One thing we love to do here on the blog is review things. Over the course of hundreds of posts you’ve read our opinions on restaurants, hotels, cities, and other stuff that I’m not going to bother thinking of right now. Am I lazy? Yes! But that’s besides the point. The point is that today I’m going to talk about the many problems with writing an accurate and useful review with a focus specifically on restaurants.
The first one is varied tastes.
“If you don’t like the same things that I like then the food I recommend will be unpalatable to you.”
For instance if I love turkey sandwiches and you can’t stand turkey, that mouthwatering sandwich I lovingly praise probably isn’t for you. To get around this problem I try to give you enough information to decide on a dish based on your own preferences. When I say something like, “this is an excellent mac and cheese if you like the mushy artificial-tasting kind.” I mean that truthfully without any scorn. That really is a type of mac and cheese and there are plenty of people who really like it that way. Sometimes I’ll recommend foods to people who might not expect to like them, acknowledging the dislike and positing that this food will transcend it. So watch out when I say something like, “Even if you don’t like mushrooms, you should try truffles.” Furthermore, taking this kind of advice is a great way to find new foods that you like.
Another issue in the wide realm of varied tastes is differing thresholds of enjoyment. If I enjoy even mediocre Indian food and you can’t stand anything but the very best, all my opinions on Indian food are going to seem inflated to you. It doesn’t mean that I can’t recognize the difference between good and bad Indian food, pizza, dessert, etc. but in my mind they already have a leg up on the competition. I’ll try to let you know when I have this kind of bias.
Varied Quality Within a Menu
“If a recommend a restaurant it probably just means I’m recommending the one dish I ate there.”
I rarely have the opportunity to try a substantial portion of a menu. For something like Busboys and Poets in Washington DC or Butter is Better in Chiang Mai where my visits easily make it to double digits I’m pretty confident in my suggestions. But going somewhere once? There’s a lot of room for error. To give you some idea, Rachel and I went to a place on Koh Lanta called The Frog. I ordered the vegetarian lasagna and it was some of the best lasagna I’ve eaten in my life. Rachel got the pesto. It was good, but nothing special. It certainly didn’t seem better than many other pesto pastas we’ve gotten on this trip for half the price. So how do I rate such a restaurant? Well, I try to make the extent of my experience clear in my reviews, but I really can’t rate the whole restaurant without more experience. The only thing you can be sure of is that The Frog’s the place to go for wonderful lasagna…
Temporal Differences in Quality
…except you can’t, ignore that last part. Strike it from the record. Even if we assume that we both would find the exact same lasagna equally transcendent (which we can’t!), we can’t be sure that the lasagna doesn’t vary in quality over time. Fruits and vegetables go in and out of season, individual chefs get nights off or quit, ingredients raise or lower in price and get substituted, sometimes it’s just someone’s off day and an assistant throws in too much salt or a waiter brings out your food too slowly. In reality even a dish you’ve had ten times might not be very good on the eleventh. This very thing happened to us at Ray’s Hell Burger in Arlington, Virginia. Rachel and I were some of this place’s number one evangelists. We would go as often as our arteries could handle. Somehow I would always finish eating these massive, juicy burgers feeling energetic and refreshed. And somehow, the final time we went before leaving for Korea, it just wasn’t quite as good. It was still a great burger, but that magic was gone. If a restaurant has a seasonal menu, the dish I recommend might not even be there when you visit. Do not despair! Seasonal menus tend to combat temporal variance by using the best available ingredients instead of bad versions of the same ingredients. So hopefully, a good restaurant with a seasonal menu will be good all year round.
“If I eat some great food after a terrible day, you better believe that’s going to negatively impact my appreciation of it.”
There are so many things that can actually affect taste that are external to the actual ingredients in a dish and I mean it when I say that your perception of the taste, for all practical purposes, is the real taste. There is no taste outside our perception of it. The ambiance, design of the dish, plating of the food, background music, secondhand smoke, noise level, sinus congestion, and any number of other things can all have serious consequences for the flavor. And even if you magically make constant the weather, the dinner companions, your mood, and everything else, different people will react to the same stimulus differently. What I find elegant plating might seem drab and boring to you. Now I’ll admit that usually the ingredients and preparation seem most important, but don’t underestimate context. It’s like the hidden part of the iceberg that makes all the difference to your ship.
