Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Morning Edition



Morning Edition
153 N Patterson Park Ave
Butcher's Hill, Baltimore
Brunch
410-732-5133
Cost: $
Reservations: not needed
Date of meal: Saturday October 6, 2007 (11:00am)
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: On It

Morning edition is a cute brunch place north of Patterson Park. Please note that it has weird hours (only open Friday through Sunday and only for breakfast brunch but not too early). If you want to grab breakfast on a Wednesday, this is not the place for you.

Decor is homey. Tables are old, wood, and wobbly. Menu is handwritten (and photocopied and long). Decorated walls with lots of odd objects make give the place a personal touch. Given the dirth of alternatives, I was surprised it wasn't more full.

The menu is long enough that there is something for everyone. We had a raisin French toast and an omelette with Italian sausage. Both were excellent, and at prices <$10 for interesting omelettes it's almost a good bargain. The main problem with Morning Edition is the wait for food. We sat for roughly 30 minutes waiting for our food to come. While this can be nice if you want an extremely leisurely brunch, it can be a bit stressful if you only want a fairly leisurely brunch and have something to do afterwards.

I would be very happy to go back. The price point is much more appealing than Miss Shirley's, and the quality is almost as high. If they nailed service a bit more, it would be ideal.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Nasu Blanca


Nasu Blanca
1036 E. Fort Ave.
Locust Point, Baltimore
Spanish/Japanese
410-962-9890
Cost: $$$$
Reservations: recommended
Date of meal: Wednesday September 29, 2007 (6:30pm)
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It

I don't know of any other Spanish/Japanese fusion restaurant in the U.S. This means either that the owners of Nasu Blanca are incredibly creative, or that this combination doesn't make a lot of sense, or both.

I went to Nasu Blanca for a work dinner party with 4 other people. While the restaurant was relatively empty when we arrived (at 6:30pm on a Wednesday) it was full when we left. Nasu Blanca has two floors. The lower floor has a bar and a bit of seating, but most tables for dinner are upstairs. The Nasu Blanca site is a nice, stylish gut remodel. The downstairs decor was swanky and upscale but in a way that seemed a bit hollow and forced given the unrenovated buildings around it. The upstairs decor was a little boring for my taste, but they were trying and it was pleasant. Unfortunately, the upstairs feels like overflow seating even though it is not. I'm not sure what they can do about this.

The menu has two sides. The left had appetizers; the right entrees. At the top of each page were Japanese dishes, with Spanish ones below. The Spanish entrees were all paellas, which seemed needlessly narrow. What's the point of being Spanish-Japanese fusion if you aren't going to have fun in mixing and matching striking flavors? The menu looked more standard "New American/eclectic" than sharply Japanese/Spanish; I'm not sure I would have guessed that it was more than pan-Asian eclectic except for the large numbers of paella options. The alcohol menu included a wide variety of sakes, as well as wine and beer. Food was quite expensive, with entrees in the $30 range.

We ordered:

  • Japanese eggplant ($8), grilled with a miso sauce.
  • edamame ($5), no surprises
  • spicy tuna tempura ($13), sounded more interesting than it tasted, but still not bad
  • sashimi appetizer was amazing
  • braised short-rib appetizer ($12+/-), I love short-ribs and these were great but it wasn't that interesting.
  • panko-crusted walu ($28), got good reviews from my colleagues
  • pumpkin-seed crusted lamb chops ($32+/-) were excellent
  • scallops ($32+/-) had a nice pan-Asian flare but were a bit generic.
Food was brought at a glacial pace, and this was clearly not intentional. The server was nice but the lowness was a problem all around and made the meal less pleasant. (Our guest almost missed her train as a result despite ample warning of our constraints.) The prices were very high. I know Baltimore has a 20-25% markup compared to other cities for nice restaurants and ethnic ones. I guess I should not be surprised that a nice ethnic-fusion place has high prices. Still, entrees here would be more appropriately priced in the $22-$26 range rather than the $28-$45 range. Nasu Blanca would be a good place to go if you wanted a fun work dinner, but only if you weren't paying for it yourself.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Trinidad Gourmet


Trinidad Gourmet
418 E. 31st St.
Charles Village/Waverly, Baltimore
410-243-0072
Cost: $
Reservations: take-out
Date of meal: Friday September 28, 2007 (7pm)
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It

Trinidad Gourmet isn't really a restaurant. It has a counter, but that's about it. It is designed for take-out. It also has a rather extensive barrier between the counter and the patrons; the proprietor is obviously worried about crime.

The menu has a wide variety of Trinidadian food. Oxtail stew, goat curry, jerk chicken, etc. Entrees in the $7-$9 range. I had the jerk chicken dinner ($9) which includes rice and beans (mixed together), sauteed spinach (my choice of vegetable) and plantains. The jerk chicken was tasty and well-cooked. I would have liked it with a bit more spice, but it was juicy and fell right off the bone. The spinach was simple but excellent; it was fresh, perfectly cooked and not overly oily or creamy. Rice and beans were good but standard. Plantains are always yummy, but these were a bit mushy for my taste.

Trinidad Gourmet is a solid choice for inexpensive take-out in the Charles Village and Waverly area. I prefer The Yabba Pot (which serves Caribbean-inspired vegan food nearby at the same price point with nicer decor and more inventive cuisine), but others who want more meat may not.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Saigon Remembered


Saigon Remembered
5857 York Road
Belvedere Square/Govans, Baltimore
Vietnamese
410-435-1200
Cost: $$
Reservations: Not Needed
Date of meal: Wednesday September 26, 2007 (7pm)
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: On It

Saigon Remembered has a lot in common with Cafe Zen down the street. Both offer good but standard American versions of Asian (Vietnamese and Chinese, respectively) cuisine in a market without much competition.

Saigon Remembered is housed in a large space with high ceilings. It is far from fancy, but not unpleasant or dirty. Furniture, flooring, utensils, and such are all functional but no more. They have a full bar and several Southeast Asian beers (Singha from Thailand and 33 from Vietnam). Service was helpful and prompt.

The menu includes pretty standard Vietnamese fare like bun (steamed rice noodles) and lots of stir-fries with lemongrass and basil. The two main points of departure are a sushi menu (complete with a sushi bar; I didn't try it but it seemed like a weird add-on to me) and a "roll" menu. The rolls are not sushi but instead are the fresh spring rolls typically found in Vietnamese restaurants. My spouse and I (particularly my spouse) are big fans of these. Unlike other restaurants, there are about a dozen options for rolls, with a variety of meat and seafood options. Some of these are quite creative, like the salmon roll.

We stuck to standards. We ordered a pair of fresh spring rolls with beef (either $5 or $6), which was very good. The nuoc cham (fish dipping) sauce was great; the peanut sauce only so-so. We had a bun ($12) with grilled pork and fried spring rolls which was outstanding. The pork was served still on the skewers on which it was grilled. This was quite good. The basil tofu stir-fry ($12) we had was fine but did not wow me. These prices are roughly 40% more than comparable cities with more Vietnamese immigrants (e.g., Seattle). I also noted that many entrees had higher prices in the $13-$17 range.

