28 May 2008

Neuro-mystical brain insights?

OK, I'm intrigued by this video of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, the Harvard-trained neuroanatomist who has been making waves of late with her new book that describes her own massive stroke and its effects on her brain and her perceptions of reality (you can get the higher-def version of the video here, if you have a fast connection). In brief, she considers the left side of the brain to control logic, language, and the like, while the right side of the brain is more kinesthetic and expansive, blurring the distinctions between "I" and "other". When her stroke damaged the left side of her brain, she reports mystical feelings of expansiveness and oneness with all creation that she ascribes to her right brain.

I haven't yet read her book, but what caught my eye was this article in the Sunday NY Times discussing her experience. I'm not too keen on the comparisons to Eckhart Tolle's work (what I've seen of his stuff has been less than compelling), but what Taylor has to say is very intriguing. I hereby solicit comments from my readers who are more knowledgeable about such matters, or from anyone who also finds this stuff intriguing.

15 May 2008

Dining at Home – Home Restaurant, that is…

In another departure for my blogging, I’m switching back to a foodie discussion. This is a review of my recent dinner at Home Restaurant (the link actually goes to the restaurant group that runs Home, and it’s an annoying website, but I figured I’d toss it in anyway), the newest workplace of Richard Blais. Aside from being a quirky pioneer in the realm of what’s popularly known as “molecular gastronomy” (think “mad chef with a chemistry set”), he’s also a contestant on this season’s Top Chef on the Bravo Network. But enough background – on to the food!
Home’s menu is much more traditional in its appearance than many of Chef Blais’ other creations. You might call it a nouveau take on Southern or “down home” cooking. And that may be all you think of it, until you notice little quirks like buttermilk pancakes with “foie gras butter”, or pork short rib with “coffee BBQ sauce”. Suffice it to say that even the innocuous “oyster with hot sauce” is more intriguing than it sounds.

I dined at Home with two companions on Tuesday of this week, one being my spouse and one a friend from out of town. Spouse and friend began the evening with cocktails, a ginger margarita and a basil “mint julep” respectively. The margarita was tart and mostly traditional with the ginger being subtle but present. The basil drink (called "The Dastardly Deed") was intriguing – very fragrant basil permeating a sweet vodka-based drink, although it was a little sweet for my personal tastes (that didn’t prevent me from sampling it several times, though).

We opted for the chef’s tasting menu (with wine pairings), which had only been available since the prior day. Another caveat is that Chef Blais himself was not in the kitchen the night we were there, and our server was very up front with this information when we inquired about the tasting menu, so kudos for truth in advertising there. In fact, kudos all around to our server, Melissa, who was attentive and graciously responsive to our numerous inquiries. The tasting menu was technically a four-course affair, but as Melissa explained the first taste was really just an amuse-bouche, and they didn’t really count dessert as a course, so we wound up with six plates when all was said and done. We began with some excellent small biscuits, served with butter, pepper jelly, and sweet pickled okra.

Amuse-bouche – a single Kumomoto oyster on a bed of ice, with Tabasco pearls (get it - oysters and pearls?), served with a glass of Gruet (a sparkling wine from New Mexico). The oyster was topped with Tabasco dots that were like frozen ice cream droplets (made with the help of liquid nitrogen, no doubt), and white. The flavor of the sauce/pearls was not too hot, but it definitely lingered in a good way, popping right out of the pearls. I was a little disappointed to learn later that the Manager had intended that we be served a Laurent-Perriér Rosé sparkling, which probably would have been even better, but the Gruet sufficed.

First course (with the Gruet): Fluke sashimi topped with crispy bits of duck skin and micro cilantro with chili oil, and smoked mayonnaise on the side. All of the flavors were very distinct and pronounced except for the rather mild fish, which tasted a bit like yellowtail to me. In essence, the mild fish served as an admirable backdrop for the other great flavors. I particularly enjoyed the combination of the smoky mayo and crispy duck skin; our table decided that someone ought to start making “duck rinds” as a snack food alternative to pork rinds.