So… reviews are useless?
Ack! Wait! That’s the wrong idea entirely. Reviews are like science, there is a lot of room for error, but they are the best method we having for discovering truth. Having an awareness of what errors might exist and an ability to read reviews critically allows you a greater understanding of how much weight to give a particular review based on your individual preferences. On this blog though, I’ll try to do some of the work for you and write with bias problems always in the corner of my mind.
When does food always taste best? When you taste… hungry! During out week in Budapest (pronounced with an -esht) Taste Hungary offered us a discounted (19,000 FT → 5,000 FT/ person) food tour of the city. And if they like truly not very good jokes, they can totally use that one I started with. Seeing as a food tour is just about the number one thing I could possibly want to do at any given moment, we accepted.
We arrive at the Central Market Hall just a few minutes before 10:00 AM. It looks like it could have once been a train station and sure enough, that’s entirely wrong. Instead it has retained its original commercial purpose since it was designed by Samu Pecz in the early 1890′s and it is clearly still a popular spot for locals and tourists alike. Our guide Judit appears flashing a copy of The Food and Wine Lover’s Guide to Hungary as identification. There is a maximum of six people per tour and today is a full one. The other four tourists give us something of a demographic shock. We’re expecting older, richer couples from somewhere close like the UK .What we get are Americans who are about our age. Two of them are even from Northern Virginia like me!
We start the tour on the second floor and Rachel breaks her fast on some Unicum. The other three women in the group partake as well while the other guy and I teetotal totally. This liqueur is often considered a national drink of Hungary and has a strong herb and cinnamon aroma. It is made from a secret recipe of 40 herbs which the Zwack family kept out of Soviet hands when they fled the country. During the socialist regime, a fake, communist Unicum was created. In the 1990′s, the Zwack family was able to return to Hungary and once again begin producing their original formula. This formula, in Rachel’s opinion, tastes kinda gross.
Luckily for Rachel’s alcohol tolerance, we soon move on the a lángos stall. Lángos is the ultimate food for someone who needs some alcohol soaked up. It’s a big piece of fried dough covered in toppings, most often sour cream and cheese. Judit bought two for the group. Unlike the lángos that immigrant Hungarians consume in Transylvania which has a sweet filling, in Hungary the snack is almost always savory.
Moving away from prepared foods and souvenir kitsch, we descend the escalator to the ground floor for an enlightening experience at one of the many overflowing cured meat counters.
We try the mystery sausages one by one. First is a a common Pick brand pork sausage. It’s a pretty good, though not very especially remarkable.
Next we have pork tongue. And seriously, if you like meat and have never had tongue, you’re really missing out. This one tastes much like pot roast.
Thirdly we have a pork liver pate, it reminds me of one of my favorite sandwich ingredients from when I was a kid. I’ve recently come to realize that when I ate braunschweiger in my formative years, I was eating liver (surprise! :O) .
Next comes a pork kolbas. It is intended to be like a sausage you might cure at home so the composite chunks are larger.
Then we try another kolbas. I take a bite and it is vastly superior to the previous one. It’s chewier, aged longer, and more heavily seasoned. “This one’s horse,” says Judit.
Finally, we finish our whirlwind tour of cured pig with a pork salami. Pork became a dominant meat in Hungary during the Turkish occupation. The locals realized that if they farmed a meat that the invaders (as Muslims) wouldn’t eat, it wouldn’t be in danger of being taken.
We are slowly wending our way towards the cheese counter when we come across one of the most unexpected parts of the market. Take a look, before you scroll past the picture, see if you can guess what it is.
If you guessed wild mushroom shop, you’re totally wrong! This little number is a free service provided by the government. People bring in whatever mushrooms they find in the wilderness, and a mycologist tells them whether they’re edible. Apparently these exist in food markets all over Hungary.
Our cheese tasting arrives. First is a fresh springy goat cheese. Next, a smoked, dry, moderately sour cow cheese. And third, a salty, grainy sheep túró. Túró, called quark in English, is ubiquitous in Hungarian cooking. To finish everything off is a much beloved Hungarian sweet, túró rudi which consists of the aforementioned cheese covered in chocolate.
