Sunday, December 19, 2010

As we approach the end of the year, I can confidently say that my favorite graphic novel of 2010 is Return of the Dapper Men by Jim McCann and Janet Lee. It’s a tale of a mysterious world, Anorev, where, one day, time just stopped. There are no adults, and the children all live underground, in a world part cavern and part clockwork. Robots tend the houses and towns of the surface world. A friendship between Ayden, a human boy, and Zoe, a robot girl, is the only real connection between the two. Then, one day, 314 well-dressed men descend from the sky. They not only have deep connections to the creation of Anorev, but also its future.

My love of science fiction and fantasy didn’t start with adolescent viewings of Star Wars. It probably started with Laurent de Brunhoff’s Babar Visits Another Planet, further nurtured by L. Frank Baum’s Oz books and Johnny Gruelle’s Raggedy Ann and Andy adventures. I loved those stories that were magical road trips, where characters would encounter all manner of weirdness without any sort of logical explanation. Characters would encounter towns inhabited by china dolls or trees that grow complete lunchboxes full of food (plus napkins) or creatures who happen to have wheels for hands and feet.

I love the detailed, well-thought-out worlds of Harry Potter, the Imaginarium Geographica, and other contemporary fantasies, but I also miss those sorts of anything-goes, whimsical tales of my youth. And while I can reread the books I used to love, I hadn’t really found anything new that made me feel the same way. That is, not until I read Tony DiTerlizzi’s Search for WondLa and Return of the Dapper Men.

Return of the Dapper Men is (with reservations) an all-ages story in the best sense. It feels a bit like a fairy tale. McCann’s narrative voice and dialogue have a classic, naturalistic feel, which almost demands to be read out loud. His characters are vivid and distinct. The story can be read on several levels, which helps the all-ages appeal. On the surface, it’s a straightforward story about two friends trying to restore their world. There’s also a lot of hints about the true history of the world and its origins that aren’t so clearly spelled out. It’s a book that requires some effort on the part of the reader to put the pieces together, and definitely benefits from multiple readings. And its got a great message about the nature of progress and stagnation, but doesn’t spell it out like the moral of in one of Aesop’s fables.

In fact, it’s the underlying complexity that keeps me from wholeheartedly recommending it entirely for all ages. I’m not sure if enough is explained clearly enough to satisfy younger readers. But that’s me, reading it from an adult perspective, so it’s hard for me to judge.

The art, by Janet Lee, is equally multileveled and beautiful. As a fine artist, she brings influences to her work beyond traditional comics. As a first-time comic artist, she tells the story clearly and beautifully. Since so much of the story relies completely on her visuals, it’s important that she is clear without being too obvious, and she rises to the challenge admirably. The book shares its look with classic children’s illustration, and I can’t think of anything else to really compare it to.

Despite the title, this is the first appearance of the Dapper Men. If all goes according to plan, however, it won’t be the last. This is (hopefully) just the first in a trilogy, and I look forward to the rest of the series. McCann also writes superhero comics for Marvel. I’ve read a couple, and they seem to be just fine. They’re even about characters (Hawkeye, Mockingbird, Alpha Flight) that I loved as a kid. Ironically, though, as an adult, I don’t enjoy Marvel comics the same as I did as a kid (more on that in a future blog entry.) So I’m glad that McCann also has the Dapper Men, to entertain me as an adult by reminding me of the things I loved as a kid, without simply copying them.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Been busy the past few weeks, and I have a couple of blog entries in progress that I can't seem to get around to finishing. But this one is very important to me, so it takes priority.

As I have previously blogged, my lovely fiancee, Lura, is the pastry chef at Sage, a French-Mediterranean-American fusion-thingy restaurant in Aria, in the new City Center complex on the Strip. A couple of weeks ago, we were pleased to read her first professional review, which singled her desserts out for extremely high praise. This would be a critic who reviews restaurants for local TV and radio news, as opposed to amateur food bloggers (who also love her desserts).

That was nothing compared to what the same critic posted Monday. I am so proud of her that I don't have the words. But I'm going to try.

Before I met Lura, she had been through a lot. She was working as a pastry cook at a fine dining restaurant, and was being treated like crap. Watching her cook dinner at home, especially crafting menus for the occasional party or social dinner, I could clearly see the passion she had for not just cooking, but for creating dishes. In a lot of ways, knowing that she wasn't able to express that side of herself at work was almost worse than the meager paycheck or being asked to come in and work without clocking in, or to clock out and stay and keep working. (Actually, being asked to work without pay was probably worse. And more illegal.)

