Review: Al’s Place

(1 out of 5 stars)

If you were to draw-up a list of the saddest fashions, affectations, ill-placed culinary passions, and grande cooking mistakes of the last few years, I think Al’s Place would solidly tick Every. Single. Box. This place is a living, breathing, performative satire of what fine dining should be.

First the place has no air conditioning and a single, beleaguered bathroom. I stood in line waiting to wash my hands, sweating from the warm San Francisco evening, and swapped places with a pregnant woman behind me who was certainly in more dire straits.

Clearly someone has pretenses of being a DJ, since they blare music so loudly that I could not hear anyone at my table a couple feet away. This was the recurring leitmotif of our dinner, and the main reason every one of us was hurrying through our mains and skipping dessert to just get out. Our first server was replaced by someone manager-ish, but they nonetheless misheard part of our order and just straight-up missed one of our wine requests. Each time we caught the attention of a new server, food runner, or host, we adulted and asked that the music be turned down. Call me crazy, but sometimes I go to a restaurant to get to know my companions better, as well as eat some neckbeard / topknot’s confusion cuisine. One of the servers eventually said the loud music was just the “vibe” of the restaurant, and we literally laughed out loud. At one point the woman at the table next to me leaned over, closely, to commiserate about the music. Most of the people in my row of table seats were physically leaning forward to yell. The place was so loud that when we asked for bowls for our shared soup, we were told they had heard us say we did not want them. And so on. The music itself? The usual quirky and dated garbage from the 90s, with a whiff of the post-ironic.

Their menu is a complete mess. First of all, they are too lazy to time the meal correctly and plate their dishes. Al’s Place calls this “family-style” or something, but its just cynical. Compounding this, neither of our two servers could actually tell us how much food to order for our party size, because there was no relationship between the section of the menu and the amount of food that ends up in front of you. There was some myth-making about “chef” wanting to treat proteins as a side, because they think this a comment on steak houses. But note that a real steak house can serve a plate of hot food umm, hot. Eventually we were able to map which lines on the menu were tastes, starters, mains, and sides, but to get this done meant literally taking out a piece of paper and a pen. I wish I was kidding: While negotiating with our servers about Lana Del Lame in background, we wrote our own translation of the Al’s Place menu, from hipsteraunt to English. After delivering an incorrect item with no explanation of what it was, they told us we should not have taken a bite before telling them it was wrong. How else were we supposed to find out what it was?!

The food is… fine. Their french fries were undercooked and soggy, but boy were they salty! Or should I say “brined.” The smoky mayonnaise alongside was too sweet and tasted like a dessert. Marlowe’s fries were better a decade ago. The Al’s Place lettuces were meant to be eaten by hand — see my queuing up for the bathroom sink, above — and for some reason had a bland avocado mousse streaked underneath. Can we please stop putting sauces under the food, to trick wraithy Instagrammers from LA into actually eating a sauce? The Progress does the reversed-salad-thing better. The chickpeas and harissa had some refrigerator burn to the legumes. The cold chickpea salad at Hey Day is better. The Al’s Place bean soup was overseasoned and was a bad seasonal choice to have on the menu during hot weather. But hey, they’ll put kimchee in it so you can think it’s exotic. Or something. The minestrone at any one of a dozen Italian joints in North Beach is better. The Al’s smoked brisket needed to have its fat better trimmed, and ended up tasting more lukewarm St. Patrick’s Day-corned-beef than cozy passover seder.

We only passed on one of our tastes of wine, so an actual professional was involved in their wine list at some point. They had no beers on draught, which is weak in a drinking town like SF. Also there is no hard liquor license, so your cocktails will be those sweet sherry & vermouth-heavy shims instead of a before-dinner classic like a Manhattan.

Al’s Place joins Hakkasan and The Progress as the two dinners that have me doubting the Michelin guide’s star ratings. The Michelin guide used to be insulated from silly trends and dopey culinary tricks, but they are clearly lowering their standards to appeal to teh youths. Al’s Place is also in that rarified competition of least bang for the buck, alongside the stunningly overrated and overpriced Hashiri.

