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NYC Trip 1 (6/26-6/28)
At the end of June I had to fly to Chattanooga for work and stay through Friday. With a short weekend, I decided to fly back to Hartford and drive to NYC to visit Hewson and Celeste.

Thursday I got a text from Hewson asking if it was ok to have a dinner party on Saturday. Of course that was fine, but his next message was, "Tell us what you want and we'll make sure we get the ingredients for you." Apparently this dinner party would feature food from my own hands...

On Friday, after flying to Hartford I drove down to Brooklyn and arrived around 1AM after which we stayed up until 3 before I collapsed on their futon.

Saturday I woke up around noon and Hewson and I went to the city for some Ethiopian food. After that we went to Fairway Market to shop for the dinner party which was attended by Hewson's sister Maria, Celeste's childhood friend Antoinette and two of their other friends, Mike and Christine. For dinner I made fettuccini putanesca and farfalle with smoked salmon cream sauce while Celeste made strawberry shortcake for dessert.

Sunday we mostly chilled and played Wii before heading out for a pizza lunch and driving around Coney Island. After that we drove through Green Wood cemetery looking at the amazing mausoleums and tombs (apparently this was a nice way to spend your afternoons in the 70's or something). Also in the cemetery was Battle Hill, the site of the original battle for American independence from Britain.

4/5 50 Clinton Street
New York, NY 10002
(212) 477-2900
Rating: Chopsticks of Pleasure
A great place for a nice comfortable meal with a touch of molecular gastronomy and without the formal atmosphere of some fine dining establishments
After our afternoon, we went to Manhattan for dinner at WD-50. In terms of atmosphere, the restaurant has no dress code and allows walk-ins, giving it a nice comfortable feel. The tables actually have cutouts so the servers can stand by your table without blocking foot traffic. As a bonus, they had half price wines that night so (much to my surprise) we finished a bottle of a malbec and a rose.

Overall, I think the dinner was excellent (pics below). There were a couple dishes that were not that special, though there was some debate between us as to which ones they were. However, the final lamb entree was perfect and made the dinner worth it across the board. The two desserts after it were amazing as well. In the end, we were all quite happy, though the final bill did come out to $205 per person.

Pics are here
Posted 08/04/2009 09:04 PM in Dessert, Food, Pictures, Ramblings, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel
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Subaru Guinness World Record Pics
Here are a few pics from the event. Click to see more.







Posted 07/11/2009 10:54 PM in Cars, Pictures
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Wine Shelf Pictures
Well, I finally posted my pictures from the wine shelf I built! Enjoy the (very) brief DIY.

.
Posted 06/11/2009 10:37 PM in DIY, Pictures, Woodworking
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10/15 - London
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It was the last day of the trip for most of the group. My sister and I woke up at 5AM so we could get ready and pack. Then we caught a taxi to our parents' hotel where the whole group boarded a shuttle bus to the airport. We arrived 2 hours early to quell the worries of some nervous Asian travellers. I checked in and the British Airways representative let me check both of my bags all the way to Chicago, despite having a 20 hour layover in London (the policy is not to store luggage over 3 hours in London, if you remember my luggage fiasco two weeks earlier). After we were all checked in, our family camped out at Gloria Jean's for coffee and to eat some of the many baklava treats we had collected.

When it was time to head to the gate we left my sister at Gloria Jean's since her flight didn't leave for another 4 hours. The rest of us proceeded to the gate and had an uneventful British Air flight to London Heathrow's Terminal 5. There the whole group went through security to transfer to Terminal 4 where AA is located. I followed them, only to discover that it is extremely difficult to exit the departure area of Terminal 4!

I asked one airport employee how to get out to the city and they had me walking all over Terminal 4 before I found out I had to go backwards through security to return to Terminal 5 and then follow a different route to go through immigration and customs. Finally I got to the Tube (a route I remembered well due to my luggage fiasco two weeks earlier) and made it to my Hilton hotel.

After Gloria Jean's and snacks on the plane, I wasn't really hungry even though it was noon (3pm in Turkey) but I had a 1:00 reservation for Afternoon Tea at The Promenade in The Dorchester hotel, just down the street from my Hilton. It had gotten a good 20 degrees colder in London in the two weeks since I had been there so it was a brisk, but refreshing 5 minute walk. The Dorchester is a beautiful classically decorated hotel and makes you feel a bit regal when sitting in The Promenade, a long hallway full of couches and chairs for lounging and for Afternoon Tea.

Afternoon Tea proved to be quite nice and is much more elaborate than just tea. There was champagne, amuse bouche, finger sandwiches, a main course, dessert, pastries and finally a small pot of tea. Since I wasn't really hungry when I started, I ended up quite full, which did not bode well for my dinner plans.

I had two other things to do before dinner and I hoped that a decent amount of walking would let me build up an appetite before my 10:00pm reservation. First, I walked to the Green Park Tube which took me to Bond Street (one stop). I walked north to find La Fromagerie, a highly reviewed cheese and gourmet food shop. I took a few pictures of the area to help people locate it (see below). They have a a nice selection of locally produced foods from yogurts to cured meats to fresh vegetables to fruit preserves. They also have a small dining area for cheese flights and sandwiches. Of course, the main attraction is their temperature and humidity controlled, glass walled cheese room.

A small sign sets forth some rules, the most notable ones being: keep the door closed, maximum of 6 persons in the room (2 of which are the cheese mongers) and no pictures allowed without permission. I asked to try some smoked cheese and ended up buying a half pound of smoked cheddar. I also asked for any aged cheeses but since they tend to buy locally, there were no aged italian parmesans. The oldest thing they had was a 1.5 year aged Gruyere which was quite tasty and had lots of really tasty salt crystals in it so I bought a half pound of that as well. I also asked for permission to take photos, which they allowed after a couple seconds of contemplation.

After that I had to go clothes shopping because BA had unexpectedly allowed me to check both my big bags and I did not have any dress pants for dinner. I walked south to Marks & Spencer to buy some cheap khakis (cheap meaning 15 GBP, about $30) and since it was in the same direction as my hotel, I went ahead and walked all the way back. It was still a bit early so I took a nap for an hour before getting ready.

When 9:30 rolled around, I was still not hungry, but when you have a reservation at a three Michelin Star restaurant, you go anyway. I jumped in a cab and told him I was going to Restaurant Gordon Ramsay on Royal Hospital Road. After 10 minutes of driving and listening to his phone conversation with his wife, he dropped me off and I walked in. I immediately knew that I was in the wrong place. I was actually at Claridge's, one of Ramsay's one Michelin Star restaurants. It is another restaurant worth trying, but not where my reservation was. The hostess kindly called ahead to RGR to inform them I was on my way and I hopped into another cab.

I finally arrived at RGR where they promptly seated me in a corner overlooking the rest of the dining room. I was the only person eating alone and I think they took pity on me and were a little extra attentive, though you could potentially mark that as a sign of service. After ordering a Pilsner Urquell, I briefly perused the menu even though I knew I was going to order the Prestige Chef's Menu.

While I did so, I noticed the Maitre'D walking from table to table with a wooden box. When it was my turn, he approached my table and opened it. The top of the inside had a polished brass plaque lining it, which created a golden glow, just like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. In the center of the box, sitting on a layer of Arborio rice, were three lumps. The Maitre'd explained that they were whole white truffles from Alba, Italy, the most expensive type and available just one month a year. I could have them shaved over a mushroom risotto for 25GBP ($50) a la carte or for 16GBP ($32) as a substitution for an appetizer on the Chef's Menu.

Personally, I think black truffles are a bit over rated and are a bit too earthy for my tastes, but the smell from these white truffles was heavenly. I thought to myself, "Hey, I'm at Gordon Ramsay's three star restaurant in London and I have an opportunity to try white truffles. How often does that happen?" I figured I was already spending an arm and a leg on the meal so I went ahead and ordered it.

You can read about the individual dishes below, but as I was eating, I was writing notes and taking pictures. The Maitre'D noticed of course and asked if I was a chef. I told him I was an aspiring cook, but not a chef. He asked if I'd like to see Ramsay's book about the restaurant. I knew the book he was referring to and gladly accepted the offer. He brought the autographed oversized silver book, "Gordon Ramsay: Three Star Chef" to my table and and indicated it was the restaurants only copy. I wish I could get a copy of my own but it's been out of print and sold-out for a while.

A couple courses later, I overheard the couple next to me talking about me taking photos, after which the gentleman leaned toward me and asked if I was taking pictures for a blog. We had a brief conversation about why I was in London and how I was enjoying my trip, and then the cheese cart came. I wanted to try some cheese (an additional 12GPB, $24) but I was way too full so I passed. Next were the dessert courses; of which there were quite a few. There were about as many pre-dessert, dessert and post-dessert courses as there were other courses on the tasting menu, but I'm fully in favor that!

In the end, the RGR meal was excellent and definitely one of my favorite meals of all time. It was a more traditional french 6-7 course meal instead of the over-the-top 10-20 course meals popping up in America and I like that. It's too bad the exchange rate was so bad, making my 160 GBP meal cost a whopping $331.29.

I returned to the hotel and watched an interesting documentary about how British Airlines has dropped in the rankings. BA now has the 3rd most cancelled flights in the world. BA also loses the most baggage in the world and that doesn't mean temporarily delayed or mis-routed, that means luggage that is straight up lost and never recovered or identified. In fact, they have an entire warehouse full of hundreds of thousands of unclaimed and unidentified luggage that they sell at auction after one year. Apparently the opening of Heathrow Terminal 5 was supposed to fix some of these problems but it ended up being a giant cluster. Apparently, BA is now becoming famous for UN-friendly customer service and policies. I can understand that given the issues I had in Athens...

Shortly after that, I fell asleep for the last night of my trip.

10/15 pictures are here.
Posted 02/09/2009 11:04 PM in Food, Pictures, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel, United Kingdom
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10/14 - Istanbul 3
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Today was our free day to roam Istanbul. Our parents, who were staying near the historic district (Sultanahmet) on the south European side, went to the Grand Bazaar and Egyptian Spice Market. My sister and I, staying near the young, modern business district (Beyoglu) on the north European side, elected to explore modern Istanbul before venturing to the Spice Market. After being directed to the bus station by the concierge, we set off on foot.

