Sunday, December 28, 2014

Book Review: The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

A Cultural Revolution Creates Pain and Suffering

Muddy River is a small town with regular everyday folks until a series of events lead to neighbors turning against each other, families ripped apart, and leaders being turned against.

The aftermath is felt years later when the government organizes a series of public events to execute a former Red Guard leader, Shan Gu, inciting violence and backstabbing once again, while others use this as an opportunity to fight for freedom.

This novel is extremely grim, following the lives of a few different members of the community, spanning generations, gender and philosophies. We learn more about the parents of Shan Gu, the shame they have felt and how once she is executed they cope in different ways and become polarized. We watch as a respected member of the community uses this event as a platform for demanding change. We see a young boy caught in the politics of the situation and how the school system works to control the lives and political leanings of the students and their families. We follow as a little girl named Nini who was born with physical challenges and learn how she is ultimately tied forever with Shan Gu.

Nothing is simple in this book, and all the lives of the characters are very intertwined. This story is ultimately a very sad one but with fascinating characters, that do their best to dream and love, despite the restrictive society that they live in. This is a very powerful book.

Book Review: The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears by Dinaw Megestu

The "New Start" in American did not Live Up to the Dream


An Immigrant's Story

Sepha Stephanos is a shopkeeper in Washington D.C. who fled Ethiopia during the revolution. He came to America, away from the horror and memories of those horrors, to start a new life. His vision for that dream has changed over time, focusing at first on education, then on a shop to call his own. He settles in a poor section of the city that is slowly being revitalized and becoming more diverse.

Sepha is lonely, having only two friends, also African immigrants, who he meets with on a regular basis and reminisces about life in his old country. Each of them has a story of a past, in their prospective homelands, and each has a dream that has not turned out as they had originally envisioned.

All of this is a backdrop for the story of Sepha and his relationship with his new white neighbor who comes into the community with her biracial daughter. Judith restores a four story old home next to Sepha's apartment.

As the neighborhood begins to change and Sepha develops a relationship with Judith and Neomi, he begins to dream again of the potential in everything around him. But as he goes down this road, racial tensions begin to build and everything is threatened.

This story builds with alternate passages in the present and in the past, slowly revealing the layers of what has happened. Sepha is also discovering who he is and who he may want to be, working on freeing himself from the bonds he himself has created.

This story is powerful and displays raw human emotion. Often it is depressing and hard to read about the racial tensions but wonderfully written. I did enjoy it. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Restaurant Review: Johnny Noodle King

From the Fine Folks who brought us Green Dot

This isn't a burger joint if you couldn't discern that from the title. Rather this is a new concept from the owners of Green Dot Stables and is very close to their other restaurant.This place is much smaller than Green Dot but on a Friday night (about 10PM we were able to snatch a table right away). The inside was very cool, with kind of a diner meets industrial/retro look. Wood and concrete, inside with an awesome neon side outside.

Johnny Noodle King is about noodles. . . ramen noodles to be more specific. I love Asian inspired food in all sort of varieties - Thai, Vietnamese, Sushi, Chinese. . . , really all of it, but I guess Ramen noodles is not really my thing. Pho is also a noodle soup (and featured on this menu) but I don't want all my dishes to be the same noodles with a broth-like consistency. I think that the idea is good for some dishes but I think I was envisioning a little more of a "sauce" with some of the choices even if the menu was pretty upfront about the broth.

We tried Curry, which included red coconut curry broth (not sauce!) with pork belly, zuchinni, cauliflower, lime, shallot and fish sauce. The flavor of the broth was very good and the bowl was very generous (it's a rare occasion when I actually pack up something to take home for later). The noodles were a wonderful consistency - this isn't microwave ramen noodles. . . I just really would have liked a thicker broth/sauce for my dish and think I would have liked it better with rice than noodles. I know it's unfair to compare this to a Thai dish but I would ave liked it that way. By the way, the pork belly is awesome and I made sure to eat every last morsel. It was tender, with a nice balance between fat and meat, and just  a touch salty. Good stuff.

The other noodle bowl we chose was Shoyu. Again, noodles in broth but with this one I think the thin broth worked. The broth tasted like a miso soup and had pork belly, nori, egg, bamboo, scallions, kamaboko and bonito. This dish was lighter than the curry and featured the same wonderful pork belly. I should add that you have the option to add all kinds of additional ingredients into these bowls (like more pork belly!) such as extra noodles, rice, seafood, etc. You probably could customize your bowl to your exact liking.

There are other offerings on the menu, including a rice cake with shredded pork, duck egg yolk, kewpie mayo, scallion, tagorashi and garlic oil. The rice cake resembled a sushi roll to me and was a nice consistency but didn't really make me think I had to try it again.

We also tried the octopus cucumber salad which featured several generous pieces of octopus. I should say that I really like octopus and have had octopus salad at several restaurants and this did not taste anything like what I am used to. I really didn't enjoy it and left it behind. The octopus was not the chewy texture I really like and it seemed like it might have been cooked with a liquid to simmer for quite a while. It was also very fishy. The sauce was not the usual cucumber dressing. Maybe what I eat is typically more Americanized but this didn't do it for me.

I did enjoy a really great beer while we were there. They have several Hatichino offerings and I tried the ginger beer. Good stuff. Cool bottle.

