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noise pollution unit

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Tonight, in the restaurant attached to the condos where I am staying, the staff turned off the radio that had been playing Techno music shortly after I sat down. Why would they do this, upon seeing me, without being asked? It stems from an incident last night, Saturday. All through the week, the same Techno noise had been playing, though it hadn’t been as loud, and there had been other diners present. Last night I was an early diner, and had the place to myself.

Firstly, try and imagine the scene: a relatively quiet street in the suburb of Koramangala, south-east Bangalore, India. The decor in the restaurant is restrained: white walls, orange tablecloths, waiters in brown and black. The cuisine is semi-authentic, aimed at Western visitors such as myself; some bland dishes for the weak-of-stomach, plus the chef’s ideas of the kinds of local cuisine we might like e.g. “Mysore Pepper Mutton”, served with various vegetables, paneer, rice, roti, and garnishes such as sambar and yoghurt. I’ve been specifying “spicy” whenever asked, since the hot main courses are presented with the proper mild side dishes, unlike some restaurants in the UK. So far, so sensible.

Still, as noted, the radio, is playing loud Techno. This was totally inappropriate for the venue and the people in it, a prime example of what musician Robert Fripp calls a “noise pollution unit”. Since I was the only customer, I asked if it could be turned down. No complaints: the waiter went over, turned a knob, and the music faded away.

Up to that point, “noise pollution unit” was a mere metaphor: with the volume on the radio unit down, the real noise pollution took over. Electrical noise in the cabling from the radio was being amplified, almost to level of the Techno. BZZZZZZZTZZZZZZZR RZZZZZZZZZTTZZ ad nauseum. I went over and tried fiddling with the wires a bit, but to no avail. The manager came over to see what I was doing.

I was nice. Honest! I kept a smile on my face, and explained, to start off with, that Techno is Dance music, and no-one was dancing. Right? Now, after the waiter turned the radio down, he agreed that the speakers were noisy. Would I like him to turn the amplifier off?

This is the point at which I nearly lost it. I simply said “yes, please”, but what I really wanted to ask was: “are you such an insensitive clot that you think it’s acceptable to play Techno in a quiet restaurant? It’s Dance music, do you see anyone dancing?”. Had I got the question out, I was imagining an answer along the lines of “Techno? It’s Western music and we have Westerners here. You all look alike, and all your music sounds the same to me.”

So, Mr. Manager, continuing our imaginary argy-bargy: “what about the speaker noise? Doesn’t it annoy you at all? Can you imagine any customers who would ever, under any circumstances, want to listen to speaker noise?” Expected answer: “I only work here. The customer is always right, my own opinion doesn’t count. You Westerners are crazy, you’re capable of anything, even listening to speaker noise. My senses have been dulled by too many customers and their demands.”

So, I’m the idiot here, the foreigner who’s being difficult, because I have a sense of the appropriate? I came away with the impression that the staff there, knowing they’re dealing with Westerners, have abdicated their own senses of logic and taste, not realizing that some customers actually think beyond the obvious.

The “noise pollution unit” was not the only example of this odd passivity among the staff. Twice this week I placed an order, followed by a conversation something like this:

  • “I would like (starter) and (main course), please.”
  • “Are you sure?”
  • “Is there a problem with my order?”
  • “Are you sure you want that?”
  • “Can you tell me why I should not want that?”
  • “You have ordered (starter) and (main course).”
  • “Yes, I did.”
  • “OK…”
  • “Look, can you tell me what is wrong with my order?”
  • “Well…”
  • “Is it too much? I don’t know how much is included, so you need to tell me if it is too much. I can’t tell from the menu.”
  • “It is too much.”
  • “OK, thank you. Remove (starter), and replace (main course)with (main course2).”
  • “You want (main course)and (main course2)?”
  • “NO! Just (main course2)!”

This did not happen in France last June: there, the staff would actually advise the customers, understanding that the customer can not be expected to be right about everything on the first visit to an unfamiliar restaurant. They take that attitude a little too far in Paris, I think, but it was great down in the Rhône Valley’s family-run gourmet establishments.

The most depressing thing is that all this aggravation can be avoided, with a little thought, a little empathy, and a little imagination. Is it any wonder I’m turning in to a Grumpy Old Man? If the alternative is a numb, careless acquiescence to any and all circumstances, then bring me a pile of Grumpy, a pick-axe and a helmet. Please?

