Monday, December 14, 2009

Movie Review - The Princess and the Frog

When I heard that John Lasseter had become had of Disney animation and Imagineering during the Pixar buy, I was thrilled. The man knows quality entertainment.

When I heard that John Lasseter had re-opened Disney's 2-D Animation department, I was ecstatic! I love traditional animation. I think that 3-D computer animation, while an interesting and valid art form, is not inherently better or worse than traditional, and I prefer traditional in this case.

When I heard that Musker and Clements, the directors of The Little Mermaid and an umber of other excellent animated Disney films, were going to be producing a movie that was going to be the beginning Disney's new 2-D Animation Renaissance, I was...well...I was interested, but skeptical. That was a lot to live up to. And the Frog Princess? Um...okay.

Slowly, the details came...New Orleans, Randy Newman writing jazz and zydeco...okay, that sounded good. An African-American Princess? About time. A twist on a classic fairy-tale? Hmm, okay. Drama over the main character's name? Odd. Title is now The Princess and the Frog? Ooookay? What's going on over there?

Then a teaser came out, showing a primarily toothless firefly with a thick Cajun accent.

I was prepared to hate this movie.

Then other teasers came out, showing details. Looked nice. Music seemed good. But that firefly was still in there somewhere...

Then I saw an extended preview...the first 10 minutes or so of the film, some of it still in roughs. You could see that this film had heart and a couple of intriguing messages: Yes, you can wish on a star, but you need to help those wishes along with hard work. And while your dreams are important, they're nothing if you don't have love. I was starting to like this movie, and it was still months from coming out.

Cut to a week ago. While visiting Disneyland, we got to hear an extended preview of the music. Gooood music. Really getting interested now. But that firefly was still in there somewhere, wasn't he?

Cut to last night, we finally saw it. Saw it with the Roo, the Tiger, the Otter, and two other friends.

That frickin' firefly was awesome. He made me cry, damn it!

Really, this is a wonderful Disney instant classic, as we say. The music is fantastic, and the animation looked as good or better than Disney's work ever has. There's a stylized sequence towards the beginning that is literally jaw-dropping. It's filled with colorful characters (including that dang firefly), sequences that're funny, sad, heart-breaking, jubilant...oh yeah. Emotional gamut, for sure.

Tiana, the princess of the title, is a great addition to the panoply of Disney princesses, easily equal to any of the previous princesses, and better than many of them, because she's self-sufficient and gutsy.

Naveen, the charming prince, really is charming.

Dr. Facilier, the villainous witch doctor who puts the plot in motion, is a great Disney villain. His sequences are some of the best in the film, and he is genuinely creepy. He does not die by falling from a high place. ;)

Even Louis and Ray, the obligatory animal sidekicks (here an alligator and the aforementioned firefly) are excellent characters, with actual motivations, personalities, and wants and needs of their own. Ray's devotion to the ideals of love, and to his own love, Evangeline, is one of the most beautiful and ultimately heartbreaking aspects of the film.

See this film. Go in with an open mind. It is truly worth seeing.

- The Happy Bear

Movie Review - Where the Wild Things Are

This review is very late in coming. This was a film I thought would be visually interesting, but I doubted it would have much to say.

In a way, I was right. It's extremely visually interesting. Nothing is exactly resolved. Nothing is explicitly stated.

But it's such a viscerally, richly satisfying film to me, that I feel it very much had something to say.

Max is the epitome of the misfit kid...the different one. Growing up gay, surrounded by people that I was constantly hiding this fact from... Growing up fat, surrounded by jocks... Growing up smart, playing my "weird" role-playing games, surrounded by people who used that as a label to call me a geek... Yeah...I know something about the Outsider. About being angry and unhappy about being different when society wants you to conform.

This was a movie I saw with some friends and didn't dare to say anything, because I was afraid they would not have enjoyed it. I needn't have worried. My friends are Outsiders, too. A friend of mine who saw it with me said that it had been like having his childhood up on a giant screen for 90 minutes. That's exactly how I felt, too.

This movie isn't for everyone, and it sure as heck isn't for kids. Or, rather, kids might like it, but I don't think it was written for them.

Movie Review - Fantastic Mr. Fox

I was not looking forward to this movie. Based on the trailers, it looked like a wacky comedy with poorly animated characters. When the Roo and the Otter asked if I wanted to go, I said yes, but I wasn't really enthusiastic.

Wow. Was I wrong!

This movie is a class act, all the way. Top-notch voice and sound meshes seemlessly with terrific stop-motion animation to create a weird, alternate world where animals and humans can communicate but don't always see eye-to-eye. The plot follows the book surprisingly closely, with some characterization and dialogue added that make it very much a Wes Anderson movie. And to me, that's a good thing, because I'm a fan of the man's work.

Some people are making noise due to Wes Anderson's decision to live in Paris while the movie was being filmed in London. I have to dismiss this issue with this question...what was Anderson supposed to do on the set while the animators were moving tiny figures one frame at a time? Anderson was able to use a system to look through the cameras and to watch the dailies in real time. He acted scenes out for the animators and sent them video of what he wanted. Do these critics think the director of a painted animated movie sits there and watches the animators paint, or a computer-animated film director watches the programmers work? I really doubt it.

This movie brings the word made me laugh and cry, and I believed in all of the characters whole-heartedly. I don't want to give much away, but there's a scene with a truly wild animal, close to the end of the film, that is one of the most beautiful, sad scenes I've seen in a movie in ages.

I highly recommend this film.

- The Happy Bear

A comment on the holiday...

So, a friend of mine recently journaled about his dislike of people's behaviors during the holiday season. With respect to him, I took some issue with part of his comments, which essentially indicated that Christmas would be great, except for the Christians, who had usurped the season from the older pagan traditions.

I don't know if I consider myself a Christian any more. I sometimes jokingly refer to myself as a Christo-Pagan, since I think both sides of that pairing have valid and interesting things to say. I do feel the desire, however, to put my point of view up for folks to ponder. It appears here in a slightly edited format.

