Arizona eats, October 2013 edition.

My first Arizona Fall League update went up on Thursday afternoon. The next one will go up on Monday morning … that is, a few hours from now.

I had a bittersweet experience in Arizona last week, my first extended trip there since we moved out of the state in June. The pleasure in seeing Fall League games, catching up with some friends, and visiting old haunts couldn’t surpass the feeling that all of that – plus the spectacular weather – was no longer mine, that the drive south on the 101 was no longer to my house, that winter was waiting for me on the other side of the trip. (I define winter as “not summer.”) I did manage to distract myself by hitting four new restaurants while I was on the ground there, at least.

Crêpe Bar in Tempe is the new brick-and-mortar place from the chef behind Truckin’ Good Food, and you know they’re serious about food when you see they use coffee from heart roasters in Portland, Oregon. Turns out they have a real barista who pulls a damn good shot of espresso, and the drip coffee earned raves from my friend Sam. Crêpe Bar also offers cold-brewed coffee, which they prep daily and allow to steep for about 24 hours, as well as V60 and Aeropress pour-overs, so it’s worth going if only for the coffee. As for the crepes, I’ll just point out that I had a crêpe with vanilla custard, strawberries, toasted slivered almonds, and some 55% Valrhona chocolate, and you’ll just be jealous.

Located in the Bespoke Inn in Old Town Scottsdale, a mere 12-minute walk from Scottsdale Stadium, Virtu Honest Craft just made Esquire‘s list of the 18 best new restaurants in the country, and it might be the best restaurant in the state of Arizona now – something I wouldn’t say lightly, having tried and loved crudo, Citizen Public House, Pizzeria Bianco, cibo, and others. Virtu’s food was just a slight cut above its competitors, offering inventive plates that played with flavors and textures in clever ways with visually appealing presentations. Kiley McDaniel met me for dinner, but was a little late, so I ordered one of the happy hour crostini options, with piquillo pepper jam and manchego cheese, a great twist on the ordinary fig jam or quince paste crostini concept that brought a hint of spice and less straight sugar to the bite. Then the gluttony began in earnest: the chef sent out a large antipasto plate with three cheeses, truffled salami, Sicilian olives, and marcona almonds, as well as honey to pair with the blue cheese. That was free (I think all the early tables got one), but came out after we’d ordered two starters and two entrees, so things got out of hand quickly. The chef’s snack starter is almost a meal in itself: A pile of hand-cut French fries tossed with sausage, mozzarella curd, and what I think was a sweetened balsamic reduction, topped with an over easy egg. We also went with the item that the Phoenix New Times’ Chow Bella blog highlighted, the grilled asparagus with duck egg, bacon candy, peppered feta, and foie gras hollandaise. The chef’s snack was comfort food, hearty, salty, fatty, and of course a little heavy, while the asparagus plate was like brunch for dinner, bright colors leading to brighter flavors if you could manipulate everything into one bite, which wasn’t always easy.

For the mains, I went with the smoked duck, which came on a smashed plantain with small grilled chunks of foie gras and pomegranate arils. Kiley ordered the seared scallops, served on a pumpkin/onion mash with a white chocolate beurre blanc. I think we both preferred the scallop dish, which was better executed across the board, with perfectly-cooked sea scallops paired beautifully with the fall flavors of the squash and onion; my only comment here is that the dish needed a finish of acid, even something as simple as lemon juice (although I imagine a place like Virtu would instead go with a yuzu foam or a champagne vinegar gelée). The duck itself was cooked nicely but smoking duck does rob you of the glory of crispy duck skin, and the plantain mash had been cooked a second time on a griddle to provide that crispness, a process that made it too crunchy and even charred the edges a little bit. The proteins seem to be standard here but the sides change at least every few weeks depending on what’s in season; I’d recommend whatever they’re doing with scallops and would trust in the chef beyond that.

Otro Cafe is the newest spot from Doug Robson, the Mexican-born (really) chef behind the menus at Gallo Blanco and the Hillside Spot. Otro’s menu is simple – a few taco items, a few tortas with the same meats you’ll find on the taco menu, a few Mexican street-food starters, and a full bar. Kiley joined me for this meal as well, so we split the elote callejero – roasted corn on the cob with paprika, cotija cheese, and a little mayonnaise, which the server will shave off the cob for you tableside. I also ordered the small guacamole because Kiley is a misanthropic devil-worshipper who hates avocadoes. Both were superb, just simple and fresh items with big flavors thanks to the tomatillos in the guacamole or the salty-tangy burst from the cotija in the corn. For tacos, we each ordered the same trio (tacos range from $2.50 to $3.50 apiece) – the pork “al pastor,” the carne asada, and the grilled marinated shrimp, all of which were excellent. The carne asada was my favorite, even though I’m generally not a big steak eater; Otro uses seasoned grilled ribeye, chopped and topped with lettuce, an aji (chili pepper) aioli, cilantro, and guacamole. The shrimp was second, marinated in achiote and topped with red and white cabbage, chili pepper, and more guacamole, all outstanding although the shrimp ended up in the background beneath the spice and acid of the cabbage/chili slaw. The pork al pastor was still good, served with salsa verde, a little pineapple, and more cilantro, although I missed the better bite of the steak and, well, that was the only taco without guacamole and it was going to suffer by comparison. Otro also offers a number of small side dishes, including two rotating options from local farms/CSAs, for just $4-5. Some items are $1 off at happy hour so the two of us got out of there for under $30 combined and had probably consumed too much food.

