Monday, December 10, 2012

Flawless Fidelity - from China??

oving into my new place seemed a daunting task unto itself.  Usually, the first thing to move is whatever device it takes to get music, seeing as that makes everything else just a little bit easier.  Not this place, though.  With its high ceilings, I wanted my speakers to be ceiling mounted and devoid of cables.  That meant cutting a bunch of holes in new perfect walls, which was not only awful but messy.  Yours truly is not the handiest person in the world, so there was no certainty it would be put back together well either.  Nonetheless, after a good week or so it turned out as planned, and it was finally time to attach the receiver and see if noise come out.  Thankfully, it did (seeing as I forgot to do this test before patching all the walls).

Kenwood KR-V5580 circa 1996
Back in my late teens and early twenties I was as much of an electronics and audio buff as I could be with my limited budget.  I couldn't wait for the next receiver to come out with more features and buttons than ever.  Like most "noobs" in this area, it was features and electronics that mattered, not really the quality of the sound or the speakers themselves.  I gave that up in 1996 when I purchased my last Kenwood receiver from a Best Buy type place.  It's been with me ever since, along with some Polk speakers I bought in 2000.  Honestly, I didn't find them half bad, especially after I found that good speaker cable makes a difference.  These days, however, I'm finding that I have to turn the volume up ever higher to get the same amount of sound that I got in the past.  The poor thing is giving out.

Having grown up some, I could care less about features.  I don't want surround sound - not 4 or 5 or 6 or 7 channels of anything - I just want flawless stereo sound.  Walk into any high end audio shop and their premier product is typically McIntosh, a bajillion dollar setup before you even have speakers.  What makes it sound so magical was their epiphany that tubes sound better than transistors.  It's a warmer, richer sound than any other tubeless amp, and an entry model will set you back about $2400 for the pre-amp, maybe another $3500 for the amp, and then some seriously fancy speakers to match.  Nice sound, but is it worth that kind of coin?   Not to me it isn't.  I like music as much as the next guy, but I don't think I'm going to hear the nuances between that and a cheaper competitor.  So I set out on a quest to find a better tube-based integrated amplifier.  "Integrated" means that the pre-amp and amp are in the same box so that you're buying one unit and not two.

Jolida JD801BRC Integrated Amplifier
Atwater Kent Model 10C Radio, circa 1924
In digging around, I came across a Chinese manufacturer called Jolida, who makes tube amps at earthbound prices.  They have a number of units available, but the JD801BRC really stood out.  Aesthetically, this unit is a lot like the early radios of the 1920s.  Back then, simple was the name of the game, so early radio companies simply adhered the components directly to a board.  It looks crude by today's standards, but they had a machine-age beauty to them.

The Jolida build quality is not something that you'd find in your mass-produced iron from China - these aren't made by the thousands.  They do contain some high quality tubes that provide depth and warmth of sound and feature a faint glow when warmed up.  The unit features a power switch, a volume knob, and an input selector for four input sources.  Done.  No stupid features, absurd displays, configuration options, etc.  You add speakers, it amplifies the input source, and produces amazing sound.  It's even nice to look at.  Tubes need to be replaced from time to time and they're not cheap, but outside of that there's no reason why this unit wouldn't last a lifetime.  Weighing in at 47 pounds, one can actually feel that shortcuts were not taken.

The lesson here?  Made in China is not always something to be wary of; the Chinese are producing some pretty amazing stuff at great prices, from audio equipment to furniture to cameras.  Just read about it and do your research; in this instance you can have some pretty high end kit for about 1/5th the cost.  May this be the last receiver I ever own!


Correction: Jolida is actually a US company; the Chinese version is a copycat brand. Buyers beware! There are other good Chinese tube amps though; check out Mei-Xing for example.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Grilling Dreams

ew York City does not generally conjure up images of backyard grilling. It does however make people think of closet-sized apartments, rampant pests, quirky neighbors and building supers.  Those familiar with Brooklyn, however, know about the Brownstone culture with the cozy backyards.  Someone always knows someone with a garden apartment with a grill out back.  It's how we do Memorial Day BBQs.