At the risk of creating some religious drama, Christians originally celebrated Christmas around this time anyway, because, under Roman rule, they were being killed. They hid their celebrations amidst the existing Roman celebration of Saturnalia, or December 17.

Then, many years later, they found it a lot easier to get other religions to accept Christianity if they wrapped Christ in with the current celebrations, so they moved it a week or so later to more closely coincide with Yule and Solis Invictus, because they likened Christ's rebirth to the rebirth of the sun.

You can demonize Christianity if you want, or label it as "sinister", but I've known just as many obnoxious Pagans, Jews, Atheists, and Scientologists as I have Christians. Frankly, when anyone gets smug about their religion, or lack of it, it can be rather off-putting.

I personally feel that you get out of this time of year, shopping and all, what you put into it. If you go shopping dreading it, then you're going to have a lousy time of it. If you go out in a good mood, then you might just be fine. I was out Christmas shopping for about five hours this past weekend. I was in a good mood, and nothing bad or obnoxious happened in my vicinity. Go fig.

And if you don't want to brave the crowds, there's always Amazon. ;)

- Andy

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Anyone interested in a shared world project?

I've been thinking, for some time, about developing a shared world project. Something that could be used for games, stories, art, etc.

Nominally, I'd like it to be D&D related. Something just for fun. Probably using 4E concepts, races, classes, etc.

Would anyone be interested in working on this?

- Andy

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Movie Review - Inglorious Basterds

Okay, so to start, I'm not a Quention Tarantino fan. I have enjoyed some of his movies, but I don't drool for them the way some folks seem to. I think his style can really fall flat in some films (Deathproof, his half of Grindhouse, being the most egregious example of a film in which his style really ruined a movie for me.)

That being said, Inglorious Basterds just might be his masterpiece.

I was not in the mood to go see this movie when the Bear Squad headed down to the local cinema to take it in. Previews for other movies - especially the remake of Universal's the Wolfman - made me wish we were seeing something else. But the movie started, and it started slowly, but with a great scene that really set the pace and feel for the rest of the film. Without giving too much away, the film revolves around a young Jewish woman, a group of American soldiers, a plot to kill Hitler, and a movie cinema. The film is broken into chapters, each one feeding another thread of story into the whole. Some of the main characters never even meet, but it all comes together into a believable and captivating whole.

Christoph Waltz might be fairly unknown in American cinema, but I think he can pretty much write his own ticket after this performance. He's unbelievable.

Brad Pitt, Eli Roth, Til Schweiger, and the rest of the actors who make up the Basterds themselves are all excellent, and the film is always alive whenever they're on screen.

Melanie Laurent is, again, not a known quantity in American cinema, but she conveys a lot with eyes and body language...more actors and actresses could take cues from her subtle but evocative performance, especially it's disturbing, unearthly climax.

With twists, turns, and tension aplenty, this film uses one of Tarantino's fortes/downfalls to great advantage - there's a lot of talking in this film. In many cases, the tension grows, as you wait for someone to give things away and cause what's likely to be an explosive end to the conversation. When it does happen, it's like a fantastic punctuation mark at the end of a lengthy but meaningful sentence.

I really don't want to spoil the plot, or the ending, because I had heard nothing, and I was shocked. It does not disappoint. See this movie. :)

- The Happy Bear

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

On the October

Just found out that I'll be heading overseas on a business trip in October. I'll be doing a "product training" trip for my company's "Great Rivers of Europe" trip. This usually means an abbreviated (and often very hectic) version of the tour. The tour is a river boat tour that normally runs from Amsterdam to Vienna (or vice-versa), so I'm not sure where I'll actually be visiting yet. Be assured that I will represent the Bear Squad well in Europe and come back with some reviews.

- The Happy Travelin' Bear

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Movie Review - Bruno

I wish I could say right off the bat that I loved this movie. I really wish I could say that. The Bear Squad hit this film recently, and we were all pretty unimpressed. I should preface this by saying that we all loved Borat. I should also mention that we all thought Bruno was okay, but it just didn't live up to its predecessor.

Sacha Baron Cohen may be a victim of his own success. We all thought Borat was hilarious, and we were looking forward to the same level of seemingly unstaged, uncomfortable comedy. Sadly, we never really got it, as Bruno's various scenarios seemed contrived and unlikely to not have been staged. Although there are some really brilliant moments in the movie, it's uneven and just never quite gets up to the level of Borat.

I'll defintiely keep an eye out for more SBC films, but this one just was not a winner in my book.

- The Happy Bear

Cornering the Greek Meal...

Tonight, I had dinner with my sister, the Roo, and the Otter. My sister and the Otter are both vegetarians (although the Otter's been backsliding a bit), so we needed a vegetarian-friendly option. The Roo suggested Greek Corner, a place he and the Otter had tried, but I had not been able to attend. My sister was agreeable, so we headed over there.

It's a small place, and it was rocking busy for a Tuesday night. We ordered an appetizer of falafel to share. This was very good, although a little pricey (two large falafel balls for about $5.00), but it was also served with their tabouli and hummous, as well as a mound of warm pita bread. It was all very enjoyable.

The Roo and I split two entrees, the moussaka (I love moussaka), and the gyro plate...basically a big pile of shwarma, the meat they use to make gyros, with tsatsiki (yogurt sauce). We both ordered their "Greek" fries...French fries with grated cheese, oregano, and other seasonings, and both came with a Greek salad on the side. These entrees and the fries were all excellent and featured large portions for a small price. The Otter ordered a falafel plate, and my sister order their spanakopita (spinach pie). They both pronounced them excellent, and I believe it.

We were tempted by dessert, but we held off as we had other plans.

If you're in the Cambridge, MA area, and you want a good meal of Greek food for a surprisingly low price, I can strongly recommend this option. The Bear Squad came home with happy bellies.

