September 2012 Archives

Yelp, yelp, yelp!

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Hey, buddy - do you happen to know where a guy could find the best hamburger in town? What about the best automotive repair center? How about a really gentle dentist? Or a really thorough house cleaner? Oh - what about a good fish fry?

Like most things, the answer to all of those questions is - "there's an app for that." That app (and website) is called Yelp, and it's a super cool service.

Yelp works like this - random people like you and me visit restaurants, doctor's offices, clothing stores, movie theaters, grocery stores - any number of local businesses - each and every day. After a visit, a purchase, or some type of interaction, those random people can login to Yelp and write a review of their experience.

Yelp reviews are great, because they provide an unsolicited, in-depth readout of a business by folks like you and me. Sometimes the reviews are great, other times they're not so great. Most reviews share tips and information that may not always appear in a traditional review; one fellow Yelper's reviews always deliver the low-down on seating at a restaurant - are the chairs comfy? Too close to one another? ...you get the idea.

So... I joined Yelp way back in 2009, when I was living in Austin. At first, I didn't write any reviews - I only used Yelp to discover new locations to visit while in Austin. I found many the great restaurant and shop, all thanks to Yelp. After a while, I decided to "pay back" the Yelp community by writing my own reviews, snapping pictures, and participating in the talk threads.

Well, after 3+ years of dedicated Yelping, I was awarded Yelp Elite status. Elite members are hand-picked by Yelp staff to serve as ambassadors for a city. Madison recently launched its Elite program, and man, did they do so in grand fashion. There were two nights of parties - a general Yelp launch on Wednesday night, followed by an Elite-only event on Thursday. I was invited to both; tonight's event really was excellent.

The Elite event was hosted at the Paoli Schoolhouse Cafe, presented by Tenth & Blake Beer Company and coordinated by Yelp Madison's Community Manager, Corey and his intern, Jessica.

A small group of about fifteen Madison Elite Yelpers were invited to attend an intimate night of socialization, dining, and drinking. Tenth & Blake is the craft and import division of MillerCoors - they bring us fine beverages from the likes of Blue Moon, Batch 19, Leinenkugels, Killian's, Crispin, and a few others.

Grant and Tyler from Tenth & Blake worked with Chef Krista and Chef Steve from the Paoli Schoolhouse to create a menu that paired some special beers with incredible food. But before we sat down to eat, we all mingled on the deck of the Schoolhouse - it was absolutely gorgeous; we were treated to a palette cleansing Summer Shandy as we chatted and got to know one another.

As the sun lowered into the horizon, the wind picked-up, and we moved inside, where we milled about some more - talking and learning about one another. Here's part of the group as we waited for the dinner bell.

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At around 6:45pm, we were invited to sit. Corey welcomed everyone, and introduced Grant and Tyler, who shared with us their intention for the evening. They hoped we would learn about how craft beers pair well with food. They asked us to enjoy ourselves, and they asked us to be honest in our reviews and assessments of the night.

The tables were small and cozy, especially with the array of various beer tasting glasses, but they were classy and appealing to the eye.

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The menu for the evening looked absolutely superb - my mouth watered as I contemplated the forthcoming courses. Thankfully, no one noticed the slobber, or if they did, at least they didn't say anything about it. ;-)

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The first course arrived just as Tyler was wrapping-up his talk about our first beer - Leinenkugel's Honey Weiss. He explained how the Honey Weiss (a wheat beer with a citrusy, slightly sweet note) was initially intended to be a seasonal offering, but due to overwhelming demand, it became a staple and is currently Leinie's best selling brew.

The crab cake was heavenly. It was served with mixed greens and a remoulade, and it was quite honestly one of the best crab cakes I have ever had. The crust was crispy and buttery. The crab was flaky and oh so fresh tasting. The remoulade complimented the cake and paired supremely with the fresh Honey Weiss.

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Our plates were cleared, and a second beer was introduced. Grant and Tyler talked about Blue Moon's Belgian White Ale - an unfiltered wheat ale. They required that we add a slice of orange to the rim of our glass, and told us how to best sample the beer with the food. The hints of coriander and clove were prominent and accentuated by the orange slice.

As we were smelling and tasting the Blue Moon, our second food course arrived - a truly wonderful salad of mixed greens, lightly tossed in a scrumptious citrus dressing. Folks, you'll recall that I'm not a fan of any type of dressing, but this was a dressing that I'd happily drink from a straw. WOW, was it good.

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Along with the salad came an incredible artisan-style bread that was obviously homemade. It featured a chewy crust and a totally airy, pillow-soft "flesh." When combined with a slightly salty, housemade scallion butter, the experience was sinful. I'm not a bread guy, but this stuff was insanely good.

For the third course, we were provided with a Blue Moon Harvest Pumpkin beer. I enjoy me some pumpkin beer, but most are too heavy on the spice. This offering was the exception - it was perfectly balanced and completely drinkable. We were informed that the beer featured ever-so-light-hints of licorice, brown sugar, and nutmeg.

As we were hearing about the beer, the owner/manager of the Paoli Schoolhouse shared a story that was quite appropriate (and a tad shocking) - it turns out the Schoolhouse is haunted! She recounted stories of run-ins with "Gwen," the house ghost. Several servers validated and shared their own stories as well. It was a bit eery!

Our main course arrived, and it looked incredible. Beer-braised pork tenderloin, sweet potato and parsnip puree, braised red cabbage and a creamy spicy mustard. Boy oh boy - this was seriously delicious, even if my pork was a wee-bit overcooked (it was an end piece, so it's understandable).

