The Man Who Knew Infinity.

Ramanujan was one of the most remarkable and prolific mathematicians who ever lived, a self-taught prodigy who grew up in modest circumstances in south India during the time of the British Raj, rediscovering the previous 150 years’ worth of number theory while also uncovering over 3000 theorems and identities of his own. “Discovered,” in a sense, by the far more famous English mathematician G.H. Hardy, Ramanujan moved to England for about five years, where his work finally received a wider audience, but where he also contracted an unknown illness that eventually killed him at age 38.

Robert Kanigel’s biography The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan tells two main stories – that of Ramanujan himself, and a partial biography of Hardy, whose professional life was thoroughly altered by his time working with Ramanujan and to whom we owe most of the credit for what we know of Ramanujan’s life and work today. It’s a very strong, even-handed biography of Ramanujan, sympathetic without becoming patronizing, but was extremely light on its discussion of the math itself, with just a few cursory discussions of some of his findings that still bear his name today.

Born in southern India in what is now the state of Tamil Nadu, near the city of Madras (now known as Chennai), Ramanujan was a member of the Brahmin caste, the highest social stratum in the caste system, but was born into a poor family and received only a basic education. His mother was domineering and remained deeply involved in his life even into his adulthood and arranged (by her) marriage, only, according to Kanigel, supporting her son’s obsession with mathematics when it appeared it would at least bring him fame – and bring her fortune. Ramanujan failed out of university twice because he couldn’t be bothered with any coursework other than mathematics, but in that subject he was light-years ahead of his professors, filling notebooks with conjectures and equations, most of which he knew intuitively to be true, but couldn’t have published – even if he’d had access to such outlets – because he didn’t need to or understand how to develop the proofs.

In 1912 and 1913, Ramanujan, at the encouragement of some of the few Indian nationals in a position to advise him, sent letters with copies of some of his work to three English mathematicians, only one of whom responded: G.H. Hardy, at the time a professor of maths at Trinity University at Cambridge. Hardy was a purist, a mathematician who studied number theory (the study of the behavior and properties of the integers, with a special emphasis on prime numbers) for its own sake and overtly disdained any branch of “applied” mathematics – that is, math that had a practical purpose, such as the math required in physics or engineering. Hardy was open-minded enough upon seeing Ramanujan’s letter that he overcame his skepticism about an uneducated Indian clerk coming up with mathematical insights that took Western experts over a century to develop and wrote back, asking to see more of Ramanujan’s work. (There’s some irony in Hardy’s hesitation and the other mathematicians’ rejections of Ramanujan, as number theory has its own tradition in India dating back over 1500 years.) The subsequent correspondence led to an invitation for Ramanujan to come spend two years with Hardy at Cambridge, two years that turned into five before ill health sent Ramanujan back home to south India, where he died shortly thereafter.

Kanigel’s presentation of the life of Ramanujan leans toward the personal rather than the professional side, focusing extensively on his upbringing, cultural opposition to much of what he did and wanted to do with his life, and on the non-professional side of his life in England. The emotional cost to Ramanujan of traveling to a foreign country where he’d face outright prejudice but also would struggle with differences in language, weather, and, most importantly for Ramanujan, food. The devoutly spiritual and nominally Hindu mathematician was a strict vegetarian, but had great difficulty adapting his diet to the abysmal food of World War I-era England, where to cook something implied cooking it to death, where all flavor and texture was safely removed from the item to be consumed. Hardy was Ramanujan’s mentor in maths, but not in life, as Hardy does not (in Kanigel’s telling) have any close emotional ties to anyone but his sister once their parents had passed away, and with Ramanujan’s wife in India for the entire time he was in England, Ramanujan lacked for friends and for anyone who could help him look after himself. Kanigel reports on the speculation that malnutrition contributed to Ramanujan’s illness and decline, but his book was published before the 1994 report that he died of an amoebic infection in his liver common in India at the time he lived there.

I also found Kanigel’s mini-biography of Hardy, essential to the story of Ramanujan, fascinating. Hardy’s a great figure for biographers, appearing in one of my favorite books about math, Prime Obsession, for his role in attacking the unsolved Riemann Hypothesis. (Ramanujan’s pre-Hardy work was remarkable, but he did make some mistakes, one of which involved Riemann’s zeta function; Ramanujan assumed the function had only real zeroes, not complex ones, but its complex zeroes lie at the heart of the Hypothesis.) He’s also ripe for caricature, something Kanigel avoids entirely. A lifelong bachelor, Hardy was obsessed by numbers, but also had an equal passion for cricket (and, after a stint at Princeton, baseball). He was a strict atheist who once set out a goal for himself to craft a disproof of the existence of God convincing enough to convert most of the general public, and a pacifist who fought persecution of Trinity colleagues who spoke out against British involvement in World War I. Hardy viewed Ramanujan with great pride, almost as a father would view a son, someone with limitless natural talent whom Hardy could mold into one of the greatest mathematicians the world has ever known, and he was diligent about assigning credit to his protégé whenever possible. He brought Ramanujan to the world, yet it also seems that Ramanujan brought much more out of Hardy than we’d otherwise have had.

My lone criticism of The Man Who Knew Infinity is its scant treatment of the math in question. The reader of a book like this probably has an appetite for math, and the author has merely to explain the theorems or identities under discussion, not to teach them or prove them. Kanigel does very little of any of this, only dipping occasionally into discussions of continued fractions and some of Ramanujan’s explorations of the nature and frequency of prime numbers. Kanigel appears to have skipped the mathier material in favor of asking open-ended questions about the source of Ramanujan’s inspiration and culpability for his illness and death.

Kanigel’s epilogue discusses the final years of Hardy’s life, but it is his discussions with Ramanujan’s widow, Janakiammal, that punctuate the book’s last handful of pages. Still alive at the time of the book’s publication in 1991, Janakiammal spent a long part of her life as a widow in obscurity and poverty before she was rediscovered several decades after her husband’s passing, eventually reaping rewards, both honorary and monetary, before her death in 1994 at age 95. Her few comments evoke a great bitterness at how her husband’s legacy was underappreciated and how her own life was adversely affected by that and by quarrels with Ramanujan’s family.

Next up: The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection (Modern Library Paperbacks) by Robert Farrar Capon, a chef and Episcopalian priest. The 1967 book is a classic of the food-writing genre and was reissued in 2002 as part of the Modern Library Food series, edited by Ruth Reichl.

Top Chef, S11E15.

Top Chef header

My review of the cooperative boardgame Forbidden Desert, from the designer of Pandemic (reviewed in 2010), is up at Paste magazine. I held my regular Klawchat today as well.

On to the semifinals…

* We get a few quotes up front from three of the remaining chefs. Of interest, Carlos says he came “to cook and not to make friends.” Sure, you want to win, but you can cook AND be nice to everyone else too. There are no style points for being a jerk in the kitchen. (Except for Michael Voltaggio.) Shirley, meanwhile, points out that Carlos always does Mexican food … and goes so far as to say “I think I can beat him” if they’re facing each other in the finale. I think she’d wipe the comal with him, but it’s not in her nature to say something like that.

* Quickfire: No immunity, finally, just the prize of a new Toyota Corolla. This quickfire has two parts, with two of the four chefs eliminated after the first part. Gail’s half comes first: Create one “perfect bite” on a cocktail fork, including sweet, salty, sour, and spicy all in one bite.

* Okay, I may have been wrong last week – Gail isn’t as far along in her pregnancy in these episodes as I thought when I accused the editors of hiding her belly. Still lookin’ fine, though.

* Random musing: If Shirley were a native English speaker, would it have been evident from the start how good she is? I’m asking that of myself, not just all of you. I may have underestimated her because she couldn’t express her culinary vision as well in English as other chefs – but that’s my problem, not hers, and it’s clear now that she has as much vision and creativity as anyone else this season.

* Carlos is grilling mango for his bite. I’ve had lots of grilled tropical fruits, and have grilled pineapple and peaches with success, but man do those things burn quickly. You’re not trying to use heat to coax sugar out of cells and then caramelize it; the sugar is already there, and if you’re not fast, you’ll end up with charcoal.

* Shirley drops a sort-of-boardgame reference, saying “I feel like I’m playing Jenga” trying getting everything on to each fork.

* The food: Carlos serves grilled mango with shrimp and a chile de arbol glaze. Nick serves beef deckle (the cap of a ribeye) with aged balsamic vinegar, purple potato chips, and yogurt. Shirley makes a tataki-style flank steak with fresno chilies, crispy onions, mint, and a black pepper cherry sauce. Everything falls off Gail’s fork, unfortunately, so while Shirley tries to fix it I doubt Gail got the full effect. Nina does a shrimp escabeche with potato aioli, pickled shallots, and fennel.

