Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Book Review: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Sometimes a Book is Just as Good the Second Time. . .

. . . and maybe a third?

I have read this book before, and yes, it might be the third time. I know I read at least the second book after this in the series but it was years ago and not all of the rest that are available were around to add to the journey.

Recently, with the promotion of the television series based on these books, the stories have cropped up again and I thought that I would revisit these stories. I have seen glimpses of the series in the form of still shots and I don't know that I will watch it as I have a visual image of what Jamie and Claire should look like and I think that seeing them in the flesh may ruin that for me.

If you haven't read this book, I highly recommend it and it was just as entertaining this time around. While it's featured as a sci fi series right now, this is also a historical romance with a sense of humor as well as an adventure. I seem to recall liking the rest of the story, featured in Books 2 and 3, less, but we will see this time around as I have 8 of them in my possession and plan to try to read them back to back. I did that with Harry Potter 1-5 and that was quite a binge as I didn't have to wait for publication dates.

I probably should tell you just a little bit about the plot? In case you don't know. Claire is reunited with her husband after the war and is vacationing in Scotland to become reacquainted. She ends up going back in time by accident, to the 18th Century. Through a series of events, this British woman ends up married to a Scot and caught between two worlds and two loves. What she knows about the past, from her original time, can impact history in this new world she lives in.

Fun stuff. Highly entertaining and I dare you not to fall in love with Jamie. On to Book 2 because I have it. I don't even have to come up for air!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Restaurant Review: Bistro 82

I Lament that sometimes I Can't Take Pictures

Technically I could. . . 

. . . but I didn't. Bistro 82 is really dimly lit and since it was late evening the flash would have disrupted everyone. While the place was fairly crowded, everyone seemed to speak in hushed tones and I was pretty sure our nearest neighbors would not appreciate my photo taking.

So I don't have photos, I'm sorry to say. I also wanted to lament further as the food presentation was above par and everything was plated beautifully and it deserves to be celebrated. I've visited their Facebook page to get you some of their photos to at least properly showcase all of these fine dishes when I can. Yes, the photos are very similar to the plating we received so they care that much.

This is the first time I was handed a tablet that served as a menu and it was interesting. You could click on any item and get a snapshot (again same beautiful photos) along with more details, suggested wine pairings and add on options.

I started with an 82 Mule for my cocktail. Yes, it even came in the traditional copper mug and it really did seem to taste better that way. It was top shelf gin and ginger ale with a hint of lime. I do like when I make these at home, sans the copper mug, with Hendrick's but this was quite refreshing. this is going to sound a little strange, but they had very good ice. It was shaped like little barrels, for lack of a better description, and they had a really good texture. I have a thing for ice. . . There was a nice selection of cocktails that they featured including a champagne one, but they were also pricey. There was an extensive wine list that included by the glass, along with some bottles in the thousands, as well as a nice variety of beer (draught and bottles). There is definitely room for any budget.

There was a nice assortment of appetizers which gave us pause so we had to choose three. The Olive Epi Bread is limited but they had it available. The bread features a nice kalamata olive flavor and comes with a butter with herbs de provence. I would have liked a little more butter as it was more of a decorative shmear on the platter. The bread itself was very yeasty and crusty and quite good served warm. However, if you were limited to only one or two appetizers I would definitely move along to the other two we had. The French Onion Soup Dumplings was a whole new take on the typical traditional soup offering and a nice change. It is served in a crock with individual impressions that each hold a single dumpling that features onions and cheese. I think of the dumpling as a French version of a Dim Sum or a kreplach. It was really doughy but bursting with a blend of flavors that could
be described as quintessential onion soup. The whole dish was covered in the traditional gruyere cheese that was browned beautifully and could even be considered a cheese fondue. Crostini came with it for dipping and you definitely want to dip. Crostinis were also featured with our bone marrow which is going to be the thing I recommend the most out of our array of appetizers. Wonderful in texture, the marrow was both salty and smoky, with a really nice texture. The lemon wedge provided balanced the flavors whith a quick squeeze to get some of the juice on the bones. I have not had bone marrow before but have always enjoyed bones and thought it would be a nice change. I was not disappointed. Many of the mains allow for the addition of bone marrow and I would definitely add that to an entree if I wanted different appetizers next time.

Now main dishes. . . I  chose the Seafood Cioppino for my main entree. I have enjoyed waterzooi and other brothy seafood dishes so this was a guaranteed like for me but I have to admit that there were several other offerings that intrigued me to come back again. The broth was a little different, as it had very nice undertones of chili, and was a little heartier than other dishes I have had previously. The seafood in here was very generous with three really nice pieces of King crab in the shell, and assorted clams mussels, and a nice large scallop. There was also cobia in this dish and those pieces were wonderful, enough for me to consider the Roasted Cobia option even if I'm not a super big fan of fish usually. It had a really nice texture and was very mild. More crostini was served. I was not sorry to see it.

We also ordered a Steak Frites and I don't know how I can convey how good those fries were but I am going to say that those were some of the best fries I have had, hands down. The steak itself was a flat iron, cut into generous slices, that were so soft that I didn't feel the chewiness of a a steak. The sauces - a bernaise - was so wonderful on those fries and the gray mixed with the maitre d'butter was divine. This was a wonderful dish and while I don't typically order steak I could see myself doing that here. I think the fries had a truffle sprinkling that was not mentioned on the menu but it worth mentioning here. Wonderful dish. . .

