Monday, December 31, 2007

Paris to the Moon

I haven't done any traveling since my last adventure returning from California, so I don't have any new restaurant reviews, but I didn't want to let the year slip away without some final thoughts. And since so much of this blog has been about Paris, I thought I would finish 2007 with the book I'm reading, Paris to the Moon, a collection of New Yorker articles and other essays by Adam Gopnik, an American who moved to Paris with his family from 1995 to 2000. (The copy I have in front of me belongs to John S., one of the founders of my company, who lent it to John R., another founder who moved to Paris for six months this year, before coming back to become CEO again in a story that will have to be told someplace else. It was John R. I went to the Bistrot du Dôme with in May.)

To be brief, Gopnik captures, at least in part, the magic of being in Paris for an American. The fact that I was depressed there thirteen years ago doesn't mean that I don't love the city. To be melodramatic, Paris is a bit like the girl you had a crush on but only went out with once; the crush never complete goes away.

Some Americans look for the romantic Paris of the late nineteenth century, or of photographs by Robert Doisneau. Not I. I always liked the things about Paris that seemed more modern than, or just different from, the U.S., like the subdued electronic music that Europeans use to set off the advertisements or the weather from the rest of the newscast. It's a difference I had never read about before this book. For example:
There is a separate language of appliance design in France ... Things are smaller, but they are also much quieter and more streamlined. ... They are all slim, white, molded, with the buttons and lights neatly small, rectangular, and inset into the white plastic. The hulking, growling American appliances we had at home ... all were solid, vast and seemed to imply survivalism. You could go cruising in them. The French appliances, with their blinking lights and set-back press buttons on the front, imply sociability and connection.
Throughout the book there are moments like that, which capture not just what it is like to live in Paris, but what it is like to be an American knowing that you are only in Paris for a short time and will never, ever be a true Parisian. There are the obligatory articles about French food and cooking, but they include a portrait of Alice Waters and California Cuisine as good as any I have ever read. ("Over time, an obsession with sex and drugs slid imperceptibly into an obsession with children and food.") The author even cooked seven-hour lamb for Alice - if I recall correctly, the same dish that my friend Jay ordered in Wajda during my trip in October. And then there are the hilarious analyses of the differences between American and French attitudes, like the substitution of the American fact-checker with the French "theory-checker" ("Just someone to make sure that your premises agree with your conclusions, that there aren't any obvious errors of logic in your argument, that all your allusions flow together in a coherent stream.")

I'm sure there are other books on the topic, and better ones no doubt. But this is the book that I happened to read, and I give it 2 stars.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Year in Review

La Farine - 3 stars
Solano Ave., Berkeley, California

I woke up this morning in Berkeley, California, my favorite town in the whole world (I stayed with my friends Robert and Jenni and saw their 2-month-old son Evan, and also so my friends Ori and Lori, and their daughters Hannah and Ruby). For breakfast I stopped at La Farine on Solano Avenue in North Berkeley for a morning bun, perhaps the best breakfast pastry in the world (the other competitor would be a good croissant au beurre in France) - the top is light and fluffy, the bottom is dense and sweet, and I can never figure out which one I like more. Then I drove to the airport for my last flight of the year, back home to Amherst, Massachusetts.

Every year I keep track of every trip I take. Yes, I know it's a bit obsessive. This year I flew 48 times (if there's a layover, I count both legs together as one; but round-trips count as two) on nine airlines through 21 airports in three countries (the US, the UK, and France). I spent 38% of my work days away from home. (If I leave one morning at a reasonable hour and come home the next day at a reasonable hour, that counts as only one day away, but if I leave at 6 am and come home at midnight the next day, that counts as two - really I'm measuring time spent away from my family.) I flew to California 10 times for work (11 if you count the time I went while on vacation, but took my daughter into the office to explain our financials to a potential investor for two hours, while she played on the floor), including four weeks in a row in July when I was filling in as our financial forecaster.

This is considerably down from some earlier years. 2003 was the toughest, when I flew 107 times (more than twice a week), spent 62% of my work days away from home, spent 17 hours per week in transit, and ate 16% of my meals in airports or on airplanes. (I used to keep more statistics.) That was the year I was launching our first customer project in southwest Michigan. And then there was 2002, when I spent essentially every other week in California.