In the absence of serious competition, I would be happy to eat there again if I wanted Vietnamese food. Take-out would also be a good option if you live nearby. I probably would not recommend it to anyone who had to drive more than 15 minutes to get there. Honestly, the prices seemed high to me, even for Baltimore.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Brewer's Art


Brewer's Art
1106 N. Charles St.
Mt. Vernon, Baltimore
American (new)
www.belgianbeer.com
410-547-6925
Cost: $$$
Reservations: Varies
Date of meal: Sunday September 23, 2007 (8pm)
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It

Brewer's Art is very hard to categorize and for a few reasons. One is that for price-point purposes it is really two restaurants: a bar and a restaurant

  • Bar: In the front, they have a lounge and bar that serves pub fare. The bar has "light fare" like burgers, sandwiches and pizza ($8-$11). Note that there are lounge tables here, so you don't have to stand or sit at the bar.
  • Restaurant: In the back, they have a restaurant that serves more substantial entrees. The entrees are rather pricey ($17-$27, where only the vegetarian pasta and one chicken dish are below $22). Note that the restaurant runs a special to get people in on Sunday and Monday nights: a half-dozen $15 bottles of wine. These are entirely drinkable and constitute a great deal; they are also a loss-leader to get you in the door to order the very expensive entrees.
  • Both Bar and Restaurant: Both share in common the salads and appetizers ($7-$12). Desserts (which I assume you can get in the bar) are in the $7 range.
The upshot of this is that you could plausibly put Brewer's Art into three price-points (see my cost key for the price ranges they imply):
  • $$: If you aren't committed to sitting down in the restaurant and ordering entrees, Brewer's Art is moderately priced.
  • $$$: If you eat in the restaurant on a Sunday or Monday with the express purpose of ordering a $15 bottle of wine, Brewer's Art is a bit pricey but not unreasonable (I'll say the wine deal is really an entree subsidy so I'll include it in the $$$).
  • $$$$: If you eat in the restaurant and order meat or fish entrees, Brewer's Art is quite (and in my view, too) expensive.
While I haven't eaten in in the bar/lounge, I suspect this is the better deal. This is confirmed by the fact that it was full on a Sunday night while the restaurant was nearly empty. I plan to come back to try the lounge. Note that you may have trouble getting a table in the lounge during peak times (and I suspect you can't make a reservation for the lounge).

The other reason that it is hard to categorize is that it is very upscale to be a Belgian brew pub.

I liked the decor a lot. The dining room is decorated like an old-world library in a private home in the 19th century. This works better than when I've seen it tried elsewhere, as in The Barclay Prime steakhouse in Philadelphia which adds modernist elements that make it look like they are trying too hard. Brewer's Art reminds me a bit (but only a bit) like the room in The Matrix where Neo is asked to choose between the "blue pill" and the "red pill", but not nearly as run-down. Brewer's Art does look a bit run-down but in a good way, like the building has been around forever and the furniture is nice but old.

With a name like Brewer's Art, you know (or at least suspect) that they take beer seriously. Please note that their website is www.belgianbeer.com; how this wasn't taken is beyond me. They have several beers they brew themselves (and lots of other beers also), so if you like Belgian beer and/or microbrews you probably want to come here. I do like these and didn't get a chance to try these, so I'm looking forward to returning to sit in the lounge and try their pub food and Belgian beers.

Our dining experience had some problems that I'll detail, but I want to lead with the fact that a) some problems in the restaurant were probably idiosyncratic (aka, our bad luck and unlikely to be repeated) and b) this doesn't really reflect badly on the bar/lounge which is very different and I can't wait to try.

We ordered:
  • wine ($15, see above) : petite syrah (entirely drinkable, excellent at that price, I'm guessing it is a $10 bottle in a wine store)
  • appetizer ($7): pork belly with peaches. At this price-point, I thought this wasn't bad. However, the beaches were cold which was definitely not the way to go and the pork belly , while cooked properly, arrived insufficiently warm. Sauce was nice.
  • pasta entree ($17): gnocchi with caramelized shallots and chanterelle mushrooms. This was very good.
  • steak frites ($26): fries were too salty. Steak was solid but not amazing. Wine-shallot sauce was a bit heavy for my taste. Frites were too salty but had lots of great herbs (rosemary?) that made the NaCl-fest tolerable.
  • chocolate torte ($7): pretty good, but the chocolate lacked the rich intensity you want in a torte
According to our server, the chef "accidentally turned the oven off" which led to a 40 minute gap between our ordering and the arrival of the appetizer. I could imagine this being a serious problem if you were even a bit pressed for time. The other off-putting thing about the meal was that my spouse discovered a (rather small and cute) cockroach on the wood wall's wood paneling. This is an old building and such things are probably inevitable and I have no reason to believe the restaurant is in any way unhygienic. The fact that I'm looking forward to going back to the lounge shows I don't think this is a big deal. Still, I could imagine that some people would find this a serious problem also.

Our server was excellent. She was straight with us about which of the inexpensive wines to choose and had a helpful, straightforward, and unstuffy manner that I found appealing given the slightly stuffy decor in the restaurant. One thing she did I really liked was pour both of us a taste of the wine (instead of just the man in the group, which I've always thought was a bit sexist).

In sum, I would return to the lounge for Belgian beer and pub food, but I found the restaurant too expensive for the quality.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Red Star


Red Star
906 S. Wolfe St.
Fell's Point, Baltimore
410-675-0212
www.redstarrestaurant.net
bar/pub
Cost: $$
Reservations: Varies
Date of meal: Thursday, September 20, 2007 (8pm)
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: On It

I went to Red Star last night with a large group of people. While reasonably busy, there were tables available. (I believe we made a reservation but our group was 10+.) Red Star fits nicely into the upscale brew pub category. The environment is clean and pleasant with lots of highly varnished, medium-dark wood paneling. Lots of light for a bar. Lots of exposed brick. Clearly a converted industrial space. The lack of cigarette smoke at this (and all other) bar makes it a lot more pleasant. (Expect more than one post from me on the economics of smoking bans in the not-too-distant future.) I would say that the place lacks a bit of personality, which is surprising given how hard I think they tried to make the place just right. By appealing to groups of yuppies, I think they are forced to go for unobjectionable. You don't want to take risks when you take a group of co-workers out for drinks after work.

Red Star has a wide variety of yuppie, micro-brew beers on tap. I think the place would be improved if these were explained in more detail on the menu so patrons could better choose between unknown beers.

For a brew pub, food is very upscale. For a yuppie brew pub, options are pretty much what you would expect. They have burgers, but with "gouda and smoky horseradish BBQ sauce with lettuce and tomato in an herbed tortilla"; they have pizza, but with "Smoked Duck and Truffle house smoked duck breast, brie, baby spinach and roasted pepper sauce, finished with white truffle oil".

I tried the Tuna Starshimi ($11, a respectable sushi-like tuna roll but probably an ordering mistake at a pub, even a yuppie one), the fish taco special ($11?, quite good with avocados), artichoke and crab dip ($13, disappointing at this price point), and their Margherita pizza ($9, decent production of a standard). I also stole one of my companions sweet potato fries, which were quite good. The diversity of the menu means that it works well with large groups. Overall, I would rate the food above average for a pub and slightly above average for a yuppie pub.

Red Star is an excellent place to come with large groups. (I know Baltimore has alternatives, notably DuClaw's nearby, that I need to check out.) To my taste, it lacks soul and as a result I probably wouldn't come with only one other person.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Big Bad Wolf BBQ


Big Bad Wolf BBQ
5713 Harford Road
Lauraville, Baltimore
410-444-6422
bigbadwolfbarbeque.com
barbecue
Cost: $$
Reservations: Take-out
Date of meal: Friday, September 18, 2007
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: On It

Lauraville has two take-out barbecue joints; it seems obvious to compare them. These are Big Bad Wolf Barbeque (reviewed here) and Alabama BBQ Company. Both on Harford, Big Bad Wolf BBQ is a mile or so north of Alabama BBQ Company. Both are designed for take-out but eating in would be a lot more pleasant at Alabama. Big Bad Wolf is much less attractive, and has only a counter (right up against the serving area) and no tables. This might be OK if you are going alone but doesn't work if you want to eat with someone and talk to them. If you plan to eat in, go to Alabama (or even better go down to Rub in Federal Hill). If you are doing take-out (which is what both Alabama and Big Bad Wolf are set up for), decor and tables don't really matter.

Service was friendly, competent, and fast. They answered questions about what came with what and were happy to give me lots of sauces.

Big Bad Wolf is substantially cheaper. A half rack of ribs (multiple sauces included) is $8 at Big Bad Wolf and $11 (not including sauce, which adds $1.50 for one sauce). A full rack is $15 at Big Bad Wolf and $20+sauce cost at Alabama. I thought quality was similar or even slightly better at Big Bad Wolf, so Alabama seems inferior for take-out ribs.

