Monday, May 27, 2013

Ridin' the Rails: A New Travel Experience

Posted by Benson

My wife and I recently took a trip up to Indiana to see her family for Memorial Day.  As you may know, my wife and I recently had a new addition to the family, and the thought of air travel with a two year old, a two month old, and all of the various accouterments necessary to sustain and entertain the two rascals was not terribly appealing.  Add in high fees from late booking and a few other inconvenient booking impediments, and air travel was off of the table.

Yea, not gonna be me

It seemed that the only remaining option was to drive, but 16 hours over two days with an infant in the back seat was a sobering thought.  But then I remembered the City of New Orleans, by which I mean the train, not the actual city.  The City of New Orleans is an Amtrak train that runs between New Orleans and Chicago.  The route has been in operation since 1947, originally as the Panama Limited. 

There's plenty of stops, including a convenient location in Hammond, LA

It is an overnight route with no exchanges that takes about 19 hours.  At first, it sounds crazy.  It takes longer to ride the train than it does to drive, and a 19 hour trip seems to compare terribly to a 6 hour total travel time by air.  But at the time it was vastly preferable to driving!

Having experienced the trip first hand, I can definitively say that it is an excellent way to travel!  We booked a superliner sleeper car, which at roughly 6'x7' seems tiny, but it feels rather roomy, even with two adults and two kids.  It also has a private bathroom and is treated pretty much like first class on an airplane, but without the free booze.  You have an attendant for the sleeper car, meals included in the cost, and a cherished spot at the very rear of the train, well away from the noisy horn.

I don't kn ow who these people are, but don't they look happy!

The trip was easy, relaxing, and despite the 19 hour travel time it seemed to be over before I knew it.  But it is so much slower, right?  Why spend 19 hours in a train when for a similar price you arrive in 6 hours by air?  But think about this.  If I had booked flights for the family departing New Orleans at 10 a.m. with a 6 hour travel time, one layover, we'd arrive in Chicago by 4 p.m. or so.  But you have to get to the airport at least an hour early.  Now I need to leave for the airport at 8 a.m. which means a frenzied rush to get everything organized, get the kids situated and in the car, and then a battle through airport security with a stroller, car seat, bags to check, and the constant worry that my two year old is going to eat gum off of the floor or disappear into a crowd.

I don't know who these people are either, but in an airport you're one delay short of wanting to kill yourself

You have to squish into a tiny coach seat (hopefully you were able to get enough seats together), then repeat the dash during your layover.  You may arrive by 4 p.m., but you arrive exhausted, and in no mood to do anything for the rest of the day, so the 6 hours of travel really ends up being a long, stressfully wasted day.

There's a lovely lounge car, and watching the scenery go by is pretty mesmerizing

With the train, we made our way leisurely to the station for a 2:45 p.m. departure, handed our check bags to an attendant in 5 min., and ate sandwiches while we waited for the train.  We had a leisurely ride up, the bulk of it taken up by sleep (and I, who have difficulty sleeping in strange places, actually managed a decent amount of rest), had an enjoyable dinner, and we arrived at 9 a.m., rested and ready for the whole day.  

And you have a guy whose job it is to make sure you are happy and comfortable

We were about where we would have been if we had traveled by air: rested and cognizant by 9 a.m. the following day.  The only problem is that Amtrak is becoming increasingly popular, especially during the holidays, and the private sleeper cars go fast.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Pinball Addiction: The Simpsons Pinball Party

Posted by Benson

The last time I was in the Boston area I went over to Cambridge to check out Lanes & Games, a Cambridge bowling alley, arcade, pool hall, and bar.  Finding a place to play pinball isn't always easy.  There are plenty of machines in the Boston area, but only a few places with a decent range of machines.  Lanes & Games has nine different pinball machines, which is exciting, and precisely the reason I went.

Although Lanes & Games has nine machines ranging from 90s era titles like Adams Family and Safe Cracker to relatively brand new machines like Tron: Legacy and Iron Man, I spent the vast majority of my time playing The Simpsons Pinball Party.

The Simpsons Pinball Party is a  relatively new machine, being released by Stern in 2003.  It is certainly much newer than the first Simpsons pinball machine, released in 1990, merely one year into the ongoing, monolithic Simpsons franchise.  Consequently, The Simpsons Pinball Party is far more robust in its Simpsons references.