Yours truly has been dreaming about how to make use of some potentially upcoming deck space.  Not a yard, but we do what we gotta do here!  A grill seems like the first order of business, so I got to the research.  Those who are into grilling know the age-old argument:  Gas or charcoal?  Gas lovers cite the same tasting food with the added convenience of "instant on" and "easy off."  Corner them and they'll tell you the coal-grilled food tastes like lighter fluid.  The charcoal crowd says the taste difference is absolutely extraordinary, and who cares about the time it takes to get started.  You might even get a lecture on how solid fuel has been serving mankind since before recorded history.  Passions run high.

Don't look for this on your Weber.
Not to sound wishy-washy, but I agree with both points.  There's a time and a place for gas and a time and a place for charcoal.  But getting two grills seems like a waste of precious space.  The average price per square foot in some Brooklyn neighborhoods runs into the $700s range, so every bloody inch of space counts.  "What about a grill that can do both - does anyone make those?" I pondered.  Holy shit, do they ever!

There's two that I found - some shitty looking contraption on Amazon and then the Kalamazoo Hybrid grills. The thing on Amazon looks like an interesting way to set your home on fire.  The Kalamazoo looks amazing!  The base model Kalamazoo is a simple grill that has gas burners under a solid fuel drawer.  Want gas?  Keep the drawer empty and turn on the gas.  Want charcoal?  Load the drawer with charcoal....then turn on the gas - no lighter fluid required!  When the coals are lit, turn off the gas, and voila.  Beyond charcoal, you can also load up the drawer with wood.  It's brilliant!

Is that all?  No. The grill comes with a built-in rotisserie system with two independent burners.  On a lot of grills something like that is an option, but On Kalamazoo it's standard.  Because rotisserie cooking is awesome.  A flip-up warming rack also comes standard.

Two 16,000 BTU side burners.
In the way of accessories, there's some other cool options.  A smoker can be built-in, but you have to decide you want that upon order (grills are built to order).  It's a separate unit with two vents to control the oxygen and the amount of smoke drawn into the grill.  The independent heat source makes it a real smoker, not something that has to smolder within a hot grill.  At time of order, you can also get two 16,000 BTU side burners, so the whole meal can be done in one place.  And then there's the grilling surface itself.  Coming standard is your typical bar-style grill grate.  Optional extras include a laser-cut meat surface, vegetable surface, fish surface.  Choose a different surface for each side.  Design your own surface if you like.  The grill grates are pricey (would be nice if they were included) but unlike the smoker you can order them at any time.  They're also cut from 1/4" steel and polished.
Custom surface options - vegetable, fish, meat (from left to right)
laser cut from 1/4" stainless steel.
Ok, so perhaps there's one drawback:  It's the price of a car.  On the other hand:
  • By NYC standards, two burners & a grill is essentially an entire kitchen.  And the price isn't bad compared to installing a new kitchen in NYC.
  • Grilling is healthier for you.  A healthy life is worth the price of a car.
  • Even if you're bankrupt, you can still find small branches to burn and cook with.  Just beware of the Parks Department, they can get kinda nasty.
  • It's cheaper than buying two grills separately. It saves more room than two separate grills.
  • It's handcrafted to order in the US. And I mean handcrafted with 38 feet of hand welding with weld polishing, and construction with hand wrenches.  You're helping to employ someone.
  • Anyone in their right mind would prefer a grill over a car anyway.
  • It's the only decent hybrid grill you will find.

So at the end of the day, if you're gonna dream grills, why not dream big.


Saturday, August 4, 2012

Perfect for the hot, muggy day!

t was a hot, sticky, gross day and I was motoring around looking at apartments for sale. If you're shopping for apartments in NYC without hoards of cash on hand you'll find yourself either depressed or in odd neighborhoods. And that's what brought me to the corner of Pacific St and Washington Ave in Brooklyn.

I first toured the apartments, hoping that some nice cool air conditioning would set things straight. Nope. Not only did the units not have the a/c on, but they were also glass cubes that would allow sun in from all angles. And on the 7th floor with a broken elevator. And overpriced.

