Archive for the ‘Cooking & Food’ Category

Tyler Cowen’ Six Rules for Dining Out

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

Tyler Cowen’s endless posts about “Markets in Evevrything” do not help me keep up to date with his proflific blog. They are so brief, varried, and many that I can’t even tell what the commonality that makes a post ripe for the “Markets in Evevrything” title is. This is perhaps, the halmark of a hurried blogger, but I’ve attributed it to a bad writer, or at least someone who isn’t writing with me as an audiance. There are 142 unread posts by him on my Google Reader. So, when he linked to this adaptation of his new book on his blog, I missed it, but my dinner group did not.

The overall idea some stragies to follow to end up eating the best food possible at the lowest price possible. So go read it and then come back for my take.

1. In the Fanciest Restaurants, Order What Sounds Least Appetizing
The premise here is that there are only two reasons something will be on the menu and the fanciest resturants, those being that A) it’s expected to be on the menu, or B) the chef makes it well. The goal of this advice is to push you into something that must be from column B. I don’t spend much time in this caliber of place, but when it is resturant week and I am I usually follow a more reserved but similar strategy. I order based on liking at least one or maybe two ingrediants in a dish, and I don’t worry about what the rest of the ingrediants even might be. This also when new to an ethnic food.

2. Beware the Beautiful, Laughing Women
The idea here is that places with great bar sceens don’t need to have great food. Well, at least once they have estabished a great bar sceen they don’t. I don’t pay much attention to this; in fact, I’ve fall pray here, specifically to the place once known as Ivy and now known as Social 49. The people and space in there are so beautiful. But did learn something, I’ve only had drinks at Social 49.

3. Get Out of the City and Into the Strip Mall
When I read this I was thinking of one place, Ritu ki Rasoi a delicious Indian place in Burlingon. It is located on a loading dock behind an auto parts store and is quite a find. But then the author went on to list subrubs where you can find good food “Orange County, California; the area near San Jose; Northern Virginia, near D.C.; Somerville, Massachusetts; and so on.” So maybe I don’t have to drive all the way out Burlington to find actual strip malls after all. My guess now is that he’s talking about Tu Y Yo.

4. Admit What You Don’t Know
Ask people who might know where the good resturants are, where the good resturants are, espcially people who travel to the area frequnetly. This seems like a no brainer, but I never do it. It does make sense though. When I saw someone who was most likely a pharama-gril at Junior’s Taco Shop on my trip to Ridgecrest, CA a couple weeks ago, I assumed it meant that I was having lunch in the right place. I was already pretty sure I was having lunch in the right place though, it was packed. But, I didn’t think of her a poential resource for finding more good resturants. I didn’t make that leap.

5. Exploit Restaurant Workers
There is good food, for cheaper, where there is cheap labor, including family eastablishments. I sort of assume all resturants in an area face roughly the same labor costs, so this doesn’t seem help me much. Sure the meals in chinatown always include more food for the money than anywhere else in the city, but I don’t want to eat a meal in chinatown every week, so this isn’t that much of a help. The authors example is to stay away from places with excessive waitstaff and valets. I suppose that is fair because, where this advice certainly goes wrong though, are poor areas of the country like Roswell, NM. They don’t have better food just cause there is cheap labor.

6. Prefer Vietnamese to Thai
Finally a valid reason not to like Thai food! I’ve been sort of wishy washy about Thai food for a while in world where everyone else seemes to love it. His argument here is that Thai food became hip, and like in #2, it no longer had to be good. That’s probbally not why I don’t like thai food that much, but it does feel good to have some else dis-recomend it. That said, I am not a fan of Vietnamese Pho at all either. Maybe that is for the laugauge barrier reasons that the author lays out.

So maybe I’ll buy his book. Certainly I just totally ignored its existance before, but the Atlantic adapation of it was worth reading!