More details about the ribs. I ordered a half-rack of pork ribs and a half rack of beef ribs (both $8). There are 6-8 sauce options. Servers were friendly and helpful. They were happy to give me as many sauces as I wanted in any (presumably within reason, but it didn't come up) quantity. Pork ribs were dry-rubbed with spices that added great flavor and were visible on the ribs. Pork ribs were a little dry relative to Rub, but about as dry as at Alabama. Beef ribs were cut across the bone like short ribs not between bones. I thought these were juicy and flavorful. (I can't compare as didn't try the beef ribs at Alabama, mostly because Alabama was rather expensive and I saw no easy way to try both pork and beef without spending $25). Ribs were served with corn bread which was not really worth the calories (but also thrown in free). I enjoyed both the Kansas City sweet and spicy sauces, though neither blew my mind.

While not the best ribs on the planet, Big Bad Wolf serves up pretty good ribs at an appealing price. If I was in the neighborhood and wanted take-out ribs, I would go to Big Bad Wolf over Alabama. If I was willing to pay a bit more and wanted to sit down, Rub provides a better product at a higher price.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Matsuri


Matsuri
1105 S. Charles St.
Federal Hill, Baltimore
sushi
www.matsuri.us
410-752-8561
Cost: $$$
Reservations: Varies
Date of meal: Monday September 17, 2007
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It

The obvious comparison for Matsuri is with Kawasaki in Fell's Point. Both are slightly upscale standard sushi places in yuppie neighborhoods. The price point is similar; decor is similar; menu is similar. I really liked Kawasaki, and I liked Matsuri also. However, I didn't think the fish at Matsuri was quite as fresh as at Kawasaki.

We arrived at Matsuri at about 7pm on a Monday. Please note that you can park in the parking garage around the corner and get a free hour from validation at Matsuri. The place was full but the wait was no more than 2 minutes (presumably the time needed to clear the table). We spent those two minutes sitting outside at one of the tables next to the sidewalk. While these would be a pleasant place to sit in warm weather, the view of the street is obviously inferior to the water view at Kawasaki. On the first floor, there are a few tables and a small sushi bar. Decor is pleasant with lots of hardwood and Japanese art and decorations. We were taken upstairs, which was cozy and well decorated. There were many paper cranes hanging from the ceiling. I did not get the sense that this was overflow seating (a feeling common for second floor seating). Please note that there is a large table at the back of the second floor with recessed seating (you sit on the floor but the area below the table is dug out so you can sit comfortably) that would be a great place for a large group-ish group (maybe 10-12 people).

We were given menus. We ordered a Sapporo (Japanese beer, $4), seaweed salad ($5), vegetable tempura ($6), a small sushi combination ($13, sushi sekiwake, 6 pieces of sushi and a tuna roll), and a "perfect trio" sashimi ($24, with 6 pieces each of tuna, salmon, and yellowtail). Service was good.

Both the seaweed salad and veggie tempura were standard but quality. I enjoyed them but both were similar to other goods that I had had. The sushi and sashimi were good but not amazing. They lacked the freshness and variety of Kawasaki. The tuna in particular was a little dry, low in fat, and not particularly fresh. The salmon and yellowtail were better but did not have the freshness of Kawasaki.

If I was in Federal Hill and felt like sushi, I'd be happy to come back to Matsuri. I would put the quality of Matsuri as similar to or slightly better than (but also more expensive than) Asahi and superior to XS. However, if asked I'd prefer to go to Kawasaki even if it meant an extra 10 minutes of driving.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Where to Buy Zeke's Coffee

If you want good coffee beans in Baltimore, Zeke's Coffee is the primary roaster (or at least the only one I've discovered). They have lots of different types of beans from all over the world; many are shade-grown, organic, fair-trade or free range. It's no Zoka Coffee of Seattle, but it is still very good.

Until now, I have bought their coffee at the Saturday morning Waverly Market. Zeke's coffee has a booth there where the owner (or, this weekend, his nephew) sells their coffee and will grind it for you. Ironically, you cannot buy actual cups of Zeke's coffee from this booth. However, another booth sells cups of coffee and they use Zeke's beans. (According to the owner of Zeke's, the person selling cups of coffee at the market pre-dated him and he didn't want to run her out of business by competing directly; he did get her to start using his beans instead of Folgers or something similar so I guess he gets free advertising. Why they don't put their booths next to each other I have no idea.)

In response to a recent post about The Wine Source, an anonymous commenter noted that you can get Zeke's coffee at The Wine Source for $9/lb and at Eddie's Market in Roland Park for $10/lb. The price for beans at Zeke's booth in Waverly Market is $11/lb. It is odd that you pay more for buying directly from the producer (Zeke's) than for going through a middle-man (Wine Source, Eddies).

What extra services to you get by buying directly from Zeke's at the Waverly Market? They grind the beans for you. (Wine Source has a grinder you can use yourself, but perhaps this is mis-calibrated or scares some people.) More importantly, Zeke's booth provides recommendations in case you don't have a specific bean in mind.

Why wouldn't cutting out a middle-man lead to lower prices? For one thing, the cost of running the booth just to sell coffee probably exceeds the cost of having a little area to sell coffee in a store that would be open anyway. My guess is that the more important factor is demand elasticity. The kind of people who come to farmer's markets come to the market for special and local products like coffee. These are the kind of people who care a lot about which coffee they buy and would buy Zeke's even if it was very expensive. The kind of people who buy Zeke's coffee at the Wine Source come there to buy alcohol and just stumble upon Zeke's coffee; they figure they will buy some coffee while they are there. Since they may not care about the Zeke's brand and almost certainly didn't make the trip just to buy Zeke's coffee, these folks are more price sensitive. The optimal price for a good is higher when demand is more inelastic (as it is at the booth in Waverly market) than when it is more elastic (as it is at the Wine Source).

If you would otherwise only shop at one place that sells Zeke's coffee, it's not worth it to make the trip to save $2. However, if you frequent both Waverly Market and the Wine Source, the optimal thing to do is seek coffee recommendations at the Waverly Market but buy your beans at the Wine Source.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Alabama BBQ Co.


Alabama BBQ Company
4311 Harford Road
Lauraville, Baltimore
410-254-1440
alabamabbqcompany.com
barbecue
Cost: $$
Reservations: Not Needed
Date of meal: Friday, September 14, 2007
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It


Alabama BBQ Company is a barbecue joint designed for take-out. There are a couple of tables and a little counter. The environment is actually quite pleasant, with bright colors and tasteful furniture; there are a few free weekly magazines to read. While it is certainly possible to eat here if you want to, the tables mostly serve as a place to wait for your meal.

I ordered the rib dinner ($13 for 6 ribs plus two sides and barbecue sauce) and onion strings ($3). (To my eye, this is on the expensive side for a take-out rib joint, so I was expecting stellar ribs.) The very nice and well-intentioned woman at the counter told me that my order would take a minute as the onion strings had to be fried; the ribs were ready. They then forgot about the onion strings, did a few other things, and assembled my ribs a few minutes later. They then told me my meal (excluding onion strings) was ready. Starting the onion strings late wasn't a big deal, but it did take a bit of extra time. I mention it mostly because there seemed to be a mix-up on another customer's order while I was waiting, yet another customer's bill told to pay the wrong amount (clearly an innocent mix-up), and also because I read a comment on another website which mentioned this problem also. I don't think it is an anomaly.

I chose the mild sauce for the onion strings and the raspberry glaze for the ribs. The former was solid but the latter was particularly good. Unfortunately, neither the ribs nor the onion strings lived up to their sauces. The ribs were fine and completely edible, but they were also dry (dry-rubbed also, but I mean not juicy or moist) and didn't fall off the bone. The onion strings hadn't been mixed up properly prior to frying and therefore much of the batter hadn't cooked. The onion strings that had been cooked properly were fine but nothing special, but half of them were inedible, uncooked batter.