Second course: Shrimp and grits, two shrimp on top of creamy yellow grits, served with a bit of seared foie gras on the side, and topped with thin slices of pickled radish and mini cubes of freeze-dried pineapple (more fun with liquid nitrogen). All of the individual flavors exploded on the tongue, and yet again managed to remain balanced. I did notice what some other reviewers had said about the saltiness of this dish, but I didn’t think it was too much (this is Southern cooking, after all!). Further investigation (thanks, Melissa) revealed what I suspect is the source of what some palates called over-saltiness, as the grits contained parmigiano and cheddar cheeses (and no small amount of butter, naturally). The dish had a dash of pepper vinegar, which was very subtle in flavor. Our table’s only real complaint was that the seared foie gras was a little bitter (then again, we don’t eat much foie gras), but my spouse noted that combining the foie gras with the pineapple removed the bitterness. The wine for this course was a Brandal Albarino from the Rias Baixas region of Spain, an excellent white.

Third course: Here I should note that the wines were generally brought out first, leaving us to play the fun guessing game of what would be paired with the wine. Our wine here was a Syrah with a name I apparently didn’t quite catch – Halsted or something like that – and I believe it was from California’s Central Coast. It tasted of bacon fat and dark fruit. Had I been thinking more clearly, I would have been able to guess our arriving food – a piece of pork belly. This was glazed with a coffee BBQ sauce and served on a five-bean salad. The pork belly was not at all greasy or chewy, and it had a lightly crisp exterior with an almost creamy interior. The sauce was light and complemented the pork without intruding on it. As our friend commented, this was “like a really upscale cassoulet”.

Fourth course: The wine was Stella Maris, a Washington state meritage of predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It showed a dark cherry nose, with some eucalyptus and spicy hints of white or black pepper; solid fruit flavors without being so damned overbearing on the alcohol content like many big American reds can be (am I sufficiently revealing my biases yet?). The food was a small Kobe beef short rib, served on a puree of corn and topped with Point Reyes blue cheese and micro cilantro, with a celery-Makers Mark jus and a side of horseradish foam (think horseradish sauce fluffed up). I should also note that the manager later described the beef as Wagu, or “domestic Kobe”. No matter the name; the beef was outstanding. Just to prove that I could, I eschewed the steak knife and cut my first bite with my fork. This was another riotous combination of flavors – savory from the beef, a little salty from the cheese, sweetness from the jus and the corn puree, spiciness from the horseradish foam, and yet all the flavors managed to be both prominent and balanced.

Dessert: We had a sour cream pecan cake with whipped cream, a poached blueberry (that’s right, just one), and a quenelle of sweet tea ice cream. The wine pairing was a Pend d’Orielle (I hope I have that right), presumably their Riesling. The cake was good, the whipped cream was quite nice, and the sweet tea ice cream was just insane. Imagine some Thai iced tea in terms of the creaminess, but with the distinct flavor of Southern sweet tea.

Overall thoughts - Almost without exception, the dishes were well balanced with pronounced flavors that all stood out individually and yet were harmonious together. The execution was also pretty much spot on, which is a nice feat for a kitchen from which the Executive Chef is absent that evening. The price seemed fair - $60 for the tasting menu with a $35 supplement for the wine pairings.

We had a nice chat with the General Manager, Chet Huntley, on the way out (I didn’t ask him where David Brinkley was – figured he heard that often enough). He said that they were trying to have the food be interesting without having Chef Blais go completely overboard (my words, not his) in terms of the molecular gastronomy stuff. As I was dining, I thought that the tasting menu perhaps should have had more crazy whiz-bang elements to it. Looking back now I see that in fact it did have several Blais-ian elements, but that they weren’t the main point of the meal. The main point was the food. I think this is the mark of a mature chef – one who knows how to utilize techniques (even some crazy ones) and isn’t afraid to push the envelope, but who doesn’t force the technique to be front and center and instead allows the food to be the star.

