Favorite Things

These are just some of our favorite things

AUTOMOBILES

Bentley Continental GT_V8_5_2Bentley
Beverly Hills, Dubai, and…Minneapolis

From perfection in sedans (Continental Flying Spur) to bespoke automotive Mulliner magic for those who just can’t settle for a quarter-million dollar already-awesome car.  If you’re a Saudi sheik or a Dubai prince, for example, 24-karat gold appointments would be an obvious must, with a less obvious layer of security panels underneath to keep the local extremist riffraff away from your treasured hide (and the glove-soft leather seats).

But let’s not knock Bentley for being in a league of its own: it’s parked at the top of the list for a good reason.  It represents sublime automotive history, excellence, comfort, and engineering.  Nothing wrong with that.

Centenaire netcarshowBugatti
Italy of course, and the autobahn, and probably the Far East, and we’re guessing Saudi Arabia, and….

If money is truly of no concern and you believe jet fighters should be available with four wheels, the 16-cylinder, 1,001 HP, 0-100 km in 2.5 seconds Veyron Super Sport should be your first choice.  Calling it a car, or even an automobile, is a bit like calling a UFO a flying chariot.  A new word should really be invented for ground transportation that looks like an extraterrestrial vehicle dressed in a metal tuxedo and which flies like a bullet.  What are we saying—it already has been. The word is, obviously, Veyron.

Maserati Q imagesMaserati
Italy, and down the street

Be it Milan’s haute couture, men’s suits, or handmade leather shoes, the Italians know design.  And they put most of what they know into Maserati’s lineup. The Quatroporte, which simply means four doors but sounds much more poetic, is considered a luxury sports sedan. With the exception of a declaration of love, few three-word phrases sound so good.

Speaking of good sounds, fellow musicians should find the engine in a range all its own: a deep, warm purr that says Big Cat. Think smooth jazz, baritone sax, and a driving (yeah, I meant to say that) bass line.

All that seems almost too good to be true, only because it is.  There is a downside, of course—isn’t there always?  The problem is that the car is built by Italians.  The very same reason why the design is gorgeous is why Maserati’s engineering and quality control rarely gets five stars: Bayeriche Motoren Werke (better known as BMW, the quintessential German car maker) it ain’t.

More likely, at each production station we’d prabably find some guy who works mainly after ten and before four but not on Fridays, and then on a liberal load of pasta and wine.  He may or may not remember to tighten all the bolts or get the interior finished in time for shipping. So things fall apart a bit, here and there.  Like in the engine.  But when it is working, it’s like riding an Arabian horse: rather twitchy and temperamental, but oh so worth it.

MUSIC

The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO)
Ordway, Downtown St. Paul

The only Minnesota orchestra with a top-flight string section guaranteed to send you soaring.  With a varied repertoire that spans from intimate ensembles to symphonies, and across the spectrum of classical styles, they meet every taste and mood.  Consummate artists and technicians, they make you listen closely to their interpretation.  It is obvious that the musicians actually enjoy playing music (imagine that), and they transmit their enthusiasm to the audience.  Well done.

The SPCO (and the opera company) perform at Ordway, a classic, handsome, and comfortable theater-style concert hall.  For a complete night out, include dinner or a post-concert bowl of French onion soup at the St. Paul Grill just across the park.

BOOKS

The Oxford English Dictionary
A book shelf or library near you

Nerd alert!  But no apologies will be forthcoming.  Around here we are unabashed and dedicated nerds, book worms, admirers of historical minutia, and fans of obscure facts.  So it is not surprising that we adore the Oxford English Dictionary.

With books as with everything else, we march to the beat of our own drummer.  You won’t often find us waiting for new releases, and we’re not particularly interested in the New York Times top sellers. The book that has us reaching for superlatives at the moment is an old standby in our own library.  To learn why, see The Arts/Ex Libris.

RESTAURANTS

Hell’s Kitchen
Downtown Minneapolis (Menu) 

Surprisingly, we still like Hell’s Kitchen.  It’s not for the basement location (with that name, where else than in the netherworlds?), the alternative music decor, the sometimes surly service, or the no-substitution rule. It’s for the food, man. It’s so groovy, you’ll forget all about the funky environment.  I promise, one bite and you won’t see a thing.

Now that we’re religiously gluten free, we appreciate that our options are marked on the menu. But a word of caution:  If the website still has photos of the brunch dishes, watch out.  Those pics are all the advertising they need.

