Top Chef, S12E13.

The top 100 prospects ranking is up, in two parts, numbers 1 through 50 and numbers 51 through 100. My ranking of all 30 major league farm systems went up on Wednesday. All pieces are Insider. On Friday morning, my top ten prospects and full farm report will go up for each team. In total, you’ll get over 48,000 words of content – longer than Heart of Darkness and less creepy, too.

Top Chef logoOn to Top Chef … where the Last Chance Kitchen winner is (drumroll please) Doug. George loses again, unfortunately, but at least that ends the mini-controversy about him getting this far after jumping back in halfway through the season. Two of the season’s final four chefs are from Portland.

* The final four are in San Miguel de Allende, in the state of Guanajato, about 270 km northwest of Mexico City. The guest judge for this episode is Enrique Olvera, whose restaurant, Pujol in Mexico City, was named one of the world’s 50 best restaurants by some site or other and who can really take a list like that seriously? Really? Can anyone have ever properly sampled the world’s great restaurants to make such a list? I’m sure Olvera’s food is great, though. He’s written two books that appear to have vanished completely into the ether, but there’s another one coming soon from Phaidon Press, which also published the modestly-titled Mexico: The Cookbook, which includes contributions from Olvera. Anyway, it’s great to see a new face at judges’ table, and one from another country too.

* Quickfire: Create a dish that highlights the xoconostle, a fruit similar to a prickly pear but from a different cactus, prized by chefs for its tartness and frequently used in salsas. Olvera says the plant’s growing season is very short “so when we get it we eat it all the time.” Any of you ever had one? I don’t recall seeing them in Arizona, but I’m not sure I would have known what I was looking at if I had seen one in Pros Ranch Market.

* Mei can’t get the salmon she wanted because Melissa took it – again, what does that accomplish, making it a race for proteins? – so she chooses steak. She covers her steak in salt to sear it. I thought I was aggressive when seasoning meat, but apparently I’m about 50% short of the mark. She realizes she won’t have enough time to cook it through, so she calls an audible and makes a steak tataki, seared on the outside but effectively raw on the interior. I’ve had that with tuna, not really my favorite preparation, but never with steak.

* Melissa is making ceviche. Don’t be afraid to cook something, Melissa.

* Padma is sauntering around this public square in a white dress and heels. There’s no crowd of people staring at her? She looks like she might be starring in a shampoo commercial.

* Mei made a ribeye tataki with cactus salsa verde and xoconostle salsa. The meat’s a mess, in case you missed that foreshadowing. Doug made an all-vegetable xoconostle and tomatillo stew with roasted peppers and pepitas and purple cactus. Enrique likes that he made a vegetable-driven dish, saying that Mexican cuisine is mostly vegetables, despite what people (coughAmericanscough) might think it is. (I’ll be over here swimming in a tub of carnitas.) Melissa made a salmon ceviche with xoconostle, leche de tigre (which is what you marinate ceviche in – lime juice, sliced onion, chilies, salt, pepper, and of course the fish juices), guava, celery, shallots, and beets. She might use as many ingredients as Katsuji did. Gregory served shrimp with garlic, olive oil, two prickly pear sauces, and xoconostle relish.

* Gregory’s was the worst dish, as it was overpowered by the olive oil. Mei’s meat was not cooked correctly. Melissa’s leche de tigre was “refreshing.” I don’t get it – I like ceviche, but how much skill or creativity is required for that? Don’t you just chop and serve? Doug’s was mostly vegetables, which Enrique praises with “that’s the way we eat here most of our days,” and likes that you could really taste the xoconostle.

* “The winner is the one that takes risks in this life.” Is that about the quickfire, or just general advice? I like it. By the way, Doug wins and gets an advantage in the elimination challenge.

* Elimination challenge: Each chef randomly gets the address of a local artist – apparently San Miguel de Allende is the Portland of Mexico – and will meet with the artist, then design a dish inspired by the artist’s work, while the artist will in turn create a painting that will be on display during service. The chefs’ dishes must represent their artists’ work visually. This has “I was gonna use a condom, but I figured, when am I gonna get back to Haiti?” written all over it.

* The eliminated chefs are all there to serve as sous. Doug gets to pick his two first and takes Adam and Katsuji because he’s apparently building a new sitcom. (Katsuji’s deadpan “I don’t cook Mexican” got glossed over, but it was pretty sharp.) Melissa gets George and James, Mei gets Keriann and Rebecca, and Gregory gets Katie and Stacy.

* Mei says, modestly, “my dishes have been described as works of art.” No, Mei, the diners meant they thought Art Smith made your dishes. You know, works of Art.

* Melissa’s artist is a total space cadet. No, like, even more than that.

* They go shopping at Mega, which is absolutely enormous. Personally I prefer Femto. They keep it small and local.

* Doug is flustered by the store, saying “This is not Whole Foods… my spanish is poquito.” How do you work in a kitchen and not know Spanish? Doesn’t half the staff in every restaurant in the United States speak Spanish, including a lot of the people who do the truly hard, manual work? I don’t get how anyone who ever eats out could oppose immigration reform, but that’s another story.

* Mei is saying filet or PEE-lay instead of “piel,” although I’m not sure if that’s the right word or if it would be “pellejo,” which I think is the word for the skin of an animal. Piel might be human skin and this is just not that kind of competition.

* Gregory’s strip loin steaks are at least a little overcooked, although somehow after a rest they’re not overcooked and I must have missed something because that’s not how it usually works, right? Although I guess if scientists can unboil an egg, maybe you can uncook a steak too.

* Gregory’s artist and dish feature “dark, complex flavors.” Just how I like my women. Anyway, his dish is a grilled strip loin with an ancho chili and tamarind sauce, beets, cilantro purée, and a Valencia orange sauce. His artist’s painting has a lot of earth tones, with orange and green the only vibrant colors, both mirrored in the dish. Gail and Tom both love it.

* Doug is slightly apoplectic that he’s serving chili to Tom Colicchio in the Top Chef final four. Just embrace it, man.

* Gail’s dress is too tight. I can’t imagine the pressures women face when going on TV – their looks are scrutinized fifty or a hundred times more than the looks of their male counterparts – but this dress just did not fit, and it was a bad look.

* Doug’s dish is “Texas red,” a beanless chili made with brisket, tomatillo, and a masa cake, paralleling the structural nature of his artist’s painting. He braised the brisket slow. Gail says it’s earthy, has good acidity, and the cheese adds bite. Tom pauses, to give Doug angina, and then says he loves it.