So I left as a sweaty mess and made for the closest place with cold drinks. It was a cute little place called Ortine. I walked in and was greeted by a charming woman who asked what I would like. Really, I wanted a coke. But I looked around looking for confirmation that they had coke (signs, fridge with coke, coke glasses, whatever) and saw nothing. Then I saw a bottle of ginger beer. I LOVE ginger beer. But I couldn't tell if they were selling it or if they had a bottle on display because it looked good. "You sell that ginger beer?" I asked. "Sure do." she replied. She pulled out a frosty one and I was off. Walked two steps out the door and took a sip. Mind: blown. I looked at the label, and it was Fentimans Ginger Beer, an English brand bottled in Canada. So good. Later, I found this commecial spot for it on YouTube:

Hilarious. Drink this and you will not be disappointed!


Thursday, May 24, 2012

Never Judge a Book...

'll readily admit that I've slacked here a bit, but life has been way more busy recently than it has in a long time.  I work hard to not make long-range plans, and yet for a few weeks now I've had a series of events that had been scheduled far in advance.  It's been fun, but I need a break!  So until that happens, I'd like to share this story from a friend of mine which is most certainly appropriate content for this space.  He is a very successful entrepreneur and a really friendly guy, and I absolutely loved this story (complete with a moral!).

"Yeah this is going to come off [as] pretentious - fuck it I'm tired, cranky and wet:

So going into TD Bank I bump into a couple of guys in suits who treat me like I was bringing them lunch (I'm very casual today - hoodie, pasha, designer jeans). They ask if I want a job, I smile and respond with "I created my job, why don't you go back to your cubical before your boss fires you."

You would think with the tech & startup culture in NYC these idiots would be more careful about the assumptions they make. Especially when they are wearing off the rack suits (badly tailored) and discount shoes."

Cheers, MF.


Sunday, April 22, 2012

Vanilla that's worth the price of beans.

ne of my favorite magazines ever is Fine Cooking, produced by Taunton Press.  The recipes are simple, the tips are amazing, and the photography is brilliant.  If ever I'm not in the mood to cook, a quick 5-minute browse through any of their issues (I save them all) is all it takes before I want to spend the day in the kitchen.  Unlike Martha, these recipes typically call for a short list of good ingredients and don't take a zillion steps to complete.  The photography and the way they present alternative ingredients to vary the recipes is brilliant.

Article from Fine Cooking magazine. 
What does this have to do with vanilla??  Well, I was skimming through the April/May 2012 issue and came upon a wonderful story from a woman on the topic of sablé cookies.  (Sablé is French for "sand" - accurately describing the crumbly nature of this cookie.)  The article, which included a recipe (at right, full-size here) discussed the virtues of simple cooking and finding the best ingredients.  In this recipe, the emphasis is very much on the butter, a key ingredient.  This was very exciting to me, so I decided to make them.

For the first batch, I found Isigny Ste. Mere Beurre butter, a french butter known for it's high butterfat content (82%) from happy french cows.  When I went to grab my vanilla beans from the cabinet, however, disappointment struck.  The recipe called for "two soft, plump vanilla beans."  What fell out of the spice jar were two shriveled, not-so-plump, mildly stiff vanilla beans.  Not wanting to deal with another trip to the grocery store to find more of the same, I proceeded with what I had on hand.  The cookies were good (if not a bit too big) and were thoroughly enjoyed by grateful work colleagues.
For the second try, I knew I could do better outside of traditional grocery channels.  For starters, I found better butter from Vermont - Vermont Creamery's Cultured Butter with a whopping 86% butterfat.  Sorry, France.  Next, the game was on to find the right vanilla beans.  Search after search finally turned up Amadeus Trading Company, a vanilla bean importer based in California.  They have a wide selection of vanilla beans for sale, and similar to other companies I like, they do one thing: import vanilla beans.  Their site is extremely informational, and I was able to learn lots about the differences between Tahitian vanilla and Bourbon Vanilla, vanillin content, the effect of bean length, etc.  It greatly satisfied my OCD.  The president, Glenn Gottlieb, quickly responded to my email when I had questions.  The pictures on the site show that the company actually visits their suppliers around the world and develops the relationships that ensure good product.  I decided to try the Uganda Gold (Bourbon) beans with the higher vanillin count, and also scooped up a dwindling supply of the long Tahitian vanilla beans.  They were promptly shipped.