Avoid Al’s Place like the plague. There are many San Francisco restaurants that do the quirky, opinionated, idiosyncratic faux-casual thing better.

Review: Moongate Lounge

(2 out of 5 stars)

Excellent dimsum with just enough cross-cultural elements of comfort food to be playful and interesting. That said, the entire front of the house at Moongate should be scrapped and re-hired.

First the godawful seating: We lucked-out and were able to insist on real chairs instead of the cheap, dopey, upholstered, 70s-garbage-couches in the center of the room. I felt sorry for another customer who was limited in mobility but was still expected to perch in these trainwrecks for her meal. I do not even want to think about fire safety in a place like this.

The cocktails were cloyingly sweet, under-diluted, and served too warm. They have the usual hipster quirky ingredients (e.g. celery), but the bartenders here need to go back to basics: A cocktail is not a sugar bomb to cover up the taste of liquor, but a by-definition spirit-forward balance between high-quality base liquors and a few complementary flavors. Any of a giant list of San Francisco bars do the cocktail thing right: Third Rail, Trick Dog, Cockscomb, Bix. If the techbro-ette wearing a fedora indoors sends back her martini because it is “too strong,” then you are doing it right. We also made the mistake of ordering a red by the glass, which was an overpriced mess, barely a five ounce pour and served too warm. It had no nose, no legs, no body, and no personality.

The service, oh good-God-the-service: Anonymous, underfed, morose hipsters slouching through the motions, in a poseur’s mid-century modern fever dream of an enjoyable night. The servers clearly want this place to feel like the space age 70s, but it just comes across as hilarious and desperate, like a Lana Del Rey video on xanax. Stop trying to be quirky and cute, and start paying attention to the details. What would make your customers enjoy themselves more? What would service from the actual 70s have been like?

Hot Hands

As someone who flirts with the hospitality industry, I actually find handwashing morbidly fascinating. The CDC has officially changed its stance on the temperature you should use for washing, saying cold water is similarly effective, while being more carbon friendly. The study that underlies this change is called “Handwashing Water Temperature Effects on the Reduction of Resident and Transient (Serratia marcescens) Flora when using Bland Soap,” published in 2001 by Barry Michaels et al. The study seemed flawed to me, so I asked someone I respect who is a practicing American MD with two specialties, internal medicine and interventional radiology. He knows about washing hands.

Four whole people were sampled! Dumb bad or good luck could bolster or refute this “study.” Having said this, I could believe it. But this did not account for the water temperature effects on soap, just bacteria. Soap work based on micelles [an aggregate of molecules in a colloidal solution]. And micelles have to contact a hydrophobic and hydrophilic item to work. Hard and soft water differences with soap and its temperature come to mind. I am a bottom line physiology thinker here: When molecules move faster, there is more effect from the movement. Why does the body innately increase its temperature when infected? And why serratia [a bacteria responsible for hospital infections] of all choices!?

I am going to stick with hot water hand washing, for now.

Anonymous Genetic Testing

My paranoia level on this project is about a seven out of ten, where one on the scale would be a trusting grandma and ten is well-informed tinhat.

Lately I have been wanting one of the genetic testing startups to process my spit, to confirm my profound, stunning whiteness. Though regardless of how many data sharing agreements and EULAs they sign, I do not trust any entity with my genetic details, government or private. An old friend who works in human genetics briefly tried to mellow my concerns, but after a cocktail-or-two revised his stance with “yeah, I guess they could do nasty things with your insurance premiums.” So I set out to get a genetic test done anonymously. This is far from easy, but very doable.

First start with the basics: Confirm the price of the test, including any tax or shipping of the spit-kit back & forth. Recently the 23andMe ancestry test was about $100, to which you might add $35 for extras. Go pull this money out of an ATM in cash. Then stop by your neighborhood pharmacy and buy a debit gift card. Just stating the obvious, but do not buy the gift card with a personal credit card, since you want no digital connection between your actual identity and the payment.