To sum up,

  • I liked: the decor (for a take-out joint), the sauces, and the friendliness of the service.
  • I was so-so on: the ribs
  • I didn't like: the onion strings, order-taking and payment, the cost
Alabama BBQ Company is too expensive for how good it is. Definitely not on the National or Baltimore price-quality frontier. (There is another BBQ joint up the street that I haven't been to yet, so Alabama BBQ may not even be the best option for take-out ribs in Lauraville. I'll let you know once I've tried them both.) While on the opposite side of town, Rub provides better ribs and better service at only a slightly higher price in an environment where you can more comfortably sit if you want to.

Update (9/19): Having been to both Alabama and Big Bad Wolf one mile up Harford, Big Bad Wolf provides an equally good product with more efficient service at substantially lower prices.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Three...


Three...
2901 E. Baltimore St.
Canton/Highlandtown, Baltimore
410-327-3333
American (New)
Cost: $$$
Reservations: Not Accepted
Date of meal: Thursday, September 13, 2007 (8:30pm)
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: On It

Last night, my spouse and I went to Three... This is a new restaurant on the northeast corner of Patterson Park. They don't take reservations, but there were plenty of tables at 8:30pm on a Thursday night. We took an inside table; outside tables on the street looking across at the park were all taken. (There was a disruptive and drug-addicted woman waving a half-used roll of toilet paper and a tube of Pringles outside, so I'm glad we sat inside.)

Three... has character. (This was a fact noted in a review in the Baltimore CityPaper.) I liked the vibe tremendously. As you enter, there is "Rx" laid into the marble-like composite at your feet; Three.. was a pharmacy in a past life. (Three... bears a slight resemblance to Rx restaurant in Philadelphia, perhaps for this reason; it used to be a pharmacy too but tries to run with it.) The walls are exposed brick, with richly- colored, abstract paintings on the wall. These were a bit like a cross between a Rothko and a Pollack. As you enter, the room is narrow and deep, with windows (and one table) on your right and a row of 4-6 tables against an exposed brick wall on your left. Half-way down the room, the space becomes an appealing bar. A hole was cut into the exposed brick on the left so that you can see the second room of seating for diners. This was decorated with black-and-white photographs (as best as I could see looking through the hole cut in the exposed brick). I liked the light fixtures that hang over the row of tables against the inner wall. Against the wall was a long bench, with a colorfully patterned upholstery. Music was by St. Germain. All night. (Dear Management, please get an iPod and set it on shuffle; variety is the spice of life.)

The menu is mostly tapas in size and New American in cuisine. Our server was very friendly and helpful. (We chatted a bit, and she was interesting too.) She recommended her favorite tapas dishes. We ordered 5 tapas dishes, mostly ones she recommended. I can't tell you about two of these (one with figs, another with tuna) because they were out of these by the time we ordered them. I'm all for running a tight inventory so you don't keep things longer than they are fresh. It would be ideal not to recommend dishes that have run out, but our server was funny and friendly about it and I don't mind at all. We ordered two more dishes.

We ate:

  1. thinly-sliced, lightly-fried eggplant with a tomato compote/marmalade (there is a fancy name for this which I am forgetting). It was way too salty, almost to the point of being inedible. My spouse loves salt in her food to the point that I make jokes about it, and we both felt this way. Our server was kind enough to keep bringing us water; I didn't have the heart to tell her this reflected the saltiness of the dish and not my dehydration. Of course, I have no trouble telling all of you.
  2. barbecue pork ribs with a garlic rub. These fell off the bone and were great. Too bad they were also way too salty.
  3. scallops ($12) with a yellow pepper puree and crispy leek strings. Scallops were fresh and cooked just enough but not too much. The puree was nice but could have used a bit more punch. The crispy leeks are a brilliant idea. Why don't we see more of them in other dishes? (Think fried onion strings except with really thin slivers of leek, so thin that frying them doesn't make them oily but crispy.) The chef is really onto something here. I liked this dish but thought the sauce/puree was a bit too subtle.
  4. ceviche, served on a bed of limes and orange rounds. Ceviche is tough to nail. In my view the trick is to put enough acid on it to "cook" it (so we don't get sick when eating it) while still having a complex and not overpowering flavor when eating it. To my taste, this ceviche was good but a bit overpowering.
  5. flank steak with papaya, onions, and tomatoes. This dish was awesome. I loved it. Subtle, unusual, tasty, with high-quality ingredients. Steak cooked just right. Completely owesome.
  6. dessert ($6): chocolate chess pie from Dangerously Delicious Pies. Very good. Served with whip cream because they were out of ice-cream.
Three... has a fair bit in common with Salt. Salt is trying a bit too hard to be hip, whereas Three... has a more inviting, neighborly, and personalized feel. (Our server knew we hadn't been there because she hadn't seen us before; we got great service even though we weren't regulars.) Both have interesting combinations of ingredients and a fun environment. Both have names that are too common to google without difficulty; Three... is especially bad in this because the street address is also the city name. Ironically, the thing that Three... had that Salt did not was too much salt in the food. I liked this place a lot. The price point is appropriate by national standards and therefore cheap by Baltimore standards. (We spent $68 including tax but not tip for a full meal for two and one glass of wine each. Three... is probably cheaper than Salt.) Decor, service, vibe and menu make me want to absolutely love it; execution of a few dishes was problematic and this makes me only like it a lot. (I'm hopeful these kinks can be worked out; after all this is a new restaurant.)

This restaurant would be absolutely perfect for a nice date. I would recommend it and happily return. If they would work the kinks out of their food preparation, it would be on my favorite restaurants anywhere in the country.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Ketchup Economics Explained

Last week I wrote about a controversial field of gastronomic economics: ketchup economics. OK, you caught me. This field of economics does not exist. Perhaps it should. How then, was I able to quote Larry Summers discussing the findings and controversies in this field at such length in a reputable journal (link here for those with JSTOR access, citation here or here)? Larry was using ketchup economics as a metaphor to understand financial economics.

Broadly speaking, there are two main fields of finance. One, asset pricing is concerned with what it sounds like. How much should a stock, bond, or option be worth given the (uncertain) payouts it promises (dividends, coupon payments, etc.) that it promises in the future? The other, corporate finance, is concerned with how firms' investments are chosen and financed. Should the firm finance itself with equity (e.g., issuing stock in an IPO or SEO), debt (e.g., bank loan or bonds), or some combination?

Larry Summer's view is that these fields are not asking the most interesting questions. For asset pricing, how much should the overall stock market be worth? For corporate finance, what kind of investments should a firm make? Instead, both asset pricing and corporate finance spent a lot of time answering the financial analog of the Summers' ketchup finding that "two quart bottles of ketchup invariably sell for twice as much as one quart bottles of ketchup." In fact, two Nobel prizes (one in asset pricing, one in corporate finance) have been given out for answering questions along these lines. The Black-Scholes option pricing formula shows that the price of an option can be calculated in terms of the price (and other attributes, chiefly volatility) of a stock and a bond (e.g., the interest rate), just as the value of a large bottle of ketchup can be calculated in terms of the price of two smaller bottles of ketchup. The Modigliani-Miller theorem shows that the total value of a company (the sum of the value of a firm's stocks and bonds) is independent of their proportions, just as the price of a certain amount of ketchup will be independent of whether it is sold in two small bottles or one large one.

I'm happy to report that there has been some progress in finance in countering these concerns in the 20 years since Summers first raised them. For example, consumption-based asset pricing shows how the overall level and movement of stock prices can be linked to people's consumption. Instead of just valuing assets relative to one another, we can think about the overall level of asset prices and also connect these levels to the value these assets provide in people's lives.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Wine Source


The Wine Source
3601 Elm Ave. (at 36th)
Hampden, Baltimore
410-467-7777
liquor store
www.the-wine-source.com
Date of visit: Tuesday September 11th, 2007
National Price-Quality Frontier: On It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: Extends It

Yesterday, I went to The Wine Source to buy alcohol. They have an extensive selection of hard alcohol, beer, and wine. To give you an idea of their selection, I was able to choose from a few types of pear brandy. They have a section where you can buy obscure brands of beer by the bottle and not just the six-pack. I find this mix-and-match approach very appealing when exploring unusual beers to figure out what I want to buy more of. The wine selection is extensive as well. They also have a small section of gourmet foods where you can get fancy potato chips, Zeke's coffee, jams, etc.

