Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Big Gig and Me

By my three main criteria, Summer is definitely here:

1) Memorial Day was 4 weeks ago, 2) the Summer Solstice occurred on June 20th, and 3) if you're a Milwaukeean or Sconnie you know this--the Big Gig is here. The self-titled "World's Largest Music Festival". Ah, of course, I'm talking about Summerfest!

I looked at the scheduled lineup this year and was impressed. There are many acts of which I am a fan. These include Foo Fighters, The Avett Brothers, ZZ Top, Steve Miller Band,  Ben Folds Five, The Hives, Scorpions (The Scorps!), Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Head and The Heart, Trampled By Turtles, Joe Walsh, Robert Randolph and The Family Band, Bob Mould performing "Copper Blue" (a favorite album of mine), 311, Fountains of Wayne (questionable; their last record blew), Bodeans (of course; I know all of their songs!), Mat Kearney, Zac Brown Band, Iron Maiden, Alice Cooper (Coop!), Young The Giant, Death Cab for Cutie, Grace Potter and The Nocturnals, Fitz and The Tantrums, Cake, Aerosmith, B-52s, Bush, and lastly--the Jewish Elvis!--Neil Diamond.

Whew. That's just from a quick once-over of the schedule! And I was only looking at bands in bold type. I know there are local bands that I'd like to see too. Local sisters Vic & Gab come to mind (I know they're on the schedule somewhere, but I'm not sure on what day).

As the fest approaches, I've been asked numerous times, "Have you got your Summerfest schedule all figured out?"

Yeah, I'm seeing Neil Diamond on the final day of the 11-day music romp. At the main amphitheater--where I bought a ticket and have a seat, but that's probably about it.

"Why only Neil?" you may wonder.

Because as much as I enjoy Summerfest--and I do, immensely--as a place to actually enjoy top-name entertainment, it's the pits. I'd much rather pay to see one of the above acts when they're traveling through Milwaukee and playing at one of our sweet music theaters.

For example, if you know only one thing about me, you probably know that I am a HUGE fan of the band Wilco. I've seen Wilco six times: three at Summerfest (a different stage every time) and three in theaters (a different theater every time: Madison's Overture Hall and Milwaukee's Pabst and Riverside Theaters). My three experiences at theaters were fantastic; my three at Summerfest sucked.

Wait. Did I forget to capitalize "sucked" for emphasis? I did. Let me correct that ...


Once a headlining act takes the stage, every person stands on the benches which are meant for sitting. If you're lucky enough to have grabbed a chunk of a bent, rickety aluminum bench, you might be able to stand on your tiptoes and peer between the giant heads of the seven pucca shell necklace-wearing dullards stumbling on and off the benches in front of you just to see the top of the head of the saxophone player occupying the far left corner of the stage. Of course, you've got fight, too, to maintain this precious 13" of metal space and be prepared to defend it 'til the drummer finally throws all of his (or her) sticks into the crowd at the end of the second encore.

Horrible. This is not just the 45-year old Mike's opinion. I had this opinion of the Summerfest musical experience when I was 21 years old. Why is it that we can split an atom and land a remote-controlled 4x4 on Mars, but Don Smiley and crew haven't figured out how to remove the benches within the first 25 yards or more of the front of the stages? That would allow people attending the daytime shows a place to stand, watch, dance, and then later, compress the number of people who occupy the space in front of the stage for the big name shows? Leave the benches and tables for people to stand on farther away from the stage. At least people that stand on the seats farther away will at least be able to see over the people that are standing on the pavement.

From what I've heard, the new BMO Harris Pavilion addresses a lot of these issues with a new seating arrangement and a sloped spectator area. Let's hope so.

I may come off as a curmudgeon in the above few paragraphs, but here's what I really enjoy about Summerfest: going early on a sun-splashed hot day, enjoying a few cold beers, strolling around and watching surprisingly good, unheard-of talent. I've seen some great musicians during midday performances that have really blown me away. Then, when everybody piles into the grounds to see the bigger names, I slip out the main gate and find myself a nice seat in an air-conditioned restaurant or pub. Why not? They're empty and could use the business.

Some year, I'd like to take off every working day during the fest and hang out there all day just as described above. I'd really enjoy that, but in reality, I'm quite sure that will never happen. I get 10 days off a year--I'm not going to burn 'em all on Summerfest! I've got other places I've got to go (Prague, I'm looking at you).

Tomorrow it all starts. I work only blocks away from the grounds and I'll burn with envy as summer revelers stumble past my window on their way to do what I most would like to do a day off in the next two weeks: rock out with my golfer's tan out along the beautiful Lake Michigan shoreline with a cold, albeit over-priced, malted barley beverage in my hand.