There are many people at my company who travel much, much more than I do. There are the implementation consultants who spend four days every week at a client site, every week of the year (except for vacations). Some of them even go on long-term assignments to places like Russia and New Zealand. There are the Australians, who travel regularly to Singapore, Indonesia, Korea, and Japan. There is the head of international operations, who alternates between home in Australia and our European offices in London, Paris, and Munich. And there is our CEO, who lives in Boston and runs a company based in California with customers and prospects on every inhabited continent.

On the whole, I don't like traveling. It's physically tiring, especially in the business world where you do so much flying in the early morning or the evening to maximize meeting time. It's bad for your sleep, especially staying in hotels with soft mattresses or erratic heating and cooling systems. It's terrible for the environment - my share of my airplanes' carbon emissions this year will be 10 to 20 times the emissions generated by my little Chevy Prizm. As readers of this blog know, you eat enough mediocre food for a lifetime, especially if you don't eat land animals. And most importantly, it keeps you away from your family.

But there are a few modestly redeeming characteristics. I get to visit friends I would never see otherwise. Occasionally I get to eat at Berthillon. I get to escape the New England winter for an occasional few days in California. And sometimes an airplane flight, or even a long car drive, can offer a brief moment of peace and relaxation.

With that in mind, here are my unsolicited, random, and unprioritized travel tips:

  • Take advantage of being disconnected. Don't use a BlackBerry. Don't check email on your layover; let it wait until you get home. If you get home in the evening, let it wait until the morning.
  • iPod.
  • Stock up on episodes of This American Life ( for car trips or plane flights. You can get the podcast for free, or you can buy any episode for about a dollar (both in iTunes). We spend so much of our lives in our own narrow little worlds, most of which revolve around our jobs. This American Life reminds you that you are part of a much larger world of lots and lots of different and interesting people.
  • Read books, not newspapers or magazines. Periodicals make you feel like you're just barely keeping up; every day or week there's a new one to read. Books are more interesting and fulfilling.
  • If you go someplace interesting, give yourself an extra day or a few extra hours to look around. Do it after your work is done, or the time will just get sucked up preparing for your meeting.
  • If you're in a place with good restaurants, go eat someplace nice. (Search for "[city name] best restaurants" in Google, and you're likely to find a magazine with a list.)
  • Skip breakfast and sleep fifteen minutes more.
  • Carry your own tea bags.
  • Look up old friends in the places you visit. Seeing someone you haven't seen in years can make for any amount of travel hassles. (They can also tell you where to eat.)
  • Help out other travelers, like single mothers with infants and tons of stuff. Swap your aisle seat for a middle seat so a family can sit together. It will make you feel happier.
  • Sleep when you can.

I composed the above while on my first leg, from San Francisco to Chicago. On landing at O'Hare, I learned that my flight to Hartford was canceled, the next flight to Hartford was canceled, and I had been rebooked at 6.30 am tomorrow. There were no flights home via Washington, Charlotte, Pittsburgh, or Philadelphia, and while I was talking to the rep the 6.30 was canceled, so I rebooked at 1.20 pm tomorrow. Then I called back and switched to a flight this evening to White Plains and booked a one-way rental car to Hartford. But when I got up from booking the rental car the White Plains flight had been canceled, so now I'm on the 1.20 again.

So make that 39% of work days away from home.


The 1.20 actually left on schedule, but when I landed in Hartford my car was buried in snow, with the wheels trapped in 18-inch snowdrifts and about ten feet of unplowed snow to cover (in reverse) before reaching the plowed aisle in the parking lot. It took over half an hour of digging, with an ice scraper, no less, and would probably have taken another half hour were it not for two nice people who helped push the car over the unplowed snow. Alex would say it was karma, because on the flight from San Francisco to Chicago I helped a woman with her bags because she was traveling with a baby.

Then it started snowing, and halfway home I pulled over because the freeway was too dangerous. Luckily it stopped within an hour or so and I was able to make it home around 8.15 pm. And that really is it for traveling this year.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

New York, New York

Aquavit - 3 stars
65 E 55th St.

Aquavit is, according to New York Magazine, the 9th-best restaurant in New York City. (New York Magazine isn't a particularly trustworthy source, but Aquavit also got 3 stars (out of 4 - almost no one gets 4) from the New York Times. As such, Aquavit is also precisely the kind of restaurant I couldn't afford to eat at when I lived in New York from 1997 to 1999. Although I wasn't as poor as I had been when I lived in Paris, a first-year McKinsey associate's salary ($90,000 back then; probably at least $160,000 now) didn't go as far as you might think, especially not in Manhattan. Of New York's 101 best restaurants (again according to New York Magazine), I believe I only ate at two (maybe three) while I lived there. (Of course, many of the 101 didn't exist eight years ago.)

