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I am staying in Brooklyn over spring break. There is a certain Brooklyn look. I can’t put my finger on it but it seems to have some common elements: Only browns, dark blue and, of course, black clothing allowed. Jeans have to be skinny and cannot be stonewashed or comfortable. Shirts have to a little too tight and hair has to look greasy. A five day beard is ubiquitous for men. I fit in except I like my clothes loose fitting to accomodate my girth. Also, I lack the final piece of the Brooklyn outfit – a dog. Owners are allowed to release their suppressed color choices on their dogs which often sport an orange or red sweater.

Apart from the dogs, there is much to like here. We could not get into Chuko so we ended up in Zaytoons. The bread is spectacular and the food is quite good though a tad below the high standard set by Semiramis back home. But opposite Zaytoons is Mecca: the Ample Hills Creamery. One child insisted on dessert so we went in even though the rest us were exhausted. What a find – well, it was a find to us even if it’s well known in NYC. We had scoops of maple bacon, pistachio-squared, honey graham and honey snickerdoodle ice cream. Sometimes food brings you closer to God. This was such a case. We want to be closer to Her every day. We are planning a daily visit. We’ll be zealots by Friday when we leave.

We have a visitor this weekend so we did the obligatory trip to Millenium Park, took pictures under the Bean etc. It was freezing cold so we only lasted half an hour before heading to Nellcôte for brunch – I hung tough under pressure to go to Big Bowl. But by the end of the meal, my initially reluctant companions agreed Nellcôte was a big success.

You are greeted with the highbrow (Sunday NYT) and the lowbrow (US Weekly). At least when we went, the room was not super full so you could easily have a conversation. The restaurant is named after the French villa where the Stones partied while they recorded Exile on Main Street. Somehow the decor manages to pull off that kind of ambience despite (because of ?) having Anthropologie style sofas and armchairs arrayed in the lounge area. Most of the food was good – the lobster hash, sunnyside up egg pizza, and whole wheat pancakes received rave reviews. Only the french toast got any criticism whatsoever – it was considered to be if anything too sweet and desserty. But, for me, the thing that tipped the whole experience over the top was the plate of cheese, salami, home made jams, brioche, fresh madeleines etc that they bring to the table while you read decide whether Charlize Theron or Kim Kardashian looked better in the yellow dress they both happened to wear (Charlize in my opinion).

Chief Justice Roberts and four others found that the individual mandate could not be justified via the Commerce Clause (CC) in the Constitution. The CC allows the federal government to “regulate” interstate commerce. Roberts found that precedent allows the government to regulate activity via the CC but the individual mandate regulates inactivity and is hence unconstitutional (p. 20 of Roberts’ opinion):

The individual mandate, however, does not regulate existing commercial activity. It instead compels individuals to become active in commerce by purchasing a product, on the ground that their failure to do so affects interstate commerce. Construing the Commerce Clause to permit Congress to regulate individuals precisely because they are doing nothing would open a new and potentially vast domain to congressional authority.

Moreover (p. 22-23),

Indeed, the Government’s logic would justify a mandatory purchase to solve almost any problem…To consider a different example in the health care market, many Americans do not eat a balanced diet. That group makes up a larger percentage of the total population than those without health insurance…..The failure of that group to have a healthy diet increases health care costs, to a greater extent than the failure of the uninsured to purchase insurance….Those increased costs are borne in part by other Americans who must pay more, just as the uninsured shift costs to the insured….Congress addressed the insurance problem by ordering everyone to buy insurance. Under the Government’s theory, Congress could address the diet problem by ordering everyone to buy vegetables.

Let’s take a quick look at the broccoli market. At the prevailing price, absent regulation, some consumers are active in the market and buy broccoli and other are inactive and don’t buy broccoli. Similarly, there are some  producers who sell broccoli and other potential sellers who, given the prevailing price, produce chilis. Domestic broccoli growers are mainly in California but many broccoli consumers live in the Acela corridor so there is interstate commerce.