On “Reviews, Reputation, and Revenue: The Case of”

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

I, perhaps famously, introduced my parents to Yelp this summer on the way back from our annual North Carolina beach trip by suggesting we have lunch at The Ten Top in Norfolk, VA before heading to the airport to return home. The review instructing me to get the Turkey Apple Club on cinnamon bread and suggesting that the pasta salad was especially good sold me enough to sell my parents. It worked out wonderfully, and is actually my favorite part of the whole trip. That may be because I was raised on going out to eat, and it was one of two restaurants featured on the trip, and certainly it was the better one. A fond memory thanks to strangers on the internet, organized by Yelp.

I use Yelp frequently. In my Wednesday Night Dinner group, where we try a new restaurant most every week, picking a restaurant and sending it out to the group often is done via a one line email with a yelp URL and a time. I don’t know why we still include the time, its always 7:30; the only important information in the email is the Yelp URL. Every member has their own method of picking places, some uses sources other than yelp, as do I. I often use local reviews like this one for last week’s delicious pick, L’Impasto, but I always check the Yelp reviews as well. In fact, the reviews for L’Impasto were so good, and so few in number that I considered the possibility that they were fake. If they were fake, they were at least correct in this case.

Yelp might review Hotels, they do review places that are not restaurants, but I certainly have never looked at those reviews other than as indication that I didn’t hit the restaurants filter button yet. Although, certainly restaurant menu prices are a lot more sticky than nightly hotel rates, there is no reason this tactic could not be attempted with restaurants. The real question raised by this comic, however, is if the erroneous signal sent by enough people operating in dick mode could be enough to cause the place to close, negating the benefit received by the dicks. There isn’t an answer to that yet, but I came across an academic paper today where “in ongoing work, [the author is] estimating the relationship between Yelp and exit decisions” of restaurants. Such information is crucial to answer the question of if the dicks are going to end up screwing themselves.

“Reviews, Reputation, and Revenue: The Case of” by Michael Luca of Harvard Bushiness School, actually finds that there is a correlation between the average Yelp review and restaurant revenue from 2003 to 2009 in Seattle. Actually, “A one-star increase [on Yelp] is associated with a 5.4% increase in revenue.” Yelp was introduced in 2005, so his data set can provide details about the impact of Yelp as it grew to become the dominant resource that it is today. He uses a couple randomization techniques allowed by the way the data is collected and presented to control for correlations between average Yelp review and other factors that may increase restaurant revenues, like having better food, to bolster his argument to the level of causation. The statistics are over my head, but it the theory seems solid, and certainly a lot of his assumptions ring true to my use of Yelp.

The paper brings up another interesting point that rings especially true. It finds that while overall, Yelp reviews correlate with revenues, that “chains already have relatively little uncertainty about quality, their demand does not respond to consumer reviews.” That is, reviews don’t matter for chains, maybe people don’t even read them. I said I was raised going out to eat. I was a picky eater and only child so going somewhere I would not fight about was probably my parent’s primary concern. That means that I was raised eating at chain restaurants, most notably Olive Garden. I believe that from when I turned five until I went to college I was at an Olive Garden at least once a month. If you include college, it might have to grow to once every three months. I still love Olive Garden thanks to all that conditioning, and when I go home to Ohio, I think I eat there within the first 36 hours, without fail. I have not once read a yelp review about the Olive Garden.

My dinner group essentially bans chain restaurants, with a couple of minor exceptions. That is likely one of a number of cultural reasons why, since moving to Boston, I’ve broken my Olive Garden streak. However, apart of my pilgrimage to Olive Garden upon setting foot in the state of Ohio, I seek out independent restaurants there as well. The paper also finds this is a trend much larger than my group. Specifically “chains experienced a decline in revenue relative to independent restaurants in the post-Yelp period.” Since ratings don’t matter for chain restaurants, but they do provide useful information on independent restaurants, there is a pretty good rational “that increased information about independent restaurants leads to a higher expected utility conditional on going to an independent, restaurant. Hence Yelp should … increase the value of going to an independent restaurant relative to a chain.”