If you go, have fun, be safe, and remember--at the fest, or anywhere else for that matter--don't be a dick.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Rock 'n Sole Half Marathon Recap

[A picture-enhanced version of my dailymile post]

What a fantastic run and day. The Summerfest Rock 'n Sole Half Marathon was a real joy and I was happy to celebrate the post-race festivities with pal Reggie Wegner.

The 8 hours before the race were terrible. I got hit with a bout of insomnia and didn't fall asleep until 2:30 a.m. -- my alarm was set for 5. And even when I finally did fall asleep, that sleep wasn't very sound.
I'm not sure why I couldn't sleep. I don't think it was my nerves about the race -- I just wasn't tired enough, I guess.

Heading to Milwaukee's lakefront where the race was to take place was interesting too. Out in Wauwatosa, where I live (about 5 miles west of the lake), the sun was shining and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Driving east on I-94 we could see this wall of clouds at the lakefront. Some sort of lake effect fog had the entire area near the lakefront at zero-visibility. The race announcers kept warning of zero-visibility on the Hoan Bridge where the first aid station (water) was. They didn't want us running into each other like some sort of of freeway pile-up.

And here's where I get really honest...
View from Corral "G"

In my starting corral (G), alone, I got highly emotional. I have no idea why. Just the scene, the fog, the people, the challenge -- it all came together and I welled up with emotion. I didn't exhibit visible tears, but they weren't far from the surface.

Honestly, I have no idea why this feeling arose. I've never felt it before (in this type of environment), but I won't necessarily discourage it from happening again. The only thing that I can attribute it to is just knowing that I am taking part in something special.

To settle down, I looked for the 2:10 timing sign. Friends of mine were the pace-setters: Rochelle Van Hart, Krista Ledbetter, and Matt Jacobson. Alongside them were pals Alicia Hanson. and Eric Benjamin. It was good to see them and they calmed my nerves.

Matt & Rochelle -- The 2:10 pacers (Krista
just barely in view on the left)
The "gun" sounded and we were off.

In my mind I was going to be happy if I finished at 2:10, so I ran with my pack up the Hoan. However, in the heavy runner traffic, I split up from the group and found a comfortable pace. Midway down the Hoan Bridge (about 1.5 miles in) I looked back to the 2:10 sign and was surprised how far ahead of it I was. I thought I'd be a mere handful of yards, but it was more like 100!

Oh well. I was feeling comfortable and was enjoying the pace. No reason to slow up now, right?

I continued to feel great at the 10k marker I began to believe that running a sub 2-hour half was possible. This was a great motivator because it kept me from ever walking a single step -- save water breaks and a short, crowded distance up the steep Lafayette Hill -- for the remainder of the race.

In Lake Park I recognized friend Lindsey Paulsen. Not 100% certain of my identification skills, I said "Lindsey?" Sure enough, she looked right at me and I became positive of her ID. Lindsey had a nice pace going and we chatted for about a mile and a half. I didn't want to disrupt her determined concentration further and I explained that I thought I had a shot at a sub two. At Bradford Beach I pulled ahead, looked back and gave Lindsey a wave. She gave me a return wave and flashed her inimitable smile.

That smile lightened my heart and pushed me ahead for at least the next half mile.

Thanks, Lindsey. I hope you enjoyed that finish line beer!

The final 3 miles I tried to push myself but the fuel tank was nearing E. I didn't have much left. I did manage to catch up to the 2:05 pace team in Lakefront State Park, but by that time, there was less than a mile left to the finish line.
A couple of Sconnies celebrate with sconnies!

The final mile I pushed with everything I had but I still came up short: 2 hours, 2 minutes and 30 seconds.
Only a little disappointing as my initial goal would've been between 2:10 and 2:20. In that respect, I shattered my expectations!

The finish line party was at the Summerfest grounds where I finally met up with Reggie where we proceeded to do the one thing that we do better than run: drink beers!

What a great run, event, and day. I'm pretty sure you can sign me up for next year's tomorrow!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Happy Little Tastebuds

By now, you’ve all seen at least one or one thousand cooking shows on TV. They’re fun -- especially when you get to see the truly inventive and creative at work (Top Chef, I’m talking about you), but the problem is we never get to taste the food! It looks good, but for all we know, it could taste like an old shoe with a gorgonzola crumble and a sprinkle of oregano. Probably not, but I’m just sayin’.

However, at Savory Spoon Cooking School in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin, you not only get to observe a master chef -- the delightful Janice W. Thomas -- but you get to work alongside her and her assistant while preparing her delicious recipes with your very own hands!