Then, the government enters the broccoli market. Some say this is because of the health benefits of broccoli, others say this is because the broccoli growers have formed an effective lobby, much like the sugar producers. The government intervention comes in the form of a subsidy to broccoli consumers. Consumers who consume 1 lb of broccoli/week get a $300 deduction on their taxes (Whole Foods immediately starts selling an annual contract which can easily be appended to your IRS form to get the broccoli deduction.)

Consumers who were active before still continue to buy: after all they are getting an extra incentive to buy. But also consumers who were inactive before now start to buy: after all the broccoli vs arugula margin now favors broccoli. In fact there is a new annual demand curve for broccoli D'(p) where D'(p)=D(p-300) where D was the original demand curve. There is higher demand at every price and the price of broccoli goes up. This changes the broccoli-chili margin for producers and inactive broccoli producers now switch to activity. (Also, profits go up for broccoli producers giving them the incentive to lobby for a consumer subsidy.)

Therefore, intervention in the “active” market changes the active-inactive decision and influences inactivity. An equivalent policy is to use to stick rather than a carrot and impose a penalty of $300 on consumers who are consuming less that 52 pounds of broccoli/year.  Appropriately chosen carrots and sticks are equivalent in terms of broccoli trade. (More broadly, a tax or subsidy to broccoli production could also implement the same output of broccoli.) This simple analysis has some implications for Democrats and Republicans.

First, many instruments can implement the same output so the fact that one kind of intervention has been deemed unconstitutional is not important. A carrot can replace a stick.

But, second, the instruments differ in their revenue implications. Carrots are expensive to the government and sticks raise revenue. More use of carrots means bigger deficits or distortionary taxes.

And, third, since penalizing inactivity is equivalent to incentivizing activity, we appear to have conflicting precedents. It is legal to regulate activity but not to regulate inactivity. But regulating activity impacts inactivity and if regulating inactivity is unconstitutional, in a roundabout way, the Roberts et al applies. On the other hand, there are plenty of precedents for regulating activity even if they influence inactivity. In the (in)famous Wickard case, quotas on farmers reduced activity and increased inactivity. I am not a lawyer so I can not sure what happens in this circumstance. I guess the Supremes get to vote and they can rationalize votes one way or the other based on conflicting precedents. All bets are off – will Roberts switch his vote at the last minute etc.?

Plenty of stuff for us citizens to contemplate on July 4. I’ll be grilling broccoli.

At an all-you-can-buffet lunch, the incentives are clear: go back again and again, refill your plate and guzzle away. You would eat less if each new plate came with another price tag. Add to that a lack of self control and you get overconsumption and a desperate desire for a nap in the afternoon.

A CEO has a salaried employee. The employee gets paid much the same however much work he does. So, the CEO asks him to sit on this committee or investigate that new market or run recruiting etc. etc. Add to that moral suasion so it is a duty to work hard for the firm and you get overwork and a desperate desire to avoid the CEO. There will be many task forces and layers of bureaucracy as the cost of each initiative is so small. Better to pay for performance and internalize some of the costs of each extra foray into administration and work.

Orley Ashenfelter plus friends recreated the famous “Judgement of Paris” competition that first brought American wines to worldwide attention but with NJ wines. The results:

Results Whites

1 Clos des Mouches Drouhin 2009 FRA
2 Unionville Pheasant Hill Single Vineyard 2010 USA
3 Heritage Chardonnay 2010 USA
4 Silver Decoy “Black  Feather” 2010 USA
5 Puligny Montrachet Domaine Leflaive 2009 FRA
Tied 6 Bellview Chardonnay 2010 USA
Tied 6 Bâtard Montrachet Marc-Antonin Blain 2009 FRA
8 Amalthea Chardonnay 2008 USA
9 Ventimiglia Chardonnay 2010 USA
10 Meursault-Charmes Jean Latour-Labille2008 FRA

Results Reds

1 Ch. Mouton Rothschild 2004 FRA
2 Ch. Haut Brion 2004 FRA
3 Heritage Estate  BDX 2010 USA
4 Ch. Montrose 2004 FRA
5 Tomasello Oak Reserve 2007 USA
6 Ch. Leoville Las Cases 2004 FRA
7 Bellview Lumiere 2010 USA
8 Silver Decoy Cab. Franc 2008 USA
9 Amalthea Europa VI 2008 USA
10 Four JG’s Cab Franc 2008 USA

Except for the best white and the worst red, the rank order of the wines by assorted judges was not significant. Details are here. If you aggregate up though, at least for the reds, the French wines might be significantly better than the NJ wines.