* All four were good – I wouldn’t expect any less by this point in the competition. Shirley’s bite had a little too much soy, and Nina’s was a touch greasy. That leaves Carlos and Nick as the winners.

* Tom’s half of the challenge is built around what he says is his inspiration in the kitchen – great produce, not meat. The chefs must showcase red bell pepper or eggplant and have to run up to the podium to grab the one they want, which I hate because it has nothing to do with cooking. If the contestants included a chef who was plus-sized, or in a wheelchair, would they alter the challenge? What if one of the chefs could Apparate? Well?

* I hate that they don’t use the blender lids. Nick is sticking his hand into the blender while it’s running. That’s about as stupid and dangerous as failing to vaccinate your kids.

* Carlos makes just one dish – fried red pepper soup with fennel, basil, and onion. Tom seems taken aback by the spice, but otherwise likes it. Nick does the eggplant two ways, cut like a scallop and roasted, and pureed with rosemary, sesame seed, sriracha, and tahini, all topped with chili threads.

* Nick’s was a little underseasoned, so even though Carlos was about half as ambitious, he wins. I don’t get that at all – they rewarded the chef who played it safe.

* Elimination challenge: Create a dish that reflects your time in New Orleans, what the city means to you, yata yata yata. Basically make a dish that reflects some local ingredients or cuisine and hit it out of the park. Guest diners include Grant Achatz (who needs a haircut), Andrew Carmelini, and Douglas Keene. The winning dish will be featured at all of Emeril’s New Orleans restaurants.

* Nina plans to make BBQ shrimp and trout amandine, both very standard New Orleans specialties that would show no creativity on her part, just execution.

* Shirley plans to build her dish around west lake fish in vinegar, a traditional dish in Hangzhou, a coastal city in east-central China, saying its combination of sweet, sour, and spice reminds her of New Orleans flavors. We see her banging stalks of lemongrass with the back of her knife; I just learned yesterday afternoon from the newest issue of Bon Appetit that you need to do that to release some of the aromatic oils in the stalk before chopping it.

* The four chefs go to Emeril’s namesake restaurant, where he’s in the kitchen overseeing an extensive dinner for them, served at a chef’s table in the kitchen. Can you imagine what seats at that table might go for at auction? Emeril could probably fund a lot of cleanup in the Ninth Ward that way.

* Emeril’s BBQ shrimp comes out with some petite rosemary biscuits. I’ve had BBQ shrimp a few times – it’s shrimp drowned in a pool of its own vomit, assuming shrimp vomit is basically garlic butter. Emeril’s version looks way more refined, with the shrimp glazed in the sauce rather than subsumed by it.

* Showing the chefs get out of bed is not fair. That’s a reality-show staple that needs to die. If someone shoved a camera in my face at 6 in the morning they’d be extracting the camera from someone’s small intestine.
* Nina tells Shirley “you really don’t want to make a mistake at the end.” This, kids, is known as foreshadowing.

* Nick is once again trying to do too much, overthinking his dish, even though he knows that’s his downfall. This is the definition of insanity, right?

* Carlos making a seafood tamal, but without corn – so it’s really a seafood mousse, cooked in a banana leaf. I’ll give him credit for doing something ambitious and a little out of his comfort zone, but this doesn’t sound remotely appealing to me.

* Nina has changed her dish and is now making a riff on BBQ shrimp with malfatti dumplings, usually made with ricotta and herbs or spinach rolled in flour (and/or mixed with bread crumbs) and quickly boiled like fresh pasta before they hit the sauce. Tom seems excited for these, as Nina has nailed Italian foods every time she’s cooked them (although I think malfatti are actually American in origin).

* Nick says “I don’t know if Carlos has grown much at all” during the course of the season. This from the guy who threw a hissyfit about people touching his pots in the last episode.

* And Nina forgets to plate her malfatti. Who saw that coming? Oh yes … everyone.

* Nina does serve a pretty good dish after all – pan seared speckled trout with baby veg and barbecue sauce. Tom remembers the malfatti, asks Nina where they are, and Nina suddenly looks like she’d rather fall into a black hole than be standing there at that moment. Tom ends up saying that the dish didn’t need the ricotta and might have suffered from it, although I think any twist on BBQ shrimp has to have some kind of bread component, whether it’s pasta, biscuits, fresh bread, or something else (waffles?).

* Nick’s dish is lengthy: a shrimp-based broth with shrimp dumplings, charred cobia, roasted bass, tuna confit, fresh herbs, fried rice, and I think something else too. Grant says the dish needed a little flaked salt on top to finish it – Hugh said the same thing about one of Nick’s dishes in an earlier challenge, I believe. The good news for Nick is that he cooked all of the fish correctly even though each required a different method and different cooking time.

* Carlos’ seafood tamal is served without the banana leaf, a brick of seafood mousse with chunks of crab folded into it, topped with a saffron cream sauce and pickled okra. Everyone likes the concept and the fact that he left the shellfish in chunks rather than pureed.

* Shirley makes a seared black drum with Zhejiang vinegar-butter sauce, a sauté of “hidden” holy trinity, braised celery, and mushrooms. She wanted to make the diners feel like they could be on West Lake in Hangzhou or on the bayou of Louisiana. Grant adores everything about this dish, including the story. I’d put big money on her winning the challenge based just on what we see of the diners’ comments.

* I don’t pay much attention to Watch What Happens Live, but the episode that aired after Top Chef last night had Laura Ingalls and the Douche as guests.

* We go straight to judges’ table this time.

* It quickly becomes apparent that the two women nailed their dishes. Nina’s plate didn’t need the malfatti, which apparently she never even cooked. Shirley is showered with praise for every aspect of her dish. Nick’s fish wasn’t seasoned properly, yet again. Carlos’ dish gets dinged for lack of acidity (that’s Gail’s frequent complaint) and, once he’s out of the room, Emeril points out that his tamal was “not so warm” because Carlos chose to serve them without the banana leaves to keep them hot.

* Padma totally draws it out, but Nina and Shirley are the top two. Shirley’s in tears, saying “I’m really happy to find myself,” and now she’s got Emeril tearing up too – and that’s before she’s named the winner of the challenge, too.

* Padma makes a salient point in the discussion of who to send to Last Chance Kitchen, asking why in the semifinals they’re still talking about Nick’s failure to properly season his food. Tom doesn’t seem to have an answer for that.

* Carlos is eliminated. Nick “just stepped it up a little bit more” per Tom, which I interpreted as a comment on the higher level of difficulty in his dish. Also, maybe the fact that Carlos’ mousse looked like baby food had something to do with it.

* LCK: We don’t know. Louis overcooked his fish a little; Carlos underseasoned everything but his fish. I’m guessing Carlos but I’m not sure.

* Rankings: I’ll include all five, since we don’t know who won LCK, leaving me with Shirley, Nina, Louis, Nick, Carlos. I’d give Shirley even money to win at this point, especially given who’s left. If I knew Louis had won LCK, I might have him second over Nina, just because he’s much more likely to do something inventive than she is, while Nick will do something inventive but likely err on execution.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

The titles listed in Bloomsbury’s 100 Must-read Classic Novels (actually 99 novels plus Chekhov’s short stories, which is totally cheating) were largely familiar to me before I’d even started working my way through the list, skewing strongly toward classics of British literature (42 of the 100 titles were by British authors, plus five by Irish authors). The list’s creator, Nick Rennison, did show one clear and regrettable bias in his selections, however, with several titles that advocate political change toward socialism, generally to the detriment of their value as works of literature. News from Nowhere was one such title, a dreadful utopian novel that, like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, is the prose equivalent of an actuarial table. Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, published three years after the author’s death, resembles an actual novel more than News did, with real characters and proper plots, but there is so much sermonizing and so little character development that the book amounts to little more than 600 pages of didactic sludge.

Tressell, the nom de plume of the Irish-born writer Robert Croker (later Robert Noonan), based The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in large part on his own experience as a house-painter, working for subsistence wages while the merchant class and politicians grew rich off his and his colleagues’ labors. The title refers to these workers, who give so freely of their efforts to enrich others and seem, in Tressell’s view, to acquiesce to a system that is designed to exploit them and perpetuate that exploitation for generations. In that, Tressell was partially right – England’s labor laws were heavily stacked against the working class until the Labour Party took power in the 1906 election, before which a trade union could be held liable for losses resulting from collective actions such as strikes. Even as Tressell was writing his manuscript, completing it in 1910, the situation was only beginning to improve for the “philanthropists” of Great Britain.