- The Happy Bear
As an experiment, I've been posting links to the site for my D&D campaign, Seven Kingdoms, on my Facebook account. Recently, I asked for folks to ask questions about the campaign setting. I thoughnt I'd open that up here, too.

The site for the campaign is at

I'm open to questions about the campaign world. What're some things you'd be interested to know?

- Andy

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Movie Review - Watchmen

So, yes, I'm a comic book geek...big time. I read many titles, and I love Alan Moore's classic Watchmen comic. Along with Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns", these books from DC pretty much saved the comics industry. Rumors have existed for years about a possible Watchmen movie. I even read Sam Hamm's terrible script for it, which, thankfully, was not used. In fact I, like many people, was fairly convinced you couldn't make a Watchmen movie and have it be any good.

I am so happy to be wrong.

I enjoyed the Watchmen immensely. I was at first skeptical...then the trailers came, and I got excited. Then I got nervous...some bad reviews started showing up...but then I realized that what a lot of reviewers were sayign was "Oh, this is too dark!" and I thought, "oh, good! Maybe they got it right!"

I feel they did. In my opinion, the movie is brilliantly cast, well acted, choreographed like a ballet version of a favorite piece of work. I found very few flaws...primarily with the terrible make-up job on the actor playing Nixon. Given how good everything looked around him, how ridiculous he looked really stood out.

There are some changes from the book, of course. Certain scenes are gone, and a major element of the ending was changed. Despite this, it comes across as very true to the original material, sometimes slavishly recreating frames from the book. It's really quite a work of art.

I also had a chance to see the DVD that was released of "Tales of the Black Freighter" and "Under the Hood". It's defintiely an enjoyable companion piece, though I doubt anyone who hasn't read the original will understand how Tales of the Black Freighter fits into the Watchmen mythology. I've heard that, someday, an ultimate director's cut that includes these Black Freighter and Under the Hood material may be coming. Hopefully that will make things clearer for the non-geek population.

Walt Disney World, Day 7-8

We love Epcot so much that we put two days aside for it, so Day 7 was our return to Epcot day. And so we did! We returned to Epcot and enjoyed a second day of filling in the blanks. We repeated rides we wanted to repeat...did more Kim Possible missions, wandered around World Showcase...and engaged in a tradition that is unfortunate and wonderful..."Eating Around the World".

Basically, the dining plan gives you X number of counter service meals and X number of sit-down meals. We invariably end up with a stack of counter service meals left over at the end of our trip, and so, since there are so many great places to eat counter service in Epcot, we run around World showcase, indulging in small bits and bites. Since we share them out between however many folks are with us, it never seems like TOO much food....mostly.

We started in Great Britain with their excellent fish and chips. This is always delicious, and it's a traditional stop for us.

Although the siren song of the cheddar cheese soup of Canada and the pastries of France were strong, we resisted and moved on. In Morocoo, however, we know that the counter service food is excellent and plentiful. We got various shwarma, hummous, tabouli, and other yumminess, ending with a bit of baklava. Delicious indeed! And mint tea from there is so good to settle a complaining tummy. Heheheh.

We'd never eaten at any of the restaurants in Japan, so we decided to rectify this. We had sushi and chicken teriyaki, and the food was all very good. I think we may need to eat at the Japanese table service restaurant next time.

America has the American Adventure, which always makes me feel patriotic...but not patriotic enough to blow a dining option on a hot dog. I would have loved to do some Italian food, but Italy is kind of a chintzy pavilion, and they have no counter service. We turned our noses up and walked past. Germany could've yielded sausages and beer, but we'd just had those two days prior, so we passed and moved on.

In China, we stopped for some very decent orange chicken. Nothing to write home about, as it were, but fresh, hot, and definitely tasty. At this point, we were hitting sufficiency, and we decided to save our last treats for our last day. We coughed up some cash for a sweet pretzel in Norway.

And if all that eating wasn't enough, later on we returned to Normway to the restaurant Akershus. Now, we all had find memories of meals here that included a smorgesbord...literally!...of cold meats and cheeses, salads, venison stew, and other goodness. Sadly, the massive demand for more princess restaurants has invaded Akershus. When we entered, we were forced (at gunpoint!...well, okay no...) to have our photo taken with Belle. Over the course of our meal, we also met Jasmine, Aurora, Snow White, and Ariel, who all dropped by our table but who were very perceptive at seeing that we were just three gay dudes having dinner. They were all very nice, they all offered to sign things or have a photo taken with us, but they were also all cool about just being cool with us.

Sadly, the food and enjoyment was another story. Although our server did his best, the insane atmosphere of screaming children made it hard to feel anything but overwhlemed. The wild buffet had been reduced to a shadow of its former self, and the entrees were extremely forgettable...tasty, but nothing to trumpet. We got out of there as quickly as possible.

We paused to watch Illuminations again...yes, it's that good...but, sadly, our exit was marred by the presence of cheerleaders. These kids get to go to Disney World for their finals, and that's cool, I expect. The trouble is, they don't know how to act while they're there. They invade, take over, scream, lead cheers at inopportune moments... I'm sure some of them are very nice, but, if you are one of the nice ones, please understand that your peers are ruining it for you. You will be lumped in with them, and I'm sorry for that. As we were exiting, I was listening to the exit music for the park, and these girls (and a few guys) kept showing up in waves, dancing, knocking into people, shrieking, and generally making my exhausted, sick self even more tired and unhappy. We paused and let al ot of them go by so that we could enjoy a quieter atmosphere.

On Day 8, I know I was pretty much done in. We went to Downtown Disney, Disney's mecca of shopping and dining. We ate a delicious counter service meal at the cheesily-named, but totally excellent Earl of Sandwich. Their sandwiches are really fabulous. We did some souvenir shopping, and then, I decided...I'm done. I took some bags of souvenirs and rode back to the hotel, relaxed with a drink, and let the boys run off to the Magic Kingdom for just a few more rides. We reconnoitered, said good bye to our hotel room and hotel and rode back to the airport.

