I was in a networking seminar earlier this week with maybe 50 or 60 other law students here and it turns out I was the only one there who blogged and twittered. Almost nobody had even heard of Twitter. I also seemed to be the only one that had heard of Google Alerts. I was very surprised. Even in the heart of the Valley, it seems that lawyers don’t have any particular affinity for technology.
Hear Ye! is another year older today.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to write one of these restaurant reviews, so I was very much looking forward to visiting Per Se. Per Se is Thomas Keller’s restaurant in New York. Keller is best known for The French Laundry, located in the Napa Valley region on the other side of the country, and both of his restaurants have been bestowed with three Michelin stars. This was my first time eating in a three starred joint.
Located on the 4th floor of the Time Warner Center, Per Se’s two-tiered dining room looks out over Central Park from its south-west corner. The interior is classy and, with its high ceiling and relative sparsity of tables, feels spacious. The ambient lighting is dim, but the tables are sufficiently lit. We were seated by the window, but curiously were pointed back towards the dining room with the view at our backs. The level of conversation in the room is not so hushed as to give the feeling of a mortuary, but not so loud as to be distracting. Great decor.
Per Se only takes bookings up to two months in advance and reservations tend to get snapped up within minutes of becoming available. Exactly two months’ prior, I called a couple minutes before the reservation line officially opened at 10.00am, but still was only able to obtain a 5.45pm seating (lunchtime reservations are easier to get).
The service was absolutely exemplary. Service staff were flawless, very attentive and even offered to escort me all the way to the restrooms when I asked where they were(!). The main server for our table came over to chat at one point, which was nice it gave a personal touch to service which could otherwise appear clinical.
Per Se has two nine-course set menus, one vegetarian and one non-vegetarian. Each has several options, some of which incur a supplemental charge. Two small amuse-bouche dishes (freebie hors d’oeuvres) kicked off the meal. The first course was Per Se’s signature Oysters & Pearls dish, followed by a palm salad, sea bream, quail, beef, a cheese dish, a couple desserts and mignardises (petit fours). I think there was another course, but I can’t remember what it was. Unfortunately, the food did not reach the very high expectations that had been built up by the surrounding press, Michelin stars, general hype, and exorbitant cost of the menu. This is not to say that the food wasn’t excellent, but it was clear to me that the best Sydney restaurants can easily hold their own against a giant like Per Se, at a fraction of the cost. The desserts were a bit of a let down, but that’s probably because I prefer something sweeter.
At the end of the meal, a server placed a small metal tray in front of each of us and walked off. Then another person sidled up to our table and said in a thick French accent, “This plate will now be filled with chocolates,” and walked off. Then a third person came along with the chocolates themselves. It was comical.
I mistakenly had a large lunch (an oversized $6 bowl of noodles from Ollie’s) and was absolutely stuffed by the end of dinner. With three chocolates still staring me in the face, someone came along and deposited another receptacle filled with yet more sweets. I threw in the towel and asked for them to be boxed. They happily obliged, wrapping everything up in a shiny silver box with brown ribbon. We also received a little nutty chocolate snack as a free gift.
One other gripe was that the courses were paced too quickly. Only a few minutes separated each course for a restaurant like Per Se it felt like a barrage. Everything must have been delivered in the space of just over two hours. I have a feeling they were trying to ensure we were out of the way for the second seating.
All in all, Per Se is a nice venue for a special occasion, but I think the food is very much in the same league as Sydney’s three hatters, not a league above. $275 per person, plus state tax. The good news is that the tip is already included in the price.
This week was a real treat. Pervez Musharraf came to talk yesterday about “Extremism and Terrorism”. His actual speech, imploring for a “holistic” approach to tackling terrorism by addressing the “root causes” which lead to extremism, was nothing special. The Q&A session that followed was a cracker though. The first audience member came out swinging: “Given that you seized power illegally, given that you suspended the constitution twice, given that you have engaged in gross human rights violations…” The moderator had to stop him and ask him whether he was there to ask a question. “Yes, this is a question,” he said before rattling off another list of accusations ending with, “why should we believe anything you had to say today?”
The audience applauded. But Musharraf is, of course, a seasoned hand. He has been in world politics for many years now and has fended off numerous assassination attempts. This was nothing. His reply shut his accuser down quickly and Musharraf in turn received applause. The questioners were disproportionately from the subcontinent (India, I’d wager) and predominantly confrontational, but for the most part things were civil.
One of the courses I’m taking this semester is Internet Business Law and Policy. The course syllabus was designed in partnership with Google’s Deputy General Counsel, and each week someone comes in to talk to us about a particular topic. Surprisingly, there are only about 12 people taking the class, so it’s a reasonably intimate environment. On Wednesday, Vint Cerf came to talk about trends in internet architecture development and related policy implications. I was stoked. Most people wouldn’t have heard of him, but he’s one of the designers of TCP/IP, the protocol on which the net runs, and is considered to be one of the net’s founding fathers. He won the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts (our ex-PM John Howard just received one too).
Finally, I’m taking a course at the business school which teaches about starting up a start-up. Our team mentor is a venture capitalist and we had a meeting at his office which is located on the fabled Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park. There are only about three blocks of relatively non-descript buildings in which the who’s who of the venture capital industry are located (including Kleiner Perkins, Sequoia, and the VC firm that Bono is a partner of – yes, Bono from U2) as well as some private equity firms like KKR and TPG. It’s a highly concentrated area, and it’s somewhat peculiar that such a small zone comprises the core of the Valley’s VC powerhouse. The area is unique – 80% of America’s start-ups originate from the Valley – and there certainly isn’t anything even close to resembling it in Australia. There are expensive cars in the parking lot interspersed with Priuses, and financiers whose net worths are equivalent to the GDPs of small Pacific islands interspersed with hopeful entrepreneurs in their early twenties sitting in meeting rooms waiting to make their pitch…
I wrote this last year and forgot about it until I just turned up the draft of it on my hard drive.