Since the W doesn't have free breakfast or a concierge lounge, we decided to scope out a local eatery on our way to the bus. We found a pita shop called Karadeniz. I don't remember the exact location but the address appeared to be 50 and it was on Catlak Cesme Sokak. The staff didn't speak much English but they invited us in anyway. We watched as their baker made Ramazan Pidesi (Ramadan Pitas) at lightning speed, tossed them into the wood fired brick oven for a few minutes then extracted them, boxed them up and gave them to the delivery scooter driver.

We ordered a lahmacun, pita spread with ground lamb and spices before being baked and a tomato cucumber salad, as recommended by the owner/waiter. I also saw a large beverage dispenser filled with a white liquid. I pointed to it and the owner replied "aryran." I was hoping for sahlep, but decided to try it anyway. After looking at the menu, I found ayran with a picture of fruit yogurt on it. Basically it was an unsweetened yogurt drink, much like an Indian plain lassi.

After breakfast, the owner pointed us up a hill toward the bus stop we needed. Along the way we asked an Asian (of Eastern, Oriental descent) for directions. I was a little surprised when he didn't seem to know English but that's a pretty arrogant expectation on my part. He pointed us further up the hill and said "Thirty." We thought he meant 30 meters and were starting to doubt his direction after 100 meters or so. We exited a small park and suddenly found ourselves on a large, busy street where we found a bus stop with the number 30 on it. After asking if we could get to our destination, Istiklal Caddessi (Independence Avenue) a nice lady indicated we were in the right spot.

Five minutes later, bus 30 came along and we followed the lady onto the bus at which point the lady stopped and waved us off the bus. She turned to the bus driver and asked a question, then turned back to us and said, "Istiklal, no." Then the bus closed it's doors and left us. We were a bit confused until we asked another man who also didn't speak English but he indicated a different bus number (sorry, I don't remember what the right number is) and so we sat and waited for a good 20 more minutes before the correct bus came.

After a mere 10 minute ride (we probably could have walked) we arrived at Taksim square on the east end of Istiklal. In the center of the square was the Cumhuriyet Aniti or Republic Monument, commemorating the formation of the Turkish Republic and Mustafa Kemel Ataturk, the father of the Turkish Republic. Between the square and the end of Istiklal is the Taksim reservoir. Taksim means "division" or "distribution" and this reservoir once served as the central gathering and distribution point for northern Istanbul (hence the name Taksim Square).

Istiklal was a busy and bustling place with shops, vendors, cafes and restaurants on both sides. The large road, approximately four lanes across, is for pedestrians only, except for a ground level tram line that runs in the center. Shops range from high end fashion to Western fast food to century old establishments, while lacking some of the tourist traps common in the historical district.

After a stop at Saray Muhallabecisi for baklava, kataifi and other baked goods, we also stopped at Ali Muhaddin Haci Bekir for Turkish Delight and Halva. I also stopped at a random shop for dried mulberries and local chocolate variations. We also walked by Mado which makes sahlep ice cream but we weren't hungry enough to have any. Upon reaching the opposite end of Istiklal, we found the subway station for Tunel, a one stop train to Karakoy where we could transfer to the main tram line that we took before.

Our next stop was the Egyptian Spice Market where we took a little rest room break. For 0.50 YTL (just under 50 cents) you received entrance to the rest room and, if you needed paper, a single small square beverage napkin.

Inside the Spice Market is a dimly lit L-shaped hallway full of shopping tourists. There were shops for spices, pastries, honey, snacks, purses, cheese, caviar, clothing and plenty of other things. We ran into some of the parents who indicated that our parents were searching for caviar. We never managed to find them so we continued on our own. My sister picked up a purse, I picked up some honey.

We also found Gulluoglu, a famous baklavaci (balkava bakery). There they had plain baklava or baklava with walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, almonds or pecans. They also had kataifi and other baked desserts. It was hot and crowded in this tiny shop which made ordering a bit of an adventure but we eventually got a box of goodies.

Once we had finished exploring the inside of the Spice Market, we left via the exit at the bottom corner of the "L," and discovered tons more shops with tons more crowds, but I was looking for a specific shop, Namli Pastirmaci. It turned out to be a big store with tons of food products, including their flagship pastrami, many examples of which were hanging from the ceiling and walls as they cured.

Once we finished all of our shopping, we took the tram again to the Cemberlitas stop and walked to our parents' hotel. Unlike the W, their room was quite small and due to a malfunctioning air conditioner, their room was boiling hot, despite it being quite cool outside. We dropped off some stuff that we didn't want to lug back to the W and then we went out for dinner.

We walked towards Sultanahmet looking for restaurants. There was a decent looking seafood restaurant just a block from their hotel but we decided to keep looking for other local cuisines. We ended up walking a good 15 minutes and found ourselves near the tourist traps of Sultanahmet and decided to turn around and check out Ortaklara, a kofte restaurant we had passed. It turned out to be a pretty good choice as the restaurant had good pita bread, lahmacun and meat dishes. The entrees all tasted a bit similar with tangy tomato and yogurt sauces, but they were still good.

After dinner we dropped our parents back at their hotel then took the tram to it's northern point, Kabatas, where we got a taxi the rest of the way to the W. Including a generous tip we paid 15 YTL (just over $10), reasonable for two people. After dropping our stuff off, we decided to walk to a super market to pick up some drinks. The W is located at the edge of a high class shopping area surrounded by fancy hotels so we got to see lots of famous stores, including Jimmy Choo's, although the only reason I know him is because his son Danny Choo is the Dancing Stormtroooper in Tokyo.

At the supermarket we discovered that manti is so popular you can get it in bulk, along with halva and all your standard deli items. After picking up some drinks, we returned to the hotel to get some rest as we prepared to head back home in the morning.

10/14 pictures are here.
Posted 01/23/2009 00:56 AM in Food, Pictures, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel, Turkey
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10/12 - Istanbul 1
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Afternoon
After sleeping in having another typical buffet brunch, my family and several friends joined the Bosphorous cruise. It started with a quick pass of the Blue Mosque, but since we had a more detailed tour of the Blue Mosque the next day, I won't talk about it here.

Our first stop was the Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine style basilica that was destroyed twice and re-built before being converted into a mosque and eventually being declared a historical monument and converted into a museum.

The Hagia Sophia was built primarily out of marble and you can see it throughout the building. The marble used to decorate the walls and columns is beautifully and carved with intricate detail. In addition to all the marble, there are beautiful paintings, stained glass and mosaics on the walls. Unfortunately, due to Islamic rules that forbid images of God (Allah) or people in the mosque, most images were destroyed or painted over.

A few particularly beautiful examples were preserved and simply covered up for historical purposes and have been revealed and restored since Sophia was turned into a museum. A few instances of Christian designs that were painted over have re-appeared through their outer layer.

Hagia Sophia is an extremely beautiful building with a very interesting history and definitely worth seeing with a guide. After that our tour bus took us to Stork's jewelry store for some personal service (Turkey is famous for their Turquoise). The most interesting thing was that the building used to be a prison for women. They didn't give us much more information than that, but from the outside you could see the very small windows.

The other nice thing about Stork's was that they brought us snacks. First they provided all of us with hot apple tea, which is very popular drink in Turkey. It's an apple-flavored tea pre-sweetened from a mix or served with sugar cubes. We also got some Turkish simit which was sliced and served with cheese.

The simit here was very different from the sesame rings in Greece. These were not as dry and had a texture similar to the inside of large pretzels. In addition to the simit were other mini simits, cookies and shortbread, all of which were better and less dry than the ones from the Izmir bakery.

Next was a cruise on the Bosphorous, but while we waited for our boat, we were tempted by a cart cooking up doner kabob. I asked our tour guide if it was safe and she said, "For me it is safe because I live here, although even I might get sick. But if you want, you can try."

Having tossed caution to the wind, my dad and sister had already ordered by the time the tour guide finished talking to me. The meat was tasty but I wish there had been a bit more. The bread, lettuce and tomatoes were pretty standard, but the sandwich definitely hit the spot.

The Bosphorous cruise was a bit windy and cold due to the October weather but it was a nice cruise and we got to see a lot of stuff. Unfortunately, I can't remember all the things we saw. There were several palaces and and mosques as well as a few schools and academies. The Bosphorous was not as calm as I expected. Due to the mixing of currents from the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara and the rocky bottom, the Bosphorous has continuously strong choppy waves and fast moving currents.

When people talk about Istanbul, they often talk about the European and Asian sides, which are separate by the Bosphorous. The Asian side is primarily suburbs while the European side holds the city centre, business district and historical district. The European side is also split in half by the Golden Horn, an inlet off of the Bosphorous. The historical district with all the monuments, Grand Bazaar and Spice market is on the south while the business district, shopping and downtown are on the north side.

Evening
After the boat tour, we returned to the cruise ship. The parents met for dinner but my sister and I decided to explore Istanbul a little. After getting directions from an immigrations officer, we walked 10 minutes to the Findikli tram stop. When we got there, we couldn't figure out where to get tickets. Since the tram operates on street level (like the San Francisco trolleys) we just walked onto the platform around the turnstiles.

Walking to the other end we found a cop but he didn't speak English. He figured out that we didn't have tickets. We offered to pay in British Pounds or American dollars but we had no Turkish Lira. Another passenger came to help translate and eventually the police officer just waved us off so we didn't have to pay.

The tram system is fairly new as it has recently been upgraded to cross the Golden Horn on the Karakoy bridge as part of a public transportation modernization program. Soon a new subway underneath the Bosphorous will connect the Asian side as well. We took the tram across the Karakoy Bridge and got off at Eminonu as there appeared to be lots of restaurants in the area.

Right outside the station were several small shops including a few food stands. One that caught our eye was a place selling Balik Ekmek. Balik means fish and ekmek means bread, so what you get is a fish sandwich. The vendor grilled fish fillets on a huge griddle with salt and pepper then put it on bread with lettuce, tomatoes and onions for a tasty sandwich. My sister and I bought one and sat on milk crates and buckets set up along the bridge. Next to the vendor was a man selling what I assume were stuffed mussels but we decided to keep exploring and passed on them.