Sadly, you may recall that there was a nasty delay on our return. We weren't home or in bed until after 2 AM, and that was sad. But still, it was a very fun trip, all in all.

Walt Disney World, Day 5

Today, we made it over to Animal Kingdom. This was a very special event for me...after many years of trying, we finally timed it right so that we were able to enjoy extra magic hours at Animal night. Normally, the park closes at 5 PM. I've always wanted to see the park at night, and it's every bit as beautiful as I remembered it.

The one thing we did today that was new for me was the Finding Nemo: the Musical show they've added. This huge, Broadway-style show has live performers, puppets, video effects, great music, and...yes...I know...the Finding Nemo movie wasn't a musical. Well, Disney got some of the folks involved with Avenue Q to help make it one, and the result is excellent. If you go to Walt Disney World, this ranks up in must see attractions.

Also on that list is Expedition Everest, the big Himilayan train-gone-amok "Beware of the Yeti" themed roller-coaster. The theming on this awesome attraction begins when you're in line. As you wait, you pass through the Yeti Museum, perusing artifacts related to this strange creature. The ride itself is so much go forwards, backwards, forwards again, and then come face to face with the monstrous Yeti himself. That's all I'm saying on the subject.

Other than this, we wandered around, did the Safari ride, which is always different, but usually great. They've toned down the goofy plot on it, making it much more about just seeing the cool animals that are seemingly roaming free. We checked out animals, got a bite to eat at the new Chinese fast food place (nothing to write home about, truly), and generally passed an enjoyable day. By now, however, my big bear belly was truly working against me. I was getting physically exhausted to the point of my endurance and beyond. I let the Otter and the Roo run off to do stuff sometimes while I relaxed. I figured that was better than being totally unable to participate if I couldn't walk. It did, however, kind of put me in a more tired than usual state of mind...

Which may be why tempers were fraying when we made it to Jiko, the restaurant we were eating at. Now, we've been excited to eat here for years, and I wish I could tell you it was worth it. The food was, indeed, quite tasty...but the service we had here was the worst we had anywhere during our trip. Our waitress seemed either new or just shockingly bad at her job. A big for instance...Jiko is known for its vast collection of South African wines. The host who brought us in mentioned it again. When the Otter asked our waitress what she recommended with his Maize-crusted Halibut, however, she seemed baffled. "Do you like citrusy wines?" she asked. He allowed that he did but asked again if there were any specific wine that was paired with the fish...touted, I might note, as one of their signature dishes. She again seemed baffled. "'s fish, so you'll want a white." After a few fruitless attempts, he gave up. It's worth mentioning that the roo and I both ordered the Oak-Grilled Filet Mignon...not for the filet, which was quite good in its red-wine sauce, but for the signature macaroni and cheese. This was easily the best part of the meal. Desert was good, but literally forgettable.

The combination of the fact that we were spending two options from our dining plan for this meal (instead of one at every other restaurant we visited) and the bad service made us feel a little ripped off, and the meal wasn't the nicest experience of our trip. As I say, tempers were fraying a bit, and it definitely came out. In conclusion, I would eat at Jiko again (the mac and cheese was honestly that good), but I would just pay cash rather than feel like I was being ripped off on the dining plan.

Walt Disney World, Day 4

Day 4 was back to pleasant weather, and we were off to Epcot, my favorite of the parks. The day was great from moment one, when we got to see Spaceship Earth (the big Epcot Ball) restored to its original look. See, during 2000, someone got the brilliant idea to put a big Mickey Mouse hand holding a wand with all kinds of crazy sparkle effects and the number "2000" as an attachment to Spaceship Earth. It's been up there with the 2000 changed out for the word Epcot ever since, and a lot of fans, myself included, hated that. Now the wand is gone, and I hope it's gone for good.

We wandered around Future World, the front half of the park, for most of the morning. We enjoyed al ot of favorite rides, including the new, excellently revamped Spaceship Earth attraction (there's a ride in that there ball!) As lunchtime hit, we meandered over to the World Showcase area of the park and went to the Canada pavillion. There, we had our reservations for Le Cellier, a very hard to get into restaurant. Once inside, I understood's tiny! Also, it's excellent! The Roo and I both had a filet mignon with a wild mushroom risotto that he's been raving about ever since he visited with his folks in 2007. For desert, there are such tempting treats as a chocolate whiskey cake, various fruit cobblers, and a maple pie. All very yummy.

We wandered around the rest of Future World as well as some areas of World Showcase. We also got to experience one of the new attractions...the Kim Possible secret agent missions that're turning World Showcase from a place parents love and kids get bored to a place where everyone has a great time. Even if you've never seen Kim Possible, you're likely enjoy these kind of weird Scavenger Hunt-ish games. Armed with a Kimm-unicator (think high tech spy cel-phone), you wander around World Showcase, solving mysteries and defeating super-criminals. The Kimm-unicator interacts with features of the landscape in various ways, doing everything from causing a phone booth in the Great Britian area to dispense a golf ball to making beer steins in the Germany area sing. All in all, a really fun bit of secret agent-ness. We did several different missions, and they were all really entertaining.

When dinner rolled around, we headed over to the Germany pavillion for our reservations at the Biergarten. This rollicking German buffet restaurant has schnitzel, various sausages, sauerbraten, pretzel bread, various roast meats, and plenty of it's It's themed inside like the center of a small German town at night during Oktoberfest, and there are live performers who come out and play various traditional German music. We've always had a great time here.

After that, we stayed long enough to catch Illuminations: Reflections of Earth, Epcot's spectacular nightly fireworks display. To call it a fireworks show is really a misnomer...they have explosions, lasers, videoscreens on a giant floating earth...really, it's a great show. I always get choked up...I blame the music.