We had dessert and they were good but not as wonderful as dinner. We choice the PB&C as recommended my our waitstaff. This features a peanut butter mouse, with chocolate and caramel, as well as chopped strawberries, along with salted caramel ice cream. It was good but nothing that put me over the edge. It was plated beautifully and was a work of art but you can only do so much with a peanut butter mousse. I should have just ordered more bone marrow.

the Pumpkin Genoise was a little bit more interesting, featuring spiced Bavarian cream, malted chocolate mouse and pepita brittle. I am not a fan of malted milk so I'm glad I didn't notice that in the description because the chocolate in this, blended very well with the pumpkin was really delicious. The pumpkin was not overpowering and the sponge cake made for a very light offering. this was by far my favorite between the two desserts. Although, again, I would have love some more bone marrow with crostini.

This restaurant is a nice addition to the Royal Oak scene and I will definitely go back. While it's a little more pricey than some of our usual haunts the quality and presentation make this a good value for a special night out. I noticed that while many other restaurants don't offer children's dishes, they have a kids menu so I could even envision a family night out here. I'm kind of curious about the macaroni and cheese. . .

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Book Review: A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

While this Story Spans Three Generations, In Some Ways it Never Went Anywhere. . . 

This story begins in present day, with Abby Whitshank lamenting over her son's rootless life and his inability to stay connected with their family. We learn that Abby is a retired social worker with four adult children and a host of characters that she takes in as extended members of her clan through family dinners.

This story soon tells us more about the adult children, as well as her past, especially in the story of her in laws and their history that lead them to be secured in the current family home.

While we learn a lot about Abby and the generation that preceded her, as well as the future generation, in many ways this story did not really go anywhere but became a snapshot of a family.

In many ways it was authentic and probably is a testament to many lives all across in America. However, while I came to know many of these characters and found them interesting, I did not empathize with any of them. The book was pleasant enough to read but I wouldn't go a far as to recommend it. In some ways it was hollow.

Book Review: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Seemingly Different Lives with Similarities Converge

This story alternates between the present day life of Molly, a teenager in a foster home facing impending "juvie", with an elderly woman who needs help cleaning out her attic in her mansion. What would these two have in common? At first, Molly thinks that there is no way that she will identify with Vivian but she's going to complete her fifty hours of community service for stealing a book from the library.

Over time, Molly realizes that the surroundings do not define the woman, and that Vivian too has a past that shaped who she is as well. Vivian recounts her story about immigrating from Ireland with her family, her ride on the Orphan Train to the west, and the series of events, many of them quite tragic, that lead her to be in a mansion nearing the end of her life, with boxes of possessions stored in an attic. I think that those possessions, while not elaborated on in this book, really served a purpose for Vivian in compartmentalizing her past and keeping things to feel some sense of being rooted to a history.

What I found most interesting about this book was the ability of the author to tell two different stories with different voices that made it seem authentic. Obviously the subject matter itself is not new, I have read other stories about the trains, but she brought a new perspective by combining it with present day. Molly is a complex character and does not fit into a neat pigeon hole, she seems honest and real. Additionally, Molly's Native American background adds an interesting element, when compared to Vivian's recounting of Irish immigrants and their history.

I also liked that the backgrounds of both Molly and Vivian were not painted with the typical dreamy filter that often happens when recounting the past. Molly and Vivian both realize that their lives before were not perfect or fairy tales which again makes this seem more realistic.

Most importantly, without giving the story away, I like that the end did not wrap up everything with a neat bow. Stories did have some resolution but there was an ability to wonder what happened after the book ended. Life is not perfect and I'm certain that there would be continue to be challenges for Molly and her future.

Really good book, I recommend this one.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Day of the Dead Wine Rack

Five Dollars = Sweet New Rack

Sometimes garage sales hold treasures that only one person may see. I don't know about you but when I go garage sale shopping, I often have a few items in mind. One of these on my list was a wine rack. I wasn't sure ahead of time what the wine rack would look like but I knew I needed one. I was kind of sick of some bottles stashed on a counter-top and there is only so much room in the refrigerator. Yes, I know I'm not supposed to be storing all wine chilled, but sometimes it's just a quick place to stash it so I don't know them all over the kitchen. I really thought I would find a little wrought iron deal that held a couple of bottle that might just end up on said counter top but then I found this wooden, free standing thing.

Now, I know it was quite ugly but to me a base coat of spray paint can fix just about anything. It's a blank canvas to work on. Spray paint you might say? Yes, I affirm, spray paint. I gave this piece a quick sanding and then used a satin black for my base. I like to paint designs and pictures, but I hate using a brush for large areas. This just works better for me. I spray paint just about everything, including our front door this week but that's a story for another post.

I decided to go with a Day of the Dead / Mexican theme for this piece. Our kitchen has a little bit of a Mexican Cantina feel along with a lot of eclectic elements. I think that this carried over from our old house but was also an easy look to go for with walls that were a version of adobe brown. Remember when I said I hate painting large areas? That goes for house paint too.

This gave me an excuse - or rather an opportunity - to play around with bright colors and have some fun. We have some strands of chili peppers hanging in some places around the kitchen along with a mixed herb wreath that also has some pepper adorning it. Sugar skulls are just one of those things that I really like and while some might find that odd for a kitchen, you only have one life to live and I just can't take my decor too seriously all the time.

You might see a color wash in the photos on the curves of the wood, where the wine bottles will rest. That was achieved with a color wash in those areas with a bright orange paint. For the detailed painting, versus the base coat, I bought a couple of assorted packages for craft paint from Michael's. Those weekly coupons come in handy and I think my total came to twelve dollars and some change. If I add in the spray paint, and then clear acrylic that I added for protection for a top coat, I think I am at a grand total of about twenty five dollars plus the original cost of the wine rack itself. Thirty dollars for a one of a kind wine rack.

I'm pretty happy with the results. Once my final coat of polycrylic dries, I'm planning on putting this in the kitchen with some wine bottle in it. Is it bad to admit that perhaps I've been stocking up on wine every time I made a run to Trader Joe's? I didn't think so!