Labor protection proved the solution to many (but not all) of the ills Tressell attacks in his novel, but his extreme naivete about human nature led him to advocate strong socialism, with little or no ownership of private property and penalties on savings or investment, rather than fair labor practices. Tressell has the two socialist characters, Owen and Barrington, deliver tiresome lectures to their fellow painters about the evils of capitalism and the benefits of socialism, all founded on now-discredited beliefs that people would still continue to expend maximum efforts when all incentives for good work or for ingenuity have been removed. By removing the possibility of large gains for the large sacrifices involved in inventing or developing new goods or processes, innovation will slow, and funding for high-risk projects (like most startups) will flow to countries where the potential for high returns still exists. Socialism as Tressell describes it has been tried and failed in countless economies, so reading his prescription for a command economy like those that collapsed across Eastern Europe and that have only enriched those in power in Africa is sadly comical.

Tressell’s awkward satire is actually more effective when he attacks the hypocrisy of those who profess to be Christians, mouthing the words of their Messiah while doing quite the opposite. Tressell limits his attacks on the religion itself – although I’d infer from his text that he was a nonbeliever – and instead focuses on those who preach the Gospel while doing nothing to help the less fortunate, and often would use their working hours to keep the lower classes in need of basic assistance like food, lodging, or medical care. Tressel’s primary antagonist, the painting-firm owner (and thief) Rushton, is found in the streets spreading the Good News – and making sure he uses these words to keep the poor and unemployed from banding together to try to improve their situation. It’s easy to see a parallel in the sliver of the U.S. electorate that professes ardent belief in the same religion and yet votes against programs that might help the very people Christ implores His followers to help.

Tressell also falls into one of the worst traps for the would-be satirist, violating what is now Roger Ebert’s First Law of Funny Names: Funny names aren’t funny. Tressell populates his novel with obvious and unclever puns, like rival painting outfits Pushem and Sloggem, two-faced philanthropists Crass and Slyme, the ineffectual city councilor Dr. Weakling, and the venal landowner and MP Sir Graball D’Encloseland. Satire need not be hilarious to be effective, but the failed attempts at humor here only serve to further insult the intelligence of the reader who might not have already given up in disgust at the author’s ignorance of basic microeconomics.

Next up: I’m about 2/3 of the way through Robert Kanigel’s The Man Who Knew Infinity, the story of the Indian-born mathematician Ramanujan, whose brief life was marked by enormous insights into number theory despite his lack of any formal education in the field.

Top Chef S11E14.

Today’s Klawchat was a bit short, but I’ll do a big one on the 30th when my top 100 prospects package is up.

Right after last episode’s elimination, the remaining chefs are in the kitchen, Shirley crying on Nina’s shoulder, Nick looking hollow. Nina says to the two of them that they “should be proud” because their chef-leader, Dominique Crenn, planned an ambitious menu. Nick’s response was telling: “Cause I sent Stephanie home, I should be proud of that?” We would have been far better served seeing that scene in the previous episode – and Nick especially would have benefited, as there would have been a lot less speculation about him tanking the challenge on purpose.

* Quickfire: Roy Choi, the “king of the food truck,” is back. He’s the genius behind the Korean taco craze. Also, emphasis on “craze,” as Choi is a little nuts. The challenge is for the chefs to create their own takes on a po’ boy sandwich, as Choi did with tacos, and they have just 20 minutes to do it. For reasons no one can quite understand, the winner gets immunity again. I’m glad we’ve learned from last week’s mistakes.

* Is it just me or are there more obvious product placements in this episode than before? Dunkin Donuts, Morton Salt, and Reynolds parchment paper all get loving close-ups in the first ten minutes. I guess it beats subliminal placements.

* So each chef is doing something related to where s/he grew up. Nick’s is a New England version, with fried shrimp, mayo, sriracha, fennel, and pancetta. This sounds a lot like a New Orleans fried shrimp po’boy, just with different toppings. Not that that’s a bad thing; I just don’t see it winning a challenge.

* Shirley does a Chinese po’boy, with sauteed catfish and what I think is a mirin-ginger-garlic-black vinegar-soy glaze and a cabbage slaw. (I wasn’t clear if all of those ingredients were in the glaze.)

* Nina goes Caribbean, with a deep-fried mahi po’boy with a mojo aioli and pickled onions. I have no idea why you’d deep-fry mahi mahi. That is a gorgeous fish just grilled with salt, pepper, and some citrus juice. Frying just hides it.

* Brian goes Korean, with an Asian lobster po’ boy with gojuchang aioli, yuzu, and pickled napa. Can you really pickle something in under 20 minutes? At that point, isn’t it just marinated?

* Carlos goes Mexican with an al pastor (pork) po’boy with chile guajillo, pineapple, onion, and garlic.

* Choi hammers them. I didn’t see this coming at all, but he says “y’all fucked this shit up,” that they cooked without soul and didn’t take advantage of the giant blank canvas. Carlos’ al pastor lacked flavor. Nick’s was too salty and wasn’t balanced. Brian’s didn’t taste of gojuchiang. Nina’s didn’t pop for him. Choi liked Shirley’s, praising the pickled veg, the catfish, and the hints of black vinegar, but says it “didn’t represent her as a Chinese chef.” I don’t know what that means. Anyway, she wins Least Prize and gets immunity.

* Elimination challenge: Who’s the big winner her tonight in the kitchen? Oh, it’s Jon Favreau. He’s working on a film called “Chef” about a chef who has lost his culinary “voice,” so he opens up a food truck and goes cross-country with his son. The challenge is to reate a dish representing a turning point in the chef’s career that led him/her to discover his/her own culinary voice.

* Brian reveals that before turning his life around, he had a problem with alcohol and eventually had a DUI and spent 24 hours in jail. Twenty-four hours for putting the lives of everyone else on the roads with him at risk, as well as anyone else who might have been in his car. That seems fair.

* Why are they hiding Gail’s pregnancy? Are they concerned about messing up the storyline? Also, Gail had her baby last week and named her … Dahlia. That’s a lovely name, except it immediately evokes the nickname for one of the most notorious unsolved murders in U.S. history, so maybe she could have picked another flower?

* And why are they captioning Shirley when she’s talking? If you can’t understand her, you’re not trying. Eric Ripert was harder to grasp and I don’t remember him getting the dang-furriner treatment.

* Nina says Nick overthinks everything and has a short fuse. Hard to argue with either point there.

* Nick’s being dickish in the kitchen, yelling at Carlos (but really at everyone, even the imaginary chefs in his head), “do not move my pots, do not fucking move my pots, do you understand me?” They’re not your children, Nick. They can tell you to fuck off. I kind of wish Carlos would, at this point; he shouldn’t have to take that from Nick.

* Nina was planning to make agnolotti, a delicate filled pasta, but as she rolls her pasta out it’s breaking and sticking in the rollers because the kitchen is so hot. She switches to fettuccine, which is fine, but why not try to chill the dough as you work? I have flexible ice packs that I can unroll and lay under a half-sheet pan to create a quick-cooling surface for doughs that are getting too soft on the counter. Roll, chill on the pan, roll again. It’s a little unwieldy but it works, since the gap between “too warm” and “just right” is very small.

* Brian, the drunk-driving genius, is shown spraying the open grill with what I assume is cooking spray, causing flare-ups. This is also incredibly stupid, as spraying a combustible aerosolized product over an open flame creates a temporary flamethrower. It can’t directly make the can explode, as the pressure in the can prevents the flame from getting into its contents, but it can also melt any plastic parts, and if you get too close to the flame or drop the can, then it can and probably will burst. So, you know, try an oiled paper towel instead, Lavoisier.

* Carlos is making pork belly, searing it first and then braising it. I don’t quite know the dish he’s making, but I would think you’d want to sear it afterwards, no? (EDIT: See the comments for more on this; I understand the point of the initial sear, but that presumes you’re using the same vessel, which I don’t think Carlos did.)

* Nick wants to toast some quinoa, so he puts it on a sheet pan in what he thinks is a 275 degree oven. However, you can see that the oven’s dial is all the way at the maximum mark on the right-hand side, and a subsequent close-up confirms that it’s at 500 degrees. Needless to say, people like white quinoa and red quinoa but blackened quinoa is not yet a thing.

* Shirley can’t believe Brian used boneless skinless chicken breasts. Neither can I. They have so little flavor of their own that you have to marinate them for hours to get any flavor at all in there – preferably cut up into cubes – or slice them into cutlets for breading and frying. Otherwise, they’re like plain tofu with better texture.