She was making such little money at that job, and being treated so badly, we decided we could afford for her to quit and just live on my income until she found another job. Fortunately, she was offered the job at Sage before it actually came to that. Even more exciting, she learned that the assistant pastry chef position she thought she had interviewed for was actually a head pastry chef position.

As anyone who has made a similar transition knows, this is a turning point for her. From this point on, she will always be a chef, and going back to just being a cook would be a significant step back. Which is for the best: she's too creative and passionate to just be a pair of hands for someone else, and from what I've seen of the restaurant industry, they need more chefs like her.

It seems to me that being an effective professional chef is twice as hard as most other jobs. You have to be a good chef, with all that entails, plus you have to be a good manager. Just one of those things is hard enough to find, but both, in one person? From what I can tell, pretty much impossible. And the priority seems to be on cooking ability, which makes sense. Customers care about how their food tastes, not how the chefs treat their crews. Plus, if a chef is raised up in a system that places a higher value on cooking skills than management skills, then they're just going to perpetuate that system, because they don't know any better.

However, despite being beaten down by that system over the past ten years or so, Lura does know better. And her crew sees that. They see her come in and work her butt off for 12-14 hours a day, working alongside them and teaching them, instead of barking orders at them and then disappearing into an office somewhere, like her former employers. And--from what I can tell--that inspires them to work just as hard for her. And those cooks are hopefully going to take her example with them as they move on up, and be similar good examples to others, and so on and so forth.

Plus she's a damn good cook. That's not just me saying that. It's John Curtas, and, and all my friends who have come over for dinner or parties, and all my coworkers who gobble up anything she sends to work with me.

But without the management skills, all she would be is a cook. That's all a lot of her former supervisors will ever be, regardless of what they call themselves. Because being a chef is a profession, so a chef has to act professionally. The industry needs more chefs who understand that. Lura does.

And, yes, I am totally gushing about her, because I love her and that's what you do. Doesn't make the rest of it untrue.

She's been working hard since even before the restaurant opened, and sometimes it's been hard. Even though we live together, it sometimes feels like we don't get enough time together. We almost never have a whole day off together, and even when we do, she's tired from working six 14-hour days in a row.

I find myself feeling selfish sometimes. I have my cushy job with regular hours and the freedom to take almost any day off that I want. When I want time to myself, I get it, because she's usually at work. I can take my time reading all my RSS feeds online, working on my blog, updating my Facebook and Twitter feeds, reading books and comics, and watching TV. When she finally gets home, I'm ready for her to pay attention to me.

And she's ready to pay attention to me, but she's also ready to eat dinner and read books and check her favorite web sites and update her Facebook and Twitter and play games and do all the stuff I have hours to do, all crammed into about a quarter of the time.

It used to be a lot harder to get the balance right. We do it better now, but I still miss her when she's not around.

And then I read a review like the one she got Monday, and I remember that this is what it's all for. It may be hard sometimes, and I wish we had more time together, but we've got our whole lifetime together for that. Right now, she's working long hours and too many days in a row, but it's not for nothing. People are noticing. She's doing good work, and making an impact. I love her for that, and I am so proud that along with all that, she has still chosen to be with me.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sunday night, we had dinner at Union in Aria, before going to see Zumanity. Obviously, my heart will always have a special place for Sage, but if I'm making a list of favorite restaurants that my fiancee doesn't work at, Union would probably be in the top five.

It's primarily a steakhouse, but calling it that feels like I'm damning it with faint praise. They do have other, non-grilled items on the menu, but when I go to a place like this, I feel like not ordering something off the grill is like going to American Fish and ordering a burger. They'll make you one, but it's not really what they do.

Their menu isn't online, and not only did I not take notes, I had a couple of cocktails, so I may not get all the dishes exactly right.

Speaking of cocktails, we started with the drinks Thrillist recommended: the Las Vegan for me, and the Calm Before the Storm for her. To be honest, I don't really remember that much about the sip of the Calm Before the Storm that I tried, but Lura really liked it. Enough to order a second one. I liked the Las Vegan just fine as well. It initially had a very strong grapefruit taste, which I enjoyed more than I would have expected, not being the world's biggest grapefruit fan. Then the bourbon taste came through along with the bitters, cutting the grapefruit before it became too overwhelming. Recommended.

I also ordered a drink called the Heat of the Moment. Absolutely cannot remember anything that was in it (passage of time, not the strength of the drink). It had some spicy elements to it, including cinnamon. I preferred it to the Las Vegan, although both were excellent.