Oh, and you’ve got to try the maple-glazed bison sausage, a set of small patties served at all hours. It doesn’t matter that you might not normally like bison, you’ll love these. They are as close to pancakes as someone on a paleolithic diet can come.  And if you can afford to bend the rules a smidge now and then, try the sweet potato fries.

Pittsburgh Blue
Southdale in Edina

This is a mixed review at best.  We recommend giving it one try for the steak, but with serious reservations (no pun intended—do call ahead or you’ll be waiting a long time). The ribeye steak dinner was very good…once they cooked a new one: the first, ordered between medium and medium well for a touch of pink, had the texture of a hockey puck. The lunch burger was cooked to the right temperature but not worth a second visit.

In the course of three visits we tried several side dishes and a few desserts.  The consistent impression was that everything was of decent quality and quantity but generally under-seasoned and uninspired.

In fact, it doesn’t seem accurate to call them dishes—that term connotes a culinary composition, which requires a level of artistry. Instead, the side dishes were plain cooked vegetables, simple ingredients steamed or blanched and served with a bit of butter.  Something the average housewife can do better is hardly worth the price on Pittsburgh Blue’s menu.

The only dessert worth mentioning was the New York style cheesecake.  It was large enough for two and dense and rich enough to qualify for its title.  But like the rest, it seemed bland and boring; good enough to eat but not worth coming back for.

If the food was just so-so, the service was friendly and efficient, and multiple managers walking the floor kept an eye on the service and tables.  But our visits took place in the early weeks after opening, so we don’t guarantee that they kept up the standard on that front.

More style than substance (restaurants are about the food, after all, not decor, ambiance, or smiles) left us too unimpressed to become regulars.

TELEVISION

Downton Abbey
PBS, on hiatus at time of writing

British writing, acting, production, and sets at their finest.  The entire crew—in front of and behind the camera, and back in the production planning and editing rooms—know their stuff.  The creator, Julian Fellowes, has impeccable credentials for this genre: he’s a consummate TV actor, Oscar-winning writer, producer, and a Lord with a seat in Parliament.

Season 3, which already aired in Britain to high accolades, is due to begin on PBS on 6 January, 2013. Those of us who could barely wait for news about the upstairs-downstairs early-20th century manor house community have just one thing to say about that: Well, that was about time.

Update January 2013: It’s back on, and it was worth the wait.  Don’t miss it!

Update September 2014: Last season–if you can really call some eight episodes over two winter months a season–was as good as any before it. The first brief trailer announcing the coming season is out; Europeans will enjoy the premiere episode before Christmas, Americans in early January 2015.

Most impressive feature of the series: not the characters, acting, dialogue, plots, scenes, sets, costumes, cor cinematography–although they are all still A-plus–but that by now our husbands (who have never before watched historical dramas or appreciated character studies) have become dedicated fans too! Julian Fellowes is some kind of genius.

Sherlock Holmes
PBS, Masterpiece Theater

After years of watching Jeremy Brett’s iconic performances in the lead we never thought we could come to accept another actor in this role. Then we were introduced to Benedict Cumberbatch in the remake, set in present day London.  If you were impressed with Holmes’ deductions in the classic, imagine what he can do with a smartphone.  Envision a wild wolf with the eyes of a husky and, as one episode alludes to, the quirky brilliance of someone with Asperger’s, and you have a clear picture of Cumberbatch’s interpretation of a modern Holmes.  His essential sidekick, Watson, played to frustrated human perfection by Martin Freeman, is as ever the warm heart to Sherlock’s cool head.

Top Gear
BBC America

Top Gear is so well conceived and produced that we can hardly express our opinion without it straying into hyperbole.  While we wouldn’t go to BBC for news coverage, and the British idea of entertainment is generally as low-brow as it gets, the standard of excellence for videography, sound track, and production on this program is sky-high.

What a show.  It’s what you’d end up with if the Monty Python crew reincarnated into an experimental, experiential automotive show variously set in the Swiss alps, the Bolivian mountains, Scandinavia, the French Riviera, Japan, and Dubai.  Add to the clever, funny trio of car-nut presenters the brilliant photography of BBC (a close-up of a car reflected in the still water of a puddle formed on the rain-darkened pavement of the Top Gear track, or a rosy sunset over the Dead Sea), the beauty of Italian car design, and the speed and precision of the best cars on the planet, and you’ve got a winner.

NCIS, NCIS Los Angeles
CBS

Spy-thrillers meet old-fashioned gum-shoe detective dramas—with a welcome twist of humor and camaraderie.  Now that’s teamwork.  Great characters and good writing, and decisive action scenes followed by buddy banter.  The balanced blend works here, as it also does on….

