Monday, January 31, 2011

Curse you, hackers!

2011-Jan-31 hacker from Argentina attacks PlentyOfFish

Hot Chocolate Festival

Been so busy coordinating my schedule for Dine Out Vancouver that I totally missed the Hot Chocolate Festival.
It's still on, but sadly ends the day before Valentine's Day. DUH!

Dine Out Vancouver 2011 - Al Porto Ristorante

Al Porto on Urbanspoon
Happy to say that I made it out to another Dine Out Vancouver 2011 venue on Sunday night, this time to Al Porto Ristorante (dine out menu).

If you've never been to this restaurant, it's in Gastown near the Steam Clock. Duck down an alley to the entrance, go down the stairs just to your right, and VOILA! Suddenly you're in a sort-of-rustically decorated old world cellar restaurant of surprising proportions.
Presently, it is decorated with a fabulous number of high quality hand-painted reproductions of famous masterpieces from Revival Art (and a bit of a shame they didn't have any business cards for Revival Art handy), but if you get there pretty early and have a look around before the restaurant gets busy (not till 6pm, probably), you will also see some beautiful murals on the walls of the restaurant.

We ordered insalata Caprese (vine tomato, bocconcini, arugula, olive oil), Tuscan liver parfait (liver pate, gherkin, crostini, and a heck of a lot of dijon mustard on the side), veal medallions (defaulted to medium rare; with rappini, caponata, mushroom sauce), spiedino (single skewer of wild bc salmon, halibut, scallops, tiger prawns; on orzo, with lemon-white wine sauce), chocolate ganache torte, and tiramisu.

Nothing particularly special or interesting here, just tasty food prepared well. OK value at $28.

The veal medallions also came with a small bowl of what looked like baked beans in a watered down tomato sauce. There were tiny bits of red meat in it (ham?). The very odd thing was, it smelled and tasted like burnt toast. Very possibly, it was smoked ham that, having been re-heated with the beans, gave off the off-putting flavour.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Dine Out Vancouver 2011 - NU

Nu on Urbanspoon
This past Wednesday night saw my first (of hopefully three) Dine Out Vancouver 2011 restaurant visits. I went with a dear friend and excellent dining buddy to NU (reinvented, apparently, into Greek-themed Nu Aegean Cusina) at her suggestion, in turn based on an article she had read recommending NU's Dine Out menu as being one of the best in bang for your buck.
If I had known they started Dine Out Vancouver on the 13th, I might have gone earlier to beat the rush -- At 6:30pm on Wednesday, the place was packed and by around 8pm some diners had to wait at the bar.

The "official" Dine Out menu doesn't make a big fuss over the complimentary pita and homous you get after placing your order. It's basically a Greek version of fresh bread and butter while you wait. What they don't tell you is that you get a really generous portion of freshly grilled pita, still piping hot when it hits your table, and dusted with sea salt on the surface for that extra zing. There's also just enough homous if you slather it on pretty thick; homous that is very smooth, possibly with extra olive oil for a texture that's in between water and paste.
Just the one plate would have been enough of an entree for one person. Because we also ended up having "Georgia's Potatoes" (more about that later), we weren't able to finish all the pita. If you go to NU for Dine Out Vancouver 2011, you're definitely going to be well-fed on Greek portions!

The Dine Out menu (even the one on their website) also doesn't mention the extra items you can order with a slight additional cost, so be on the lookout for those items when you are there.

For the appetizers, we ordered stuffed Lamb Meatballs (Keftedes) and Stuffed Calamari. Although they were "appetizers", the portions were very generous for merely appetizers -- more like light entrees, especially the meatballs.

The lamb meatballs (Grilled Keftedes - lamb meatballs, orzo, tomato sauce, dried calamata, crisp basil) by far the better of the two entrees. Each was slightly bigger than a golf ball, and very tender.