After walking on the lower level of the Karakoy bridge, past all the neon lit restaurants, we stopped for some pictures and then headed back to the Eminonu station and walked along the tram line to the next station at Sirkeci, where the national train line also stops (which is the same line that ran the Oriental Express).

At the Sirkeci station we found Sirkeci Simit, a large modern restaurant which had the largest Kumpir display we had seen. Now, Kumpir is a special Turkish baked potato. After buying a ticket at the register we gave it to the Kumpir guy who went to pick up two large baked potatoes out of special tall oven. He cut them both in half, then scooped all the meat out of the second potato and whipped it with butter and cheese inside the first potato.

Following that, we had to choose our toppings. Our choices were: red cabbage cole slaw, carrot slaw, vegetable salad, hot dogs, peas, corn, pickles, cous cous, tzatziki sauce, red cabbage and ketchup. It sounds a big crazy, but in the end, it kind of just tastes like a nice warm potato salad since everything gets mixed together anyway.

After that we decided to try their equally crazy waffles which have a six flower petal design so you can choose six Nutella style spreads (we chose chocolate, hazelnut, butterscotch, strawberry, pistachio and caramel) garnished with maraschino cherries, kiwi, banana and nuts. It was a suitable sweet finish to our giant Kumpir potato and satisfied my sweet tooth pretty well.

After our food, I was super thirsty so I stopped at McDonald's for a Diet Coke and to see if they had any special Turkish items, which they did not. We looked at a few other shops before heading back to the Sirkeci tram stop. At this station we discovered that the ticket booth is located across the street and you pay for tokens that are accepted by the turnstiles. Despite it being dark, we didn't worry about our safety too much and made it back to the ship without a problem.

No gastro-intestinal issues either...

10/12 pictures are here.
Posted 12/15/2008 10:44 PM in Food, Pictures, Snacks, Travel, Turkey
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10/11 - Izmir
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Izmir is located on the west side of Turkey and is very close to ancient Ephesus. My sister went on a tour to Ephesus while I decided to explore Izmir a little and try to find an internet connection. Izmir seemed to be a pretty young and hip city with lots of cafes, restaurants and night life. As I walked east along the shore I was surprised to find a long park with a rubberized running path and lots of grass extending the entire shore, much like Chicago's Lake Shore Park.

I walked about a mile looking at cafes trying to find one with a wireless hotspot sign with little luck until I reached the end. When I turned on my computer I found out why no cafes had signs. They ALL had wireless internet access, I just needed to ask the staff for the WEP key to connect. Alas, the cafe I chose didn't have any English speakers so when I couldn't get it to work, I couldn't really ask for help.

After my battery was drained I went back to the ship and met up with my sister. We got cash at a local ATM and then found the largest road in our area, Kibris Sehitleri, and started walking. We were both quite hungry and found a small shop with only a few tables on the parking lot. The owner presumably lives upstairs and while he cooked on an electric griddle, his son mopped the floor. The place wasn't particularly dirty, but seemed a bit unkempt so we were a little concerned about food safety but threw caution to the wind.

The owner didn't speak English so we just let him make a grilled doner kebab (sausage) sandwich which he insisted was "very good." It was a simple sandwich with butter, lettuce, tomatoes, mayo and the doner sausages. It wasn't amazing, but I'll tell you that it certainly hit the spot.

Continuing down the road we found a small bakery with a very friendly owner who pulled us in. He didn't speak very much English so there was a lot of pointing and going back and forth with his friend to tell us that some items had cheese or tomato or chocolate. We ended up with a small box. Now, pastries in Greece tended to be overly sweet and phyllo based. In this Turkish bakery, we found everything to be dry and bland. Despite all the flavors, we didn't really taste any cheese or tomato or chocolate. Everything just kind of tasted like shortbread and tended to be more savory than sweet. When we finished, we wanted more of the Greek stuff.

Next we stopped at a snack shop which had lots of nuts and sweets. Several items were described as being made from grapes. Presumably, they take pureed grapes, or perhaps just grape juice, and reduce it down until it caramelizes into a fruit roll-up consistency that can then be manipulated. My sister chose two items that were coated with pistachios and coconut or hazelnuts, while I chose a string of walnuts that had been dipped in the stuff. I didn't think any of it was that memorable. The nuts were good but the grape stuff didn't really add much, except it was a good binder that allowed the nuts to sticks.

As we continued on, we arrived at a bustling intersection. Turning down the side street we found a whole street full of pedestrians, cafes, restaurants and stores. We wandered around and considered trying some local specialties like kumpir or lahmacun (more details when I get to Istanbul) but soon found that we had to head back to the ship due to an early departure time.

For dinner we returned to the Grand Pacific and ate pretty lightly. After that we played mahjohng for a few hours before sleeping early to prepare for Istanbul.

10/10 pictures are here.
Posted 11/23/2008 01:12 PM in Food, Pictures, Restaurants, Turkey
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10/10 - Mykonos
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Mykonos is another beautiful Greek island, but unlike Santorini, it's pretty flat. It has similar winding streets that are described as "labyrinthine" and all walls are kept meticulously white. You can easily get lost in the city because of all the little paths that all look the same. The city has a night life as well and you can see that some stores and restaurants don't even open until the afternoon. Mykonos is particularly famous for two things: the windmills and Petros the pelican.

After another buffet breakfast, the whole group debarked and headed south from the port, then around the harbor to the west (map). My mom wanted to visit the island of Delos, but the ferries at the west end of the harbor only leave in the morning and we were too late.

While walking along the harbor my dad and I found that several stores sold cigars, including Cubans, which were proudly advertised. I'm not sure why Mykonos would sell Cubans and not other Greek isles, but we decided to buy some for fun. Prices varied widely, ranging from 12 to 20 Euros for a brand my dad says is famous (don't remember the name). We assumed that the stores along the harbor would be the most expensive, but the cheapest place we found also happened to be on the harbor at the west end. Several stores were sold out and since we are not cigar aficionados, we decided to buy a cheap Cuban to try. We never had a chance to sit down, relax and try it so I'll actually be trying it over Thanksgiving.

The group decided to separate so my sister and I picked a narrow street heading south west and quickly got lost (in a good way). We wandered around looking at shops and restaurants and exploring the maze like paths, taking time to snap some pictures of the narrow streets. We found some great restaurants on the western shore with tables just inches from the Aegean.

As we continued on our way we discovered the windmills at the southwestern side of the city. We hadn't been looking for them so it was quite a pleasant surprise to find them. My sister discovered that some of them are inhabited to this day! Looking back towards the city over the Aegean, we could see the restaurants we had just passed and saw them being batted by waves as the wind was picking up.

We headed back north east to explore more and found a few bakeries where we bought a few snacks including a spinach cheese pastry and some rice pudding. I asked for loukoumades but no one had them so I pretty much gave up. Then we headed back to the harbor to meet the rest of the group. At this point we were a little lost so we just headed in the direction of the sea was in and used that as our guide to get back.

Once the group was together again, we went to find the bus to Ornos beach. We asked a small shop where the bus station was and he said just up the hill to the left. We walked five minutes up the hill and to the left, then stopped to ask another person who said just up the hill. We repeated this about 3 more times before we finally found the bus stop (it was more like up the hill with 4 lefts and 4 rights).

We stopped for lunch along the way and picked up some gyros along with some fried fish and tomato keftedes (stuffed with rice). I was designated the coordinator and let me tell you that ordering lunch for 15 Asians in a Greek restaurant is a pain. The gyros only cost 2.5 Euros each but the meat was a bit salty and the pita a bit dry. Definitely not as good as the ones in Santorini. The fried fish was nice and fresh but had a ton of bones. It probably would have been more enjoyable if I was sitting down and could take my time with it, but we were standing in the street trying to share it quickly and that wasn't easy.

We finally found the bus stop. We bought tickets at a kiosk at the corner of the square and were lucky enough to be right on time for the hourly bus. At the beach we claimed some public beach chairs. One funny thing was the reed umbrellas which looked nice but were at the perfect height to hit with your head repeatedly. Watch your eyes, those reeds hurt!

We finally had a chance to sit and eat our tomato keftedes but I was a bit disappointed. After reading how great the tomatoes in Greece are supposed to be (though Santorini is supposed to be the best) these tomatoes seemed kind of bland. They weren't very tomato-ey (much like the ones you find in an American grocery store) and the filling wasn't very special. I think a little salt would have helped a lot.

After eating, we decided to play in the sand a bit with Tiffany and Daphne and we built several sand sculptures which got more and more detailed with every next project. After that we headed back to the "bus stop" which was just a flooded parking spot with a sign, purchased tickets at a kiosk across the street and waited for the next bus.

After arriving back we found some large octopus tentacles being hung to dry and a stone wall that I had seen being white washed a few hours earlier. I asked Daphne, who was wearing a bright pink sweater, to stand next to it so I could get a picture. Unfortunately it hadn't dawned on me that the newly white washed wall probably wasn't dry yet so she ended up with a little paint in her hair. Oops!

Next we found a gelato place called Pagato Mania which claims to make their own using fresh Greek milk. The large number of flavors was amazing and my scoop of dark cherry was excellent! After that we separated with the group again to wander the streets some more. We saw some awesome sea food on display including a giant tiger prawn, clams and urchin.

My sister also found a pelican! It turns out there are actually three pelicans in Mykonos (Petros, the original, died in 1986). It was quite large and was curled up because of the cold winds so at first we thought it might be fake. As we approached it, it's eyes opened and followed us but that's the only movement we detected in the five minutes that spent taking pictures.

Being the last day in Greece and with just an hour or two left, we decided to find a nice cafe and just relax and watch the sea. While looking at a couple cafes, I noticed a small sign at Gelarte cafe that said loukoumades. I hadn't noticed it before because it was only written in Greek. We went inside and discovered that this cafe makes them fresh while you wait so we quickly placed an order, informing the owner that we had been looking for loukoumades all over Greece.

We watched the woman drop batter into the deep fryer and cook the little donuts. One order had 12 but the lady accidentally made 13. Unfortunately, she threw the extra one away. :( After draining them, she placed them on a place and drenched them in honey, followed by ground walnuts and powdered sugar. They were absolutely delicious! Warm and crispy on the outside, hot and tender on the inside. There could have been more walnuts and less honey, but they were still excellent.