* Melissa makes a “land and sea” dish with smoked eggplant ravioli, shrimp, chorizo, and cotija, and some beet juice to represent the artist’s graffiti. Padma loves the eggplant, saying it’s beautifully done. But this jumped out right away as the losing dish – there’s no cohesion here, and I wondered why all that stuff was on the same plate. The Cheesecake Factory will have this on page 63 of its menu by next Thursday.

* Mei made a snapper and bass crudo with a chicken skin crumble, soy gastrique, and radish pickles. Tom and Gail love the chicken skin, and who wouldn’t? It’s like savory candy when it’s done right. (If you have the skin from a roasted or otherwise cooked chicken, just run a paring knife over the inside to scrape it out so you’re just cooking the skin, then pan-fry it on both sides, no oil required.) I thought Mei’s dish was the most attractive, although that’s a subjective thing and I’m the last person to ask about art.

* The judges’ comments after the fact were pretty predictable, at least based on what the editors showed us already. Gregory’s sauce was complex and subtle. Padma says Mei’s dish wasn’t as wild as the artwork, but Tom thought the flavors were wild, and Gail loved the chicken skin like it was pepperoni sauce. The judges all liked the warm flavors of Doug’s chili, and Tom likes that inspiration outside the kitchen made him cook something different. Padma loved Melissa’s ravioli, which we knew, but Tom says some elements were there for shock/color and not for flavor, and he might as well have read her eulogy right there.

* Judges’ Table: Tom loves that the challenge got something more out of Doug, who Gail thought was very literal to the painting (I think that was a compliment). Gail likes that elements of Mei’s artist’s work were in the food, but that the food was still clearly Mei’s. They all wish the presentation had been wilder, but at that point, it would no longer have been Mei’s, right? Her plates are always immaculate. Padma wanted more envelope-pushing; Enrique says he liked the clean flavors, and how the dish was subtle but still playful. (I wish he’d spoken more. His English is fine, but I wonder if he was shy about speaking because it’s not his first language, or if we just lost a bunch of his comments in editing.) Padma loved Melissa’s ravioli, but wasn’t sure what the shrimp was doing there other than to add the pink color. (Pickled red onions could have done the same thing, and would have paired better with the eggplant, I think.) Tom thought it was playful but the chorizo was over-rendered, the only execution failure we’ve heard about. Enrique says Gregory’s dish repped his artist Artemio’s work very nicely, with powerful ingredients and strong flavors that stayed with you. Gail said the elements spoke to Artemio’s vision with the “marigold yellow” from the orange/ginger sauce (this judges’ table brought to you by Crayola).

* Gregory and Doug had the favorite dishes. Doug wins, and gets to take home the painting, which he’ll send to his mom the art teacher. Maybe Mos Chef got his groove back, too, now that everyone had a few weeks off. A competitive Gregory in the final two challenges would make this all much more entertaining.

* Melissa is eliminated. Tom says, “you did nothing wrong, you just came up against three dishes that were stronger.” That means the best three chefs from the early and middle parts of the season are the final three.

* Rankings: I don’t even know any more. I think Gregory, Mei, Doug, except Doug just won the Quickfire and elimination challenge straight out of winning LCK, and Mei’s been better later in the season than Gregory, so I got nothin’ except that I’m glad these are the final three and I’d at any of their restaurants in a heartbeat.

* Next week: Ant eggs? Really?

Anansi Boys.

This will serve as your umpteenth reminder that my rankings of all thirty MLB farm systems go up on on Wednesday, for Insiders, with the global top 100 on Thursday and each team’s top ten and farm report on Friday.

Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys takes one of the many pagan deities he invoked in his magnum opus, American Gods, and repurposes him as a peculiar Florida father who constantly mortifies his son, Fat Charlie, who isn’t fat, and then mortifies Fat Charlie further by dying in ignominious fashion. Flying back from a somewhat grim expat life in London, Fat Charlie runs headlong into his past, only to discover that he has a brother, known only as Spider, who appears to have inherited all of dear old dad’s powers – including the power of persuasion, which comes in rather handy in this story. Spider’s arrival turns Fat Charlie’s life inside out, costing him his job, his fiancée, and his freedom, eventually leading Fat Charlie back to Florida and the four crones who helped him bury his father and reconnect with Spider.

Anansi Boys – there’s a pun in there, in case you missed it – is two books in one: a madcap farce, and then a more serious meditation on dualism and the nature of identity. The shift is jarring; you’re laughing for 150 pages or so, and then you realize you haven’t laughed in a while, even though the pace of the narrative hasn’t shifted or slowed at all. The farce starts the moment Spider shows up, turning Fat Charlie into the straight man and the mark for no end of cons, with Spider using his apartment as home base for what looks like a long, unending con that also brings Fat Charlie’s unctuous, embezzling thief of a boss into the circle, a move that endangers Fat Charlie’s freedom and perhaps his life. Spider hones in on Rosie, Fat Charlie’s ill-matched fiancée, even trying to use his irresistible (because they’re magic) charms on her harridan mother, who has wanted Rosie to dump Fat Charlie since the moment they got together. Key to all of this is everyone else’s inability to distinguish Spider from Fat Charlie, even though they don’t look alike.

The eventual denouement comes about when Fat Charlie ends up in jail, accused by the sleazy boss of the embezzlement he himself undertook, triggering a come-to-Anansi moment for Spider that puts Rosie on a cruise to the Caribbean with her mother and without either man, the boss on the run with blood on his hands and money in various Cayman Island bank accounts, and Daisy, Fat Charlie’s one-night stand/arresting officer, going all Falling Down over the boss guy getting away with murder. One critical coincidence, where Gaiman has Rosie run into the boss on the fictional island of St. Andrews, speeds us towards a single climax that involves every character, one that forces Fat Charlie to cross over into the “beginning of the world,” the homes of all of the animal-deities, including Anansi himself, to undo the bargain he once made with Tiger and to finally understand who Spider is to him.