For our last stop in the market, Judit takes us to the basement to view fish, wild game (!), and an admirable array of pickles. Most notable among these is the pickled whole baby watermelon.
And off we go to explore Budapest’s delicious underbelly. First off is a peek at the city’s growing artisan chocolate scene. We have one flavored with tarragon and one with sour cherry pálinka (a fruit brandy).
And so, after hours of eating, it’s time for lunch. This means Belvárosi Disznótoros, a butcher’s shop whose meat counter has been eclipsed by its meal offerings. Our meal consists of a veritable (brown) rainbow of meat. There is (uncured) sausage in paprika, liver, and blood varieties with mustard and horse radish. We have (succulent) duck leg with a sweet red cabbage. Also present are noodles with sour cream, (ever-present) túró, and, of course, bacon. And to round things out there’s a turkey ragu and a variety of pickles. There’s even a free sample of (American style) biscuits made with pork cracklings.
Since we’re all still starving (not true), we head to the venerable Auguszt for a plate full of cakes. As you might expect, we start with a túró cake. We soon move to a very Hungarian apricot poppy cake. The walnut cake is Rachel’s favorite while I prefer the custardy krémes cake. Not to be forgotten are the nutty Esterházy cake with it’s signature design and the Dobos cake which despite it looking like a drum and the name translating to drum, was named after its inventor, József C. Dobos.
Finally, to digest, we head over to what is by all appearances, a mad scientist’s candy store.
And it is soon time for the wine tasting, or for me, the fanciest-lemonade-of-my-life tasting.
Hey! Rachel here. Bear with me, as I am no wine expert but I am learning. Our wine tasting consisted of three different wines. The first was a Tokaji Furmint, a white wine from the Tokaj wine-producing region in northeastern Hungary.
Our final wine, shown above, was a Tokaji Cuvee, a dessert wine made from a blend of Furmint, muscat, and one other varietal that I didn’t quite catch properly. It had a strong sweet scent which reminded me of pear. The flavor, too, was very sweet, and the alcohol content was just 10.5%. I enjoyed it a lot and counted it as my favorite.
The wine tasting reminded me that I should really take a class or read a book about the art of wine appreciation because I don’t know what I’m doing. They did give us a sheet for tasting notes that asked very specific questions which I found very helpful. Now back to Jeff.
So, is it worth the money? If you like food and it can in any way be reasonably fit into your budget, do it! It was one of the Top Highlights of my Trip ®. If you are interesting in eating with Taste Hungary yourself, check out their website.
Disclaimer: As mentioned, we were offered a discount for this tour in exchange for a review. However, we really did enjoy it a whole lot and we are sure you will too! All opinions are our own.
So sometimes my monthly reading posts may look a little sparse, but usually it means I’m spending my time on something else. One recent “else” has been listening to history podcasts. While looking for some good info on the history of Turkey, I found the excellent 12 Byzantine Rulers. It kind of snowballed from there. Here’s a rundown of all the podcasts I tried out.
12 Byzantine Rulers – This podcast tells the history of the Byzantine Empire by divulging the incredible stories surrounding some of its most important figures.
Hardcore History – While the blog has some good stories, they aren’t at a high enough density in these podcasts which can last for more than 4 hours.
History According to Bob – Extremely specific details about tactics and troop placement in specific battles.
Binge Thinking – I thought it covered a variety of interesting things which I knew little about like the process of the British navy changing from wooden to metal ships. Rachel was less interested.
TudorCast - It feels like I’m listening to an alternate dimension version of NPR where all the news, reviews, and segments are about the Tudors.
CGP Grey – Well this is more a youtube channel than a podcast, but it is usually about history. Also it’s probably the best thing in this whole list! Tons of interesting and entertaining videos about topics like the ancient independent City of London inside the city that people call London.
Crash Course World History – Another youtube channel. It covers the world history topics you might learn in high school, but is extremely fast and entertaining.
Any history podcasts to recommend?
Sometime towards the end of elementary school I started reading online comics. Almost fifteen years later I’ve seen death, loss, and the impossible, given life. The highest highs and the lowest lows have been mine to savor or discard on a whim; only to come crawling back like a supplicant to my tempestuous lover. I’ve washed up on the dark shores of ennui and viewed startling vistas just barely out of my grasp. I’ve done it all. And then I’ve done it all again. Once per day.
