this, I recognize). And I hope this exchange is a step in the right direction.

From the Annals of Dastardly Plans

Fosco's ongoing cherry-picking of Vanity Fair's "An Oral History of the Bush White House" continues today with a delightful quote from Lawrence Wilkerson, top aide and later chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Today's topic is "Dick Cheney: Devil or Demon?"

We had this confluence of characters—and I use that term very carefully—that included people like Powell, Dick Cheney, Condi Rice, and so forth, which allowed one perception to be “the dream team.” It allowed everybody to believe that this Sarah Palin–like president—because, let’s face it, that’s what he was—was going to be protected by this national- security elite, tested in the cauldrons of fire. What in effect happened was that a very astute, probably the most astute, bureaucratic entrepreneur I’ve ever run into in my life became the vice president of the United States.

He became vice president well before George Bush picked him. And he began to manipulate things from that point on, knowing that he was going to be able to convince this guy to pick him, knowing that he was then going to be able to wade into the vacuums that existed around George Bush—personality vacuum, character vacuum, details vacuum, experience vacuum.
I don't know about you, but I think "devil" is the appropriate answer to today's question. And yet, Uncle Dick just cannot understand why he's so unpopular. Here's a thought, Dick: it's because you're evil. Does that help?

NYC Journal: Jean Georges

Finally. As you may have already guessed, this is the post you should have been waiting for all along. Because, for anyone who loves food, this is the highlight of Fosco and Oz's weekend in New York: an evening of gastronomical worship in one of the best restaurants in the US, the eponymous flagship of master chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

First, Fosco needs both to acknowledge a debt and provide a disclaimer. Two years ago, Fosco took a long weekend in New York with a (now former) friend and wanted to eat a life-altering meal (it was after The Accident and Fosco needed a little joie in his vivre). Fosco did his due diligence and came up with a list of possibilities, but for help narrowing it down, he turned to his blogopal and NYC food aficionado, John Mackey. John was very helpful and very emphatic that Jean Georges was the right choice for an incandescent evening. And John was right. That's the debt.

However, I do want to note that despite the fact that Fosco appears to have ordered most of the same dishes that John ordered on his last visit to Jean Georges (as chronicled here in his blog), Fosco did not return to eat dinner at Jean Georges as part of some "John Mackey Pilgrimage"--a desperate struggle to recreate John's experiences in NYC. Rather, you should conclude that Fosco enjoys Jean Georges because it is super yummy. That's the disclaimer. Now let's talk about Fosco and Oz's evening.

Right away, it is important to note that one does not dine at Jean Georges for the decor. Not that the room is ugly (by any means). There are lovely white lights on the trees outside the windows and there is an elegant gold-leafed vault in the ceiling. There is a swooping white and gold chandelier. But that's about it. I wouldn't even call it minimalism, because the decor doesn't call attention to its lack of grandness. Basically, it's a peaceful room that stays out of the way of the food.

By the way, anyone who thinks that the recession is hurting fine dining in NYC didn't try to get a reservation for the night of December 20th this year. Fosco and Oz could only squeeze in at 10:45 PM; however, as that translates into 7:45 PST, Fosco and Oz still felt appropriately awake and hungry.

Our meal commenced with a three-part amuse bouche, which we forgot to take a picture of. There was a silky-smooth cauliflower-cumin soup topped with a bright pink hibiscus(!) oil. There was a sultry smoked salmon strip wrapped around a chunk of Japanese pear. And there was a dried clementine segment infused with chili powder. The cauliflower soup was the standout here, although both Fosco and Oz were intrigued by the experience of eating a spicy orange.

For Fosco's first course, he went with the Sea Scallops with Carmelized Cauliflower and Caper-Raisin Emulsion.

Fosco is fond of sea scallops and he's never had them prepared better than at Jean Georges. The caper-raisin emulsion is pretty amazing (it's almost like a sweet mustard) and Fosco was unembarrassed to spoon the remnants into his mouth after the scallops were gone.

Oz had the Peekytoe Crab Dumplings with Celeriac-Meyer Lemon Tea.

The key to this meal was the exceptional "broth" or tea--you could taste all three flavors: celery, lemon, and tea. Flavored teas used as broth are a hallmark of Jean Georges cuisine. Last time Fosco ate here, he had an exceptional mushroom tea serving as a broth.

For Fosco's second course, he decided to be slightly adventurous and go with one of the Jean Georges signature dishes: Young Garlic Soup with Thyme and Sauteed Frog Legs. Unfortunately, Fosco and Oz forgot to take the picture until after Fosco had already eaten one of the frog legs--so imagine another frog leg and a less sloppy presentation...