While American Gods had the feel of an epic, almost a great-American-novel attempt, Anansi Boys is a romp, both for the reader thanks to the Wodehousian man-in-trouble segments where Spider is screwing up Fat Charlie’s life, and for Gaiman, who gets to indulge in the sort of otherworld-creation that helped make American Gods particularly memorable. The inclusion of some (presumably Gaiman-authored) folk tales around Anansi slows the story down at times, although they tend to be short and I imagine Gaiman intended to give Fat Charlie’s deal with Tiger and subsequent attempt to unravel it more context. What Anansi Boys might lack in scope, it more than makes up for in narrative greed.

Next up: I’ve just about finished Vernor Vinge’s 2007 Hugo winner Rainbows End.

Saturday five, 1/24/15.

I’m still working on the top 100 prospects package, although at least I’ve got enough done that I’m not coiled up like a spring any more. The organization rankings piece will run on Wednesday, and the top 100 itself will run on Thursday, when I will also chat. The current plan is for one league’s top tens to run Thursday and the other Friday, but my editors haven’t finalized that.

And now, this week’s links…saturdayfive

  • Longform piece from Vulture/NY Mag: Baohaus founder/chef Eddie Huang’s foul-mouthed tract on watching his memoir (and life) become a bowdlerized sitcom.
  • From the increasingly indispensable British paper The Guardian why the modern world is bad for your brain. We think we can multitask, but we can’t.
  • The Senate passed an amendment 98-1 affirming that climate change is not a hoax. What a world that we have to do this.
  • Scientists slowed the speed of light. Of course, the particle theory of light is just a theory anyway.
  • Munchies (at VICE) tackles the question of the California attempt to ban foie gras in a 41-minute video documentary. It’s remarkably calm and rational for a look at an issue that inspires more emotion than reason. I come down on the side of allowing foie gras production, because I don’t want any government body making choices about what I should and shouldn’t eat when I’m better capable of making those choices myself. Asking the government to stop antibioitic use in livestock is a matter of global health and safety; asking the government to protect ducks and geese who may not be suffering any harm imposes someone else’s views of animal rights on my plate.

    John Burton, now the Chairman of the California Democratic Party, comes off worse than the ducks in this documentary, swearing at the interviewer at least twice, dismissing a very reasonable question as “stupid,” appearing to have little familiarity with the issue at hand, even proudly defending the fact that he never visited the farm that his bill put out of business. I’m not a Californian, but if I were a Democrat and lived there I’d be livid that this was the man at least nominally in charge of the state’s party.
  • Just because evolution is settled science doesn’t mean we’re no longer learning more about how it works. This week’s discovery: Evolution may be able to reverse itself, according to one study of the evolutionary process in birds.
  • I tweeted this yesterday but it’s worth reposting – one chart that shows how effective and dangerous vaccine deniers’ efforts have been. And don’t believe them when they say it’s not a big deal, because getting the measles is horrible.
  • Goofiness: How people in the small Swedish town of Ůmea say “yes.”

Top Chef, S12E12.

I’m not chatting this week to allow myself more time to write the top 100 prospects package.

Mei says correctly that Gregory would have gone home after the previous challenge if there’d been an elimination. Of course, the absence of an elimination threat may have affected each chef’s choices on what to cook, but I think her comments led the show to hammer home the point that Gregory, who lapped the field in the first half of this season, has slumped toward the finish.

Top Chef logo* George’s comment before the quickfire, to the confessional: “I never in a million years would have made as far as I have.” Rosie Ruiz said the same thing, if I remember correctly.

* Wylie Dufresne, who just closed his restaurant WD-50 in Manhattan and still needs a haircut, is here for the final Quickfire. He’s a molecular gastronomy guy, so of course the challenge is about … beans. (And I thought Chicago was Beantown. Did Andy Dwyer lie to me?) The chefs can prepare any dish they want that features beans. Wiley says texture is the key to success with beans. Since they only have an hour, the chefs all go for the canned beans – I’ve pressure-cooked beans in less than an hour, but only for dishes where I’m going to mash or purée them.

* Did you know beans give you gas? I did not know that. I’m so glad George told us about that.

* Gregory says he rarely cooks with beans because they’re not common in Asian cooking. But they go well with pork and rice, both of which are kind of common in Asian cooking, so assuming he knows how to prepare them, this doesn’t seem like it should be an issue.

* Melissa says of Gregory, “you can’t really win Top Chef just making curries.” Yeah, but you can win with knife skills and vegetable dishes?

* Mei knows Wylie “loves eggs;” I believe he called himself an “egg slut” in a previous judging stint. She’s aerating beans in an iSi gun to make bean foam. It kind of looks like coarse butterscotch pudding.

* George made yigandes plaki, a Greek bean dish with a tomato-based sauce, using chickpeas, cumin, paprika, and pork tenderloin.

* Mei made black beans and corn with chipotle, bacon, a poached egg (pandering!), and pinto bean foam. Wylie comments on … the egg.

* Melissa made a seared pork tenderloin with bacon, butterbean puree, roast carrots, and fried chickpeas. Wylie points out that “beans are not really the focus” of the dish, which was kind of the point of the challenge.

* Gregory made navy beans with sake, ham, avocado, and carrot chips, using ginger, shallots, and serranos as aromatics. Padma loves to cook navy beans, but both she and Wylie note a bitter finish in his dish which could come from the sake, avocado (if it starts to cook), or shallots (if they burn). The avocado detracted from the dish as well; the beans were slightly overcooked, so that made for two soft textures without much contrast from other elements.

* Mei’s dish didn’t look appealing, but Wylie thought the textures and flavors worked really well, and he liked that she used the bean two ways. She wins the challenge, her first Quickfire win, and a trip to Napa. “Napa, here I come! I’m gonna get wasted.” Look, I’m not judging her, but you don’t really need to go to Napa to get hammered, and maybe that’s not the best way to soak up the Napa experience either?

* The final elimination challenge in Boston, before the show shifts to Mexico: Make a dish that’s innovative, pushing culinary boundaries. That’s why Wylie is here, I assume. That’s all the direction the chefs get, unfortunately, which is going to be a problem for the rest of the episode, because it isn’t even clear what the judges mean by “innovation” – and I’d say the judges themselves aren’t consistent about it. There’s a $10,000 prize, so there’s something on the line that means I’m not just arguing semantics here.

* George points out that innovation means failing, which means you probably won’t nail it the first time, so doing it just once doesn’t give you much chance to innovate.

* Their Whole Foods is out of pork belly, which ruins George’s plan for his dish. I’ve only bought it a few times, but I know that the various Whole Foods where I’ve shopped over the years have all been inconsistent about carrying it.

