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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 15, 2006

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


1 vs. 100, Cookies, Puzzles, Malls, Northline, and Muse

Bob Saget has had such a strange career. For eight years he was the "sane one" on Full House -- the mother-free Father Knows Best-meets-Bachelor Father sitcom of the '80s, which, in syndication, still teaches youngsters what it looks like to have a man in the house.

Meanwhile, he also hosted the sadistic America's Funniest Home Videos, adding a note of wry wit to the proceedings.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to most of us, he fully earned a reputation among other comedians as perhaps the filthiest comic alive. (If comedy were football, we would say that Saget plays as well for the inoffensive as for the indefensible.)

Now Saget is back, once again in his disguise as Mild Man, hosting a new NBC primetime game show called 1 vs. 100 -- sort of a nephew of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

The premise is that one contestant faces a mob of 100 opponents, who include female models from Howie Mandel's pure-gambling show Deal or No Deal and emperor-of-Jeopardy! Ken Jennings -- quite a range.

Saget poses a multiple-choice trivia question to the contestant. The contestant chooses an answer, and so do all the opponents. If the contestant gets it right, then he is given some amount of money -- usually a thousand bucks -- for each of the mob who got it wrong. The losing mobsters are out for the remainder of the game. The contestant goes on to face an ever-smaller -- and ever-smarter -- group of opponents on questions that get harder and harder.

At any point the contestant can take his money and quit. But if he makes a wrong guess, then all the money he's earned so far is divided among the remaining opponents, and the contestant goes home empty-handed.

There are a few extra permutations -- the equivalent of phone-a-friend or ask-the-audience in Millionaire -- but that's basically it.

What makes it work -- and it does work -- is that the early questions, at least, seem to be taken from last week's People and TV Guide, so that if you are a steady consumer of popular culture, you will know what they're talking about.

If you're actually well-educated and a reader of books who doesn't watch every episode of every show on TV, you won't even get to the harder rounds where reading might have helped you.

No, I'm being snide. The fact is, they seem to have hired the old Millionaire question-writers, which means the questions are hard but guessable, and the show is very entertaining -- in large part because Saget is so doggone charming and likeable, just as Regis was on Millionaire.

In fact, when you think about it, Saget was Regis Philbin before Regis Philbin was Regis Philbin (except for the singing). Remember when Regis was the star of every show on TV a few years ago? Well, that was Saget in the '80s, wasn't it? I rest my case.

*

To those who complain that in my columns I go on and on and on about things you aren't interested in, I'm going to give you a hint that will change your life: You can actually stop reading my column at any time. That's the glorious thing about print media like the Rhino Times. You don't have to click on some button or press fast forward or anything like that.

You can just glance down the column to see if it gets interesting later on, and if it doesn't, you can skip on to Scott Yost's stories of hitting on babes and saving the world, or Jerry Bledsoe's account of how the city fired the guy who was trying to clean up the police department and kept the guys who dirtied it up. These things are far more interesting than anything I write.

So why are you still reading this, if you hate everything I say? Why do you continue to put yourself through it? They always print coupons on the reverse side of the page from my column, so most of it will get cut out anyway. I'm just here as filler. Move on!

*

Suppose you want to give people consumable Christmas gifts this year. This is actually a noble thing, because when you give people gifts that are meant to disappear after use, then even if they hate the gift, they can throw it away without embarrassment, because when you come over to visit you won't expect to see it on display!

In other words, a consumable gift is a gift with deniability.

Consumable gifts include restaurant gift certificates, candy, fruit, flowers, theater tickets, tickets to concerts and sporting events, magazine subscriptions, and certificates from Honey-baked Ham.

These gifts allow you to show that you made some effort to choose a gift -- unlike store gift certificates and plain old-fashioned money, which look like a gesture of duty rather than love.

(Clothing store gift certificates are particularly annoying, because what if you chose the wrong store? This poses a terrible dilemma, especially for teenagers, which is usually resolved by going to the store you chose, buying enough stuff to use up every penny of the certificate, then turning it all back in for cash and taking it to the store that has the stuff they like. This wastes hours of time that could have been spent on homework. Thus you are contributing to the dumbing down of America's youth.)

Just in case you are looking for a place that will send sickeningly decadent brownies and cookies to faraway people on your Christmas-gift list, let me point out Cheryl & Co. at http://www.cherylandco.com -- or by telephone at 800-367-2714. They proclaim that they want to be the best mail order gourmet bakery ever.