For a starter, we ordered the beef carpaccio flatbread, which we had been told was enough to serve two. It was, but one person probably could have handled it as well. It was fantastic. Lura described it in a fairly cryptic manner, saying that if cold pizza tasted the way it did when it was hot, it would be like this dish. And, after she explained what she meant, I have to agree. When pizza gets cold, the dough and toppings lose a lot of their flavor. This was a cold dish, but the crust was rich and flavorful. The beef was spread on just enough that it didn't overpower the saltiness or the flavor of the bread, but wasn't lost either.

Most of their starters are seafood dishes. I like seafood, but Lura does not. So it's good to know that one of the few non-seafood starters is one we'd happily order again.

For our steaks, I chose the American Kobe Flat Iron, while Lura went with the bone-in filet mignon. Neither of us had seen a bone-in filet before, and both wanted to try it. However, I had never had Kobe beef before, either, and wanted to fill that gap in my culinary experience. Besides, I was pretty sure that I'd get to finish Lura's steak for her. For our sides, we ordered the pureed butternut squash and the potatoes au gratin. We also ordered two sauces: the sauce Bernaise (gotta go with the classics) and the sauce Bordelaise, because I like red wine sauces.

The steaks were fabulous. If I'm honest, the bone-in filet was the better of the two. The flavor was fantastic, and the meat was so tender, you almost didn't have to chew it. That will definitely be my choice the next time we go. (I did get to eat about a quarter of her steak, but I want the whole thing next time.) Lura proclaimed it the best steak she had ever eaten, and she's eaten at some pretty classy places. I'd say it beats the filets I had at Parallel 88 in Springdale, UT, and Sedona here in Vegas, which were previously two of the best steaks I've had.

My Kobe flat iron was very good, too, and I was very pleased with it. I don't think the flavors were quite as deep as the filet, which is why it comes in second. It also was a little bit less tender; not so's you'd notice unless you were comparing it to the filet being devoured by the person next to you. It had a slightly crispier coating, but the meat was still tender and juicy. Based on our two choices, I'd suspect that you can't go wrong with anything from the Union grill. We'll find out, because we'll definitely be going back. (Although, as I said above, the next time I go, I'll probably be getting the bone-in filet. So we have to go back at least two more times, to make sure I try something new.)

The steaks were so good, they didn't need the sauces. However, the sauces were very nice. As I had expected, I preferred the Bordelaise, but the Bernaise was also very well done. Our only problem with the restaurant, in fact, wasn't with the quality of the food but with the amount of the sauces. For $5 a sauce, we should have gotten a little more, we felt. Still, next time we know that we don't even really need the sauces if we choose not to order them.

The sides were every bit as well-prepared and tasty as the steaks. The squash was so soft and light, it was like we were just given the idea of squash. The top was caramelized, which the menu described as "brulee," complete with quotes. Sage does the same thing with their foie gras custard "brulee," and there as here, the quotes seem entirely unnecessary. It's a flipping brulee, not a "brulee." Learn some punctuation.

The potatoes were also on the lighter side. Instead of being a solid brick of potatoes and cheese, which can serve as a delightful side dish or a building construction material, they were smooth and creamy. No complaints about the sides at all. The only question is, as good as these were, do we stick with them the next time we go? Or do we try something new?

Of course, the desserts were the most important part, as far as Lura was concerned. They had four dessert items on their menu; we ordered three of them. The cutest were easily the pudding lollipops. They featured frozen disks of pudding, maybe the size of a silver dollar, dipped in what is probably a really fancy, expensive version of Magic Shell, and served on lollipop sticks. The flavors we could remember were milk chocolate, dark chocolate, caramel, and peanut butter. There was a fifth one, but I can't remember what it was. They were cute and fun, and very tasty.

The Key Lime pies (three little ones) were served with a margarita sorbet and pineapple. I'm not a huge fan of Key Lime Pie. If I'm going to like it, it has to be lighter in flavor. These were, and they were just fine, but if I had to pick just one dessert to order again, I'd probably go with the apple pie. It was about six inches in diameter, and tasted like a really good apple pie with some sort of caramel/nut ice cream on top.

(The fourth dessert option was churros, but we passed on those because Lura thought they would be too close to the beignets she makes every day. Maybe next time.)

So, overall, an excellent dinner, and a restaurant to which we would happily return.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

I loved the first two volumes of Dan Hipp's graphic novel series GYAKUSHU! His mostly-silent art told a great sci-fi samurai adventure, and I was really sorry that the third volume was never published.

But don't take my word for it! Starting 1/11/10, he will be posting the first two volumes, along with a preview of the third volume, at So check them out for yourselves!