The Gladly is the new venture from the group behind Citizen Public House, focused a little more on cocktails and small plates and less on the mains that made CPH our favorite spot for an elegant dinner out. The Gladly’s chicken liver pate starter, where the liver is blended with pistachio nuts, was by far the best item I had, and while I’m not sure eating a half-cup of the stuff at one sitting was the wisest nutritional move for me, that is what I did because it was too good to pass up (especially with whole-grain mustard and pickled onions to add to the crostini). The Brussels sprouts starter might be a meal for a vegetarian, as it’s served on a plate of creamy white-corn polenta; I prefer Brussels sprouts a little more cooked than this, as they were still too bitter at the center and hard to cut, but the combination of the sprouts and the grits was excellent. The one dish I didn’t love was the duck ramen – five-spice duck “ham” served in a giant bowl of miso broth with ramen and pea greens. The broth itself was a little bland, light on salt but also lacking any clearly defined flavor, and while I love duck prosciutto, its flavor was muted after sitting in the hot miso broth for a while. I’d love to give the Gladly a second shot, preferably when I can indulge in the drink menu, but also to try some of the other small plates like the paprika-cured pork belly, or the pigstrami sandwich, which turns my favorite starter at CPH into a smoked pork butt sandwich with a Brussels sprout sauerkraut as the slaw.

As for repeat visits, I had breakfast at the Hillside Spot three times and everything was just as I left it, from the chilaquiles to the pancakes to the chocolate chip cookies, so good job there. I also went back to Matt’s Big Breakfast which remained top-notch and swung by Giant Coffee (owned by Matt) and had a great espresso there. Saigon Kitchen in Surprise was a little disappointing, but only in that the bun with chicken I ordered came with these giant pieces of lettuce that got in the way of the noodles and other vegetables that were sort of buried at the bottom. I did have the hilarious experience of watching the seventy-odd woman next to me send back a bowl of pho (soup) that was hot enough for me to see the steam from a meter away because she claimed it wasn’t hot enough.

Some places I wanted to try but didn’t have time to visit: the Welcome Diner, La Piazza Locale, and Bink’s Cafe, all in Phoenix proper, and Altitude Coffee Lab in Scottsdale. There’s always spring training, I guess…

Pandemic iOS app.

The biggest iOS boardgame app release since June’s appearance of Agricola came this past Thursday, as the leading cooperate boardgame Pandemic was released for the iPad, bringing the same tension as the boardgame to a pass-and-play app with a slick, intuitive interface. If you don’t mind failing to save humanity over and over around your occasional successes, this is the app for you.

If you haven’t the physical version of Pandemic (which I reviewed in December 2010), it’s a different kind of game than most boardgames you’ve ever played. Two to four players work together to try to win, rather than competing. The board is a map of the world with various cities on it, connected by lines that indicate travel routes. The ‘enemy’ here is disease – four of them, each affecting a different region of the world and threatening to spread out of control and wipe out the human race. Cubes represent diseased populations in various cities, with one to three per location; when a city with three cubes in it acquires another one through the draw of a card or a spreading infection, an “outbreak” occurs and new cubes go into each city that connects to the original one. Eight outbreaks means you’ve lost. You can also lose if you have to place all 24 cubes of any specific color (one color per disease), or if you exhaust the deck of city cards before curing all four diseases. It’s difficult and cerebral, requiring you to make numerous decisions, often balancing short-term needs against long-term goals.

There is a way to win Pandemic, however. Each player collects city cards, two per turn, that can be used to cure a disease – five city cards of the same color, sent en masse to the discard pile while the player in question is in a city with a research station, cures that disease. In the meantime, however, players can go from city to city, removing cubes to try to hold off outbreaks. Each player has a specific role that gives him/her a special ability, such as curing a disease with just four cards, building a research station in whatever city he’s on, or moving other players around the board. There are also four special cards that allow the player to skip new infections for a turn, build a research station, remove one city card from the infection deck, or move one player to any place on the board. And the players’ deck also includes Epidemic cards, each of which triggers a new three-cube infection in one city while also raising the infection rate on a sliding scale that starts out at two cities per turn and eventually reaches four. You can adjust the game’s level of difficulty, which affects the number of Epidemic cards in the deck – from four (easy) to six (heroic).

The iOS app is an outstanding, faithful adaptation of the game that plays quickly and easily with only one very minor technical glitch through over a dozen plays (with no crashes). The interface is very clear and crisp, although the city names might be a little tough for some players to read without zooming in. (It helps to know your world geography here.) The screen has to deliver a lot of information at once, but the division of information across four side menus is easy to follow once you know the rules – all players’ cards in the right-hand menu, card history on the left, the current player’s cards and potential actions on the bottom, and the overall stats up top. Moving around is easy, as the game highlights cities to which the current player can move and confirms any move that would require the disposal of a city card. You can also undo your last few moves with a click of the undo arrow symbol in the upper left.

The one technical glitch I mentioned was minor – I have had a few instances where the app wouldn’t allow me to open the right-hand menu showing which city cards the players held, but could exit to the main screen and resume the game to open the menu again. I have noticed an unusually high probability of an epidemic card appearing in the first first turn, which makes the game harder to win; I actually had a game end after only two of the four player-roles had a chance to go, because a series of outbreaks in the red (Asia) region used up all 24 cards, thanks to an epidemic on the first turn. Such unwinnable games are a part of Pandemic, although in my experience with the physical game, they’re pretty rare.