Armed with the new butter and amazingly soft, plump vanilla beans (of two varieties) I set out once more to make the ultimate sablé cookies.  This time, I used three beans - two Uganda Gold and one Tahitian.  The Tahitian beans (Vanilla Tahitensis) is a different species of bean with lower vanillin but with more aromatics than the Bourbon beans.  This second batch was hands down better than the first, and the apartment smelled of vanilla for days.  Upon opening the sealed carton of cookies I made, a room would fill with the smell of vanilla.  They were outstanding.


Monday, February 27, 2012

The Ural Sahara

f I had to buy a car today (and quite thankfully I don't) I'd get a used Landrover Defender 110.  The one with the full-size spare tire on the hood, the luggage rack on the roof, and the extra gas can on the rear door.  It has a diesel engine, solid metal doors, 4-wheel drive.  It's not comfy, it's not quiet, and it's not cheap, but it is so obscenely practical it might even make my parents proud.

Landrover Defender 110
It's rugged practicality that would look out-of-place and be utterly wasted in the city I live in.  Shame.  One day when I get out to the country I'd like to make this a reality.  The whole vehicle says "adventure".

In the meantime, I've been exploring the world of motorcycles - something infinitely more versatile here in New York.  In digging around, I came across the Ural Sahara, which is nothing short of the Landrover in motorcycle form!

Ural Sahara Motorcyle w/Sidecar
It looks to be a limited edition available in 2009.  British tan in color, it is a 750cc motorcycle complete with sidecar.  What's particularly interesting is that the sidecar wheel is also driven by the engine, making it a 2-wheel drive bike.  Yes, it has a full-size spare tire.  Yes, it has an external gas can, two in fact.  Yes it has a luggage rack.  It also comes with a army-style trowel attached to the cycle-facing side of the sidecar, so you can dig yourself out when the 2WD fails you in sand or snow.

If that weren't enough, it also has a first aid kit mounted in the rear (let's hope it stays intact if you get rear-ended) and a spotlight mounted on the sidecar.  While having a vintage style, there's plenty of power in the 40HP engine, and it has modern touches such as electric start and a front disc break.  Living up to it's style, it has a kick-start backup and is fueled by carburetor, which means the engine will still run in the event the battery dies.

Priced at about $15,500 it's a little on the expensive side.  Unfortunately for me, a sidecar adds much hassle in the city in terms of parking, not to mention the fact that none of my friends would ever get into a sidecar.  I'm hoping that's not a reflection of my driving.


Saturday, February 18, 2012

It's All About Letterpress

wise-ass may have once asked you, "What do you want, an engraved invitation?"  And the simple answer is no - no, you don't.  You want a letterpress invitation.  A debate continues to rage - mostly on wedding sites - on which is better, more formal, or more "proper."  Every so often, someone even brings up the dreaded thermography.  There's no gray area here as far as I'm concerned; letterpress is hands down the preferable printing method.

©2011 Angelique Felgentreff
Letterpress has been around since the 1400s when Gutenberg first established the printing press.  Raised type (wood or metal) is coated with ink and then pressed into the paper, oftentimes leaving an impression in the paper itself.  With the right sort of paper, one can "print" in letterpress without even using ink (called "blind embossing") which exudes a decidedly understated elegance.

Using a letterpress yourself takes some time and practice to gain proficiency - it's most certainly a craft unto itself.  There's lots of fun jargon - movable type, leading, chase, furniture, platen, etc.  The good news is that there's a lot of print shops around that are now offering courses and workshops in using a letterpress, so you can go and try it out and see if you like it.  If you don't, there's still a good number of printing companies that offer the service.  If you want something very specific, keep in mind that they will need to charge you to make a custom printing plate, which you can keep for use later.