We made it back to our hotel totally satisfied, but exhausted.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Walt Disney World, Days 2-3

We got up on Day 2 and walked over to Downtown Disney. Once there, we hopped on a bus for the Wilderness Lodge, one of Disney's big, luxury hotels. No, we didn't buy an upgrade...we were heading to breakfast. Nestled into the the Lodge's environs of geysers, running rivers, and National Parks lodge charm, there's a restaurant called Whispering Canyon. A bit of a deliberate misnomer, the Canyon is one of the loudest restaurants on site. It's decorated to look like a Cowboys & Indians themed kid's playroom, and the wait staff are all "Cousin Al" or what have you. The food is excellent. The Otter got French Toast with cinnamon icing. The Roo got a version of Eggs Benedict (one of his favorite dishes) with beef brisket in place of the Canadian bacon and a BBQ hollandaise sauce. This was awesome.

Me? I'm a bear of simple tastes. I got the all you can eat conglomeration of breakfast...eggs, hash browns, sausage, bacon, biscuits and sausage gravy, waffles...the one plate was enough for me. I passed on seconds, and I still wasn't hungry hours later. Not to mention, everything I was served was great (gotta love little Mickey Mouse shaped waffles.)

I can't pass on mentioning the restaurant's rather...odd custom around ketchup. If anyone asks for ketchup, the wait staff immediately begin yelling for the ketchup. The table that has the ketchup is then expected to get up and bring it over to the other table. I phrase it that way because the restaurant has about 10 bottles...and they all end up on the same table when someone asks for it. I deliberately asked for it to get them to perform this ritual, then gleefully hopped up to deliver several bottles to the next poor suckers. Hehehe.

We then took a ferry back to the Magic Kingdom and went inside. We had a great time and stayed pretty much all day. We were a little disappointed that the Hall of Presidents was down for refurbishment (gotta install the big O, don'tcha know), but we knew about it ahead of time. It was a cool day, so we had no problems walking right on to Splash Mountain. And, yes, of course we stopped into the Country Bear Jamboree.

As the evening came on, we were finally starting to feel a bit hungry. We decided to hold off on dinner, however, as we knew that the big fireworks display, Wishes, was coming up. We staked out a spot in Liberty Square, behind the castle. You may miss a few light effects on the castle, but the fireworks seem to fly almost right overhead. Far more exciting for my Disney Dollar. Kudos to Stevie-Roo for having found this out when he was last there with his folks.

Our only disappointment came at the end of the night. We'd planned on eating at Cosmic Ray's Starlight Cafe, in Tomorrowland, because we'd been assured by a cast member that it would still be open. was. Sort of. The lines for salads, fried chicken, and other awesomeness were closed, but the lines for burgers and fries were still open. Oh, joy. The one thing I never eat at a Disney park. Ah well. My disappointment was faintly mitigated by the fact that I felt this was a good excuse to go mental at the fixings bar. So my fries were covered with melted cheese, and my burger was smothered in sautéed mushrooms. Afterwards, we made our way exhaustedly back to our hotel to collapse to sleep.

Day 3 was the only day of bad weather on our trip. It rained...and I mean...rained. The trouble was, it didn't start til we were in the park, so we weren't entirely dressed for the occasion. We chose this day for Disney's Hollywood Studios. This park is decent, but probably my least favorite of the four parks. We rode all our favorites, like the Aerosmith Rockin' Roller Coaster, Star Tours, and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. We did some of our favorite other attractions, like MuppetVision 3-D and the Great Movie Ride. We also did some things we don't always do, like Voyage of the Little Mermaid, because the Otter hadn't seen or done them. We also stood in line to get our photos taken with Bolt and Rhino, the park's two newest characters.

Nothing crazy to report on food in this park on this trip. We got early lunch/late breakfast at the ABC Commissary - Cuban sandwiches and whatnot. We also got some of Disney's awesome smoked turkey legs at the Toluca Turkey Leg Co. If you've ever been to a Disney park, are not a vegetarian, and haven't had one of these...come on! Next time you go, eat one of these prehistoric beasts! They're incredibly good...almost like eating smoked ham on a bone. It's a grisly meal, though. A turkey leg this size look like a leg.

After we left the park, we went back to the hotel and cleaned up, showered, got dry clothes, and then hopped on a bus to Downtown Disney because it was raining so hard. Once there, we transferred to a bus for the Animal Kingdom Lodge, another hotel built by the architect of the Wilderness Lodge. Here, we ate at Boma. I've ranted about Boma in other journals I've kept, but allow me to rant very briefly here. This is probably one of the best restaurants on Disney property. To call it a buffet is a crime. It has pods of different foods...all inspired by African cuisine. You can get bobotie (a dish of ground meat and eggs in a casserole), mealy bread (similar to corn bread), all kinds of salads (including watermelon rind, which is delicious), roasted meats, homemade hummus, vegetables, cous cous...the list just keeps going.

The two places where Boma really kicks rumproast, though, are it's soups and its desserts. There are always five (or more) homemade soups, ranging from lentil to beef to baked potato. Our favorites are the carrot-ginger (which is like eating liquid marshmallows) and the curried chicken-coconut soup. I have the recipe for this, and I make it at home, because once every couple of years is not enough. (Dang...think I'll make that this week.)

Desserts are topped first and foremost by zebra domes. These delicate little units of chocolate and Kahlua are beautiful to the eye and to the mouth. Other faves include chocolate mousse crunch, banana bread pudding, homemade cookies, and much, much more.

Needless to say, we slept well after Boma.

More updates soon.

- The Happy Bear

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Walt Disney World, Day 1

So, last Monday, Jan. 31, The Bear Squad headed down south for a trip to Walt Disney World. This was a totally unexpected trip, but my brother's participation in the Disney Vacation Club made a last-minute trip possible. He got us a 2-bedroom suit (sweet!) in the Saratoga Springs hotel.

But first things first. This trip was my firsttime flying JetBlue, and, I must admit, they impressed me. The seats were comfy, with a nice bit of legroom, and each seat had a video screen for watching TV, listening to XM Radio, or renting movies. The TV and radio were free; the movies were not. The flight attendants were mighty friendly. We were seated in an exit row, and they were quick to make sure that my need for a seatbelt extender to go over my bear belly wouldn't make me have to sit elsewhere. I've run into that odd bit of prejudice on SouthWest. There were free drinks and snacks, which I always appreciate, although the Roo bought the makings for a Margerita which was pretty awful.