Come with me intrepid explorers of the mind as we probe the limits of creativity. I shall regale you with tales of tales, a metastory if you will. Where we’re going you’re going to need an attention span of a few more minutes. I present to you: Some webcomics I read.
- Schlock Mercenary – Space mercenaries go on various adventures which substantially alter the political and economic climate of the galaxy. The main character is a nearly indestructible amorphous fluid. This comic has been going on for nearly 13 years and I’ve been reading it since close to the beginning. As far as I am aware, Howard Tayler hasn’t missed a single day of full color strips, even when his drawing bones were injured. There are some comics I find funnier, and some that I find more exciting, but none that are more professional and consistently good quality.
- Nedroid – It’s infrequently updated because, as I understand it, Anthony Clark has other priorities and just kinda does a comic when he feels like it. But I love it so much. Everything out of his pen appeals to my sense of humor exquisitely. I follow his tumblr too, just so I can get another little hit of his random doodles. Now that’s devotion!
- Questionable Content – This is one of the best slice of life comics out there. I like the art style, but it’s really the stories and relatable characters that make me anticipate new comics. It updates with large full color strips 5 days a week and only puts in guest comics or filler a few times a year.
- Penny Arcade – This is another one of the webcomic behemoths out there and another comic that I’ve been following for close to 15 years. They update three times a week like clockwork with three full color panels. The prime focus is on video games and despite not understanding two thirds of the references, it’s consistently hilarious. I also use it as a news source to keep me apprised of the most notable occurrences in video game news. The two creators make a living off the strip for themselves and, I believe, a small staff and they created a very successful charity and an expo that attracts over 70,000 people.
- XKCD – I see this stick figure comic shared more than any other so you might already know about it. It largely consists of one off jokes about advanced academic topics and a variety of nerd subcultures with an occasional impressive infographic thrown in. If you follow up on some of the jokes, you can often learn something too.
Comics I No Longer Read
For every comic I follow now, there are probably five that have gone by the wayside. There are all sorts of reasons I stopped though and many of these comics are worth a read. Here are some of the noteworthy ones.
- Sluggy Freelance – This was my first webcomic and I was a rabid fan of it for most of my webcomic reading career. What happened? Several years ago there was a story arc that didn’t interest me that much and the comic just kinda fell off my radar. I imagine that someday I’ll go back and pick it up again though.
- Dragon Tails – For years Tim Dawson wrote and drew one of my favorite comics. Sometime around 2004 he went from posting comics every day to only a few times a year. The last comic was in 2010.
- Girls With Slingshots – I read the entire archives in the span of a few days and had only been following the regular updates for a few months when I decided to transfer all my regularly updated sites to an RSS feed. I couldn’t find an RSS feed for this comic so I just stopped reading it.
- Megatokyo – Here’s a comic that aggravated me and has never been forgiven. It was a comic I followed in the early years that updated a few times a week. This comic is the whole reason I love comics with reliable update schedules so much. Megatokyo, which has a slow moving plot to begin with, would have an emergency ‘I don’t feel like drawing’ filler fully half the time. I stopped reading when I could stand it no longer.
- Narbonic - This was a really great comic about mad scientists. I only stopped reading it because it finished all it’s plot lines and ended. Read it!
What webcomics do you read?
“Want.. Chicken.. Same Before.. Skin Off.” said the man in the Galae Thong Bistro. Does this sound like the speech patterns of an offensive stereotype of an ESL speaker to you? It does to me. I’ve heard this kind of speech many times in Thailand though. Is that how the natives speak English? If you guessed no, pat yourself on the back. You might encounter people dropping their “the’s” and “a’s” and not everyone is going to understand your thick drawl and use of the hippest slang. Invariably though, the only people talking like cavemen stereotypes are tourists and expats.