So final verdict? If you like ramen this probably is a good place for you. If you are looking for more variety and envisioning dishes with rice and sauce, it may not be. I will definitely go back to Green Dot instead when we are on that side of town. This didn't do it for me.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Book Review: The End of the Wasp Season by Denise Mina

Two Deaths - One Journey

A savage murder in a wealthy Glasgow suburb has the locals afraid. As detective Alex Morrow begins to investigate she learns that there are many secrets including the victim's personal life that becomes relevant in looking for those responsible.

Simultaneously a billionaire commits suicide as scandal will strip him of his wealth and reputation. Ripples of damage hit his wife and two children who will have to come to terms with a new stripped down life.

Together these stories intertwine as not everything is how it seems on so many levels. Images are not always the truth.

The investigation itself is interesting as is all the characters. Detective Alex Morrow has her own story too as she is pregnant with twins and trying to remain relevant in a squad dominated by men.

Good book!

Book Review: The Art of Fielding: A Novel by Carl Harbach

College Baseball but so much More

I don't know much about baseball and I have never really been that interested in the game. There was even this one time where I went to Tiger's Stadium because I was invited to go with friends and I brought a book. . . All that being said, I thoroughly enjoyed this book which may have a baseball theme but really is more about people, their intimate relationships and emotions, rather than just about baseball.

Henry Skrimshander had every intention of giving up his passion for baseball after high school, and following in his father's footsteps to work in a blue collar job, never dreaming of going to college. That all changes when he meets Mike Schwartz, a baseball player and student at Westish College, who sees him play in a tournament and decides that he must recruit him, changing Henry's destiny in his single minded drive to bring the college to a championship.

This story focuses on Henry and four of the people whose lives become intertwined with his especially after one fateful game. For me the central question in regard to Henry was what happens when the drive, effort and discipline replace the original love or passion for something that was what brought you there to begin with? I think that this question really has nothing to do with baseball or could easily be applied to so many other activities or vocations, and is a question I often ponder in my own life when it comes to making art.

I really loved all the characters in this book and felt that I was with them as I heard about their dreams, their fears and their insecurities. Great book.

Restaurant Review: Mazza Indian Cuisine

Paneer is the Bomb!

What is paneer? Paneer is an Indian version of cottage cheese but don't envision curds. . . It comes in a brick and is very mild, with a consistency close to extra firm tofu. Most of the time it shows up in Indian food at restaurants in cubes that have been fried or cooked gently in the sauce of the dish (I prefer it a little bit fried) and is often featured in Mutter Paneer with peas and a creamy sauce. I am not a huge fan of peas and think that they taint the paneer. . .

Most people are familiar with Chicken Makahani or Butter Chicken as staples on an Indian restaurant menu but it's often more difficult to find similar dishes with paneer instead. My first exposure to Paneer Makahani was in Toronto, at a gem of a restaurant called 309 Dhaba Indian Excellence and it was heaven (on a completely side note, or semi related, I often dream of getting a passport just to go back and eat there - the best Indian I ever had and very romantic). When we returned home, I asked the local restaurant if they could make Butter Chicken for us but substitute the chicken with Paneer and we have been ordered our dishes this way ever since.

We have quite a few Indian restaurants in town but to find food just the way we like it we have it narrowed down to a handful and Mazza Indian Cuisine is really a treat. What's nice is that the food is consistently good. there is another restaurant in town that is sometimes incredible (and those are the days that you are glad you came) but often is mediocre, and sometimes just plain bad. There has been more than on occasion that we have opened up take out containers and after a quick taste had to throw it away. It's just not worth the gamble as it is not exactly cheap to eat, and I don't like to come away disappointed.

We visited Mazza yesterday and it was actually decorated for the holidays which was nice as it was already dark outside and the glow of the lights was festive and warm. Now I will warn you that this place in terms of ambiance is nothing special but it's damn good. I do get carry out from here as well but this food is so fresh and tastes so wonderful right after it comes out from the kitchen so I really do like to eat in the actual restaurant. I should also warn you about a couple more things: 1. We are often the only ones there in what I would consider peak time but don't be alarmed. I think their carry out/lunchtime buffet keeps them going and you don't have to worry that it's not going to be good. 2. It is going to take a while for them to take your order and a long time to actually get your food. Again, their carry out business is brisk and they don't have a lot of staff. The food is made to order I believe and it's going to take time but it's worth the wait.

Last night we had three different dishes. I am sure in the photo it's not very distinguishable but let's start at the twelve o'clock position. That is Lamb Koorma. It really is a mild dish with buttery soft cubes of lamb in a cream sauces with almonds, coconut and raisins. I really am not a huge raisin fan but in Koorma it works. Their koorma sauce has little shredded bits of coconut which is a nice touch and even my picky kids were surprised at how much they liked this dish. Vegetarian? Try a Vegetable Koorma with the same sauce but with mixed vegetables. I also enjoy that.

The dish next to the Koorma, clockwise is Paneer Tiki Masala. It won't be as spicy as the original Chicken Tiki Masala on the menu because the spiced Tiki chicken is absent from the dish but it has a hint of spice. The sauce is mild and creamy and the cubes of cheese are abundant. Across from it is the Butter Paneer and quite honestly, as there isn't chicken in this either, you really won't discern much of a difference from the Tiki but this is a bit milder. When you put chicken in these dishes the contrast is more pronounced.

All dishes come with a choice of naan or rice. We always order both as it's much better to put a layer of rice on our plate to catch all the gravy or sauce but then scoop it up with the Naan. Good stuff.

If you are in the area, or even if it's a bit of a drive, I highly recommend Mazza. You will be glad you drove there and even will forget about the wait once they bring you the delicious food.