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For the final beer offering, we were treated to a very special version of Leinie's beer, called "Big Eddy." It's named after the spring that provides water to the Leinenkugel's brewery, and it turns out that this particular brew was the direct result of Grant's brewing efforts - he and his team developed this Baltic Porter from scratch! Too crazy!!

I'm not normally a fan of porters, but I'm not exaggerating when I say that this was one helluva great beer. It was smooth and creamy, with a wonderful mix of chocolates and fruits, and just a hint of coffee. I will definitely seek out some of this the next time I go shopping, and I'll save it for extra special occasions.

I wish I hadn't been riding my motorcycle, because I had to limit myself to just a few sips of each of the beers... I seriously contemplated leaving my motorcycle at the Schoolhouse overnight so I could enjoy the entire glass of Big Eddy's Baltic Porter, but alas, I exercised restraint.

The dessert plate was by far my favorite (as usual) - an espresso cheesecake. I'll let the picture do the talking:

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I'm still speechless. That cheesecake was a one-in-a-million.

After we finished our meals, we were introduced to Chef Krista and Chef Steve - the folks responsible for our decadent meals - they gave us great insight into what went into the meal, shared some of their history, and thanked us for attending. Here are the two superchefs (on the right):

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With the tables cleared, we meandered our way to the door, but not before receiving one final surprise... GIFT BAGS!!! Inside each of our gift bags were a set of glassware that matched the glasses we used throughout the meal, along with a very special Yelp Elite old-school digital wristwatch. TOO COOL, YELP!

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So there you have it - an insider's view into my very first Yelp Elite event. It truly was a special time, and I'm still pinching myself for having been included. Yelp, Corey, Tyler, Grant, Krista, Steve, the fine folks (owner, servers, staff) from the Schoolhouse, and all of my fellow Elite members were all so cool and fun to hang out with. I really had a blast, and I'm looking forward to the next opportunity to hang with everyone.

This was a great event. Now, go visit Yelp's Madison Site and start reading (and writing) some reviews!

A little gassy...

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A few months ago, while stuck in rush hour traffic, I heard a public service announcement for radon gas, and how it was critical that everyone test their homes for the silent, but deadly killer.

I dismissed the radio ad until I overheard a coworker discussing it while at an after hours get together. He had tested his home for the presence of radon and discovered a level more than 18-times the recommended limit. After having a mitigation system installed, the level dropped to well below the recommended limit.

I figured that between the radio ads and the stories, I should test the house I'm currently living in. I sent away for a DIY test kit, conducted the test, and was shocked to find that my house had a radon level of around 9.0 pCi/L (the maximum limit is around 4.0). I ordered a second kit to verify the result, and sure enough, I was clearly over the limit.

After searching around for some radon mitigation specialists, I chose a contractor that was highly recommended by my neighbors and coworkers. I scheduled an appointment, and within a few days, a technician arrived and installed the mitigation system.

Radon seeps into your home primarily through the basement - cracks in the foundation, the sump pit, and leaky windows are usually the culprits. The contractor began by sealing the sump pit and any foundation cracks. Here's a peek at my sump cover, after the sealing work:

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There's an inspection window in the top, so that I can determine if the pit is getting too full. Given that the house is 25+ years old and has never flooded, it's unlikely that the basement will require a sump pump.

The contractor then cut a hole into the basement floor and inserted an extraction tube into the drainage tiles. The extraction tube is basically a large diameter PVC pipe that ties-in to the drainage tiles/pipes. The tube extends through up through the ceiling, and makes its way into the garage. Here's the tube as installed in the basement:

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The extraction tube extends from the basement into the garage, where it hugs the garage wall while en route to the attic. In the attic is a large fan assembly that vents air from the drainage tiles up through the roof and into the sky. Here's a shot of the pipe in the garage:

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The entire process took about 5 hours, and the cost was extremely reasonable. The technician was extremely friendly and kept me in the loop as he worked on the system. A few days after the system was installed, another company rep stopped by with a radon test system, which she left in the basement for a few days.

When she returned, she printed the results, which showed my radon levels had dropped from 9.0 pCi/L to 0.9 pCi/L. That's quite a reduction!

The system is apparently doing its job, which is good. Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer (outside of smoking), and is responsible for more than 20,000 deaths annually.

If you haven't yet tested your home for the presence of radon, I'd suggest that you do. The test kits cost about $15 and are incredibly easy to use. Radon is odorless and invisible, so there isn't any way to detect it on your own, outside of a test.


=== Other news ===

I received a surprise phone call over labor day weekend - my friend John from Minneapolis was in town, so we got together for a visit down at the Memorial Union Terrace. It was great to catch up with him; I haven't seen him since he was in Wisconsin for a SCUBA diving trip a few years ago. We enjoyed a few beverages while on the terrace, had dinner at a local restaurant, and called it a night. I have to keep in better touch.

...and finally...

I just came in from performing a minor upgrade to the motorcycle. Harley's have notoriously dim brake/tail lights, so I upgraded from the stock lights to a "BAL-1" system. BAL stands for "Bright @ss Lights," which consist of some super intense LED lights.

The installation was simple; a few screws, some new gaskets, and a zip-tie were all that were necessary to go from obscurity to an obscenely bright light that's sure to be noticed by even the sleepiest and obtuse of drivers.

Here's a video from the vendor that shows how the unit works, and how bright it is.

I set mine to the 2nd setting, which flashes the brakelight three times before remaining solid. It seems like the most "attention getting" without being overly obnoxious. Next up on the upgrade list are some new front brakes - I'll be swapping out the spongy stock front brakes for a set of super powerful Brembo brakes.

Still here -

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Sorry for not updating the blog in nearly a month... things are busy - beyond busy - with work, and I've not been doing much outside of work.

There are some events coming up over the next few weeks, so stay tuned for updates and new entries. :-)

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