The other option is engraving, also called "intaglio" where an image is engraved onto metal.  The engraved area is then filled with ink and pressed onto (not into) the paper.  When dry, the type feels raised on the paper, instead of pressed into it.  While it's certainly a step up from an email or bad handwriting, it's just not the same as letterpress by any stretch of the imagination.

©2011 Angelique Felgentreff
If you really get into the process, you can buy your own letterpress.  You don't need the full-on Heidelberg Windmill press to get started (although you'll probably want one).  Small hand presses can be purchased for around $1500.00.  Be sure to also have some cash on hand for the type, furniture, coppers, ink, paper, etc that you'll need to get started.  And be prepared for a bit of a mess!  A note:  The "Kelsey" brand presses are by far the most common on the market here in the US, but they don't have the best reputation for quality.  They're generally student presses, and a used one might have been abused.  Don Black in Canada wrote a little bit about choosing your first press that I'd highly recommend.

I attended a small workshop here in New York and found that I liked the process as much as the product.  If you like doing things with your hands, you should definitely give it a go.


Monday, February 6, 2012


ou know the saying.  "If you have to ask, you can't afford it."  Hogwash.  The practice of stores or websites listing the price as "Call" or "Inquire" or "Upon Request" is just about the dumbest practice on earth.  If your business wants my business, you'll need to tell me how much the item costs.  Dear retailers:  If I have to ask, I'll bloody buy it somewhere else.

I'm not sure where this coy business practice started.  Maybe it's supposed to take after cultures abroad where bargaining is part of the purchase process.  Here in the states, however, it comes across as a high form of douchebaggery.  From the consumer standpoint, it's as if the business might charge X for one customer and Y for another.  Or perhaps if they're having a difficult week, the price will be lower than if they have a good week.

One such site is Michael Bachmann Ltd.  I love his offerings a lot - some amazing stuff for sale.  Not a price anywhere.  You can email him.  The form is simple.  He's even prompt in replying.  But why won't he just post the fucking prices already?

If you run across this in a retail setting, be sure to register your dissatisfaction.  Ask how much something costs.  Then do it again.  And again.  And again....  Maybe they'll start to get the message.


Sunday, January 8, 2012

Etch-Free Glassware

tched glasses can be really nice when you buy them with a design you like. But when your glassware gets etched gratis from your dishwasher, you're likely going to be less enthused. Some years back, I was given a gift certificate to Crate & Barrel (I think). I was excited to replace the highball glasses that had been etched by the dishwasher over the years prior. Within six months of use, the new glasses began to cloud up all over again. Cloudy and streaky, etched glasses do little in the way of presentation of your beverage.

Options abound.  You can try changing your dishwasher soap.  You can buy dishwasher additives that swear your glassware will be streak-free.  They won't work.  You can hand-wash all of your glassware henceforth.  You can purchase cheap glassware on a frequent basis, hoping to keep somewhat ahead of this awful phenomenon.

I opted to research the hell out of the problem and find out who's figured it out.  A problem this frustrating is certain to have a handful of people diligently working on a solution.  And behold, they were..

A crystal company in Germany called Schott Zwiesel took standard leaded crystal and removed the lead.  They replaced it with Titanium and Zirconium and developed a harder crystal that is far more impervious to dishwasher treatment.  Harder crystal means more chips, right?  Well yes, but Schott Zweisel tempers the more chip-prone areas of the glass to counteract this.  What they ended up with is some beautiful glassware that can actually hold up well over time...without special treatment.  They patented this, and it's called Tritan.™  Hotels & restaurants were the first adopters - they put their glasses through the rigors of wash and use more than any family will.

You'd think then, that it would cost a mint to own.  Nope.  About $9 per glass.  I had a great experience ordering online from Crystal Classics, but you'll also find them at Pottery Barn and other places.  Just remember, it has to be Tritan™ - if you don't see it marked as such, steer clear.