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Written by brian t

December 17, 2006 at 9:29 pm

Posted in culture, food, india, music, travel

gourmandise

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No update for over a week, mainly because I’ve been in France, at another of my company’s offices near Lyon. The main reason is a training course, but the subtext behind the visit is a company “jolly”, or junket, a chance to schmooze with various loosely-connected colleagues and make a few more professional connections. The course is now over, everyone else has left, and I’ve moved to a nicer part of the building to use the Internet in peace and quiet.

The training was on another of my company’s “string and sealing wax” products, this time based on Linux, which I now describe as “something I hope no customer ever sees”. A real “old-school” Linux application, or set of applications, held together by custom scripting and assumptions about the stability of the computing environment it will be used in. My fellow students were generally more experienced in Linux and the related applications than I am, yet we all had severe difficulties in getting anything working at all, uncovering whole classes of failures not seen before.

Yet it is already out there, and while I was bemused by the push to get so many of us trained so intensively, I’m not any more. It’s going to need a major support effort to keep its customers happy. We don’t expect that many customers on it, but those few will need all the help they can get.

Before I came to France, I had hoped it would be possible to experience some fine dining; what actually happened is an interesting story in itself. Each working day this week I’ve had lunch in the office cafeteria, which is in a whole different league to that back in Dublin, starting with double the variety of dishes. They serve starters as well as freshly-prepared desserts, even beer and wine. They don’t charge for garnishings like olives or pickles, something I only noticed today and am kicking myself over, being an olive addict who balks at the high prices charged at home.

Most importantly, the quality of the dishes starts with the quality of the ingredients, and they don’t need to do that much to them to make a fine dish. What happened each evening this week is a salutary lesson in how to do it, or not.

Sunday’s dinner in the hotel bar, as tonight’s will be: I don’t remember what I had, so nondescript was the meal. However, the hotel has my new favourite beer: Abbaye Affligem Blonde, a Belgian “blonde” abbey beer that really works for me, in a quality vs. quantity sense: I couldn’t drink a lot of it, but I enjoy the whole glass. This is considered a “commercial” beer in Belgium, so I clearly have a lot of drinking learning to do on this topic.

On Monday a bunch of us headed out to the neighbouring village of Bourgoin-Jallieu to see what we could find. Not much was happening, and we landed at the Grande Cafe (I think it was), under the TV, with a bunch of Tunisia supporters shouting over our heads. Annoyingly, the advertised dish of the day was gone, and I had to make a snap choice from an all-French menu. I think I landed on my feet, with a small rack of beef and vegetables, but the wine was indifferent and the Crème Brûlée was a bit tasteless.

Tuesday was the semi-official dinner of our visit, for which we all went to Bernard Lantelme‘s highly-rated family restaurant in Saint-Alban-de-Roche, with its small-but-classy menu of traditional dishes. After a well-balanced starter of red pepper with anchovies, the main course was rabbit with shallots and new potatoes. We went with the house recommended wines: I stayed with the red all evening, which was excellent, but my colleagues heaped praise on the white.

Wednesday was an evening off, so I walked up to the town of Villefontaine, to do a little shopping. A sudden summer thunderstorm hit as I was in the centre, an excuse to hang around with the locals as they fought to get themselves and their things under cover. The storm disrupted an outdoor music festival of sorts, so quickly that a young girl had to be rushed off stage, mid-song, in case her trumpet and microphone gave her a shock. Some chips and petits fours were all I wanted that evening, and a book.

Thursday, last night, was when things got a little out-of-hand. It was the last night for most of the gang, so we all trekked up to a place one of them had been to before: L’Alouette, in Bonnefamille. The initial signs were not good: we sat outdoors, on plastic chairs, in a courtyard next to a busy road, while insects swarmed around us and the house Alsatian stuck his nose round the door and stared at me. After sunset, the traffic subsided and the insects were attracted away by lights.

As with Lantelme on Tuesday, I can find no English information online, but the menu is readable under “les menus” on the site I linked to. I had the “small” Menu de l’Alouette, starting with Une Tranche de Foie Gras frais de Canard, Mélange de Salades maraîchères à l’huile de noisette. (A slice of fresh Duck Foie Gras (liver), with a market salad in filo pastry, with hazelnut oil.)

The main course was un suprême de Caille cuit en croûte, farci au foie gras, un jus de viande réduit aux betteraves et à la crème de Cassis. (Quail Supreme in pastry with Foie Gras stuffing, served with a beet reduction and blackcurrant sauce.) The presentation included small dishes of vinaigrette vegetables and creamed broccoli. I don’t have much to say about that. except perhaps… Wow.

