Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Rest of FurFright

So, normally, the Bear Squad is not a breakfast crowd, so we passed on breakfast, our plans for a lunch at Singo Sushi, which we had enjoyed immensely the year before.

Alas, the best laid plans of bears and mice...

We ended up gathering quite a large crowd to go for food. This is a somewhat natural thing, as furry cons tend to involve people you haven't seen for a while. So, our friends from New York wanted to get lunch, and a friend from New Jersey wanted to get lunch, and everyone invited friends, and...

Well, Singo Sushi wasn't able to accomodate our group of 11 immediately when we called them, but they promised us a spot about an hour later, at 2 PM. So we sort of dithered, then got there, slowly accumulated into a group, and...

And nothing. At 2 PM, Singo admitted that it would be another hour. Since none of us had eaten, we decided to forgo their sushi for the day, though we vowed to try and make it back later.

Instead, we ended up at the Manor Inn. This is a nice, somewhat divey little pub with a menu largely devoted to Italian food. The food was decent, not spectacular. A literal "nothing to write home about" sort of place, although I'll admit that the veal dish I had was pretty enjoyable. Even the odd little politcal conversation we had with our server was kind of interesting. Maybe I'm giving Manor Inn a bum rap...but, y'know, it was no Singo Sushi in terms of food quality.

After that, we cruised back to the hotel, butn ot before stopping at Rogers' Orchard. This place is really charming...they have cider served on a honro system...which I honorably paid to drink, while watching their huge rabbits cavort in their cage. They also had homemade fudge, awesome produce, and some of the tastiest cider donuts I've had in a long time. The Other Half was not impressed with their caramel apples, however, and this evolved into a coversation about the goodness, or lack thereof, of jimmies/sprinkles. Oh, well. Can't win 'em all.

Back at theh otel, we quickly changed and headed to the CoCoKey Water Park. The price for this attraction is a little steep...our con had whittled the price to $25.00 per person, and even that was pushing it. They do have 2 totally enclosed tube slides in the dark and a body slide...but that's about it for adult fare. There's also a large water playground for the kids, and there's a lazy river tube area. We ended up spending a large amount of time racing each other around this river. The other attraction we really wanted to indoor/outdoor hot tub, was closed. We were promised it would be open later, so, after we had our fill, we decided to check back later as our tickets were for all day.

After drying off, we sort of flopped around the hotel room, eating the food we'd brought back from the Orchard. This more or less led to none of us wanting dinner, but it did ultimately make us want to swim more. We also snuck some Rock Band II in there, somewhere. Great game. I love wailing out some vocals while the others play the instruments, and I got several compliments on my singing, which was kind. Thank you, whoever you were.

We swam in the hotel pool, because we found out the hot tub was still closed, but I avoided the hotel hot tub, especially after several of our friends who didn't avoid it quickly ran off to take showers to wash off the protein foam that the previous guests had left in it. Very nasty. At the end of the day, we played a bit more Rock Band, then settled in to play a boardgame...the old Dungeon boardgame from the 80s.

The next morning, there was more Rock Band, and we introduced our New York friends to it. We soon realized that a lack of food the previous night had made us hungry. We decided to go out for an earlyish lunch, and the Other Half suggested we try to seek out the Turkish restaurant we had spotted from the highway on the way to the hotel on Friday. There ended up being only 7 of us, and the restaurant in question, Anatolia, was mostly empty.

Let me tell you friends, this was an excellent choice. Easily the best meal of the weekend, and maybe the best food I'd eaten in months.

For appetizers, we had hummus, baba ganoush, red lentil soup, and a host of other little salads and nibbles. We also had some hot appetizers, and we split them all up between the seven of us, so it wasn't *too* much food. Our main courses were various kebabs, from tradition lamb and chicken to swordfish! All of the meat I had was well-seasoned and tender, and it sat on a bed of well-seasoned rice pilaf.

For dessets, we said, what the heck, bring us one of each and plenty of Turkish coffee. The two standout desserts were definitely the baklava and the milk pudding. Both spectacular desserts.

Back at the con, we tried a board game with our friends called Touch of Evil. I highly recommend the game. We played the cooperative mode, which really helped us feel like we were banding together to fight a vampire. We were constantly aiding each other with cards and sort of "role playing" our way through the story. When we finally launched our climactic battle against the Vampire, it was gruelling, but we were victorious.

Finally, it was time to say goodbye. I left some business cards for the Happy Bear's Guide in a public spot, and the Bear Squad headed home, already looking forward to the following year.

Oh, yeah...and we stopped for McDonalds sweet teas on the way home. ;)

- The Happy Bear

Saturday, October 18, 2008

By the Way...

I tend to write about whatever's on my mind or wherever I'm at. If anyone reading this ever wants to know my opinion on something, or if you have a question for the old bear, just let me know. Also, if you'd like me to review something, or want to post a review of your own, I'd be amenable to that. You can always email me at

- The Happy Bear

Friday, October 17, 2008

FurFright, Friday Evening

Well, we set out later than expected, the door ajar light of the Bearmobile had issues, and the food from Burger King wasn't the best...but we arrived at FurFright without any major problems. We checked into our hotels at the Holiday Inn Waterbury, and we immediately started meeting old friends.

The Holiday Inn Waterbury is a very clean, comfortable hotel. The rooms have been recently renovated, and they have free wireless internet (hence all this blogging tonight). they've also recently added the CoCo Key Indoor Waterpark. We intend to avail ourselves of some wet and wild fun, no puns intended.

We have, of course, been chatting about New Zealand with a number of folks already, and we sat in the hotel restaurant. We had some buffalo chicken wings, which were very nice and a very reasonable price for the amount. They serve Diet Pepsi instead of Diet Coke (A victory for me). Some folks at our table had their Carrot Cake and Chocolate Cake and pronounced them both excellent.

Oh...a quick but important note. If you're still coming, make sure you bring some cash. The ATM at the hotel has a bad habit of running out of money at inopportune times, and the con's registration may only be accepting cash if their machines are down.

I'm sure I'll be at The Rocky Horror Picture Show on Saturday night, but, otherwise, I'll be catching up with friends, exploring the con features, and, of course, having some of the local cuisine. I remember two restaurants in the area being excellent, and we'll test these ideas over the Con.

Goodnight for now, good readers.

- The Happy Bear

New Zealand: More British Than Great Britain

Well, I'm getting as tired in writing this blog as I was traveling for 16 days, so I'm gonna make this quickish.

We traveled over the mountains from Greymouth to Christchurch. It was a lovely drive, with sightseeing, of course. We had an interesting stop at a High Range Sheep Station. Here, we got to see the dogs working the sheep, and they were awfully nice and friendly dogs. We learned about the wool industry, and it was great to know that this was a real working station. We had lunch there, which was excellent. Lamb curry, soup, bread, chicken, and a traditionally prepared pavlova...a sort of meringue cake with cream and Kiwi fruit slices. Very tasty.

We then finished the drive to Christchurch, checked into our hotel, and had a little time to get oriented. Christchurch was the first big city we'd seen since Auckland, and it's definitely the "more British than Great Britain" city of New Zealand. The whole place, which is named for the Anglican cathedral built there, just radiated Britishness, right down to the Avon River and the red phone booths. We ate dinner at a pub called The Bog. Excellent food! I had a steak on garlic toast that was absolutely delicious. We also tried the local cider. Good, good stuff. We tried to enter a trivia contest, but we were handicapped by being unfamiliar with a lot of New Zealand things. We eventually went off to bed.

The next day, we headed to Akaroa Harbor. We visited a place called The Giant's House. This mosaic garden has got to be seen to be believed. The artist, Josie, is fascinating and eccentric. We would've stayed all day, but we had to move on. We had lunch at the Akaroa Fish Market (delicious fried things!) and then on to our harbor cruise. I wasn't in much of a swimming mood, so I took the normal cruise. The Other Half and the Otter tried to swim with dolphins. Sadly, the closest they came was seeing dolphins, but, when they got in the water, the dolphins fled the scene. I saw the dolphins too, as well as white-flippered penguins.

We were going to go out for Thai food with the group the next day, but we decided to bail on them. Instead, we got delivery from...Hell Pizza! I got to try some, and it was excellent, excellent pizza. If you like pizza and end up in New Zealand, make sure you try it!

The next day, we were largely on our own, so we explored Christchurch, including major souvenir shopping. Ironically, we ended up eating lunch at Anna's Thai, the same Thai place our group had eaten at the night before. Excellent curries!

That night, we visited the fascinating Antarctic Center, the place that many Antarctic groups depart from. We learned much about the southern most continent, including seeing incredible photos. We also got to know the Little Blue Penguin, the smallest and rarest penguin species. We got to hang out in the snow room, which allegedly simulates an Antarctic storm. The Bear Squad shrugged. We'd had much, much worse back in Boston.

We had our final dinner at the Center, and we were sorry to leave New Zealand. All in all, it was the most adventurous, exhausting, fantastic trip I've ever taken. I came back wanting to go again, right away. That's a good sign for a vacation destination. I believe we will return, look up our old tour guides, and go have a great time all over again, because there were so many more things we could've done with just a few more days. Next time, we'll come back as "experts", possibly leading friends around to show them the beauty and awesomeness of the place. Suffice to say, I can't wait to say Kia ora to New Zealand again.