Pandemic is a game meant to be played in person, with lots of communication between players, so I didn’t mind the absence of online multiplayer; slowing this game down would also reduce the tension that’s a key part of why it’s fun. (Although my daughter might question that; after playing alongside me twice, she asked, “What’s the point of this game? Losing?”) The game also has no AI component; if you want to play solo, just choose the number of roles you wish to play and handle them yourself. That also means there’s no downtime: You are always in the process of doing something or deciding what to do, and never waiting on an AI player or an online opponent (or partner). For a competitive game, the lack of online multiplayer would be a drawback, but I don’t see it as one here.

The game doesn’t include either of the available expansions for the physical game, although I imagine those will eventually be available as in-app purchases. Its current price of $6.99 is about par for a high-end adaptation of a popular game, in line with the popular Ticket to Ride or Small World and with the more complex Agricola. If you’re into the physical version of Pandemic, or want a game for your iPad that is very challenging with high replay value, this is a must-have.

The Bones of What You Believe.

The Bones Of What You Believe (iTunes link), the debut album from the Scottish electro-pop act CHVRCHES, dropped today, over a year after their first single came out and a good eight months after I first encountered them on a promotional sampler from a publicity firm the band no longer uses. Three of the album’s tracks have received heavy airplay this year on alternative radio, including Sirius XMU and Alt Nation, so much of what’s on the new album is familiar, but the deeper tracks show greater breadth than you’d get from just listening to the singles, with many harbingers of more promising material down the road.

CHVRCHES is, by and large, the Lauren Mayberry Project, as the 26-year-old singer and erstwhile music journalist dominates the record (and their live shows) with her piercing vocals and impassioned delivery. Singing largely in the first person – more on that in a moment – Mayberry projects a variety of personae across the ten tracks where she handles the lead vocals, occasionally coquettish but more often strong and fearsome, sometimes even stalkerish (“We Sink” has a chorus that starts with “I’ll be a thorn in your side/Till you die” … all righty then), in contrast to her diminutive stature and high register. She elevates some of the filler songs to a different level, and the half-dozen radio-worthy tracks all stand out in large part because of what her vocal style brings to the table.

The band’s music draws heavily from early 80s new-wave influences, particularly Yaz, the short-lived project involving Vince Clarke between his tenures in Depeche Mode and Erasure, but drawing from other sources as diverse as Kate Bush and Prince (whose “I Would Die for U” they used to cover during live shows). CHVRCHES love their synths and they’re not ashamed to put the keyboards front and center of nearly every song, without filling the space between the melodic synth lines and the drum/bass with layers of added noise, meaning that Mayberry’s vocals and the lead keyboard lines are the stars of every track where she sings. That’s most pronounced in “Gun,” the most recently released single from the album, where the counterpoint between Mayberry’s top-register vocals and the descending keyboard lines underpins the conflict she’s describing in the song’s lyrics (where the gun is, fortunately, of the metaphorical variety). When they try a little more layering, like adding reverb to Mayberry’s vocal lines on “Lungs,” the melody remains strong but her voice and charisma are blunted, to the detriment of the overall track.

The album’s lyrics lean heavily toward first-person narratives, which Mayberry makes more powerful with a style that makes it sound like she’s singing directly to the listener, whether she’s threatening you as she does on “We Sink” or is proclaiming herself to be the “Night Sky.” The strongest track lyrically, as well as musically, is the single “The Mother We Share,” which careens to and fro with tempo and volume changes to match the chaotic anti-romance of the lyrics, where Mayberry describes being “in misery/where you can seem/as old as your omens.” Several songs here are built around a single compelling image or metaphor, like “Gun” or “We Sink.” Others run too short and lack that tangible center, such as the catchy “Recover” or the lesser track “Tether,” where the lyrics don’t stand up as well – although Mayberry’s Scottish pronunciation of “don’t” in the chorus of “Recover” is incredibly endearing.

Mayberry cedes vocal duties on two tracks, which robs them of the urgency she brings to the other ten, and was made worse in concert when Martin Doherty took over lead vocals for a song and was off key (as he was when providing backing vocals behind Mayberry). The show I saw, at Union Transfer in Philadelphia, was otherwise outstanding, although it was odd to hear Mayberry’s chatter between songs, almost sounding nervous and dropping f-bombs as if she was trying to show the crowd that, despite her pixie-like appearance, she was fierce. When you sing with a passion that could damascene steel, you don’t need to act fierce. Fierce will list you as a reference.

The Bones of What You Believe is a deep, intense pop experience that doesn’t demean its audience, but at the end of its twelve tracks, I was also left with the feeling that this was more of a coming out party for Mayberry than for the band as a whole. Her presence overwhelms sections where the music feels unfinished or even amateurish, a contrast that was even more stark when I saw them live. Whether the music catches up to the force of her character or she leaves the group for greener pastures, she’s destined for bigger things than this otherwise very solid debut album.

Hanns and Rudolf.

I only became aware of Thomas Harding’s new book, Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz, because of Harding’s recent piece in the Washington Post about the Kommandant’s daughter, Brigitte, who still lives in northern Virginia. The book’s publisher reached out to me after I tweeted the link to the article and sent me a review copy, which I tore through this weekend because I couldn’t bear to put the book down.

The subtitle is a little misleading, as this book isn’t so much the story of a chase as it is a pair of contemporary portraits of two German men whose lives headed in opposite directions with the rise of the Third Reich, setting them on courses that end in one hunting down and capturing the other after the war’s conclusion. The chase itself isn’t long, so most of the book is spent getting us up to that point. Harding’s achievement here is making both biographies interesting enough that the reader is compelled to keep turning the pages – and in presenting Rudolf in a neutral fashion even though he’s one of the worst monsters in our species’ history.