* The chefs are all interpreting “innovative” by using ingredients they don’t normally use. In this context, shouldn’t that term be about technique and presentation? It’s not like the judges haven’t had octopus (George) or chicken skin (Gregory) before – there probably isn’t an ingredient anywhere in Whole Foods that these judges haven’t eaten.

* Mei went to nursing school because it’s what her parents wanted, then dropped out to go to culinary school because it’s what she wanted, and her parents were pissed. Don’t you want your kid to be happy and successful and safe? What the hell is wrong with these parents?

* George making a green apple harissa with octopus, charring the tentacles and puréeing the heads for fritters. It’s definitely weird; I don’t know if I’d call that “innovative.” It’s just a poor word choice for the show; maybe it isn’t possible to innovate when you have three hours in total to cook your dish.

* Gregory stumbles when Tom and Wylie ask how he’s innovating. Even if you’re not innovating, you need to have a bullshit answer ready for this question, which you had to expect Tom to ask.

* They’re cooking and serving at Catalyst in Kendall Square, which is in Cambridge (across the river from Boston) close to MIT. The chef William Kovel doesn’t appear in this episode, but he’d previoulsy helmed the kitchen at Aujourd’hui at the Four Seasons, which was one of the top fine-dining restaurants in Boston before it closed in 2009.

* One of the guest diners is Dr. Michael Brenner of Harvard, who brings chefs in to speak to try to inspire people to want to learn about science. He’s a professor of engineering, applied math, and physics, and among his many research foci is the observing practical operation of evolution by examining the functions of two protein families – hemoglobin and voltage-gated sodium channels. So he’s reasonably bright.

* We get a little physical comedy in the kitchen, as the line is too narrow for all four chefs to cook and plate at once, leading to a lot of one-word shouts between them, including Mei’s galline refrain of “back!”

* The dishes … Gregory serves a pan-roasted salmon in tom kha broth with roasted tomatoes, crispy salmon skin, and crispy chicken skins. Padma says it’s delicious. Gail asks what’s innovative about the dish, and Gregory says it’s about playing with textures, so at least he was ready with an answer this time. Tom says he’s “having a hard time finding the innovation.”

* Mei shows no emotion when winning or losing anything. She says she suffers from “chronic bitch face.” See for yourself.

* Melissa serves a seared duck breast with farro, walnut miso, and pickled cherries. She says this was out of her “comfort zone.” That’s also not innovation; that’s just growing up. Everyone likes the dish, but other than her combination of walnuts and miso, no element receives any praise for innovation, and really, she just took two high-umami ingredients and stuck them together.

* George makes charred octopus and octopus head fritters with yellow split pea puree, green apple harissa, pickled mustard seeds, bacon chips, lentils, rhubarb, and God knows what else. It’s a complicated plate, but the bottom line is that he charred the octopus too far and it came out bitter. Poor George is sweating like mad as he gets the feedback. It’s a Mediterranean thing, George. I feel your pain.

* Mei’s dish was duck curry with vadouvan, coated with fish sauce caramel, served with lemongrass ginger and yuzu yogurt. She says tried to make it lighter than most curries. Tom smiles and says, “I like it but I don’t know how to describe it. As you eat it, it changes … it’s really complex.” If there’s any innovation anywhere here, I think this is it. Innovative or highly creative (as a proxy) dishes should confuse you and make you think or rethink what’s in front of you.

* Blais argues that Melissa’s dish was the best, with the walnut miso as the innovation, and that it had the best flavors. Gail says it was the least exciting, and Mei’s was the most creative and interesting. Wylie says Melissa’s duck and Mei’s curry together would be the winner, so he’s useless. Tom says George’s octopus was overcharred. He swung for the fences, but Gregory didn’t. Dr. Brenner says that he’d rather eat Gregory’s than George’s. So it’s Gregory’s execution without innovation versus George’s innovation (maybe) without execution.

* I love how the camera always shows the four judges at the table, trying so hard to look deadly serious before they tell the chefs who won or lost. Some are better than others; Gail’s serious face reminds me of Paddington’s cold dark stare, where no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t possibly look intimidating.

* Tom points out that there wasn’t a whole lot of innovating. Yeah, no shit. Maybe the chefs should have had two days to cook if the goal was to get real innovation – or maybe access to different equipment, such as devices not typically seen in the kitchen.

* Mei and Melissa made the two favorite dishes … and Melissa wins? What the hell was the innovation there? Well-executed but so what? Granted, it doesn’t affect the chefs’ advancement in any way – Mei also goes through to the finale – but the $10K ain’t nothing to sneeze at, and I have no idea at all how Melissa’s dish answered the challenge more than Mei’s did. Gail’s blog seems to say the same: Melissa won for execution, even though Mei’s dish was more innovative. So the main criterion for the dish wasn’t the main criterion in the final judging?

* George is eliminated. Failure to execute loses to failure to innovate – not that George innovated wildly, but I think he did more than Gregory did. That said, I’d rather see Gregory in the finals than George, based on their relative track records on the show.

* LCK: George vs. Doug. Doug gets to choose clams or octopus, and chooses clams. He uses a grilled pineapple butter, tomatillos, and onions, and says he grilled everything he could. George steamed his clams, them made a soup with a lot of aromatic vegetables and fruits as well as serrano chilies. Tom loves both dishes. As usual, we don’t find out the winner of LCK until we tune in next week.

* Rankings: Mei, Gregory, whoever wins LCK, Melissa. I’m a bit relieved to see Gregory execute this challenge’s dish well, as he’s been more stymied by failures of execution than creativity over the last few episodes, and him vs. Mei would be the ideal final two based on what we’ve seen from all of the chefs so far this season.

No Cities to Love.

Just a reminder that the top 100 prospects package will appear on next week for Insiders, running from January 28th to the 30th. I’ll chat on the 29th (but not this week), the day that the top 100 itself goes up.