- The Happy Bear

New Zealand: Glaciers, Rainforests, and Beaches

The next day, it was off into the mountains, following a different road than the one to Milford Sound. This one led, eventually, to a winery, where we had a wine tasting. Now, I'm not a wine drinker, but I enjoyed the multi-media presentation, which included footage of helicopter flight over local vinyards and interviews with the vintners who'd created the wine we were about to taste.

We made various sight-seeing stops along the way, including a lunch stop as we crossed over the mountains, but, in the end we arrived in Franz Josef Township. We checked into the local hotel, relaxed a bit, then headed to dinner at the hotel restaurant. I had some excellent lamb, as I recall, but nothing that leaps out as something that must be mentioned.

That night, we had a walk into the local bush. There, we saw many, many glow worms. These are the larva of a type of fly. They spin a sticky thread and then glow bluish to attract prey. They are eerie and beautiful, with a blue glow that's easier seen from the corner of your eye than when you just look at them. We also spotted and photographed an Australian possum. These little guys are cute, but they're also a huge nuisance in New Zealand, as they eat and kill the local trees. We saw many possum fur products, and their pelts are a tourist industry.

The next morning was drizzling, but we set forth, undaunted, to Franz Josef Glacier. This glacier is one of only two in the world that descends into a rainforest. We trekked over dry river bedding and many small streams to the glacier itself, eventually touching it. It was a beautiful thing, with an ice cave, blue ice, and a bunch of loonies hiking on it. Not for me, thank you. It rained harder on the way out, but we were treated to some of the most incredible waterfalls I've ever seen.

We made various stops, including one to a beach where we saw New Zealand fur seals (actually a type of sea lion) and the weka, a less endangered cousin of the kiwi. Ultimately, we ended up in the little town of Greymouth. For dinner, I had some of the best venison I've ever tasted in the hotel's restaurant. Absolutely crushingly good.

The next day was a rather bizarre one. We stopped in a small town called Reefton, where we learned about its gold rush history. Tea was served to us by a group called the Bearded Miners Association who made "billy tea" in a cast iron billy over a coal fire. We also got gridle scones and manuka honey. Yum.

After tea, we were off to the local museum, which is incredibly stuffed to the rafters (literally) with the bric-a-brac of the town. Papers, clothing, rocks, shells, was a glorious mess! Finally, we came back to town center for lunch at the local tea room. A really good tomato soup and pizza...which was...nothing like pizza I've ever had. The pizza had no tomato sauce and was made with cream cheese (marscapone, I think), bell pepper strips, and chicken. Very, very tasty...but very, very odd.

After many, many stops to sightsee, including a beach on the Tasman Sea, we were back at the hotel. Dinner was fish and chips from the hotel restaurant...incredibly good fish and chips at that...and a side-order of gentle mockery when we told our waitress we'd been in Reefton that day. Apparently the place is well-known for being a bit wacky.

the next day began the final leg of our journey. More on that shortly.

New Zealand: The Weather Started Getting Rough

It started well enough. We flew from Rotorua to Christchurch, with just a bit of turbulence. Once we got there, though, the news was not good. The weather in Queenstown was terrible. They weren't going to be able to fly us in. So we boarded large buses to make the nine hour drive. We didn't arrive at our hotel until about 1 AM.

Our hotel, the Millbrook is beautiful, but somewhat insane. It's a world-class golf course, visited by tourists and golfers from all over the world. To make things slightly more out-of-whack, we were upgraded to huge villa rooms. These two room hotel rooms had luxuries that were not to be believed. Sure, the laundry machines were nice. But do we really need heated bathroom floors? Hmm...on the other hand, they do feel rather nice o n the paws.

Breakfast here was the first real variance we ran across. In addition to what we now recognized as the traditional Kiwi breakfast fare (the same four cereals, scrambled eggs, toast, bacon, sausage, mushrooms, baked beans, triangular hash browns...), there was also a cold board of meats and cheeses (we assumed for Scandinavian guests), poached eggs and Hollandaise sauce (the Other Half LOVES his eggs benedict, thank you), miso soup and rice (for Japanese guests, we guess?), and more.

The scenery is also breathtaking. Mountains peaked with snow loom in all directions. A truly awesome sight in the early morning light.

Oh...and I do mean early. About 5 AM after having been up til 1 AM the night before.

Why? Well, the plan was to go to Milford Sound, part of New Zealand's Fiordland region. Sadly, the weather interfered again, as an avalanche had wiped out the road to Milford. So our tour leader worked some magic. We tooled around Queenstown for some hours, and the Bear Squad hit Hell Pizza, a chain of pizzas that the Otter had heard about before we departed the U.S. Besides a catchy yet controversial slogan (Hungry? Go to Hell!), and large pizza boxes that fold into coffins to keep your leftovers in, they feature pizzas named for the Seven Deadly Sins, other bad habits, Limbo, Purgatory, Mordor, and more. The Bear Squad enjoyed their pizzas, but the Bear did not. I wasn't feeling too well, so I passed. My time for Hell Pizza would come later...

Well, with Milford Sound out, we instead switched days and did what was planned for the following day. We got suited up in splash jackets and life vests and hopped on the Dart River in a jetboat. This Kiwi-designed vessel can make incredible acrobatic turns, including a near-360 degree spin called the Hamilton Turn. Our boat'spilot, like so many of our local guides was what our overall guide called "a typical Kiwi boy"...rugged, grinning, adventurous, and ready to pull our legs more than a little. How long had he been working there? "This is my first day, actually." When one of our group jokingly asked if he'd seen some of the logs we'd just missed in the river, he blinked. "Logs? There are no logs in that part of the river, are there? I didn't see any."

For three blissful hours, we rode in this quick little vessel past scenery literally right out of Lord of the Rings. We saw where many chunks of the movie were filmed, and with good reason. Some of the most spectacular and beautiful scenery I've ever laid eyes on. We had a little walk through the bush, and we saw many waterfalls, thanks to the bad rains.

Afterward, we opted not to have dinner with the group. We needed a bit of a break, so we headed to the hotel's gourmet restaurant, which had some golf-themed name. The food was excellent. The Otter had a Fritto Mera...basically a super-upscale fisherman's platter. The Other Half finally got some venison, which he loved. I had a nice, fatty piece of pork belly. Ah well. With all the walking around, I was confident I could cheat my eating habits now and then.

The next day, we learned that Milford Sound was going to be a total miss. The avalanche would take days to clear. So our tour guide improvised. She took us onto Deer Park Heights, which has been in countless movies including, you guessed it, The Lord of the Rings. We posed for photos around various very recognizable features of the landscape. We also got to enjoy meeting the local animals, which included domesticated chickens, cluny pigs (rather handsome furry pigs), tahr (very, very shaggy mountain goats), red deer, llamas, Scottish Highland Cattle, and more. After the Park, we rode a gondola to the top of a local mountain to a mountaintop restaurant. Some tasty food, and a ride on a mountaintop luge. Definitely a fun time.

Afterards, we visited Arrowtown, a gold rush town from the 1800s. We got to see more Lord of the Rings scenes, and we ate at a local pub called the New Orleans Hotel. We had some excellent sweet and sticky chicken wings and some roast was so good, I was convinced I'd been right to eat the Jungle Curry in Auckland.

Soon, we were off to someplace very different indeed.

- The Happy Bear

New Zealand: From Auckland to Rotorua

Alright. Since I got me a few free minutes, finally, I'll try to tell y'all about New Zealand.

So, for dinner the last night in Auckland, we stopped in at a pub called the Viaduct St. Grill. Not bad, as pub grub goes. I had to choose between a roasted pork dish and something called Jungle Curry. Well, I've had plenty of pork, so I opted for the curry, a sweetish, sticky combination of sticky rice with curried prawns and chicken. Absolutely delish. I got an appetizer of cheesey garlic bread, too, which I shared with the folks we were traveling with. The Otter got green-lipped mussels, which were already opened, sparing him any embarrassing need to break them open on his chest. The Other Half got scallops wrapped in bacon, a fave of his, but that was just an appetizer. He'd asked for a venison dish, too, but there was a communication issue, and he was denied! No worries, though. We had tons of venison in the days to come.

The next morning, we were up early and off on our bus to Rotorua in the center of the North Island. It's also the center of Maori culture, so we were excited to learn more about the locals. On the way, we stopped at a farmhouse for a home-hosted lunch/afternoon tea. Lots of tasty tea dainties, including pumpkin soup, savory beef sandwiches, scones and clotted know. Just a snack.

We also stopped at a local grocery store to check out local snacks. I grabbed some lamb and mint flavored potato chips, which were okay, but not spectacular. The Otter got short-rib flavored rice-chip Pringles. Weird. The Other Half became addicted to a funyon-like snack called Burger Rings. They would be something of a standard in the days to come.