That Rudolf is Rudolf Höss, the man who oversaw the construction of the concentration camp at Auschwitz and devised the scheme where the pesticide Zyklon-B was used to exterminate Jews and other prisoners in huge numbers, with well over a million killed at the camp. Höss’ eventual devolution into a calm, apathetic architect of history’s most efficient mass producer of death starts from early childhood – including a fanatical father who died young and a lack of any close ties to family members – but also reveals a tremendous amount about the “just following orders” mentality of so many members of the SS, the Nazi Party, and of the German population as a whole. While running Auschwitz, Höss would return home each night to his villa just beyond the camp’s walls, where he lived with his wife and five children in a luxurious house staffed with slaves drawn from the prison.

Hanns, the hero of the story and the author’s great-uncle, is Hanns Alexander, a German Jew born into fortunate circumstances that would largely disappear before he fled to the UK with his family in 1936. Left without a state after the Nazi regime revoked their citizenship, Hanns chose to join the British army, which set up a separate unit for refugees seeking to fight their former countries that allowed them to serve in non-combat roles (because, you know, can’t trust ‘em). After the war ended, Hanns became a private hunter of war criminals in his spare time, eventually parlaying that into a formal role that led him to recapture the puppet ruler of Luxembourg, Gustav Simon, and to earn a command to track down Höss himself. Hanns’ own drive to fight against Germany – more than fighting for Britain or the allies – derived from the personal injustice that he underwent when he and his family had to flee from the Nazis, as well as the more general sense of outrage from the massive crimes the German state and its people had committed against the Jews and other so-called enemies of the state.

Höss’ testimony played a pivotal role in the Nuremberg trials because of his willingness to admit his own role in the Holocaust and in the chain of command that made the mass murders possible, which means Hanns himself contributed to the convictions and executions of many of the surviving leaders of the Third Reich. Höss comes across as a weirdly complex character, a loving father and family man who beat down his rare compunctions over gassing hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children because he refused to show weakness to his superiors or to those under his command. Did he do this for fear for his own safety in a regime where guards who showed mercy to prisoners would be beaten or killed? Or was he simply nursing his own desire for success and praise by trying to set an example of fanaticism that others would revere?

The conflict between Höss’ work and family selves, his apparent apathy toward his victims, and his unclear motivation for his actions at Auschwitz make him the far more compelling character than Alexander, whose life is much easier to understand. Hanns watched fellow Germans pull the rug out from under his comfortable life, and his personal fury combined with that from his moral compass to turn him into a rabid Nazi hunter, yet one who declined to discuss his role in capturing these criminals for most of the rest of his life. It’s a simple narrative for a man’s life, one that’s easy to fathom. Turning into a cockroach the way Höss did is a lot harder to understand, and it’s part of why I couldn’t avert my eyes from Hanns and Rudolf until he’d been hanged.

I’ve been busy plowing through more titles from the Bloomsbury 100 as well, but nothing that merited a long post here. Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, which draws parallels between the swift decline of a noble Austrian family and that of the Hapsburgs’ reign, heading into the disaster of World War I that led to the breakup of their sprawling, unwieldy empire. It dragged horribly, however, with Dickensian descriptions and an absurd amount of moralizing over peccadilloes that barely merit mention today.

Theodor Fontaine’s Effi Briest, named by Thomas Mann as one of the six most essential novels ever written, was a stronger read, even though the morality play also fails to resonate today. Based on a true story from the late 1800s, Effi Briest tells the title character’s tragic history from her arranged marriage to a man much her senior through her extramarital affair with the lothario Crampas to her divorce and fall from grace. It’s far more believable than the similar Madame Bovary and less prolix than Anna Karenina, two similarly-themed novels, working more along the lines of The Awakening, another novel of adultery where the plight of the woman in a male-dominated, moralistic society takes center stage.

Eugenie Grandet is the second Balzac novel I’ve read, along with Old Goriot, both part of his Human Comedy novel sequence. It’s another tragedy, this one the story of Eugenie’s miserly father and how his parsimony destroys his wife, himself, and, even after his death, his daughter, when even a small count of generosity would have saved them all. I’ve found Balzac’s prose to be his great strength – I enjoy his phrasing and descriptions yet never find them slow or monotonous – but the story in Eugenie Grandet had less of the dark comedy that made Old Goriot a better read.

Next up: Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native.

AM.

Today’s Klawchat is starting as I post this, so the transcript will be at that link once it’s over.

Arctic Monkeys have been superstars in the UK since prior to the release of their debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, but have seen little breakthrough here in the U.S. other than having HGTV rip off their song “Fluorescent Adolescent” for the theme music to the show “Income Property.” Their first album was smart, often obnoxious, and punchy, a nod to old-fashioned rock-and-roll values but with more thoughtful and clever lyrics than their influences could ever deliver. Lead singer Alex Turner showed an innate sense for melody and drama, which he developed further over the Monkeys’ next three albums as well as with the baroque-pop side project The Last Shadow Puppets, but the band’s overall sound seemed directionless as they moved further from what made them instant stars in the first place.

Their fifth album, AM, released earlier this week, represents the band’s first clear, deliberate step forward since their debut, an evolutionary shift that regains the immediacy of Whatever People Say I Am… while introducing heavier elements, larger influences from the soul and funk genres, and ever-sharper lyrics. It’s their best album yet and worthy of the Mercury Prize nomination it earned the day after its release.