* They’re cooking and serving at Cafe Reconcile, opened in 2000 as a program to teach at-risk kids the basics of cooking and food service. Emeril’s foundation is involved, so he’s one of the judges. Almost 2000 students have graduated from there. A few work for Emeril now. The kids are the servers for the challenge, and they’ll also get to taste the dishes.

* Shirley is up first – she does seared snapper in a crustacean broth with silken tofu and napa cabbage. Everyone loves it. The fish is cooked perfectly with a perfectly crispy skin. She used leek and fennel, which is also the filling in the bacon-wrapped stuffed trout recipe in Hugh Acheson’s A New Turn in the South. I made that recipe the other day, using bronzino instead of trout, and other than using bacon that was sliced too thickly to cook fully (my error) the results were amazing.

* Nina’s dish is fettuccine with charred calamari, pine nut gremolata, and crab meat. Again, raves all around. The woman can clearly make pasta. And this isn’t her usual tropical/Caribbean flavor palette.

* Brian makes a chicken anticucho, a Peruvian dish of grilled, skewered meat (usually beef), that he serves with twice-cooked potatoes, feta, and a walnut pesto. Emeril’s twice-cooked potato is still raw inside, and Tom loses his mind over Brian using boneless, skinless, flavorless chicken breasts. Seriously – if you know how to break down a chicken, buy the whole bird. You’ll pay marginally more than you would for the breasts alone, and you get the remaining parts, the skin, the bones (for stock), the liver, and, if you’re into that kind of thing, the heart and kidneys too.

* Carlos makes his braised pork belly with a sweet potato puree and a chipotle tamarind glaze. It was one of the first dishes he put on the menu when he opened his own restaurant, and this might be the most praise he’s gotten for a dish all season. Emeril says you can taste every element, and Tom says they all have a purpose. I need a report from one of you who’s been to his restaurant.

* Nick’s concept was to showcase carrots in a slew of different ways, something he did at his previous job when they switched to a tasting-menu format. He builds it around a seared hunk of yellow-fin tuna, serving it with several preparations of carrot and some fennel pollen dust. He told them about the missing quinoa, which may have been a tactical error (don’t tell them what’s missing, let them figure it out themselves). The sauces and oils are good, but the whole plate is underseasoned, especially the fish, and of course there’s no texture contrast on the plate. The kids liked the other four dishes, but they don’t like Nick’s at all, one calling it “not nasty … but too gooey.”

* Judges’ table: All five chefs go in, to see five judges all crammed behind the judges’ table. If they all roll over, will one fall out? Also, Gail looks very good when pregnant. Not that you’d know she was from watching the show.

* They don’t specifically say who’s up and down, but the top three were Nina, Shirley, and Carlos, and all three got universal praise. Nick’s lack of texture and lack of cohesion on the dish put him in the bottom two, while Brian’s protein choice, raw potato, and overall heaviness put him there.

* Winner: Shirley, aka Girl On Fire. Carlos was very slightly behind, and Nina was also safe. That’s Shirley’s third elimination win, matching Nina, and her fourth Quickfire win, one more than Brian (who also won one as part of a team of six).

* Tom, right before one of the two remaining chefs gets the axe, says, “one of you will have to reconcile with…” something I couldn’t hear because I was groaning at the awful pun. For shame, Colicchio.

* Brian is eliminated. I would guess Nick survived because his dish was more ambitious, although the judges don’t explain their reasoning. On the other hand, I’m a little surprised there was no holdover from last week, where the judges might have used Nick’s dish, the worst of that episode, and his refusal to surrender immunity as deciding variables.

* LCK: This should have been the tater tot challenge, but instead it’s the skin-and-bones battle, with chicken, duck, and pork available (no meat, just the skin and bones). Neither uses duck skin, which shocked me, as that would be my first choice to cook or to eat. Louis roasts his vegetables under pork skin, serves it with crispy chicken skin and a warm poached egg yolk, and nabs what Tom calls the best thing he’s eaten all season, so Brian loses despite cooking a pretty good dish himself.

* Rankings: Shirley, Louis, Nina, Nick, Carlos. Louis’ comeback has been impressive, but what’s clear now is, befitting a former Thomas Keller protegé, the man can really cook him some vegetables.

State of Wonder.

Thursday’s Klawchat had a lot of Hall of Fame talk plus some prospect content. The Top 100 prospects package will run the week of January 27th.

Ann Patchett’s 2011 novel State of Wonder marks a return to form for the author of one of my all-time favorite novels, Bel Canto, where she pays homage to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain while drawing on the real-life hostage crisis at the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru. In between those two books, Patchett wrote just one novel, the embarrassing Run, a not-even-thinly-veiled love letter to then Senator Barack Obama, whom Patchett clearly hoped would run for President and win. That novel lost all of what made Patchett special, even in the quality of her prose, but State of Wonder brings everything back together.

Marina Singh is a pharmacologist working for a major drug researcher that has been funding a long-running development project deep in the Amazon basin, where the women in a tribe of natives, the Lakashi, maintain fertility well into their 70s. The eccentric researcher running the project, Dr. Annick Swenson, has cut off nearly all contact with her benefactors, and another researcher sent to locate her and report back on her progress, Marina’s colleague Anders Eckmann, died of fever while still in Brazil. Marina, who studied under Dr. Swenson over a decade earlier before an incident pushed her out of obstetrics into pharmacology, draws the short straw and has to go track down her former mentor, but finds that her mission is more complicated in both a practical and philosophical sense than anyone realized.

The lead characters in State of Wonder, Marina and Dr. Swenson, stand alongside Patchett’s best characters from Bel Canto and The Magician’s Assistant as smart, three-dimensional personas. Their thinking is complex and real without becoming unrealistic; Dr. Swenson is a genius, and a different sort of person, but her character is logical and thinks and behaves in logical ways. Marina’s back story is more involved, and her character, while very intelligent, is less mature, and she’s still grappling with the fallout from that incident that caused her to switch her specialty during her residency. (The novel would also pass the Bechdel test if it were made into a film.)

Marina spends a few weeks in the (real) Brazilian city of Manaus before finding Dr. Swenson and heading into the remote jungle location of the research labs, encountering some oddball, entertaining side characters that make up for some of their two-dimensionality with their injection of humor. But Patchett’s renderings of the settings, both Manaus and the Lakashi region, are beautifully detailed, and she represents the natives, by any Western definition a “primitive” people, without resorting to condescension over their way of life, even though it would likely be warranted.

Patchett has commented in interviews that her book was inspired by several films, notably Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (TL;DW), but there’s also a clear evocation of Evelyn Waugh’s demented A Handful of Dust, where one of the protagonists, Tony Last, meets perhaps the worst non-death fate of any major character in literature, all in the remote jungles of the Amazon basin. (Patchett slips in some Dickens references which make the allusion to Waugh obvious.) State of Wonder also steps back from the overwrought political leanings of Run, instead presenting soft arguments, pro and con, on environmental subjects and treatment of isolated peoples like the Lakashi, without detracting from the central story, one of delayed emotional development for Marina. Her professional success hasn’t been mirrored by happiness, and Patchett matures her without giving her a forced Hollywood ending. Marina ends up having to make a choice with huge moral implications before leaving the Amazon, the kind of decision that ages you emotionally when you face it but that was necessary to conclude the story without turning it into a saccharine mess.

Next up: Still slogging through Robert Tressell’s socialism-pamphlet-cum-novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Top Chef, S11E13.

This turned out to be one of the most interesting Top Chef episodes I’ve ever seen because of the controversy in the elimination. I’ll spend more time on that than I usually do on judging or elimination, especially since it seemed like many of you wanted my thoughts on Twitter.

* Jacques Pépin is in the house for the Quickfire. Padma says he “wrote the book on technique, literally.” (The original 1976 book to which Padma refers, La Technique, is out of print and appears to be a collector’s item.) The challenge is to prepare his favorite dish: Dover sole with artichoke and asparagus. It’s a skills challenge, so they’re all making the same dish, which he shows them all how to make first. That’s really his favorite dish? I love a good fish dish, but when it comes to favorites, bury me in duck confit, please.

* I wish we’d seen more of him cooking – the man just made everything look effortless, like when he ripped the skin right off the sole like it was only attached with Velcro. He also carves a rosette from butter with a few turns of his knife and says, “Now you can charge 30 bucks for it.” And people say the French are all socialists…

* “Your tahm start … now.” Pixar blew it. They should have had Pépin voice a character in Ratatouille.

* Three of the chefs struggle here – Stephanie, mostly with the fish, and Carlos and Brian with several elements of prep. Nick and Shirley, both of whom have training in classical French cuisine (which is really the foundation of Western cuisine in general), don’t have any trouble, and neither does the Queen of Execution, Nina.

