Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Five Chain Restaurants I Honestly Like

So you've probably noticed that I can be a bit of a food snob. I love upscale, high-end restaurants. I also love funky little inexpensive restaurants. Basically, I like one-of-kind restaurants that you can only find in one location (or in several limited locations).

Needless to say, I spend a fair amount of time bad-mouthing low-to-mid-priced chain restaurants.

This isn't to say I won't eat at chain restaurants; I will. However, if you tell me I can pick anywhere in a certain radius to eat, and that radius contains a unique restaurant or bar found only in that radius, no way am I picking Applebee's (which I really don't like very much at all).

Anyway, after enduring a certain amount of eye-rolling over the years, I have decided to NOT complain about these places and instead put together a list (in no particular order) of low-to-mid-priced chain restaurants that not only will I eat at, but that I actually LIKE.

5. Noddles & Company
For a low-priced lunch spot, you can't beat Noodles. I love everything I have had there. It's quick, it's cheap, and the ingredients taste fresh even if they're not. I have enjoyed pasta dishes from Noodles much more than I enjoy pasta dishes at mid-priced chains that do not specialize in pasta (pasta at TGI Friday's is not worth it. Trust me.) I even enjoy it more than I enjoy pasta from some more upscale places I've tried. My favorite dish on the menu: Pasta Fresca with grilled chicken and extra feta.

Pasta Fresca: this one has parmesan but I prefer the feta option.

4. Chipotle
I first encountered Chipotle when I needed to grab a quick lunch in Chicago. I had never seen one before - we didn't have them in Michigan. I soon wished we did because Chipotle is awesome. Football-sized burritos with your choice of beans, meat, and salsas; quesadillas stuffed to the brim with grilled chicken or steak; decent guacamole...I realize there are other fast-casual Mexican options, but Chipotle blows Qdoba out of the water. Plus, even though it's corporate fast-food, they seem to have a commitment to quality, using smaller free-range farms as meat suppliers instead of factory farms like other fast food outlets. My favorite dish on the menu: Grilled chicken burrito with black beans and medium salsa.
3. Max & Erma's
I am sure if Eric Schultz were reading this blog, his jaw would drop in disbelief, because about eight years ago I professed an intense hatred for this chain. I have no idea what I ate there that inspired this hatred. I started going back to Max & Erma's several years ago when one was opened in the parking lot of the Canton Meijer. My parents enjoy it, so Kristen and I would tag along. I found that Max & Erma's has the best tortilla soup on any restaurant menu anywhere and pretty good burgers to boot. The Third Street Salad/Village Salad with the bleu cheese crumbles, bacon pieces, crunchy almonds and and slightly tangy dressing is awesome, too. My favorite dish on the menu: Cup of Tortilla Soup and Village Salad.

Tortilla Soup at Max & Erma's. This pic does not do it justice.

I was addicted to Zoup when I was contracting at the Ann Arbor Pfizer site. Zoup is a midwestern chain - almost all the locations are in Michigan and Ohio with a few in Pennsylvania. Every day Zoup offers ten different rotating varieties of soup along with fresh-baked bread and a selection of salads and sandwiches. The soups range from hearty, stick-to-your-ribs varieties such as twice baked stuffed potato and chicken pot pie (with crusty pastry crumbles on top) to lighter, broth-based offerings such as vegetable with orzo and herbs and chicken noodle. I very much miss the days when I could walk across the street (although crossing Plymouth Road always was a little treacherous) and get a steaming hot bowl of soup for lunch.
My favorite dish on the menu: Macaroni and Cheese soup or Chicken Pot Pie soup.

I miss you, Zoup.

1. Olive Garden
I have a weird and unnatural love for Olive Garden. It begins with their salad and breadsticks and continues through to the chicken fettuccine alfredo or the portobello ravioli. Olive Garden is hands-down my favorite chain restaurant. The aforementioned ravioli is as plump and flavorful as many ravioli I have sampled in more upscale restaurants. Their wine list is pretty crappy, I'll admit, but at least there is more of a selection than at other similarly-priced chains. Olive Garden can, in a pinch, pass as a "nice" restaurant. But only in a pinch - I do still have certain standards to uphold!
My favorite dish on the menu: Portabello Ravioli (but I get it with alfredo sauce instead of the sun dried tomato sauce!)