Regardless of the actual quality of the album, Sleater-Kinney’s No Cities To Love (also on iTunes) was going to garner rave reviews from critics and fans who were just happy that the trio was back after a nine-year absence from recording. It didn’t matter whether their sound had changed, whether they could still write great hooks, whether Corin Tucker could still sing, as long as they were still Sleater-Kinney, because that band and that name stood for something, although for what it stood probably depended on where you were standing – independent music, anti-corporatism, feminism, LGBT issues, sometimes stuff the band themselves never openly espoused. They never experienced commercial success commensurate with their critical standing, perhaps in part because of Tucker’s deliberately abrasive vocal style, but also because they never did much to court it. Their breakup in 2006 and move into other projects, notably Carrie Brownstein’s career as an actress (co-creating Portlandia with Fred Armisen – go Thinkers!), only served to heighten their legend, with Brooklyn Vegan promising to play a Sleater-Kinney track on its Sirius XMU show each week until the band reunited. By 2014, Sleater-Kinney was an idea rather than a pretty good, defunct punk band.

That makes it all the more gratifying that their album No Cities to Love, released on Tuesday on Sub Pop, is such a tight, sophisticated, hook-filled record, sophisticated without becoming staid, more of a second take on the Sleater-Kinney sound than more of the same they gave us through their first half-dozen albums. There’s a cleaner sound throughout the record, better production quality combined with less distortion on the guitars (Sleater-Kinney has never used a bass guitar, ironic since that’s often what the token girl plays in male-fronted rock bands), which means the songs are carried by memorable riffs, layered vocals, and non-traditional (for them) drum patterns. Tucker’s vocals are just as intense and emotional as ever, but it’s a lot easier to pick up what she’s saying and to distinguish each vocal or guitar track within a song.

Lead single “Bury Our Friends,” my #12 song of 2014, gave a strong preview of this slight shift in Sleater-Kinney’s direction – angst-ridden yet hopeful, stomping through the chorus (“exhume our idols/bury our friends”), driven both by one of Brownstein’s strongest riffs ever and some intricate drumwork from Janet Weiss. Weiss’ role on the album may be the most pleasant surprise, as she’s expanded her style and is mixed more toward the front; “Fangless,” which opens almost like a prog-rock track that’s made a small withdrawal from the jazz machine, would go nowhere without Weiss’ syncopated percussion lines. You can hear throughout Cities why Weiss has been in such demand from other indie rock acts during Sleater-Kinney’s hiatus.

Album opener “Price Tag” serves both as one of the album’s best tracks and a transitional song to reintroduce old listeners to the band’s slight shift in direction while bringing new fans immediately into the fold, building up a store of potential energy in the verses before exploding into a chorus where Tucker sounds like she’s still holding a little piece of rage in reserve for future use. “Surface Envy” completes the opening troika by paradoxically turning a descending scale into a memorable riff, I think primarily because of how it ends in a crash between Brownstein’s power chords and Weiss’s pulsating drums, an aural waterfall hitting the rocks and splashing everywhere. “No Anthems” borrows a little from stoner rock to underlie Tucker’s introspective lyrics, evincing some nostalgia for the band’s former, reluctant role as standard-bearers for the riot grrl movement. The album’s only real stumble, “Hey Darling,” a stab at power-pop that sounds wrong coming from Tucker’s lungs, gives way quickly to the melancholy closer “Fade,” which alludes to pre-grunge sounds from Mudhoney and Soundgarden in the first movement, after which Weiss powershifts into a march for the bridge, leading into Brownstein’s pedal-point riff that drives the reprise of the first third to close out the song and the album. It’s the most ornate song on Cities, the right way to finish an album that would otherwise have been split in two by its complexity amidst a run of tighter, faster tracks.

I was never fully on board with the hype around Sleater-Kinney, because I thought they were more of A Really Important Thing than a producer of great tracks, which may color my impression of No Cities to Love … but it’s my favorite album by the band, by a huge margin. This is the kind of album we would hope middle-aged punks could produce after some time away from their main act, but that very few artists are capable of pulling off.

If you’re a fan of Sleater-Kinney, I highly recommend this Pitchfork feature story on the band, with many enlightening comments from the band members on the direction of this latest album. I also suggest you check out the 2013 album Silence Yourself by Savages, who walk the same paths first plowed by bands like Sleater-Kinney, Babes in Toyland, and 7 Year Bitch.

Saturday five, 1/17/15.

My take on the Evan Gattis trade is up for Insiders, and this week’s Klawchat transcript had some other thoughts on that deal and the Clippard/Escobar swap.

Lots of links this week…saturdayfive

Top Chef, S12E11.

My take on the Evan Gattis trade is up for Insiders, and I held a slightly briefer-than-normal Klawchat today.

Top Chef logoSo, in the opener, did George just out Gregory? I have no idea if Gregory was open about his sexual orientation or not, but that was kind of out of nowhere. So, um, I hope that was okay. (EDIT: I missed Gregory’s comments earlier in the season on this, so I guess it was all fine.)

* Elimination challenge: Ashley Christensen from Raleigh! Love her stuff. Joule is my breakfast spot any time I’m in Raleigh. Beasley’s fried chicken is wonderful, and my one meal at Poole’s Diner was spectacular too. Anyway, there’s no quickfire, so I kind of buried the lede there because I got excited.

* The chefs head to Island Creek Oyster Farm in Duxbury to dredge for oysters, dig for clams, and forage for seaweed, after which they’ll get their choice of some other premium shellfish, about as fresh as it can possibly be. Each chef is responsible for one app and one entr&ee. The chefs get sous-chefs from back home – Melissa’s Mom, Gregory’s sister, George’s dad, Mei’s brother – and the sous have to make the appetizers without the chefs touching the food. On the bright side, there’s no elimination this week; the winner gets a bye to the final three, which will be held in Mexico.

* George’s dad owns a diner. Color me shocked.

* Melissa’s mom is an aerospace engineer, which is kind of awesome, since I don’t think you saw many women in her field when she likely first entered the workforce.

* Mei says her brother can’t cook and just hopes he just takes direction well. When she first found out that her brother (Harly) had to do all the cooking for the appetizer, she made a face my daughter makes that’s usually followed by some sort of howl.

* Right on cue, Harly tries to operate the crank to pull up the net with which they dredge the oysters (via a pulley), and snaps the handle clean off. Maybe that was rigged to come off before he even got on the boat?

* On the pier where the chefs get to choose their other shellfish is a giant bin of surf clams. If you’ve ever had true fried clam strips, then you’ve probably had surf clams, specifically the pseudopod (sometimes called its “tongue”), a long appendage that can be sliced thinly and fried, and is often followed by ice cream served with a shortbread cookie.

* George calls his dad Mr. Tony, and the guy talks like he’s right off the boat even though it sounds like he’s been in the U.S. for thirty or forty years. He sold his diner and invested the proceeds in George’s restaurant, which is Dad of the Year material in my book.