The stuffed calamari (stuffed with spiced sausage and rice, crispy fried tentacles, bed of wilted greens, deeply smoky tomato sauce and slivers of lemon) came at a slight extra cost, and was interesting for it's mix of flavours and textures. You had the natural bitterness of the squid contrasting the occasional tang of lemon and the savoury stuffing. This tender bite was contrasted with the tentacles fried to a crunchy crisp, and quite salty.
Overall, I thought the mix of tastes didn't quite work for me, especially the strong bitter taste in the squid. In hindsight, I might have tried to put one set of tentacles together with one of the stuffed shells together in a single bite, mixing the mellower taste of the stuffing with the salty crisp.

For our entrees, we went with Three Cheese & Filo Souffle (with almonds, sauteed bell peppers and fennel, butter sauce); and Seared Albacore Tuna (on mediterranean vegetable moussaka, green beans, parsley, pickled red onion salad, saffron lemon sauce).
Overall, I thought these came out to be tasty but nothing particularly interesting, either -- possibly after we had been so intrigued by the flavours in the appetizers.

I also ordered "Georgia's Potatoes" (listed at the bottom of their in-house Dine Out Vancouver menu, in fine print) -- lemon potatoes using large grilled wedges -- but shortly after thought better of it as my dining partner was not having potatoes at the time. I cancelled that order quickly, but as it turned out, the kitchen was fast on the draw and had already crushed it out.
We suspected that the entire kitchen had been turned over to Dine Out Vancouver to the extent that the regular menu was probably not available. In fact, both appetizers had been drizzled with the same sauce.
Anyway, an interesting thing happened -- Our waitress explained that as a result of a "happy accident", the potatoes had already been prepared. She brought them to our table and invited us to have it, but even at my insistence refused to put it on our bill! (Naturally, she got a fat tip).

There were only two choices for dessert, so we ordered one of each -- Crème brûlée and Baklava.

The Crème brûlée came in a shallower dish than is usual, but much wider, so if you like the crispy caramelized top, you're in luck.

The Baklava really took us by surprise, as we had imagined nothing special and expected the usual honey-soaked square. Instead it was three 1 cubic inch bites probably cut from a very long roll and soaked in what was maybe sugared water or honeyed water. But definitely not the usual thick honey or anything like a viscous syrup. I still missed the honeyed over-sweetness of typical baklava available in North America, but there is something to be said for a less super-sweet presentation.
Before you pop it into your mouth, watch out for the dried clove stabbed into the top, if you haven't acquired a taste for their strong flavour.

Taste of Yaletown 2010 Wrap-Up

You may have seen my post on the Taste of Yaletown Wrap-Up or gotten an e-mail through Facebook for it.

I managed to get out to it that Wednesday afternoon, and was very surprised by the offerings and the generosity of the servings. You can see shots from the event on the Yaletown Business Improvement Association's Flickr photostream.

The setup in the limited space had each of the three restaurants presenting offerings for one hour each, and CIBC holding a draw each hour to give away gift certificates.
Other than the awkwardness of basically asking die-hard foodies to hang around for three hours, the setup was actually rather nice, with Fuse Pan Asian Express offering a light refreshment (Honeysuckle Chrysanthemum drinks) and appetizers (bite-size portions of Thai Chicken Salad and Sizzling Green Beans); followed by Society offering a small plateful of lunch (one small corndog, one gyoza pan-seared on-site, and a chunk of wine-braised beef with generous jus for a scoop of mashed potatoes); and Hub finishing with dessert (mini chocolate cupcakes with pink icing).

I couldn't stay for dessert, but the wine-braised beef had to be the best of the offerings. Tender, juicy, and just enough taste of wine without overpowering the meat.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Free Yoga from that orange bank

Saw this on a newsletter I got from ING Direct...

Every Tuesday and Thursday - The Vancouver Cafe has partnered with YYoga to offer free yoga classes from 5pm to 6pm. To RSVP, please e-mail vancafe@ingdirect.ca.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The sanctity of mail

My mom received a Chinese New Year card from a distant relative in Singapore. Square pink envelope, red card inside.

