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Ever since Tony Bourdain went back for seconds, there's been some serious hype about Voodoo Doughnuts, Portland's famous all-night doughnut hub. On a recent trip there to visit our good friends Alex and Kat, we decided we needed to see what all the hype was about. Voodoo Doughnuts - 1 of 2

Voodoo is without a doubt the most interesting doughnut experience I've ever had. If nothing else, they get a big gold star for having fun with a genre of food that can seem a little repetitive. There's nothing boring about the 'VD', as Voodoo Doughnuts is called on the bumper sticker that I would never own. After waiting in a short line, we ordered the Voodoo Dozen for $8.50, and the woman at the counter picked a random selection of their wares for us. A maple bacon to boot, and we were on our way.

To make a long story short, VD makes good hole. We got two doughnuts with frosting and cereal stuck on top – Capt'n Crunch and Cocoa Puffs. Cocoa Puffs came up huge on a cakey chocolate doughnut, but the CC was like a decent doughnut with cereal on top. We also got the candy coat – one with crushed butterfinger (which Alex loved) and one with tiny M&M's. Another had Oreo chunks, and was so-so. We also tried a blue frosted jobbie with sprinkles. None of us could figure out what it tasted like. Tamar said 'it tastes blue.' Maybe Kool-Aid, we think.

Voodoo Doughnuts - 2 of 2
The slightly less hipster doughnuts were some of the best. There was a fantastic cinnamon cake specimen (no frosting) with a just a hint of heat (chili powder?) that came on late. A lemon glazed was subtle and not too sweet.

Finally, there was the Bourdain special – the maple bacon doughnut. I hate to validate the hype about this doughnut, but I can't help it: it is truly awesome. The sweet-savory mix is truly special. The bacon has just enough salt, smoke to balance the sickly sweet doughnut and sticky maple frosting. So good. Want… now.

Tamar and I were just in Santa Fe for the Society for Applied Anthropology conference. The conference was meh, but Santa Fe is fairly great. In particular, we both love the food there. New Mexico cuisine is heavily influenced by Tex-Mex, or straight-up Mexican, but it's all about the New Mexico chiles. Green, red, or Christmas (that's both). Put that sauce on cardboard and it would taste great.

But I digress. 5 days at a conference means a lot of restaurants, which means a lot of searching on Yelp, TripAdvisor, ChowHound, etc. As anyone who's looked for a restaurant without local tips knows, it can be a chore. In the past, it's been argued that a big problem with online reviews is that they attract the extremes: people who love a place, and people who hate it. So, the meta-rating inevitably consists of a raft of 1's and a raft of 5's that average out to a solid, mediocre 3. When every place is a 3, online reviews aren't much more useful than a phone book – which, granted, is a little useful.

But in the process of using a variety of online review sites in Santa Fe, I noticed that the nature of the reviews could be changing. For one thing, it didn't appear to me that everyone was so extreme. I saw lot's of 2's, 3.5's, 4s, etc. Lots of thoughtful reviews, people weighing their priorities, making substantive comments. This made me wonder if the extremes problem was at least partly an issue of growing pains. When online review sites were for early adopters and tech savvy folks, they were primarily used as venues for rants and raves. Now that they're much more mainstream, it could be that the moderate, balanced opinions are becoming the norm.

Once every meta-review isn't a 3, those scores can start to be really useful. But that points out another key weakness of online review sites. Review aggregators are all about the wisdom of crowds – that's the grand, cantankerous idea that a person is dumb, but people are smart. That individuals can be biased and wrong, but given a diverse enough group, all the biases cancel each other out and what's left is the good stuff. The wisdom.

But the dirty secret about the wisdom is that it's only as good as the crowd. As Tamar wisely pointed out, one good thing about experts is that we can find one that we agree with. We seek out someone who we feel shares our taste in food, wine, restaurant experience, and we trust them. With a meta-review, we know that the biases should cancel each other out to reveal the truth about the restaurant. But there is no truth (spoon). There's only the preference of the population. And without knowing anything about those preferences, the meta-review loses most of its value.