Also, on our return flight, although there was a long-ass delay, they kept us pretty well informed of what was going on, and, when it was clear our plane wouldn't be able to leave Orlando, they routed us on a different plane. They also gave us credit for a later flight, which was nice. Nice not to have to ask. I would definitely fly with them again.

Once we arrived, we took Disney's Magical Express to the hotel. If you're heading to DisneyWorld, I can definitely recommend using this service. You receive special luggage tags prior to your trip that you stick to your luggage. When you arrive at the airport, you can just board one of the buses without collecting your luggage. It will be delivered to your hotel later that same day. Although we heard a few horror stories in the early days of hte program I'd never had any problems. My bag was delayed in being delivered til about an hour after the others, but, when I told them I needed something from it, they personally delivered it to me as quickly as possible. (More on what I needed later.)

Our room was really fantastic. It was beautiful, comofrtable, and it had its own jacuzzi and washer/dryer set-up. It also had a full kitchen...I suspect it would be a great place for a budget-minded traveler, as our suite could easily have fit another 2-3 people in it comfortably. It was a big hotel, but easy to get around, and it was a 5 minute walk to Downtown Disney, which we took advantage of a number of times.

After we had checked out our room, we hopped on a bus and headed to the Magic Kingdom. This is sometimes referred to as Disneyland Lite, as it's modeled after Disneylan'ds resort, but on a grander scale. None the less, a number of rides, most specifically Space Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean, are longer or better in some way at the California park.

We were very hungry, so we made our way over to a counter service restaurant called El Pirata y el Perico (the Pirate and the Parrot) in Adventureland, oddly enough, Pirates of the Caribbean. The Roo and the Otter both had the Caesar salads (with the Otter sharing his chicken with us non-vegetarians) which were, I'm led to I had a BBQ pulled pork sandwich, which was very good. Had to get used to the fact that Disney is a Coke land, rather than a Pepsi land. *grumble*

After that, we rode some of our favorite rides: Pirates of the Caribbean, Splash Mountain, and the Haunted Mansion. We also took in the Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor, which hadn't been open the last time I was there. It's a fun show, but it isn't going to be a "OMG, we must do this!" every time we go to MK.

We only had a short bit of time in MK, as we needed to go to our special-special fancy dining experience. Now, WDW has a lot of really good restaurants...and I mean really good restaurants. But I think we've now been to the best...Victoria and Albert's. It's so good, it probably deserves its own post.

Why is V&A's the best? Well, five main reasons. First, it's a formal restaurant, meaning jackets, dress shoes, and dress slacks for men. So we fancied up at our hotel before heading over. This meant no screaming kids and a sense of occassion, which a suit is kinda good for. Even I enjoy suiting up now and then, and I'm as casual as they come. Second, the menu is created daily, using the freshest stuff the chef can get his hands on. Third, there's a live harpist. Fourth, you're presented with a personalized menu as a souvenir at the end of the night, and ladies are given a rose. And fifth? The food of course, silly! Follow along, visually here.

As an amuse bouche, the chef had prepared a presentation of four small items. There was butter-poached lobster that was exquisite, with a hint of sweetness, and a small cup of a rich, wonderful lobster bisque. There was also a crab and lobster sausage and what Jay recalls as a lobster crevette. All of them were very nice, but that poached lobster...hoo boy. Amazing!

The hot appetizer followed. The Otter and the Roo both had the Sesame Crusted Big Eye Tuna with Tat Soi Salad and Tamari Honey Foam. This was a lovely piece of fatty tuna that really worked with the crust and the foam. I had the Spiced, Smoked Buffalo with Apple-Radish Salad and Curry. This was good, and that salad was surprisingly excellent...the apple was almost a compote, and the curry really pulled it all together.

We all enjoyed the next course...the fish course. The Otter had a dish of abalone, served with a toasted caper and meyer lemon sauce. I'd never tried abalone before, and it had a nice texture and flavor. The Roo and I had Nantucket bay scallops, seared and served with a corn ragout and a tiny corn bread. This was amazing, as I usually really dislike bay scallops. This dish was superb.

For the next course, the kitchen was kind enough to work things out with our vegetarian otter, who had a kind of ratatouille in pasta served with 100 year old balsamic vinegar. I had duck three-ways...breast, confit, and sausage with a lovely orange sauce and a hint of balsamic. The Roo had elk tenderloin with mustard spaetzle and an aple-wine kraut. All of these were totally excellent.

For the main, the Otter was able to order a Grouper dish with artichokes, fennel, leeks, and Jambon Iberico. Yes, that's ham. He shared some with us, and it had a great flavor. The Roo had an incredible veal dish made with hedhehog mushrooms and peas. I had Kurobuta pork...both the tenderloin and the belly, served with a bacon-sherry vinaigrette and baby beets. One of the best dishes I've ever eaten, I have to say.

Did I mention the bread? The pastry chef had, in fact, created three different breads amd three different butters. These came out with various courses...the only one I truly recall what the truffle bread served with truffle butter. Rich and earthy. So good. They were all fantastic, though.

A cheese course followed, composed of stilton, piave vecchip, and Coach Farm's goat. These were all delicious and a nice palatte refresher. at this point, it might be mentioned that the Otter and the Roo, as is their wont, got wine pairings. For this one, it was a port, a drink that I *DO* actually enjoy. When I commented that I was thinking of getting a glass, the sommelier quickly offered me one, and, very generously, didn't bother to charge us for it. Now, that's some incredible service.

Finally, dessert came. The Otter and I were both tempted by the caramel-banana gateau, servered with a spun-sugar waterfall. The Roo went chocolate, ordering a fantastic trio...a Tanzanian chocolate pyramid of mousse, a Hawaiian Kona Chocolate Souffle, and a Peruvian Chocolate Ice Cream and Puff Pastry. Utterly decadent. The boys had a pot of coffee, served in an elegant vaccuum-pot. By the time the little nibbly chocolates were brought out, we were crying for mercy. It was an overwhelming meal.