We arrived in Rotorua only by passing through the general area of Matamata, where the Lord of the Rings movies had filmed the Hobbiton sequences. Beautiful, rolling hills with tons of sheep and lambs (since it was their Spring.) Rororua is in a huge volcanic caldera, complete with a vast crater lake. It's on the volcanic plateau, so it smells vaguely gunpowdery at all times. After a lovely walk through a Redwood Forest, we arrived at our hotel, the Royal Geyserland Hotel. Good name for it. Maybe fifty yards outside our windows were a bubbling mud pool and the Pohutu Geyser, which erupts nearly constantly, or at least puts out a huge amount of steam. Easily one of the coolest hotels I've ever been in.

Dinner was in the hotel restaurant. Our bus driver grinned at me and told me to sit in a particular seat. I was suspicious, but I did it. Turned out, it was the "lucky seat" and I had won a bottle of Merlot. I chuckled and happily shared it with him and then with everyone else. I suspect he knew I'd do just that.

The next day, we headed off to Mt. Tarawera, an extinct volcano that's part of the Maori lands. We drove to the top in a 4x4 vehicle and then took a look around. We had two options...walk along the crater's edge or descend. So, what the Hell. Down we went, skating along a scree field. Essentially, you had to slowly allow gravity to ski you down over loose rock. A fall would be back, but you also sink in, anchoring you somewhat. It's a very curious way to travel. Once down, however, there's always the problem of going back up. We walked the length of the crater, as our guide told us about the explosions that had destroyed the local area in the late 1800s. When time came to climb out, it was exhausting for me. I'm a big, fat bear, and the scree was not my friend, nor was the thin mountaintop air. I was huffing and gasping, sliding back one step for each two I took. With a lot of support from the Otter and the Other Half, I hauled my fat, bear butt out. I'm super-glad I did it, but it really made me reaffirm my intentions to lose weight.

After checking out Rorotua Center for a while, we grabbed a smallish lunch. We stopped at a place called the Fat Dog (hey, Fat Dog, Happy Bear) for drinks, but I saw kumara fries on the menu. This awesomely tasty variant on the sweet potato was already becoming a favorite. We were trying to figure out what was odd about the cream cheese that was served with it when a familiar note struck my palette...sheep's milk. It was sheep's milk cream cheese. Very good, actually. We split those, then had some dessert in the form of a traditional English style boiled pudding...chocolate and rapsberry to be precise.

How soon we learned our folly...that evening, we visited Te Puia, a Maori center. After learning some cultural information and getting to see a live Kiwi Bird (a creature I instantly fell in love with...more later), we were treated to an afternoon "tea" cooked in a geyser! Besides the beer, wine, tea, coffee, and bread, there were mesh bags of mussels, corn, and prawns that were dropped into the geyser for 5 minutes, which made them perfectly cooked. We were already stuffed, and it wasn't quite dinner time.

Afterward, we were part of a Maori cultural performance. This included a traditional Maori greeting..consisting of a Maori warrior posturing and threatening our "Chief" in this case, you guessed it, the Other Half. After this test was done, there was song, dance, and demonstrations of the poi ball - a leather ball on cords used to keep rhythmic time - and the haka - a Maori war dance full of specific postures and facial expressions with protruding tongue and bulging eyes. Maybe some of the others felt ridiculous, but I felt like I was channeling some Grizzly ancestors.

And then more food! While most folks were off to the buffet, we were served a four course gourmet meal. There was a kumara soup (delicious), shrimp crackers, salmon on toast, pork skewers, lamb...just a delicious meal.

The next day, we stopped at a school that our tour company sponsors and got to interact with a lot of Maori cubs and their teachers. A pretty fascinating stop, I thought. Interesting to see a common thing - education - and how it's handled in different cultures. One thing is sure...these folks do not stint on education.

After that, the plan was to fly from Rotorua to Christchurch and then on to Queenstown to get to our next hotel. Little did we know that no plan for the next few days would survive contact with...the local weather!

More shortly.

- The Happy Bear

My apologies...

Hope no one was worried. The Bear Squad got home fine. Now we're off to FurFright. Expect completeion of th' New Zealand journals as well as our activities in Connecticut. :)

- The Happy Bear

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Too much to blog!

Howdy, folks! Well, New Zealand is just an amazing country, and I'm longing to tell y'all all about it. Sad truth is, I've been way too busy seeing it (and then sleeping) to have had time to tell you about it! If'n I don't have time to blog about it between now and when I get home, I'll have to talk about it when I get back into Boston. I'll break it up into daily chunks that'll be easily digested. Suffice to say for now that the Bear Squad is alive and well and having just an excellent time. It's possible I'll have time to blog extensively tonight, but we'll see what happens. ;)

Signing off for now.

- The Happy (and Exhausted and Ecstatic) Bear

Friday, September 19, 2008

New Zealand: The Arrival

Kia Ora! from New Zealand! After over 24 hours of solid traveling, we touched down in Auckland at 4:30 AM local time (about 12:30 PM the previous day back home in Boston.) We met our guide, who gave us a couple of hours to freshen up and then whisked us off for an orientation walk of the area around our hotel. I feel a bit conspicuous; these folks have obviously not seen many bears around their city.

Our hotel is quite interesting. It's called the Mercure Windsor, and it's in what seems to be the city's main downtown area. It's only been a hotel for about 3 years. Previously, it was a bank. So the room shapes are a bit...shall we say quirky? It's a nice hotel, though, with posh bath facilities and a large spa pool (think big, tiled jacuzzi.)

We enjoyed a late breakfast/early lunch at a place called the Vulcan Street Cafe, in the nearby Vulcan St. area. I had a "Hash Brown Tower", which was a delicious pile of fried egg, bacon (closer to Canadian bacon than the strips back home), hash browns (imagine McDonalds hash browns...but good.), baked beans (they make theirs in a tomato-based sauce, mushrooms, and a savory gravy. There was so much food that I split it with my other half. The Otter had corn fritters with smoked salmon. All in all, tasty food and friendly service.

We then headed to the Auckland Museum. Should you find yourself in Auckland, you *must* go here. The Museum is amazing, with the world's largest collection of Polynesian artifacts, including Maori houses and a Maori war canoe. It also has an excellent exhibit about the New Zealand Wars and the participation of New Zealanders in the wars outside, like World War I & II and the Vietnam War. I was even willing to forgive them a stuffed black bear in one exhibit.

Dinner was at a harbor-side restaurant called Neptune. It was okay...the Other Half and I had Surf and Turf - a steak and two prawns. The prawns were small and okay in flavor, but nothing special. The steak was tasty, with a nice sauce and caramelized onions. The side was kumara potatoes, which are a sort of sweet potato that're actually fairly savory. The Otter had grilled snapper in an orange sauce served on steamed vegetables and kumara. Dessert was vanilla ice cream with bits of "hokey pokey" - a sort of crunchy honeycomb candy. The Otter and I liked it (bear and honey...go figure. ;)) The Other Half was not convinced. ;)

This morning, we had breakfast at our hotel. I created a sort of de-constructed version of my Hash Brown Tower, as well as having a bowl of granola cereal. Very nice and largely filling.

We set out by cab for the top of Maunga Fo, also known as Mt. Eden. This beautiful volcanic mountain is one of nearly 50 volcanoes around Auckland. The sides are terraced, because the Maori people would excavate terraces to live on, defending them as mountain fortresses. Our guide was Prince Davis, a Maori who can actually trace his lineage back to the last Maori King of the region. He was a warm, friendly guy, who, along with his two sons, showed us around the mountainside. He told us all about the Maori experience, racism, history, local flora, his own travels in the U.S. and more. At the end of the tour, Prince introduced us to his wife, Katherine, who served us tea (or coffee), camembert, brie, peppery crackers, and ginger kisses (spongy ginger cakes with a sort of icing center.) Then Prince and his sons performed the Haka, a Maori war-dance. That, along with the singing in the Maori language, was very moving and intense.

After that, we broke away from our main group, heading to the Sky Tower, a huge 600+ ft. "space needle" sort of tower. We headed up for spectacular views of the city, including Rangitoa, the 800 year old volcanic island which is the newest addition to Auckland's geography. We had some drinks in a cafe overlooking the city, before heading down and spending a few coins in the local casino.

One last food stop before returning to our hotel...we paused in a local McDonalds. Now, forgive me, but we had to try the Kiwiburger. Basically, think of a large McDonalds add beets and a fried egg. Very interesting!

We're heading out for pub grub tonight, and tomorrow is our departure to Rotorua. I'll sign on again before too long. Be good, y'all.

- The Happy Bear

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

On the Road...New Zealand

Howdy, folks. Well, the Bear Squad is off to exotic New Zealand. We're gonna be all over both islands, seeing th' sights and gatherin' info on restaurants, hotels, activities, and more. We'll try to keep up to date as we travel. Wish us a relatively crash-free flight. ;)

- The Happy Bear

Monday, September 8, 2008

How the Hell Do I Get Rid of These Tokens?

With our travels on the Kanc and our culinary endeavors behind us, we now headed south along 16. We picked up 25, and, finally, turned onto 3. Our goal was not home, however. Oh no. We were headed for Funspot, recognized by Guiness as the World's Largest Arcade.