Went to Vera for the first time last night. It doesn’t take reservations but it was not hard to get table at 7 p.m. on a Thursday, even though Vera was on the “Best of Chicago 2012″ list at Chicago Magazine. I had two companions and we managed to get through roast mushrooms, lamb pinchos, langoustines, paella, calcots, papas bravas, grilled asparagus and fried artichokes! Only the papas were generic. The wine list is quite original and the waitress made great recommendations. I’m definitely going back.

We blogged many times about the Next restaurant’s innovative ticket scheme. Potential restaurant goers had to sign up to try to acquire seats at a fixed price for a set meal. Good for the restaurant in terms of knowing what inventory to hold, predictable revenue etc. The scheme turned out to be extremely successful with resale prices of the tickets running into thousands. Why not just auction off the seats – that is what very economist would say? It turns out that Nick Kekonas and Grant Achatz do not want to make too much money and want everyone to be able to afford to come. In response to my blog post Nick commented:

Since we have universally high demand right now, the question is why don’t we flatten the pricing towards the top of what the market will pay? There are a few reasons for this, mostly having to do with customer service and the hospitality industry. Simply, we never want to invert the value proposition so that customers are paying a premium that is disproportionate to the amount of food / quality of service they receive. Right now we have it as a great bargain for those who can buy tickets. Ideally, we keep it a great value and stay full.

I replied

If you want to give it to charity, to start a foundation to teach disadvantaged kids how to cook or whatever is close to your heart, that surely dominates just giving up the money to random lucky people who sign up and sell tickets for profit on Craigslist. And given you have software already, I bet it would be pretty easy to program a simple auction.

My advice was pretty obvious and I’m sure they though of it already. Anyway:

Next created a special page to run a Dutch auction for an El Bulli menu two-top every night, all proceeds to go to the University of Chicago Cancer Center where Grant Achatz was treated….

Not surprisingly, there are a lot of people who couldn’t stand to wait for Next El Bulli tickets to come down in price— as of this writing 46 of the 72 tables, many of them for the $5000 maximum price (compared to about $800 for a regular pair of Next El Bulli tickets; most of that will be tax deductible as a donation) have sold for a total of $215,000. Odds are the entire block will sell out later today, bringing in around $350,000 for the hospital in little over a day. Next’s food fascinates, but it’s hard not to think that Next’s radically innovative business models will prove equally important and influential for the restaurant industry and its extensive charitable involvement over the years to come.

You never know what you will run across in New York –  a monument celebrating the Nobel Prize or a fossil shop with a great collection of dinosaur teeth.  A couple of blocks further north on Columbus, there is Kefi, a casual modern Greek restaurant. The top floor was already full by 7 pm and we were led to the basement.  At first, we were pleased.  There were fewer diners and pleasant conversation seemed feasible.  Food was ordered and some delicious morsels started to arrive. A warm fingerling potato salad with green beans and feta was delicious, an oregano based dressing adding a depth to the simple ingredients.  The spreads for sharing were generic and the Mythonos beer had a funky toothpastey taste that took some getting used to. Some ups, some downs.

Then the trouble started.  There is a room in the restaurant basement that can be used for private functions. We could hear a band practicing. We feared the Greek version of a mariachi band marching from table to table demanding payment to depart.  It wasn’t that bad but once the private function actually started and the band was in full flow, conversation became hard.  I pitied the table right next to the private function room.   More food arrived and was quite good if rich.  By that point, desert was out of the question and we went elsewhere for a late digestif.

Not sure I’ll be going back.

El Bulli is gone, Inopia just closed.  What can someone who has never eaten Adria food do? Try the food created by one his proteges at Commerc 24.  It was extremely good though pricing definitely puts it into the “special occasion” category.