After relaxing for half an hour, we decided to head back to the ship. On the way we stopped at Mandarini bakery which had all sorts of delicious little pastries, but I was quite full so I saved them for the following day. Back at the ship we freshened up and watched the sunset.

I like these two pictures because they kind of look like fire, but they're actually sunlight coming through the edge of a cloud at sunset.


We decided to have a light dinner and elected to finally try the dinner buffet. Of course, light dinner and buffet are complete contradictions so that didn't work out so well. For the first time I discovered the pasta bar and invented my own pasta which took some effort since the pasta cook doesn't always know what you're trying to do.

My recipe was farfalle pasta with capers, garlic, tapenade and sundried tomatoes with pink sauce. The main problem is that the pasta chef uses too much sauce so I went back for a second bowl of the same pasta, but this time I instructed him to use the red sauce pan, but to add no additional sauce. The result was a nice pasta with lots of stuff but just a hint of red sauce. I mixed this with my pink sauce dish and the result was exactly what I wanted, a very light red sauce with just a touch of cream but lots of tasty bits.

After that I was full but went to the dessert bar anyway and ended up filling up a plate with coffee cheesecake, blueberry cheesecake, pumpkin pudding and peach cobbler which I took to my room and didn't eat until the following morning. None of them were spectacular, but the coffee cheesecake was pretty tasty.

10/10 pictures are here.
Posted 11/22/2008 05:06 PM in Food, Greece, Pictures, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel
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10/09 - Santorini
Sorry it took so long to post these...

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Background
Santorini was once a large island but after a volcanic explosion, the island collapsed, leaving a caldera with five islands. The main island on the eastern edge of the caldera is Thera, but many people simply call it Santorini. The second large island, on the western edge of the caldera is Therasia. In the center are two small islands created by magma flows: Nea Kameni and Palea Kameni. To the southwest is the smallest island, Aspronisi. BTW, it was this volcanic explosion which generated a tsunami at least 100 meters tall and is attributed for the destruction of Knossos and the Minoan civilization.



Morning
Our day started with a volcanic hiking tour to Nea Kameni, but first we had to get there. The port of Fira in Santorini is quite small so the ship had to simply weigh anchor off shore and use tenders, small transport ships, to ferry passengers to shore. During the morning, people who want to go ashore have to get a ticket for a specific tender, but since we were on a tour, we automatically got our own tender.

Nea Kameni is made primarily of volcanic rock. The island is quite beautiful in it's own special rocky way and there were several beautiful views. The island is still active with fumeroles and steam vents and three lava flows in the 20th century (the last was in 1950). After the hike we returned to the boat and sailed by the hot springs at Palea Kameni.

We returned to the ship to freshen up before hopping on a tender to Fira where we decided to take the donkeys up the switchbacks. The donkeys turned out to be 5 euros when the cable cars were only 4, but oh well, it was an experience. The main problem with the donkeys was the smell. They looked a bit greasy but even worse, there was manure everywhere. The entire way up the switchbacks, it was as if the cobblestone was grouted with dung.

I think that donkeys are probably at the bottom of the intelligence scale for beasts of burden. Unlike camels and horses which generally follow each other and stay relatively ordered, donkeys just sort of go wherever they happen to be pointed. When the guides yell at them, they just speed up and push on whatever happens to be in the way, whether it be other donkeys or an unfortunately pedestrian that decided to walk up or down the switchbacks. The donkeys didn't seem to have any qualms smashing my feet against the walls (luckily the stirrups were metal) or squashing pedestrians.

Afternoon
For lunch we decided to find a nice bakery to buy some snacks and then find a cafe with a view to sit and relax. The walkways of Santorini are very hilly and curvy so we wandered around quite a bit before finding a nice bakery with tons of selection. Unfortunately, I have no idea where it was.

After that we headed back where we came from and chose one of the dozens of restaurants with "the best view." It was a nice cafe but like many of the "nice view" restaurants, it was absurdly priced. My sister ordered a Greek fava spread, but it was not like hummus like I expected. It tasted more like a bean spread with olive oil. Personally, I was not a big fan, though my sister liked it. My cappuccino fredo (iced) was tasty but way too small. My sister's frappe with ice cream was good too, but alas, with a bottle of water, the bill came to over 20 euros, which is about $30.

After wandering around more looking for churches and various shops it was about time to head back to the boat. We had passed a few wonderfully smelling gyro restaurants for reasonable prices so we decided to get a couple to go and bring them to the ship. After walking down the switchbacks and not getting smashed by any donkeys, we arrived back at the port where we found out that the ship is pretty strict about not bringing food on board. My sister found a bench and ate our gyros which we both agreed were the tastiest we had so far.

Evening
We returned to the boat, got cleaned up then had a simple quick dinner at Blue Lagoon (the only 24 hour restaurant with a focus on comfort foods) after which we met up with our parents to play Mah-jong. I won a whopping 5 games in a row while I was dealer, unfortunately I started fading fast as I had developed a fever. I think it was from over-exerting myself with all the hill climbing on Santorini.

10/09 pictures are here.
Posted 11/11/2008 00:03 AM in Food, Greece, Pictures, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel
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10/08 - Iraklio
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While Egypt was great with it's food and excellent exchange rate, part of me was happy to return to Greece which is more modern and western, for instance random restrooms in Greece tend to be pretty nice and clean, more people speak English, etc.

The group decided to rent cars in Iraklio, Crete (also called Heraklion) but it took hours to get every one off the boat and agreeing on how to split up. The tough part was that the rental cars were quite small, fitting just four passengers instead of five.

My family got a Hyundai Atos Prime which I estimated to have 60-70HP only. I later looked it up and found it to have a mere 58HP. It was quite a small car and even with the seat all the way back, I was unable to straighten my legs, especially when driving. The pedals were so close that I could never rest my thighs on the seat.

The rental guy asked if I was comfortable driving in Greece and I told him that I had driven in Corfu to which he replied, "Corfu? They're civilized there!" That didn't worry me though and I will say that I rather enjoyed driving in Crete.

The main rule for driving in Crete is that you should drive as far right as you can unless passing. Often this means driving on the line or driving on the shoulder so that people can easily pass you on the left. There is no such thing as a person driving slowly in the left there and if you block others you will get flashed.

People pass others all the time on Crete and it's very easy b/c everyone else is driving on the right side. Even with only 58HP going up hill with four passengers, it was easy to pass. As a result, it's not uncommon for a two lane road to have four cars across: two cars going one way and two cars going the opposite way, passing each other.

Traffic was interesting as well. In general, no one yields right of way, you just have to force yourself into traffic and people will then slow down for you. Turning left onto a big busy street was a bit tough and I got honked at for waiting too long. Basically, as soon as there is the slightest gap between cars, you just force your way through and if you end up blocking traffic, oh well.

Our first stop was the Palace of Knossos. The Knossos civilization was considered one of the most advanced in the ancient world, but the civilization was mysteriously destroyed. Most historians believe that the volcanic eruption that created what is now Santorini was the cause. It is estimated that the explosion created a tsunami 30 meters tall, more than enough to wipe out Knossos on nearby Crete.

After Knossos we drove west to Rethymno where we had a very nice local meze lunch. After visiting the beach and driving by the Venetion fortress, we found ourselves low on time and had to head back. Unfortunately, our delays in the morning meant we didn't have time to check out Iraklio. My advice, if you ever plan to rent a car and drive around an Greek island, is to wake up early and make the most of your day!

Once we returned to the ship for an early departure, my sister and I sat on our balcony and watched as the ship left port before heading to Grand Pacific for dinner.

10/08 pictures are here.
Posted 10/28/2008 09:43 PM in Dessert, Food, Greece, Pictures, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel
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10/07 - At Sea
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Returning to the Greek Isles from Egypt meant another full day at sea so I'll talk about some of the other strange things around the ship at the end.

After stuffing ourselves repeatedly for days on end, I found that my appetite was not as strong as previously. I would get a little hungry, but would never just want to devour everything. In fact, sometimes I had to force myself to go to dinner, especially since my parents preferred to eat earlier to get the early bird discounts. In the following days, I even had to force myself to try local foods b/c I just wasn't hungry!

So on this day, my sister and I slept in again. We decided to skip breakfast and instead planned to meet our mom for a fancy jazz brunch at Le Bistro. They were charging the full $15 cover price so I wanted to get the most out of it, but I ran out of steam pretty quickly.

Brunch was a combination of a buffet and an a la carte menu. Either one alone would be enough for a full meal, but putting them both together is just an act of cruelty because you end up with one of two outcomes. 1) You feel guilty not eating enough and passing up all this good food and spending money or 2) You feel horrible eating WAY too much. No wait, there's one more option which is what happened to me: I felt horrible for eating WAY too much but also felt guilty b/c I should have been able to eat more!

After lunch my sister and I vowed to do something semi-active instead of sleeping. Of course we were so full that we had to spend some time watching some movies to digest before we managed to get ourselves to the ship's gym. The gym had several treadmills and a few bikes and elliptical machines, all overlooking the sea through large glass windows. They also had several weight machines and, much to my surprise, a set of free weights (dumb-bells).

After working out, I took a shower... which is a nice segue into another note about ship life. When they converted the ship to the Norwegian Jade (it was previously the Pride of Hawaii) they decided to remove the self-service laundry room and put in more staterooms. Being on vacation for three weeks and trying to pack light means that at some point, you have to do laundry somehow.

You could do it yourself in your sink, but that's pretty slow and tedious. But using the ship laundry service is expensive since they charge per the item. A pair of socks or knickers are $1.50, Regular shirts are $1.75 and pressed shirts are $2.50. Slacks and skirts go up from there, so laundry can add up pretty quickly. When the ship announced a special, all the clothes you can fit in a laundry bag for $19.99, my sister and I crammed our bag as full as possible.

That was two days ago so this was the day that our laundry was supposed to come back. Alas, it did not arrive on this day and unfortunately, this was also the day that I ran out of shirts. And socks. And knickers.