AM begins with the seductive “Do I Wanna Know?,” the first single released in advance of the album, with a Bonhamesque percussion line mimicking a heartbeat beneath Turner’s trademark wit and wordplay, even messing with meter on couplets like “So have you got the guts?/Been wondering if your heart’s still open and if so I wanna know what time it shuts.” That slower yet more intense drum-and-bass aesthetic permeates the entire album, with greatest effect on the mid-tempo tracks like the opener and “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?”

Track two, the 2012 one-off single “R U Mine?” (which made my top 40 songs of 2012), fits remarkably well into the new sound of this album, pairing a vintage Turner guitar riff – tuned down and turned up for 2013 – with a heavier but slower drum line, backing up vocals where Turner again plays with rhythm and meter in slightly unusual ways. That heavy feeling hits hardest on my favorite song from the disc, “Arabella,” which borrows the signature two-note guitar riff from Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” for its chorus even though the song is an ode to a woman with “a ’70s head” whose “lips are like the galaxy’s edge,” picking up the pace for the dramatic rush to the coda. Turner’s natural feel for irony and contrast works best on this track, where it falls short on songs like the morose “No. 1 Party Anthem” or the just slightly more upbeat “Mad Sounds.”

AM‘s back half, after that two-song lull, brings in different influences from the first half, starting with the Last Shadow Puppets-esque “Fireside” as well as the rousing call-and-response “Snap Out of It,” both of which wink at the earliest decades of rock music, where the genre was almost synonymous with pop. That latter track highlights Turner’s obsession with creating contrast between his music – here a mostly sunny jangle-pop track – and his lyrics, here telling an ex-lover to snap out of her delusions before life passes her by. I’ve also long admired Turner’s use of imagery where most pop lyricists rely on the same trite phrases and references to intangible feelings, from rhyming Tabasco with rascal on “Fluorescent Adolescent” to pairing “sky blue Lacoste” with “knee socks” on AM‘s penultimate track. Turner refuses to talk down to the listener regardless of the theme, an incredibly welcome attitude when so few bands, even alternative ones, seem to put the same effort into their words as they do into their sounds.

The influence of Turner’s friendship with Josh Homme – Turner appeared on Queens of the Stone Age’s 2013 album …Like Clockwork, and Homme appears on two tracks here – is evident throughout the album, as the Monkeys have borrowed a bit of QotSA’s blend of melodic sludge rock on tracks like “Arabella,” “Do I Wanna Know?,” and “One for the Road,” with Homme singing background vocals on the last one of those. The key to QotSA’s popularity has always been that Homme has the heart of a pop songwriter, and has the ability to translate that sensibility into other genres, like the stoner metal of Kyuss or the bar-blues of Eagles of Death Metal. Turner showed he could branch out with The Last Shadow Puppets, whose underappreciated album was like a lost 12-inch from the age of mono, but now he’s bringing that broader songcraft back home with an album that is heavy and slow, sinuous, and eloquent. It’s his best work yet, more mature and confident without ever seeming cocky, functioning as a complete work as well as a collection of great singles. If America doesn’t catch on to the Arctic Monkeys now, they likely never will.

Animal.

Recent ESPN content includes my Perfect Game All-American Classic recap, a piece on the Giants’ AZL team, and this week’s Klawchat, plus Behind the Dish with Cubs senior VP/future GM candidate Jason McLeod.

I’m a little behind on recent eats, so before that gets any worse, I’m going to write up the marquee meal from my recent trip to California, dinner at Animal with my former colleague Kiley McDaniel, now of Fox Sports.

Animal is among the most famous and trendiest places going now, appearing on Bon Appetit‘s list of the twenty most important restaurants in the U.S.*, while its two founder-chefs served as judges of the fried chicken challenge on the most recent season of Top Chef. Friends and readers have been recommending it for what seems like ages. I had to go there. And that’s before I heard they had crispy pig ears.

*I’ve been to five: Animal, Cochon, Momofuku (just the Ssäm bar, though), Husk, and Shake Shack.

Every dish but one was spectacular, even if it did produce a bit of a meat hangover. Kiley and I ended up with a lot of pork, although I find pig offal far more interesting than offal from cow or … well, I’ve never had deer offal or kangaroo offal or anything, so I’ll stop there. The three pork dishes were all superb. The pig ears were served the only way I’ve ever had them: braised, julienned, and fried like french-fried onions, served with a chili-lime dressing. Animal’s version has a sunnyside-up egg on top that the server recommended we break and toss with the ears, sharp counsel that paid off by giving some richness to balance the bright tartness of the lime. Once you’ve had fried pig ears, no other fried product can ever quite measure up.

The crispy pig head was a tremendous, rustic twist on what is better known as “head cheese” (or testina if you want to use an Italian euphemism), served in a big, loose pile with a consistency like that of a jumbo lump crab cake, where the whole thing falls apart at the touch of a fork. The meat, which is mostly jowl meat and is as flavorful as bacon but as tender as shoulder, is lightly fried to get a crispy breading on top, but that’s just Animal’s nod to the Japanese dish pork tonkatsu, something they continue with the use of Bulldog sauce, a Japanese sweet-tangy sauce with MSG, prune puree, sugar, vinegar, apple, and spices. It’s all served on a bed of short-grain rice, with another egg on top. It’s incredibly rich, and Kiley’s assessment, that it pushed the limits of how many competing flavors you want in one dish, was spot on.

