Monday, November 28, 2016

Dining @ Oriole in Chicago, IL

The last time I was in Chicago I stopped in at Blackbird.  I was lucky enough to snag the reservations sort of last minute.  This time I actually had time to plan for the trip so I looked into restaurants way earlier.  I wanted to hit up the famed Alinea, but tickets were sold out by the time I checked (2 months before my trip!).  So I had to hunt for another place.

I looked into Grace but that place is hard to get into as well.  I looked into Goosefoot and Elizabeth, but they were bit farther away in the North side of Chicago.  El Ideas was closer, but I thought the restaurant might be a bit too quirky for my co-diners who aren't quite the foodies I am.

After some random searching and I came upon Oriole.  It's a relatively new restaurant that was run by the chef from Senza, a 1 Michelin star restaurant that closed in late 2014.   Oriole got an amazing 4/4 stars from the Chicago Tribune.  It's only the 6th time the Tribune has given a restaurant a 4/4 as its initial review.  The other restaurants given initial 4/4 were all run by eventual 2 or 3 Michelin Star chefs.  So it's very high praise for Oriole.  Sure enough, a few months after that stellar review, Oriole debuted at 2 Michelin Stars.

Luckily for me I was able to snag a reservation for 4 while I was in town.  Here's an overview of the meal we had.  One interesting note is that the restaurant did not present a menu to you before the tasting, as they wanted the dishes brought out to you to be a surprise.  It's the first time I've ever had a restaurant do that.  So all the official dish descriptions listed below were determined after the tasting.  It does affect how you view the meal and interpret the dishes without knowing them ahead of time.

1) Hot Apple Cider

When we arrived we were given some hot apple cider.  I'm not sure if this is a regular thing at Oriole or not (if it is, perhaps they substitute other cooler drinks during the summer), but given it was a really chilly night, the hot apple cider was really nice and welcome.

2) GOLDEN OSETRA CAVIAR - coconut dashi, lychee and sea grapes

Nothing too much to mention about this dish, a tasty start with some interesting mixtures of flavors.

3) LANGOUSTINE - spring roll with shio kombu, calamansi and mint

Overall, very tasty.  I had to lookup what calamansi is, and it's apparently a hybrid citrus/kumquat fruit.   I guess it was the primary component of the sauce.  The "sweet and sour" of the sauce was a little on the strong side, perhaps drowning out the relatively tiny spring roll a bit. I actually had never had langoustine before so I tried some of it by itself and it had a flavor that certainly reminds you for shrimp/lobster, but had a distinctive taste.

4) KAMPACHI - nigiri with yuzu kosho and genmai

This was a great piece of nigiri.  I believe the rice was a bit more vinegared than other sushi rice I recall having, but the kampachi and yuzu kosho was really flavorful overall and very tasty.  The genmai (brown rice) was added on top for texture.  It gave a nice texture contrast, but I think the dish would have been delicious even without it.

5) BEEF TENDON - puffed with wagyu tartare and shaved matsutake

The first thing I thought of was to compare to the puffed tendons that I had at Alta CA.  The flavor wasn't quite as strong, as I suspect it wasn't salted like the one at Alta.  That's not to be surprising as the wagyu tartare was to be the highlight.  Overall, quite tasty, although I did wish I got what flavors they had used to mix together with the wagyu tartare.

6) BONE BROTH - vietnamese coriander, cinnamon and lemongrass

This dish was served at the same time as the dish above, as we were told to enjoy the broth in between bites.  Overall, really tasty and delicious broth.  Wish I could have had a huge bowl of it.

7) BEAUSOLEIL OYSTER - iberico consumme and smoked finger lime

This was an interesting flavor combination I haven't had before.  The consumme really muted the typical strong taste of the raw oyster, making the flavor more subtle.

8) JAMON IBERICO DE BELLOTA - black walnut, egg yolk and campo de montalban

I've never had iberico ham before, so I didn't know what to expect.  The flavor was definitely different than most other hams and not as intense as I had expected.  I had to lookup campo de montalban, which is apparently a type of cheese.  Overall, an interesting combinations of flavor but hard to give a verdict as I'm unfamiliar with the main ingredient.

On top of the dish was an almond crisp with some jam, which I cannot recall.  This had a very strong flavor and was quite tasty.

9) CARDINAL PRAWN - meyer lemon, fennel and melted lardo

This was one of the best dishes in the meal.  This plate was surrounded by toasted (IIRC) juniper and plated with a sauce that I unfortunately can't recall.  Cardinal prawn is apparently a deep sea salt water prawn, so you get the great flavor that comes with salt water prawns instead of the freshwater ones.  I don't know how Oriole cooked this, perhaps it was done via sous vide it so it was "medium rare" in the middle, but this prawn was really tender in the middle and had a melt in your mouth quality.  I don't recall having prawn like this before, overall it was really good.

10) SEA URCHIN - emulsion with bay scallop, cauliflower and anise hyssop

This was probably my favorite dish of the night, it was an explosion of umami and flavor with chunks of scallop and cauliflower underneath the sea urchin emulsion.  I had to look up what anise hyssop was, it's in the mint family of herbs.  After eating this, I wondered if the sea urchin emulsion could have been poured over pasta, it's just that good.