Since I had expected my laundry, I didn't bother hand washing anything as a backup, so I was stuck. I decided to hand washed a set, but they had to dry overnight, so what was I to do until then? The answer, if it isn't obvious to you, is disposable underwear.

Disposable underwear? I didn't know such a thing existed but apparently my Dad picked up a set when he was in China and they are a perfect last resort on a long vacation. They are made of the thinnest cotton possible and compressed into 1.5" long x 1" diameter rolls. I couldn't tell which direction was the front but I don't think it could have been any less comfortable either way. They were kind of like semi-translucent white speedos. I imagine this is what girls underwear must be like, except these were not flattering in any way. I actually considered going commando for a moment...

Next was dinner. It was about time for us to check out the Asian food selections. The Jade Garden offered Teppan-yaki, Shabu-Shabu, Sushi and Chinese/Pan-Asian fare. I really wanted to check out the Shabu-Shabu but I got poo-pooed by everyone else. They all said that the quality wouldn't be good, but since when is that important? Shabu-Shabu is all about the QUANTITY and based on some of the other patrons' carts of food, the ship would not have disappointed (ooh, with winter coming, I guess I'll have to satisfy my craving with a trip to Lao Szechuan in Chinatown).

I was so enamored by the Shabu-Shabu that a couple noticed me leaning over to look at their table. The wife smiled at me so I asked if I could take a look at their food. Apparently, you can pick from a few different themes for your Shabu-Shabu and they had picked noodles. Their spread included udon noodles, ramen noodles, bean noodles, rice noodles, shu-mai and dumplings, on top of chicken and Chinese cabbage. I assume they probably had a meat lovers theme too so I'm pretty bummed that I didn't get a chance to have it.

Our choice for dinner that night was sushi. The edamame was odd b/c it wasn't the same as what you get in a regular restaurant (which btw, don't look like the soy beans used to make soy milk which are yellow and rounder). These edamame looked like thin kidney beans, or maybe long red/green (azuki) beans. They tasted and had the same texture as azuki beans too, just not sweet. The miso soup was salty, but I thought it was acceptable. My mom, on the other hand, considered it inedible.

For the sushi, we found the quality of the fish to be good overall. An interesting item on the menu was a funny long Japanese name that was translated as crab. I had a hunch that it was just a way to make Krab sound better, and that turned out to be the case.

They also offered bonito as a sushi option. Normally, bonito is smoked, dried and shaved thin for use as the primary aromatic, along with kampyo (kelp), for dashi, the most basic Japanese stock and the primary ingredient in miso soup. To have it as a fresh fish seemed a bit odd to me so I tried it. It came seared on the outside and had a similar color and texture as tuna, but it was not as firm and slightly fishy tasting.

They also had an item listed translated as tuna belly, but it was not chu-toro or o-toro. When it arrived, it looked, smelled, felt and tasted exactly the same as regular tuna. The white tuna and hamachi were both good and the unagi was average, about the same as Todai in Schaumburg. My mom did not like the unagi, or the terriyaki sauce on it.

We also had California rolls but apparently the cucumber had seeds in it and my mom considered that unacceptable as well. For dessert we had green tea and coconut ice cream which were good, but most likely out of a 3 gallon tub (Edy's maybe? Nothing wrong with that!)

When the manager asked us how we were doing, my mom let him know about all the things she didn't like. This resulted in a rather long conversation where she explained all the things that seemed wrong. She was pretty nice about it and when the bill came several minutes later we discovered he had given us 50% off the bill.

The last note I wanted to make about living on a cruise ship is the strange emphasis on sanitation. Being on a ship with thousands of people for an extended amount of time makes disease transmission very easy. To reduce this, they've implemented some interesting sanitary measures.

Any person boarding the ship must use hand sanitizer and there is always someone standing at the gangway with an alcohol spray. Any person entering a restaurant must also use hand sanitizer and every entrance has an automated sanitizing gel dispenser. At buffets, passengers may not serve themselves: only gloved crew members can hand out dinnerware, handle tongs, touch food and pour drinks. On top of that, one of the first things they announced on day one was that passengers should avoid shaking hands with anyone.

It all sounds pretty OCD, but it's not. The handling of food at buffets makes sense, but the use of hand sanitizer is improper. A quick spritz of alcohol or a squirt of gel rubbed between the hands is not enough to sanitize your hands. The rule of thumb is soap or sanitizer must be in contact with your hands for 30 seconds to be sanitary (60-90 seconds to be considered sterile). A single squirt is not enough to last 30 seconds and may actually increase the chance that only resistant bacteria survive.

In reality, the sanitation policies on ships like this may be creating the perfect environment for a super bug, just like the resistant bacteria that have resulted from excessive and improper use of antibiotics. As usual, it's a ploy to make people think they're safer, regardless of whether they actually are. The funny thing is, now that I'm back to the real world, I'm less inclined to wash my hands than before the cruise!

10/07 pictures are here.
Posted 10/24/2008 07:03 PM in Egypt, Food, Greece, Pictures, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel
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10/06 - Alexandria
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In Alexandria, my sister and I signed up for a half day tour so that we would have free time to search for some local eats. After breakfast, we hopped on the tour bus and went the Alexandria catacombs.

The catacombs were pretty interesting, but they do not allow pictures inside. The catacombs are a family grave site that was accidentally discovered when a drunk man lost his donkey down a hole. When he sobered up the following morning and went to find his donkey, he discovered the tomb.

The tomb was of a Roman citizen who had moved to Egypt and begun to adopt Egyptian traditions. This is apparent in the primary tombs for the Roman and his wife which were decorated in a combination of Roman and Egyptian designs and artwork. Additionally, both bodies were embalmed in Egyptian fashion. After this time, the tombs were expanded for the rest of the family and possibly for public use as well.

With the temperature in the 90's and the sun beating down on us, I was eager to descend the spiral staircase surrounding the well to the bottom, unfortunately, the small passages full of tourists turned out to be hot, humid and stuffy. Several tour buses arrived at the same time so there were hundreds of people in the catacombs which had multiple passages and levels to accommodate hundreds of tombs. My sister and I explored several passageways before returning to the surface.

The next stop was the Alexandria National Museum. The building once belonged to the US Embassy but after they moved to a larger, newer building, this location remained uninhabited until Alexandria purchased it from the US at half the asking price. This building is fairly modern and, unlike the big museum in Cairo, is air conditioned. The three levels are dedicated to different eras in Egyptian history with the Pharaonic era in the basement, the Greco-Roman period on the ground floor and the Coptic (Christian) and Islamic periods on the first floor. I was pretty tired so after we perused the basement and first floor, I took a 15 minute nap on a bench while my sister explored the ground floor.

The next stop was the Montaza Gardens, which belonged to the Royal Family until Egypt became a Republic. Since then the grounds have been a national park and the Montaza Palace has been used for foreign dignities because the Egyptian President is not royal or divine and therefore should not be given such a luxurious residence.

The gardens are full of huge date palm trees and lie on the coast line where a boardwalk is decorated with lion sculptures leading to a hotel and lighthouse. On the other side of the gardens lies the Palace and another hotel and casino.

Next we piled back on the bus and drove on the Alexandrian coastal road along miles and miles of beaches. We saw all sorts of things from a statue of Muhammad Ali (founder of modern Egypt), the tram system, the football stadium, the Alexandria Library and more.

The next stop was Fort Qaitbay but we only had time to explore the boardwalk and vendors in the area outside of the fort. I saw some interesting ice cream carts and potato chips and some local sweets that some vendors were carrying around in clear plastic boxes. I didn't have a chance to buy any of them, besides the tour guide warned us about the lack of hygiene in Egypt, especially from random street vendors.

Our last stop on the tour was Abu el Abbas mosque. Our tour was almost 1 hour behind schedule (which is a good thing since it means our 4 hour tour was 5 hours) and my sister and I were concerned we wouldn't have enough time to explore Alexandria on our own so we requested that the tour guide leave us behind at the mosque. We then walked to a nearby bank to get some Egyptian pounds and then headed west in search of food.

We had only walked a couple blocks when we started smelling something tasty. It was a trio of small restaurants so we walked up to the single host desk and asked for a table. They stared at us blankly as they apparently knew no English. After some useless gesturing, they somehow figured out what we wanted and gave us a table.

A few moments later, the waiter came by and I asked what they had. His answer was, "Pizza, Koshari." At the mention of Koshari, a word I learned from Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations," I quickly repeated it and asked for one order. After the waiter left, my sister took a look at the restaurants sign and discovered that their logo was Fido Dido holding up a pizza.

When the waiter brought our koshari (see pictures) I read a list of Egyptian foods off my list to see if they had any of them. He acknowledged two desserts: belial and sahleb, both of which turned out to be excellent and tasty. In terms of local food, I think these three Egyptian foods top my list as my favorite items during the whole trip (and I'm starting to drool over them as I type this).

I finished the meal with a Turkish coffee and then we flagged down a taxi. The driver did not speak English but the tour guide had been nice enough to write down directions in Arabic so we could get back to the port. The driver took us there and waved us out of the taxi. We weren't sure how much the ride was so I just waived a 10 pound note ($2) which he grabbed and drove off with.

Back on the ship, we cleaned up and took a nap before heading to dinner at Paniolo's, the TexMex and tapas restaurant with the rents a few family friends. They were all interested in tapas so I went ahead and ordered two of everything for our appetizers. Unfortunately, they weren't that good. Most of us ate light for dinner since we'd all been eating a lot recently.

10/06 pictures are here.
Posted 10/21/2008 08:12 PM in Dessert, Egypt, Food, Pictures, Ramblings, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel
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10/05 - Cairo
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The ship docked in Alexandria but we took a 12 hour excursion to Cairo. The tour started at 7:15am, though my sister and I almost missed it because it was so early. We made it to the bus in time for the two hour drive to Cairo, or more specifically, Giza, where the major pyramids are.

Now, Egypt as a country is not that poor, but according to our tour guide, corruption has caused a huge gap between the lower class and upper class. As a result, the poor are extremely poor and it's quite apparent. Driving through Cairo you can see the poverty and the guides also warned us that everywhere we go, people would be doing their best to get money from us.