The new iPad “newspaper” the Daily profiles Next Restaurant and their fixed-price online reservation system.  As we blogged before, the tickets sell out in seconds and there is a huge resale market with $85 tickets selling for thousands of dollars in the resale market.  The excess demand implies the tickets are underpriced from a pure profit-maximization perspective.  But Nick Kokonas, one of the partners in Next and the person responsible for the innovative pricing scheme, is reluctant to use an auction to capture the surplus Next is generating for scalpers.   He is worried about price-gauging.  We have suggested one solution: impose a maximum price/ticket, say $150.

There is a new idea reported in the Daily: Next will offer “season tickets” in 2012, allowing dinners to come four times/year, each time the restaurant changes theme, going from say French early twentieth century to South Indian mid-twentieth century (just a suggestion!).  The usual motivation for season tickets is to offer a “volume discount” and extract more surplus from high willing to pay customers.  Another is to have demand tied in.  Next has no need to offer volume discounts, if anything the tables are priced too cheap.  Perhaps there will be a volume premium for guests privileged enough to be able to go to four meals at Next rather that try to find four separate reservations? I guess the season tickets make it even easier to fill up the restaurant for the year and reduce the reservations hassle factor for the restaurant.  Looking forward to hearing the details….

Eighty percent of the carrots in the US are produced by Bolthouse and Grimmway Farms.  It is a billion dollar business.  Moving from one duopoly to another, the new CEO of Boltway, Jeff Dunn, is a former Coke executive.  Life is sunny and profitable in a duopoly but every business has its cloudy days in the current recession.  The declining sales of baby carrots are blocking out sunshine in the carrot duopoly.

“Baby” carrots are just adult carrots whittled down to baby size.  A farmer can plant more seeds per acre and get more yield growing baby carrots.  They also sell better so demand is higher.  Baby carrots are the “cash cow” of carrots.  It turns out they are a “normal good”: demand declines as income declines.  Regular carrots on the other hand seem to be an “inferior good”: demand is stable or even increases during a recession.  But they are less profitable.

How should the farms reshuffle sales back towards baby carrots?  To a Coke executive the idea comes easily: market them like junk food and de-emphasize the health benefits.  So,

Display ads, printed up for supermarkets, presented baby carrots as “the original orange doodle,” and billboards suggested never fear carrots and beer. Maybe most provocatively, Bolthouse installed baby-carrot vending machines, wrapped in eat ‘em like junk food graphics, at a pair of high schools.

For this and more read a great article in Fast Company.

Ever since I read a great review of 2008 Oregon Pinot Noirs in the NYT, I’ve been on the lookout in local wine stores.  I can’t find many from the NYT list.  So I tried the Torii Mor on  a whim   It’s just over $20 and excellent value.  Classic cherry fruit but with plenty of acid and a dry finish.  Well balanced.  On this evidence, I’m going to try any 2008 Oregon Pinot Noir I can find in this price range.

In search of a rural retreat, ideal for apple picking?  A decent close option to Chicago is Heinz Orchard.  No mazes, hay rides etc…just apples.  The only problem: what do you do with the 40 pounds of apples you end up picking…?!!

I’m on a brief family trip to the Willamette Valley in Oregon.  A couple of days ago, the temperatures were in the mid-90s F in the valley and in the 60s on the coast.   To escape the heat, we made the obvious decision to visit the coast for the day.  After the obligatory trip to the beach, I persuaded the troop to visit the Rogue Brewery and Pub in Newport.  Rogue is a well-known producer of supposedly good beers.   Somehow I had only sampled the Dead Guy Ale so I was eager to expand my horizons.  The visit started well enough.  You enter through a tall metal tower which looks like it’s been built from old beer storage vats.  You can make howling noises and listen for the echo.  A persuasive opening for two complaining children.  Then, you walk through the brewery itself before you get to the pub – see the photo.All the goodwill started disappearing when we got to the pub.  The waitress couldn’t do justice to the 15 or so beers on tap and assumed we were already familiar with them.  She wanted us to make decisions quickly and we had to slow her down.  We settled for the samplers ($6 for four tastes) to get some idea of the beers on offer.  Some of them were better than others.  We enjoyed the Dry Hop Red and Yellow Snow IPA (ha ha).  The Wheatbeer was weak, the Brutal IPA was not particularly brutal etc etc.  You win some, you lose some so it was all forgivable.  But what was unforgivable was the food.  The clam chowder was O.K. but the rest was almost inedible.  There’s lots of great seafood in Oregon and lots of great produce.  With such great raw materials readily available, it’s criminal to put out food that could easily be English school lunch material.  I’m definitely not coming here again and it’s put me off the beer.