* Carlos’ dish is missing tomatoes and the sauce is not what he wanted. Brian’s plate is a mess, with no sauce and cold fish. Nina’s presentation is poor. Stephanie’s plate looks just a little sparse, and her fish was also undercooked. Nick’s plate is “neat and tidy.” Shirley’s looks the most authentic. She says Pépin is like a grandpa, and you wouldn’t want to let your grandpa down, would you? I suppose that depends on what kind of grandpa he was.

* Nick wins, gaining immunity, which turns out to really matter this week. Pépin said his and Shirley’s were neck and neck, but implies that the elements came together a little more thoroughly in Nick’s dish.

* Elimination challenge: Spanish cuisine vs. French cuisine. I’ll confess to limited familiarity with both, having been to Spain (Barcelona) once for just 48 hours, and tending to eat Italian when I’ve been in France because I don’t care what anyone says, Italian cuisine is the best in the world. But what I know of Spanish food, which varies widely within regions of Spain (much as the language does), I love. American tapas restaurants often use it as a springboard but layer more elements on top of the basics of Spanish cuisine, so you lose what makes it special. I’ve already exhausted my knowledge on this topic so I’ll stop talking now.

* The chefs are divided into two teams of three. It did not occur to me at the time, but in hindsight this is clearly a failure of process. With six chefs remaining, a team challenge in and of itself is somewhat unfair, but combining it with immunity makes an outcome like the one we saw more probable than it should be. If the goal is to identify the best chef, or something along those lines, immunity/team challenge/six chefs remaining is a bad combination of variables.

* The teams are led by Julian Serrano (Spain) and Dominique Crenn (France), who will serve as coaches. The meals will have five courses, built around five “quintessential” ingredients of both cultures: olives, almonds, mussels, chicken, and chocolate. Chicken? Really? Is that “quintessential” in any cuisine, or just something we eat a lot? How about wine, or vinegar? Any fish from the Mediterranean? Cheese? There were so many better choices for the fifth ingredient.

* Team Spain: Nina, Carlos, Brian. Team France: Shirley, Nick, Stephanie.

* Crenn is the dream coach, fostering conversation, taking feedback but pushing the chefs to be bold. Serrano seems to think these are his indentured servants and is bossing them around and even micromanaging things like vegetable cuts. I have to think that, post-shooting, the producers were doubting their choice on that one.

* Crenn has her team using corn silk, which I thought was inedible (or indigestible) to make a “nest” for the game hen. The silks in my house go right into the compost.

* Nina, making a potato salad for the Spanish team, says, “If I go home for this I’m going to kill myself.” I hate when they say stuff like that. That’s not the least bit funny, and if there’s even a smidgen of seriousness in it, then the speaker should be seeing a psychiatrist, not joking about suicide in a room full of knives.

* Shirley, playing with liquid nitrogen, would prefer not to be the first Top Chef contestant to lose part of an ear on the show. If she does, though, she’d better stay in that kitchen or the other chefs will say she’s not tough.

* The food … First courses: Shirley’s snapper ceviche with dehydrated olives and olive ice cream against Carlos’ ensaladilla rusa with green olives, gulf shrimp, and potatoes. Both pretty good. I think Nina had a hand in the salad too.

* Second course: Stephanie’s pickled and poached mussels with gelée of tomato against Nina’s ajo blanco with almonds, crab, and cherries. According to Teresa Barrenechea’s wonderful The Cuisines of Spain: Exploring Regional Home Cooking:

Also known as white gazpacho, ajo blanco is a perfect cold summer soup: easy to make, healthful, and distinctive. The Arabs who ruled Andalusia for almost eight hundred years introduced almonds to the Iberian Peninsula, and this dish probably originated with their reign. Though highly popular in Andalusia, it is little known in the rest of Spain and virtually unknown in the United States. I serve it garnished with grapes, but thin apple slices are also common.

Barrenechea’s recipe includes garlic, almonds, day-old bread soaked in water, sherry vinegar, and olive oil. Whatever Nina’s was like, the judges, especially Emeril, loved it.

* Third course: Stephanie’s chicken liver mousse along with Shirley’s consomme with roasted maitake mushrooms against Carlos’ mejillones (mussels) a la romesco with crispy leeks. Romesco sauce is Catalonian, made from dried red peppers, EVOO, and almonds and/or hazelnuts.

* Fourth course: Nick leaves the nest on the plate over the objections of Stephanie and Shirley, dismissing them pretty rudely in another bit of foreshadowing. His Cornish game hen with spiced chocolate and corn silk nest with eggs and duck fat goes up against Carlos’ “pollo con arroz.” Nick’s dish loses this battle as the judges hate the silk nest and the chocolate sauce overpowers the chicken.

* Julian Serrano is kind of an ass at the table, though – or perhaps just very childish. He won’t even touch the silk nest and complains that he doesn’t like “the new cooking.” Tom kills the corn silk, says it’s like what you pulled out of the drain in the shower.

* Fifth course: Brian’s flan de chocolate with strawberries against Nick’s almond flan with plums, cocoa nibs, and fresh licorice. Neither of these was well-received; Nick’s flan’s texture wasn’t good while Brian’s was too sweet.

* I can’t be the only one who started singing “Scenario” every time the judges referred to Nick’s “chocolate chicken,” right?

* The Spanish team wins, and Nina gets the top prize, again just for execution (here for executing someone else’s idea). What matters, however, is the French team: Of their five dishes, the two worst were both Nick’s responsibility, but he has immunity and can’t be sent home. That means that one of Shirley or Stephanie, neither of whom did anything remotely elimination-worthy, has to go … unless Nick takes Jacques Pépin’s suggestion and resigns.

That’s a hell of a moral quandary. Nick won immunity and has no obligation to resign; such are the rules of Top Chef, and he might argue that he was willing to take on riskier dishes because he had that immunity. Any question of resignation is a moral one – that it would be proper, or just, or fair to take the fall for his mistakes rather than allow one of his teammates to go home for something he did.

There is, however, a significant practical angle here that no one mentioned. Nick had a chance to be a hero, and chose instead to be the zero. Falling on his sword (in Tom’s words) would have earned Nick an enormous amount of praise, on the show, from competitors and judges, and among the audience. It wouldn’t have eliminated him entirely; he could have won two battles in Last Chance Kitchen and returned to the finale. But it would have granted him the kind of positive publicity that can’t be purchased. I think Nick made a split-second economic decision that overweighted his chances of winning the whole thing (probably between 25% and 30% at that point) and underweighted the financial benefits of resigning with honor. Many chefs who didn’t win Top Chef have managed to capitalize on their appearances on the show because they showed great skill and/or personality. I’m glad the judges didn’t force the issue further, but I think they were correct in broaching the idea to Nick.

* Stephanie says in confessional that she would have resigned in Nick’s situation. Shirley says the same, that she would have taken the fall and fought back in LCK. Of course, it’s easy to say those things when you are the victim rather than the perpetrator, but it sounds like Shirley at least understood the costs and benefits a little better than Nick did.

* The judges hammer Nicholas one more time, in an attempt to get him to fall on that sword, telling him, “you’re the reason why the team is here.” He doesn’t budge, and Stephanie is eliminated, reducing Shirley to tears. In the confessional, Stephanie breaks down too, saying, “I went home making a dish I was really proud of.” That has to be a bitter pill to swallow.

* LCK: Battle Beignets. I thought Stephanie’s looked far better on the screen, both her savory and sweet applications, as Louis’ savory one was too dark (and likely greasy) and looked like an expired beetle with dark fried legs coming off its torso. I also liked Stephanie’s flavor combinations more, but Louis’ appeared to have better texture and he took the win. Stephanie’s decision to try to create a yeast-raised beignet in a half an hour may have been what sank her. Would adding baking powder to the yeast dough have saved her, ensuring at least modest CO2 production?

* Rankings: Shirley, Louis, Nick, Nina, Brian, Carlos. As much as Nina keeps winning, it is still always on execution, not creativity or vision. Nick may end up sabotaging himself in the finale, as at least one of you suggested in a previous week. Louis has cooked like a different chef since he was eliminated; that could be about the format, but I’m inclined to think he’ll fare much better if he wins next week’s LCK battle and gets to re-enter the main house. Carlos is the clear bottom guy at this point, struggling with execution and showing a lack of range.

Sophie’s World.

Jostein Gaarder’s 1991 novel Sophie’s World was a global best-seller and has long ranked among my wife’s favorite books for its mixture of narrative, metafiction, and a crash course in the history of philosophy. It’s probably better at the last of those three things than it is at the first, as the prose is a little clumsy and the characterization is weak, but for the reader who has virtually no background at all in philosophy, like me, it’s a lot better than going back to school to learn the basics.

