Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Book Review: Crazy Rich Asians

Main Takeaway
Modern Day Downton Abbey meets Joy Luck Club by way of Lifestyles of the Crazy Rich and Asian, Kevin Kwan crafts a fascinating fish out of water story, granting us a peek into the privileged life of how the 1%-ers in Asia live the grand life of high fashion, opulent homes, and family competitiveness (and dysfunction) that would fit right into a 90's sitcom.

Verdict:  it's a fun, breezy read.  I liked it but I would wait for the paperback or borrow it from the library

  • the first chapter pretty much sucks you into the world that Nick (one of the main character) lives in
  • incredible amount of details about the luxurious life of the "well off" in Singapore
  • interesting look at old money versus new money flowing through Asia, with China being its heart (sorry Japan ... maybe in the sequel?)
  • the Nick and Rachel characters (Rachel being the other main character) are likable enough but certainly aren't as interesting as the other characters (see last bullet point).  In a way, they're very reactive to everything that is happening around them
  • engaging look into how there are various degrees of richness among the rich, with those striving to become richer while others finding difficultly in becoming obscenely rich
  • lots of eccentric characters surrounding Nick and Rachel so that even if the main story drags a bit, these colorful characters are there to liven things up
  • despite the story taking place in Singapore, despite some name dropping of some of the restaurants and locales of where the rich live, shop and eat, the city itself isn't much of a character in the book, which is a bit of a shame.  I would have liked to have gotten a better understanding of Singapore, aside from a lot of rich people live there.
  • the narrative loses steam at the end.  Makes one wonder if there is going to be a second book: Crazier, Richer Asians
  • all of the bad people in the book are stereotypically bad; very one-dimensional.  If there was only more depth to each of the characters, which would have made the story far more engaging
  • despite being loaded with colorful characters, there are a lot of them to keep track of so at times, especially in the beginning, you wonder who are these people and how are they related (both to Nick but also to the storyline)
  • the set up is great (getting Rachel to go to the wedding with Nick) but somewhat unconvincing.  How can the Rachel not that that she's dating one of the wealthy men in the world?

Boy invites girl to boy's best friend's wedding, girl finds out that boyfriend is totally loaded but has dysfunctional family members. Hilarity ensues.  If one would be so lucky.  

More interesting than the premise to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Kevin Kwan's take on the high society of the obscenely rich and equally spoiled preparing for the big wedding of the protagonist's best friend is a great setup: you feel as though you're there with Rachel, as she bathes in all of the sheer opulence and unimaginable grandeur displayed by the ultra rich. Rachel, who is an American of Chinese descent, is from a middle class family so she's certainly overwhelmed by what not only by what she sees but who she encounters (from eccentric relatives to supportive but loaded best friends to haughty girls envious of her relationship with Nick).  Nick, the first born son to one of the richest families in all of Asia, is a good guy and tries to be supportive of Rachel but is too naive to realize how contemptuous his family (especially his mother) is conspiring to break up the two lovebirds. Tensions flare and the story spirals from satirizing the extent the rich would do for things (weddings, homes, food) to becoming a tired, cliched sit-com, complete with cartoonish mother holding all of the cards and exposing things to everyone.  Which is unfortunate because the story up to that point felt pretty solid.

Despite faltering towards the end, that shouldn't dissuade you from reading this book.  The whole ride that Nick and Rachel go through, from arriving into Singapore, eating the best satay in the world to attending the most obnoxiously over-the-top wedding, you're there for the ride and it's fun, despite the bumps at the end.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

Main Takeaway:  long is the journey to the Lonely Mountain and it takes over two hours for our dwarf + Hobbit heroes to get into the hallowed halls of Erebor.  But it's a grand adventure to be had and you should tag along since there be dragons.