On the way out, we sang a chorus: “The beer is O.K., the food – No!”  People coming in looked amused.  Hopefully they were visiting for the brewery tour and not for an early dinner.

I’m revisiting old haunts to try to get back into my Chicago equilibrium.  Today, I ended up at Nazareth Sweets to pick up baklava for a party tonight.  An assortment of 40-50 sets you back, wait for it……..$14!  The pricing is the opposite of Pasticceria Natalina.

I am worried abut the calorific content but luckily it’s far enough from Evanston that I do not end up there too often.  I love the walnut baklava and the bamya. The knaffeh is repulsive in my opinion.  At the risk of causing an uproar, I somewhat concur with an earlier post of Jeff’s on Asian desserts as far as his point extends to knaffeh from the Middle East.  Anyway, it is always good to buy some knaffeh – have some after one piece of walnut baklava so it grosses you out and you don’t eat any more dessert.

With many neighbors willing to help with childcare, my wife and I managed to escape for a quick meal on our own.  We went to Anteprima, within easy striking distance of Evanston.  At a dinner at Rialto in Boston, I’d guessed that we’d eat better and cheaper at Anteprima and our experience proved me right.  The chef has the market-driven sensibility that is all the rage.  I was in luck because someone must have brought squash blossoms to the market that week.  So, I had lovely fried zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta-herb mix.  My wife had the Tuscan crostini and enjoyed it as well.  We both settled for the spaghetti with tomato, chilis and crispy breadcrumbs – easily made at home unlike the stuffed squash blossoms!  We didn’t regret it as it was executed perfectly.

In New York City, people might expect this kind of meal from their local Italian joint.  After Boston, it seemed extraordinary to us.

For dessert, we ended up getting overpriced gelato at Pasticceria Natalina. The owner makes quite exceptional pastries but the pricing is crazy.  No-one else was there and I wonder if this unique place is going to last too much longer.  Someone should tell them about the trade-off between margin and volume and perhaps also how to calculate margin correctly in the first place – don’t incorporate fixed and sunk costs into your pricing decision!  It makes you think that elementary economics is actually useful for business owners.

Just as I get ready to head back to Evanston, I find a great coffee shop for work near MIT!

I like Crema Coffee in Harvard Square for its coffee and even its food.  Unfortunately, it’s too crowded and noisy for work.  1369 Coffee House is a little better for work but the products are worse.  And both branches, Central and Inman Square, are a bit cramped.  But a few blocks south of Central Square I found Andala Coffee House.  There’s table service, so the prices are a bit higher than you might expect.  The mint tea and hummus were well worth the extra few bucks.  There’s an outside patio, a porch that sticks out over the street and, as you come in, a large room with lots of windows.  It was a little chilly to sit outside and the porch was full so I had to settle for the large room.  It was fine.  The music is mellow and there is some quiet, pleasant chatter in the background.  I worked for two hours at high concentration and left regretting I had not found Andala earlier.  I’ll be back often over the next couple of weeks.

So good that it’s worth the hypocrisy:

1. Best Chocolate

2. Best Salami (downside – somewhat complicated to order and hard to slice unless you invest in your own salami slicer)

3. Best Bacon Products (especially the Speck)

The “Blooming” Flower Bread

The owners get peak-load pricing and volume discounts:

Like Disney, however, Mr. Achatz and Mr. Kokonas will sell tickets to their Magic Kingdom. Yes, tickets. (That’s a direct quote from the trailer.)

While the ticket sales portion of the web site hasn’t been worked out yet, anyone wishing to eat at Next will pay for the time slot in advance. Prices will be lower for off-peak hours and will also vary depending on the menu, but will run from $45 to $75 for a five- or six-course meal. (Wine and beverage pairings will begin at $25.) Annual subscriptions — seasons tickets — will also be sold.