I don't even like salad dressing but I like Olive Garden's.

Which chain restaurants do it for you?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Why I Love Indianapolis

My internet access is extrememly limited at the moment, but I wanted to give a quick shout-out to the city I am currently visiting, Indianpolis, IN, which in recent years (i.e., since Noe and I became serious) has become one of my favorite cities in the U.S. Here's some reasons why:

Good Restaurants
Indy has good restaurants of both the independent and upscale-chain variety. As much as I preach out against chain restaurants, I have never turned down dinner at P.F. Chang's. This particular visit to Indy included a trip to the Weber Grill, found only in Indianapolis, Chicago, Schaumburg, and...well, I forget the fourth location. The appeal of the Weber Grill is that everything is cooked on giant Weber grills. I had garlic shrimp and they were delicious. Add some French Sauvignon Blanc from the fairly extensive wine list and you've got a meal.

Good Shopping
Sometimes I miss having everyday access to certain stores. The Fashion Mall in Indy satisfies my craving for Anthropologie, Crate & Barrel, and Sephora (among others). Several monogrammed coffee mugs, some Barefoot Contessa cupcake mixes, and a tube of DuWop Lip Venom later, I was on my way.

Tons of Colleges
I like being near a college campus, and Indianapolis has several. In the city limits alone you have Butler and IUPUI. Ball State is an hour away in Muncie. If we lived in Indy, I would be in grad school for sure. Did I mention Letterman went to Ball State and they have good communications, journalism, and PR programs? Who ever thought I would be longing to go to school in Muncie, Indiana...Go Cards!

Tennis is big here.
In the summer, Noe and I went to see pro players including James Blake, Robby Ginepri, and Sam Querrey play in a tournament that was part of the US Open series. We were able to watch them on the practice courts from less than ten feet away. Tennis clubs are in abundance here and tons of people play on leagues of every ability. I would probably still be playing tennis if we lived in Indiana.

As much as I have learned to like Connecticut, I suffer a bit of a setback ever time we head home. It will get worse when we get off Noe's turf and back onto mine (Michigan). However, Noe and I have finally reached a level of contentment on the east coast where a trip home won't send us tailspinning into a three-week depression as it might have last year. We've found a lot of good things where we're at and have definitely learned to appreciate it.

However, if given the opportunity, I can't say we wouldn't move back. We're midwesterners at heart and every trip home reaffirms it.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Home Sweet Home

So...I've been a pretty lame blogger lately. But I've been busy. I swear. I've had busines to go on, a house to clean, a family to travel to know how the holidays are - busy.

Anyway, here I am, blogging from my real hometown - not New London, CT but rather Ypsilanti, MI. For those of you unfamiliar, that's IP-silanti, NOT YIP-silanti. I lived in Ypsi for almost 26 years before moving to Connecticut, so perhaps you can understand why I was a little bit shell-shocked during the first six months of our move.

So here I am back, back in my town that once boasted the high school with no walls. We also boast one of the world's most phallic landmarks, our infamous water tower. Perhaps Ypsilanti's most illustrious accomplishment in recent memory is managing to completely ignore the effort by some idiot to rebrand the town as "Hip, Historic, HIP-silanti." (Don't people understand the minute you label something as hip it is no longer hip? And don't they understand that "HIP-silanti" sounds really, really lame?)

So here Noe and I are, en route to Indianapolis later this morning, where we will stay until Christmas Eve morning and then come back to Ypsi.

Part of the fun of a holiday time layover in Ypsi is staying at my parents' house, usually with a various relative or two from the UP who may be down to pick up one of their kids from the aiport. This year, it was my Uncle Jim and cousin Mary, haling from Hessel, MI (population 300), down to pick up my cousin Jimmy when he flies in from Texas this morning (air force).

So, not only do you end up with seven people staying one not-very-large tri-level, you also have my parents' and sister's menagerie of pets. The seven people share the house with two dogs and five cats, all with extreme personalities and some with personality disorders. In no particular order of preference, last night we put up with:

Faygo, a pit bull rescued from the streets of Detroit and probably the best-behaved dog my family has ever owned. Also note the giant head:

Toby, the Jack Russell Terrier Kristen has been parading around horse shows for the last six years and craves attention and approval from all. He also allows himself to occasionally be stuffed into various articles of clothing, such as puff vests.