The game is faithful to its license, with plenty for diehard Simpsons fans to enjoy, even a secret Springfield Mystery Spot.  But far more than a tantalizing game for fans, The Simpsons Pinball Party is an excellent machine with good flow, thoughtful layout, and a robust amount of content.  The game also features a manual plunger and two skill shots, which I appreciate immensely.

There is a lot to do in this game, so much so that I cannot begin to describe it all here.  The game has a series of timed modes which are started by having your ball kicked to an upper playfield, the Spimpsons' living room, complete with a TV mini display.  The upper playfield is accessed either by the left side ramp or by shooting the garage door twice (once to open the door and a second time to get into the garage).  This two-ways-to-play setup is a consistent theme with The Simpsons Pinball Party, making it an interesting and enjoyable game as the player has a great deal of flexibility.

If I remember correctly, there are seven modes plus a wizard mode, not that I was able to get to that point.  My novice skill is such that I am only able to explore a game to a certain point before my wallet gives out.  Nevertheless, completing all modes will start the Alien Invasion wizard mode, or so I have read.

In addition to the upper playfield modes, there are two separate multiballs, both of which have challenging (but far from impossible) ball locks, which makes activating multiball a rewarding achievement.  One such ball lock also starts a Bart Daredevil mode with loops, ramps, bumpers, and targets. 

The playfield is bright, colorful, and characterful with several playfield characters including the Comic Book Guy, Itchy & Scratchy, Daredevil Bart, and Homer Simpson's head.  Most of the characters move, but do so minimally.  In any case they add far more to the experience than they detract.

I would say that the game is an intermediate difficulty.  Unlike a relatively easy Sega machine, it requires skill and practice to play, but it is not punishing.  As a novice player, I never felt like the machine was taking me for a ride, and quarters went a respectably long time.  The left outlane can be a killer, but it is merely one drawback in an otherwise very solid playing experience.

Overall, The Simpsons Pinball Party deserves its good reputation.  It is a solid, enjoyable game with only a short list of mechanical issues more than made up for by a thoughtfully designed playfield and a significant depth of gameplay.

Friday, May 10, 2013

DGA Wine Club - 14 Hands Cabernet Sauvingon 2010

Posted by Jamie

I recently had a wonderful cabernet sauvignon.  The 14 Hands Vineyards 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon was quite a treat for such an affordable price.  It contains the class Cab Sav flavors for black cherries with hints of baking spice.  It is bolstered by fine round tannins making it a medium bodied wine.  It is fruit forward and has a smooth finish.   The concentrated aromas of dark stone fruits and toast burst from the glass. 

14 Hands Vineyards is located in Washington State in the Columbia Valley which is in central Washington.  The vineyard is inspired by the wild horses which used to roam in this area.  The name “14 Hands” comes from the fact that these horses were only 14 hands high - a “hand” being equivalent to a man’s palm width and how horses were measured then.  This region is distinct from western Washington state, which has a much different climate due to the rain shadow caused by the Cascade range.

14 Hands winemaker Keith Kenison has been making wines in Washington State since the late 1990s. It was his interest in winemaking that brought him to Washington, and over the years his expertise in enology and winemaking blossomed.

14 Hands celebrates the spirit of the wild horses, and the rich and unique history of Washington wines not only in its wines, but also in the vibrant colors and images on their bottles.  The bottle art was created by artist Cynthia Sampson.  Sampson is an award-winning representational colorist who specializes in brightly colored pastel and acrylic animal paintings. 
I enjoyed the wine while having a cook out with friends.  We paired the wine with garlic infused pork chops and baked asparagus.  The pairing worked out perfectly.  Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the wine and our only complaint was that we did not have a second bottle. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

NOLA Dining: Restaurant August

Posted by Chris

Restaurant August, located on Tchoupitoulas Street between Canal and Poydras, serves as the flagship restaurant of acclaimed New Orleans chef John Besh. The restaurant opened in 2001. Besh, the winner of a James Beard Award in 2006, now operates eight other restaurants, seven in the New Orleans area alone.

            My wife and I dined at August on New Year’s Eve. Since we had planned to eat our way around the city, we decided to order the chef’s tasting menu with wine pairings. The chefs at August presented a wonderfully complex array of flavors and pairings that represented the most inventive and confident food we encountered in the city. The presentations were simple and clean, everything on the plate served a clear purpose, and the portion sizes were perfect for a tasting menu (enough for a couple of bites, but not enough to fill you up until the end). The chefs demonstrated a remarkable restraint by allowing the ingredients to stand out. What follows is a course by course breakdown. 