This fantastic arcade, featured prominently in the documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, is really a great place to lose a couple of hours. We were able to get coupons from their website that essentially gave us $10.00 of extra tokens when we purchased $20.00 worth of tokens. So, each of us armed with $30.00 worth of tokens, we explored.

They have a lot of the things you expect to see at an arcade...up to date games, lots of pinball (the Otter likes it...I'm not such a fan any more), skee ball, a prize counter, etc. Where this place shines for me, however, is their classic arcade game floor. Donkey Kong? Of course. Along with Pacman (and its various variants), Dragon's Lair, Major Havoc, Popeye, Burgertime, Joust (1 and 2), and much, much more.

I was thrilled to see that Space Ace was giving away free games, and I played it a few times, recalling my more cubby days when my friends and I pumped endless quarters into it at a local bowling alley. Eventually I realized that it was getting late; if I didn't start spending tokens, I'd have a hell of a time getting rid of them before the end of the night.

I played some trivia games, a few games of Mappy, QBert, Dig Dug, and others. Finally, I decided to go for something for my tokens, and I went after various prize-games. After accumulating over 300 tickets, I cashed in and got myself a FunSpot mug. At least it was useful for holding the tokens we DIDN'T manage to spend before the place closed.

All in all, our trip to New Hampshire reminded me that there's a lot MORe to do in New Hampshire. We may have to go back there very soon.

- The Happy Bear

Of Nostalgia and Chocolate-Flavored Parafin Wax...

For some reason, members of the Bear Squad have been rumbling about wanting to find a Dairy Queen for a while now. There's something about chocolate-dipped soft-serve ice cream that seems to be of interest to them. So when I knew we'd be heading up northwards, I did some research to see if, just maybe, there was a Dairy Queen anywhere along our route.

As it turns out, in Glen, NH (just north of Conway) there is. So, after finishing our drive on the Kancamagus Highway, we rumbled our way north up route 16 (towards the nightmare of Story Land, which was mercifully, closed by the time we were in the area.) it took about 10-15 minutes from Conway to find the DQ, but find it we did.

Armed with my book about what I can and cannot eat on my diet, I made some tough decisions about my dinner, but I stand by them. I had a grilled chicken sandwich, a side salad with fat-free Italian dressing, and a diet coke (although I'm a Diet Pepsi lovin' bear, most times.) This...was not the best meal I've had on my diet. The chicken was too dry, but at least it tasted good. The salad was bland, little more than some wilted lettuce, and the dressing was very, very strong flavored...and not in a good way. Oh well.

The Otter proclaimed his shrimp platter "about as good as could be expected for $6.00 shrimp", which damns the meal with faint praise indeed. The Other Half, however, enjoyed his flame-broiled burger, saying it was just like he remembered.

Finally, we all got the nostalgic item that had drawn us back in the first place...chocolate-dipped soft serve cones. Essentially, this is a cone of soft-serve ice cream - either chocolate, vanilla, or a twist of both. The cone is one of those "quispy" Styrofoam-like cones...edible, but unremarkable. What makes it enjoyable, however, is that the ice cream is then dipped into a sort of chocolate-flavored paraffin wax which sets immediately, forming a crunchy chocolate shell.

This is no Klondike bar, but it's tasty enough. And the amount of ice cream is plentiful, even for a small. It made the trip north from Conway pretty-much worth it, even if the rest of the food wasn't very good.

I chuckled at one point that we were passing numerous signs for homemade ice cream in favor of a Dairy Queen. But, let's face it...sometimes nostalgia is just the flavor you want.

- The Happy Bear

Drivin' th' Kanc

As mentioned in my last blog post, the Bear Squad got back to nature, driving the Kancamagus Highway through New Hampshire. So, off to the woods we went, departing Lincoln, NH and heading east. We took it slow, stopping at anything that interested us.

Our first main stop (after BBQ) was at Otter Rocks. The Otter was very amused and got photos of the signage. This was a series of little cascades along several flat, shelf-like rocks. It was our first chance to take off our shoes and walk in the cold mountain waters. It was very pleasant, but nothing like what we would see eventually.

We proceeded to Sabbaday Falls, which, as its name sounds, was named for the Sabbath Day. When we saw the first little cascades, we were nervous that the Falls might not be terribly impressive. The walk was about 1/3 of a mile into the woods, and it was fantastic. The falls drops from one basalt dike, over a beautiful, clear basin, down to the rocks below, then turns 90 degrees to the right at a second basalt dike to form a second falls. This terminates in a pool that was so beautiful and aqua that we all wanted to defy the No Swimming signs. We managed to restrain ourselves, mostly. On our way back down the trail, we encountered a very cute little deer-mouse, which was pretty much the only wildlife we saw all trip, apart from insects.

Our third main stop was at Rocky Gorge. Here, we were happy to see that swimming was possible in some areas, and we were quickly into the waters, taking care because of the strongish currents. After our need to be in cold water was sated, we took a little side-walk and realized that the strong currents were because we were swimming just above a waterfall. Lucky we obeyed the signs that told us not to swim any further in that particular direction.

Our final stop before leaving the Kanc was at Lower Falls. Tis is where we want to swim next time, as it has larger, deeper-looking pools. Predictably, it also has more people swimming. Ah, well. Next time.

The Kancamagus is easy to get to by following route 93. From the Boston environs, you go north. The Kanc itself is route 112, heading east from Lincoln. If you do drive the Kancamagus, you need to be aware of a few things:

1. There is no food or gas along the road. Once you start the 32 or so miles, there's nothing til you get to Conway.

2. There are plenty of restrooms. Almost every designated site has one.

3. Parking is $3.00 a day. You pay at any of the unmanned payment sites along the way by putting $3.00 cash or a $3.00 check into an envelope and dropping it into a payment tube. A strip from the envelope then becomes your parking permit.

4. My wild cousins, the black bears, are supposed to be all over the place, so just be careful. Not all of them are as civil as I am.

- The Happy Bear

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Happy Accidents...

One of the nicest things that can happen is when you choose a restaurant you've never been to before...a little hole in the wall, that you have no or low expectations for...and then it blows you away. That happened to me yesterday.

Let me explain. The Bear Squad was taking a tour up into New Hampshire to drive the Kancamagus Highway (nice to get into the wild sometimes, even for an urban bear like me.) We hopped off 93 in Lincoln, NH to begin the drive, and we were ravenous. We spotted a sign for a place called Texas Toast Eatery and another for a Pig's Ear BBQ. We decided to investigate...and found they were pretty much the same restaurant.

We were seated in the little dining room in the "Village Shops" area, which you can find just to the right as you head east on the Kanc, and we were baffled by the decor, which seemed to be trying to combine New Hampshire and Texas together. A poster of a black bear (which I found homey) competed with cowboy hats for wall space. The menu was full of odd little combinations. We were waited on by Mary, the owner, and she was charming. We tried their iced tea, as well as their Texas sweet tea (move over McDonalds), and both were excellent.

As we waited for our meals, they brought over one of the side dishes the Otter had ordered - grilled corn muffins with jalapenos and cheese. We each tried a half...and they were amazing! Cheesy, warm, spicy, and comforting. We dipped them in their homemade BBQ sauce (I love a BBQ place that leaves a squeeze-bottle of sauce and a roll of paper towels on each table) which was also fantastic. Suddenly excited about our meals, we now waited with anticipation.

The Other Half and I both got the Big's Ear 5-Star sandwich. This consists of delicious, well-seasoned pulled pork with just a touch of BBQ sauce (why drown it when the customer can sauce to taste at the table?) served on two slices of delicious, garlicky Texas Toast. For sides, we both got the unbelievably delicious BBQ baked beans (loaded with bacon - how can you go wrong?). He got the potato salad, which was the only "Well, that was okay" item we had. I had some corn on the cob that was sweet, crisp, and delicious. The Otter got another order of them uffins (we had sort of devoured them) and a salad which lots of fresh, tasty, and interesting ingrediants, including cornichons, sliced cherry tomatoes, and shaved sides of corn!

After our meals, we pondered and discussed dessert. You see, there was only one dessert item - strawberry shortcake. And to have, frankly, the balls to only put one dessert item on your menu...well...that'd better be some damned good strawberry shortcake. We'd chuckled over this before the meal. But now, with them eal over, we wondered just how good this strawberry shortcake was. We decided to order one and split it, as we were all fairly full.

My friends...let me testify. :) We all pretty much agreed it was theb est strawberry shortcake we'd ever had. Seriously. And I've eaten a lot of strawberry shortcake. It's one of my favorite desserts.

The biscuit was warm from the oven, and homemade with cream, blueberries, and blackberries mixed into it. It was topped with a thick strawberry compote, dollops of an almost-frosting-like whipped cream, flavored with cinnamon, and garnished with fresh, ripe strawberries and blackberries. I wanted to cry, it was so good. Or better yet, order another. ;)

We chatted with Mary, and she told us that the phantom gourmet had given her place 9 out of 10 stars. He must've been in a bad mood that day, because I can't imagine what he held back a star for. The potato salad?

