Saturday, September 1, 2012

On the road again: Chicon, day 5

For lots of different reasons, none of them fun, I ended up getting very, very little sleep last night and awoke exhausted and grumpy.  After work and a shower, I headed off the Baen traveling slideshow. 

I've led and participated in many of these events before, but this one was a first, because via Webcams we were linked live with the same event in Atlanta at DragonCon.  All things considered, it went quite well.  Toni Weisskopf led the proceedings in Atlanta, Jim Minz ran the show here in Chicago, and all the authors present in either venue spoke briefly about their latest works. 

After a work break, I toured the dealers' room and the art show.  The con has placed in the fan lounge a bunch of old video-game machines, so I indulged an old vice and left the top three scores on the Robotron machine.  (The only reason I did that well is that no one else playing was any good, either.) 

Dinner was a fun meal with friends at Gene & Georgetti, a Chicago steakhouse institution that does it old school.  We all left happy and full...and having sent back food we could not finish. 

For most of the Worldcons I've attended, I've attended the masquerade.  I did so again tonight.  I don't like to bash the work of volunteers, so I'll restrict my comments to this:  It needed a lot of work.  Even so, some of the contestants brought admirable work.  For my taste, the best in the show was a comic piece on the 1962 Seattle Century 21 Exposition (aka the Seattle World's Fair).  As of this writing, I don't know if won the Best in Show award, but it should have. 

As soon as the masquerade ended, we rushed to the elevators and headed to the top floor for the Baen party.  I helped out around the party and talked with a lot of good folks.  After a while, though, my social reserves gave out, and I headed back to the room to decompress, work, read, and crash. 

A day that ended far better than it began, for which I am grateful. 

Friday, August 31, 2012

On the road again: Chicon, day 4

Today passed in a blur of activity.  I awoke early and worked until it was time to shower and head to my kaffeeklatch.  For those who don't go to SF cons, this is a limited-attendance, small event for which people have to sign up in advance to get a chance to spend time in a small group talking with a writer or other guest.  I frankly expected no one to show, but Griffin and Jerry had said they would come by.  We figured to sit in the room for a few minute, then go grab brunch.

To my surprise, four people I didn't know had signed up and showed up, so a group of eight of us chatted for 90 minutes about all manner of things.  I enjoyed it, and I hope the others did, too. 

Next up was a quick stroll to Pastoral for lunch.  The sandwiches were again delicious, the cheese, bread and meats all fresh and wonderful.

I then went to the fan lounge for my 30-minute turn as the "writer under glass."  In this odd experiment, one writer after another sits at a single computer and continues a story wherever the last writer left it.  I was the 20th writer in line, so just reading the work of my predecessors took a fair amount of time.  As of when I left, the story, though far from the best, was entertaining and at least serviceable through most of its length.  I won't get to read the final result, though, because at the end of this affair the con is going to print it once, auction the manuscript, which will include cover sheets signed by all the authors, and then, as best I understand it, destroy the story.  I wondered how hard it would be to focus, but once I was into the story the world disappeared, as it always does when I write.

I spent the afternoon working, touring the art show, working, talking to friends in the dealers' room, and working. 

Dinner was more modernist cuisine at Homaro Cantu's moto, which I first visited many years ago.  As you'd expect from a restaurant famed for its use of modernist techniques, each course was intriguing and surprising and also, of course, delicious.  I very much enjoyed the meal.  Had I not eaten at Alinea the night before, it would have been the most adventuresome food I'd eaten in years, but as good as moto was, Alinea was better.  Still, I absolutely recommend moto to anyone interested in seeing how much fun and how interesting food can be.

The evening went to work and party-crawling with a varying group of friends. 

Tomorrow, more time in the con, I hope, and of course some writing and work. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

On the road again: Chicon, day 3

Another Worldcon day, another day spent almost entirely in a hotel room in front of a laptop doing email.  Ah, well; it comes with the job.  I did manage to get out for almost two hours during the day, during which I picked up my program participant packet, checked out a bit of the con's layout, and watched most of the opening ceremonies.  A pleasant time.  I hope to do more con stuff tomorrow.