What that means is that if you ask someone to take a picture of you, or you ask someone to be in a picture with you, or you drop something and someone picks it up for you, they will expect a tip and be quite persistent about it. They will also hike up prices to make as much profit as possible, though they will negotiate back to a reasonable price. They will also be happy to accept any form of currency whether it be Euros, Dollars or British Pounds since they're all worth more than the Egyptian Pound.

For instance, I saw a couple having trouble pushing their baby stroller through the sand (who brings a stroller to the desert?) so an Egyptian man helped them pick the stroller up onto a walkway, after which he demanded a tip. Then there are the historical artifacts security guards who watch the pyramids. You are not allowed to cross lines, touch or climb on the pyramids or you will be reprimanded by security. However, they eagerly indicate they will let you go, or will allow you to cross lines if you simply provide them with a tip.

Once you've realized how things work, Egypt is not that difficult to navigate. Since we were on a guided tour, the day was pretty much laid out for us so I pretty much sat back and snapped an excessive number of pictures while absorbing random tidbits of info.

First we saw the most famous pyramids of Khafre and Khufu along with the Sphinx. We then drove to Saqqara to see the funery grounds of Ka-Gmni including hieroglyphics and artwork that still exhibits the original paint from thousands of years ago.

After that was a buffet lunch at a large restaurant. It didn't look like that good a place and I wasn't surprised that the food was a bit disappointing. Not only was most of the food mediocre, none of it was labeled so I have no idea what some of it was. One interesting thing about the restaurant was the traditional oven they had outside to bake a pita-like bread. Too bad none of that bread was at the buffet.

After lunch we checked out Zoser's Step Pyramid complex where a gust of wind blew away my sister's new visor. We then went on to the Jeep tour where we piled into a series of 4x4 vehicles. Most prevalent were Jeep Cherokees and Toyota Land Cruisers. My sister and I ended up in a Land Cruiser which is supposed to be the preferred model for nomadic Bedouins as the FJ chassis coded Land Cruisers are well known for their off-road abilities (hence Toyota's homage to the old Land Cruiser, by releasing the new FJ Cruiser).

The Jeep tour was pretty fun, particularly driving up and down blind dunes as can be see in the video below. I was fortunately enough to get the front seat, though the back was probably rougher. The people talking in the video are other passengers.

After the Jeep tour was the Camel tour. Getting on the camel was a bit hairy. They lay on the ground and when they get up, they lift up their back end first, then their front end, giving the sensation that you're going to fall forward off the camel, then back off the camel, before leveling out. The camel's gait isn't the most pleasant either, it's much less smooth than a horse and rocks quite a bit front and back, requiring you to shift your hips a lot to compensate. The saddles aren't that comfortable either and after 20 minutes I was starting to get saddle sore.

At the end of the camel tour, getting off the camel was equally precarious. There was no warning either; one second I was sitting on top of the camel, the next second I thought I was falling off as the camel pitched forward, then pitched backwards, then after leveling out the remaining foot of descent was even and smooth, like a hydraulic platform. You can sort of see it in this vid summary.

After the camel tour we went to a papyrus shop where they demonstrated how papyrus reeds were turned into paper then turned us "free" to browse the papyrus art so we could buy some. After that we took the 2 hour trip back to Alexandria. For dinner my family ate at Grand Pacific, the formal restaurant where we had an excellent meal.

10/05 pictures are here.
Posted 10/19/2008 02:01 AM in Egypt, Food, Pictures, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel, Videos
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10/02 - Katakolon
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Breakfast
First, a quick stop for breakfast at the Great outdoors breakfast buffet. The funny thing about cruises is that they're ultra picky about hygiene and require everyone to use hand sanitizer before entering a restaurant, although they don't provide enough to properly sanitize your hands (your hands should remain wet for 30 seconds to be sanitized, 60 seconds to be sterile). In addition, only gloved staff may serve food from the buffet which reduces efficiency since there are usually only one or two attendants for any given section of food. The drink station is consistently busy serving coffee, tea, juice and water.

The food itself is decent, but obviously mass produced: not bad, but not particularly good, though I will say the best items on the bar are probably the fresh fruits, particularly the honey dew and green cantaloupe (musk melon?) which were consistently sweet and juicy. Bacon is a close second simply because, well, it's bacon.

The pastries vary from day to day but some are fairly bland. The tasty ones were strawberry and blueberry pastries or chocolate croissants. The everyday standards were cinnamon rolls, apple, lemon or poppy seed danishes and plain croissants. The most disappointing was the bear claw which had no flavor inside or out.

There were about a dozen types of yogurt. We tried the Passion Fruit Peach yogurt which tasted like a pretty basic mixed peach yogurt. The Mango yogurt was quite tangy and I personally thought it tasted more like Passion Fruit than the other yogurt. The last one I tried was from Turkey (I'm assuming based on the Arabic name) and was a tart plain yogurt. I was full by that time but I imagine it would be good with some marmalade or jam and might make a decent tzatziki sauce. However, it wasn't as flavorful and robust as the Greek yoghurt I had at the Heathrow Starbucks.

Other items varied greatly in quality. The 2.5" pate patty rounds were quite livery and not very tasty. I'm not surprised, I can't imagine that pate in 2.5" diameter cylinders is particularly high quality. The stewed plums were pretty good, much tastier than a prune. The raisin french toast is pretty good, despite every piece being the exact same sized isosceles triangle. The pancakes were pretty plain and a tad rubbery, but they made a decent McGriddle style sandwich with eggs and bacon.

Katakolon
Our first port stop was Katakolon (pronounced cut-TACK-oh-lo). This is a small town known primarily as the port of entry for visiting Olympia, the birthplace of the ancient Olympics. It is also known for its jewelry stores but my sister and I were not particularly interested in either of those.

There were three streets set up for tourists (read tourist traps) so we decided to start the day wandering aimlessly around the area to see what was there. Although the ambiant temperature was in the mid 70's, the strong sun beat down on us and made us quite warm as we wandered through the largest of the three streets. We passed store after store pawning off cheap trinkets and souvenirs that we mostly ignored.

We stopped at a couple shops selling Greek products such as herb and spice mixes, ouzo (anise infused liquor), honey, olive oil and boxed loukomi (Turkish Delight) but nothing interested us enough to purchase anything.

Pretty soon we arrived at the end of the tourist area where the primarily residential road was blocked off for construction. There, on the side of the road in a rather unassuming position was a small bakery called Psomi. We ventured in and found a tiny little sweet shop with just a couple display cases. One was filled with small buns and cakes that didn't look particularly special. The other was full of baklava and another pastry called ktaifi (sp?) which is composed of custard and tiny strings of dough. I only got a chance to try the ktaifibut my sister's favorite was the apricot baklava.

Lunch
Next we wanted to check out the beach but it turned out to be pretty rocky and hard packed in this section of the town so we turned back and decided to look for some food. We passed a cafe on the main street serving gyros and other streets but due to it's proximity to the tourist traps it didn't look as cheap as we wanted. The prices were still decent at 5-6 euros per item but we decided to venture out a bit more.

At the end of the third tourist street we found a small cafe with a chalkboard sign listing Greek Coffee, Nescafe, Fresh Fish and Ouzo (sorry, forgot to get a picture and name) . It was not very full but there were some locals eating there so we decided to give it a whirl. We sat down at a table covered with a paper table cloth that was basically a gigantic sheet of Brawny or Dixie. Apparently the waiter did not speak English because he walked out of the restaurant and disappeared down the street.

A minute later the waiter reappeared followed by the owner who did speak some basic English. We asked for the fresh fish, ouzo and Greek coffee and she suggested a tomato salad as well. Within seconds, a small stray cat appeared, eagerly anticipating the arrival of some food. Equally random, a middle aged man sat down at the table next to us with a Heineken and a pack of cigarettes and began asking us where we were from and what our ethnicity was. He then started telling us all about his trips to Asia and how he was from Olympia and had carried the Olympic torch 4 or 5 times (his stories didn't seem to consistent).

Our food then arrived along with two additional stray cats. The fish turned out to be sardines that had been gutted and fried. They were sufficiently small that I could eat them whole without worrying about bones, although my sister decided not to attempt it and ate around the tiny spines.

The salty fish perfectly complimented the tangy tomato salad. It had red onions, olives, green peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes and a light vinaigrette. The tomatoes were just as bright red as the ones I saw in Athens Central Market and they were as good as I expected. Firm yet tender, vividly red inside and out, sweet and tasting like a sun ripened tomato should. I haven't had tomatoes that good in years! The onions were mild, the cucumber light and crisp and the peppers sweet.

For drinks, the Greek coffee, medium sweet, was tasty and had the traditional finely ground coffee at the bottom of the cup. I haven't figured out if you're supposed to drink that or not. The ouzo was interesting as it was served with a small dish of ice. When you drop the ice into the ouzo, it formed wisps of cloudiness that eventually turned all of the liquor a translucent white. The ouzo had a very strong anise/licorice flavor that my sister did not like. The stuff is pretty strong (38-48%) and is generally meant to be sipped while relaxing but as Americans we're always in a rush to the next planned event so trying to down the stuff quickly was a bit tough.

Meanwhile the three cats were doing their best garner attention and act cute by laying on their backs, mewing quietly but pitifully and staring at us with big sad eyes (like the Puss in Boots in Shrek). I was very tempted to give them our last sardine but they were so good that my sister stopped me and we ended up eating it ourselves. Sorry cats!

Also during this time, the Olympian sitting next to us offered to buy me another round of ouzo and provided us a postcard showing him at the Olympic torch ceremonies many years ago. He offered us the chance to hold an old Olympic torch and take pictures if we simply dropped by his Jewelery store. We smelled a tourist trap and politely declined. Happy with our lunch, we returned to the ship.

Dinner
For dinner we had early bird reservations at Le Bistro, the French restaurant on board. To celebrate my mom's birthday, we had the whole group of 17 people join us. The restaurant was beautifully set up and I noticed the extremely fancy dinner plates. My mom noticed them too and also checked to see who made them and they turned out to be part of the Versace collection. See the pictures for descriptions of the individual dishes. Overall, we were quite pleased with the food. I will note that the main reason I ordered the cassoulet was because it was on Top Chef this year and I wanted to try it for myself.