So on Tuesday, after a midtown sales call in the morning, the team and I went to Aquavit for lunch and had a great time. An aquavit is basically a flavored Swedish vodka. Susan and I each had the raspberry lime ginger, which was long on raspberry but generally pleasant; John had the pear, which was delicious; and Corbett had the mango lime chili, which had far too much chili pepper to be enjoyable. The food was mainly nouveau Swedish and American with an emphasis on mouth-popping flavors. I had a long, thin lobster roll wrapped in what looked like a moo shu pancake, topped with tiny baby cilantro leaves that were more pungent than any cilantro I had ever had, and tiny flecks of bacon (I didn't realize it came with bacon, and yes I ate it). Each piece of bacon was about one millimeter square, and there were only about six of them, but you could taste them distinctly next to the lobster and cilantro. I also had hot smoked trout, which was as tender as sushi, and a mainstream but delicious pear tart with apple ice cream.

And the sales call went well, so we were all in a good mood. We had very little time to prepare, so we came up with a plan, avoided a last-minute crunch, and stuck to the plan during the meeting. One of the keys to happiness is doing things that you like doing, and people like doing things they are good at. I'm good at my job (most of it, at least). It's not the world's most interesting job, but that's something.

Thursday, December 06, 2007


I'm just back from a short business trip to visit one customer and to make one sales call. I flew from Hartford to Louisville, had an all-day meeting in Louisville on Tuesday, flew to New York on Tuesday night, went to a sales call Wednesday afternoon, took the train to my parents' house, where I stayed Wednesday night, and drove home on Thursday.

My meals went something like this:
  • Monday lunch: Two Kit-Kats in the car on the way to the airport, then a slice of really bad pizza at the aptly named Last Resort in the United/US Airways concourse of the Hartford airport. The Last Resort is one of the few holdovers from the bad old days of airport food - unappetizing, unhealthy, overpriced, and generally dismal.
  • Monday dinner: A grilled cheese sandwich and Cajun fries from Five Guys in the DC airport. Five Guys looks like the East Coast version of In-N-Out (the best burger chain in the world), with a cheerful assembly line of people making burgers to order, and where the "grilled cheese" is just a cheeseburger without the burger. I had mine with tomato and fried onions, and it came off the griddle dripping with some kind of grease, but it was absolutely delicious. The fries were dusted with some kind of reddish seasoning, and they were yummy too. But note the absence of any vegetables all day.
  • Tuesday lunch: Cheese, tomato, and lettuce sandwich from the buffet at the customer meeting, a characterless pasta salad, and a bag of potato chips. There are some places where it's harder to be a vegetarian than others.
  • Tuesday dinner: A "Caprese" (apparently pronounced "caprice") sandwich at Quizno's in the Louisville airport while waiting for a much-delayed flight to New York. I've found that if you add hot peppers to any toasted cheese on bread, you can generally eat it.
On Monday night I slept in a Courtyard by Marriott that was fine in all respects, except that the thermostat didn't work, so I had a choice between constant heat or no heat on a sub-freezing night. Many people say the most important thing in a hotel room is the bathroom. For me, it's a distant third, at best. First is the bed. And second is the heating or cooling system, because you also don't want one that wakes you up every time it turns on at night.

On Tuesday night, after landing at LaGuardia at 11.45 pm, I slept on the couch of a college roommate in his apartment in Manhattan. Curtis has lived in the same apartment for about fifteen years (I lived in the same building for two years in the late 1990s), even though he now works for a hedge fund. That's one of the things I like about Curtis. And his alcohol collection, although I didn't find the collection of high-end Scotch until the morning. So instead I had Southern Comfort on the rocks while I looked out his windows at the skyline.

I can't be done with travel soon enough.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The City

Sushiya - 2 stars

28 W 56th St.

Pret a Manger - 3 stars (for the brownie)

630 Lexington Ave. (at 54th)

The Oyster Bar - 1 star

Grand Central Station

Growing up in a suburb of New York, it was just "the city." This may be true for people growing up in any suburb of any city, but for New York, the greatest city in the world, it seems especially appropriate. As a child, I always assumed that when I grew up I would live in Manhattan, because that's what you did when you grew up.

