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