Fosco had never eaten a frog leg (he has some issues with reptiles/amphibians as food), but he figured if he was ever going to eat one it should be one prepared at Jean Georges. He had heard that they taste like chicken which is kind of true, although they are unsurprisingly a little chewier than chicken. To fully enjoy this dish, one is encouraged by the waitstaff to use one's fingers to dip the frog leg in the soup before eating it! Honestly, the first frog leg was a little daunting to Fosco and he wasn't sure he liked it (he probably shouldn't have just popped the whole thing in his mouth--there are bones that Fosco didn't think about). But by the fourth one, Fosco was enjoying himself immensely and could have eaten several more. Of course, part of the brilliance of this dish is the young garlic soup. Young garlic is apparently much more mild than adult garlic and so the soup has a very soft and warm flavor to it. Also fun: you get a fingerbowl to wash your hands when you're done!

For his second course, Oz chose a traditional French classic: Turbot with Chateau Chalon Sauce. Once again, with this course, Fosco and Oz forgot to take a picture until after tasting. Please ignore Oz's first bite...

This course had a nice delicate flavor. The Chateau Chalon sauce is a wine reduction, but it's not overpowering. And the simple dice of cucumbers and tomatoes was surprisingly enjoyable.

For the third course, Fosco and Oz chose the same thing. It just didn't seem fair for one of us to get something other than the magnificent Black Sea Bass Crusted with Nuts and Seeds with Sweet and Sour Jus.

Fosco has had dreams about this dish. The nuts and seeds crust on the bass is so nutty and crisp. The sweet and sour jus is perfect, especially with the tomatoes and other market vegetables floating in it. Fosco is not usually a big fan of fish, but he could eat this dish every day (and twice on Sundays). It's almost a comfort food, but without insulting your culinary intelligence. It's probably the most perfect thing I've had at Jean Georges. It's one of those dishes that just makes you sigh and smile.

And now for dessert. At Jean Georges, dessert is actually like a second meal (as you'll see in a moment). The pastry chef is dessert savant and tattooed club kid Johnny Iuzzini and he has set himself some pretty rigorous constraints: each dessert selection comes with four separate preparations of the theme ingredient (Iuzzini unwisely calls it FourPlay). Once again, Fosco and Oz both wanted the same dessert and weren't willing to let the other order something less desirable. And so we each got the caramel option. Here were the four selections:

And this is what they looked like! (Start in the lower right corner and go counter-clockwise.)

Some thoughts on dessert. Fosco was very excited about the idea of "carmelized bacon," but it turned out to be an anticlimax. The carmelized bacon took the form of a very fine powder on top of the caramel tart. Maybe a slice would have been too much (but Fosco is still curious...). The roasted pineapple sorbet was maybe too sweet. The coffee-cardamom ice cream was exceptional. As for the vanilla soda, you drink it in one shot and puncture the caramel sphere with your tongue. Delish (and reminiscent of the tricks of Grant Achatz among others). In fact, let's take another look at that vanilla soda (along with the pastry chef's fingerprint?):

Yes, it was sweet. But certainly not your everyday soda experience.

Now when Fosco made the reservation, he had mentioned that we would be celebrating Oz's thirtieth birthday that night. He was kinda expecting a candle on Oz's dessert plate. What he was not expecting was a totally different additional dessert brought to the table free of charge! This is an apple and custard tart with candied peanuts and apple cider ice cream. Speaking of comfort food, this was amazing. And yes, that "Happy Birthday" banner is marzipan. Happy Birthday, indeed!

So at this point, Fosco and Oz had both eaten one and a half desserts (plus one marzipan banner, if that counts). But, like I said, dessert at Jean Georges is another whole meal. So of course it was time for the

  • chocolates: brandy, hazelnut, orange, and peanut butter/jelly.
  • fruit jellies: apricot and raspberry/beet (a favorite Iuzzini flavor combo).
  • macaroons: chocolate, pomegranate, ginger.

Oh, and don't even think about forgetting the home-made marshmallows, hand cut at your table using scissors! The flavors of the night were banana, cranberry, and vanilla. It turns out that cranberry marshmallows are actually pretty damn good (although banana marshmallows are a little disconcerting, mainly because they taste exactly like bananas as opposed to the usual banana-flavoring).

And that, my friends, is a dinner at Jean Georges.

Renaming New York's "Obesity Tax"

As the NYTimes notes,

New York Governor David Paterson is trying to reduce the size of the state budget by reducing the size of the average citizen. With obesity rates soaring, he has proposed an 18 per cent tax on non-diet sodas or sugary juice drinks. That’s a good idea for two reasons. It will raise money for health care. And it might lead consumers to drink healthier beverages.
Surprisingly, Fosco isn't opposed to such obvious social engineering through the tax code--after all, non-diet soda (and even, strangely enough, diet soda) are seriously damaging to public health. It's kinda like increasing taxes on cigarettes (which is also a good thing).