11) SOURDOUGH - cultured butter and local grains

Overall really tasty, although I think there was too much butter on the bread for my particular taste.

12) CAPELLINI - burgundy truffle, rye berry and yeast

I'm not a huge fan of truffle, as I consider the flavor a bit too earthy for my tastes.  However, I really enjoyed this dish, as instead of raining truffles on top of the pasta only a small shaving was put on top.  So instead of getting all of that truffle flavor, you only get a hint of it in each bite.  One of the servers I spoke to said he agreed that raining too much truffle on top can make it too intense.

13) JAPANESE A5 WAGYU - charred little gem, furikake and sesame leaf

I don't know what needs to be said about A5 wagyu other than it's delicious.  I actually don't recall what the sauce flavoring on the right was.  Perhaps it was the sesame leaf.  The charred little gem of lettuce had a bit of a pickling/vinegar-ish taste to it that I thought was tasty and interesting.

14) LEMON TEA - sorbet with hibiscus, asian pear, and bitter greens

Just like when I went to Blackbird, Oriole surprised me with an interesting sorbet flavor.  Overall, quite tasty along with all the other flavors.

15) CROISSANT - raclette, apple butter and cardamom

This came straight out of the oven warm and hot.  Overall, rich and creamy and tasty.

16) PISTACHIO - gelato with pineapple curd, elderflower, and puffed rice

I wasn't exactly sure what "pineapple curd" was, but it appears to be a combination of a fruit, egg yolks, and sugar to produce a creamy spread.  As you can see in the picture there were also some wafers and (probaby not noticeable) some gelatin chunks for additional texture differences (although I couldn't figure out the gelatin flavor).  Overall, I really enjoyed this dessert, a lot of great flavors and textures throughout.

Because I'm a bit allergic to pineapple, the restaurant substituted pomegranate curd instead in the bottom picture.  I have a feeling I might have been the first one in this restaurant to have a pineapple allergy, as one of the servers asked me how the dish was.  She mentioned that several of the staff saw the dish and were "oh wow, look at that".

17) MIGNARDISES - yuzu and salted caramel

Starting from the top, there was a dark chocolate with salted caramel, middle was a macaron with milk chocolate, and the bottom was a white chocolate with yuzu.  Overall, all good with the dark chocolate being my favorite.

18) Coconut Cream Pie

Off menu, we were each given this box with a coconut cream pie togo.  I'm not a big fan of coconut, but the pie was delicious.

Overall the meal was a little over 2 hours, perhaps about a 2 hour and 15 minute affair.  Compared to other meals, I did leave the restaurant a tad on the not-full side.  It wasn't as bad as Sons & Daughters or Commis, but an extra bread course would have been nice or some fillers at the end (a la French Laundry) to stuff yourself.  Perhaps the coconut cream pie could have been served along the mignardise as an extra filler.

One other thing I'd like to highlight for the restaurant.  My co-diners were worried about their meter running out and wanted to head outside to add more money into the meter, but the restaurant said they would take care of it for them at no cost, which was really nice.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Dinner @ Aster in San Francisco, CA

My girlfriend and I were going to be in the Mission and decided to hit up  Aster again.  Compared to many of the Michelin Star type restaurants out there, it's quite affordable and we found the dishes interesting and tasty.  While earlier in the year they charged $59 for four courses, it's now up to $65 for four courses and an extra $5 for bread.  Still, it's very affordable compared to many other restaurants.
I'll leave details of the restaurant to the prior post, but here's an overview of the meal we had on this second trip.

1) SOURDOUGH, house cultured butter

Just like the last time we were here we got the house bread.  We both love this bread.  Not too sour but more sour than most sourdoughs.  Not too tough/hard like other sourdoughs.  If you're coming to Aster, get the bread.  We actually asked if we could get the bread to go, but the answer was no :-(

2A) SUMMER SQUASH, pluot, yogurt, vadouvan, mint

2B) KAMPACHI cucumber, pickled plum, shiso w/ uni

For my first course I had the squash salad in the top picture.  Overall, a light and refreshing salad dish to start the meal.  I really liked the pluot and squash combination.

My girlfriend got the kampachi in the bottom picture.  For a price, you can add uni to it, which we did.  Of the bite I took, I really liked it, although I felt the balance of pickling and fish was a bit too strong towards the pickling.  However, I was given the last piece of the fish, so perhaps it had sat a bit too long in the juice by that point.

3A) SOFT-COOKED EGG, puffed rice, salmon roe, bacon vinaigrette w/ uni

3B) HOKKAIDO SQUASH, preserved yuzu, pepita, basil

Last time we were here my girlfriend got the soft cooked egg.  Of the one bite I took I thought it was delicious so I decided I couldn't pass on it this time.  I also added uni into this dish.  This dish was was tasty, really hearty, and had some nice contrasting textures.  My only knock is that after 5 or 6 bites, it seemed to be "too much" heartiness.  This item would have been great on a tasting menu, perhaps smaller with a quail egg instead of a full hen egg.