Pulau Redang is a tropical island off the east coast of Malaysia. The Berjaya conglomerate owns two resorts on the island: the beautiful Beach Resort and its demented step-child (what Berjaya calls the Spa Resort, except that the spas are actually all at the beach resort). Dave and I happened to be staying at the spa-less spa resort. When we stepped off the ferry, a courtesy bus was there to greet us. The bus was filled mostly with European couples with young kids in tow, young Malaysian couples… and us. We were not a couple. (If you must know, Dave had attempted to arrange for some female company but when he failed to deliver we decided to go anyway since the accommodation was, through some family connections, free.)
The bus’ first drop off point was the Spa Resort and we realized with dismay that we were the only people to get off. There was almost no one around the Spa Resort and it was virtually a wasteland. After we had dumped our stuff into our room, we made a beeline for the much more active Beach Resort, passing by a group of bewildered Singaporeans who also had the misfortune of booking themselves into the Spa Resort. “Wah lau, where are the bloody spas, wei?”
Redang is a segregated island. On the east coast there are a cluster of beachside resorts, restaurants and miscellaneous stalls and stores. At nighttime, things were much more active on the east coast. However, as there are no roads connecting the Berjaya properties to the east coast, the only way to move between the two is to take a boat ride, or a two hour trek through the jungle.
We weren’t about to go wading through the undergrowth in the pitch darkness, so the only real option was to take a boat. We ended up finding an old boatman by the wharf weathered face, toothy grin and all and chartered his boat. The boat was little more than a tin can with an outboard motor and tarp suspended over it by a few rusty metal poles, but it would do the trick.
There are no lights on Redang. There were no lights on boat either. After clambering onto the boat, the boatman apologized, saying he needed to procure a light for “safety reasons”. He steered the boat into the neighboring marina and plucked a light from a miscellaneous dinghy which may or may not have been his. Once the feebly blinking red light was affixed to the stern, we set off. The light wasn’t for navigation, it was to warn other boats cruising in the area not to run us over. It was dark and overcast the sea, land and sky merged into one inky blob, but with practiced experience, our boatman steered us through the shallow waters and we arrived twenty minutes later.
We ate dinner and spent a few hours on the east coast and decided to return when we realized a storm was brewing. By the time we reached the dock the raindrops were the size of dollar coins and we found our boatman huddled under a makeshift corrugated iron shack. We didn’t even know if it was now possible to make it back in this weather, but obviously it wasn’t a problem as the boatman quickly bundled us onto the boat. I was seated at the front, looking towards the back. Dave was on the middle seat, facing me. The boatman was at the rear, manning the motor. We set off.
And it was terrible.
The sea had become incredibly choppy. It was pitch black, so we couldn’t see it, but we sure could feel it. Because the boatman seemed to be gunning the engine in an effort to get back as quickly as possible, he was taking each wave at speed. The boat would catch the crest of the wave, become airborne for a split second, plunge over the top and back into the water with a spine-shattering crunch. Every three seconds.
If visibility was bad before, it was non-existent in the driving rain and spray, which was now entering the boat horizontally, smashing like needles into my back and into Dave’s face. Lightning would occasionally flash, momentarily revealing the tumultuous ocean, the rocky shoreline and Dave’s visage, with was transfixed with a confused mixture of abject terror, pain and a look which said, “Hey this would actually be quite cool if we weren’t about to die.”
It was freezing and we were soon shivering uncontrollably. Meanwhile, our boatman was resolutely manning the till as if it were a cheery Sunday morning. In naught but a t-shirt and shorts, he was standing, one foot perched up on the side wall, one hand on his hip and the other loosely holding the till. He seemed to know where he was going even though we couldn’t see anything. But we needed only to run into some rocks and we’d be instantly stuffed.
Then out of the gloom, about ten metres away, the dim spectre of another boat just like ours emerged, travelling parallel and in the same direction as us. It was not carrying a safety light, not that it would have helped. I could barely see ours and I was only a couple of metres away from it. The lightning flashed once more and I could see four passengers cowering inside the boat, their positions identical to ours.
The boats sped alongside each other for a few seconds and I could hear some shouting over the whine of the engine and crashing of the waves.
And then we sped up. Dave and I exchanged horrified squints of “What the fuck?” and soon realized that the two boatmen had decided to race each other. It was a tough few minutes to endure.
By the time we arrived back on shore, we looked like a couple of drowned rats. I can’t say that I would do it again, but it was quite an experience.
We went out looking for a drink last night after watching the fireworks over the bay, only to be stymied when we discovered that California has laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol in bars after 2.00am. (In Palo Alto, everything shuts at 1 or 2am, but I always thought that was only because it was Palo Alto, not because the alcohol has to stop flowing…) This country still surprises me sometimes.
I also learnt that in Japan, New Year’s traditions include making mochi – gooey rice cakes. Unfortunately, this tradition also has the side effect of causing several elderly Japanese people to choke to death each year while eating mochi. We get annual holiday road death tolls, in Japan they get annual holiday mochi death tolls. So each year, the Japanese distribute tips on how to avoid death by mochi, including the popular solution of shoving a vacuum cleaner down someone’s throat if they start gagging. My Japanese coursemates insisted this was not a joke. I was still dubious but Google appeared to confirm this improbable tale. Apparently the Heimlich manoevure doesn’t work too well.
In Berlin, New Year’s was described to me as a “war zone”, with people taking to the streets with roman candles, bangers, rockets and all manner of fireworks and miscellaneous incendiaries. And they fire them at each other.
Someone should do a “top 10 most dangerous places to celebrate New Year’s” feature…