They also get cost control:

“We now pay three or four reservationists all day long to basically tell people they can’t come to the restaurant,” Mr. Achatz said. “People call and say, ‘I want a reservation for four for next Saturday,’ and we’re like, ‘No, I’m sorry, it’s been booked for three months.’ Most people don’t realize how much of the cost of a meal is the cost of running a restaurant.” He said Next will strip away this and other hidden costs of dining out: “It allows us to give an experience that is actually great value. The guest will actually benefit. That’s the theory.”

I loved Mark Bittman’s no-knead bread recipe.  The inventor is New York breadmaker Jim Lahey.  Lahey reviews the new Domino’s Pizza.

Ten Tables JP may be my number one restaurant choice for Boston.  I love Sportello and Oleana.  The food is equally good at all three places.  But the ambience at Ten Tables is the best.  It actually only has ten tables so you have to book well ahead.  (They cheat a bit by having a bar but it looks a lot less cosy than the restaurant.)  There’s an open kitchen so you can see the chefs at work.

My wife’s garlic soup was spectacular.   My citrus panna cotta was too heavy and creamy but the radicchio salad that came with it was lovely.  My ricotta pasta with maitake mushrooms was delicious and my two companions really enjoyed their chicken and steak dishes.   We split a chocolate mousse and pistachio semifreddo for dessert.  The wines are decently priced and I had a great barbera in my Italian wine flight.

Looking forward to going back.  By the way, there is a second Ten Tables in Cambridge.  The food is equally good but the service is rude and the dinner crowd is less cool.  Make sure you go to the right branch.

This is a really affordable, reliable and widely available red from Allegrini.  It’s a blend of Corvina and Rondinella grapes – don’t ask me for any French analogs, I have no idea.  And there’s a bit of Sangiovese chucked in.  This makes for a complex, multidimensional wine.  Blackberry and cherry notes but it’s still dry and not too sweet.  They blend the wine with dried grapes just like an Amarone.  This gives it a heft and a deep red color.  Luckily, it does not have the road tar consistency of an Amarone.  At under $20 it’s  a great value for this level of quality.

I’m attending a conference in Madrid so I will either describe either papers in words or a tourist guide in equations.

Actually, I can’t translate either papers or anything else into equations so I will stick to words.  As the conference just started but we arrived a few days ago, I will start with the tourism.  When we arrived on Saturday morning, we decided to try to stay awake and adjust to the new time zone.  So we sleepily rolled into a taxi and made our way to Plaza Santa Ana.  The kids were vivacious before we climbed into the taxi and the older one was sleepy ten minutes later when we emerged.  We went into the closest open place, Cerveceria Santa Ana.  Plaza Santa Ana has many bars, one of which was frequented by Hemingway but it wasn’t the one we wandered into.  The bar is modest, it has part where you stand and enjoy lower prices and one where you can sit.  Modest or not, the tapas were great.  And it was quiet enough that a child can sleep.

But the real treat was Matritum that evening.  It does innovative takes on well-known tapas and then wacky creative ones (though not Adria level wacky!).  If you’re going to do traditional tapas at all, you have to make patatas bravas and so one can rank restaurants in terms of the quality of this staple:  Matritum is excellent on this scale  Boiled new potatoes with mildly spicy tomato sauce and a mayonnaise with delicious mystery spices.  Other things we tried: chicken and ginger samosas, deep fried pancakes with tiny shrimp, toasted bread with tomato and jamon iberico and chocolate brownie with violet ice cream and chocolate sauce.  The only weak point was a potato gratin with five cheeses which was a bit generic.  Oh: the wine list in excellent.  Imports of Spanish wine into the Chicago area at least can be overoaked and fruity.  At Matritum I had a delicate and floral Monastrell.  We’re going back before we move to Barcelona

Well, just to get warmed up, how about something with (almost) no economic content?

Review: Avec

The 17 year old (Brian) and I ended up at Avec (615 W. Randolph) nearly at random: a last minute decision to go see Faust at the Lyric Opera, and then a scramble to find somewhere near the Ogilvie Station that had decent reviews and would let us get to the opera early.