10/02 pictures are here.
Posted 10/10/2008 02:29 PM in Food, Greece, Pictures, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel
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10/01 - Athens
Jump to the pictures.

After losing time getting lost at the Acropolis, I decided to branch out and do some less touristy stuff in Athens while my sister went to explore the Acropolis on her own. My number one goal was to find Ktistakis a shop that specializes in Loukomades (Lokomathes?, a fried dough with walnuts and honey) and has a history dating back to 1912. All I knew was that it was near Omonia Square on Socratos street so I took the Metro there and started walking.

I walked a few blocks and didn't really see anything that would be a small bakery or shop so I walked around the block looking. Instead I happened upon a street vendor selling koulouri, a circular bread covered with sesame seeds. These are similar to pretzels but without the chewy shiny exterior. Mine was crusty on the outside but kind of dry on the inside. The taste of sesame was very pronounced and I think it would go very well with a drizzle of honey or even some mustard but the people I saw buying them didn't seem to require any such thing. I'm not a big sesame fan so next time I would probably pass on these but if you like sesame they would probably be pretty good.

As I munched on my koulouri, I returned to Socratos street and walked further down only to discover myself at the Athens Central Market, one of my key destinations. I happened upon a small corner shop and decided to moisten my parched mouth after the koulouri. I ordered a Frappe which is a whipped coffee drink. I didn't see exactly how they made it but I believe they mixed milk and espresso with a high speed shake machine to produce a nice airy, frothy head. Even after I finished drinking it there was a good inch of foam left in the cup. I would have liked to finish it but I had to continue exploring the market.

First I walked through the meat section where butchers displayed the finest cuts whether they be steaks or chickens or primal cuts or organs. Whole skinned animals dangled in clean glass and stainless steel display carts. All around me men were hacking away with long cleavers to chop up steaks according to their customers' orders. It seemed that just about everything was for sale whether it be heads or intestines or stomachs or brains or knuckles.

Peering between two carts I saw a small passage way leading to the sea food section so I darted through the narrow opening into a completely different world where stacks of styrofoam containers and piles of ice showcased the day's freshest sea fare. I saw fish, octopus, squid and even a basket of live snails that were crawling upon the very sign that pronounced the price of their lives.

I moved on to the rest of the market that was filled with small shops and vendors with various fruits, vegetables and other supplies. I saw a haloumi and sausage store and several egg shops that had stacks of eggs of various sizes and colors priced anywhere from 6 to 15 cents per egg. The produce also looked amazing, whether it be peaches or plums or apples or tomatoes. Several items were cut open so you could see their quality inside and out. The tomoatoes were so red, you knew they were vine ripened. I wanted to just buy one and eat it straight but I did not. I was lured by some delicious looking black (purple) figs which were so ripe they were bursting at a mere 2 euros per kilo.

One stand I saw had several piles of plants of herbs and by luck I happened to notice one bag labeled Tau-Sigma-Alpha-Iota, which spells TSAI. I thought it might be tea but wasn't sure until a tour guide later confirmed it, pronouncing it like chai.

The last stand I stopped by had a case full of small gelatin cubes marked 3.1 euros per kilo. It made me think of Turkish Delight but being in Greece I wasn't sure. The owner did not speak English so I pointed at a pink tray and a white tray and held up one euro after which he proceeded to pick up pieces and fill a small bag. The pink one turned out to have a very strong rose flavor, confirming that it was Turkish Delight. I liked it and so did my dad but my sister did not like the strong rose flavor. The white ones were coconut flavor but alas, I left the bag somewhere and never got to try it.

Having completed the market, I resumed my search for the loukomades. I returned to Socratos street and walked up and down again, even turning down some of the small alleys and shopping strips. With time running a little short, I stopped at a cafe and asked. I had to say the word a few times before the woman understood and told me to go up Socratos street. So I went and explored Socratos again, pushing farther north a couple blocks as well but still had no luck.

Next I stopped at a woman's fruit cart next to Omonia square. She was busy counting money from another customer and initially seemed a little annoyed that I didn't speak Greek. She didn't look up from her money and had a bit of a frown until she realized what I was asking for at which point she looked up with a smile and a glint in her eye. She pointed ambiguously down Socratos street north of the square so I returned to search again but to no avail.

Finally, I asked a security guard who said there was a bakery in the square that sold them. This didn't seem to match what anyone else had said but I followed his directions and ended up at a chain bakery. I asked a woman there if they had loukomades and she said yes so I ordered two. She gave me were two sugar coated doughnuts that had no walnuts or nuts of any kind. Perhaps these were some simplified version of loukomades or perhaps they were something completely different. Either way, they were not what I had hoped for and since it was time to return to my hotel, I reluctantly declared my quest a failure.

After checking out of the hotel my sister and I stopped at Starbucks. I ordered a Greek coffee and the barista told me that Starbucks' Greek coffee is no good because they use they wrong equipment and that I should go elsewhere. Since we really just wanted internet access I ordered a double iced espresso instead where I wrote the first three days of posts.

We returned to the hotel and with all of our baggage the hotel recommended that we take a taxi instead of the metro since it would only cost about 12 euros. We agreed and paid 15 after tip and arrived at our cruise ship with plenty of time to spare. In fact, it turns out there was a problem with the fuel ship which arrived three hours late so our departure was pushed from 6pm to 9pm.

For dinner we met up with our parents for the 2-for-1 early bird special at Tex Mex at Paniolo Salsa on the ship (more on how dinner works on the ship on a less eventful day). Take a look at the pictures for names, descriptions and thoughts on the dishes we ordered.

Afterwards we relaxed and got settled into our rooms, watched a movie and then slept early to prepare for our first day on the cruise.

10/01 pictures are here.
Posted 10/08/2008 02:27 PM in Food, Greece, Pictures, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel
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Sew-sew camera bag
To transport my camera around the Mediterranean, I need a camera bag. There are tons of bags out there and most of them are over-priced and have mixed reviews. I researched them on various sites and even visited camera stores in St. Louis and Chicago. The first tip is to buy on-line. The prices at camera stores are incredible (anywhere from 50%-200% higher than on-line) and sometimes I wonder how they stay in business.

I finally settled on a Canon back pack at Amazon. I wanted a back pack so that my shoulders wouldn't get too tired. I also wanted configurable padding and space for packing other items and for future expansion. And of course I wanted a reasonable price.

The Canon bag can be found for $35-45 on-line which is a pretty good price. Overall the reviews were pretty good for the bag, but there was one major issue: The zippers on the bag aren't very heavy duty and aren't very tight, making them too easy to unzip.



The problem is that the camera is held at the top of the bag so the weight could actually cause the zippers to unzip and dump the contents of the bag on the ground. That's a significant risk but it is easily mitigated.

Some people got around this by sealing the zippers with a carabiner but I decided to try another solution. As some reviewers noted, the bag needs a strap that wraps around the front to prevent it from opening all the way. This would make it easy to access the camera at the top of the bag while preventing it from opening all the way.

The interesting thins is that the bag has two extra straps on the sides that aren't very useful but are an excellent place to mount such a front strap. The question is where to get the strap.

When I received the bag, I found that it came with a buckle on the shoulder straps that clips across the chest in addition to a waist belt. The cross-chest strap seemed unnecessary to me so I decided to use those to build a front strap.

After cutting the stitches and removing the side straps, I reconfigured the cross-chest strap to anchor to the sides of the bag and wrap around the front. Once this was done I re-stitched the straps (note the blue stitches in the pictures).

I'm quite pleased with the result. The new front strap is perfectly positioned to allow quick access to the camera while keeping the rest of the bag secure but the clip is easy to release when needed. But, for security, I did end up buying a locking carabiner...
Posted 09/12/2008 10:06 PM in DIY, Geek Stuff, Pictures, Travel
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Smoke Line
After smoking another two racks of ribs this weekend, I found a perfect example of a smoke line, which tells you how far the smoke has penetrated the meat (and how long it's been smoked). I put an arrow on the picture to show where it is.


Posted 09/10/2008 11:01 PM in Cooking, Food, Pictures
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First macro attempt with new camera
Much to my surprise I found a spider had made an extensive set of webs on the desk in my room in St. Louis. I decided to use that as my first experiment (along with taking some snap shots of Larry Hugh's Bentley out the window). So here's my one semi-decent attempt at a macro (close-up) picture of the spider. It's not bad considering the back lighting, small subject, manual focus and lack of a tripod.



One debate that I have is that my pictures now come in a wider 3:2 ratio instead of a 4:3 ratio so I think I'm going to have to start publishing wider photos (900x600).
Posted 08/30/2008 11:52 PM in Pictures
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I should go into catering.
A couple more pics of my finished ribs from two weeks ago along with the whole barbecuing process. Also a picture of all the side dishes I made for the church picnic: Pepperjack Mac & Cheese and Corn Bread Stuffing.


Posted 08/30/2008 09:41 AM in Cooking, DIY, Food, Pictures, Recipes
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Amazonian Pricing
I reported that Amazon reduced the price of the XSi to 679 on Sunday night and raised it back to 699 on Monday morning. Well Monday night it went back down to 684 and Tuesday night it went down again to 674. Tonight it is 671. I wonder what is causing them to fluctuate their prices so frequently.

Anyway, I decided to try the Bill Me Later $20 off promotion code (BMLDEALS). The code is supposed to be valid one time only and I used it for a PSP game in July but this is apparently a new deal (valid 8/11-8/31) and Amazon honored it. So I placed my XSi order last night for $654.88 with free shipping, no tax and 20 free prints (worth $26.80). Not bad, though it doesn't get to the deal Dan posted a few hours ago, but at least I don't have to wait two months to get cash back from live.com.

There was one other minor bonus. Normally the free shipping at Amazon is a bit of a gamble in terms of delivery date. They estimated it would ship on 9/2 and arrive by 9/13 so I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it shipped today!
Posted 08/27/2008 10:06 PM in Geek Stuff, Pictures, Shopping
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Rebel Without a Case
For the last couple years I've been pretty frustrated by the poor low light performance of my Sony W50 digicam. I also tried a Canon SD250 which was equally poor in low light. Surprisingly, my old Canon (A200?) that ran on AA batteries was better than both of of them in those situations.