With the power that Yelp has amassed of the past 6 years, comes skepticism, the specter of fake reviews, which I feared, and also the specter of intentionally false reviews as evidenced by xkcd. There is still another aspect of power that people take issue with, corruption or extortion of independent restaurants. Clearly, with the power to increase revenues drastically with a small shift in rating, there is an opportunity for yelp to offer to artificially increase rating at a cost to the restaurant, or extort from them with a threat of a lower rating. Enter this Davis Square Livejournal post:

I went to Paddock Pizza in Somerville on Sunday (not usually open Sundays, but there was an event) and I loved the pizza (plain). When I told one of the owners, she said she enjoyed it, too, but the first pizza chef, no longer there, got some bad reviews on Yelp and asked if I might be willing to put in a good one. I would in theory, but I’m not always much with the food review writing. Since I like their pizza and want them to stick around and keep serving it, I am willing to take someone who likes writing such things. (Their pizza is also pretty inexpensive, more so from 4 to 6pm (early bird specials), though they are only open Wed-Sat, 4-10pm). Message me if you are interested and are flexible-ish time-wise.

The text presented has been edited since my original reading. It originally included a line about “detesting” yelp, which was responded to in the comments, and caused a thread about Yelp’s abuse of its power, or at least perceptions of abuse, as no actual abuse has been proven. Here we have a restaurant which is aware of the power of Yelp to affect their bottom line, asking a patron who has expressed a positive experience to help them increase their rating. It seems the restaurant is acting fair in this transaction, they aren’t faking a review, they are merely attempting to turn a positive dining experience they provided into a positive review. Unfortunately for them, their pizza loving patron is not a writer it seems and is unwilling to jump through the hoops to become one because of perceived, unnamed abuses by Yelp. However, the crux of the post is that he is looking to hire someone to write a good review for this place for the price of dinner, presumably half a pizza. That must be some damn good pizza, maybe I should go check the Yelp reviews though. Every review since 2008, when the first review appeared has been >= 3 stars, arriving at a current rating of 3.5/5 stars. True, recent rating seem higher, but haven’t caused a upward trend in the overall rating yet. Verdict? Well no one has picked anywhere for Wednesday yet.

Ice Cream Marathon

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

On Saturday August 14, 2010 the long planned Wednesday Night Dinner Ice Cream Marathon occurred from 1pm until 7:30pm. We followed and approximately 7 mile route from Boston’s North End to Harvard Square in Cambridge following this route:

View Ice Cream Marathon in a larger map

We stopped at each place marked in green. We skipped over duplicate stores, chains, and stores we didn’t know existed. We carried score cards. Here is the digital representation of mine:

Location Time Flavor Size Score (1-10)
1. Gelateria 1:20pm Hazelnut / Vanilla Small 5 / 8
2. Sprinkles 2:00pm Butter Pecan Child 7
3. Emack
& Bolio’s
2:45pm Cake Batter1 One Scoop 3
4. Picco’s 3:25pm Cinnamon2 One Size 93
5. Bon Bon 4:25pm Pineapple Sorbet One Size 2
6. J. P. Licks 4:55pm Cake Batter Not Available4 0
7. Toscanini’s 5:55pm Cake Batter Kiddie 9
8. Christina’s 6:30pm Corn5 Small 4
9. Lizzy’s 7:30pm Vanilla Cookie Dough Kiddie 6

1Like most flavors at Emack and Bolio’s this cake batter is infused with chocolate. This is not an acceptable thing to do and still call it cake batter, but that is what they do.
2Also bread and water were provided at no cost at Picco’s.
3The flavor of the Cinnamon (and they Honey flavor that I tired) were so intense as to deserve top honors. However, we were unable to finish these flavors due to their intensity.
4J. P. Licks has suddenly, and without warning discontinued the cake batter flavor at all of their locations. This is not acceptable as it was the best cake batter flavor available in the city and my favorite ice cream overall. Until such a time as cake batter is returned to the menu I am forced to boycott J. P. Licks. I did get in line and ask for cake batter, only to be told they they don’t have it, to which I responded, “Ah, never mind then.”
5Bacon flavor was also available and I tried a spoonful of it. Someone got bacon flavor and was unable to finish the salty delicious treat. I had tired corn flavor earlier in the week and thought it quite good, but I was unable to finish my small size of it either.