I did live in Manhattan, for a brief two years after graduate school. I doubt I will ever live there again. Driving across the Triborough Bridge on Wednesday morning on the way to LaGuardia and seeing the skyline of Manhattan unfold on my right, I remembered how much I loved the city, how much I missed it, and yet how familiar it is to me. The drive from Chappaqua to the city is one I can feel in my bones and my nervous system, from years of going to and from Juilliard every weekend. But in many ways Manhattan today is not the city I knew growing up - so much richer, more fashionable, and less threatening than it was twenty or thirty years ago. Back then Grand Central was a place you raced through on the way to catch a train; this evening there were long lines of expensively dressed people waiting to get into the restaurants that were put in as part of the renovation in the late 1990s. The New York I remember was much more like the endless, gray, non-descript sea of buildings that you descend into on the Queens side of the Triborough Bridge, or the tangled interchanges I got lost in in Harlem on the way back to my parents' house on Wednesday night. It was a bustling, dirty, commercial city built for ordinary people, not the international shopping mall that now blankets much of midtown Manhattan.

For lunch I flashed back only ten years and went to Sushiya with my college roommate Curtis, who now works at - where else? - a hedge fund. When I worked at McKinsey, Sushiya was one of the reasonably good sushi places that one might order dinner from when working late. And it was reassuringly satisfying, the eel not smothered in sauce, the rolls allowing multiple distinct flavors to come through, the fish as soft as butter in the mouth.

My mid-afternoon snack was from a welcome addition to the new Manhattan - Pret a Manger, the British chain that readers will recognize from the previous post - where I had a chocolate brownie that was absolutely to die for, for only $1.49, a meltingly soft yet dense square of pure chocolate goodness, not overwhelmed by sugar.

And dinner was a relic of Manhattan past, with my high school friend Fred in the Oyster Bar in Grand Central - which was once probably the only restaurant in what is not a massive food court. The lobster stew was decent, and the martini was a little small, and I'm sure the crowd was much bigger than it used to be, but it was still distinctly New York.

Monday, October 22, 2007

London, on the other hand

Prêt à Manger - 2 stars

EAT - 1 star

Marks & Spencer - 1 star

Stick and Bowl - 2 stars
31, Kensington High Street, W8

Foubert's - 0 stars
17 Kensington High Street, W8

As opposed to Paris, London is a city I remember fondly, although for no good reason. I first visited in 1993, when my girlfriend and I stayed with my sister for a week near Earl's Court and saw the tourist sites. I spent three weeks there in 1996, taking a summer course at the LSE that was trivially easy and living in a dorm on the South Bank across from the Tower of London, and my favorite memories are of running along the Thames, back before my knee broke down during my one and only marathon. But the longest time I spent there was a truly miserable experience, six weeks of a brutal McKinsey study in 1998 working until late at night six or seven days per week, and the kind of pressure that gave me panic attacks for the first time in my life, and living in the Royal Horseguards hotel near Whitehall. (When I left, the bill was well over $10,000, including hundreds of dollars for laundry.) The love of my life visited me for two weeks, and I spent almost no time with her, but I did ask her to marry me one evening in the Victoria Embankment Gardens, and she hugged me and said yes. I believe I went to the office later that night.

So I don't know why London is a city I always look forward to seeing (I've been back a half dozen times since then on various business trips), and why it's even a place I would like to live. (Of course, I realize that I will live in very few of the places where I would like to live.)

This trip was undoubtedly one of the worst, as I was sick for all three days, progressing through the various stages of a severe cold, including sniffling my way through a full-day meeting and a miserable flight back home. But still it was momentarily invigorating to swim in the diverse sea of busy commuters, and to look in at all the wonderful things to buy and eat in a real city, and to imagine what it would be like to be there every day.

This time I was staying in a hotel just off Kensington High Street and across from the Kensington Gardens, an area thickly populated with restaurants. But being sick the whole time, I confined myself to takeaway and casual places. Luckily, London has a restaurant category that is so good and so obvious that I wish we had it in the US: the high-quality, fresh-food cafeteria pioneered (I think) by Prêt à Manger and since copied by many other chains. Prêt was my favorite place to eat back in 1998, in part because I could get more or less as many things as I wanted and still stay within a reasonable expense limit. (Looking back on my McKinsey days, I should have spent and expensed much, much more than I did.) I ate once at Prêt and once at EAT, and each time I had one of those quintessentially English sandwiches, mature cheddar with pickle (which is not what you think of when you hear the word "pickle"), and they were both reassuringly familiar.