Verdict:  highly recommended, see it in high frame rate (HFR) 3D if you can

  • to paraphrase George Lucas, the movie is faster, quicker, more intense
  • somewhat analogous to the Two Towers, in that it's the middle act with more things going on now that we know the story and the characters better
  • Legolas is meaner than the gentile elf that we saw in LOTR but still a badass.  Maybe dwarf envy?
  • Tauriel is very pretty and very badass
  • Smaug is impressive (Benedict Cumberbatch did the motion capture but not sure if it was just the face or the whole dragon body, which would have been cool)
  • Martin Freeman may be a thief but still adds great humanity to being a Hobbit
  • the high frame rate experience is at first jarring but after a while, you get used to it. But if you get motion sick, you may want to take some Dramamine before seeing the movie.
  • not sure why the movie had to be 2 hours and 40 minutes.  It felt like there was a ton of filler that could have been trimmed.  
  • ends right at a cliffhanger, which I admire but it's also frustrating.  No, I'm not suffering dwarf envy! We just have to wait a whole year to see what happens next.
  • Gandalf goes rogue to do some LOTR set up stuff.  I blame the whole coming of Sauron on Gandalf's meddling and those stupid dwarves.
  • Main bad guy orc looks like an evil version of Jar Jar Binks.  Meesa thinks CGI bad guys needs more reality, less Jar Jar.
  • And yeah, the high frame rate is impressive and all, especially during the action sequences but during the slow scenes, looks totally fake
With a more streamlined plot, that quickly jumps from one scenic location to another, our heroes jump from one entanglement to another, often leading us to some harrowing action sequence that is a marvel to watch in 3D with high frame rate.  Much of the dull exposition that occurred in The Unexpected Journey is greatly reduced in this film (although the story does falter slightly when our heroes reach Lake-town) and you can feel the sense of urgency the dwarfs have in wanting to slay the evil dragon and regain their homeland.

The Gandalf side quest is a bit distracting at first but when you look at the grand scheme that is the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit being the prologue, it makes sense why Gandalf is more detective than wizard (although we see him using more of his wizardry skills than we did in the first movie).

Clocking in at 2 hours and 40 minutes, it's as long as the first movie, but faster, quicker, more intense and best of all, better action scenes.  Introducing Tauriel is an inspired decision Peter Jackson made in expanding Tolkien's universe but along the way, Jackson gets mired in needless story filler.  Still, it's much more fun than Unexpected Journey and it's a joy seeing Smaug in action.  Nice wink-wink pairing of Cumberbatch and Freeman sharing the same scenes together.

Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Benedict Cumberbatch
Written By: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro
Directed By: Peter Jackson
Rated PG-13

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Main Takeaway:  Disney becomes the new Pixar in creating a crowd pleasing movie full of goofy characters, a beautiful snowy locale and a strong set of musical numbers that rivals the best Disney offered in its 90's heyday.

Verdict:  Highly recommended. 3D not necessary.

  • Veronica Mars is a Disney Princess, singing included.  Kristen Bell owns the Anna character, giving her character enough warmth, heart, goofiness and vulnerability in her performance.
  • the musical numbers, especially the earlier songs, are all standouts:
    • "Do You Want To Build A Snowman" - you listen and you'll smile and then feel so melancholy within a span of 3 minutes.
    • "For The First Time In Forever" - a grand and sweeping song, like a spunkier version of "Belle" from Beauty and the Beast
    • "Love Is an Open Door" - a very catchy tune with funny lyrics that has some great harmonizing
    • "Let It Go" - while not as strong as the first three, when you hear the song while watching the movie, it just works and you completely understand what the Elsa character is going through
  • the story is simple but there is an underlying level of complexity in its characters and relationships with each other, especially between the sisters
  • Sidekick characters pile on the humor, on top of the already funny main characters
  • great locale (a very Norwegian vibe) but not appreciated when the land is frozen over. Then it's just fifty thousands shades of white. You can only take so much white.
  • action sequences were not as dynamic as some of the best action scenes from Tangled and Wreck It Ralph