Mary also showed us their breakfast menu, which included French toast (made with that thick Texas toast, minus the garlic, I shouldn't wonder), pork chops, an "eggs-a-dilla", and so much more. She also asked us if we liked hot wings. She told us next time we came (and we all agreed there would be a next time), we'd have to have the hot wings. Their recipe for the sauce includes a pork rub, Pete's hot sauce, butter, and honey. It just sounds as amazing as the rest.

Take my advice - if you're going to do a foliage drive up along the Kanc, stop in Lincoln and eat at the Pig's Ear. You won't need to eat again for hours. Seriously, you'd be doing yourself a disservice by missing it.

More reviews of our trip down the Kanc will follow.

- The Happy Bear

Monday, August 25, 2008

Smothered in Tasty, Texas Style

Well, we were getting ready to leave New York City, and I thought all our culinary escapades were behind us. But not so! Our hosts graciously took us to a fine BBQ restaurant for brunch. Located in the Flatiron district, Hill Country Texas BBQ is a tasty and unique dining experience.

The food is served market style, so it's something like a very upscale cafeteria or a dim sum where you go to the food. There are pods for meats, drinks, desserts, sides, etc. As you go from pod to pod, you bring them your card, and they mark what you take to eat on that. When you're finished, you take your card up to the registers, and you're charged for what you ate.

I couldn't resist their thick cut bacon, which was excellent. Our hosts insisted that I get some brisket, which I happily agreed to, and I certainly don't regret it. I decided to enjoy some corn pudding and green chili and cheese grits. All of the food was really hearty, satisfying, stick-to-your ribs stuff, and the prices were extremely reasonable, as my meal, with a drink included was less than $10.00.

This stop was a nice surprise, and I don't hesitate to recommend this restaurant to everyone.

- The Happy Bear

Babbo. Bravo!

So, after a lovely walk around the West Village, we arrived at Babbo Ristorante, Mario Batali's restaurant that offers what they call simple, fantastic food. Well, it was pretty darned fantastic...I'm not so sure on the simple.

Although we were originally planning on enjoying the traditional tasting menu, the presence of our piscatorian otter caused our server to steer us towards developing our own tasting menu, and we agreed. While we munched an excellent little taste plate orf roasted chick peas in olive oil over crostini and thick Italian bread to dip in olive oil, we made our choices.

For appetizers, we ordered a plate of grilled vegetables with goat cheese on toast, lamb's tongue vinaigrette, and grilled octopus. All were quite nice, but the octopus was outstanding. It was more crunchy than chewy, and the flavor was incredible.

We were strongly steered towards the pastas, and we happily agreed. We had a black spaghetti, which had been colored with squid ink and covered in a sharp cheese. Then we followed with order of "mint love letters", which were a pillowy stuffed pasta with fresh mint and spicy lamb sausage. I thought this was outstanding, but it was too much mint for some of us. What do I know? I'm a bear; I chew mint right off the forest floor. ;) We also had a stuffed pasta called "Lune", which was filled with sweet potato. All in all, three fantastic offerings.

For the main course, we all chose individual items. I had veal with caper-berries and lemon, which was quite good, but pretty much like veal with capers and lemon I could've had anywhere. Our New York hosts enjoyed the braised beef, which was fantastically flavorful, and the rabbit, which was good, but a little plain. Our first-timer in New York ordered the Duck, which was al ittle dry, but quite flavorful. The otter ordered one of the specials - halibut in a rich broth, which he loved. My other half ordered the fennel dusted sweetbreads, which were completely outstanding.

For dessert, four of us tried the maple cheese cake, which was incredible and rich. My other half loves chocolate, so he chose the chocolate hazelnut cake, served with a canelle of hazelnut gelato and an orange sauce. One of our hosts had the chocolate and pistachio semifreddo. All of the desserts were really knock-outs, but that maple cheesecake. Yum.

All in all, a very good restaurant experience. Our server was very nice in helping us once it became clear that our original intentions weren't going to work. He also recommended wines for our various dishes, and his recommendations all seemed spot on, even when they initially sounded odd (such as a dry sherry to go with the sweetbreads).

If you're looking for excellent Italian cuisine made primarily with local ingrediants, you should give Babbo a try. Remember, though, that you need to make your arrangements well in advance. We called the day after reservations became available for our chosen date, and we were only able to get in at 10:30 PM.

- The Happpy Bear

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Eating Market Style

Well, we'd just stepped out of Wicked (which was excellent, thank you for asking), and we knew we should eat something small prior to our 11 PM reservations for Babbo. Our New York hosts suggested Chelsea Market, an indoor food market with numerous options. Located right next to Morimoto (a restaurant that we've been to in Philadelphia many times, but not yet in New York) and across the street from Mario Batali's Del Porto and Tom Collichio's CraftSteak, this could very well be where the famous chefs do some of their shopping.

With food purveyors specializing in Thai, Italian, Seafood, Deli, Soup, Pastry, and other food options, you should be able to find something for everyone. I enjoyed some excellent Gai Pad Grapao Supp - a dish of minched chicken, onion, chilis, and basil over rice - from Chelsea Thai Wholesale. I also had a chocolate peanut butter cupcake from Eleni's Cookies which was quite nice. It was both better in quality and less expensive than Kick Ass Cupcakes back home.

The Other Half went to The Lobster Place and said that his Clam Chowder was as good, if not better, as anything he'd had in Boston. A couple of our party also had egg salad sandwiches and/or pickles from Friedman's Deli. These were decent (the otter said Stage Door's egg salad was better.)

So for an inexpensive meal that can satisfy the needs of many different palates, or to buy gourmet foods at some of the little local shops, consider Chelsea Market. It's a fun place just to walk around, but it's better to walk around with a little something to nosh. ;)

- The Happy Bear

I don't recommend...

I don't normally do negative reviews...and I'll admit that my meal wasn't bad...but I don't recommend The Financier. This French style patisserie was our choice for the Bear Squad breakfast, and I just wasn't impressed. My meal, a Parisienne sandwich (ham and brie made as a panini on French bread) was fine, though the macarone I had with it was WAY too sweet. The service, however, was ten times as rude as any service I had in Paris, a city that is allegedly famously rude. I have never had a server tap me on the shoulder to hand me a drink before, but now I have. I would've walked out if I hadn't already paid for my food.

There's nothing wrong with the food, but, unless you like being served by people who clearly dislike their work, I don't advise you to stop here.

- The Happy Bear

Awkward but pleasurable...

Awkward but pleasurable. This was the phrase invoked by our server (his name? Well, in his own words, "It's pronounced...Robert?") at Ninja New York to explain the feeling his wanted his diners to leave the restaurant with. In truth, Robert was one of the nicest and most entertaining people I've ever been served a meal by. His almost on-stop "Sarcastic ninja" routine was really hilarious and no small part of why I would give this restaurant such high marks.

The atmosphere is absolutely top notch, with darkened corridors leading you through a "ninja village" of small private rooms with sliding lattice-work doors. The ninjas, in their dark, distinctive clothing, are the servers, bus staff, hosts, and entertainers in this particularly strange spot (which is right around the corner from the Cosmopolitan Hotel I mentioned earlier.)

The food is surprisingly good, but some dishes we had were definitely better than others, and they're not particularly Japanese. If good Japanese food is what you want, this is not the place to go, especially for the prices. But you pay for the show as much as the food here, and the combination is well worth it.

The Bear Squad opted for a variety of dishes and menus, so we had a wide spectrum of their fare. The dishes noted as Ninja Art pieces were usually the most entertaining, although they weren't necessarily the best food. Our first time New York visitor guest and I had a dish called Batto Jutsu, which was Thai-style duck, with bell peppers and shiso. This was served atop a hollowed out bell pepper that had been filled with water. Stabbed through the pepper was a short dagger, on top of which was dry ice. When we drew out the daggers, the dry ice fell into the water and began to emit "smoke", creating a sort of ninja smoke bomb effect. My other half had a dish called Bombshell Clam, that remained closed until the salt base it was setting on was set on fire by our ninja server. It then slowly opened, revealing a combination of shellfish. The fire also provided the melting flame for a gruyere fondue. Our vegetarian otter friend had a dish of "Dancing plantains" which were served with guacamole, showing the American influence on the dishes.

A sushi course followed, which was fairly unremarkable, but not terrible. We're spoiled by a plethora of excellent sushi in Boston.

The third course for our guest and my other half was a Tempura fish dish served in beautiful bento boxes. The veggie otter had a miso eggplant dish. I had a fantastic dish of wagyu beef and mushrooms with potato crisps and a phillo dough shell covering it. This was one of the most excellent dishes of the evening.

My fourth course was a lamb dish called Bonfire that included an herb butter that was set on fire at the table and a crust of parsley, mustard, and bread-crumbs. The other half and our guest had T-bone steaks that neither was terribly wild about (although by this time, we were all rather full.) Robert was kind enough to suggest that the otter switch out his veggie steak for a portabello-salmon dish that he pronounced delicious.