There was also a very long slit in the envelope -- certainly long enough to have a look at whether there were anything sandwiched into the card. A cheque or red packet, maybe?

Sigh.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Taste of Yaletown complimentary canapes and beverages!

Got this from Taste of Yaletown on Facebook...

The CIBC Yaletown branch is at 1096 Homer Street (at Helmcken)

Enjoy a one day extension of Taste of Yaletown with Presenting Sponsor: CIBC Yaletown

Following the Taste of Yaletown’s 2010 success, CIBC and the Yaletown Business Improvement Association are hosting a one day extended Taste of Yaletown event with some of the most tantalizing tastes of Yaletown’s finest restaurants.

CIBC and the Yaletown BIA are inviting you to come out and enjoy complimentary canapés and beverages with us at CIBC’s Yaletown branch on Wednesday, January 26th from 11:30am-2:30pm.

Each of these Yaletown restaurants will be featured for an hour: Fuse Pan Asian Express, Hub Restaurant and Lounge, and Society.

Come out for lunch and bring your colleagues!

Also, don't forget business cards - There will be a chance to win gift cards to the participating restaurants through our hourly business card draw!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Reflections from Gaming

You may have read yesterday that my gaming laptop recently died.

I was reflecting on my gaming experiences on the laptop over the last few years, and thought I'd put them down on this blog...

Play today's game next year
Or maybe three years from today. Chances are, your computer is two years old. And maybe it still meets the recommended specs, but that's just marketing. You will probably not be able to have the graphics sliders all the way up or run it at the maximum possible resolution on your screen -- So trust me, you're missing out.

Also, if the game has mods, let the game mature for a while and let the mods catch up. Games like Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion were completely overhauled graphically by the modding community to high-res graphics that would probably have run the game like a slideshow at the time it was released. Playable, yes. But it didn't look as good as it could have. And there were some events in Oblivion's main quest that were so processor intensive that the game was liable to crash several times.

The newest games aren't always the best
What trumps eye candy is story. Sometimes, a game is so old that the current hardware no longer supports it properly and it is unplayable, which is too bad. But otherwise, some of the old games you may have missed are real gems, not because they look good, but because they told good stories and gave you good experiences.

For example, Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force and Star Trek Elite Force 2.
If you are a Star Trek fan, you'll be pleasantly treated to gameplay that feels like you are not just watching a Star Trek episode, but participating in the action. The only thing unlike a Star Trek episode is the inordinate amount of alien-slaughtering you will have to do. Otherwise, there is the opening scene, the opening credits, using tricorders, rerouting power, conferences with the captain... In addition to an interesting story with many twists.

Another game that has an okay story but good game experience is Doom 3. It was a massive update and upgrade of the early first person shooters that were based on Castle Wolvenstein 3D. The flat models were replaced with highly detailed and realistic 3D models. Play it with a superior computer with anti-aliasing and all the graphics turned up, and it looks like a movie.
More than that, it does horror well for a first person shooter. Typically, this is hard as you are meant to survive and slaughter all opposition. However, Doom 3 lets you do this and still keeps you on your toes and keeps the suspense and horror elements.
Initially, you start in dark and claustrophobic environments, where anything could crawl out at any time. Later, before you move to more open surroundings, you are introduced to new monsters that are smaller or sneakier and could still crawl out at any time. The monsters pounce forward suddenly when they are close, adding to the shock and the compulsion to keep them at bay.
Straight satanic horror visual elements like glowing runes and candlelit conjuring circles are sparingly used so that when it appears, it heightens the tension.

Simple games can please
You don't need the most processor and video card intensive games to have a great time. There are many "casual games" that can deliver a lot of fun (and for a fraction of the price). Some also tell interesting and excellent stories, such as Drawn: The Painted Tower ™ and Tradewinds Odyssey. Many come with artwork that can have excellent quality because they are static portraits and don't need 3D or animation.