Sill, formerly Lucille, the slightly overweight and extremely needy gray dilute tortoiseshell cat that has adopted Noe as her own.

Petey, an extremely nervous and formerly depressed animal who, after being on a variety of medication for the majority of her life, has finally found the one that works: Valium.

Madeline, who technically lives in the garage because she is too destructive to live in the house. Unfortunately, she figured out how to get in to my parents' neighbors house and has continued to wreak her havoc over there.

Foster, who used to be MY cat, but due to his inability to get along with other animals, was left in Michigan when Noe, Ralph, Buns, and I departed for Connecticut. (So naturally I left him at a house with six other animals.) Foster slept with Noe last night, and it was a little rough - Foster sometimes drools and often bites. And I should probably mention that he weighs almost 20 pounds. He's my linebacker.

Last but not least, we have the world's number-one bastard, Junior. Junior started out as an extremely cute, fluffy, blue-eyed orphan kitten in Paul Meyer's barn. After Kristen convinced my dad to let her keep him, he got huge, thinned out, his face grew pointy and his eyes turned yellow. He now resembles a weasel both in looks and temperment.

So now we prepare to depart for Indianapolis, where, after last night at the zoo, a five-year old nephew sounds downright calm and peaceful. I'll continue my blogging throughout the holidays, so tune in for more adventures from the homefront.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

High School High

My ten-year high school reunion is coming up next year, and in light of that momentous event on the horizon, I thought I would post a few fun anecdotes about my high school/high school experience.

Tenth grade had some bright spots.
My habit of wearing second-hand men's shirts was not one of them.

My high school did not have walls.
OK, this is a slight exaggeration - my high school did not have walls upstairs. Downstairs we had normal, structurally sound walls. However, when my school was built (in the '70's), walls were, like, totally out, man. Instead, the planners decided upon a concept called "the great room." In the great room, walls were completely unnecessary. Instead of all that division, you'd have little groups of students scattered here and there, all learning together and in harmony.

I'm not sure how long this concept actually lasted, but my guess would be not very long at all.

By the time I entered high school, the great room was divided into classrooms with the help of wheeled dividers, giving each classroom a sort of cubicle-meets-mobile-home feel. The dividers extended neither all the way to the ceiling or all the way to the floor, meaning that bored students were constantly throwing things over and under them. Also, if a teacher wanted to watch a movie and turn off the lights in their room, inevitably their light switch would control half the lights in the room next to them as well.

As you can probably guess, this made for an excellent learning environment.

My high school chemistry teacher had a bullhorn.
Mr. Krause used the bullhorn to do things such as read out exceptionally dumb test answers and to ask people if they rode the short bus to school that morning. He also invented a card game that involved collecting cards to make compounds, which could be negated if someone held and threw down the "yo' mama" card. The caveat? You had to yell "Yo' Mama!" when you threw it down. Not your mama; yo' mama.

I engaged in a year-long battle with a parking lot monitor.
Yes, my high school had an employee whose full-time job was apparently to make sure no one parked up the hill when they were supposed to park by the football field. Rex (that was his real name) was also in charge of catching potential class-skippers when they made their way to their cars. Rex and I duked it out my senior year when, due to some glitch in the system, I was not assigned an "upstairs" parking spot like most seniors. I happened to have physics class with Andy Newman that year, who had an upstairs spot and then somehow ended up without a car (the details are blurry. I wasn't much for circumstances - I just wanted the spot.)

Rex knew that spot wasn't mine, but once my Ford Tempo was ensconced in my space with my tag hanging from the mirror, apparently there wasn't much he could do about it. So he took to parking his stupid patrol truck in Andy's spot so I could not park there. My solution was to get to school earlier. Rex compensated by taking my spot earlier. On this went for six months until by March, I was the only senior arriving at school a full 40 minutes before the first bell rang.

What can I say? I wanted that spot.

I put my elbow through one of the few walls we DID have upstairs.
I remember this very clearly. I was in speech class in 11th grade. I leaned my elbow against the wall, and my elbow went through it. Needless to say, I was a little surprised. I raised my hand, and the speech teach - Mr. Wood - asked me what was wrong, and I told him I had put my elbow through the wall. He responded by telling me not to worry about it and stapling a piece of brown construction paper over the hole. Problem solved.