Lunch was half of a small pretzel roll and a little bit of Coke Zero.  Partly, that was because I was so full from dinner last night.  Partly, it was due to tonight's dinner...

...which was at Alinea, Chef Grant Achatz's main restaurant, and was utterly wonderful. 

I could write a novel about my two meals there, but seeing as how I'm actually under contract for two other novels, I won't do that.  I will hit a few high points, though, to try to explain a bit of the Alinea magic.

When they opened the restaurant doors tonight--we were in the first seating and actually seated first--the two attendants said, "Have fun!"  All night long, servers and other staffers said, "Have a great time!" and "Have fun!"  They also asked if we were having fun.  Never did anyone question whether the food tasted good, as servers at other restaurants often do.

That difference is due to two reasons:  They know their food is delicious--and, man, is it!--and the emphasis is on the complete experience you have.  They want you to have fun, and you most certainly do.

When we stepped through the open doors, we found ourselves on slightly wet grass, as if we were walking outside on morning dew.  To our left, a small aluminum washtub filled with cold water sat atop a small stone wall.  In it, bumping into each other gently as they circulated in the moving water, were glasses of lemonade.  The lemonade was just the right blend of sweet and tart, the whole entrance a nod to summer. 

The meal contained many courses, most of which took advantage of various modernist cuisine techniques to intrigue your imagination visually and fool yet please your taste buds.  A course of mushrooms sat atop four rocks.  A single piece of pasta stuffed with the most delicious black truffles and black truffle water perched in the center of a spoon sitting in a circular container built for just that purpose.

The penultimate course was a balloon on a string weighted down with a shiny nail.  The balloon and the string were made of fruit leather, and the balloon was filled with helium.  If you didn't want to sound silly, you poked the balloon with the nail.  We bit into it, sucked out the helium, and talked in squeaky voices as we ate the delicious balloon and string. 

The final course was amazing.  First, they covered the table with a light gray neoprene tablecloth that matched the color of the building's exterior.  Then, they put down a set of small bowls full of brightly colored powders and gels.  A translucent white egg the size of an ostrich egg came next and occupied the center of the table. 

A chef appeared from the kitchen.  With a set of spoons and very careful motions, he spread the contents of the bowls in broad strokes across the table, literally painting it with food--strawberry powder, Chantilly cream, sweet English pea powder, and much more.  He poured liquid nitrogen into the egg, held it up before our eyes for a few moments as it steamed, and then dropped it hard onto the table. 

It shattered and revealed a world of small, colorful dessert objects inside.  Here's a look at part of the table. 

We ate as they instructed us, by dragging our spoons across the table and into the contents of the white chocolate egg, mixing various flavors and trying out all the many different items inside.

It was glorious.  We couldn't help but laugh the entire time, permanent smiles stuck on our faces as we ate like kids, the very act of our eating further changing the art that was the tablecloth. 

Getting into Alinea is tough, and the meal is expensive.  It's worth every bit of that trouble, and more.  It's worth a flight to Chicago.  It's an amazing experience I wish everyone could have. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

On the road again: Chicon, day 2

Due to work demands, I spent most of today in my hotel room either on email or phone meetings.  Still, I can't complain about the day as a whole, as you'll see shortly.

Lunch was a fine blue pig and fig sandwich at Pastoral, a shop I recommend highly.  The cheese and the jamon serrano were both excellent, and if I lived here or had a refrigerator, I would have bought a lot of cheese. 

In the afternoon, I managed to escape the room long enough to register and say hi to a few friends who were wandering around the hotel. 

The big treat of the day, though, came late, when by luck my request for last-minute tickets to Next came through and I was able to eat dinner at Grant Achatz's wonderful second restaurant. 

If you're a foodie, you already know all about Next and can skip this paragraph. If you aren't aware of it, the basic idea is that three times a year--what it calls "seasons"--the restaurant does a completely different menu that the chefs design around a theme.  The first four themes were Paris 1906, Thailand, childhood, and El Bulli.  Each was a huge hit, and entrance to the restaurant became harder and harder and harder.  You don't reserve a seat; you buy a ticket.  Thousands of people fill the online lottery to buy year-long season passes.  And so on.  The rules get more complex, and the chances of getting in lessen from there.