* Mei’s brother seems like a stoner. Nothing fazes him, even her insulting him right in front of the camera in the confessional.

* Not one “Glou-chester?” Come on. That’s like sport for locals up there. Wor-chester, glow-chester, Need-ham … it’s a minefield for people who believe English should be pronounced the way it’s written.

* Melissa’s mom says when Melissa was a kid there was “no sesame street, always cooking show, that’s not a normal child!” Granted, I watched Sesame Street, but I have no problem with this either.

* Meanwhile, Melissa reveals that her dad (her parents are divorced) has never come to any of her restaurants and won’t involve himself in her life – won’t accept that she’s gay or that she’s chosen cooking as a career. What kind of father does this to his child?

* Mei says she doesn’t have her parents’ approval either; it would be nice, but she doesn’t need it. Again, why wouldn’t they give it to her? It’s not like she’s cooking meth for a living.

* Melissa wrote out a long page of detailed instructions – but isn’t that what an engineer would want? That’s what my dad would want, and that’s generally how any instructions I get from him (e.g., directions to any place, even if I’ve been there before) look.

* Gregory not playing it safe, tons of umami rather than acids and herbs.

* Mr. Tony at least knows his way around the food. Melissa’s mom has made Chinese custards before. The siblings don’t have any real cooking experience, though, which may put Gregory and Mei at a slight disadvantage.

* Tom walks into the kitchen and right off says to Mei, “do you realize your brother is burning his mushrooms?” Maybe he knows Harly is useless with a knife.

* Mr. Tony is shucking oysters, which definitely isn’t something a novice cook would know how to do. (I’ve never done it, since my wife is allergic to shellfish and I don’t bring any mollusks in the house.)

* When it’s all said and done, though, Harly seems to be a quick study and picks up the pace, plating raw oysters on beds of salt as he prepares to serve.

* In come the diner-judges … and Blais is back! The table is replete with high-end/celebrity chefs – Adam Evans from the Optimist in Atlanta, Top Chef Masters participant (and purslane enthusiast) Kerry Heffernan, Ashley Christensen, and seafood maven Rick Moonen.

* Mei has Harly pouring sauce tableside, rather temeritous of her given how much she was crushing his ignorance about two hours previously.

* Rick praises Harly’s shucking of the oysters, so go figure.

* Harly’s appetizer is a raw oyster with soy-yuzu vinaigrette, radish, and I think seaweed. When asked to explain his technique, Harly explains in detail: “I had to grate a lot of stuff.” Katsuji immediately hires Harly to work in his restaurant.

* Mei’s entrée is surf clam and lobster in tomato-coconut broth with zucchini ribbons and seaweed. The surf clam is raw, the lobster cooked, and she gets raves all around, especially for the surf clam … but did she really do anything with it, or just pick the right ingredient?

* Gregory takes his eyes off his halibut while helping Jessica plate, and as a result the halibut overcooks just enough that he realizes it’s going to cost him points. Nothing you can do at that point but suck it up.

* Jessica’s starter is a tomato-watermelon soup with pickled cucumber and lightly sauteed shrimp. Blais says watermelon soup could go very wrong and end up like a smoothie, but this didn’t.

* Gregory’s halibut comes with oysters, mussels, and creamy dashi. Tom immediately seems unhappy. Kerry asks if Gregory is happy with how it’s cooked, which no judge ever asks when the item in question was cooked perfectly, so Gregory’s screwed.

* Melissa poaches her lobster in buerre monté, a form of butter that is liquified without losing the emulsion that would break down if you just melted the butter straight-out. You whisk chunks of butter into water that has just hit the boil and is then kept over low heat, creating a new emulsion, then adding more butter to reach the desired quantity. The buerre can be used as a poaching medium, as a medium for resting cooked meats, or a way to finish off a sauce. I think I first heard of it when reading about The French Laundry, because they use it all the time there.

* Mr. Tony’s appetizer is grilled oysters with razor clams and cucumbers. Rick Moonen says it needed a little more salt or brine, but he did like their texture.

* George’s entrée is butter-poached lobster with vadouvan spice, roasted sunchokes in brown butter, crispy sunchokes on the side, and micro-greens (which Tom says are totally superfluous …. it’s the modern watercress). Kerry loved the vadouvan coulis for the lobster.

* Melissa’s mom (Alice) is super serious about her dish – no one goofed off, but she definitely showed some grade-80 makeup here. Her starter is a chawanmushi (there’s a recipe for this in Ruhlman’s Egg) with shiitake mushrooms and clams, garnished with lobster and salmon roe, and with bonito flakes for smokiness. She tells the judges that she’ll never forget this day, cooking with her daughter.

* Melissa’s dish was butter-poached lobster with onion soubise, pea purée, fava beans, asparagus, fiddlehead ferns, and caramelized sunchokes. Ashley says it might be the best-cooked lobster she’s ever eaten. Tom says the vegetables are the stars of the dish.

* Kerry drops an “unctuous” when describing the custard. It’s not a compliment to man or food, but we seem to be getting it weekly on this show.

* Jessica’s dish was better than Gregory’s. That’s not a good sign for Mos Chef.

* Judges’ table: The standouts were Mei and Melissa, which isn’t surprising at all. Mei’s surf clams were “really special” according to Tom and the broth was one “we’ll all think about for a long time.” Melissa’s lobster was “perfectly done,” but it seems like the judges/diners were even more impressed by how good Alice’s chawanmushi came out.

* The winner is … Melissa. Alice is crying. Maybe you have to be a parent to get it, but there’s something about seeing a proud mom or dad getting emotional over their kid on TV that just … well, it’s a bit dusty in here. This was Melissa’s first elimination win, and while I still don’t think she’s the best chef on the show, she clearly nailed this challenge – maybe it played to her strengths, since she didn’t have to work with animal proteins.

* She says she hopes her dad will see this and finally be proud of her. I doubt it, though. He sounds like a real dickhead.

* LCK: Ugh. Doug and Adam must make a dish using Hidden Valley Ranch dressing using only the produce from a crudité platter (they can use other pantry items). How very ’70s. Doug wins despite overcooking a steak, as Adam’s crespelle didn’t use enough vegetables and his crepes were probably too thick. Also, ranch dressing is disgusting.