But, Fosco does have a problem calling such a move an "obesity tax." For one thing, it's more than a little misleading. After all, there are plenty of non-obesity-related health threats from the high-fructose corn syrup that is found in these beverages. In addition, the phrase "obesity tax" raises the possibility of future taxes and fees that are designed to single out obese people for punishment and ridicule. Once you start "taxing" obesity, eventually you're going to end up with world where fat people pay extra for basic health care, access to public space, and fundamental social services. And this is a problem.

So what if we stopped calling this an "obesity tax" and started calling it something more accurate: a diabetes-prevention tax. This would recognize the fact that, although obesity and diabetes are correlated, they are not the same thing (as Fosco's Uncle Dick--a life-long skinnybones and recent Type II diabetic--proves). I think that everyone can get behind a tax that tries to cut down on an expensive public health epidemic.

As for Fosco, he's been drinking sparkling mineral water in lieu of soda and fruit juice for three months now...

NYC Journal: The Met

The stories from Fosco and Oz's weekend in NYC continue. Read them all here.

After a long and chilly walk in Central Park (see this post), Fosco and Oz warmed up by bathing in five thousand years of culture at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Oz had never been to the Met before and because the whole museum is impossible to see in a few hours (or perhaps even a few days), Fosco and Oz tried to hit the highlights while allowing time for perfectly random detours. The European Paintings gallery is Fosco's favorite place to start. There's always something random and beautiful for you to stumble across. Like this painting (for which we never actually recorded the relevant information):

Or this equally anonymous-to-us beauty:

I mean, just LOOK at that cape on Jesus. Gorgeous.

Also for pure random enjoyment, Fosco and Oz really got a kick out of Tiepolo, an artist that Fosco had never thought twice about. But look at this:

Isn't it absolutely bonkers?

Another artist that Fosco never really considered is El Greco. But for some reason, he really stood out for both Fosco and Oz. There were two canvasses in particular that were absolutely luminous. This is The Opening of the Fifth Seal (The Vision of Saint John):

Whereas Oz's favorite was The Adoration of the Shepherds (ca. 1610):

The Met's collection of French painting has some truly exceptional works, especially Jacques-Louis David's Death of Socrates:

Fosco has always found this painting by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun to be absolutely ravishing:

And then there is this absolutely monumental painting by Jules Bastien-Lepage of Jeanne d'Arc. The expression on her face is exquisite as she listens to the voices of the ghostly saints who appear on the left of the canvas. Fosco looks at a reproduction of this painting over his desk everyday.

Finally, there is the absolutely extraordinary Duccio Madonna and Child (the Met's most expensive acquisition ever). In person, the piece is small and seemingly unprepossessing. And yet, the longer you spend looking at it, the more interesting it gets. I would recommend that someday you do yourself a favor and spend thirty minutes just staring at it. It will repay you.

And, of course, we had to make a quick detour to see the Van Gogh Irises, one of the most refreshingly beautiful paintings in the whole Met.

Of course, no visit to the Met would be complete without a visit to the Egyptian wing and the Temple of Dendur, housed in a dramatic space with a glass-walled view of Central Park. The temple complex is protected by prehistoric cats:

A money-hungry crocodile demands tribute:

Fosco spent several minutes decrying the US cultural arrogance that removed an entire temple from Egypt for display in New York. That is, until he read the part about how Egypt intended to submerge the temple forever under the lake created by the Aswan High Dam. Is it possible that sometimes protecting artistic treasures means removing them from their place of origin? Eek. Careful, Fosco. That way lies imperialism!

Do you dare enter the inner sanctum?

Look! Nineteenth-century graffiti! Kids in those days were just so disrespectful.

At this point, Fosco and Oz were just about exhausted. And they needed to change clothes for their dinner at Jean Georges (coming up in the next installment)!

"Reading is overrated" and other Bush doctrines

Yes, everyone is talking about Vanity Fair's "Oral History of the Bush White House," but it's fourteen pages long and you have New Year's Eve plans and stuff... How can you possibly have time for reading it?

Well, luckily Fosco has free time and reads quickly. And he's willing to read it all for you! For the next several days, Fosco will post some of the choicest quotes from the piece so that you can feel the appropriate outrage without all of that time-consuming reading.