We had a safety officer who wore a pair of scissors in a gun holster and drove a minivan he had fashioned into the "safety mobile."
Senior year, he also gave us what might be the best spring break safety speech in the history of high school. He told he knew what we did behind closed doors - how we "sparked those doobs" and "smoked the marahoochie." He also told us he was going to warn us with two words our parents were too scared to say to us, but they were two of the most important words spring breakers could hear..."and those words are PUBIC LICE."

There are many, many more interesting tidbits I could share, but I'll post those closer to the reunion. Did your high school have any weird characteristics or employees?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Why the Motor City Bowl is Lame This Year

Central Michigan vs. Florida Atlantic?

This should have been Ball State vs. Notre Dame, NOT Central vs. Florida Atlantic. Sorry, but I have no interest in watching a team with four losses (including one to Eastern Michigan) take on Florida freakin' Atlantic (6-6).

I had my heart set on Ball State even after they lost to Buffalo (which I still don't really understand). Even after Ohio State got the at-large bid (and ends up playing number three Texas in the Fiesta Bowl - good luck with THAT) and took the Big 10 (Minnesota) out of the picture, there were still more interesting teams (from a Midwestern perspective) left in the race.

Notre Dame vs. Ball State would have been perfect - two Indiana teams on a Michigan field - close enough to attract legions of fans. And Notre Dame may not have been good for the past few years but they still have enough of a reputation (not to mention half the college football viewers in America probably think they are a Big 10 team) to draw a good crowd.

I guess Ball State gets to go play a nice warm weather game in Alabama when they meet Tulsa in the GMAC Bowl. But, quite frankly, they are ruining my plans - and Noe's plans - to watch some quality bowl football live while we're home for Christmas.

I guess I sort of get it, but still...


Thursday, December 4, 2008

Call Me Totally in Love with Michael Bublé

A few months ago, Amanda asked if I wanted to go to a Michael Bublé concert with her in December. I was vaguely familiar with him, and since I like lounge-y music - and excuses to dress up - I said sure. She then burned me several CDs, which I listened to non-stop for the next several weeks. By the time the concert rolled around last night, I was pretty excited.

We got dolled up and headed out to the Mohegan Sun, where we attempted to have dinner at Tuscany but ended up at Sol Toro due to our lack of reservation (we probably should have thought of that beforehand). At any rate, we settled into our seats in the Mohegan Sun Arena at 7:30, waited patiently through the opening act that we didn't know would be there, and finally, around 8:20, jumped to our feet when the curtain rose revealing "The Boob" (as Mini Deal likes to call him) on stage.

For those unfamiliar, Michael Bublé is a 31-year old Vancouver native of (at least partially) Italian descent who grew up listening to the songs of crooners such as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Dean Martin, and Bobby Darin (to name a few). He was heavily influenced by his Italian grandfather's taste in music and especially admired the showmanship of that era's entertainers. According to the bio on his website, Bublé's grandfather helped him get his first gigs - in Canadian bars and hotel lounges - by trading his plumbing services.

Michael Bublé's voice is amazing and very well-suited to the standards that make up the majority of his show. He puts his own spin on every song and does not sound like he is doing Frank Sinatra karaeoke. His band is also incredible - he performs with a full stage of musicians including a piano player, a bass player, an entire horn section, a drummer, and a guitarist. The most amazing thing about his band is they are all as young - or younger - than Bublé. He auditioned them from music schools around North America.

All these young guys combined with all this old music make a great match. Bublé is very much an old-style entertainer - plenty of jokes and commentary between songs - but his sense of humor is definitely that of a 31-year old modern guy. Just ask the poor man in the second row last night - the one that it was abundantly clear had been dragged there by his wife. Bublé also has a keen sense of self-awareness, remarking that he knows his act is not "macho" and remarking that he wish he'd been a hockey player...right before dedicating a pelvic-thrusting version of the Village People's "YMCA" to the men in the audience.