Monday, January 3, 2011

So my laptop died today...

Well, not exactly. The video card on my Dell Inspiron died on Monday. But since it's integrated with the motherboard, the laptop is a write-off.
Naturally, I had no idea at the time I bought it that there was an overheating issue with the Inspiron 9400s.

There were other early issues with the laptop as well, such as a faulty hinge. How something simple like a hinge can be faulty in this day and age is beyond me, but it was forcing the casing of the laptop to crack open, and in the end had to be sent back to Dell. The warranty had expired, naturally.

Things only got worse when it came back: There was a clicking sound from the fan, and shortly after, the screen started to go bad with columns of dead pixels. I called up Dell to talk to them about it, but they wanted to charge me money just to bring up these post-repair issues. I was so disgusted I hung up.

Around this time, the video card started getting hotter and hotter. The external laptop fan (the type that your laptop sits on and which vents air away from the underside) was no longer cutting it. The columns of dead pixels on the screen increased. I switched to using a desktop monitor, and I got a small desk fan the size of a melon to blow directly at the video card side of the laptop to keep the temperature down.

Just this last Sunday, the laptop failed to start a couple of times, but plodded on. On Monday, there were blinking lines on the screen when the computer was rebooting, and Windows wouldn't start up.

The video card had died, and basically took the motherboard with it. I asked around and was told I could probably salvage the hard drive and use it as an external in a drive case. I could also take out the DVD drive, but whether it would be useful to anyone is iffy. The battery, too, could be salvaged, but Dells can detect the type of battery inserted, and won't use them if they came from a different model.

I had recently committed to a real estate purchase, and right now I don't have the cash to buy a proper gaming computer.

Sigh.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

KGIC Keepsakes and Memories part 9

KGIC Grace 0

KGIC Grace 1

KGIC Grace 2

KGIC Grace 3

KGIC Grace 4

KGIC Grace 5

From a very shy student at King George International College (KGIC), where I was a teaching assistant/conversation assistant between 2002-2003.
I recall trying to keep in touch with her through e-mail, and there may possibly have been an e-mail or two back and forth, but things fizzled out -- as they often do when there is a great physical distance between acquaintances who didn't bond into close friends before going their separate ways.

I don't think I ever did ask her about the Korean dollar and coin. I'm actually not 100% certain that the coin with the "lucky cat"/Maneki Neko is the one referred to in the letter -- a side effect of putting all my keepsakes in the same box.

She struck me as a very gentle person. I wasn't sure whether she had a crush on me or just felt safer to try to be less shy around me. In any case, her time at the school was soon up, and off she went.

Shyness is definitely a disadvantageous trait for an overseas ESL student -- it definitely hampers the immersive learning that comes from conversation. I think that was why her English wasn't as strong as it could have been for her time spent in Canada.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

KGIC Keepsakes and Memories part 8

KGIC Maiko 2

In one particular way, my time at KGIC (King George International College) was a very sad and depressing one.
Here I was, surrounded by a lot of bright, fun, friendly, and often very beautiful women -- and I couldn't date any of them.
Sure, I was "just" a teaching assistant, but it still meant that I theoretically had influence with the school, so all of them were off-limits.

Trying to nurture friendships after they were done with school was a tricky business as well. I think a lot of them come to realize that their time in Canada is done, and their time with their fellow students, especially those from different countries, is over. Sort of like how friendships with people you meet on vacations, in school, or at work can sometimes vanish when you finally go your separate ways.

One student I knew had pursued another quite ardently, and I think there was some reciprocity (how much, I'm not sure). She finished her studies sooner than he, and left. Just a couple of days later, he asked me if I'd gotten any contact from her. I was barely acquainted with her, so of course not. He then confided in me that she'd gone silent and hadn't returned his e-mails.

In any case, I haven't found anyone quite like the lively young women at the ESL school. Maybe it's the culture they grew up in, or maybe it's the ESL student culture. I don't know.
And who are they now? What are they like now?