The Disney Animation Studios reached its pinnacle of creativity during the release of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Lion King. There was a kind of emotional resonance when watching each film, with its timeless musical numbers, identifiable characters and great stories that you want to hear about.  Pixar Studio's initial release of movies showed that other studios were primed to tell stories just as well as Disney (if not better).  But, there has been a renaissance in Disney Animation Studio's in their past releases: Tangled, with its lead character looking to leave her home to see what's out there (similar to Belle's desire to leave her small, provincial town) , Wrech It Ralph and his search to find acceptance among those who have shunned him (similar to Aladdin's desire to not be shunned by other because of his lack of wealth) and most recently, Frozen, a touching story about two sisters, so close at one time but had drifted apart because of events that transpire in the story.  Similar to Lion King's treatment of death and inheritance of responsibility, Frozen's handling of such complicated themes of sisterhood and true love that is explored between Anna and Elsa is impressive: while simple on the surface, go deeper and you realize the complicated relationship they both have.  Throw in a prince, an ice seller with his trusty reindeer and a cool (cold?) sidekick, you get an enchanting story of saving a kingdom from wintry doom but also a satisfying heroine's journey of saving her sister.

Starring: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Santino Fontana, Josh Gad
Screenplay:  Jennifer Lee
Story:  Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, Shane Morris
Directed By:  Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Rated PG
Based on "The Snow Queen" by Hans Christian Andersen

Monday, December 2, 2013

Katsu Burger

I mentioned in a previous post about the spectrum of fast food burger joints.  Let's change continents for a second, go to Japan and talk about MOS Burger.  When I lived in Japan, MOS Burger was my favorite fast food restaurant.  It was fast, fresh and always delicious.  Granted, the name MOS didn't lend itself well to selling an image of a tasty burger.  But when talking to a Japanese friend about my love for MOS Burger, she asked me if I knew what "MOS" stood for. I did not know and had no clue that there was meaning behind the name.  

Go to the MOS Burger website, it describes the origins of the MOS Burger name:  The "M" in MOS stands for Mountain, O stands for Ocean and S stands for Sun.  "MOS" - Mountain, Ocean and Sun.  However, my friend mentioned two other things about MOS Burger that left an impression on me and on why I like them so much:
  1. MOS is a contraction for "Most Delicious Burger".  Delicious?  Oh hell yeah.  
  2. MOS tastes so good is because of the sauce.  The sauce? you ask.  Let me explain.
In Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi describes the Force as an energy field that surrounds us and binds us together.  The Sauce in a MOS Burger, like the Force, surrounds the burger will flavor and binds all of the ingredients together into a well rounded and tasty package.  
Spicy MOS Cheeseburger (image courtesy of MOS Food Services, Inc.)

Look at the Spicy MOS Cheeseburger as an example:  bun, tomato, meat sauce, jalapenos, onions, cheese, meat, mayo, mustard and bun.  When you bite into a Spicy MOS Cheeseburger, the first taste that hits you is the meat sauce, followed by the rest of the burger. It doesn't overpower the burger but just makes it all the more flavorful. There's a huge dollop of it in the burger and adds so much.  It is an elegant burger, for a more civilized customer.  Yes, I'm using Star Wars to make a point about a burger. Deal with it.

"an eclectic combination of Japanese comfort food mixed in with some Hawaiian swagger and American burger goodness"

I mention this because my experience at Katsu Burger was very similar: of all of the ingredients that make up a Katsu Burger, it's really the sauce that left an impression on me that elevates the burger from fast food staple to fully realized gourmet burger.  Is it better than Lunchbox Laboratory?  Is it a MOS Burger replacement?  Let's find out:

Katsu Burger.  Hard to find, harder to forget.

Step up to the counter to order.  Simple, straightforward menu. And ... ohhh! Pocky!