The real treat of the evening was dessert. We've often joked that Japan's food is wonderful, but their dessert technology remains lacking. The ninjas proved otherwise. We ordered the four different desserts and passed them around. All included an intense red raspberry sorbet and fresh fruits. Our guest got a "Rose chocolate" which included a rich, fudgey pudding layered with a rose-infused cream. Otter got an apple custard served in a hollowed-out, frozen apple, served with red bean "eggrolls". My other half got a bonsai tree of pastry, sitting in a pot of "soil" that was actually tiramisu. I got a dish called Ninja Star! At first, the server just put a metal shuriken on the table, followed by my sorbet and fruit. He came back a moment later, doused it with fire, and "transformed" it into a shuriken flavored chocolate mousse cake. All the desserts were very tasty and a great ending to the meal.

I wouldn't normally mention the restrooms for a restaurant review, but these need to be mentioned. I've often had the combination toilet-bidets of Japan mentioned to me, but I've never enjoyed one. When I first sat down, I was startled, because the seat was so warm. I looked around, discovered the controls, and realized what I was sitting on. I entertained myself by using the various features and generally had to admit that it was a superior way to clean up following a visit. Now I have to wonder if the $3,000.00 price tag to have one installed just MIGHT be worth it.

I will probably not go again to Ninja, because I can't imagine every having as great a time as last night. But you never know. I might return, to show it off for someone else who's never been to NYC. Certainly, I give it a big recommendation if you're looking for something fun, non-pretentious, and with a great theme and style. I went in with low expectations, and I was blown away by the experience.

- The Happy Bear

Best Bus to the Big Apple? And where to stay when you get here...

Hullo, all. Happy Bear comin' to you from NYC. Starting out our Bear Squad tour of NYC with a couple of service reviews.

To get the Bear Squad to NYC, we took the new Bolt Bus by Greyhound. I have to recommend this as an excellent mode of transportation. The prices are low (our tickets were about $36.00 round-trip from Boston to New York), and the seats are very comfortable. What's more, the buses have clean restrooms, wi-fi, and power outlets for each seat. If you're looking for a nice way to make that commute for a rock-bottom price, this is a great way to go.

Right around the street from where the Bolt Bus lets you off (and right across the street from Madison Square Garden) is the Stage Door Deli. This is great place for breakfast or lunch, with excellent omelettes and incredible deli sandwiches. I strongly recommend any of their special sandwiches, which are vast and delicious. And you gotta love a place that brings out pickles when you sit down, as opposed to bread. For dessert, the traditional cheesecakes are available, and they're very good.

Once you've eaten, you'll need a place to stay. We were lucky to have some friends offer to host the Squad, but we've gotten hotel rooms here before. While I can't direct you to luxury accommodations, I can offer a suggestion if you want to save some money. For a fairly inexpensive hotel, you could do worse than the Cosmopolitan Tribeca. The location, right next to the Chambers Street metro stop for the 1, 2, and 3 trains, is extremely convenient, and the rooms, while small, are comfortable and well-appointed. Off-season, you can get a room for about $100.00 a night, and it's not much more on-season.

Those are my recommendations, and I stand by 'em. Next, I'll tell you about a couple of unique places to eat.

- The Happy Bear

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Portrait...

I was looking for someone who could capture me in a portrait, and I happened upon the artwork of Mr. K-9, a graphic artist, computer programer, and comic book artist (amongst his many other talents.) Since he had a habit of drawing handsome bears, I asked him if he would consent to draw my portrait (paid for mostly in roots and berries, but he didn't seem to mind.)

The result now graces my blog, and I'm most appreciative. You can see more of his artwork at a site called FurAffinity as well as his own website.

Thanks again, Mr. K-9. You've made me a very happy bear indeed. :)

- The Happy Bear

Monday, August 18, 2008

Movie Review - Tropic Thunder

Every once in a while, a movie comes along shall I explain it? I think I will paraphrase a review of the Math Teacher/Pianist/Comedian Tom Lehrer to explain. One review commented that Me. Lehrer's muse was unfettered by such concerns as taste. As a result, Mr. Lehrer's work reveled in its ability to be biting and horrible, while pointing something out to us that was very important. His song "National Brotherhood Week" pointed out that everyone hates another group of people, but during National Brotherhood Week, suddenly everyone loves everyone else. Basically, it's a similar sentiment to that expressed in the song "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" from Avenue Q. Both songs essentially mock Political Correctness in the different forms they possessed during their respective eras.

Thankfully, it would appear that Ben Stiller's muse is unfettered by such concerns as Political Correctness. And, as a result, he has given us a movie that could not have been made anyone concerned with offending anyone else. If it wasn't so over-the-top, it wouldn't be so funny. The good news is, everyone pretty much takes the hit...white people, black people, Asians, homosexuals, fat people...really, no one is exempt from mockery.

The story is fairly straight-forward in its own way. A group of actors are in Vietnam, making a Vietnam War movie. Their direction is having trouble controlling them, so he takes them into the jungle to try and make a sort of Blair Witch Project version of the film. Things quickly spiral out of control, and the stars run afoul of a drug-smuggling operation, which they mistake at first for part of the movie, while the drug-smugglers mistake them for DEA operatives. Wacky hijinks ensue, as it were.

Ben Stiller is very enjoyable as Tugg Speedman, an action hero movie star who has made a series of flops and who has trouble emoting anything but bad-assery on film. Jack Black is Jeff Portnoy, an overweight, drug-addicted comedian who echoes every comic actor from John Belushi to Mike Myers. I've never seen Brandon T. Jackson before, but his turn as Alpa Chino, who markets a power-drink called Booty Sweat and sews his own clothing designs, is pretty entertaining. And his character has a secret. Shhhh. ;)

There are solid performances from Steve Coogan, as the film's director, and Jay Baruchel as Kevin Sandusky, the movie's straight-man. There are amazing performances by Nick Nolte as Four Leaf Tayback, who wrote the book the movie is based on, and Dempsey Silva, as the foul-mouthed and seemingly insane special effects supervisor.

By far, the best performance in the film is Robert Downey Jr. as Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus, who has undergone a controversial skin pigmentation process to play a black man in the film. His inability to fall out of character and his identity crisis give the film a hell of a lot of momentum. This has been a very good year for Downey.

If you're easily offended, don't see this film, if you think you might want to watch Ben Stiller getting repeatedly stabbed in the neck by a small Asian child, see this film. ;)

- The Happy Bear

Movie Review - Star Wars - The Clone Wars

Alright, so the Bear Squad, in general, is a bunch of big geeks. We love the Star Wars franchise, and we cling tenaciously to the idea that it can still be a great thing. I know I, for one, had very mixed feelings about the Prequels, in as much as I was indifferent towards Episode I, mostly hostile towards Episode II, and fairly okay with Episode III. So, with some trepidation, the Bear Squad headed to see the new computer animated Clone Wars movie.

So, we arrive in the theater, and we're immediately concerned. Admittedly, it's during the day during the week, and it's summer vacation, but the audience is made up of predominately kids around the age of 8-12. My other half looks at me and says, "Maybe we made a mistake." And he's the biggest Star Wars fan among us. But we decide to tough it out, and we sit down to watch.

The typical 20th Century Fox logo and theme...good...this is par for the course. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...good. We're in familiar territory here.

Then the music starts. I actually don't object to composer Kevin Kiner's reworking of some of the classic musical themes. It has a younger, more rock influenced sound, but it made me think, "Huh! Maybe this is going to be something new...a fresh way to watch Star Wars, but with nods to the classic feel."

The movie's not 100% awful. It has good action scenes, and it feels Star Wars-y enough, I suppose. There are lots of interesting touched, like having the various Clone Troopers distinguishing themselves with different hair cuts, tattoos, and the like. That's an interesting take on how a group of people who all look exactly the same might begin to branch out to look different. I liked that.

There's a slightly cringe-worthy character named Ziro the Hutt, Jabba's flamingly gay uncle, who speaks Basic with a high-pitched southern-accent. More than one of the Bear Squad likened him immediately to Truman Capote. But he runs a bar on Corruscant, so the idea of him speaking Basic isn't bad...and he's covered with these elaborate tattoos or body paint which made him visually interesting. In fact, a lot of the character design was pretty good.

The big trouble is this...I just don't care.

The main characters include Anakin Skywalker, Padme Amidala, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Commander Cody, Master Yoda, Mace Windu, Count Dooku, Jabba the Hutt...and I know nothing bad happens to any of them, because I've already seen Episode III. They introduce an extremely cringe-worthy eleventeen year old padawan Jedi named Asoka, and I know nothing will happen to her, because this movie is just the set-up for a T.V. series. They re-introduce the awesome and ill-used Sith apprentice Asajj Ventress from the old Clone Wars t.v. show...and I know nothing will happen to her, because she's in the new series, too.

In order to move somewhere with this franchise, the Lucasfilm crowd needs to go somewhere new. They need to get away from this pre-cursor time-period, because everything is set in stone already. Until they do, this franchise is doomed to stagnate.

One area in which it isn't stagnating is in the comics industry. For a look at what can be done in this setting, I recommend that you save your movie dollars, head to a local comics shop, and pick up an issue of Star Wars: Dark Times. This comic takes place during a time we know little about...the years between Episode III and Episode IV, introduces a new cast of characters, makes you care about them, and then does horrible things to them. Other than their most recent issues, which were tie-ins to the Star Wars: Vector plot that ran throughout all of Dark Horse Comics' Star Wars titles, the series has been fascinating.