And let me tell you this: the results are divine.

We were part of a Door County Bike Tour group that visited the Cooking School on a rainy Tuesday morning. The class commenced at 11:00 a.m. and Chef Thomas explained to us what we would be cooking that day. She went over each course, and explained and demonstrated a few tips that we would use in the preparation of each dish.

About noon, our group of 10 split into five groups of two. My wife and I took the appetizer soup course: Chilled Avocado and Cucumber Soup. We picked this course mainly because we were standing nearest to its preparation table. What a nice choice this turned out to be! It required no actual cooking, but a lot of measuring, chopping, blending and preparing and the results were heavenly.

The other four groups split up and made the following (in the order they were served): Fennel and Arugula Salad with Orange Vinaigrette, Baked Salmon with Pistachios and Herbed Panko (one group) alongside Grilled Asparagus and Roasted Red Pepper and Garlic (another group), and for dessert Fresh Blueberry Raspberry Tart.

Hungry yet?

By 1 o’clock, the prep tables were cleared and a table was set. We finished the preparation of our chilled soup and the entire group sat down to enjoy lunch. Our soup, which we garnished only moments before, was then served to us nearly as though we were dining at the finest restaurant. Even though we only followed the Chef’s expert advice and recipe, it was hard not to let it go to our heads when we heard everybody taste our soup and say, “Wow! Is that ever good!”

This pretty much continued through the remaining courses where I equally enjoyed each and every one.

What a fun way to spend a day. I doubt I’ve ever had a better lunch and Chef Thomas was such a joy be around. The next time you are planning to be in Door County, be sure to look up the Savory Spoon Cooking School class schedule (on their website) and sign up for one if you can. It’s a ton of fun and your tastebuds will do back-flips!

I should also mention that the Savory Spoon is located in a restored school that was originally built in 1879. The floors in the building are original. Great credit is owed to the Savory Spoon owners for restoring this important Door County, Wisconsin landmark! 

My Wife and I Happily Garnish Our Soup!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Distil (Milwaukee) Yelp Review

With a name like Distil, the first think I think is not "Ham Sandwich!" but "Mmm, cocktail." Preferably something distilled and not brewed, even though the latter is my preference. However tonight, during Milwaukee's Downtown Dining Week (DDW), we decided to give Distil's food a try.

We were not disappointed.

Before I get too detailed, let me tell you that previously I thought Downtown Dining Week was misspelled -- it was usually more like Downtown Dining "WEAK," and after 7 years, I was surprised this was still a thing. Oh sure, the idea behind DDW is a sound one, but normally good restaurants would often deliver sub-par food, portion sizes, and service. Participating establishments' staff -- well-suited for normal Wednesday night business -- became overwhelmed with a surge of value-minded customers.

We had a enough bad experiences to consider shelving this year's DDW altogether.

Fortunately, Distil did not cut back and, unlike of some of their competitors, really delivered the goods.

My wife and I both ordered from the pre fixe menu (the norm for DDW). She ordered the Chilled Asparagus Soup with lemon creme fraiche, Roasted Chicken and Bread Salad, and Huckleberry Pie. I had the Marieke Gouda and Strawberry, Croque Madame with Nueske's smoked ham, Gruyere, local fried egg, finished with a deconstructed Tin Roof Sundae. We shared, and we were not disappointed with any course.

Both appetizers were exquisite. The soup was fresh and bright, while my Marieke Gouda and Strawberry (salad) was perfect. If you're not familiar with Marieke's products, you need to be. They're always SO good. Wisconsin cheese crafts(wo)manship at its finest! (http://www.hollandsfamilycheese.com)

Our entrees rocked. Neither was complicated, but they were both done perfectly. And again, Wisconsin's very own Nueske's bacon was on my Croque. Lots of it too! Let me say this, you could put Nueske's bacon on a old running shoe sole and it would still taste better than most fast food. I love that stuff, and Distil's use of it was divine. (http://www.nueskes.com/)

Lastly, dessert -- an area where lots of DDW participants fall flat -- was awesome. We both sounded like a couple of n00b foodies: Mmm, mmm. OMG! OMG! Wow. Is this good. Is yours good?  'cause mine is really, really good!

For heaven's sake, if I was sitting near myself, I would've punched me. "Shut up already! We get it ... you like the dessert!"

So congratulations Distil, you aced the DDW test and made believers of us. We will not only think of your establishment as a place to go for a good cocktail, but we will also think of it as a fine place to satisfy our appetites with a crispy, eggy, bacony ham sandwich!

(Side note: great ambiance music too!)