* Rankings: Well … Gregory, Mei, Doug, Melissa, George, but by definition Melissa is in the top three already, so I guess I’m really saying I think that any of the top three would beat her in the finale, even though they can’t all get there.

The Tiger in the Smoke.

My writeup of Saturday’s A’s-Rays trade is up for Insiders.

J.K. Rowling told fellow crime writer Val McDermid in a public interview last summer that she loved “golden age” crime novels, and specifically cited Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke as a favorite, calling it “a phenomenal novel.” The fourteenth of Allingham’s novels starring investigator Albert Campion, Tiger has very little in common with the detective novels of other Queens of Crime like Agatha Christia and Dorothy Sayers, focusing more on the criminal than on the detective.

Campion is barely in the book at all, which starts out covering the peculiar case of a young widow, Meg, related to Campion, who is about to remarry but who has received several blurry photographs that appear to show her dead husband alive and walking the streets of London. That investigation resolves itself rather quickly, but opens up on to the “tiger” of the book’s title, a violent psychopath who escaped from prison and is after a supposed treasure left on the coast of France at the house of the widow’s fiancé. From that point, the focus of the novel shifts from Campion to the criminal, Jack Havoc, whose background is something of a mystery but whose manipulative character and force of personality dominate the final half of the book.

That change of focus means this isn’t a detective novel in any real sense of the term; Campion is so ancillary to the main plot that the film version of The Tiger in the Smoke dispensed with him entirely, handing his few lines to Inspector Luke or other characters. This makes for an excellent character study, as Allingham delves into Havoc’s background, motivations (beyond mere greed), and desperation, but not much of a crime novel, with a heavy-handed, forced conclusion that relies on a series of coincidences to put Havoc alone with the widow at the site of the treasure even as a multinational police force is closing in. Once Havoc is on the run, having joined and then largely left behind the criminal gang to which his co-conspirator in the original deception belonged, his character is less at issue and we’re left with a more conventional chase narrative.

Which brings to me to my key question: What is it that Rowling finds so compelling about this book? The prose is highly descriptive, which is a hallmark of Rowling’s style as well, and I have a feeling that Allingham’s use of “Wotcher!” inspired the same term in Rowling’s Nymphadora Tonks. (I also wondered if the offhand reference to a “Joe Muggles” in Three Men in a Boat may have helped give rise to the term “muggle,” which Rowling has said she derived from the English word “mug,” meaning a fool or a gullible person.) But there’s no sense of mystery in Tiger, no building narrative towards a climax of plot or action; I never once thought that Meg would die at the end of the book, and the only real question was whether Havoc would die (and how) or be captured. Once we’ve had a window into his personality – delusional with persecution mania, perhaps, with abandonment issues and a sociopathic willingness to manipulate others for his own ends – even that seemed to answer itself. It’s genre fiction that dispenses entirely with the conventions of its genre, but does so without fully compensating for the absence of the typical elements of detective fiction – the mystery of the killer’s identity, the process by which the detective solves the case, or both – with something else.

Next up: I’m almost finished with The End of the Battle, the final book of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, a farcical sequence based on his own experiences in World War II. It’s currently just $2 for Kindle, but you’d have to read the prior two volumes for it to make much sense.

Saturday five, 1/10/15.

No new Insider content this week, as I’ve been hard at work (really) on the top 100. It’s all phone calls at this point; I’ll start writing at the end of this upcoming week, most likely, although that depends on me getting through my list of calls too. I did chat on Thursday, and posted my Top Chef recap yesterday.saturdayfive

And now, the links …

Top Chef, S12E10.

This week’s Klawchat transcript is up. Otherwise, I’m just plugging away on phone calls for the top 100 prospects package.

Five chefs left…

Top Chef logo* Quickfire: Andy Cohen and his college roommate, Dave Ansel. Andy apparently smoked a lot of weed in college and ate a lot of late-night snacks. Ramen challenge.

* Instant noodles … and five students from Emerson walk in with grocery bags with stuff they found in their dorm rooms. This could be horrendous. No immunity, but there’s a $5K prize – we haven’t had enough of those cash prizes this year.

* I had a lot of detailed notes on this quickfire, but the whole thing is just gross. Gregory is scraping the toppings off an Uno’s pizza – the only thing worse than deep-dish pizza is bad chain deep-dish pizza – and that’s not even the bottom of the barrel. There are Doritos and Fritos and spam and I think I’m going to be sick.

* Winner: Melissa. Yet hers had no broth – it was like a mac and cheese with ramen, rather than a bowl of ramen in soup or stock – while Andy and Dave dinged Mei’s for lacking broth. I’m just glad this whole thing is over. I couldn’t have any less interest in seeing what talented professional chefs can do with highly processed foods as ingredients.

* Back to the stew room. The chefs watch a classic video of Julia Child cooking with Jacques Pepin, after which Jacques Pepin walks in with Padma and says, “I come with the wine and a beautiful woman.” It’s charming with a French accent but probably creepy without it.

* Elimination challenge: Take inspiration from Julia Child’s style and from some of her favorite dishes to “make a dish worthy of Julia’s legacy.” Oh, no big deal, then.

* Pepin discusses her tastes and personality with the chefs, saying that when he first met her he thought “she was a big woman with a terrible voice.” She hated grilled vegetables, which I find very odd since the application of high heat can bring out some of the natural sugars. She liked vegetables individually seasoned, rather than all lumped together in a single dish. Presentation never came at the expense of taste for her.

Julia Child brought French cuisine to the masses in the United States, she created the modern cooking show, and I think she was among the first people, maybe the first of all, to reemphasize the importance of cooking at home for yourself to Americans. But for all her influence, Julia Child was an early opponent of small-scale organic farming, siding with the Big Food-backed American Council on Science and Health, more recently in the news for its industry-fueled support for fracking. Child also backed genetically-modified foods and the use of irradiation to fight food-borne illnesses. She hated anything that reeked of scaremongering, but to the point where she seemed to be contrarian rather than strictly pro-science, declining to consider that some of that food-safety activism (e.g., opposing heavy use of pesticides) may be based on hard science too.

Anyway, it’s kind of awesome that someone of Pepin’s caliber would come on this show. I’m sure he was paid handsomely, but does he need that at this point, or is he just here for love of the game, so to speak?

* Gregory seems like a longtime Child fan, saying he watched her shows as a kid, watching her make cassoulets and braises with tons of sauce; he’s making coq au vin as his tribute dish, although that’s really a multi-day, many-hour process and I don’t envy him that task.