Located in South Seattle, in the Georgetown District, Katsu Burger is located in a remote part of town that's somewhat difficult to find.  But once you find it, you'll pretty much know where to go and where to turn.  It's a small restaurant, with seating for about 20 people and when I arrived, it was about half full.  The menu is an eclectic combination of Japanese comfort food mixed in with some Hawaiian swagger and American burger goodness. While there was a good selection of burgers to choose from (from the Tokyo Classic (deep fried beef patty with Japanese mayo and tonkatsu sauce) to the Teriyaki Chicken (deep fried chicken with pineapple, Japanese mayo and teriyaki sauce), I decided to get the following:
  • Samurai Select (beef patty breaded in panko (Japanese bread crumbs) deep fried, with bacon, pineapple, wasabi mayo and tonkatsu sauce)
  • an order of nori french fries (fries seasoned with aonori(bits of green seaweed)) with wasabi dipping sauce
  • cole slaw mixed with wasabi

Samurai Select with Nori French Fries w/ wasabi dipping sauce.  And wasabi cole slaw.

It took about 8 minutes for my order to arrive but when it did, I was overwhelmed.  First off, all of the burgers are huge.  My Samurai Select was stacked high with cabbage, onions, sauce, the aforementioned breaded and deep fried beef patty with pineapple and bacon; it had all of the makings of a gourmet burger that rivals the gourmet goodness found at Lunchbox Laboratory.

I think I'm going to cry ... beef patty, breaded in panko and deep fried. Topped with cabbage and tonkatsu sauce

I was trying to get my hands around the burger but gave up.  It was just too big so I used a knife and fork.  You can tell how juicy the burger was by just cutting into the deep fried beef patty. And then I took a bite. The beef patty was tender, juicy and flavorful.  The cabbage, pineapple and bacon added a nice spin to the typical burger taste.  But, similar to my experience in biting into a MOS Burger, it was the tonkatsu sauce that blended all of these uniquely different tastes together. It was like biting into everything that you love about Japanese food while biting into everything great about a local greasy spoon, all-American restaurant, all at the same time.  I unfortunately didn't taste much of the wasabi mayo, which was a bit of a disappointment but the combination of tonkatsu sauce with the burger and condiments made it a great burger tasting experience.  I wouldn't say it was better than Lunchbox Laboratory but good enough to stand on its own as something different but still delicious.  I can go to either restaurant and be happy.

Nori french fries with wasabi dipping sauce.  They also had other dipping sauces, including curry mayo, miso honey mustard and spicy mayo.  Need to come back and try the other flavors

The fries were served hot out of the fryer with little flecks of green seaweed that added a nice sea-salty taste to the crispy shoestring cut fries. The kicker here is the wasabi dipping sauce. Just like the tonkatsu sauce elevating the Samurai Select burger into new level of burger goodness, the dipping sauces add just enough jazz to the already jazzed french fries to add a new spin to a familiar taste:  mayonnaise mixed with the right amount of wasabi to give it the sweet, spicy taste you will definitely love.  

Wasabi Cole Slaw.  Mix well before eating.

Before digging into the cole slaw, our server told me to mix up the cole slaw since the wasabi mix tended to settle at the bottom of the cole slaw.  Glad she told me about it since there was a lot of wasabi kick to the creamy cole slaw taste.

Two great tastes that go great together. Note the pineapple and bacon in the burger.  Ok, I'm hungry.

Katsu Burger is simply great.  While the restaurant itself may lack the shine and polish of Lunchbox Laboratory (it looks more like a teriyaki place), don't make the mistake in thinking the restaurant setting reflects the quality of the food.  Hardly.  Using the sauce to bind all of the different flavors together, Katsu Burger is a fine dining experience and highly recommended. MOS Burger will still have a special place in my heart for Japanese fast comfort food but if I'm not in Japan, Katsu Burger is the next best thing.  Come for the burgers, stay for the sauce.

Katsu Burger
6538 4th Ave. S (at E. Marginal Way S)
Seattle, WA 98108