The store is clean and upmarket. The staff is knowledgeable and friendly. Prices are reasonable. In short, one would be hard-pressed to do much better than The Wine Source anywhere in the U.S. (Of course, there are warehouse-style places that have slightly lower prices and specialty wine stores with a bit deeper wine selection and probably better advice.)

As an economist, the surprise to me is that the liquor store 50 feet down the hill on 36th can stay in business. (I believe it is called Keller's Liquors at 865 W. 36th St. but its negligible web presence makes this hard to determine.) This store has higher prices, a much smaller selection, and less appealing decor. It is just a corner store where you can buy beer, a few types of vodka, lottery tickets, and cheap wine. Not that I'm judging this per se, it is just that these same items (perhaps except the lottery tickets) are available at The Wine Source.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Thai Landing


Thai Landing
1207 N. Charles St.
Mount Vernon, Baltimore
410-727-1234
www.thailanding.us
Thai
Cost: $$
Reservations: Not Needed
Date of meal: Monday, September 10, 2007
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It


Thai Landing is a perfectly adequate Thai place in Mount Vernon. The space is small and narrow, with decor that is pleasant but nothing special. The walls have some Thai art and objects, but decorations are less extensive than at Thai Restaurant.

I ordered the Pad Thai and chicken green curry ($12 each). While the menu is fairly standard, these are about the most boring things I could have ordered. This is mostly by design; every Thai restaurant offers these dishes and this makes them easy to compare. The portions were relatively small, so that a hungry couple would not be out of line to order three entrees.

While not gross or horrible, I was a little disappointed with the entrees. The Pad Thai lacked punch; it was light on sugar and fish sauce and heavy on a brown liquid that I can only guess was oyster or soy sauce (two things you don't really expect or want in Pad Thai). The green curry was made with string beans that tasted like they were right out of the can; I suspect they were. The basil wasn't flavorful, and the curry also seemed to be missing any sweet or sour elements to add subtlety to the flavor. This is what Thai cooking tastes like if you have to make do without sugar, fish sauce, and fresh vegetables.

If I lived in Mount Vernon and craved Thai food, I'd be open to Thai Landing. However, I absolutely would not travel across town for it. Thai Restaurant in Waverly has better flavors and ingredients with (slightly) nicer decor at the same price point. While Thai Restaurant could survive in a competitive market for Thai food (e.g., Seattle or Philadelphia) with a 20% price reduction, Thai Landing could not.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Bringing Food Into Camden Yards

Public Service Announcement: According to the Baltimore Orioles website (see "Articles Not Permitted Into Ballpark") and my own experience, you can bring food and non-alcoholic beverages into the ballpark (but no glass bottles or coolers). Given the very high prices for food inside the park and the length of baseball games, bringing your own food is a wise move.

Tickets to see the Orioles at Camden Yards were cheaper than I expected (we had excellent $15 seats at games against the Red Sox). Clearly, ticket sales are the loss leader that gets people into the stadium to buy food, alcohol and souvenirs. Note that there are many many businesses with this model. Many motels break even or lose money on low room rates in order to make it up on telephone use charges, expensive mini-bar drinks and snacks, and (pay-per-view) porn. Movie theaters break even or lose money on ticket sales but then make money on concessions. Firms sell printers at artificially low prices to make money on toner cartridges. In each of these cases, the visible and expected fee is kept low to get people to the point where they will choose to buy the (perhaps unanticipated or unconsidered) add-on good at an extremely high markup. Note that in all of these cases, it is possible to enjoy cheap initial fees without paying the high markup for secondary services. If you know about these fees, you can use your cell phone in the hotel room, eat before you go the movies, or do your large printing jobs on economy mode (or at work). People who do this get a great deal, as they enjoy the artificially low initial fee (cheap hotel room) but can avoid or minimize the artificially high secondary fee (room telephone charges). Many firms exploit the fact that we don't think about doing these things until it is too late (e.g., we've already arrived at the movie theater or our printer is out of toner). Given this odd pricing by some firms, you might think that other firms would have an incentive to advertise that they don't have annoying pricing schemes. I'd be willing to pay an extra $1 to go to a movie theater that had reasonably priced popcorn and soda. Xavier Gabaix and David Laibson have an interesting paper in which they show why this doesn't happen. In a nutshell, educated consumers (those who know and plan for the fact that movie popcorn is expensive by eating beforehand) don't want to go to a theater with cheap popcorn (because it costs more since they are no longer being subsides by dupes who buy expensive popcorn); uneducated consumers are no longer profitable once they become educated to the popcorn scam so it doesn't make sense to remind them of it.

Camden Yards is a bit unusual in allowing food from the outside. I suppose their reasoning is that many people simply wouldn't go to the game if they were told they couldn't bring in outside food. It is worth noting that most people don't bring food to the game even though they are permitted to. I suspect people don't know they can bring in food, or they forget that they can bring in food. The Orioles don't publicize the fact that outside food is permitted. You have to infer it from the cryptic passage I linked to above.

You see some effort by other firms to educate fans about this fact as they approach the ballpark. I heard a guy with a megaphone exhorting me to buy his peanuts outside the stadium and telling me how much cheaper they were than the ones inside. However, such advertising was limited and for good reason. An educated consumer is by definition not going to be too profitable because you are educating them to the fact that they can bring in cheap outside food. Why spend money to educate a consumer to buy your low-margin product? (Cheap peanuts are barely profitable to sell even if you don't spend on advertising.) The result of all this is that most people don't plan ahead by packing dinner when they come to the game; many probably don't think about the possibility until they get to the park and notice a few people who have done it.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Iggie's Pizza


Iggie's Pizza
818 N. Calvert
Mount Vernon, Baltimore
pizza
www.iggiespizza.com
410-528-0818
Cost: $$
Reservations: Not needed
Date of meal: September 6, 2007
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: On It

I went to Izzie's for pizza. It's self-serve. You go up to the counter, order, pay (no tipping), wait, pick up your pizza, bring it to your table, and eat it. It's also BYO. Iggie's is about as upscale as possible given this. On a Thursday evening, it was quite busy with 20-something bohemian Mount Vernon types. Decor is simple but elegantly so. It would be an ideal place for a 2nd date if you were 21.

Pizzas come in 8 inch and 14 inch sizes. The 14 inch pizza was a little small for two (if you are pretty hungry) and a little big for one. The four cheese pizza with garlic was very good. Pizza here is very thin crust; much more Italian than American style. I like this but perhaps others find it a bit dry. Pizzas are interesting: duck confit is a topping, lots of goat cheese, etc. You don't come here for pepperoni. Pizzas were in the $14 range for 14 inch pizzas. They have frozen pizzas you can take home and bake later, but this seems to defeat the purpose.

Personally, I would rather go here than S'ghetti Eddie's. I think this reflects personal taste more than innate superiority. Prices are similar, though Iggie's is more expensive because pizza's there are 16 inches (30 percent larger surface area). Iggie's has far superior decor. Both have interesting options and good ingredients, but the thin-crust thing is more novel. While both aiming to be high-end pizzerias, they are relatively far apart and catering to different crowds. S'ghetti Eddie's is all about the Roland Park parents who want to bring their kids to pizza but want good ingredients and interesting toppings; Eddie's is for single bohemian 20-somethings from Mount Vernon. You couldn't take kids to Iggie's or a date to S'ghette Eddie's. There is room for both; these two products are about as differentiated as two high-end pizzerias can be.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Gastronomic Economics on the First Day of Class

Today is the first day of class.

As any of you who have taken economics classes know, it is common to draw graphs where the x-axis is the amount of one good you consume and the y-axis is the amount of another good you consume. (The more you consume of one good the less money you have left over for the other.)