My other discovery was a Chinese hole-in-the-wall called Stick and Bowl, where people are densely packed into communal bar-type seating and they make all the standards, with a slight tendency toward Cantonese cuisine, and they bring them to you fast. The spring roll was grayish on the inside (though tasty), but the sautéed bok choy with garlic sauce was just right, and the vegetable noodle soup was the closest thing to chicken soup that I would eat these days. If only we had such a place back home.

The last day I had a couple hours in the morning before I had to leave for Heathrow (which was itself an adventure, since the Heathrow Express was shut down and I had to take a cab instead). I thought about swinging by Victoria Embankment Gardens and ... what would I do? Take a picture of the spot where we got engaged? Instead I had herbal tea and a scone at the Marks & Spencer cafe, took a walk in Kensington Gardens, and sat on a bench and watched the dogs (almost as cute as the Parisian ones) until it was time to go. It was cool but brilliantly sunny, and apart from missing my family I wished time would stop.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Paris, again, again

Cafe Guitry - 1 star
10, place Edouard VII, 75009

Luna di Miele - 0 stars
49, passage Choiseul, 75002

Wadja - 3 stars
10, rue de la Grande-Chaumiere, 75006

Tresor du Kashmir - 0 stars
rue de la Michodiere, 75002

Santi - 1 star
49, rue Montorgueil, 75002

Regular readers of this blog (of which there may be one or two) know about my complex relationship with the city of Paris. I was just there for six days, and this time I was determined not to repeat the usual tour of my favorite places to eat, and in fact I succeeded in not visiting Denfert, or going to any Left Bank patisseries.

However, my company's new Paris office is actually just two blocks from the old Bibliotheque Nationale (BN), or national library, which is where I spent most weekdays back when I lived in Paris thirteen years ago. so the trip was not without its share of nostalgia. The first night I was there I ate with my friend Alex at the same Italian restaurant in the northwest corner of the funny little road that surrounds the Palais Royal gardens where I used to eat with my old friend Peter. (Back then Peter was a love-struck graduate student in German history who lived in Paris to be with his French girlfriend; now he's a tenured professor at Harvard.) I had a pizza with capers and anchovies, which was quite good, the crust nicely blackened the way I like it. And just before I left the city we went to the Cafe San Jose on the rue des Petits Champs, just around the corner from both the office and the BN, and it was just as crowded and friendly as ever.

In between, though, I had two of the nicer days I've had in Paris in a long time. On Saturday I got together with Jay (then: impoverished graduate student like the rest of us; now: MacArthur fellowship-winning professor of French medieval history) to drink kirs in his rented 17th-century apartment on the Ile St. Louis, see an old Fritz Lang movie in Action Ecoles in the 5th, drink French beer at a cafe in the 6th, and eat a very nice dinner (and drink a bottle of wine) at Wadja. I had a somewhat overbearing sardine tarte, a wonderful filet of bar (I always forget how to translate names of fish), and what did I have for dessert again? Anyway, it was great. And the best part (ok, maybe not the best part) was being able to pay the 120+ euro bill (we split it) without blinking. (For those from my company reading, I didn't expense it.) Who says money can't buy happiness?

On Sunday, I took my friends Alex and Sigrid (newcomers who are staying in Paris for six months) around the city with the general mandate of avoiding major tourist sites (minor tourist sites were ok). The undisputed high point of my entire trip, surpassing even the pilgrimage to Berthillon, was lying on one of the hills of the Buttes-Chaumont on a perfect day (completely sunny, temperature around 70) and watching the unbelievably cute Parisian dogs playing with (bothering) their people. ("Come on, let's play! Oh, you have food? I need some food. Why don't you give me some food? OK, I'll go over here and ask these nice people. Hey! Why did you put that leash on? I don't want to lie down! OK, I'll lie down ...") So maybe you don't need money to be happy.

Overall the food probably wasn't up to my usual Parisian standards. It included several mediocre croissants from the bakeries between my hotel and the office (which, of course, are still better than any croissant you can buy in the US), a few trips to passable lunch spots near the office that cater to business people (at one of which they microwaved the pesto before our eyes before spooning it on the pasta), a two-hour "business lunch" (preceded by a five-minute meeting) at the Cafe Guitry with a partner of ours (tarte pissaladiere and marmite de poisons, both decent), a so-so Indian restaurant near the office, a nice, modern lunch place on the rue Montorgeuil, and a sushi place near the hotel that would go out of business in San Francisco in a matter of weeks. But in the end I think what I like the most about being in Paris - or any other foreign city where I've lived - is the feeling of actually living there, and doing the ordinary things that people who live there do. And this time, commuting to the office each morning, going to a movie, and lying in the grass of the Buttes Chaumont, I had more of that feeling than I have since 1994.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Who's the entrepreneur?