The star of the night was the least unusual of the three pork offerings, the barbequed pork belly sandwiches: A small brick of pork with a big dollop of fresh slaw on top (cabbage with mayo and I believe a little mustard), served on a brioche roll. They’re slider-sized, maybe two bites if you’re greedy, and I would gladly swing by there for a dozen of those to go, White Castle-style. The slaw/pork ratio was perfect, given how rich (read: fatty) the pork was, so the acidity from the slaw was critical. This is on the short list of the best things I’ve ever eaten, which is mostly a list of things made from pig.

For starters, we tried the salad of lettuce, beets, avocado, feta, and creamy sumac dressing, which was both gorgeous (thanks to two colors of beets) and clean despite all of the different textures and flavors. I love fresh beets – not the crap from a can – and avocadoes and often pair them together with a citrus dressing at home, but the lightly creamy sumac dressing surprised me by not overwhelming the dish. That salad was better than the charred shishito peppers with shaved dried white anchovies (which weren’t listed as dried on the menu, so I thought we were getting fresh ones), a dish that had a lot of bitter and salty notes but no contrast or complexity.

The one item I just did not like was the fried sweetbreads, which had two very peculiar textures, both unpleasant – one like gummy melted cheese, the other like overcooked pork loin. It’s possible that I don’t like sweetbreads, as I think this was just the second time I’d had it, but it was also the only item we didn’t finish.

For dessert, even though we were too full, we still had to get the bacon chocolate crunch bar with salt and pepper ice cream. I liked it more than Kiley did, I think, admiring both the playfulness of black pepper in the ice cream (which looked like specks of vanilla) and the fact that the chocolate to bacon ratio was very high (so the bacon was a secondary flavor). It was still sweet enough to be dessert, but not cloying, with enough other elements that it transcended the normal dessert menu that tries to browbeat you with fat and sugar.

We were both somewhat surprised by how small the bill was for the quality and quantity of food we got, as well as the name value of the place, which seats just 45 people – about $120 total including a couple of beers, tax, and tip. I understand that’s not a cheap dinner by general standards, but a restaurant with this level of fame, located in one of the two most expensive cities in the country, could charge more, and I’m impressed that they don’t. It’s absolutely worth the trip, and now I need to try its sister restaurant, Son of a Gun, to see if it measures up.

Savages – Silence Yourself.

Savages’ debut album Silence Yourself is the album of 2013 for me so far, a dense record that is three parts post-punk to one part feminist rage to one part everything else, with a broader range of influences than you’d think a 39-minute album of tight songs could possibly include. They are in many ways the anti-Elastica.

Silence Yourself opens with one of the two tracks getting some airplay on XM, “Shut Up,” which not coincidentally is one of the most accessible songs on the album. Starting with a heavy, driving bass line, “Shut Up” picks up a staccato guitar riff that brings in the first of many notes that harken back to Gang of Four, but also bringing to mind Romeo Void’s New Wave hit “Never Say Never.” Lead singer Jehnny Beth (previously half of John and Jehn) has a tighter, angrier delivery, bringing desperation to every track, not in the sense of despair but in the sense of someone who must be heard at any cost, which comes through even more strongly on the next track, “I Am Here.”

The other song you’re likely to hear a little on alternative radio is “She Will,” maybe the most traditional rock song of the album, with a reverb-laden guitar riff over a quick, intense drum beat, letting up on the throttle for the verses. The lyrics that seem to describe a woman taking charge of her sexuality, but shifting to something darker which I interpreted as the reaction of a woman who’d been raped or assaulted and is now stuck in a downward spiral as she tries to recover, with that desperation reentering Beth’s voice as she shouts “she will” repeatedly during the chorus. That contrast, a melodic yet heavy lick set underneath dark, angry lyrics, is the most consistent theme on the album and lies beneath most of the disc’s highlights.

The brief “Hit Me,” clocking in at 1:41, opens with a riff that sounds an awful lot like the opening lick in Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher,” but with lyrics that point very much in the opposite direction, apparently an homage to the adult film actress Belladonna. Other tracks bring back some of the earliest grunge artists, before the term was co-opted, bands like Mudhoney and Green River that claimed lo-fi as an ethic (but probably also did it because they didn’t have the cash to be hi-fi), with heavy distortion and loud walking bass lines. Savages slow it down on three tracks, succeeding most with the sludgy “Strife,” and least with the album closer “Marshal Dear.”

I admit to being a skeptic of the whole “riot grrrls” marketing angle from the 1990s and early 2000s, which tended to trivialize any of those artists’ attempts to make serious feminist arguments, but Savages aren’t yet facing that kind of pigeonholing, perhaps because the music itself is good enough to stand on its own. It’s potent, hard-hitting stuff, righteous and clean like Gang of Four, but bearing some of the musical twists and production qualities associated with later post-punk acts like Joy Division or Killing Joke – to say nothing of the too-obvious comparisons to the Slits. It’s intense start to finish and deserves far more attention than just a little airplay for the two singles.

Trio (Philadelphia).

When I mentioned that I was moving to Delaware, reader Andrew reached out to me to invite me to the restaurant he manages in Philadelphia, Trio, among the city’s best-reviewed Thai restaurants, with a menu that includes a few influences from outside of Thailand along with traditional Thai items. The meal was superb, and my wife (who loves Thai food but rarely has it due to a shellfish allergy) and daughter (who’s a pretty good eater, but didn’t like Thai food the first time she tried it) both enjoyed their meals tremendously.