This gastronomic economists is seeking suggestions about pairs of gastronomically related goods. "Beer" and "pizza" is the standard pair, but I think we can be more creative. (Guns and butter is also common but guns are unrelated to food; my first class used drugs and everything else as the two goods.) Please leave comments with creative food-related goods pairs of goods I can use in class. Particularly welcome would be creative food-related pairs that are compliments or substitutes. Examples of superior, normal, inferior, and Giffen food-related goods are also welcome.

Nam Kang


Nam Kang
2126 Maryland Ave. (at 22nd St.)
Charles North, Baltimore
Korean
410-685-6237
Cost: $$
Reservations: Not needed
Date of meal: September 5, 2007
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: On It

Nam Kang is a medium-size restaurant in the basement of a rather sketchy block of Charles North (south of Charles Village and North of Mt. Vernon); there are lots of Korean establishments right around here. The inside is far from fancy, but it is clean and has homey touches. (The bathroom could have been worse but it could have smelled better.) A few excellent signs about Nam Kang:

  1. When I called, the hostess answered in Korean.
  2. Nearly all the patrons were Korean, the main exceptions for the night being my spouse, me, and a Caucasian graduate student I know who speaks in Korean and lived in Korea.
Nearly 100% of the speaking we overheard was in Korean (except for the annoying flat-screen TV showing CNN which we asked them to turn down). While I'm not a stickler for excellent English skills for servers in ethnic restaurants, our server's English was not really good enough to do her job. We were unable to successfully communicate the question "Can we have dish x served without ingredient y?" Despite her limited English, the server was attentive, competent, friendly and tried hard. They were not understaffed.

Panchan were outstanding. For those who haven't done these before, these are the little bowls of vegetables, kimchi, and such that they bring out before the meal. These are free. The highlights for me were the fish cakes (sweet and savory) and a chili-rubbed green vegetable (spicy but not overpowering). The tofu was a little bland.

We ordered bolgogi ($17, Korean barbecued beef in a sizzling platter) that was a bit sweet and quite good, though the price was a bit steep. The Bi Bim Bap ($11 since we got it in a hot stone pot, which is rice with egg and vegetables) was also very good. The stone was hot enough that you got the crispy rice goodness that comes from the rice getting seared against the stone. These are standard dishes and they were perfectly prepared. We also got one of our favorites, which is a scallion pancake (with not-too-spicy green chilis, $11) which was out of sight. Thing of a pizza-sized vegetable-laden version of what you can get as an appetizer in Chinese restaurants. Huge chunks of scallion and chili would just fall out of it. It was oily enough not to be dry but not so much as to be heavy and gross. This could not have been better.

At the end of our meal, they brought complimentary desserty beverages. These were latte colored and cold, with visible grains of rice. It had a rice and (????) bean-paste taste. Normally, I do not really like Asian desserts (a horrible generalization, I know, but I have tried a lot of them in my day) but this one was refreshing, palate cleansing, and tasted pretty good.

I absolutely loved Nam Kang. I think it would be a strong contender is Seattle, LA, or San Francisco (cities with lots of options for Korean food), though it would have to cut prices 20% to be competitive in these cities. I would be happy to bring Korean friends here.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Ketchup Economics

Today's post is about what is, in my view, the most important sub-field of gastronomic economics: the economics of ketchup. An excellent survey was written in 1985 in a top journal by Larry Summers (Harvard economics professor, former Secretary of the Treasury, and former President of Harvard). In his article (link here for those with JSTOR access, citation here or here), Larry summarized the main findings of ketchup economics as follows:

Nonetheless ketchup economists have an impressive research program, focusing on the scope for excess opportunities in the ketchup market. They have shown that two quart bottles of ketchup invariably sell for twice as much as one quart bottles of ketchup except for deviations traceable to transaction costs, and that one cannot get a bargain on ketchup by buying and combining ingredients once one takes account of transaction costs. Nor are there gains to be had from storing ketchup, or mixing together different quality ketchups and selling the resulting product. Indeed, most ketchup economists regard the efficiency of the ketchup market as the best established fact in empirical economics. (Summers, p. 634, again full citation here)


Personally, I feel that ketchup economics - while interesting and important - has received too much attention relative to other relatively under-studied fields in gastronomic economics (e.g., restaurant economics). Still, in the wake of the popularity of Freakonomics it should come as no surprise that a piece by Malcolm Gladwell about ketchup aimed at non-economists garnered so much attention. Given the interesting and thoughtful articles that Gladwell has written about the economics of other fields such as SUVs and moral hazard in health insurance (both articles I have assigned to my students), it is disappointing that he seemed to miss so completely the importance and subtlety of ketchup. I would throw tomatoes at him, but as an economist I just can't bear to waste such a valuable asset.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Rub BBQ


Rub BBQ
1843 Light St.
Federal Hill, Baltimore
barbecue
410-244-5667
www.rubbbq.com
Cost: $$
Reservations: varies
Date of meal: September 3, 2007 (6pm)
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: On It

I sat at the bar at Rub for dinner on Labor Day. Rub is a bar and restaurant, where the restaurant tables surround the bar. When I was there it was fairly empty, but you could imagine the bar fills up on weekend nights. The decor is Texas barbecue meets sports bar (I counted three flat-screen TVs in a pretty small space), though its cleaner and more put together than this might suggest. To give an example, "napkins" are paper towels available on rolls at the tables, but the stands that hold these towels were chosen carefully with a horseshoe pattern that evokes the Texas cowboy thing. At the same time, there is the sleek and slightly industrial feel of a factory or warehouse conversion, which I suspect it was. There is an outdoor patio in the front, though this is not particularly scenic. It is worth noting that the location is a half-dozen blocks south of the Federal Hill action. To my eye, being on a non-commercial street gives makes it a bit less of a scene than other bars to the North. You wouldn't stumble into Rub from the bar next door (because there isn't one) but you would plan to meet a group of friends there.

Rub has roughly a dozen beers on tap (including two with the Rub brand) as well as margaritas and the usual full bar. I ordered their ribs ($13 for a half rack, $22 for a full rack, both with choice of two sides). Ribs were tender and fell right off the bones. They weren't dried out, and all of me (except my arteries, which are still angry with me) enjoyed the fatty goodness. Given the name of the place, I was surprised to find the ribs flavor not as intense as it could have been. It really needed barbecue sauce, which I wasn't necessarily expecting given, again, the name.

This brings me to my main beef (pork?) with the place, which I suspect will not happen to you. No one asked me what kind of barbecue sauce I wanted and didn't bring me any. I wasn't confident enough that there should be any (again, given the name) to ask; I didn't want to feel like an idiot for asking for sauce and being told "we have our special rub which is meant to take the place of barbecue sauce." (Everyone was very nice and not snooty, so this concern was probably unfounded.) I didn't realize I should have asked for (or better yet, been offered) barbecue sauce until I got home and found it on the menu. Please note that the ribs are a bit bland without barbecue sauce; the rub is too subtle to take the place of barbecue sauce.

Sauce mishap aside, service was great. The bartender was friendly and helpful. She recommended the cream spinach, which was solid but a bit of a disappointment given how much she talked it up. The mac-and-cheese was OK but also bland and not interesting. I regret not getting the sweet-potato fries, which the bartender recommended along with the cream spinach.

I liked the food at Rub quite a bit; I didn't absolutely fall in love with it. While I suspect I'll find a hole-in-the-wall joint with slightly better ribs, it will be tough to beat the combination of quality ribs with a fun, up-beat bar environment. This would be a great place to go with a group of 20-something friends for ribs and beer.