Next find a public computer where you can browse the Internet. It has gotten more difficult to find traditional Internet cafes in big cities, since public wifi is everywhere… Dressing well and asking to use a fancy hotel’s business center is pretty easy. Do not use your computer at work or your machine at home. Not even with your browser in porn mode, nor using the awesome Brave project. A Tor setup might work, or a burner phone with a decent mobile browser. Though make sure you buy that burner phone with cash.

On your public computer, create a throwaway email account. Nowadays, Yandex is your best choice without requiring an SMS validation code. Obviously you want to use invented contact information on the email account.

Sign up for the genetic testing service with the new email account, and pay for the spit-kit with your gift card.

Next is the most delicate part of this whole process: You will need a mailing address to receive the package, but an address not tied directly to your identity. Maybe a doorman building, a large office where you know the people in the mail room, or the like. Find a mailing address shared by a bunch of people, and use this address “care of,” to ship the spit-kit.

If you want to spend any remaining credit on your gift card, make sure to drain exactly the remaining balance and do any top-up with cash. Do not top-up a gift card transaction with your personal credit or debit card.

Now after the package arrives, you may need to associate the kit with your particular genetic testing account. This typically means entering a barcode number into their website. Make sure to use that public computer (again) for doing this association. I believe genetic testing company fulfillment services do not automatically associate spit-kits, to leave the startup the option of quickly handing out a zillion kits, as conference swag.

Spit in your kit, and drop the package in a public mailbox.

In a month or two, your results should be ready. Stop by a public computer for a third time to download the reports and print them. Maybe scan those PDFs at home, and pitch the burner phone. Viola: Very nearly fully anonymous genetic testing!

Breaking this anonymity would probably require security video analysis, or a very compromised public computer. At that point, all bets are off since you are at the level of a three letter agency, and you have bigger concerns than which part of Europe your ancestors crawled on first.

Sons & Daughters

Menu notes from dinner at Sons & Daughters in San Francisco on October 20th, 2017.

  • Aperitif was a glass of Cava
  • Taste was a leek and beluga caviar tartlet (crunchy)
  • Glass sphere w/ celery broth, dehydrated okra seeds, chestnut puree, and hipster bacon
  • Salad of abalone & cabbage, w/ black garlic puree & mild pistachio butter
  • Broccoli rabe, radish, tomatillo salsa (very off, chemically flavor)
  • Delicata squash roasted & pureed, linguini of Granny Smith apples, shaved dehydrated foie gras
  • Very al dente purple barley w/ lobster mushrooms & dark roasted mushroom broth (barely there tarragon)
  • Bavette steak (yawn) stuffed w/ truffles & salsify a few ways
  • Set “Japanese cheesecake” of Big Rock Blue w/ quince (awful, sent it back)
  • Limequat ice cream, buckwheat honey, fennel meringue
  • Sous vide sesame cake w/ dehydrated buttermilk sprinkles, agastache greens, frozen carrot puree
  • Bookended meal w/ a chocolate & honey sphere tartlet

Dumpster Language

NLP analysis done on a dataset of about 8,000 transcripts of Dumpster (as in “Trump’s a Dumpster-fire”) back to 2007. Unfortunately there are no trends that obviously jump out. He has probably been keeping to book more closely than generally expected, at least in these prepared interviews.

Here are three early transcripts: “xx00133” from Showbiz Tonight (CNN in 2006), “xx00598” from Your World with Neil Cavuto (Fox in 2009), and “xx00911” from Nightline (ABC in 2009):

How has the implied grade-level and complexity of Dumpster’s speaking changed over time?

How has his information content changed over time (empirical bag-of-words entropy)?

If I assume the distant past is the benchmark for Dumpster authorship, does the recent speaker seems like the same person? (This is function word distribution.)