May the Force be with you.

- The Happy Bear

The Bear Prognosticates...

Hey, all. So, the Happy Bear is making an important life-style choice. In order to reduce the massiveness of my big bear belly, I am eating more sensibly and exercising. By no means does this mean that I'll be stopping my restaurant comments...but they may come less frequently, and they might be more about how to eat well at such places without destroying your belt. I'm very excited about this shift, and I've lost 5 lbs in my first week, so I'm feeling really good.

The Bear Squad is going on the road this weekend. We'll be heading to New York to hook up with some friends, catch a Broadway Show (we have tickets to Wicked), play tourists, and catch some great meals (we have reservations for Babbo Ristorante and Ninja New York. You can expect some great reviews from that.

In September, we're really going on the road, to tour New Zealand with Overseas Adventure Travel. I'm sure you'll see some crazy reviews from that trip...y'know...for when you're in New Zealand.

You can expect more book, movie, food, and event reviews in the weeks and months to come. The Bear is here to stay.

- The Happy (and soon to be Healthy) Bear

Monday, August 11, 2008

Oh Magic Cadillac...Deliver Me That Pie at Once...

It's hard to get really good pizza delivered in the woods, but we manage. And right now, the pizza delivery of choice is Pinky's Famous Pizza.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that I don't know why Pinky's Pizza is famous, but I suspect it has something to do with the outrageously good food. It may seem a little pricey, but the pizzas are vast and loaded with excellent toppings. You can get most of the traditional pies, like Pepperoni, Margherita, and Meat-Lovers. But then you can also get more gourmet and unusual pieces, such as the Hottt Rod (no tomato sauce...buffalo chicken, bleu cheese, and mozzarella), the Sputnik Scampi (white pizza with shrimp and garlic), and the All-American Steak and Cheese.

For those not in a pizza-ish mood, they have wraps and incredibly massive salads such as the Apple Walnut Gorgonzola and the Tropical Island (served in a tortilla shell). You can also have chicken wings, chicken fingers, and almost any kind of calzone you might crave.

Dessert options are limited, in as much as they have only one - cinnamon sticks. But dang, these are the best cinnamon sticks I've ever had! Loaded with cinnamon and a tasty icing, they're buttery and wonderful.

For those of you outside their range, I'm sorry. Wish I could help, but I have to go order some right now. Reviewin' makes me hungry.

- The Happy Bear

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Book Review - Augusten Burroughs - A Wolf at the Table

It occurred to me after looking back over my earlier posts that I've spent a disproportionate amount of time discussing food. And why not? A few days can go by without me reading a book, watching a movie, playing a gamne, going anywhere, or having any particularly profound experiences...but not a day goes by that I don't eat. So this makes sense in a way. Still, I don't want you to get the wrong impression that this blog is going to be about nothing but food and bus-oriented homicides. So here's a book review to mix things up.

My exposure to Augusten Burroughs is still fairly minimal. I read his popular Running with Scissors back in the day, and I have some of his other books loaded on my Kindle, but that was about it so far.

One day, I found a copy of his latest piece, A Wolf at the Table on my desk at work, and I picked it up to read. It begins in a very tense patch of in media res before going back to the beginning and telling the story of Augusten's earliest memories and proceeding more or less forward, through Augusten's earliest years, past the Running with Scissors years, into the near present.

It's a harrowing read, especially if you're blessed/cursed as I am with extremely protective feelings towards the cubs. At many points, I had to put down the book to fume, to feel angry that anyone could be so unresponsive towards their own flesh and blood. In the end, you can only decide, as the author did, that there is something missing from this man who shaped his earliest years. His inability to put other people first, to deal with the needs of his sensitive son and his injured wife, leaves me in a cold/hot rage. Even if you set aside a fair portion of the author's words as hyperbole or exaggeration, you're left with a feeling that something was very wrong in the Burroughs household...wrong in a more dangerous way that makes the environment from Running with Scissors seem quite tame and normal by comparison.

If you need a good fume, or if tales of children in peril are what you're in the mood for, this is a fine book. It also fills in an important piece of the Burroughs history, if you're reading Augusten's memoirs and need a little more backstory.

Be warned, though. Don't come to this book looking for Burroughs trademark acid wit. This book is not funny. Maybe the subject matter was just a little too painful to the author to try to append humor to it after all these years.

- The Happy Bear

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Over 50 Flavors...Move Over Baskin-Robbins

So, according to some stuff I've heard, folks in Massachusetts consume more ice cream per year than the rest of the country combined. That could be a load of marsh gas for all I know, but I do know that the Bay State has itself some mighty fine ice cream flavors. What's my favorite? Well, at the moment, it's actually the Salt Caramel at Jeni's Ice Creams in Columbus, OH. This flavor is absolutely incredible, and I guarantee that, any time I'm in Columbus, I'll be heading to Jeni's.

But when I get ice cream locally, here in the wilds of New England, my favorite flavor (predictably enough) is Maine Black Bear. Raspberry ice cream with chocolate chips and chocolate covered rapsberry truffles. MmmmMMMM!

Now, where does one find such tasty ice cream? Well, one could do worse than to get one's shaggy behind over to any place that sells Richardson's Ice Cream. This stuff has apparently been kicking around since 1695. Although there's only two official Richardson's locales - the original dairy farm in Middleton, MA and at Jordan's Furniture in Reading, MA - you can now find Richardson's ice cream popping up all over, such as at River Bend in Dover, NH, and Twisted Sister in Provincetown, MA.

Take a look around...see if you can find some Richardson's ice cream near you. If not...then you have my sympathy.

- The Happy Bear

The Nutty Flavor of Success

Well, I was among those who raised an eyebrow before it opened, but now I'm a believer. Snappy Sushi in Boston and Somerville is almost always packed. Why the eyebrow raising, H.B.? I hear you saying. Well, as they note, they make all of their sushi with brown rice.

The brown rice actually adds a slight nutty taste to all of their excellent sushi, and I have to say that their fish buyer must get up crazy early in the morning. He beats the other urban bears to the freshest fish. Suits me fine. I'd rather have my fish prepared and tasty with rice, even if it is still raw.

When you walk into the Somerville location, prepare to be underwhelmed by the seating arrangements. There's a traditional sushi bar, but all the other seating (for, oh, let's say about 12-15 people) is around one large table. Why? Well, in Davis Square, parking is at a premium, and if you have multiple tables, you need to provide a certain number of parking spots, or pay for it. Snappy Sushi found a creative way around this, and the large table makes for a unique atmosphere, turning a potential negative into a more positive experience.

The food is top notch. They serve the same miso soup as everyone does, but their other appetizers, including the edamame, are quite good. I particularly recommend you sample their Ika Salad with Smoked Squid. The flavor is incredible.

Most of their nigiri or sashimi style sushi is only $1.00 per piece. If you have a craving for tuna or bass, you can really load up on these less expensive items. If you want something a little more elaborate, move up to their fancy rolls. With options like spicy chicken teriyaki, tuna gone wild, portabella roll (great for them vegematarians), and the elaborate and fabulous Boston lobster roll, you are going to find some sushi flavors you've never explored before. It's worth making multiple trips and trying it all.

At lunch time, you can enjoy a sushi lunch box special. If you can never get enough sushi with your bento box, here's your chance.

Rounding out their menu with a number of donburi options and a number of more traditional sushi rolls (futomaki, Philadelphia roll, etc.), they also specialize in a style of sushi called battera, in which the layers of fish are made upside down and pressed tightly together to create a sort of loaf, which is then cut into individual pieces. Quite a change if you're used to nigiri style.

Fairly inexpensive and with many interesting combinations. This sushi gets the Bear's thumbs up.

- The Happy Bear

Fast Food Grown Up

Yeah, I've more or less stated before, we urban bears are not just relegated to the realm of four star fine dining. We also love ourselves some good ol' fast food that's ten kinds of bad for us (n.b. the Happy Bear's pronounced paunch). Well, sometimes, you can have fast food, let it take a little bit longer than at th' local McD or BK, and enjoy a fine meal.

Take, for example, Spike's Junkyard Dogs. With locations in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, Spike's seems to be slowly spreading its influence in the northeast. And there's no secret behind the success of juicy dogs, awesome onion rings, tasty chicken sammiches, and more.

First, and this is a purely Happy Bear bias, they serve Pepsi products. This is an immediate win for the ursine palette.

They have what might be the greatest menu of customizable burgers, chicken sammiches, and hot dogs that there is. I personally favor...

The Joka Dog - a nice juicy hot dog with cheddar, bacon, chili, and BBQ sauce. A meal unto itself!

Onion Rings - These are golden, tender, and have a batter with some real flavor to it.

Grilled Buffalo Chicken Sammich - With buffalo sauce and bleu cheese, the grilled part let's me pretend it's good for me.

Sinatra Burger - The title means it's a burger "My Way". In this case, "my way" usually means mushrooms, bleu cheese, and teriyaki sauce.

The other half shares my love for the burgers and joka dogs and onion rings. The otter, being vegematarian, likes to get the Big Dave's Deluxe - a veggie dog with Russian dressing, Swiss cheese, and sauteed onions.