Amuse bouche: cauliflower served two ways, served inside of an egg shell
Inside the egg shell was a puree of cauliflower with a layer of roasted cauliflower near the bottom that allowed the dish to play with textures as well as highlighting an often derided vegetable.

 1st Course: terrine of Banyulis poached foie gras, pain d’epice, candied golden beet
By placing the foie in a terrine mold, the foie adopted a visually appealing marbled appearance. The wine, similar to a port provided a nice sweetness as well to the foie gras. Spice bread gave crunch to the course.

2nd Course: truffled panzotti pasta with cured yard egg, Louisiana caviar and fresh winter truffle.  This was our absolute favorite course. The truffles provided a rich earthiness to the dish, the egg broken over the top served as a sauce, and the caviar played off of the other two nicely by offering some acid and sweetness.

3rd Course: P&J oysters pan-roast, salsify risotto, nduja sausage, garlic froth.
Fresh oysters coupled with a salsify (otherwise known as the oyster root) risotto complimented each other nicely and the sausage absorbed some of the liquid and offered some heat to the dish. The garlic froth paired well with sausage and the oysters.

4th course: beef rib-eye with fresh horseradish, roasted baby root vegetables, tete “en croute.”  The rib eye was cooked to a nice medium with a crunchy pastry like crust. The horseradish was a classic pairing with steak, but the freshness separated it from more conventional steakhouse fair. Root vegetables were a pleasant touch as well. 


5th course: dark chocolate hazelnut tart, almond and Satsuma ice cream
The dark chocolate was rich and flavorful, the almonds added a pinch of salt. The Satsuma ice cream tasted like an orange, and the tart provided crunch. This was a fantastic finish to the meal.

Notes on service and décor: Service was generally very good apart from us receiving our fourth course before the wine had arrived. Also we did not receive knives until my wife asked for them. On the plus side, the table captain did get Chef Besh to sign a copy of the tasting menu. For five courses, the meal took a little over two hours, which seemed, from our perspective, a little quick. The restaurant seemed to be dimly lit, which provided an intimate setting, but was a little too dark.  

Overall, Restaurant August offered innovative and delicious food and had the wisdom to let the delicious local ingredients shine.

Friday, May 3, 2013

DGA Wine Club: St. Supery Napa Valley Estate Dollarhide Petit Verdot 2009

Posted by Matt

As members of the St. Supery wine club, my wife and I also treated to some truly unique wines such as the Petit Verdot.  This is a BIG wine.  The Petit Verdot is rich, thick and powerful. 

St. Supéry’s Petit Verdot is an outstanding wine. With a deep purple color and round tannins, the wine is powerful without being overpowering.  As typical of this varietal, the wine presents with deep, almost opaque black and purple hues. Aromas of blackberry laced with blueberry are encouraged with dark chocolate, subtle vanillin, anise and black pepper. This wine has a big profile and structure with black plum and juicy blackberry flavors dominating with espresso and a tight knit structure. This is a big, robust, structured wine - somewhat tannic with notes of toasty oak and plum on the palate with a nice long finish.

With Food

This Petit Verdot is substantial enough to pair with other strong flavors without any risk of overpowering the wine.  Petit Verdot is best paired with red meats and aged cheeses.  Two of my favorite things!  I paired mine with a cheese plate that included smoked cheddar, a gouda, and a gruyere, followed by a simple rib-eye off the grill with a side of grilled asparagus.  Not a bad way to start a weekend. 

The Wine Maker

Inspired by legendary winemaker Robert Mondavi, St. Supery owner Robert Skalli fell in love with the Napa Valley in the early 1970s and searched for nearly a decade to find the perfect site to establish his own vineyard and winery.

Skalli, whose wine roots go back three generations from Algeria to Corsica and then to France, found a remote ranch in the eastern mountains of Napa Valley in 1982. The 1,500-acre property, known as the Dollarhide Ranch, became the primary vineyard site for St. Supery, now renowned as one of the shining stars of Napa Valley.

The Vineyard

Dollarhide is a 1500 acre property with steep and rolling hills, some flat lands and seven lakes. St. Supéry has planted fewer than 500 acres in grape vines at Dollarhide (as of 2009), so most of the property
remains in a natural state, and is home to a diverse collection of flora and fauna. With elevations ranging from 600 to 775 feet above sea level, the diverse terrain and unique microclimate at Dollarhide are especially accommodating to Bordeaux grape varieties.