For starters, my wife ordered the vegetarian spring rolls, which included shiitake mushrooms along the julienned cabbage and onions in the filling, and were fried perfectly and served extremely hot. These also formed a significant part of my daughter’s dinner once she stopped complaining about the temperature (and we pointed out that she could actually wait a second before trying to eat them … she inherited her patience from her father). I ordered one of the special items, a strawberry gazpacho with jicama, avocado, and chili peppers, a little on the sweet side for me but with a good balance of acid and heat underneath the natural sweetness of the berries.

My entree choice was the crispy roast duck, a standard menu item with a sauce accompaniment that changes frequently; on Saturday the sauce was a lychee-cherry concoction, sweet and tangy, but barely necessary given how amazing the duck was. The breast meat was cooked just past medium, not dry but not still quacking, which is how I prefer it, while the skin was crispy without any grease and allowed the natural sweetness of the skin to shine through. My daughter loves duck as well and helped me pick the bones clean, while she also dipped everything she could into the sauce on my plate, including the duck and the lemongrass pork meatballs she stole from my wife’s pad thai. Those meatballs were outstanding, incredibly aromatic with lemongrass, onion, and (I believe) ginger, while the sauce on the noodles themselves was less sweet than the pad thai I typically get on the rare occasions I order the dish at Thai restaurants. (I avoid it because it seems to be the most “Americanized” dish at such places, made sweeter for U.S. palates, but losing me in the process.) My daughter didn’t love her own entree, a basil fried rice dish that had a strong cumin flavor and some surprising late heat that I thought was excellent but was a little too spicy for her.

The dessert menu is more eclectic, reflecting the owner’s current interest in Mexican cuisine (he’s also a pastry chef, and owns the small Mexican restaurant Isobel on the same street as Trio). My daughter inhaled her tres leches cake with homemade marshmallow sauce, while my wife and I split a chocolate-hazelnut mousse with an Oreo crust … and I might point out that the mousse and the marshmallow sauce also went together very well.

Trio is BYOB, and the place is fairly small so I’d recommend a reservation for a weekend. It’s a wonderful spot, and it was a nice treat for me to have Thai food with the family, made possible because the staff was so good about dealing with our unfortunate (especially for a Thai restaurant) allergies. Full disclosure – the meal was comped, although I left a tip for about 50% of what the bill would have been.

The meal at Trio finished off a day in Philly for three of us that began at Shake Shack – the first experience there for my wife and daughter; my daughter loved their grilled cheese while my wife and I split a fair trade coffee shake that tasted like real coffee – and included several hours at the amazing Please Touch Museum, the main children’s museum in Philly, with a few fun exhibits of vintage toys that made my wife and me feel very, very old. I did get a kick out of the displays of Easy-Bake Ovens throughout their history (as well as some knockoffs; my daughter couldn’t name a single room as her favorite, but she enjoyed the art room, the small rock-climbing wall, and the astronomy/rockets room, where kids launch foam rockets off air guns to try to put them through hoops hanging from the ceiling.

Try This At Home.

Richard Blais’ Try This at Home: Recipes from My Head to Your Plate is the first cookbook from the Top Chef: All-Stars winner and general man-about-TV, bringing his odd and slightly twisted take on cooking to the masses with appealing and mostly easy-to-execute recipes. It’s well-written for a cookbook, with clear steps and plenty of side explanations of ingredients or techniques, as well as some appealing photography that also helped me envision some of the dishes as I cooked.

Blais succeeds most with dishes where he takes something familiar and adds an unexpected element or step, something best seen in his recipe for roast chicken, a standby dish for any home cook (especially if you value meals that produce leftovers or ingredients for the next meal) but one Blais takes in a new direction by adding spiced lemon curd. After brining the chicken, Blais rubs the curd on the chicken skin and between the skin and the meat, which adds flavor and fat to keep the breast meat moist and infuse the chicken with a slightly sweet lemon twist. Lemon curd is actually pretty easy to make, a simple custard boosted with butter rather than cream, and it’s an important technique to learn if you haven’t done it before. There’s nothing in this recipe a home cook can’t do, but the results are stellar – and the dish just keeps on giving, providing meat and juices for Blais’ Chicken Terrine (pressed into a mason jar, served cold or lukewarm with grainy mustard, pickles, crusty bread, and a little aioli), while also giving you the bones to make a simple stock that I used for a quick tortellini in brodo.

Another huge hit in our house is Blais’ Arroz con Pollo, which he says was inspired by his wife’s Honduran family’s cooking. It’s one of the few recipes in the book that’s “normal” – there’s no huge twist or unusual technique, just chicken thighs, vegetables, rice, and seasonings. Blais uses packaged seasonings that include MSG, because glutamates are the compounds responsible for the savory flavor called umami, although he explains how to make the seasoning mixture at home if you want to avoid MSG or just don’t like buying prefab seasoning mixes.

My daughter and I both loved Blais’ Sweet Potato Gnocchi, which he serves with kale, sage, and balsamic brown butter, although I steamed the sweet potatoes rather than baking them because it’s faster (about 20-25 minutes, versus 60 to 75 in the oven). The dough was easy to work with, and the basic formula and concept apply to just about any vegetable you can puree – I made a version with fava beans – and that offers a little sugar to caramelize when you finish them in the skillet. The gnocchi also freeze well.

The book includes a number of whimsical recipes, as you’d expect given Blais two turns on Top Chef, such as a potato chip omelet (which looks a lot like a Spanish tortilla), English muffin pizzas with a variety of toppings, and the French toast lollipops he made on “The Sunnyside Up Show” on PBS Sprout. I particularly appreciate the way he builds recipes with a core formula, such as the basic pickling brine; followed by a number of direct applications, like pickling peaches, radishes, and strawberries; and then several recipes that include the basic items you just made. He does the same with mustards, aiolis, vinaigrettes, and so on. He includes a recipe for the goulash he made for Wolfgang Puck on Top Chef: All-Stars, as well as a lengthy section of seafood dishes I haven’t tried because of my wife’s shellfish allergy (and just general distaste for items from the sea).