Motoi

Menu notes from our dinner at Motoi in Kyoto, Japan on May 13th, 2017.

  • aperitif: Rice flour dumpling
    (deep-fried rice flour dumpling, stuffed w/ a bit of sweet bean paste, wrapped in prosciutto)
  • amuse-bouche: Firefly squid, beans, potato mouse
    (flute w/ white potato mousse, green peas, broad beans, squid, topped w/ a soft consomme jelly)
  • porc: Baked pork back ribs Cantonese style
    (small slices of tea-marinaded fatty pork w/ crisped skin, strawberries & Italian basil)
  • pousse de bambou: Kyoto’s fresh bamboo shoot, wakame soup
    (lukewarm wakame soup w/ fresh bamboo & shiitake mushrooms & sansho leaf, confused but tasty)
  • asperge blanche: White asparagus
    (shredded white asparagus, noodles, caviar, edible flowers w/ thin onion-y aioli)
  • ris de veau: Sauted sweet bread and herb salad
    (sauteed sweetbreads, bitter green leaves, balsamic vinaigrette drizzled at the last minute)
  • poisson: Panfried Japanese bluefish, Kyoto’s bracken, butter sauce
    (wild bracken, onion bulb heads, beurre blanc w/ tomato concasse)
  • boeuf: roasted Ozaki beef
    (rare, tendon-y wagyu beef, fiddlehead ferns, white onion, w/ cherry demi sauce)
  • dessert-1: Walnuts with lemon
    (walnut ice cream, lemon granita, icy)
  • dessert-2: Banana, coconutscream, rasberry [sic]
    (coconut & raspberry frozen cream wrapped in a brown banana fruit leather, candy-like)
  • dessert-3: Miyazaki’s mango
    (mango, Campari liquid nitrogen granita, meringue shingles, white miso whipped cream, fromage blanc ice cream)
  • mignardises
    (tea & chocolate macarons, champagne meringue cookies, cannelle, also rosewater jelly, chocolate & coconut truffle, cinnamon curl cookie)

Atalier Crenn

We had dinner at Atalier Crenn on Friday night, and here are details on her menu:

  • White chocolate shell filled w/ cider, topped w/ creme de cassis jelly (Kir Breton / “Spring has come with its cool breeze”)
  • Trout roe in a tiny buckwheat cheese tart, and black truffle & citrus salad w/ greens (Citrus, Golden Trout Roe, Black Truffle / “Orbs of the air, earth, and sea coalesce”)
  • Shreds of fried potatoes w/ seaweed powder and gold flake & smoked trout w/ foie gras mousse & foie gras crunchy skin & Greek yogurt cream (Fish & Chips / “In search of those swimming creatures, tasty and crispy”)
  • Leek, fennel, (olive?) oil broth, sushi rice paddy w/ kombu, butter poached sea urchin w/ sesame seeds (Koshihikari Rice, Wakame, Barigoule / “Come with me and look into the golden light”)
  • Caviar w/ rice cream (koji?) & salty, buttery, seaweed-crusted rutabaga (Caviar, Rutabaga, Koji / “A burst of oceanic feeling, salty black pearls”)
  • Abalone slices w/ oyster cream, egg yolks & brioche w/ fine herbes butter, whipped beef fat butter (Abalone, Roasted Garlic, Oyster Cream / “The whimsically ebullient blue umami”)
  • Morels w/ lardo & parmesan custard, pine nuts, smoked creme fraiche spheres (Morrel, pint [sic] Nu, Parmesan Custard / “Earthly song of the elfin singers”)
  • Wagyu beef, pickled carrot jelly, edible flowers, roasted chicken cognac sauce (A-5 Wagyu, Foraged Spring Herbs, Carrot Veil / “Under a shroud stirs the tender-footed beast”)
  • Harbison cheese tart, onion marmalade, quince, zucchini weave cover (Cow’s Milk Cheese, Quince, Onion Marmalade / “Green lattice, in dulcet reminiscence”)
  • Pistachio ice cream “olive” (green tea?) olive oil (Recreated Olive / “A precious token”)
  • Chestnut, sage cream in little chocolate egg shells & fillo ‘maki’ wrapped around yogurt, apple, fennel & blood orange ice, rosette of something pickled  (Egg of Chestnut & Sage / Toasted Fillo, Yogurt, Apple, Fennel / Blood Orange Ice / “Walking deep in the woods” / “Strolling on, into the orchard” / “As the earth might have something to spare”)
  • Sorrel, mint sponge w/ pine nuts, blackberries reconstructed from spheres, stuffed w/ ice cream & shaved dark citrus cookie shaved like truffle (“The Forest” / “Spring has come and is full of sweet surprises”)
  • Tree of meringue cookies w/ calabash (?) jam, raspberry w/ chocolate jellies, nougat squares & box of chocolates, a white chocolate bark, white chocolate w/ coffee bonbon, Peruvian dark chocolate square truffle (Mignardises / “Sweetness, bounty, thanks”)
  • Granola sticks to takeaway