In the novel, Sophie Amundsen, a 15-year-old high school student in Norway, starts receiving mysterious letters and packages at her house that introduce her to philosophy, starting all the way back with the ancient Greeks. These letters turn into videos and face-to-face meetings with Alberto Knox, a philosophy professor of sorts who seems to have made it his mission to teach Sophie how to think about thinking. The course, such as it is, runs from the Greeks through the Romans, Jesus Christ (treated primarily as a philosopher rather than as a religious figure), St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, and on through Marx and Freud almost to the present day. Sophie is a quick study – the book would be rather tedious if she weren’t – but still careens from one philosopher’s perspective to another as Alberto emphasizes both the differences and the common points between classic thinkers.

As their course continues, however, a second storyline emerges, a mystery of sorts regarding a girl almost exactly Sophie’s age named Hilde whose father is serving in a UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon. Hilde’s father is sending her birthday wishes and messages by way of Sophie, even though neither Sophie nor Alberto knows who she is, and rudimentary attempts to find her prove fruitless. The resolution to this subplot takes up the second half of the novel, but almost any discussion of it would spoil it for readers. I’ll probably go too far by even saying that Gaarder delves into metafiction that reminded me of Jasper Fforde’s work – I imagine Fforde read Sophie’s World before embarking on the Thursday Next and Nursery Crimes series – and starts to blur the lines between reality and fiction in a way that further demonstrates the metaphysical questions tackled by philosophers in the last five hundred years.

Where Gaarder falls short is in characterization, as the emphasis on the novel’s didactic side detracts from development of anyone, even Sophie or Alberto or Hilde when she finally shows up in the text. Gaarder hooks the reader with the question of who’s who and what’s what, but that narrative greed is driven by the vast nature of the questions he’s asking, not by any strong reader interest in the fates of the main characters.

That flaw was significant, but I still found the book compelling because of how quickly and clearly Gaarder moves through several millennia of philosophy, even if the treatment is perforce superficial. As someone who couldn’t tell Hume from Hegel before reading Sophie’s World and who wasn’t about to head to night school to figure it out, I enjoyed getting that cursory education in a fast-moving work of fiction. As popular novels go, it’s quite erudite even if the characters are weak.

Next up: I just finished Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, a return to form for her after her dismal last novel Run, and have started Robert Tressell’s 1914 novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, an explicitly political novel arguing in favor of socialism.

Top 30 iOS boardgame apps.

There’s been a small explosion in adaptations of quality boardgames to the iOS platform since the last time I wrote up this ranking in September of 2011, enough that I could double the size of the rankings and still dump a few titles that no longer belonged. For these rankings I consider both the quality of the underlying game and the strength of the app, including graphics, stability, tutorials, online multiplayer mode, and quality of AI opponents.

Linked app titles go to my reviews here on the dish; linked prices go directly to iTunes for you to purchase the apps (and yes, I get a tiny commission on those sales). I’ve taken out some apps that appear to be abandoned or broken or that don’t work for iPad. None of those was really worth the money anyway.

1. Carcassonne. ($9.99) Still best of breed, featuring great graphics, a range of AI opponents (including good “hard” opponents, and “evil” ones too), online multiplayer, and three of the game’s real-world expansions available as in-app purchases.

2. Samurai. ($4.99) The best port of a Reiner Knizia game, which says something since you’re going to see his name quite a bit on this list. The AI players are very tough and there’s a thriving community of online players that has been active for years.

3. Agricola. ($6.99) The best example of an app where the developers chose to rethink the game for the tablet platform, taking advantage of the format to make a good but complex game work better on the iPad than it does on the tabletop. Two additional card decks just became available as IAPs, and the only complaint I’ve heard is that the toughest AI opponents aren’t tough enough – but they’re not easy unless you’re already a solid Agricola player.

4. Ticket to Ride. ($6.99) Days of Wonder has done its app development in-house, which doesn’t always work for publishers, but in DoW’s case it’s been a boon for players, as their apps look great, work extremely well, and are actively supported with in-app purchases (IAPs) and expansions, including Europe, Switzerland, Asia, and the 1910 card set. The family of Ticket to Ride games also Pocket versions of the US ($1.99) and Europe (also $1.99) games for the iPhone/iPod Touch. There’s a big online player base as well, and this is our favorite game for pass-and-play with my daughter, who also likes Carcassonne and Battle Line.

5. Caylus. ($4.99) Like Agricola, Caylus fares better on the iPad than it does on the tabletop, and the Caylus app would still get my award for the best graphics – their use of bright colors and clear icons makes it much easier to stare at the screen for the ten minutes or so it takes to play this complex strategy game. The AI opponents could be a little stronger.

6. Tigris and Euphrates. ($4.99) Always a favorite of mine, this adaptation of a Knizia classic improved substantially with a graphics update about two years ago, and works well with online multiplayer or with local AI opponents (they’re good, but could also be tougher).

7. Stone Age. ($6.99) One of the best family strategy games on the market came a little later to the iOS platform, but the developers did a great job of reimagining the game, which relies on a big board with a lot of elements, for the small screen, coming first to the iPhone and maintaining the same format for the iPad. The AI players are solid and there’s a large online community, including an organized league with rankings.

8. Small World. ($9.99) Days of Wonder boosted this last summer with the 2.0 update, which included online multiplayer and support for 3-5 players. It’s gorgeous and one of the best apps for two players to play face to face with the iPad between them.

9. Pandemic. ($6.99) The challenge in making a cooperative game for iOS is lower than that of any other game, since coop apps don’t need AI players and online multiplayer is not a critical feature. That aside, the Pandemic app is superb across the board – the graphics are great, gameplay is easy to follow, and it’s easy to customize the game however you’d like, just as you would with the physical version. The On the Brink expansion is now available as an IAP if you want to raise the stakes a little.

10. Battle Line. ($2.99) One of the best two-player games out there, Battle Line’s app has a simple, clean implementation, with basic and full modes (basic doesn’t use the ten event cards) and good enough AI opponents to keep the game interesting. I’ve noticed some minor bugginess here, especially on older iOS devices. It’s one of the best games for the smaller screens, since most of the top 7 either require an iPad or just play better on one. This is also a Reiner Knizia game.

11. Puerto Rico. ($4.99)Much, much improved after an update a few months ago to step up the graphics – it’s easier to follow what’s going on (not perfect, but better) and the screen isn’t as tough on the eyes now. The AI players are some of the best I’ve come across, as Puerto Rico has one very strong strategy (produce and ship) and the AI players will try it. I don’t like the representation of buildings by shapes on each island, without labels, so it’s hard to know at a glance who has built what.

12. Ingenious. ($2.99) Yet another Knizia game, this abstract two-player game is a natural for iOS because the scoring is a little tricky – and I think abstract games, which are often heavily math-based, translate very well to app versions with AI opponents. (All of Knizia’s games are math-based at heart anyway.) The app can be frustrating in a fun way, because the hard AI opponent is very good and because you need to look or think a few moves ahead to avoid getting trapped. The $1.99 iPhone version is a separate app.

13. Through the Desert. ($2.99) Oh, hey, more Knizia, this one a territory-claiming game where players compete to cordon off sections of the board and to reach specific landmarks. The AI players are fair, and it’s a little tough to play on the smaller screen because the board is shrunk to a level that even good eyes may have a hard time seeing (and even little fingers may have a hard time pressing accurately).

14. Le Havre. ($4.99) Like Caylus and Agricola, Le Havre is so complex that moving it to iOS makes it easier to play because you lose all the setup and cleanup time involved with playing the physical game. This implementation is very faithful to the board game, with pretty good AI players – they’ll make good use of the special point-accumulating buildings available late in the game – but there’s so much information crammed on the screen that it becomes hard to find what you need, and some players may find the smaller text hard to read even on the iPad, let alone on the iPhone.

15. Hey, That’s My Fish! ($2.99) The one game on this list that’s more aimed at kids than at adults, Hey, That’s My Fish! is one of my daughter’s favorite apps and also one of her favorites to play with me, even though she’s had it for about two years. The board is bright and colorful, and the penguins (your tokens) look great, with some animation twists that make the game more fun to play (such as when a penguin falls into the sea). Completing achievements unlocks a number of different boards, but since about half of those achievements are simple I’m not as bothered by the requirement.

16. San Juan. ($4.99) The card-game version of Puerto Rico got a better app treatment right out of the chute than the master game did, and still looks really good, with strong AI opponents and clear graphics and text, even on the iPhone.