All joking aside, Bublé has a remarkable sense of showmanship. His stage presence is nothing short of fantastic. He interacts with the audience and really seems to enjoy singing his songs, even though he has probably sung them thousands of times. And the energy never lapsed for a second - a nifty feat when the majority of your show is made up of mid-tempo jazz-pop standards. He can even make somewhat cheesy songs like "Save the Last Dance for Me" sound awesome.

(Did I mention that Michael Bublé is also very cute? Because he is.)

I've been to some good shows this year - Tom Petty, The Killers, Duffy - but Michael Bublé takes the cake as my favorite. It's very hard not to feel classy at a Bublé show, even when you're laughing hysterically at a semi-dirty joke. Two seconds later he'll be crooning "Call Me Irresponsible" and you'll be swept off your feet again.

Here is Michael Bublé's "Save the Last Dance for Me" video:

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Life in the Carpool Lane

This week, Noe and I started our newest cost-cutting initiative (which I mentioned in a previous blog): car pooling. While many couples would probably consider saving gas the primary motivation behind such a move, we have a slightly different angle. I only work two miles from our house, so I'm not saving that much gas. What I am saving is $630 a year in parking.

During the summer I was able to ride my bike to work quite a bit, but that's not so practical during the winter. I know the hard-core bike riders are groaning as they read this, but they need to accept that I am NOT a hard-core bike rider and do not have "gear." As in cold-weather biking gear, reflectors to protect me in the dark, or even a backpack to carry my stuff in (this limited me on severely hot days as well since my work does not have showers and I would have to ride in clothes that I could wear all day).

Since Noe has to go through downtown to get to the highway to go to work, dropping me off/picking me up really is a matter of just stopping for a few seconds while I get out of or in to the car. It requires no fancy detours and we don't even really need to leave any earlier for Noe to still get to work on time.

Of course, when I say "we" don't need to leave earlier, I really mean Noe. Since I don't have to be at work until 9:00, I was in the habit of sleeping until 8:15. I have made a few adjustments in my daily routine. This includes showering at night instead of in the morning so we are not fighting for bathroom time as well as resigning myself to the reality that if I want this arrangement to work I need to suck it up and get used to the fact that I am going to be downtown by 7:15 a.m. and that is just the way it is.

It's really not so bad. Right now it is working out well because I have projects to work on while the office is nice and quiet. I could also go to the coffee shop down the street and read my book for an hour or so. And let's not forget quality time online shopping, updating Facebook, and - naturally - blogging.

Plus, Noe makes my lunch while I am putting on my makeup. Awesome!

We're only three days in, but so far this arrangement is working really well for us. Hopefully it will save us some noticeable cash, and hey, even if the monetary savings are minor, at least we're "being green", right? I'll keep you posted on how this works out.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Mercury Rising

You've probably realized by now that I am pretty enamored with my kitties. Although Noe and I both miss Nike, we are delighted to still have Ralphie and Sunny (AKA The Buns), the littermates we got from the Ann Arbor Cat Clinic almost two years ago. These two are our constant companions and often drive us to tears of laughter with their weird behavior or tail-chasing (actually, the tail-chasing is all Ralph - Buns is a bit more dignified).

Ralph and Buns (or Neptune and Venus as they were originally known) were not the only kittens in their litter - there were five altogether (although Noe and I still suspect the gray one was not really part of the family). We picked the two we did because they were pals - Buns protected Ralph because Ralph was tiny and wimpy. But we were sure that all the kittens from the litter would make loveable pets.

So imagine our distress when we heard that one of Ralph and Buns' littermates had been returned to the clinic after almost two years of living in what was supposed to be a forever home. Poor Mercury, their playful orange tiger of a brother, was returned because his family is having issues and thought the environment was too stressful and unstable for him.

Mercury is still adjusting to his new digs in this picture.
Go check him out and see if he would fit in at your house.

When we originally went to look at the kittens, Mercury was very energetic and playful. According to my sister - the adoption coordinator at the clinic - he is extremely smart. His owners said he has learned to come when you whistle for him. If Noe and I were in Michigan we would come take a look at him ourselves, but since we are not, I am asking anyone who reads this blog and is considering getting a cat to please go look at Mercury. This picture is not the best because he was scared when it was taken, but by the time you go see him he should have relaxed into his new surroundings.

Don't leave Ralphie's brother without a home at Christmas! Go check him out.