The decor is diner-y, with lots of faux street signs on the walls, and they also boast a Wall of Fame sort of deal...if you can eat 6 or more hot dogs in 90 minues without leaving or using the bathroom, you get a t-shirt and your picture on the wall. Sound easy? That's 'cause I haven't mentioned that Spike's serves all their sammiches, dogs, burgers, et al in fantastic rolls. These rolls are fresh and huge. The current record at our Spike's is 13 dogs, and that person has my sympathy. She must've been pretty ill after.

If you're looking for a relatively quick bite and find yourself near one of their locations, well, you could definitely do worse.

- The Happy Bear

Wait! What's that now?! Bus Beheading?!

Well, now...stories like this make me glad I don't ride buses in Canada too often. I'm staying in the city. That's stuff's too crazy for this ol' bear.

- The Happy (But Somewhat Unnerved) Bear

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Southern Sunshine at the Sign of the Golden Arches

Better living doesn't have to be all five-star restaurants and fine dining. Heck, it doesn't even have to be all about food (although that's part of it.) But to prevent anyone from deducing from my comments so far that I'm an food elitist, I present to you something else tasty...the new(ish) Southern-Style Chicken Sandwich and Sweet Tea from McDonalds.

The sandwich is tasty and filling, dressed with nothing but a bit of butter and some slices of pickle. The piece of chicken is generous, and I quite enjoy the spices in the batter. In addition, it's served on a steamed bun, which I quite like. The chicken is also available at breakfast time on a biscuit, but I think this is a less successful experiment.

The sweet tea, on the other hand, is my current favorite fast food drink. Icy and nicely sweet, this refreshing drink comes at only $1.00 for 32 ounces. Now, admittedly, a fair amount of those ounces are devoted to ice, but still, this drink is a bargain when compared to the overpriced and dreadful Coke products McD's provides otherwise. This lovely drink arrived in the middle of a hot, humid summer here in Happy Bear Valley, and I've been drinking it rather regularly. When I'm heading somewhere alone, I often get for now, one soon as I'm done with the first one.

- The Happy Bear

Halfway Through the Circle - My Shameful Confession

I have a terrible confession to make.

I don't like salmon.

Now, if I were just a human, or something, this would be no big deal. But as a bear, salmon is expected to be a part of your staple diet. If you're in a position to do so, you're expected to get to the salmon run and fatten up on them before going in for hibernation.

Luckily for me, I'm an urban bear. I can fatten up for hibernation at the local buffet restaurant, if that's my idea of a good time. Not that I need much fattening...or do much hiberating...but still...

So when I tell you that I ate one of the tastiest meals I've had in a long time last night, you may be shocked to hear that one of my favorite parts of the meal was a big piece of salmon.

But H.B., I hear you say, you just said you hated salmon!

Ayup. But this salmon, I loved.

Let me otter friend of mine is celebrating a birthday, and, as a gift, my other half and I took him to Radius, a fine restaurant in Boston's financial district. The experience was fantastic, from beginning to end.

Firstly, the restaurant's decor is elegant, but not overwhelming. In my button down shirt, plain pants, and sandals, I didn't feel one bit uncomfortable or looked down on. This treatment extends very oganically to the service. Our main server was a joy, as she explained everything she was serving, never once made us feel ignorant when we asked for more information, and seemed genuinely interested in our opinions of various dishes.

After ordering drinks, we explained our desires. We wanted to do a chef's tasting menu, but we had one semi-herbivore with us as well (the otter *does* eat fish, but no other meats.) After a quick check with the kitchen, our server gave us the go-ahead, and the adventure began.

The chef presented us with a pair of amuse bouche. First, a spoonful salad of white anchovy, enhanced with sunflower seeds and other tasty morsels. I was a little leery, but the anchovy was very mild. The second amuse bouche was a crab salad, served in a half pickled pepper, with cilantro and basil. It was very light and refreshing; this second piece made me much happier about our choice to dine here.

Then the real meal began with our first course...a tartare of striped marlin, prepared with cucumber, candied macadamia nuts, and a cold melon broth. This was an absolutely fantastic dish...I would go so far as to call it a perfect dish. The firmness of the marlin pieces, working in conjunction with the crunch of the cucumber...the sweetness of the ingrediants combining with the melon broth. Really, I've never had anything quite like it.

The second course was a seared scallop, served with sweet baby tomatoes in a pea sauce with fennel. While none of us were overwhelmed with the other elements in the dish, we all agreed that the scallop was, perhaps, the single best seared scallop we'd ever eaten.

The third course was the previously mentioned salmon. It was slow roasted, the flavor not overwhelmingly fishy. It was flaky and moist, neither over or under cooked (tricky with salmon), with a rich, buttery flavor. It was served on top of baby artichokes and summer mushrooms. The server asked if I were now converted to liking salmon. I allowed that I would consider ordering salmon at Radius any time. Other salmon was still not on my top ten.

One of the only weak points of the meal was a play on succotash, made with sweet corn, fava beans, another bean none of us caught the name of, and lobster. The lobster meat was incredible, but the rest of the dish was only okay.

As if we needed to be elevated one more time, the next dish was a plate of homemade potato gnocchi. These were served in a light foam of some kind of cheese (got me) with rock shrimp and some par-cooked peas. The gnocchi were light, fluffy, and wonderful, the rock shrimp added nice body, and the peas gave the dish freshness and crunch. My other half has an unfortunate dislike of pasta, but he admitted that these were what he'd always hoped gnocchi would be like...light, fluffy pillows of perfection.

At this point, we omnivores diverged from our piscatarian otter. We were served pieces of duck breast over an amazing melange of baby turnip, plums, and chervil sauced with a kind of pistachio butter. This was another highlight of the meal...both my other half and I did our best to scrape up every bit of it with our folks, as licking the plate, even in an atmosphere that relaxed, would seem inappropriate. Our piscatarian otter was served a cripsy soft-shell crab with an avocado paste, a tomato-bacon vinaigrette (which he ate despite the bacon), and a spicy papaya salad.

We stayed separate for the next course, as we dined on an excellent piece of veal, served with a mustard-dill cold potato salad, apricot sauce, a sort of slaw of celeriac, and a veal reduction sauce. This was all excellent, with the sweet-sour flavors all working wonderfully together. The otter had bass over potatoes and a salad of some kind. I was nearly in a food coma by now and can barely remember even that much detail.

After a palette cleansing orange-pineapple sorbet, we moved on to what might be referred to as a dessert onslaught. Four plates were brought out, featuring:

- A chocolate horn containing chocolate mousse...served with salt caramel sauce and I think a rum ice cream?
- Butter cake with toffee bits and a thick cream
- A "spumoni" of balsamic infused cherries, chocolate, pistachios coated in...well, I can only say love, really...and a ricotta gelato
- A goat-cheese cheesecake, with homemade huckberry ice cream

We passed the plates around until everyone had had some of everything, then went back and worked over our favorite bits.

Finally, as our check was brought, a tiny plate of tiny sweets was served, including a marshmellow-coconut morsel, a shortbread cracker with blueberry and cream, and chocolate with cocoa nibs.

Did I mention drinks? They were fabulous, with my other half favoring a drink called L'Orangerie, made with Stella Artois, St. Germaine, Orange Bitters, and Orange Juice. The otter loved a drink called Pimm-ing Ain't Easy, with Pimm's Cup, Gin, and fruit juices. He also enjoyed a drink whose ridiculous name belied the fact that it was a fabulous, rum-based mango lassi.

Although we walked out at a cost of about $200.00 per person, none of us felt the cost was ill-spent. This bear can't say enough good things about Radius. If you have a special occassion to celebrate, enjoy the tasting menu - put yourself in the chef's hands, and you will not regret it.

I have no qualms about calling this the best fine-dining restaurant that I've been to in Boston. Definitely a four-star experience.

- The Happy Bear

Welcome! My Mission Statement (for what that's worth.)

Howdy, folks. Very pleased you could take the time to stop by.

Yes, I'm a bear. An urban bear to be precise. I live with a bunch of other urban critters in a nice house, and we generally have a good time together. As I amble through life, it really kills me to see other folks so wound up about this or that, never having a chance to relax and enjoy life at a bear's pace. See, we urban bears make great hedonists, but we're also very generous with our hedonistic tendencies. If we find something tasty, like some honeycomb, then everyone gets some honeycomb. What fun is finding something tasty, or fun, or interesting, or beautiful, if you can't share it with other folks?

So that's what this blog is for. I'm gonna keep on keepin' on with my bearish self, an' maybe some of my friends will drop in, occassionally, too. And when I find things that I think are worth eating, or doing, or seeing, or admiring...well, I'll share 'em. How's that for a mission statement?

Kinda vague? Well, I guess that's 'cause I don't wanna get pinned down. I wanna be able to talk about food, movies, books, games, places, events, and anything else that feels like it's worth mentioning.

Maybe then some of you folks rushing around out there will stop, take a breath, and then try to take life at a more bearish pace.

That's me: Making the World a Better Place to Live Life at a Bear's Pace. Heh. I like that.

- The Happy Bear