The place looks like a nicely equiped Finnish sauna. There is a line of tables along one side of the room, and a bar along the other. If you sit at a table with your back to the wall, a line of finely clothed posteriors that forms a rythmic backdrop above your dinner companions.

Tables are communal style, with what seems like too little room per person. But, the closeness forces a certain breaking of barriers (as do the seats at a football game) that in the end we found nice. Acoustics are pretty good, and all in all the atmosphere does a very nice job of creating that “I’m safe in my cave with my tribe” feel that is part of why we like crushing ourselves together in restuarants so much (and why any decent restaurant host/hostess groups full tables together on a quiet night).

The menu is of medium length. Sharing is strongly encouraged. The restaurant seems to have a commitment to re-introducing squeamish diners to the wonders of tripe, offal, etc, and does a good job of advancing the cause. It might be difficult for vegetarians to find a lot of variety: both I and a substantial portion of our meal were in hog heaven. To add the mandatory economic theory content to this entry, I had fun trying to convince my son that precisely because offal carries a bad connotation, we should be willing to try it: after all, why would the restaurant serve something that fought our biases if it wasn’t especially good?

The highlight of the meal was probably the veal liver. Crisp from the pan, in a soubise (I had to look it up: it’s a Bernaise sauce with lots of onion, and they were careful not to drown the dish in it) with parsnips, rapini and lemon. The acidic flavors from the lemon and onion set off the sweetness of the veal liver very nicely, the rapini and parsnips added some undertone and texture, and the liver itself was kick-ass. In many ways, like a slighlty less fatty, firmer fois gras. And, of course, without any of the guilt!

The pumpkin pizza with pheasant sausage and a pumpkin also had a lot going for it. The sausage was nicely spicy and worked very well with the pumpkin, and the roasted pumpkin seeds were terrific. We disagreed on whether the pumpkin should have been further roasted (to remove some more liquid) before it was mashed up to put on the pizza. I say yes, but I quibble. It is something I’d eat again in a minute, and I think its something one could do pretty well at home. Add smoked pork product to taste.

The amberjack with mint cured bacon, garbanzo beans, preserved lemon and olives was not a favorite. On execution, the amberjack was over-cooked. But, more fundamentally, the rest just didn’t hang together very well. The mint-cured bacon had an off-taste (perhaps picked up from the fish), and the preserved lemon was too staccato. The garbanzo beans, on the other hand, were excellent.

The restaurant does not take reservations. We were there on a miraculoulsy nice November evening, and the waiting diners seemed to be having a nice time with their drinks under the gas heaters outside. This adds to the happening feel, but probably means that I would not go there at a busy time in the winter.

Faust was, of course, a blast. Who  knew that unwed sex had such dire consequences? I’m glad that like almost everyone of my generation (and, I am told, this one), I waited.

Tomorrow, perhaps some thoughts on stimulus. On the other hand, research is going pretty well, so the opportunity cost is high…

Central Square has gentrified since my days living on Harvard Street.  There’s a Starbucks (whoopee).  There’s still a range of eclectic stuff left over from the dodgy past – the Middle East is still there and the Toscanini’s.  They’ve been joined by some high-end restaurants.  One of them, Central Kitchen, was recommended to us with the caveat that those of us in the sunrise of our forties might be able to bear the background music better than those approaching the sunset.  They were right- I hardly noticed the music.  I did notice the food.

Closest I’ve come to Mussels from Brussels are Jean Claude van Damme movies.  So, my reference point for the best mussels I’ve eaten is the Hopleaf in Andersonville on the North side of Chicago.  And I prefer them cooked in beer rather than cream and wine.  Central Kitchen does them in some kind of herb butter.  They plonk some frites on top with aioli.  The mussels were soft and delicious, bless their little hearts.  The broth was wiped up with stellar bread.  Jacques Brel on the stereo and a Chimay in my hand would have completed the picture.  No need for beer – I was happy with the pinot noir.

The main course was very good but couldn’t live up to the moules.  And it was too big and too expensive – I felt bloated at the end.  Next time, a salad for the appetizer and the moules for the main course.

We shared the cinnamon beignets for dessert.  They were stale.  The falling down chocolate cake has to be ordered thirty minutes in advance.  Next time.