The clear winner was Picco’s. Picco’s is a sit down pizza restaurant that also hand makes ice cream for their desert menu. They were great sports and sat a table for 13 who intended only to have ice cream. They also provided bread and water at no charge, which was most appreciated. Surprisingly appreciated was the bread! The flavors at Picco’s are intense, rich, and wonderful. I could taste the gainyness of the cinnamon in my ice cream! Everyone agreed this was the best place.

Clear runner up in my book Toscanini’s. Toscanini’s, since inciting me into their store for the first time in years with their ROFLCon inspired “Internet” Flavor (vanilla + grape nerds) has become my favorite ice cream parlor. The fact that J. P. Licks has recently committed seppuku has only help them reach the top. Other excellent recent flavors include Fig Newton, Ginger, and the best remaining cake batter flavor in town! Enough said!

Shiner Bock

Monday, June 7th, 2010

Shiner Bock is probably my favorite beer, which says a lot considering I am not a huge fan of beer in general. It is not a great beer, but it is easy to drink without cringing, which is a tough test to pass with me. It was the best part about all that traveling to New Mexico. It is a Texas brew, and I was introduced to it when I lived in Austin in the summer of 2006. As Sam Adams is to Boston so Shiner Bock is to Austin, with the exception that Shiner is not brewed in Austin. Of course, most Sam isn’t either so its not a big difference. I mean to say that it is the default beer in Austin, and everywhere has it on tap. The same can be said for the non-chain non-portifino restaurants in Roswell and Alamogordo. On each of my first two trips back from Roswell I brought home a six pack. On my last trip I brought home two six packs in my checked luggage. In all 24 bottles, and only 1 broke in transit. Sadly the pictured bottle is the last one. Shiner Bock is sold in 41 states, but none of them are in New England, so the supply will not be replenished soon. Although, I may spend part of July back out there again, the beer is the only reason to look forward to that, and remember I don’t really like beer.

King Cake

Saturday, February 20th, 2010

I made a King Cake for Mardi Gras with my friend Sarah’s help. It turned out much better than I ever expected, and I would totally make another one if it didn’t take so long. I followed this great King Cake recipe I found on

King Cake: Traditional New Orleans Recipe

1/2 cup warm water (110 to 115 degrees)
2 packages active dry yeast
1/2 cup plus 1 teaspoon sugar
3 1/2 – 4 1/2 cups flour unsifted
1 teaspoon nutmeg
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon lemon zest, this is lemon rind, grated
1/2 cup warm milk
5 egg yolks
1 stick butter cut into slices and softened, plus 2 tablespoons more softened butter
1 egg slightly beaten with 1 tablespoon milk
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1″ plastic baby doll


Pour the warm water into a small shallow bowl, and sprinkle yeast and 2 teaspoons sugar into it. Allow the yeast and sugar to rest for three minutes then mix thoroughly. Set bowl in a warm place for ten minutes, or until yeast bubbles up and mixture almost doubles in volume. Combine 3 1/2 cups of flour, remaining sugar, nutmeg and salt, and sift into a large mixing bowl. Stir in lemon zest. Separate center of mixture to form a hole and pour in yeast mixture and milk. Add egg yolks and, using a wooden spoon, slowly combine dry ingredients into the yeast/milk mixture. When mixture is smooth, beat in 8 tablespoons butter (1 tablespoon at a time) and continue to beat 2 minutes, or until dough can be formed into a medium-soft ball.

Place ball of dough on a lightly floured surface and knead like bread. While kneading, sprinkle up to 1 cup more of flour (1 tablespoon at a time) over the dough. When dough is no longer sticky, knead 10 minutes more until shiny and elastic.

Using a pastry brush, coat the inside of a large bowl evenly with one tablespoon softened butter. Place dough ball in the bowl and rotate until the entire surface is buttered. Cover bowl with a moderately thick kitchen towel and place in a draft-free spot for about 1 1/2 hours, or until the dough doubles in volume. Using a pastry brush, coat a large baking sheet with one tablespoon of butter and set aside.