Update (9/6):
The whole sauce situation was helpfully cleared up for me by Xani at Black Coffee and a Donut. She sent me this picture from her recent visit (thanks Xani!):
The barbecue sauce was in front of me the whole time. This useful carriage was at the bar and on the tables; it was just turned away from me so I didn't know the back side (shown front here) had sauces. Arghh. Clearly I've been in the ivory tower too long because:

  1. I don't get the real world well enough to spot basic necessities when they are right in front of me; and,
  2. I know this enough to be afraid to ask for fear of tipping others off to my cluelessness.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Unfairness of Splitting the Bill

This is part three on the economics of splitting the bill:
Part I - The inefficiency of splitting the bill
Part II - The inequality of splitting the bill
Part III - The unfairness of splitting the bill (this post)

In her comment to my post on the inequality of splitting the bill, Lise notes that people with smaller appetites or cheaper tastes suffer when you split the bill evenly. Notwithstanding the alleged trend for women to order steaks on dates (TimesSelect), she believes that women will suffer on average from splitting the bill. Note that this is not an efficiency issue; it persists even when people don't order more when they split the bill.

So why do we split 50-50 when it isn't "fair"? Peyton Young (who recently moved from Johns Hopkins to Oxford) has written several papers and a survey article on this topic. If we wanted people who ordered more to pay more, it would be natural for each person to pay their share. This is hard to get exactly right without a calculator and a fair bit of effort, as the bill doesn't calculate the tax on each item or cluster the bill. We like 50-50 because it is easy.

Of course, there are times when 50-50 isn't particularly easy. To me, splitting a $45 bill into $20 and $25 seems easier than splitting $22.50 each. This suggests another answer, which is that 50-50 is the default. If you aren't going to go with 50-50, then this requires a discussion of what the right proportions are in every case. This negotiation is rather costly, and could easily spoil an otherwise pleasant meal. Even if 50-50 isn't right in a specific case, deviating from it opens a can of worms few of us want to deal with.

While the stakes (steaks?) aren't too high in the case of restaurant meals, there are settings with larger consequences where people stick to an "unfair" 50-50. (Peyton Young discusses the proportion of crops that go to the farmer in sharecropping as an example.) Here, it seems that 50-50 is an anchor-point for negotiations.

Is this a big deal in the case of dinner? Even if 50-50 isn't the right split in a given case, in many situations it is probably right on average. I may order more than my companions at one meal; I may order less at another meal. As long as this nets out over the long run, who cares? Lise's concern was that it doesn't net out on average for women, who order less on average. This may be so, but this begs the question of whether the unfairness to women of splitting the bill nets out against the social norm that men pay for dinner on dates with women. And this begs the question of how men paying for dinner nets out against other gendered costs (e.g., clothing) and differences in income. This is a can of worms I don't want to open, and definitely a dangerous one to open on a dinner date regardless of who is paying.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Are you new to Marginal Foodie?

The following is brief explanation and sitemap.

In the sidebar, you'll see the following (from top to bottom):

  • graphic: price-quality frontier, explained here
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Most blog posts are either Baltimore restaurant reviews or blogs about gastronomic economics. Baltimore restaurant reviews typically take the following form:
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Inequality of Splitting the Bill

A few days ago, I blogged about the inefficiency of splitting the bill. (Cliff notes version: when you split the bill, your dining companions bear much of the cost of your ordering more. This gives you an incentive to order more than you would otherwise.)

Today, the inequality of splitting the bill. I should probably explain this. When I was a graduate student, I had a opposite-sex roommate. We are both foodies, and would frequently go out to eat together. When the bill came, we would each put down a credit card. We split the bill evenly. So far, not too interesting.

Half the time, the bill turned out to be odd (not even, e.g., $46.13). In this case, it wasn't possible to split the bill exactly. It was common to see the bill split $23.06 and $23.07, and also $23.00 and $23.13. One of us had to pay more. I (a male) and not my roommate (a female) was always given the larger amount to pay. This happened far too often to be explained by chance. I wish I had recorded these data, but we split the bill in this fashion this dozens of times; the outcome was always (or perhaps almost always) the same.

In our case, it was easy to match credit cards to patrons (one name is typically female, the other typically male). Based on this mini and accidental experiment, I guess men nearly always pay the extra penny. Economically, this extra penny isn't a big deal; it it dwarfed by the higher cost that women are forced to pay for a variety of sevices (e.g., dry-cleaning). Over the course of our meals, the difference probably added up to less than the cost of a latte at Starbucks.

Psychologically, I think this is kind of interesting. Did servers think I was more able to pay? That I wanted to pay more? That paying more (or all) was my "role"? I wonder what will turn up based on differences in race; I wonder if gender differences are larger or smaller if the dinner looks like a work function, a date, or a social gathering.

I'd love to get actual data on this, so if you feel like it please help me out with an experiment.

Who can participate? You can participate if:

  1. you go out to dinner at a place that takes credit cards;
  2. you go with other people and are willing to "split the bill", putting down one credit card per person;
  3. some of your party could be reasonably identified from others in your party based on the names on your credit cards. This identification could be based on race, gender, or even age. (This would work well if Jennifer Smith (female) and John Jones (male) went out, or Jennifer Smith (Caucasian) and Jennifer Wong (Asian), or Mildred Smith (age 85) and Jennifer Jones (age 30). This need not work perfectly, as I'm sure there are plenty of Jennifer Smiths who are of Asian descent and plenty of Jennifer Wongs who are not.); and,
  4. the final bill turns out not to be evenly divisible by the number of people in your party. For example, the bill is odd for a table of two.

How to participate?
  1. If you get a bill that is not evenly divisible (e.g., $46.13 bill for two people), each person should put down a credit card with their name on it (which implicitly identifies whose credit card goes with each person).
  2. If asked, say you want to "split the bill" or "split the bill evenly". Do not mention that this isn't possible to the penny.
  3. Make a note of the following information and email it to me:
    • The location of the restaurant, name of the restaurant, and the date you went.
    • Your best guess about the age, race/ethnicity, and gender of the server (or the person who you think dealt with your credit card information), if possible.
    • The name, age, race/ethnicity, and gender of each person in your party. Approximate ages/ethnicites are fine if you don't want to ask your dinner date's age or ethnic background. We just want to know what a server might guess about these things by looking at you and your names.
    • The total bill amount (without tip) and how this amount was allocated among the people in your party.
    • Where on the table (near which person, etc) did the server place the bill? Did the server ask you what you wanted done with the cards you put down?
    • Did your dinner look to the server like an a) date, b) work function, c) social gathering of friends, or d) other (please explain)?

Thank you in advance.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Top Baltimore Restaurant Picks (so far)


last update: September 11, 2007
order: alphabetical

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Kawasaki


Kawasaki
907 S. Ann St.
Fell's Point, Baltimore
sushi
410-327-9400
Cost: $$$
Reservations: Varies
Date of meal: August 29, 2007
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: On It

I had an excellent sushi experience at Kawasaki last night. When we arrived at 7:30 or so, there was plenty of seating indoors. All the outdoor tables were taken, but one opened up after a very brief wait. Kawasaki's decor is better than that of most Japanese restaurants, with the outdoor seating area overlooking the pier. This can also be seen from the tables by the window, which are low to the ground with floor cushions for the patrons.

We ordered the sushi and sashimi boat for two ($40, the boat for three is $55), as one in the group wanted vegetarian sushi (go figure). This was the most expensive thing on the menu, with other sushi combination in the $15-20 range; while I gave this a cost of $$$ I'd say it is a low $$$ and maybe even a high $$.

The boat took a while to be prepared (20-30 minutes), but was worth the wait. It had the usual combination of salmon, yellowtail, tuna, mackerel, red snapper (I think), and shrimp. The salmon and yellowtail were both outstanding. I was disappointed that it did not include unagi (eel) but was happy it did not include octopus, clam, or egg. It included two rolls, one with asparagus and (maybe) tuna, the other with a spicy sauce. The boat included a bit of seaweed salad, which was excellent, and some pickled vegetables. Everything was great, with fresher fish than either Asahi or XS. Asahi is slightly cheaper (but not much); XS has a slightly hipper vibe (but no view). Still, at this point I would go to Kawasaki over either of these options. The only better sushi I've had (except at astronomical prices) was at Oishii in Boston's Chestnut Hill.

One minor drawback of Kawasaki was service, which could have been faster and more responsive. Service was competent and polite, but they were understaffed both in and out of the kitchen.