After I was lucky enough to score tickets for tonight, we grabbed a cab and headed to Next to enjoy the menu on the current theme, Sicily.  Having eaten once before at Achatz's first restaurant, Alinea, and having seen pictures of and read about Next's seasons on El Bulli and childhood, I was prepared to eat any number of strange foods built loosely on Sicilian cuisine.

Instead, what appeared in multiple amazing courses were dishes built to evoke eating in the home of a Sicilian family--one whose cooks were amazing.  I'll go into the individual dishes another time, but suffice to say that from the antipasti to the pasta to the fish to the amazing pork shoulder, everything we ate was delicious and clearly in the Sicilian tradition.  I loved it all.  My only regret is that I do not own tickets to every Next season; each would, I am confident, be worth the additional cost of flying to Chicago. 

If you can ever wrangle a chance to eat at Next, do it.  I am confident you won't regret the choice or the cost. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

On the road again: Chicon, day 1

Though Chicon 7, the 70th World Science Fiction Convention, doesn't open registration until tomorrow, I flew up early to get settled, accommodate some work, and get set for a little activity on a still-unannounced project.  I haven't spent enough time in Chicago to be able to claim I know it at all well, but I like it, and it's a great food city. 

Though most of today went to working on a plane and then working in a hotel room, dinner was a lovely break.  Takashi has garnered a fair amount of favorable attention, so we headed to it and, predictably, opted for the omekase, or chef's tasting menu.  The amuse and the first course were both so spicy that the heat overwhelmed the other flavors, and I became worried that the whole meal would go that way.

It did not.  From then on, each course was a delicious, interesting blending of different tastes and, to a small degree, textures.  Perhaps the most successful dish was the sauteed Maine scallops and soba gnocchi with trumpet royale mushrooms and celery root-Parmesan foam.  Each bite of it was warm and satisfying, yet never heavy. 

The biggest flaw in the meal came not from the restaurant but from a drunken fellow diner.  I'm still annoyed enough that I'll save my rant about him for another time, except for this:  When you're eating at a nice restaurant, modulate your voice so only your table has to listen to you. 

I wouldn't count this dinner as a groundbreaking or revelatory meal, but I'd eat at Takashi again, and I recommend it to you. 

Monday, August 27, 2012

Want to hear a recording of me reading?

I didn't realize that the fine folks at Balticon would be posting this recording of the reading I did there, but it's now up as part of the Balticon podcast.  It runs a little under half an hour and includes not only me reading three chapters from the book but also answers to some audience questions and a little background on how I came up with some of the stuff in it.  Check out the recording here

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Hit and Run

I'm not a fan of either Kristen Bell or Dax Shepard, the stars of this movie.  Shepard is also one of the directors, and the other is David Palmer, whose work I do not know.  Having two directors is a screaming neon warning sign for any movie.  In short, I had plenty of reasons to avoid this movie.

Yet I went. 

Two things drew me to the theater the other night:  The trailer and the early scuttlebutt on the movie made it seem quirky, and in an interview Dax Shepard likened it to Smokey and the Bandit, a truly terrible Burt Reynold film that I nonetheless recall with embarrassed fondness. 

I'm glad I decided to give this one a chance.  It is a very odd duck indeed, one I should have hated, a film whose two main stars displayed an acting range only slightly broader than the emotional range of my desk, a plot that was just an excuse to bring odd actors together, and all the emotional honesty of a politician stumping for re-election. Despite all that, I had a great time watching it, I laughed frequently and loudly, and I'd love to see an unrated, extended cut make it to Blu-Ray.

The supporting actors were a big part of what worked for me.  Kristin Chenoweth was wonderful in every second she was on the screen.  Tom Arnold's character had only a few notes, but Arnold hit them all well.  Bradley Cooper delivered a wonderfully strange performance as a bad guy with issues.

What worked most for me, though, were the dialog and the story once all the characters were together. Dax Shepard delivered far more as a writer than an actor, though to be fair his limited character was frequently appealing and at times even interesting. 

With surprise, I recommend you check out Hit and Run


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