Remove dough from bowl and place on lightly floured surface. Using your fist, punch dough down forcefully. Sprinkle cinnamon over the top, pat and shake dough into a cylinder. Twist dough to form a curled cylinder and loop cylinder onto the buttered baking sheet. Pinch the ends together to complete the circle. Cover dough with towel and set it in draft-free spot for 45 minutes, or until the circle of dough doubles in volume. Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.

Brush top and sides of cake with egg wash and bake on middle rack of oven for 25 to 35 minutes until golden brown. Place cake on wire rack to cool. If desired, you can hide the plastic baby in the cake at this time.

Colored sugars
Green, purple, & yellow paste
12 tablespoons sugar

Squeeze a dot of green paste in palm of hand. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons sugar over the paste and rub together quickly. Place this mixture on wax paper and wash hands to remove color. Repeat process for other 2 colors. Place aside.

3 cups confectioners sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice
3 – 6 tablespoons water

Combine sugar, lemon juice and 3 tablespoons water until smooth. If icing is too stiff, add more water until spreadable. Spread icing over top of cake. Immediately sprinkle the colored sugars in individual rows consisting of about 2 rows of green, purple and yellow.

Cake is served in 2″ – 3″ pieces.

Actually, I forgot to do the “Brush top and sides of cake with egg wash” step but it turned out great anyway. Also I used a pecan instead of a plastic baby and blue instead of purple icing because I didn’t feel like going out in the snow to acquire them.

Cookies FTW

Monday, April 20th, 2009

Taking full advantage of my day off I decided to make some cookies. Specifically faux girl scout cookies. More specifically this Do-Si-Dos recipe. I’m very impressed with myself, these cookies are a major win. Unfortunately my camera is still MIA, so you’ll have to imagine them.

First Dinner at My New Place

Monday, September 1st, 2008

The first dinner prepared at my new apartment is current cooking. This may not come as surprise because it will be my third night sleeping here, but I have not actually gone grocery shopping yet! I also did not move much of any food from my old place, not that there was a meals worth of food left at the old place when I moved. So where did this dinner come from? Mostly from my new, wonderful downstairs neighbor Karen. She was out on a farm somewhere (near here, western Mass. most likely, but I didn’t catch where) for the weekend. She brought back 3 ears of fresh corn, a bag full of pear shaped tomatoes, a bag of fresh garlic (still on the stem) and an small container of some sort of baby, sweet tomatoes. I’d never even seen either of these types of tomatoes before.

The baby, sweet tomatoes were a great snack during board gaming, which also had its inaugural run at the new place. The corn was an easy first step for dinner. I did move 1 serving worth of pasta, but I checked and we have no sauce for it. But there are 3 large cans of tomato paste, and a bit of olive oil to combine with some fresh garlic and other random spices we moved for my first ever attempt at from scratch (well sort of) tomato sauce. It is an experiment currently bubbling in progress on the stove. I hope it turns out well, or dinner might not be so good tonight.

I haven’t posted much since moving into the new place. I am still unpacking. It will be a long process. I have most of my stuff in my room unpacked at this point, but there is still a bunch of the land lord’s stuff (which is everywhere and a longish story for another time) to pack up into boxes and stash away. I’m about 75% done with stashing away that stuff from my room. The rest of the house is not so far along. When rooms get to a presentable state I’ll start to post pictures of them. Time for dinner.


Sunday, June 29th, 2008

This spring I decided to replace my usual generic sweet treat of some sort of ginger based cookies with strawberries. It was a great idea, they are so tasty. Unfortunetly they don’t last as long as the cookies and so they probably end up costing more. Without the guilt associated with such an unhealthy snack holding me back I can fish off a batch in two nights. The other week I had the great idea to go strawberry picking, which would net me enough strawberries to last a pretty long time I bet. But now, I’m told, the season is pretty much over around here. Anyways, HealthPoints++; for me.