I wrote this on an impulse because I was enraged by an article in The New York Times about VCs posturing as entrepreneurs. Of course, the Times didn't print it (they get a thousand submissions for everything they publish), so enjoy.


As an entrepreneur, I was surprised to read the title "Entrepreneurs Defend a Tax Benefit Despite a Dubious Congress" (V. C. Nation, Sept. 21), and offended to learn that venture capitalists are posing as entrepreneurs in order to protect their anomalous tax treatment. VCs, as we call them, may like to think of themselves as entrepreneurs, but they are no such thing. Even associates fresh out of business school make six-figure salaries, and partners' base salaries are considerably higher - funded, of course, by the 2% asset management fee they charge their investors.

The ongoing debate, of course, concerns the "carry," or the share of investment gains that they keep for themselves, and whether it should be taxed as ordinary income or a capital gain. On the face of it, I fail to see how anyone could argue that this constitutes a capital gain, since the capital at risk is not theirs to begin with. A sophist might argue that the carry is deducted from the investors' capital gains, and hence should be treated that way for tax purposes ... but that's the same as arguing that when you sell stock for a gain, your broker should pay capital gains tax on his commission, because it comes out of your gain.

But leaving aside that well-trodden ground, the claim that VCs deserve their tax break because of the "sweat equity" that they invest in their portfolio companies, and the jobs that those companies create, is a bit much. VCs do play an important role in allocating capital - my company would not exist without them - but so do research analysts, mutual fund managers, equity underwriters, and traders, all of whom pay ordinary income tax.

Once the capital is allocated, many successful entrepreneurs - who no longer need to play nice with VCs - would describe the ongoing assistance they receive as ... well, "incidental" would be a nice way to put it. (One of the most candid VC partners I met once said, when asked what his role was, "we provide the money.") But even in the cases where they do provide valuable assistance, why should that work be taxed at a lower rate than the work done by every employee who helps the company grow and succeed?

On September 14, 2001, I quit my job to found a software company with five friends. We earned nothing for six months until we acquired funding, and then took large pay cuts from our previous salaries until the company was self-sustaining. Today, our company has more than 350 highly skilled, highly paid employees (the vast majority in the United States), and has created hundreds more jobs among our partners and customers.

It is true that those jobs would not exist without the initial backing we received from VC firms. But aside from the function of allocating other people's capital, which does not in itself merit capital gains treatment, I would defy any VC to argue that he played a greater role in creating those jobs than did I, or any other founder, or any one of fifty other important people in the company - and all of us pay ordinary income tax on our salaries.

In general, I fail to see why the contributions of capital toward growth and job creation are more valuable than the contributions of labor. As a result, although the lower tax rate on capital gains benefits me as a part-owner of my company, I don't see why it should exist. But given that it does exist, for VCs to argue that the labor they put into their portfolio companies is so much more valuable than the labor of the employees that their labor (and not ours) should be taxed as if it were capital is both nonsensical (should firefighters pay capital gains tax on their salaries because they are crucial to society? should teachers?) and insulting to the people who really build those companies.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

St. Paul, MN

Mickey's - 1 star
St. Paul, Minnesota

Pazzaluna - 1 star
St. Paul, Minnesota

A year and a half ago I wrote about my favorite airport restaurant, which happens to be in the Minnesota-St. Paul airport, where I find myself at the moment and plan to eat dinner in an hour or so. I arrived two days ago for a sales call in St. Paul. The last time I came here (other than to eat in the airport) was in the winter of 2003, John R. and I rode the roller-coaster in the Mall of America and visited the ice sculptures in the little downtown park. This time the temperatures were in the 90s and a bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed.

Marcus was on this trip, too, and I have to admit I take a curious pleasure in getting together with him to talk about the company, life, our futures, and so on. On Tuesday night we chose for our digressions a truly old-school diner called Mickey's, a kind of St. Paul classic, which occupies a (fake?) freight car parked just a block or two from the center of downtown. Mickey's is so old school they haven't even heard of the tuna melt yet (which Marcus wanted). Instead, he had an omelet and home fries, and I had a fried cod sandwich and home fries. Although it was cooked in half a stick of butter, Marcus thought the omelet was excellent, and my fish fillet was surprisingly good, too: crisp, not soggy, on the outside, and light and tender on the inside.