One reader asked if the book was appropriate for inexperienced home chefs, because it seemed like many recipes required advanced techniques or specialized equipment. There are a handful of recipes that call for a sous vide machine, but not enough to bother me (I don’t own one, and have no plans to get one), and a number that require something like this iSi whipped cream dispenser, which I do own and love. I think the bigger leap for the novice cook is Blais’ adventurous taste level – this book will challenge your palate, as he combines ingredients you wouldn’t always put together, or presents familiar flavors with new textures. I need books like that, because I enjoy novelty in cooking and in eating, but your mileage may vary.

Full disclosure: I’ve eaten at Blais’ restaurants, once at his invitation, and received a free, signed copy of this book after I’d already bought one (I gave the unsigned copy to one of my editors). I’d recommend the book even if I didn’t know Richard at all.

The Orphan Master’s Son.

When the Dear Leader wanted you to lose more, he gave you more to lose.

I’ve read about half of the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, including the last thirteen, and overall, my impression is that they pick some pretty dreary books. Many titles won for what I thought were fairly obvious reasons of political correctness, and others have won for reasons that escape me entirely. A few seem like lifetime achievement awards, like Faulkner winning for two of his lesser novels or Cheever getting an omnibus award for his short stories. Last year, they punted entirely, failing to name a winner for the first time since 1977, sparking some outrage from independent booksellers who see a spike in sales of the winner in years when the board deigns to name one.

The most recent winner, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, breaks that recent trend in many ways, all of them good. Unlike most winners, the novel isn’t set in the United States, and has nothing to do with the American experience. It’s set almost entirely in North Korea, yet explores themes, especially the natures of freedom and identity, that go well beyond the confines of the world’s most repressive regime. It’s rendered with deep empathy for nearly all of its characters, encapsulating a surprising amount of humor (some of it dark, of course) in a wide-ranging tragedy that harkens back to Shakespeare. Johnson even crafts government agents who are better than caricatures, and makes the horrendous conditions of life in North Korea real on the page without pandering. It’s a compulsive read in spite of, or perhaps in part due to, the difficulty of the subject matter.

The main character, introduced to us as Pak Jun Do, the son of the book’s title, begins life in a North Korean orphanage run by his father, after which he progresses through a series of jobs that bring him into increasing conflict with the regime that controls every aspect of North Korean life. His final role involves the assumption of the identity of a national hero, bringing him into the orbit of the Dear Leader himself, Kim Jong Il, leading to the ultimate conflict that drives the final half of the novel, where Pak Jun Do, now called Commander Ga, tries to save his new wife, whom the Dear Leader wants for himself.

Johnson spins an elaborate plot that remains quite easy to follow, even with his technique of telling the Commander Ga story through three different perspectives – a third-person view, the first-person narrative of one of Ga’s state interrogators, and brief dispatches from the state’s own mouthpiece. The first third, covering Pak Jun Do’s life from the orphanage to his time as a spy on a fishing vessel to a trip to Texas with a low-level diplomat, is all prologue to the story of the actress, Sun Moon. Yet even she is only a part of the larger story of Pak Jun Do’s own disillusionment and attempt to find what freedom he can in a totalitarian state, and to fashion an identity for himself after the state wiped out the first one and gave him another.

The development of Pak Jun Do, whose name sounds similar to the English “John Doe,” allows Johnson to explore those these of freedom and identity while folding in stories like that of the true-believer state interrogator who questions not just his allegiances, but the entire structure of his life to date – but does so subtly, almost as an objective outside observer of his own life, while he continues his job of chronicling prisoners’ lives before wiping out their memories with electroshock therapy. Johnson humanizes the inhuman, and gives texture to flat images that seem too awful to contemplate, weaving it all into the narrative as background, so that the characters’ stories can occur in front of a realistic setting that might otherwise have overwhelmed them.

Johnson did visit North Korea, but like the few Westerners allowed to enter that backwards nation, he wasn’t permitted to speak to any average citizens, which meant that he had to imagine their quotidian lives and their typical dialogue without the benefit of first-person research. I found his incorporation of the omnipresent state into nearly every conversation realistic, or at least reasonable, for a situation where a single errant sentence could get you sent to a prison camp (which, by the way, the North Koreans still deny they use) or worse. The refraction of normal conversation through the prism of the police state twists not only words, but the mores of everyday life:

“What happened?” Buc asked him.
“I told her the truth about something,” Ga answered.
“You’ve got to stop doing that,” Buc said. “It’s bad for people’s health.”

Even though Pak/Ga does some awful things during the course of the book, including participating in kidnappings of Japanese citizens (something the North Koreans have admitted doing), he earns the reader’s sympathy through the strange development of his character. The use of a “John Doe” soundalike name can’t be a coincidence; he is a blank canvas, growing up with memories but no independent identity, and shapeshifts into different roles, developing his moral compass and his emotions later in life, so that the person he is at the end of the novel bears no resemblance to the person he was at the start. It’s only a minor spoiler to say that the conclusion finds him at his most free, and with the clearest identity he’s had in the entire story. How he gets there, and how Johnson takes us along, is one of the strongest experiences I’ve had as a reader in years.

Next up: I’ve just finished Guy de Maupassant’s Bel Ami and am about to start Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career.