Leverage 
USA

A team of (mostly) reformed con-men, art thieves, and technology wiz-kids turned allies of justice take on clients out of the goodness of their hearts (it rarely pays the bills).  While it doesn’t sound believable, good scripts and acting—spiced up with action scenes and solutions rife with James Bond-like cleverness and confidence that doesn’t take itself seriously—make it worth the time.

SHOPPING

Brooks Brothers
Downtown Minneapolis

If you want a shirt made with clean seams, from a pattern that yields good lines and true sizes, and is consistent in cut from one item or season to the next, shop at Brooks Brothers. If the price seems steep, wait for a two-for-one sale.  And don’t forget the old adage, You get what you pay for.  At this merchant you pay good money, but you get better wares.

ON THE OTHER HAND

Restaurant: Oceanaire Seafood Room
Downtown Minneapolis

After a decade or so on the second floor of the Hyatt on Nicollet Mall, the seafood restaurant moved to a new location at street level on 6th Street and Nicollet.  But greater visibility and ease of access isn’t likely to fix what is wrong with the once classy and busy restaurant.

As patrons from the start, we have watched the Oceanaire’s slide from success to obscurity.  It used to be the sort of place frequented by well-heeled business men hungry for lobster and pro football players digging into big steaks.  The chef of several years took over as general manager to try to rescue the restaurant from its chain owners, mere bottom-line investors, not passionate foodies who know what makes a restaurant work.

We talked with him over the years, first to thank him for a service well done, then to listen to the discouraging twists and turns he struggled to navigate.  With him out front and a lesser chef in the kitchen, the food suffered.  To save on costs, the investor-owners cut the nice touches that made the place stand out in the minds of patrons.  And they made changes that demoralized the staff so much that the real pros moved on; without experienced senior servers to set the standard, the quality dropped steadily.  It wasn’t long before the chef-cum-manager also threw in the towel and went somewhere else to get back into the kitchen.

When we visited the new location up the street there were just six full tables and two waiters—on Easter Sunday, a day they used to be fully booked.  Despite the light load, the waiter got our order wrong, leaving us to wait a full course for an appetizer. Due to the bad timing we skipped one of the entrée and moved on to dessert. The service was friendly and caring, but with a slow and incomplete brunch with a price tag well over $100 we expected much more.

Everything has its season; the Oceanaire may have entered its winter. It’s always a pity when something excellent and successful goes the way of the Roman Republic and self-destructs.  We mourn its decline and prepare to say RIP.

Television: Ancient Aliens
History Channel/ H2

Ancient Aliens certainly qualifies as fresh thinking, although the thinking part gets a little fuzzy at times.  Generally too secular to recognize a divine dimension to life—we crack a patient smile every time we hear one eccentric show participant say  “quote-unquote God”—the theories of alien visitations in the course of history still sometimes hold water. Except, of course, in those cases where they leak like a sieve due to too much ideology and belief and not enough thorough scholarship.  Among the many ironies of the show none is greater than that of an anti-religious world view that runs on blind faith.

Unlike many others who have objections over of the show’s approach to its subject, we don’t mock the premise that the planet has been, and continues to be, visited by UFOs.  In fact, we agree with this notion for the simple reason that we have had our own encounters with intelligently controlled flying objects that far exceed human technology.

There’s nothing like direct, personal experience to make you a believer, whether it’s in the field of religion or extraterrestrial research.  Too bad the Ancient Alien participants and producers can’t see this principle: they feel a need to discredit God at every turn in a vain effort to replace the Creator with alien genetic engineers.  Try as they might, they won’t succeed in dethroning the Deity.

In any case, there just might be room for both God and aliens.  In the end it may not be up to us to choose one or the other.  Should we ever find ourselves face to face with aliens it will force us to come to the inescapable conclusion that extraterrestrials are as real as you and me.  If so, a few will make fools of themselves by worshipping the “star men” in ways they never did the Creator.  Some will cower in fear, and others yet will never emerge from denial—or underground doomsday bunkers.  The rest will most likely seek reconciliation with their childhood religion, or seek out a new one that explains the presence of unearthly beings.  Many will begin a life of soul-searching and prayer.

Life occasionally brings a shock to the system in order to shake us out of our ignorance or complacency and remind us of the power of divine love.   If their hopes for an enlightened, paternalistic extraterrestrial race eager to raise humanity to its galactic destiny are dashed, even atheist ancient alien theorists may find God.  Stranger things have happened.  Like seeing a UFO.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s