Kawasaki has a rather sordid history of exploiting illegal immigrant employees and not paying taxes. This shuttered another branch of the Kawasaki brand on Charles Street. I understand that the Fell's Point Kawasaki is now under new management; I have no reason to believe current management engages in any illegal or unethical conduct, which is why I was happy to go. I guess the optimal number of employees went down once employees had to be legal, be paid more than minimum wage, and have taxes withheld and paid.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

NYT on Canton Restaurants

In the Sunday travel section of the New York Times, there is this "Day Out" piece about Baltimore, which focuses on the restaurants around O'Donnell Square in Canton. It highlights Helen's Garden, and also Mama's on the Half Shell as a good place for oysters. Vaccaro's is mentioned for pastries.

I wonder how much demand for these venues will go up as a result of this mention.

Inefficiency of Splitting the Bill

Have you ever been to a restaurant with a large group of people and split the bill, so everyone pays the same amount? Most of us have; it is common among my friends. Under these circumstances, have you ever been temped to order more than you otherwise might? After all, if you spend an extra $1, you only pay $1 x 1/N (where N is the number of people in your group). Have you seen your friends order things (e.g., one more $10 cocktail, the lobster) you think they wouldn't otherwise when you are splitting the bill? Again, they alone get the benefit of the food and everyone shares in paying for it.

The first person who expressed concern about this to me (in 1998) was Sarah Reber, an economist with excellent economic intuition. Sarah's guess was that this problem was particularly severe for (alcoholic) drinks, and less severe for food. I hadn't given it much thought, but recently found out about this paper by Uri Gneezy, Ernan Haruvy and Hadas Yafe which provides nice evidence that this is a problem. The authors found groups of people going to a restaurant. At the beginning of the meal, they were randomly told that a) they would each pay for their own meal, b) that they would split the total bill equally, or c) that the person running the experiment would pick up the tab. People spent least in (a) when they bore the full cost of ordering more; they spent less in (b) when they bore only some of the cost of ordering more; they spent least in (c) when they bore none of the costs. So people spend more when their friends pick up much of the cost of this extra ordering. They don't take into account the harm they do their friends by ordering more.

The efficient outcome is obtained if everyone pays for themselves, so people bear the full cost of their food (which makes sense given that they also get the full benefit of eating). So why is it so common to split the bill? One answer is that it is easier. It is always hard to figure out each person's share of the tax and tip. Another is that it is awkward to suggest that everyone pays for themselves. If you took the harm you did to your friends by ordering more (when you are splitting the bill) into account when ordering, there would be no problem with splitting the bill. Suggesting that you want everyone to pay for themselves is effectively accusing your friends of not caring about your welfare. Now that's an awkward conversation.

Asahi


Asahi
629 S. Broadway
Fell's Point, Baltimore
410-534-4255
sushi
Cost: $$
Reservations: Not Needed
Date of meal: June 2007
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It

Asahi is a small, unassuming sushi joint in the heart of Fell's Point. The decor is extremely low-key; for example, they have a stack of books for patrons to read while they eat. I found all this pleasant but be warned that the vibe is neither romantic nor hip.

Service was good. We ordered a sushi combination and they were willing to make substitutions (who wants shrimp when you can get raw fish?). Sushi was plentiful and displayed nicely. Tasty and fairly fresh, it didn't blow my mind. However, the price point is very appealing (quality sushi entrees <$20). While I'd be willing to pay a bit more for higher quality fish, Asahi is a good value given the price and quality. To my mind, this makes Kawasaki (which is down the street) a better bet for Fell's Point sushi. Kawasaki has better decor/view, substantially fresher sushi, and is only marginally more expensive.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Bertha's


Bertha's
734 S. Broadway
Fell's Point, Baltimore
410-327-5795
Seafood
www.berthas.com
Cost: $$
Reservations: Varies
Date of meal: June 2007
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: On It

While Bertha's is known for its mussels, it is their marketing that makes my mouth water. (I guess this is what happens to you when you work as a business school professor for four years.) The first clue is that they have "www.berthas.com" as their website. They have bumper stickers,



and t-shirts.

What's more, people actually wear them. I haven't seen such brand loyalty since Vanguard or Harley-Davidson. (I bet you can guess which of these two brands I'm loyal to.) To top it off--which may be trying too hard--Bertha's has its own myspace page (which lists "her" marital status as "swinger").

Bertha's has a restaurant and a bar. The restaurant is substantially up-market of the bar; I haven't been to the restaurant yet. The bar is eclectic-kitchy-divey, a bit like a cross between Delux Cafe in Boston's Back Bay and Mama's Royal Cafe in the San Francisco Bay Area's Mill Valley. The walls are covered in bumper stickers.

You go there for the mussels (and maybe some beer). I got both, taking advantage of the many sauce options. Mussels were reasonably priced; they were also very good, although the bread for dipping was not as good. I enjoyed it and would be very happy to go back. However, I'm not sure what all the fuss is about. These mussels seemed pretty similar to those on offer at many solid Belgian brew pubs (Monk's and Eulogy in Philadelphia come to mind). Given Baltimore's smaller market, I'm delighted it has a yummy place for mussels in a low-key environment.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Little Havana


Little Havana
1325 Key Highway
Federal Hill, Baltimore
410-477-1975
Cuban
www.littlehavanas.com
Cost: $$
Reservations: Not Accepted
Date of meal: Monday June 25, 2007
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It

I went to Little Havana with a large group on a Monday early evening. Little Havana overlooks the water and has a great view. Since the weather was nice, we had a bit of a wait for an outdoor table. Indoor decor is like a typical bar for middle-income 20-somethings; nothing fancy but not gross either.

We ordered lots of mojitos, which were fine. Service was reasonable, which is better than expected at a bar with outside seating. The food, however, was disappointing. Most nights of the week have a special deal here, and Mondays have half-price sandwiches (which is a loss-leader for the alcohol, the price of which motivates a solid $$ on cost). I had a Cuban sandwich, which I normally enjoy. Unfortunately, this one was gross. The pickles were bad, the mustard of poor quality, the bread industrial. I couldn't eat it. We got a variety of sides, including nachos and French fries. These were edible but nothing special.

I would happily come here for a drink outside given good weather. I would not eat here again (even if I was forced to come, I'd eat before or after elsewhere), except perhaps to order fries.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Pricing Power of Baltimore Restaurants

I want to begin this post with two stylized facts about Baltimore restaurants relative to other cities.
1. On average, nice Baltimore restaurants are more expensive than comparable restaurants in other cities.
2. On average, nice Baltimore restaurants are easier to get into (a.k.a. emptier) than comparable restaurants in other cities.

These two observations seem pretty clear to me after just a few months in Baltimore (and having spent lots of time in more than a few major cities for comparison). I'm going to use them as the starting point for this discussion, but I welcome thoughts on either point. If either of these is wrong, my theory (which attempts to explain them) is probably wrong too.

Can we explain these two facts with a single unified explanation? Why doesn't a restaurant cut prices to get fuller? Given the fixed costs of running a restaurant, this would certainly be worth doing if a small price cut would substantially increase the number of customers. The fact that we don't see much of this (judging by the high prices and empty restaurants) implies that in Baltimore you wouldn't get a big increase in customers with a small decrease in price. In other cities, you see lower prices and fuller restaurants because empty restaurants can increase their number of customers more dramatically with small price drops. In other words, Baltimore's restaurant patrons have a more inelastic demand for a given restaurant than patrons in other cities.

Why are Baltimore restaurant patrons more inelastic demanders of dinners than patrons in other cities? The obvious answer here is that larger and richer cities have room in their markets for more nice restaurants of any given type and therefore more competition. The Baltimore restaurant market is less competitive and "thinner" so restaurant owners have more pricing power. Thai Restaurant in Waverly charges much higher prices than similar restaurants elsewhere because you have to Mount Vernon (and arguably to the DC suburbs) to get good Thai food nearby. I'm willing to pay $3 to avoid this commute, and Waverly doesn't have a big enough market to support two Thai restaurants. Therefore, the one Thai restaurant can raise prices a bit knowing our other options are limited.

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