Sorry this went on so long, and thanks for bearing with me. I did take pictures, but they turned out pretty lousy – I need to just go ahead and be willing to use the flash in restaurants, or figure out a better low light setting on my digital camera.

14 May 2008

The end of the Democratic primary season, at last

That title may seem a bit provocative and overreaching to some, until you read this news story. That's right, John Edwards plans to make it official this evening that he is endorsing Barack Obama for the nomination. The timing of this endorsement is clearly set to take the last bit of wind out of Clinton's sails, coming as it does on the heels of Clinton's blowout win in West Virginia yesterday where she ran up huge margins with white working class voters. Apparently the champion of white working class Democrats (had you heard that Edwards' father was a mill worker?) does not find these primary electoral results troubling enough to deter him from getting on board the Obama Express. Surely this is one of the final nails in the Clinton campaign coffin. Now it's time to start getting the Democratic Party back together in order to regain the momentum for the general election, especially at a time when the GOP is losing House seats in the reddest of red areas. Perhaps there is yet still time for the Democrats to avoid blowing the election in November...

Yet more self-promotion

Following up on some of those happenings at the United Methodists' General Conference, I sent a letter to the Wesleyan Christian Advocate, our local Methodist newspaper (yes, there are such things). I'm a little surprised that it was published given the mostly conservative nature of our neck of the Methodist woods, so we'll see if it stirs up some responses in the next issue. I've reprinted the letter below, as the paper has a subscription-only website, but if you happen to be a subscriber and would like to see it in its official publication, just click here and scroll down the page.

Bishop Davis' math questioned
ATLANTA - Commenting on the General Conference's decision to uphold its stance against homosexuality and the declaration that the practice of homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teachings", Bishop Lindsey Davis said, "I think the church is right. I think we are very much in sync with historic Christianity and very much in sync with 99.9 percent of Christians in the world".
By asserting that 99.9% of Christians would agree with the Discipline's current language on homosexuality, Bishop Davis thus assumes that only 1 in 1,000 Christians disagree with this exclusionary theological position. I for one believe that more than 1 in 1,000 Christians support the full inclusion of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. I believe that more than 1 in 1,000 United Methodists support this.
If one considers the delegates to General Conference to be representative of United Methodism, then one would have to concede that 45% of United Methodists support this. I even believe that more than 1 in 1,000 North Georgia United Methodists support this. Last year as a candidate for delegate to General Conference I received almost 20% of the votes cast on the first ballot, in spite of having proclaimed my belief that God's "radical love and inclusion should extend fully to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, just as they are.” If only 1 in 1,000 (or in this case, about 900) lay delegates supported full inclusion, where did my votes come from?
Despite the pain that many today feel in my church, in other churches throughout North Georgia, and in churches throughout Methodism, we will continue to bear witness to the continuing, renewing, and refreshing movement of the Holy Spirit in our midst. As God says through the prophet Isaiah, "Behold, I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert."
It was not that long ago that the UMC used Scripture (and the misguided interpretations thereof) to justify the denial of full ordination rights to women and the segregation of African-Americans into separate churches and church structures. I know that one day we will look back on this current exclusion with the same regret and shame that we now feel for our prior errors. I only hope and pray that this day will come sooner rather than later.

01 May 2008

And now for something completely different...

Allow me to take a moment out of my Christian/United Methodist theological reflections to wish all my pagan/Wiccan friends a blessed Beltane

(And yes, I mostly put that in there just in case there are any conservative Christian types - IRD, anyone? - reading my blog, so as to thoroughly piss them off if I hadn't done so already...)

Did you know that in days gone by in Ireland, people would decorate the "May Bush" with colored eggshells? 

In all seriousness though, do take some time today to commune with nature, celebrate the coming of warmer weather, and know that even though it may seem like the old dark ways are winning, these are just the last gasps of a dying age, and we are at the dawning of something new. Birth is a painful process, and in order to birth a new era, we must all work as faithful doulas.