Two separate amuse-bouche dishes were also included: followed by a loaded cheese board. After all that, the house Vin d’Orange (Champagne and Orange wine), and several glasses of excellent white, I had forgotten about dessert: a mix of ice creams and sorbets that put a silly grin on my face. The caseophile in me had gone a bit ga-ga at the cheese board, where I overloaded on Roquefort and good Camembert (among others I can not recall the names of), but I made it all the way to coffee in one piece. I wasn’t the only one to overindulge a bit: one of the others, despite going for menu dégustation, the 3-course gourmet menu, polished off double desserts after an ordering mistake left a spare.

After last night, anything will be a let down, but my notebook battery is on its last legs, so I should stop typing and return to the hotel soon. I hear they make a decent basic pizza, and there’s always the Affligem and the football. Tomorrow I have a day in Lyon, sightseeing, and I fly back on Sunday at noon, sharp. I don’t care if my boss doesn’t let me put the two gourmet meals on expenses: I can afford it, so rarely do I get the chance to dine well. Bye.

Written by brian t

June 23, 2006 at 4:45 pm

Posted in culture, food, travel, work

a grey day

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it's kite-surfing, but without the wheels. got air?Never mind the Special Olympics in 2003: if any proof was necessary that Dublin has arrived as a world destination, I found it today, in the freezer section of Superquinn’s in Blackrock. That’s right, folks; Ben & Jerry now make a Dublin Mudslide flavour. It was OK, I suppose, but I’ve had better ice creams.

Ice cream (with liquer), steak, a fine Brie: what’s the occasion? My birthday, again. I used to mention Bing Crosby as someone I shared a birthday with, but it seems I was wrong about that – he was born a day later, according to more authoritative sources. Never mind; besides Queen Catherine the Great and David Beckham (who turned 30 today), other names I can drop are those of Italian composer Alessandro Scarlatti and actor Duayne “The Rock” Johnson. Ye Flipping Gods…

Dun Loaghaire HharbourToday was the May Day Bank Holiday here in Ireland, and I actually took the day off for a change, I normally work these days and take a more useful day in lieu. My afternoon went on another of my mad walks down the coast, this time to Dún Laoghaire (Dunleary), the harbour and ferry port. The word of the day was “grey”, with a few gaps in the cloud providing a little colour. As I found at the Leopardstown Racecourse a few months ago, this strange light fools my camera into underexposing, and this time I soon remembered to compensate for the effects.

As before, there was little point in keeping what little colour the images contained, and it was back to black & white. Mucking about with different colour balances had little effect, even with the RAW data from the camera that had no in-camera processing. There are more pictures on the Dublin gallery page (follow the Gallery link). I haven’t trawled through all the pictures yet, so I should have a few more later, including some 3D work.

Written by brian t

May 2, 2005 at 9:12 pm

cheesed off

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I’m finally getting to see Super Size Me tonight.

One particular allegation had me going “whoa”: a nutritionist was listing the addictive ingredients in a McDonalds meal, most of them familiar. Caffeine, sugar, salts… but cheese? Yes, he said, it contains casomorphin, an opiate. In that case…

… Hi, my name is Brian, and I’m a Cheesaholic. Actually, I prefer the term caseophile. Cheese is truly the Food of the Gods, and I’m not talking about your common Cheddar, oh no. I don’t have one absolute favourite, I try and find a cheese for every occasion. It may be a slice of Dubliner on a home-made burger, grated Parmigiano on Niçoise salad, goat’s cheese on a Four Star “Posh Pizza” from the restaurant down the road, Gruyère and Salami on Rye, or Feta with Olives from the Deli.

Then there are the solo cheeses; it’s been a few years since I graduated from Danish Blue to St. Agur and Stilton, with the world of Gorgonzola, Roquefort and Bleu D’Auvergne still to be tapped, for cost reasons. It’s not all Blue, of course; I no longer live near the shop where I found the Mature Ardrahan that had the neighbours giving me strange looks, but there’s always a place on my plate for some mild Caerphilly, Wensleydale or Camembert de Normandie. A really good Cheddar is not to be sniffed at, only in blocks, never pre-sliced nor grated.

Am I addicted to Dairy? Do I really have to give up cheese? If I did, what would be the point of food at all?

Written by brian t

April 29, 2005 at 9:19 am

Posted in food, movies

turkey swizzlers

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There’s a recent documentary series being re-run on (UK) Channel 4 at the moment, one that I should have watched first time around: Jamie’s School Dinners. It follows Jamie Oliver, a “celebrity chef”, as he tries to do something about the quality of the food served in schools in England. Oh hell, where do I start?