There are many English speakers who encounter an ESL speaker and generously want to make it easier for their new friend to understand them. That is an entirely reasonable and admirable goal. What’s painful to watch, though, is how many people just miserably fail at this goal. I’ve always enjoyed the old joke of helping a non-English speaker understand you by TALKING LOUDLY. A small part of my soul died when I discovered people who actually do this. Just as bad though is altering your syntax to incorrect English in hopes of being more easily understood. This is especially true when your altered English is less a match to the actual English being spoken by the person you’re talking to and more of a match to the English spoken by the ‘savage’ in films from the 1930s. As an native English speaker you are a role model for anyone trying to improve. Don’t be a bad model.
How to be Comprehensible
- Use complete sentences, don’t drop words, but do put extra emphasis on the important words.
- “Where is the bathroom?”
- “Do you want this or that?”
- Express your ideas simply and clearly. Avoid unnecessarily complex vocabulary and informal speech.
- Good: “Do you want to go to dinner?”
- Bad: “Hey, we could grab some grub if, like, you’re amenable”
- Language learners often have better listening skills than speaking skills. Try full sentences before resorting to single words and miming.
- Slow down your speech, but not so much that it would be offensive if you spoke that way to a native speaker.
- Saying words slowly isn’t even that helpful. Using pauses and speaking each word distinctly will really get you somewhere.
- If you suspect that the person you’re speaking to only knows a few words of English, use simple single word sentences with lots of miming and facial expressions. Just about everyone understands the word “Okay.”
- “Okay?” (Point at blueberry, mime eating)
Note, informal language sometimes is appropriate. It all depends on your goal. If you are simply trying to exchange information efficiently, it is likely to make things more difficult. If you’re helping someone improve their English, by all means, use slang, idioms, imaginary words, whatever.
This stunningly beautiful khao soi was made by me, Jeff, from the early stage of pounding out a curry paste to the final sprinkling on some coconut cream. It was at Siam Rice Cooking School in Chiang Mai. Khao soi is a type of curry popular in Chiang Mai which is notable for having both crispy and soft noodles as integral ingredients.
Whether at the train station or on a long bus ride, travelling often generates a lot of time to kill. Here are some of my favorite game apps. If these did not exist, you would probably see a lot more blog posts from me. Most of these are free. A ‘$’ sign indicates paid.
Temple Run 1 or 2 (iOS, Android) – This endless running game hits all the right notes. Well, my favorite note, upgrades.
Angry Birds Any Version ($iOS, Android) – I go into some kind of trance when I’m trying to get three stars on every level. I love all the different twists that Angry Birds Space and Star Wars add.
Words With Friends (iOS, Android, Facebook) – Since I don’t really get to play Scrabble in person much on the road, this is a good substitute.
Pocket Planes (iOS, Android) – NimbleBit puts lots of endearing, clever touches on all their games. This airline industry simulation is really well done.
Bejewelled Blitz (iOS, Android, Facebook) – Popcap has been my favorite flash game maker since before they started appearing in app stores and market shelves. This gem matching arcade game has to be one of their best known and most addicting ones.
Jetpack Joyride (iOS, Android) – Fly your stolen jetpack, collect coins, trample scientists, eventually die. This is another infinite runner game that has a glorious amount of upgrades, missions, and costumes.
Tetris Attack (Facebook) – You play competitive Tetris against other people in a variety of modes. I had to stop playing so it didn’t consume my life. The amount of time I’ve spent playing it is seriously too much.
iNetHack (iOS) – This is a roguelike game from decades ago ported onto the smart phone. If you don’t already know what a roguelike game is, you probably won’t like this. It’s tedious, almost impossible to beat, has terrible graphics, and uses arcane, indecipherable controls, but I love it. Someday my halloween costume will be the main character from this game, an @ sign.
I’d love to find some new ones. What are your favorite game apps?
I love taking pictures at food markets. There are always so many beautiful scenes to find. As part of our cooking class in Chiang Mai, we were taken to a market and given a lesson on all mysterious products that can be found. We were then given a few minutes to walk around and browse or take pictures.
For our second sponsored day around Cappadocia we went on New Göreme Tours’ red tour. This one does not go quite so far afield as the green and had only six people on it. I preferred the red, but if you had to choose one it would be a toss-up: the green locations are difficult to get to alone, but still worth seeing. The red ones on the other hand are much more accessible.