Hmmm. Come to think of it, that seems to have been part of the Bush strategy from the beginning, at least according to this quote from Richard Clarke, chief White House counterterrorism adviser:

We had a couple of meetings with the president, and there were detailed discussions and briefings on cyber-security and often terrorism, and on a classified program. With the cyber-security meeting, he seemed—I was disturbed because he seemed to be trying to impress us, the people who were briefing him. It was as though he wanted these experts, these White House staff guys who had been around for a long time before he got there—didn’t want them buying the rumor that he wasn’t too bright. He was trying—sort of overly trying—to show that he could ask good questions, and kind of yukking it up with Cheney.

The contrast with having briefed his father and Clinton and Gore was so marked. And to be told, frankly, early in the administration, by Condi Rice and [her deputy] Steve Hadley, you know, Don’t give the president a lot of long memos, he’s not a big reader—well, shit. I mean, the president of the United States is not a big reader?
Of course, this does seem to contradict Karl Rove's recent assertion that Bush read hundreds of books while in office. Although, somehow that information isn't so comforting either. Actually, it kind of makes me wonder whether Bush treated the whole presidency like a beach vacation: lots of pleasure reading and as little work as possible...

Next we'll be hearing that Bush required all national security briefings to be written from the first-person perspective of an undercover CIA agent named Dash Dangerwood. Look out, Dash! Here comes the seductive al-Qaeda operative Leela Abu-Dildo. Will Dash be able to resist her deadly charms?

Monday, December 29, 2008

NYC Journal: burger joint

After a week's holiday hiatus, Fosco returns to the narrative of the pre-Christmas trip that he took to New York City with his boyfriend Oz. You can read the previous installments of Fosco's NYC Journal here.

After a pan-Asian hipster dinner at Buddakan on Friday night, Fosco and Oz were looking for something a little more relaxed for Saturday lunch. They settled on burgers. As the weather was cold and snowy, the outdoor eating arrangements of Danny Meyer's Shake Shack didn't seem like the best idea (although Fosco will endure a severe amount of pain for frozen custard). Instead, Fosco and Oz opted for the faux dive: burger joint at Le Parker Meridien.

Le Parker Meridien is a lovely upscale hotel just south of Central Park (with an understated entrance reminiscent of a subway tunnel). burger joint is the purposefully incongruous eatery hidden off the hotel's sumptuous lobby. Seriously. The entire "restaurant" is hidden behind floor-to-ceiling velvet curtains, with a rope line to keep the burger-seekers orderly:

Of course, this pretense at shame is all good fun as there is no doubt that Le Parker Meridien is profiting handsomely from this little chunk of greasiness in their lobby.

You can tell you've come the right place when you start down the darkened hallway and see the only sign that advertises burger joint's existence. You also pass a high-powered air purifier set into the wall to prevent the delicious burgery smell from ruining the rare air of Le Meridien's lobby. (N.B., those are Germans ahead of us in line.)

When you've finally waited long enough to make it in the door, keep your expectations low. burger joint is literally a room--and a room not much larger than Fosco's apartment in Santa Cruz. There is 1970s rec room paneling. There are no windows. There are television and movie posters. And (a very few) diner tables.

There's a counter where a woman listens to your order while ignoring you completely (and yet, she gets it right!).

Once you've ordered (N.B., your choices are limited: burger, cheeseburger, fries, shakes), the game begins: you must outsmart thirty other people to claim a small table. Luckily, many of your competitors are Japanese or European tourists and consequently cannot match your American level of pushiness. The trick is to choose a table where the people look like they're almost finished eating and then lurk until you can swoop into the seat. Unfortunately, you will spend most of your meal being stared at by the next wave of table-seekers.

While you're waiting for your order, you can read the panoply of celebrity testimonials and autographs that adorn the walls. Fosco's favorite was Mitt Romney's:

In case you can't quite read it, it says "Big Burger Fan, Thanks! Mitt Romney 9-17-07." Sadly, this historical document is somewhat obscured (purposely?) by the autograph of Chazz Palminteri, who is neither a presidential candidate nor a Mormon.

And the food? Well, Fosco's vanilla shake was pretty incredible. And the shoestring fries were first-class. The burgers were fine, although nothing to blog about. Good, but not great.

The problem with burger joint, Fosco and Oz have decided, is the inevitable comparison (for West Coast residents) with In-N-Out Burger. In-N-Out is just better. In NYC, in the absence of In-N-Out, burger joint must seem like heaven; but to anyone who can eat In-N-Out on a regular basis, the comparison does not work out in burger joint's favor. It's like a Memphis native eating barbecue in Minneapolis--the Minneapolis barbecue may be perfectly well-executed, but it's not going to compare to Memphis barbecue.

That said, the atmosphere at burger joint was a hoot. And the whole experience makes for a decent story. So, on the whole, Fosco and Oz are glad to have eaten there. But if you're an NYC resident dying for a great burger, might I suggest Virgin America's flights from JFK to LAX?