Snowball

Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway. [Andy Tanenbaum, 1989]

As  someone who did a lot of computing before The Cloud or Dropbox was a thing, I have a little box of hard drives tucked away in my living room. A bunch of these drives will be paperweights by now, the ball bearings frozen-up or platters otherwise unreadable, but I would happily pay for the salvageable data to be thrown up on Amazon for posterity and my own nostalgia. I tried trickle-copying the data over our Sonic DSL connection, but things were happening at a geologic time scale. Enter Snowball, Amazon’s big data transfer service. You sign up and the service piggy-backs on your usual Amazon Web Services (AWS) billing & credentials. Then they ship you a physical computer, a 50 pound honking plastic thing that arrives on your doorstep via two-day UPS:

AWS Snowball Enclosure

The first thing I noticed was a cleverly-embedded Kindle that serves as both shipping label and user interface:

AWS Snowball, Shipping Label

The plastic enclosure itself opens DeLorean-style to reveal a handful of spooled cables:

AWS Snowball, Cable Spool

You plug the Snowball into your normal 120V AC mains power, and boot the thing:

AWS Snowball, Bootup

 

Next you install some AWS software on another machine on your network, and then use that software to copy data over the network to the Snowball itself:

AWS Snowball, CLI Client

Tucked away inside is a serious amount of disk storage, 50 terabytes in the case of the Snowball I tried. The device itself is an intimidating “engineering sample,” whatever that means:

AWS Snowball, Engineering Sample

This is where I noted the first serious snag in my plans: The Snowball relies upon your own (home) network for data transfer, which puts a bandwidth bottleneck at your router. My suddenly-beleaguered Netgear thing was tapped-out within moments, and installing Linux on the router (WW-DRT) would not have gotten me further than a 2x speedup.

Also the Snowball client runs on another machine on your network, which is not much of a limitation when used in an institution. However I was copying data from an external hard drive sitting in a SATA IDE to USB 3.0 adapter thing, which put another bottleneck and layer of complexity at the USB port.

Why not just interface my external hard drives directly to the Snowball? Or maybe even install the hard drives as, temporary, internal disks within the enclosure? The enclosure is almost hermetically sealed (“rugged enough to withstand a 6 G jolt”), and exposes only Cat 5 and fiber network ports.

Here is me telling the Snowball via its command-line client that it is ready to be returned to AWS in Oregon:

AWS Snowball, Return Label

So! I found the Snowball to be a relatively sophisticated and honest approach to the realities of the Internet bandwidth vs. storage size growth curve. However it is not a good solution for those of us wanting to upload a bunch of rotting hard drives to The Cloud. Amazon has a legacy service that accepted shipped disk drives directly, but I believe it has gone away. On the other hand, I expect Snowball to be a very efficient and slick solution for most organizations. But for the guy sitting on some dusty hard disks, it did not get the ball rolling.