* Doug calls Jacques “peh-PEEN.” I mean, I know you don’t need to speak French to be a great chef, but he sounded like he was mispronouncing it on purpose. He’s roasting whole loaves of foie gras; I wasn’t aware Whole Foods even carried that much foie. By the way, cheers to the federal court that overturned California’s ridiculous ban on the sale of foie gras. Not only can it be produced humanely, but foie production isn’t a public-health issue like factory-farming practices used for cattle and poultry, such as prophylactic use of antibiotics.

* George is making osso buco (cross-cut veal shanks, braised and usually served with risotto), but is using a pressure cooker because he’s concerned the shanks won’t have enough time in the oven. We see undercooked braises all the time on Top Chef – didn’t Keriann make this mistake with short ribs this very season – so I’m glad to see someone actually break out the pressure cooker to deal with the artificial time constraints.

* Melissa gets all haughty and says Julia would never have touched a pressure cooker. Julia disliked their looks, but was open to using them if they could be shown to produce a better result (from Laura Shapiro’s biography, Julia Child: A Life). I prefer traditional braises too, in the oven or via a slow-cooker, but I also work at home and have no problem babysitting a braise all day. Most people don’t have that luxury, so if you want to braise something in a pressure cooker, go for it. If there’s a tiny loss of quality – and I’m not sure there is – it’s a reasonable price to pay for getting something on the table.

* Mei is making duck a l’orange, but giving it her own twist by using five-spice powder (usually star anise, cinnamon, cloves, Sichuan pepper, and fennel seeds) with the duck, which she’s preparing in the pressure cooker too.

* Jacques reaches right into Gregory’s pots to taste the sauces. Tom is impressed that he’s actually “doing a roux.” Isn’t that how you make coq au vin?

* Melissa’s short ribs aren’t braising as much as she wanted, so she’s hoping for them to finish via carryover. Maybe you wish you’d used the pressure cookers, eh?

* On day two, Gregory reheats his chicken, tastes it, but finds it overacidic and salty, so he has to add more broth and reseason because the flavors “exacerbated” overnight. Which leads me to a question for any food scientists in the crowd: Most chefs and food writers will tell you that braises improve after a rest overnight. But why? What’s happening off the heat (and in the fridge) to improve the taste or texture?

* Ugh, Dana Downer is in the house. On the bright side, Hugh is back! Joanne Chang, owner/chef at flour cafe, is here too. Did you know there’s a Flour cookbook? I might need to check that out.

* First up, Gregory’s coq au vin. He did a study abroad program and tells the table that his host mother in France made dishes like this. He serves his with glazed carrots, fava beans, and snap peas. It’s really well cooked, although it seems like some of the judges/diners wanted more sauce.

* Mei: duck a l’orange with turnip puree, orange puree, and glazed vegetable. Unlike Gregory’s, which was straight-up traditional, Mei’s dish was cooked in the spirit of classical French cooking but executed with a more modern style. Everyone raves, as they did with Gregory’s, perhaps a bit more so.

* Kind of wishing that Julia Child’s kitchen was still on display in Cambridge so the show could have visited it; it’s on display at the Smithsonian instead, donated by her in 2002.

* George: braised veal shanks with pomme puree, morels, glazed carrots, and asparagus. Dana likes that everything was cooked separately and combined later. Tom says the veal was a tad underseasoned, Barbara wanted a tad more butter, and it seems like George could have cooked the meat “20 minutes longer.”

* Melissa: red wine-braised short rib with brown butter polenta and jardiniere (a mixture of spring vegetables, often canned and/or pickled). Hugh asks, “what’s up with the deep charring?” and Tom says the sauce is a little bitter, two things that are likely connected. Had Melissa gone straight to the the pressure cooker, none of this would ever have happened. Dana was “expecting them to be more unctuous and juicy,” but unctuous (greasy or oily) isn’t a desirable quality in a short rib or in a person.

* Doug: whole roasted foie gras loaves with roasted peaches, sweet and sour onions, and hazelnuts. He seared the loaves and then roasted them, but they turned out overseared and undercooked, while they needed to rest further. Joanne says her end piece was perfectly cooked, but she seems to be the only one. Hugh sounds like he’s eulogizing the plate when he says, “it’s a good dish, just undercooked the foie, it’s a good dish.”

* Tom points out that the dishes that didn’t do so well were ones where the technique was wrong. Three chefs didn’t really execute their proteins, and two did. At this point, I thought it was pretty obvious who was going home – the chef who did the worst job of cooking his protein.

* Hugh is at Judges’ Table. Hugh should always be at Judges’ Table. His blog post this week was outstanding, as always, and includes a great baseball joke too.

* Gregory and Mei were the top two chefs. Gregory’s was straightforward, while Mei took inspiration but added her own twist. Mei wins and tears right up. I think it’s fitting that a female chef should win a Julia challenge, given the latter’s influence in the field. Gregory doesn’t seem the least bit upset by this, but he’s a pretty Zen guy overall.

* Hugh said Doug’s dish was the most ambitious and risk-taking of the five, but the interior was completely raw. Julia was all about mastering the art of French technique. I mean, she kind of wrote the book on that, right?

* Doug is eliminated. That’s a damn shame, but he had the worst dish and the worst execution. The group seems a lot more somber to lose him than, say, Katsuji.

* Rankings: Gregory, Mei, George, Melissa.

* LCK: When Tom says to Doug “you’re here because you undercooked your foie gras,” Katsuji snickers, and Doug says “you know what that is?” without missing a beat. The challenge is to use pork, beef, or goat liver, with just 20 minutes to cook it. Doug says goat liver is too gamy and sinewy, but Katsuji takes that because he’s cooked goat before. He says he doesn’t cook liver because it’s not kosher. (Not quite true – it can be kashered, but with liver it’s not a simple process, and requires broiling to remove the blood from the organ, which must happen with 72 hours of slaughter.) Rebecca says if you overcook liver it’s dry, disgusting, and tastes like “pennies.” I assume that’s why some recipes call for soaking livers before cooking – to remove that metallic taste. Tom says all three guys did well, but Katsuji’s liver wasn’t cleaned properly, leaving it tough and sinewy, so despite great flavors he is eliminated. Doug’s dish was the favorite, and I’ll take him to win LCK unless we get Gregory or Mei off the main ship in the next episode.