Last night we went to dinner with the client at Pazzaluna, one of the fancy restaurants on the comically short downtown strip in St. Paul. Pazzalua is a slightly nouveau version of any other modern Italian restaurant, with higher prices, smaller portions, and slightly more sophisticated food. I had gnocchi with tomato sauce, which was about what you would expect, and a side dish of broccoli rabe sauteed with onions and anchovies, which was pretty good but much too salty. The antipasto was mixed, with good grilled asparagus (but who can't grill asparagus?) and onions but relatively pedestrian olives and cherry tomatoes.

The meetings were a cross-section of the sales experience: a lot of time poring over spreadsheets to refine project estimates, some cordial discussions that felt like pre-negotiation posturing, an executive meet-and-greet, and a last-minute 90-degree (or 180-degree?) change in direction that left us scratching our heads. It goes without saying that in sales you have to learn to expect anything and remain calm in all circumstances, or you will die young of heart disease. And it also goes without saying that the amount of effort you put in bears no relationship to the distance to the finish line. Remember those two things and you will never be disappointed.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Mexican airport food

Andale, SFO - 1 star

Qdoba, PIT - 0 stars

Tequileria, CLT - 1 star

Even the airport food is better in California. Those who fly through San Francisco will have noticed the market upgrade (in both quality and price) of the SFO restaurants in the last few years. The sushi place, the Chinese place, and the Italian place are all decent, but my favorite is probably Andale, the Mexican place in both Terminals 1 and 3 that is actually a branch of a restaurant I've eaten at in the Marina in San Francisco itself.

This time I had a vegetarian burrito (for $9.85!), which was basic but well done, with cilantro rice, black beans, guacamole, and salsa. What was especially impressive (for an airport) was the side salad, made with fresh romaine lettuce and, among other things, surprisingly good chunks of avocado.

I've been spending a lot of time in airports lately. One of the worst flights I know is the 6 am flight (with a connection) from Hartford to San Francisco, which requires waking up at 4 Eastern time. Two days ago I woke up at 4 to catch a 6.15 flight through Pittsburgh (Qdoba egg and potato breakfast burrito, not bad but still 0 stars) to San Francisco, went to the office, and worked until 8 pm Pacific time (nineteen hours later). The only flight worse than that is the redeye back from San Francisco (with a connection in the morning), because if you fall asleep you get at best four hours of sleep, and if you're in coach like I was you don't really sleep at all. Last night I took a redeye back home, through Charlotte (where there's a decent "Mexican" restaurant called Tequileria at the base of C concourse - hash browns beaten with eggs and cheese and baked, topped with a fresh salsa of tomatoes, scallions, and fresh lime juice - 1 star, but not as good as the Andale breakfasts, which are better than their burritos). I did the same thing last week (except through Dulles instead). And the week before I flew to California for four days, although I didn't take either the 6 am or the redeye.

My company is going through interesting times. In the last month our CEO "retired" and our vice president of North American sales resigned; three months ago our CFO announced that he would be retiring as well, and a search is on for his successor. These events brought to a close a strange eighteen-month interlude in my company's history, when a set of "experienced senior executives" was brought in by our VC backers to "take the company to the next level." As if, as Buffy might say.

The net result is that I and the close group of thirtysomething friends I founded the company with six years ago (when half of us were in their twenties) are once again running the company the way we want to - only now with a crush of additional work to do. Hence the three consecutive weeks of flying to California - and I may be going back next week again.

Flying to California is something I did a lot of in the early days, when the whole company was there and we had no or few customers to tend to. The current experience emotionally reminiscent of those years, when we got together as a team to work on all the major issues facing the company, before growth in multiple dimensions spread us out. The 6.15 US Airways flight to Pittsburgh, the one I took last week, and the Pittsburgh airport as a whole remind me of the many months I took that flight to work on our first customer project, when it was still unclear that anyone would ever use our software for real. Redeyes back home are something I did a lot in the beginning, when I spent every other week in California, but swore off a few years ago; as recently as this spring I even went two months without getting on a plane - the longest stretch in six years.