17. Lost Cities. ($3.99) More Knizia, and another two-player game, this one a very simple card-collecting/arranging game that looks great on smaller devices with big, bright graphics, since it was designed specifically for the iPhone 5. The AI players aren’t very good, but I’ve played this a number of times online and gameplay through GameCenter is as smooth as it gets.

18. Scotland Yard. ($4.99) An old-school title gets the app treatment, benefiting from the translation because of how intricate the board is (unless you’re intimately familiar with streets and bus routes in London). The developers even accounted for the fact that, in pass-and-play mode, one player’s actions have to be hidden from the others. The soundtrack is a nice touch. The AI could be a lot stronger, however.

19. Rebuild. ($2.99) I’m bending my own rules here, as Rebuild is the one title on the list that isn’t based on an actual board game. It’s a solo title, but it’s a board game from start to finish, just one that takes advantage of what you can do on a tablet (or computer) that you can’t do, or can’t do as easily, on a tabletop. Build up your community to recapture City Hall before the zombie hordes take you out, but don’t let that fundamentalist group get too powerful.

20. Settlers of Catan. ($4.99) Just called “Catan” in the App Store, this adaptation has always disappointed me in several ways. The underlying game is the same as the classic that spawned the boom in better (German-style) boardgames, such as the Cones of Dunshire. The app is very limited, however – the AI players aren’t good, trading is very awkward, the graphics are bright but too ornate, and all you get is the very basic board. Everything else is an IAP, including Seafarers and Cities & Knights ($4.99 each), which also unlocks some campaign scenarios. The $4.99 iPhone version is a separate app.

21. Elder Sign. ($6.99) A cooperative title based in the Cthulu universe, this app would rate higher if you got the full game. Instead, you get the game without the end battle against the big foozle (if you don’t defeat him before that, in the app you just lose), and you only get four opponents, with each additional one costing another $2.99. A few other rules are cut out as well. It does look slick and it helped us understand a few of the rules in the physical game we didn’t grasp the first time.

22. Qin. ($4.99) This Knizia title came out in 2012 as a board game and as an app, the first simultaneous release by a major designer that I’d heard about. It’s an abstract tile-laying game where players try to claim control of several landmarks on the board while also building up their tile chains so they can’t be taken over by other players. I’ve seen it described as Acquire meets Tigris & Euphrates, which is pretty apt, but I think both of those are better games than Qin.

23. Hacienda. ($0.99) A solid implementation of a good-not-great tile-laying, territory-claiming game. I wish the maps were a little clearer – sometimes adapting the precise graphics of the board game works to the app’s disadvantage – and the AI players were easy to beat after a few plays. Through the Desert does the same kind of thing, but better.

24. The Battle for Hill 218. ($2.99) A simple-to-learn, hard-to-win two-player card game where you are fighting to take over your opponent’s home space on his side of the titular Hill. The game is currently out of print, so pick up the app while you wait for it to come back around, and, if you’re like me, prepare to get your clock cleaned.

25. Medici. ($1.99) Another Knizia game, one I’m probably a little light on because the mechanics didn’t grab me – you bid against other players for shipments of goods coming into a Renaissance Italian port, and try to get the most of certain good types to rack up points, with bonuses available for having the most valuable ship in each shipping round and for shipping certain numbers of goods over the course of each game. It’s a good implementation; I just don’t think the game is that exciting.

26. Lords of Waterdeep. ($6.99) A D&D-themed game where the theme seemed patched on to a poor adaptation of the physical version. The board is overdesigned for the iPad – in thise case, I think it’s just the physical game itself, with no adjustments – and it doesn’t do the resource-constraint mechanic as well as Agricola or Caylus. A UI overhaul would go a long way.

27. Suburbia. ($4.99) Great UI, bright graphics, awful AI players, and bugs. It just came out on December 12th, 2013, so I’ll give them some time to improve the app. I haven’t used the save game feature without a crash yet, either.

28. Tikal. ($2.99) Much better in an app than in a physical game – it’s the only game I’ve bought and later sold – and even in app form it can take a while because each player gets 10 action points per turn. A software upgrade about two or three years ago made this much more stable and easier to play.

29. Ra. ($2.99) The last Knizia app on the list, this is another auction-based game that never grabbed me, but remains a favorite over at boardgamegeek. The app looks clean and easy to use but the tutorial (when I first tried it in 2010) was terrible.

30. Dominant Species. ($4.99) I just reviewed this last week and was not impressed. The underlying game might be great, but it’s very complex and the app’s UI is terrible, as is the tutorial. The AI players are also kind of dumb; I shouldn’t be beating them by wide margins when I don’t even understand all of the rules. I recommend this only if you want to try the game out before spending $60-plus on the physical version.

Dominant Species app.

The complex board game Dominant Species has moved up into the top 20 on boardgamegeek’s global rankings despite its high cost (over $60) and one of the most intricate decision trees I’ve come across. Players represent different classes of creatures, exploring and populating the planet by placing hex tiles on the board, receiving points primarily for “dominating” specific tiles. Players have a large number of potential actions but are competing for space on the board and for priority in each type of action. You have a lot to weigh each time you choose which action to take, and the cleanup and scoring in each round also takes a lot of time and effort.

There is an app implementation of Dominant Species for iPad that gives you a fair introduction to the game for $4.99, but still leaves much to be desired. I’ll review it here for completeness, but I don’t recommend it unless you want to try the game out before shelling out for the pricey boxed game.


Evolutionary status: It’s complicated.

In Dominant Species, players will build out the game board as they go, placing different land/water tiles and also putting “element” tokens on the vertices of the hexes, then populating those tiles with their own species. The bottom line is that you want your species tokens on tiles, especially water tiles, that are surrounded by several of the element tokens you also have on your card. Each player starts with two of these element tokens, depending on which botanical class he draws, but can add more as the game goes on.

The board can change in several ways as the game evolves, with tiles changing to tundra (where most species are removed, and eventually all might be wiped out) and elements added and removed frequently. Each player has a specific element type that gives him the potential to “dominate” any tiles where that element appears and he has species, but players can also acquire new element tokens for themselves and adapt to allow them to dominate new tiles on the board. The key to the game, at least in my limited experience, is the Domination phase at the end of each round: There are five Domination spaces for action pawns, and each player who places a pawn there can choose a tile on the board to dominate, where the player who has the right elements (matching those around the tile) and has species there gets a point bonus, and may get a Domination card that gives him more points or the ability to add or remove items from the board. There’s a lot more involved – players have several action pawns to place each turn, and can acquire more as the game goes on – but those are the key points. Players can undertake less significant actions like turning a tile to tundra, claiming points and potentially removing another players’ species; migrating species from one tile to another to avoid extinction; and knocking out a single opposing species token from any tile under “competition.”

The publisher of the physical version of Dominant Species, GMT Games, chose to develop the app in-house, and unfortunately they half-assed the initial release and may have abandoned the project entirely. The AI players are poor, and a promised introduction of a harder AI player remains undone after a year. The UI is also weak, mimicking the physical game rather than taking advantage of what the tablet can offer in different graphics, animation, even stuff like replacing colored wooden cubes with, I don’t know, maybe actual animal shapes? Trying to squeeze everything on to one screen – both the game board and the action selection board – means nothing is clear, and there’s still a lot of info hidden on drop-down screens. It feels rushed and uncreative, rather than an attempt to approach the game from an entirely new perspective. And it lacks online multiplayer.

I’m guessing that playing the physical game with people who’ve played before would be fun, maybe not top 20 overall fun but with enough interaction between players to keep it interesting and social. It is probably a touch too involved for my personal tastes, and I’m still not sure I understand all of the rules regarding some of the less-used phases in each round. A better tutorial, a hard AI opponent, and improved graphics would go a long way to making the app better, and with the boxed game selling for over $60 they could use the promotional boost.

Top Chef, S11E12.

So we start by hearing how Stephanie met her boyfriend when she hired him at one of the restaurants where she works, then scheduled herself to work the line on Saturday nights so she’d always be working with him. She’s kind of a dork and I mean that in the nicest possible way.

* Nick is still pissed off at Carlos for telling the judges that Nick stole his oven, saying it’s “bush league, dude.” That, kids, is known as foreshadowing.

* Quickfire: The kitchen is overrun with giant cockroaches, but no one seems to notice because they’re all hypnotized by John Besh’s hair.

* The challenge is to make a version of crawfish (not cockroach, but close) étouffée, which is a thick stew served over rice. I’ve never had it, as my wife is allergic to all shellfish, and I don’t eat insects (yet).