What's interesting is that, while the food was incredible, and I would go back every time I went to Disney, no single thing stood out the way the Wagyu Beef or Foie Gras did at O Ya. Instead, everything was just consistently excellent, with no single item being so above and beyond that we got all emotional about it. This places V&A in my top 5 restaurants for sure and most assuredly as the best restaurant at WDW, but I can't say it's my favorite restaurant, even though I can say that was the single best meal I've probably ever been served. I need to think about which restaurant gets that diustinction.

Next, we return to the Magic Kingdom for Day 2...but that will have to wait til the next post.

- The Happy Bear

Anonimity? Nah.

So, it may be obvious by now that some of you know who I am...or it may not. I'm now officially bored by maintaining this odd semianonimity that I started the site with. Hi, I'm Andy...though I'll still sign these posts The Happy Bear.

Why did I decide to go anonymous? Not sure. I guess I wanted to let the blog fly without attachments to previous projects of mine and to let the Happy Bear be something of a character unto himself. But I figure I might as well be me.

So I'm the Happy Bear. My husband Steve is The Other Half, and my friend Jay is The Otter. I'll probably keep referring to Jay as The Otter...but I'll let Steve just be the Roo. And I'll stay the Happy Bear. So it's all good. It just frees me up to talk about a lot of different things I might have stayed constrained on for fear of "blowing my cover", however tenuous it might have been.

- The Happy Bear

Friday, January 30, 2009

Food that makes me cry? O Ya!

Howdy, folks. Still checking in on me? Well, that’s good. There’s been plenty of times, lately, that I’ve thought, "That was good. I should include that on my blog," but simply being too busy slows me down in posting. I’ll try to get back to regular updates. 

So, what brought me back from semi-retirement? Good food, of course! As a Christmas present, the Other Half took me and the Otter to dinner at a restaurant called O Ya. This place has been getting crazy good reviews…it’s even been called the Best Restaurant in America by one reviewer. With a place like that in our back yard, of course the Bear Squad had to investigate!

This place embodies the phrase "hole in the wall." It would’ve been very easy to walk right by it. Inside, the lighting was low, but not so low that you couldn’t appreciate the food. It’s tiny, too - only about 9 2-person tables that can be reconfigured for larger groups and space for maybe 18 more people at the Chef’s Counter. We had the corner seats at the Chef’s Counter, which was cool, because we could see the sushi and sashimi chefs doing their cutting and making. We could even peek back into the open kitchen beyond.
The building is in the old leather district, near Boston’s Chinatown. That means that it’s most likely a reclaimed factory, complete with huge beams, brickwork, big windows and such. Everyone had some nicely made dark wood chopsticks and a fork and knife. Everyone also had a unique chopstick holder….wood, metal, shell, blue china plate…lots of materials. And all the plates the food was served on were different, meant to aesthetically compliment the dish. A lot of nice attention to the look and presentation of the food. Like most omakases I’ve enjoyed, the waiter explained each dish as it came out. Which was good, because otherwise, we’d have been lost in the eight million dishes. I carried my handy pocket digital recorder and made commentary on each dish.
It took little effort to decide what to have. I love saying the word "omakase" to a waiter at a Japanese restaurant. It means that it’s Chef’s Choice – hit us with your best shot. The only things we wanted to be sure we got were their clam chowder, which sounded amazing, and their foie gras sushi, which everyone raves about. After being assured we’d have those, the Other Half and the Otter also asked if they could offer a sake and wine pairing. Since the owner’s wife is the sommelier, we weren’t surprised that they said yes.
Some quick definitions before we go on, in case you’re easily confused by types of sushi. This, at least, is my understanding of these terms. Sushi refers to a mound of vinegared rice, generally topped with meats, fish, or vegetables. Sashimi refers to raw fish with or without the rice, which can be pretty amazing on its own. Nigiri refers to hand-crafted sushi…pretty much a little mound of sushi with a piece of something on top of it. All of O Ya’s appetizers are referred to as being nigiri or sashimi. I’ll try to be clear about those as we go.
Our first dish was a sashimi of Kumamoto oyster, served with a cucumber mignonette and watermelon pearls. It was very pretty, served in the shell with the other components over it. It was very nice, with a bit of sweetness from the watermelon and cucumber and a hint of soy. This was followed quickly by a sashimi of hamachi (yellowtail), a fish that I’ve gotten very fond of, thanks to Japanese cuisine (Don’t even get me started on the hamachi at Morimoto.) This was excellent, served with a spicy banana pepper mousse on top that gave it some bite. It was lightly blow-torch seared, which gave it a smoky flavor, and the mousse on top was very airy and pleasant. The overall flavor was great! The Otter said that this was another of the dishes people had been raving about online.
Our next dish was a nigiri of salmon, served with blow-torched tomato, an onion aioli, and smoke salt. Now, I’ve mentioned my lack of love for salmon before, but, like at Radius, this was a very nice piece of fish…not fishy at all. The tomato added a kind of smoky and fruity touch to it, and the onion just made it taste very fresh.
After this came a nigiri of "warm eel". This was served with a kabayaki (sweet soy sauce), Thai basil, and fresh hot pepper. The Other Half thought it was fantastic, and we agreed. It had just been cooked along the outside, giving it a bit of crispiness, and it was sweet and a bit spicy. I love Thai basil, so this helped me enjoy this dish, whereas I’m not generally much of a big eel fan.
The next dish was a bit of whimsy…a homemade potato chip nigiri. It had a nice crispy potato chip on it with some micro-greens, with an aioli of onion and black truffle. It was fun and had flavors of citrus and a tangy mayo, but the truffle sort of overwhelmed the rest of the flavors. We enjoyed it while watching them blowtorch other pieces of fish.
This was quickly followed by bluefin tuna, served nigiri-style with microgreens and citrus zest. There was also soy-braised garlic which gave it a wonderful flavor, and the rich almost purple color of the tuna was just lovely. That was my and the Otter’s favorite dish to that point, although the Other Half was still fond of the eel.
Because one Kumamoto oyster per dinner was simply not enough, we were now served a fried Kumamoto oyster. This had an aioli with yuzu, an Asian citrus, and a foam of squid ink bubbles. It was technically a nigiri, as it was served atop a little tower of rice. We all agreed that that was now the best thing we’d been served so far. The batter was light and crunchy…it had sweetness and citrus flavor from the yuzu…a really lovely dish, honestly.