Since the abysmal performance of my W50 at the dimly lit L2O (one of the reasons that I ended up with no pictures) I've been looking for an entry level DSLR (digital single lens reflex). Based on various reviews and some recommendations from Yone, I've finally settled on a Canon Digital Rebel since the dim light performance seems to be much better than similarly priced Sonys and a little better than Nikons.

Of course, the newest generation is the best as it comes with an Image Stabilization lens. There are two options in this area, the one year old XSi and the 2 week old XS. The XSi is slightly higher than the XS but being a year old, prices are actually comparable so I've been looking for XSi prices.

I've looked on ebay (where people seem to be buying cameras for more than they are being sold on-line) as well as Buy Dig, New Egg, Costco, Amazon and Dell which seem to be at the forefront of price cutting. The interesting thing is that when I started looking, the XSi was pretty much going for $799. Since then, Yone showed me a DealNews offer for $699. Shortly after that, all the other vendors started dropping prices on a daily basis until they reached about $670 (most likely due to the release of the XS).

Unfortunately, prices actually went back up and settled between 687 and 719 with various combinations of free shipping or memory cards. Then last week, a new deal was announced at Dell: the XSi with lens and free shipping for $589. Alas, this great deal sold out within hours, before I had a chance to act on it. Since then I've been watching prices every day and nothing has budged. After checking prices Sunday morning and seeing no changes, I just about gave up hope for another price drop before my family vacation in October (I need a couple weeks lead time to place an order).

Sunday night, I checked again and Amazon dropped the price from $699 to $679. I was hoping this would spur another round of price drops or deals and perhaps this week will be a good time to order but after checking prices again today, several merchants raised their prices again back to $699, including Amazon. Sneaky. The only vendor that hasn't raised prices yet is BuyDig where it is $687.90. Oh well. Eventually I'll find a deal and pull the trigger. Then I just have to pick out a bag or case for the camera...
Posted 08/25/2008 07:19 PM in Geek Stuff, Pictures, Shopping
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In anticipation of this weekend...
I applied my spicy sweet coffee spice rub to 20 pounds (6 racks) of pork loin (baby) back ribs in preparation for the several hours of hot smoking that will follow.


Posted 08/14/2008 08:46 PM in Cooking, Food, Pictures, Recipes
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BMW Ultimate Drive
I guess it's been two weeks since my BMW Ultimate Drive and I'm finally talking about it. The first car I drove was the Alpina B7 with an MSRP of $115,000.



Personally, I didn't like the B7. It wasn't a bad car, but it's definitely luxury focused as opposed to performance focused like the M cars. The supercharged 500HP B7 has great acceleration and takes corners extremely flat and smoothly. The problem is that it's TOO smooth. There is little road feedback and it's no fun taking a corner fast if you can't feel it.

Also I did not like the transmission. If you look at the steering wheel, it does not have paddles for shifting. Instead it has little lumps on the back under the leather that are shift buttons (behind the + and - symbols) but unlike the SMG found in M series, it's a very slow (albeit smooth) transmission. Of course you can use full auto mode if you want. The other bummer is that there is only one change you can make to the driving system which is to turn of the Dynamic Stability Control (if you can figure out the iDrive). While turning off the DSC isn't bad, there is no option to turn off the Traction Control System. If I had $115K to spend, I would definitely go for a M5 or M6, especially after driving the next car.

After the B7, I drove the 650i convertible which I thoroughly enjoyed, even though it wasn't an M series. The convertible was very nice and lots of fun. The body was tight and responsive with good road feel and a nice fast, responsive transmission. Pressing the DSC button turns off the DSC but leaves the TCS on, just like the B7. However, in the 6 series, you can hold down the DSC button for 5 seconds and shut down the TCS as well, making this car a blast in the corners. Now, choosing between a 650i convertible and a M6 would be a tough choice... more sun or more power?

The one downside to this was choosing Patrick BMW in Schaumburg because all the roads in the area are straight and flat. The route I took was Golf to Higgins to Barrington to Algonquin to Meecham to Golf. Field's BMW near Northbrook has some curves and a nice highway on-ramp so its a much more interesting route, but oh well, it was worth it for being able to try the 650i and B7.

Oh, and here are a couple pics of the new X6 "Sport Activity Vehicle." This is the official Susan G. Komen X6 which volunteer and contributor signatures are proudly displayed.


Posted 08/06/2008 09:54 PM in Cars, Pictures, Reviews
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Cheese Recipe #1
As I start using up my 15 pounds of cheese, I'm going to be sharing some of the recipes that I come up with. I'll start with pretty basic stuff and then move on to more interesting things.

Up first is one of the simplest recipes: Cheese Grits


Posted 08/05/2008 07:18 PM in Cooking, Food, Pictures
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Last Week's Cooking
Last week I made the following:
  • Coconut Black Rice - using rice from China (though apparently I can find it at local Asian stores).
  • Braised Short Ribs - I hoped this would be more like kal-bi but I'll have to get a better recipe
  • Tropical Ambrosia - fresh pineapple, mango, papaya and kiwi with coconut


I also had a chance to use some of my new Japanese dishes so this is what the dinner setting looked like.


Posted 07/25/2008 01:47 AM in Cooking, Food, Pictures
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My counter is officially done.
The last picture I posted was attaching the counter top. After semi-diligently working evenings and weekends for the last couple weeks, I've finally finished everything (except cleaning). Here are some key progress pictures. As usual, I've documented way too much if you're interested in the details.

Drywall Mud, Primer, Paint & Tracks


Baseboards, Trim & Drawers, Organized Drawers


I'm quite happy with the counter, especially the extra storage space which will clear up a few spots on my old counter. Next I just need to get some wine racks and other accessories to spruce it up.
Posted 06/30/2008 08:29 PM in Pictures, Woodworking
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Dinner Party Pictures
Pictures from dinner on Friday are available in my Miscellaneous 2008 Pictures (scroll to bottom of linked page). Here are some highlights: French Onion Cups, Lamb & Mushroom Risotto and Peach Mango Pie with Peach Ice Cream.


Posted 06/18/2008 05:36 PM in Cooking, Food, Pictures
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Cooking Pictures and a Turtle?

Turtle by my garage.

Fresh red rhubarb.


Gina about to dig in.
Here are some pictures from the weekend. Left and below is dinner with Gina, who I haven't seen since college. Dinner included a caprese salad, mushroom risotto with bacon wrapped sirloin and peach rhubarb pie.

On the right is a random turtle I saw sitting next to my garage. It was a good foot long!


Posted 06/10/2008 05:12 PM in Cooking, Food, Pictures, Ramblings
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Counter Progress

The original, empty space.


The final design.

The plans for the design.


The completed base frame.


The installed base frame.


The installed counter top.
I've made a lot of progress on my counter top installation. The majority of work was done over Memorial Day weekend when I spent a good 12 hours straight working on it. I was exhausted, but I simply couldn't stop! That weekend I built the entire 2x4 base frame. I put a lot of care into it to make sure it was perfectly level and plumb and square, only to find out that my walls were none of those things and I had to saw off 1/2" pieces of wood all over my base frame to make it fit, and I even had to saw 1/2" off of my 9' long hard rock maple counter top that must weight at least 150 pounds. I tried to enlist help but schedules didn't work out so I had to do a lot of heavy lifting by myself. I think I lost weight that weekend!

The following weekend I attached the base to the wall and attached the counter to the base. I also started installing drywall. I had plenty of other glitches that slowed things down, such as what to do about an outlet that would be hidden by the counter. I also had additional design decisions to make, like exactly how to arrange the new space that I was building.

This weekend I installed the rest of the dry wall, the protective corner beads, an adjustable depth ring to extend the outlet (aptly nick-named a "goof ring") and started the three day process of mudding (applying drywall joint compound) the many corners and seams. Since I'm in town this week I'll be able to finish that up during my evenings at home.

I've been to Home Depot at least a dozen times to look at ideas and to get new supplies and new tools and to make exchanges. I'm sure I'll be making at least three more trips. I could easily cut that in half if I planned ahead and bought everything at once but I prefer to do it as I go in case things change (which they usually do). Even so, the end is finally in sight.

The tasks I have left are:
  • Finish applying mud (2 days)
  • Primer (1 day)
  • Paint (1 day)
  • Build and install sliding shelves (1 day)
  • Trim and install moulding (1 day)
  • Clean the gimongous mess(1 day)
So I'm looking at completion in the next week or two. Here are a few pictures of the progress so far. Total cost so far has been $97.61 for supplies, $83.44 for new tools, totaling $181.05 so far (plus tax). In the end I'm guessing that I will spend about $300 total. Hiring someone to do all of this probably would have been a couple thousand bucks.

Posted 06/09/2008 07:01 PM in DIY, Pictures, Woodworking
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Japan Pictures and Earl Grey Poundcake
Ok, I finally finished posting my Japan pictures from last year. Sad. Really sad.

Also, I've got a new recipe up: Earl Grey Poundcake. Yummy!


Posted 06/03/2008 06:16 AM in Cooking, Dessert, Japan, Pictures, Recipes
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Hawaii Wrap Up
Finally got the last day done!
Sunday, May 11
More pictures and detailed reviews available here

Chopsticks of Pleasure 55519 Kuhio Hwy
Hanalei, HI 96714
Rating: Chopsticks of Pleasure
A bit of a hole, but the local food is great.
Chopsticks of Pleasure Poipu Shopping Village
2360 Kiahuna Plantation Dr.
Koloa, HI 96756
Rating: Chopsticks of Pleasure
Tasty, tropical and unique local spin on hotdogs
Chopsticks of Pleasure Mile 23
Kaumualii Highway
Waimea, HI 96796
Rating: Chopsticks of Pleasure
Rated the best in Kauai, their ice was so finely shaved it was like snow and their flavor and topping selection was excellent.
Chopsticks of Pleasure Kukui Grove Center
3-2600 Kaumualii Highway
Lihue, Kauai, HI 96766
Rating: Chopsticks of Pleasure
Pretty typical sushi train, good if you want to grab some quick sushi.










Posted 06/02/2008 07:05 AM in Food, Hawaii, Pictures, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel
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