So, realizing the trouble, what does your average review-reader do then? Of course, we turn from the meta-review to the reviews themselves. It's a reasonable course of action, a logical next step, and it feels good. But there's no wisdom in it. Once we start reading individual stories and experiences, the wisdom of crowds is gone. Now we're just getting ideosyncratic little snippets of experience that are probably not representative of the restaurant. Our search will inevitably be biased by the way that the reviews are sorted, or by the happenstance chronology of whether a bad, mediocre, or good review was the last one posted. Worse than that, our search will be subject to all kinds of social psychological biases that are interesting and appealing, but useless if we're looking for a good restaurant. We'll do things like give more weight to the first and last reviews we read, and specifically (but unconsciously) seek out reviews that validate things we already think.

Put these two issues together, and we've got a big problem for online review sites. The meta-review is of limited use because it lies: it purports to represent wisdom, but without knowing the crowd we don't know how much. The individual reviews feel good, but the wisdom doesn't lie there. (See what I did with the title? I hate myself.) The latter is a big problem for the Yelp's out there, because part of what makes us so ready to devote time to reviews is knowing that our story is out there, that our words will be read, and that what we think matters.

There are good solutions to both of these problems – solutions that I think will drastically improve online review sites. First, meta-reviews will be more and more useful the more we know about the underlying population. Review sites should start surveying their users to find out their priorities about whatever is being rated. This sounds boring, but there are lots of creative ways to get this type of info. Jane cares a lot about the food, isn't bothered by slow service because she doesn't mind sitting and chatting. Billy Bob isn't picky about food, he'll enjoy almost anything you serve him, but he thinks what's he's really paying for is the service, so it'd better be Johnny on the spot. Peter won't go to a restaurant that doesn't allow corkage and have good stemware no matter how good the food and service are. With this kind of information, I'll be able to filter reviews based on my own preferences.

Individual reviews have their place too, but primarily as expert-finding mechanisms. Tamar was saying that when she reads reviews, she looks for certain adjectives, certain things about the ways that people write that give her confidence. These are, essentially, things that help her find experts. Once she's found them, if they're regular contributors she can subscribe. You can already do this sort of thing on many review sites, but it's secondary. Individual reviews need to be abstracted from meta-reviews somehow. Not hidden, but divorced from the search-flow in which reading the reviews inevitably follows looking at the meta-review. Doing these things would make review sites 10x better.

Recently I've had the chance to try two German Rauchbiers. Rauchbier is German for 'smoked beer.' If that seems odd to you, I'm with you. But try one, and you'll realize it's pretty fantastic.

Spezial Rauchbier Lager

Spezial RauchbierWith my brother-in-law Darren in Eugene, OR, I tried this beer on finding it at the local market. From Brauerei Spezial, one of the classic old breweries in Bamberg, this beer is a rich amber color and pours with a dense but not thick head. Spezial is unique among rauchbiers in that they make two things at the brewery: beer and ham. At the beginning of the brewing process, the brewers toast the grains in a large oven with a conveyor running through it. They use the same conveyor for the ham, so the grains pick up some of the quality of the pork. It's not overpowering, and if I didn't tell you, you might not notice. But when you're looking for it, you do get the sense that some salty, pungent pork flavor is back behind the earthy, nutty lager.

This is a great beer, with or without food, but especially without. I've only tried a few rauchbiers, but I would call the Spezial Lager a 'starter rauchbier', because the flavor of the smoke isn't overpowering at all. In fact, it's very smooth, with a nicely balanced smoke and toasted wood flavor. I could drink a case.

Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Marzen

Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier MarzenI found this brew by Brauerei Heller, also in Bamberg, at my local Whole Foods. It gets top scores on Beer Advocate, where they extol its virtues as the classic example of rauchbier. It is very smoky. Taking a sip, you get the sense of having shoved your head inside a freshly toasted cask, and then banging it against the side. Hard.

Compared to the Spezial, this is a much more serious brew – the California Merlot of rauchbier. By itself, I found the smoky flavor to be somewhat overpowering, especially because I entered the experience expecting something more like Spezial, which I tried first. I'm sure I'm just calling attention to my lack of Distinction by complaining, but I would not reach for this beer while chatting at a party.

With dinner, though, it was a whole other story. We grilled a mix of wonderful sausages – lamb mergueza, pork bratwurst and a chicken garlic, and basil – with green beans and roasted sweet potato. The Schlenkerla beer was amazing with sausages, adding a wonderful character to the lamb and pork in particular. The smoke combined with the sticky earthiness of sweet potatoes was also fantastic. I would absolutely drink this again, and I'd do it with dinner.