But more than anything else it's that feeling of pressure, adrenaline, and exhaustion you get when you're starting a company and spending half your time in the wrong time zone, but that fades away as the company grows and becomes more and more like every other company in the world. The last few weeks have reminded me that we're not like every other company in the world. And that a small group of people who care and work hard can make a difference, even if it's just in the business world. Is that enough to compensate for the physical pain and the time away from my 10-month-old daughter? Probably not. But it's something.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Paris, again

Berthillon - 3 stars
29, rue St. Louis en l'Ile, 75004

La Chope Daguerre - 1 star
17, rue Daguerre, 75014

Gérard Mulot - 3 stars
76, rue de Seine, 75006

Bistrot du Dôme - 2 stars
rue Delambre, 75014

Poilâne- 3 stars
8, rue du Cherche-Midi, 75006

As I get older, I seem to spend more and more of my time trying to recapture moments and sensations from my past. I was just in Paris for three days on a business trip, and on the first evening I walked through the drizzle to Denfert-Rochereau, the neighborhood I lived in during the summer of 1993 and most of 1994. Denfert is a generally unexceptional neighborhood, with few attractions and virtually no tourists, and few Parisians would spend time there unless they lived there. And yet I visit at least once every time I go back to Paris. I walked around the old streets, paused to look up at the shutters of my old apartment, and ate dinner in one of the local brasseries - tuna in a sauce with capers, asparagus, carrots, and white rice, preceded by a green salad. The tuna was overcooked and generally mediocre, but the salad, while decidedly average for France, was better than at most restaurants in the United States - soft, almost velvety lettuce, lightly coated in real French dressing (olive oil, vinegar, and a little mustard as an emulsifier - not the stuff sold under that name in bottles in the U.S.). Then I walked back to my hotel.

Why did I visit Denfert? What was I hoping would happen? I have little desire to relive my time as a graduate student in Paris. I didn't realize it then, but looking back I realize that I was depressed a lot of the time, although there were certainly days that I was happy, especially at the beginning when everything was new and exciting. Why do I visit Berthillon for the wild strawberry sorbet (which I have sometimes described as the best food in the world), and a list of other places, every time I go back to Paris? I'm obviously trying to capture the feeling of an earlier moment in my life, to bring back to life a distant memory, although often those memories are more bitter than sweet. Denfert is where I lived when I was depressed; Berthillon is where I went with the longtime girlfriend I didn't marry, to sit on a bench and look across the river at the Tour d'Argent, a famous (and, by published reports, not so good) restaurant we could never afford to eat at. I looked in the window at La Maison du Miel, where you can taste more than twenty different flavors of honey (differentiated by the flowers among which the bees are raised), where my girlfriend and I used to go; but I didn't go in, because I never eat honey these days.

I have no desire to go back. I am pretty certain that I have never been happier, at least not as an adult, than I am now, with a wonderful family (my wife and I haven't had a fight in almost ten years) and almost the best job I could imagine in the business world. Maybe I just long to be younger again. Or maybe those memories are precious even though they come from a less happy time of my life, simply because they are part of me. I even find myself longing for the memories that are gone forever - like the first day I set foot in Paris, back in 1991, or the first day I spent there with my girlfriend in 1993, or the first day I visited with my wife in 2003. But in any case, each time I go back to Paris, I find myself retracing the same steps, and wondering why.

One of the places I always go is Poilâne, which makes by reputation the best bread in the world. I went there my first morning in Paris, to get the usual - a croissant au beurre (why anyone in France ever gets a croissant ordinaire I have no idea) and a tartelette aux pommes (small apple tart). While they are good, they are not as exceptional as the complex, dark, crusty sourdough pain Poilâne for which they are famous, and which is perhaps even better than the sourdough from Acme Bread in Berkeley.

I always go to Gérard Mulot, near the Eglise St.-Sulpice, in the Paris neighborhood where I would love to live - assuming I knew anyone in Paris - and where the desserts, if not that much better than anywhere else (the most ordinary patisserie in Paris can make a strawberry tart that you cannot find in the United States except at a handful of bakeries run by French people or a handful of very expensive restaurants), is at least as good as you will find anywhere. This time I had a raspberry tart, which was sublime, and an orange tart, which was actually too sweet and a bit too dense for an overmatched crust.

This time I ate dinner at the Bistrot du Dôme, the (slightly) cheaper sibling to the Dôme, a famous seafood restaurant on the boulevard du Montparnasse, where the salad of arugula and grilled langoustines was spectacular, while the grilled daurade (I can never translate the names of fish) was simply very good, its tender white flesh flaking away from the bones just the way it is supposed to.

I ate at some other places, but they don't really deserve mention, except for the bizarre cone-shaped pizza I ate in the Charles de Gaulle airport waiting for my flight home (which was, surprisingly enough, quite good).

Someday I will go back to Paris with my daughter and take her to all the places I remember, and perhaps we'll find someplace new to visit.