* Stephanie is allergic to shellfish (crustaceans only, as it turns out), so while she’ll cook them she won’t even touch them, donning plastic gloves and using tongs to hold the critters in place. Carrie agreed to stab her in the thigh with an epi-pen if needed. Nick volunteers to taste for seasoning. I wish we’d seen more of Stephanie at work here just because it’s fascinating – how do you cook something you can’t touch or taste? She’s said before that she’s cooked crustaceans in her restaurants, but seeing how would have been instructive. And doesn’t the smell of them cooking bother her? I don’t even bring shellfish in the house any more for that very reason.

* Carlos doesn’t know what étouffée is. That’s a pretty specific bit of knowledge, though – you’d have to know or have studied Cajun/Creole cuisine. The word means “smothered,” but the Spanish equivalent, ahogado, isn’t a perfect cognate, and he doesn’t even seem to recognize the English term. I’m not defending the guy necessarily, but imagine being asked to cook something like bibimbap (a Korean dish, also with rice, served in a hot stone bowl) if you hadn’t heard of it.

* Nick appears to be using a lot of alcohol to deglaze his pan, and that’s all good with me. I may have used some Appleton Estate 4-year-aged rum to deglaze a pan of mushrooms last night.

* Brian is the only one we see talking about making stock from the crawfish shells, which seems a little obvious – crustacean shells are full of flavor, while their meat (at least the ones I’ve had) is mild and delicate. I was surprised he didn’t use a pressure cooker, though. In 45 minutes you’re not going to get all the flavor out of the shells.

* Shirley is the only person who actually cooked rice in a challenge involving a dish traditionally served over rice. She makes étouffée for her husband, often, and has tweaked her recipe often to suit his palate.

* Padma, believing she doesn’t look tall or leggy enough, is wearing vertical striped pants.

* Besh says the people who coaxed flavors from the shells did best, which we know will include Brian. Poor Stephanie’s dish was more like a bisque or soup. In addition to Brian’s dish, Besh liked Nina’s (she made fresh pasta again) and Shirley’s, a Singapore chili crab étouffée; with cucumber, egg, and scallions; she coated the rice with a “velvety” broth that had strong crawfish flavor. Shirley wins again – her third win in four quickfires.

* Elimination: Louisiana Seafood is having a party at Mardi Gras World, so chefs must create a dish highlighting at least two different types of seafood. Padma says it’s for one thousand guests … oh, she’s just kidding, it’s only two hundred. That was evil. Funny, but evil.

* Besh takes the seven chefs to his home to feed them. His home is on a bayou. I would have been walking around with a mosquito net over my entire body. He seems super nice but I still think he needs a haircut.

* Besh and his wife met in kindergarten! Is her name Topanga?

* The chefs go “shopping” in a seafood truck with tons of kinds. Nina grabs wahoo; everyone else goes to tuna and amberjack. Tuna is so overused in cuisine for me. I’m kinda over being told that seared tuna is something special. It’s too lean and dries out way too quickly at the slightest exposure of heat. Sushi, ceviche, confit all work, but even searing it just puts a dry coating on the fish.

* Carlos decides to do crudo again, even though he clearly doesn’t have the right knife (or knife skills) for it. You’re not good at that one preparation, so try something else. He asks Nick for Nick’s knife, then gets miffed when Nick doesn’t want to hand it over, completely oblivious to the part where he sandbagged Nick last challenge. Eventually, Nick caves, for what reason I have no idea. He doesn’t owe Carlos anything.

* Carrie has the only preparation that doesn’t require fresh fish, salt-curing her flounder and forming fritters by hand, which takes forever (and would be much faster with a basic disher, not to mention more even).

* Stephanie is making fried oysters (so she can eat mollusks), cooking them to order because she was afraid batch-frying would make them soggy as they sat waiting for diners to grab them. Sounds like someone actually watched Top Chef before coming on the show.

* To the dishes … Brian offers grilled swordfish marinated in yuzu koshu, shrimp and sweet onion puree, and some daikon on top. Nick does oysters three ways – oyster leek soup, an oyster/champagne emulsion, and oyster and green apple yogurt with cubed amberjack. Early returns are not favorable. Carrie does her flounder croquettes with an oyster emulsion and pickled cucumbers. Tom says she would have done great if this had been a cucumber challenge.

* Shirley makes a rather delicious-looking amberjack and tuna ceviche with aged soy, lime dressing, toasted pecans, crispy fried shallots, and cilantro. Hugh says “good food is cooked by happy people.” It makes you wonder how Anthony Bourdain ever cooked anything. Also, I want Shirley to come to my house and teach me how to cook like her.

* Nina does a marinated seared wahoo with salsa verde, tonnato (tuna) sauce, pickled veg. It’s great, yata yata yata, it’s the same food every week – Caribbean with an Italian twist. Yes, wahoo is different, but there is nothing on that plate you haven’t had a dozen times. She has a narrow niche and executes the shit out of it. I feel like she’s a lock to make the final three, but that I’d be very disappointed if she won.

* Carlos makes an amberjack ceviche with rustic peach and shrimp relish. Hugh says it needs fleur de sel on top – not salt, not kosher salt, not Himalayan pink salt, but fleur de sel. Also, Carlos massacred the fish again, this time cutting it too thinly. Stephanie made very crispy fried oysters with raw tuna and pickled beech (shimeji) mushrooms and fresnos.

* Nick finds the knife he loaned to Carlos tossed aside, still covered with (now dried) bits of raw fish. He’s pissed. Nina agrees. Carlos semi-apologizes but doesn’t seem to think it’s a huge deal. He seems like he has no concept of how other people perceive his actions.

* Stephanie with the quote of the week, telling Shirley that she’d love to walk up to Padma and say, “I love your shorts, great shoes, you have a hair out of place, please pack your brush and go.” We need her back as a guest judge in season 12. Or maybe as a color commentator. She’s on the short list of Top Chef contestants I’d most like to go drinking with.

* Judges’ table: Thank you, John Besh, for pointing out that the raw fish/ceviche thing is totally overplayed on Top Chef. I just thought it was too common, but he says it’s also safe because you didn’t run the risk of ruining the fish by cooking it. Either way, amen – and I say that as someone who loves a good crudo. The judges praise Nina, Shirley, Brian, and Stephanie, and they stomp all over Carlos (couldn’t taste the fish), Nick (just flat, lacked acidity), and Carrie (totally lost the fish in the fritter).

* Top three: Stephanie, Nina, and Brian. Everyone loved Stephanie’s salad, which made the dish lighter. It’s so funny – I could hear the judges killing her for making fried oysters in “the land of fried oysters,” except that she fried them so well that they ended up praising the dish. It’s a fine line. Brian’s sauce seems to be hte reason he’s here. Nina’s spice & cure really good, and she gets points for using wahoo and for “big flavors.”

* Stephanie wins, and says, “I’m gonna puke!” Just maybe not in front of John Besh, okay?

* Bottom three: Nick, Carrie, and Carlos. Carrie’s croquette was perfectly executed, but hid the fish. Tom is clearly mad she didn’t highlight it. It also feels like a waste – few people ever get access to fish that fresh, and she treated it like a Basque sailor preserving cod for the six-month voyage home. Carlos’ ratio of peach/shrimp salsa to fish was way too high. Nick’s dish was too complex; Hugh disliked its texture (too soft) and lack of acidity, while the amberjack appeared to be just thrown in (per Besh). I think Nick’s also suffering a little from the dwindling number of chefs, where earlier in the competition a dish that involved would have landed him in the middle.

* Carrie goes home. Tom seemed completely convinced she had to go, and I don’t think the other judges ever overrule him when he’s like that. Padma says, “I’m gonna miss her in the kitchen.” The show did get a lot less cute with her departure, but Carrie peaked early and couldn’t hold it.

* LCK: Louis versus Carrie in battle broccoli, a nod to Carrie’s flop from the previous episode’s elimination challenge. She does a roasted broccoli-filled ravioli that sounds amazing, but Louis does broccoli three ways and nails all three of them. He was even kind enough to tell me on Twitter what he did with the stalks. I’ve only roasted them in the oven till slightly soft and caramelized, then pureed them with a little vegetable stock to make a soup, finishing it with a little (I mean a little, maybe 1 Tbsp per batch) cream, some lime juice, a drizzle of EVOO and maybe some fresh herbs like dill. That’s good – it’s essence of broccoli – but a little one-note if you start making it often.

* The rankings: Shirley, Nick, Louis (LCK), Nina, Stephanie, Brian, Carlos. Stephanie’s making a late run and I love it – she has the creativity but needs the confidence to execute. I’m much more interested in what she’ll make next than I am in what Nina will make next.