My girlfriend got the squash in the bottom picture.  Of the bite I had, tasty, especially with the yuzu citrus sauce.

4A) DUCK, celeriac, quince, maitake, grains of paradise

4B) PORK, miso potatoes, brussels, grapes, verjus

I got the duck dish in the top photo.  The duck breast was cooked sort of medium rare.  A bit more cooked than the duck at La Folie but a little rarer than the duck at Keiko a Nob Hill.  Overall I enjoyed it, but liked the duck at Keiko a bit more because I prefer it a bit more medium.  The sauces were interesting, although I wish there was a "strong savory" type sauce amongst the three.  The sauces tended towards the "light" end.  In the back was a roulade of duck that the waiter suggested I end in one bite because it was a really strong duck flavor.  He was right, it was really really rich.

My girlfriend got the pork dish on the bottom.  It includes some pork tenderloin and a roulade of pork belly.  Of the portions I tasted, all of this dish was delicious.  The pork was tender with strong flavors.  Our initial reaction was we both enjoyed this pork better than the one at Gary Danko.

5A) POACHED PEAR, pistachio, vanilla

5B) FROZEN CHOCOLATE huckleberry, bourbon meringue, cacao nib

I had the poached pear dish in the top picture.  The pistachios are on top with a crunchy top and a cream (possible bavarois?) beneath it.  Overall, delicious, loved the flavor combinations and the texture differences throughout.

My girlfriend had the frozen chocolate dish in the bottom picture, which was sort of a frozen chocolate mousse kind of item.  It was surrounded by these soft wafers and there was a huckleberry sauce beneath.  Just like the poached pear, a lot of great flavors and textures together.

Overall a nice meal at Aster although I enjoyed the first meal better as the tastes aligned more with my personal tastes.  That's sort of the risk of going with the price fixe menu and the random items they have that day.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Not Striking Out - Is it why Albert Pujols Will Age Decently?

A long time ago I remember reading a statistical analysis on the aging of baseball players.  One sign of a player that would age well was the player's inability to strike out.  The theory was relatively simple.  If a player strikes out a lot when they are younger, they will only do worse as they age and their bat speed gets worse.

The paper (which I'm struggling to find) used George Brett as an example.  He struck out a paltry 7.8% of his at bats over his career.  As a modern day comparison, from 2011-2013 when Miguel Cabrera won three batting titles, Cabrera struck out 13.7% of the time. George Brett was able to last in the big leagues until he was 40.  Although not the elite hitter he once was he was productive and even won a batting title in 1990 at the age of 37.

Other players in this same mold can be found.  Hank Aaron and Tony Gwynn both come to mind.

Now, strikeout rates have been increasing in baseball, especially in the last two decades, so "good strikeout rate" is now somewhat relative.  David Ortiz's strikeout rate of 13.7% of his plate appearances in 2016 may seem high, but it's relatively low compared to many of his other power hitting peers.   As an example, Mike Trout struck out 20.1% of his at bats in 2016, and that was a decline from prior years.

However, one of the anomalies in baseball in the 2000s was Albert Pujols.  Despite strikeout rates going up, Pujols continued to strike out at very low rates.  From 2001-2011 in St. Louis, Pujols struck out only 9.5% of plate appearances.  A paltry number for a power hitter in this century.  His worst year was his rookie year when he struck out 13.7% of the time.

It's one of the reasons some people felt a long term contract for Albert Pujols may not be that bad compared to others that received big long term contracts.  The belief was that Albert Pujols would age better than many of his peers.

Albert Pujols' strikeout rate as an Angel has stayed somewhat consistent.  It's been 11.2% over his 5 years as an Angel.  However, as many of us know, Albert Pujols is not the same today.  In 2016, his WAR of 1.4 was a career low, even below his injury plagued season of 2013.  So is Albert Pujols not aging well?

It's at this time I realized, that "aging well" is a relative term.  Very few players can play baseball into their 30s.  So "aging well" may in fact simply be a statement that a player is capable of just holding a job in baseball into their late 30s.  Not that they can hold a job at an All Star level of play.   George Brett had a WAR of 1.7 in his age 36 season before a fluke-ish 4.1 WAR in his age 37 season.  He never had a WAR above 1 again.

While there are the occasional Hank Aarons or David Ortizes of the world that can produce All Star performance into their late 30s, it's very rare.  A player simply being able to hold a starting position into their late 30s is by itself testament to a player aging well.

I'm reminded of this fact because today Ryan Howard, one of Albert Pujols' first basemen peers was bought out of his 2017 option year by the Phillies.  With negative WAR values in 2014-2016, it's likely that Howard's career is over.  If he hadn't signed his contract extension so early, he likely would have been out of baseball at the age of 34 or 35.

Earlier this year, another of Pujols' peers Prince Fielder had to retire.  While his retirement was due to injury, his numbers were already beginning to look bad with a 1.9 WAR in 2013 during his age 29 season and 1.5 WAR in 2015 in his age 31 season.