Hopefully you'll be doing plenty of cooking and eating this holiday season – I know I will. Whether recipes are simple or complex, I have one tip that helps me avoid common cooking mistakes like forgetting an ingredient or a step in the process.

Mise en Place

That's a snooty French phrase that means 'put in place'. In practice, mise en place is just your batch of ready-to-go ingredients for whatever you're cooking. All chopped, all mixed, all prepared for when the cooking begins. As in, you get it all set before the first ingredient hits the pan.

It doesn't sound like much, but I find it makes the whole thing so smooth for two reasons. First, if you've been thinking about your mise en place, then you probably read carefully through the whole recipe, and you're less likely to miss a step or ingredient somewhere. Second, when everything is all set to go, you avoid those hectic moments when the last ingredient has gone in the pan and you realize you've only got 3 minutes to dice 10 onions or whatever. When it's already done you can relax, take your time with the recipe.

Happy Holidays!

I was listening to the folks on NPR talk about Thanksgiving recipes this morning, and so I thought I would reprise my turkey tips. Here are my 5 steps to the perfect turkey:

  1. Brine it
  2. Dry rub it
  3. Don't stuff! Don't baste!
  4. Tent it
  5. Use a digital thermometer

For lots of detail on these steps, check out my earlier post: Thanksgiving Turkey That Will Make Your Fall Over. I've never failed to make a flavorful, juicy turkey with these steps.

Turkey
The experts on KQED were commenting that they prefer not to cook the bird whole, under the assumption that the breast and the legs are just so different in their cooking times, their fat contents, that they need different treatment. This is certainly one way to go. But then again, people cook chickens whole and they turn out great. The problem is magnified in a bigger bird, sure, but the way to deal with this is #4 above: the tent. A dry turkey breast is the biggest worry you should have. But using a foil tent to slow the cooking of the breast while the legs and thighs get done will work out great.

One last thing. The most flavorful part of any fowl is also one of the least appreciated: the oyster. Follow the thigh around the back of the bird to where it meets the backbone and you'll find a little round indentation of firm, juicy, flavor-filled dark meat. Dig your finger in and it'll come out whole. It's bite-size and scrumptious. Don't let that go into the stew – you want to eat it now!

The Drops of God is a Japanese Manga series about wine. That's right, fancy wine. Today's the first I've heard of it, but it seems like the weekly series matches the ways I think about wine. Down to earth, un-pretentious (I hope), and with lots of visual imagery. Some of the description in just the sample images reminds me of the way my sister-in-law Christine talks about wine. What does the wine invoke? A large room with a leather wingback set in front of a roaring fire. Misty rain outside, someone was smoking a cigar in that chair a few days ago.

Anyone know how I can get my hands on the series? In English, hopefully…



(Click for larger images)

See: NY Times, Xorsyst , Daily Mail

Trader Joe's has come through again with a value on wine that's so amazing I have to share. 2005 Caves des Papes Cotes du Rhone. $4.99 / bottle. You can't miss this oddly shaped, fat and squat wine bottle on the shelf. Everything I have to say about this wine should have '…for $.4.99' tacked on the end of it. What a value. It's well balanced, not too tannic for a young wine, has a good amount of fruit, and even that characteristic earthy quality in the nose that makes some Rhone wines unique (especially one of my favorites, Chataeuneuf-du-Papes). This is everything an everyday wine should be, and for less than $5, you might as well drink it everyday. If I'd paid $20 for this wine, I might not be so glowing. But the Caves des Papes is loads better than so, so many wines you can find at that price point, especially the young ones. Go get it.

Last night Tamar and I spent a particularly wonderful night with some good friends drinking wine at our favorite wine bar in SF. It was unusual and amazing enough to be worth sharing, methinks.

We started the evening with a bottle of Domaine J. Laurens Brut NV. This French sparkling wine was a bit too sweet and apple-y for my taste. Not much in the way of yeasty or toasty complexity, and I prefer the bubbly a bit drier, more all the time, probably, owing to the influence of Tamar's family.