Typically I would guess Wall Street, consulting or a start-up in Silicon Valley.  That’s kind of how Ayr Nuir started off too.  Now, he has a new start-up, one that will likely improve my life for the better every day I am at MIT  – the Clover food truck.  I had the chickpea fritter and the fries.  They were excellent.  My companion, Jim Snyder, who in fact gave me this valuable local information, was very happy with his egg and eggplant sandwich.

Nuir is putting his degrees to good use.  They appear to be estimating demand every day.  There’s some iPhone based ordering and tracking technology that updates sales figures every day.  And they have a great marketing/information dissemination system via their website.   So, they make it into the media.  Hopefully, a Kellogg student will do something similar by the time I have to return.

I haven’t visited the Wine Library for quite a while.  According to the Times, thousands of other people have.   Those of you who have not, it is worth watching the odd episode for a varietal you’re interested in learning about.  For fun, it is definitely worth watching the Jancis Robinson episode.

Now someone has to do a Beer Library.

Chopped is a show on the Food Network where four chefs compete to win $10K.  There are three knockout rounds/courses.  In each round, the remaining chefs get some mystery ingredients and have 30 minutes to cook four portions of a dish.  One chef is chopped each course by a panel of judges till one remains standing at the end of the dessert round.

In the show I watched tonight, the mystery ingredients in the first round were merguez sausage, broccoli and chives.  Chef Ming from Le Cirque tried to make chive crepes with a sausage and broccoli stuffing and a milk-broccoli stem sauce.  He used a fancy technique where he turned a frying pan upside down and cooked the crepe on the bottom of the pan.  He ran out of time and did not make the sauce.  Crepes turned out crap.  Basically things did not go too well and he was “chopped”.   Far weaker chefs made it to the next round.  But Ming’s strategy was wrong: he was one of the best chefs.  If he had not cooked a hard dish but a safe dish he would have made it into the next round.   This got me thinking about the optimal strategy for the game.  Here is my conjecture.

To win you have to cook at least one “home run” dish and two good dishes.  The third and final final dessert round seems to be the hardest.  This time the mystery ingredients were grape leaves, sesame seeds, pickled ginger and melon!  It was very challenging to make something edible with that, let alone creative and delicious.  If you are lagging (i.e. your opponent has had a home run in previous round and you have not), you have to go for a home run in the dessert round.  Otherwise, just do the best you can: the random choice of ingredients will play a  bigger rle in your success than your own effort.  Reasoning backwards, this implies that you have to go for a home run in one of the first two rounds.

In the second round is where I would try for one.  If the other two are going for home runs, I could still play safety and land in the middle.  I might do this if I already had a home run in the first round.  But if I played safety in the first round, I have to go for it now.  And it is likely that I’m in the latter scenario because in the first round you (at least if you are one of the better chefs) should not go for a home run as the only way you’re going to lose is if you come last out of four people.  Only the most mediocre chef should play a risky strategy in the first round as this is the only way to win (think of the John McCain picking Sarah Palin “Hail Mary Pass” strategy when he was lagging behind).  The other three should produce a nice, safe appetizer.  If they are truly the best three chefs they are likely to make it to the second round in equilibrium anyway.  And all three will have safety dishes.  And all three should go for home runs as the desert round is not a good time to attempt a great dish.

So, Ming did not get the game strategy right and he got knocked out earlier than he should have.   So future contestants take note of this blog entry.  I am also willing to provide consulting for chefs if they cook a free dinner for me.

Never got the big deal about falafel?  Isn’t one pretty much like another?

I thought so till I saw inducted into the finer distinctions between good and bad falafel by Israeli friends.  I know they agree with me that the Falafel Special at Semiramis falls into the good category.  It has a lovely harrisa sauce and pickles.  But the falafel is so good it can stand up to the condiments.  I’ve also been tutored on hummus and, to my palette, the version here is not the best I’ve had.  But the Ful is delicious and my wife and friends swear by the Chicken Kabob.  After your meal,  stop by Nazareth Sweets opposite and pick up a selection of baklava to go.  They look at you suspiciously, as if you might be FBI agents trying to track down Al Qaeda sympathizers.  They serve you anyway.

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