The day started cold with great big fluffy flakes falling steadily. Our guide Vedat took us first to Uçhisar Castle. Already the snow had stopped and the sun was coming out. Vedat explained that the castle was first carved out of the existing rock by the Romans… and is the highest point in Cappocia besides the volcanoes. Only enough time was allocated for us to take pictures and we agreed to come back some other day to climb it.
In the quick drive to Çavuşin Village we headed toward a large bank of fog which we soon found to be our missing snow storm. The flakes were small, dense pellets now. Çavuşin was yet another set of residential cave ruins like many others we had seen in Cappadocia. I never get tired of exploring these.
In short order we made our way to Paşabağı Valley. The snow was coming down harder now and a mob of Turkish tourists had started an impromptu dance party to keep warm. People began rushing from every direction to join in or just stopping and dancing in place. We made our careful way up the sloping path and we were happy to take refuge under the mushroom-like rock formations which were, once again, riddled with cave houses. We found an excellent handhold for getting to the second floor of one and I even managed to find a way up to floor three. Cappadocia can feel like a giant playground sometimes.
Our next van ride deposited us at the nearby Open Air Museum where it was once again bright and sunny. We had gone to the museum on our first day, not expecting to take a tour, but we were happy to have a guide this time. Vedat had delayed our visit to the museum for an hour to avoid the most crowded time. It was much appreciated. We slowly made our way from cave to cave, taking the time to notice smaller details like leftover tool marks and smoke stains on the ceilings. We enjoyed making wild conjectures about the purpose of particular holes or cubbies. After our third cave, the world had darkened and the fluffy snow began once more.
We didn’t have to weather the flakes for long, because it was soon time for lunch. Lunch, as it happens, wasn’t just an afterthought as it so often feels like on tours, but took place in the home of a Turkish family. We were actually rather surprised to encounter such an intriguing dining experience. Vedat had mentioned earlier that New Göreme was the only tour group in the town that had this kind of lunch, but I found it a bit odd that it wasn’t mentioned on their website or in their pamphlet. When we talked with the head of the tour company, Ibrihim, about it later, we found out why. It turns out that the home lunch was experimental and we were the very first subjects. Ibrihim knew a family that could use a little extra money, and he had a tour agency that could use an exclusive attraction. He told them to serve his customers the kind of food that they would eat themselves and beyond that allowed them free rein. They served us many of what we have come to know as Turkish staples. We started with lentil soup and a parsley laden salad and soon moved on to the main course of fasulye, or baked beans. Vedat told us about growing up with his 3 siblings and 30 cousins and how that lifestyle is disappearing now in Turkey. By the time we were snacking on homemade helva and the ubiquitous Turkish tea, we had learned about the growing conservatism in Turkey, the state of smoking laws, and local food habits. It felt like more than a simple group tour.
The ceramics factory tour was a good example of how to do a shopping stop right. It felt like more of a tour than a “tour”. Our guide was actually able to answer our questions and generally the things he told us were closer to information than salesmanship. I even got a chance to try my hand at making a pot with the human-powered potter’s wheel. And while it’s probably due to
a bias for ceramics, I thought the shop was more interesting to browse too.
One of our last stops was Devrent Valley. It was cold, but the sun was out. Vedat told us that it is also known as Imagination Valley because its rock columns have some of the strangest shapes in the area. On long car rides, even as an adult, I’ll pass the time by finding shapes in the clouds. It’s fun to do it with rocks too.
Finally, we finished in Ürgüp with a viewing of some of the most famous fairy chimneys in the area. Erosion can do some incredible things. Tours can be tiring compared to the slower travels we’re used to, but we really saw a lot.
What We Liked
- Our guide was well-informed and friendly.
- The group was nicely small.
- Not much time was spent in the van.
- Most of the stops allowed for some independent exploration.
- The lunch experience was great.
- The tour finishes at 3, earlier than the Green Tour.
- The schedule was flexible, and our guide made changes based on how crowded everywhere would be.
What Could Have Been Better
- The weather. But actually, seeing the fairy chimneys in the snow was sort of magical.
- The room where we had lunch was a bit cold.
Want to take the tour? The price is 100 TL (US $55.24) and it includes a guide, transportation, all entrance fees, and lunch. Contact New Göreme Tours in downtown Göreme or via their website.
Disclaimer: We received the tour for free in exchange for a review. However, we always try to remain objective.