Then we moved on to the reds. Marissa wisely ordered a bottle of Louis M. Martini Barbera – Lake County 1993. Most of us thought this wine was quite good in the 'interesting' way – something we couldn't try anywhere else. This old wine was almost over the hill, and so showed a great deal of inconsistency. One sniff/sip would bring some interesting dark red fruit and bramble, while the next gave hints of over-ripe figs and prune. All in all, we were glad to try it, and it was a super bargain.

Next we had a bottle of L'Avenir Pinotage 2001. This is a huge wine from South Africa's oldest winery. At first, it was almost too much in my face, but with some air, it settled into a wonderfully balanced, still powerful wine. Wet cedar, very jammy, surprisingly smooth gives the 14.5% alcohol. Not 'hot' or acidic at all.

Unfortunately in the wrong order, next we ordered a bottle of Georges Cleret Morey-Saint-Denis 1994. This burgundy was the polar opposite of the L'Avenir. Subtle, light, hugely elegant. It had wonderful earthiness, a light floral character, and a long, long finish. It too got better with an hour of air, and paired really well with some seared tuna that Mike ordered.

After all that wine, I think Mike was feeling a little over-excited, and so on a whim he ordered a bottle of Moreira Colheita Porto 1957. That's right, '57. This wine sat in oak for 43 years before being bottled in the year 2000. Oh… my… god. Smooth as silk, lots of brown sugar, nutmeg, allspice, sweet tobacco in the back. Our excellent server Patrick noted a bit of apricot, which is a little unusual. We took our time with this bottle, partly because its alcohol content is 20% and partly because each sip lingered in our mouthes for about 5 minutes. Best port ever. We were beside ourselves.

A couple sitting at the next table noticed our little wine adventure, and leaned over to chat. Seeing our '57 port they said, 'Wow! Are you Google or something?' We all died laughing. We're grad. students. heh.

After talking about it for months now, my buddy Andrew and I have finally started posting to our new blog, bbq.isgoodfor.us. Now that's BBQ, not BBQing. Our basic purpose is to review and write about BBQ in the Bay Area. We'll also be posting commentary, recipes, techniques etc. about BBQ at home.

We welcome contributions from other food lovers on any and all BBQ-related topics, especially related to BBQ in the Bay Area. Found a new restaurant you love? Let us know. We're there.

Thanks to Ben for pointing me to an amazing commentary by Tony Bourdain, author of the fantastic Kitchen Confidential. Writing as a guest on Michael Ruhlman's blog, Tony employs his signature whip-cracking, politically incorrect, dry style to critique the 'stars' of today's Food Network, and in general bemoans what's become of FoodTV. Here are a few choice tidbits but I suggest you take it all in yourself:

On Rachael Ray:

Complain all you want. It’s like railing against the pounding surf. She only grows stronger and more powerful. Her ear-shattering tones louder and louder. We KNOW she can’t cook… She’s a friendly, familiar face who appears regularly on our screens to tell us that “Even your dumb, lazy ass can cook this!” Wallowing in your own crapulence on your Cheeto-littered couch you watch her and think, “Hell…I could do that. I ain’t gonna…but I could–if I wanted! Now where’s my damn jug a Diet Pepsi?”

On Sandra Lee (of Semi-Homemade):

Pure evil. This frightening Hell Spawn of Kathie Lee and Betty Crocker seems on a mission to kill her fans, one meal at a time… I would likely be arrested if I suggested on television that any children watching should promptly go to a wooded area with a gun and harm themselves. What’s the difference between that and Sandra suggesting we fill our mouths with Ritz Crackers, jam a can of Cheez Wiz in after and press hard? None that I can see. This is simply irresponsible programming.

On Paula Deen:

I’m reluctant to bash what seems to be a nice old lady. Even if her supporting cast is beginning to look like the Hills Have Eyes–and her food a True Buffet of Horrors. A recent Hawaii show was indistinguishable from an early John Waters film. And the food on a par with the last scene of Pink Flamingos.

I couldn't have said it better, especially on Paula Deen. I'll never forgot my horror, watching as she poured an entire can of sweetened condensed milk on top of a pile of Krispy Kreme doughnuts for a nauseating version of bread pudding, as she smiled and said in her silky southern drawl '…and would you believe it, this recipe has no added sugar!'

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