It starts at home, with the parents too busy to prepare balanced meals for their kids or themselves. By the time they start school, they’re used to processed junk, and that’s what they get on a budget of 37p ($0.80 / €0.60) per kid per day. Imagine the worst junk food you’ve ever had, then remove the few real ingredients and nutritional value. Then imagine kids who have never known anything better, and you can imagine what made motormouth Oliver lose the power of speech every time he met one of those kids.

After a very rocky start, with some kids in the north of England not knowing what carrots or real chicken looks like, one of the tricks seems to be getting the kids involved in choosing and preparing the food. Peer pressure plays a huge role, with some kids looking at others before deciding whether they like the taste of something. Dressing up as a giant corn cob certainly helped Jamie break the ice, but while he’s been up north, the kids at the other testbed school in London are protesting against his recipes, demanding the return of “pizza”, “turkey twizzlers”, and chips. (Pizza and chips on the same plate? Are you nuts?)

I didn’t know what a “turkey twizzler” was before I saw this show; must be in a part of the supermarket I don’t get to, alongside the frozen burgers and pizza. BBC News is reporting that, since Oliver started trashing them on the show, sales have actually increased! What’s that they say about publicity?

I guess I was lucky: my mother was a “homemaker”, and we didn’t have the modern array of processed foods in South Africa, where we were living. No-one told me that corn was a “vegetable”, and since we lived across the road from a huge cornfield, you can bet we had plenty of that on the plate, and I was eating spinach long before I ever saw a Popeye cartoon. There were no prepared school dinners at any school I went to there; sandwiches and fruit were the only options. The price was more labour; how many hours of play did I lose peeling potatoes? Looking back, however, I think it was worth it.

OK, there are some vegetables I have problems with. It takes a lot to make celery palatable, it’s practically a weed like rhubarb, which needs to be boiled to mush, with a hundredweight of sugar, to make it palatable. Turnip (a.k.a. swede or rutabaga) is beyond hope, even if I drown it in butter, and raw tomato skin still makes me queasy. Now I think about it: since I like a challenge, and turnip is very cheap, I think I should buy a few and get to Wok with them. Cooking.

Written by brian t

March 30, 2005 at 5:49 pm

Posted in culture, england, food

still loaf

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Still Loaf with Blue CheeseWhite Christmas? Slightly, with the occasional snow flurry, but I’m too close to the coast for any snow to stay on the ground so far. I have the apartment to myself, and am baking bread again, with better results than last time. It’s not a long job, unless you include the time it takes to clean the kitchen afterwards, the flour tends to go wherever it wants.

Written by brian t

December 25, 2004 at 2:00 pm

Posted in food

weird chilli

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Well, I’ve worked up quite an appetite, writing all that guff, so it’s time to hit the kitchen:

Kinoto-na Wasabi Chilli
乙な山葵チッリ

  • 1lb (450g) beef mince
  • 300ml beef or vegetable stock
  • 400g tomatoes, chopped, or small can or tomato puree
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced (to taste)
  • 2-3 whole mixed peppers, coarsely chopped (to taste)
  • Your Chilli Sauce*
  • 400g can Chilli Beans
  • Wasabi: 2tsp paste or 1tsp powder

In a large pot, brown the mince in the stock for about 5 minutes at high temperature.
Add tomatoes, cook for 5 minutes at medium.
Reduce to low temperature. Add the remaining ingredients in roughly the order above, over the next 20 minutes.
Keep the Chilli at a low simmer throughout, stirring gently with each addition.
The Chilli can be served as little as 10 minutes after the last ingredient, but it’s better to allow more time for the sauce to thicken.
Serve with rice, corn, nachos, or any bread (pitta, cornbread, tortilla)

* Chilli Sauce: finely chop ~50g Jalapeno peppers in a little vinegar, or use ~2tsp of bottled sauce. Good sauces to use here include Santa Maria Pepper Sauce or Nando’s Hot Piri-Piri, a sauce made from Birds Eye Chilli, popular in South Africa but also available in Europe now.
Hint: freeze the garlic in advance for easier chopping with less smell;

Wasabi is Japanese pickled horseradish, the fiery green powder or paste that is definitely not meant to snorted the way Steve-O did in Jackass: The Movie, with results you might be better off leaving to your imagination. This recipe is the tame version: for more of that good old fire-engine factor, use the seeds from the peppers, and crank up the other accelerants, at your own risk!

Written by brian t

December 11, 2004 at 4:00 pm

Posted in food