We then moved on to a nigiri of wild bluefin toro (one of the nicest and fattiest cuts of tuna). This was blowtorched and served with a spicy mayo sauce and sesame seeds. The Other Half almost literally licked the plate.

Around this time, I pondered on the eclectic music. When we entered, it was French ballads. It then meandered through reggae and settled firmly on American 50s standards like Rock Around the Clock. Very amusing.

We were then served Scottish salmon sashimi. It was prepared with a spicy sauce of sesame and yuzu flavors, as well as scallion oil, cucumber, and microgreens. This was a beautiful, brilliantly colored piece of fish. It was tasty...but not a knockout.

The next dish was hamachi sashimi...I believe I've commented on my love of hamachi. This one had what they called a viet mignonette...a very nice chili-oil sauce with Asian flavors, I call it. It also had Thai basil (yum), and crispy-fried shallots (also yum.) This was a wonderful dish...great textures with the crispy shallots, and great pop and sizzle from the spiciness. The Otter called it, "like eating fireworks", but he had been drinking an awful lot of sake and wine by this time.

The wild bluefin otoro came out next...another wonderfully fatty piece of fish. Wasabi oil gave it a nice kick, and the green onions gave it a sharp, fresh flavor. With a piece of fish this fatty (pretty much a fish made of butter at this point), the fresh taste of the onions was wonderful for cutting through the heavily fatty flavor.

A wild bluefin tutna tataki came out next. Tataki is a kind of sushi that it pounded very thin. This was was served with pickled onions that had been blowtorched and truffle oil. It was a very nice piece of fish, but the Other Half felt that the truffle oil overwhelmed the dish. I felt that, in combination with the pickled onions, it just added to the savory nature of the dish.

Is it scary to think we still hadn't made it to the main dishes yet?

We next received one of our only disappointments of the evening. We received a bowl of clam chowder, which many people had raved about. It was served with pork cracklings, a pork fat drizzle, crunchy bits of tempura flakes. This was a nice take on a classic dish, but it was really nothing special, especially in comparison to the way people had been raving about it.

On the plus side, we were also served a grilled "sashimi" of chanterelle and shitake mushrooms. This is served with rosemary garlic oil, a froth of sesame, and a homemade soy sauce. Hoo boy! This was absolutely amazing. The mushrooms were grilled to perfection and incredibly meaty. I could've been convinced I was eating pork, honestly. With the Otter being a vegetarian, it was nice having one purely vegetarian dish that wowed beyond all expectation.

But then...the Otter slipped off the wagon (as he sometimes does). We were served a fabulous petit strip loin of seared Wagyu beef. This was served with a smoked potato that was so cute and little I didn't realize what it was at first, grilled onions, and freshly grated wasabi. This was one of those dishes you have...when I ate at Morimoto for the first time, I discovered that his cooking could actually make me feel emotional. No joke, friends...your humble bear narrator had to wipe away a tear for Morimoto's cooking. I was again, enraptured and feeling I was eating a moving poem.

Now, I've had American Kobe's some mighty fine beef, I must say. But now prepared to say that Wagyu beef beats it up and takes its lunch money. The beef was melt-in-your-mouth tender, smooth and fatty. It was well-seasoned and extraordinary. The Other Half and I were waxing rhapsodic to such a degree that the Otter couldn't help himself. He asked for a small bite, which he had to admit was wonderful. The onion was sweet and caramelized...the smoky flavor of the potato was a surprise and so lovely. It gave the Other Half what we call a Ratatouille moment, where the flavor brought back a fond memory of his childhood. Really quite wonderful.

And that wasn't even the high point of the meal! Next came the restaurant's signature dish – a sushi nigiri of foie gras. This delicate, seared bit of beauty was served with a balsamic chocolate kabayaki and raisin coconut pulp. On the side, there was a flute glass with a sip of aged sake. The Otter again fell off the wagon and tasted this.

Putting this in my mouth made we want to cry even more. It just melted away, leaving nothing but love behind. It was the Otter's first foie gras, and I'm afraid it spoiled foie gras for him. It had a slight sweetness because of some of the component, but it was mostly buttery and delicate. The sake with it could be described as "sake port"...sweet and mellow, and a perfect compliment to the dish. Drinking the sake while the flavor of the foie gras was still in my mouth brought out such exquisite new levels of flavor...I'm not exaggerating when I say that this may be the best single piece of food I have even eaten in my entire life. Coupled with the Wagyu beef, this dish put this restaurant up in my top three, along with Radius and Morimoto.

To finish our meals, we ordered three different desserts to share. Having a great love of salt caramel, I was delighted to see a raw chocolate gelato served with sea salt caramel mousse and toasted sesame. The Other Half ordered a warm chocolate pudding cake, served with shiso cherries and créme fraiche. The Otter ordered a tres leches soaked Boston cream pie. All three were really delightful desserts.

With no hesitation, I recommend this restaurant. If you're going to be in the Boston area, and you want to find a really nice place to dine, make a reservation and plunge right in. This place is a treasure, and I am sure it will be a "special occassion" restaurant for us for years to come.

Well, we're leaving tomorrow for Walt Disney of my favorite places to go for fun and great food. I have a renewed desire to get blogging, so expect mroe reports, soon.

- The Happy Bear