At your request (and after charging you noticeable chunks of money), they will send to the person of your choice a lovely box filled with, for instance, a selection of brownies.

There will be chocolate fudge and chocolate chocolate fudge (count the "chocolates" and you'll see that those are two different flavors), oatmeal scotchies, blondies, and toffee crunch. Not to mention raspberry crumb and my favorite, cashew chocolate chip.

(In our testing sample, some people complained that the non-chocolate ones had a rather grainy texture, more like candy than brownies. Other people praised them for their candy-like texture, which was deliciously grainy. Most people's mouths were full and couldn't say anything.)

The brownies are individually wrapped and arrive in perfect condition. You can let people open their own little packages, thus assuring freshness, or open them all and put them on a plate.

In fact, if you serve these at home and really like your guests, you will cut all the brownies into quarters or eighths before serving them, because they are so rich that eating a whole one might stop your heart, and so delicious that you can't stop eating them no matter how you palpitate.

You can get selections of 18, 30, 52, or 80 brownies, depending on how many people you want to kill with your kindness.

But if brownies are not your preference, then perhaps you will consider the cookies. They are just as lethal, just as delicious, and come in similar individual wrappings. You can get custom assortments of the cookies, zeroing in on your personal preference; I'm a chocolate chip, snickerdoodle, and sugar cookie specialist and leave the rest alone, but suit yourself.

Oh, and they also have a whole section of sugar-free cookies, but I didn't even bother clicking on that box on the website. What's the point?

The only real problem with Cheryl & Co. is that their brownies and cookies are so rich that I can only eat one cookie a day. Not because I have self-control, but because I'm full. It's just so ... heavy.

So I have a confession to make. While I was writing this review, I googled the company that used to make the best commercial chocolate chip cookies I ever had -- Blue Chip of San Francisco. More than fifteen years ago, we ordered lots of cookies from them, but for a while they stopped doing mail order. I had to check to see if they were back in business. They are.

How can I tell you that Cheryl & Co. is the "best" when even as I'm raving about them I'm stopping to order chocolate chip cookies from Blue Chip? Of course, maybe their quality has deteriorated over the years. Certainly their packaging doesn't have the same luxurious attitude that Cheryl & Co. offers. Yet Blue Chip's cookies are actually more expensive, on a per-cookie basis.

All I can say is, nobody will complain that you gave a lousy cheapskate present if you send Cheryl & Co. bakery goods as Christmas gifts. And if you like richer food than I do, you may even like them better than Blue Chip.

Meanwhile, I'll just have to make the sacrifice and do a taste comparison between Blue Chip and Cheryl & Co. As soon as my Blue Chips arrive from San Francisco on Friday ...

The things I suffer through, just to help you find good stuff to give for Christmas. And do any of you thank me? Well, yes, actually, but not enough of you.

*

Speaking of Christmas gifts, it's time to plan ahead for the gifts about Christmas.

For instance, it's during the weeks leading up to Christmas that we have a tradition in our extended family of breaking open jigsaw puzzles and everybody working on them bit by bit as the holiday season approaches. So if you're going to give anybody a puzzle to be enjoyed that way, now's the time to find it and send it.

If you don't already know about it, a great place to find wonderful puzzles is Bits and Pieces online, at http://www.bitsandpieces.com. Of course, they have a lot more than puzzles, but the puzzles are their mainstay.

They have a full selection of puzzles for every taste in art, from just-like-mine to execrable (you can choose your own list), and in every level of difficulty and size. There are puzzles in which you assemble a working grandfather clock, puzzles with Christmas themes and puzzles for little children and puzzles for fanatics.

They also have tools for puzzlers. Glue to hold your puzzle together permanently so you can frame it and mount it. Portfolios and boxes and caddies and boards and roll-up cloths so you can move the whole puzzle off the table for dinner without misplacing a piece or disorganizing all your maybe-it-goes-here groups. Puzzles with odd outlines. Puzzles with really weird-shaped pieces inside. Puzzles made of wood. Three-dimensional puzzles.

The only danger, if you're a puzzle fan, is that you'll forget you're buying gifts and order everything for yourself.

*

Only thirty years ago, Salt Lake City went through a paroxysm of mall-creation, tearing up two of their huge downtown city blocks to put up malls across the street from each other -- ZCMI Center and Crossroads Mall.

As malls go, they were fine. But once they were there, the rest of Salt Lake City's downtown sucked. The blocks are huge there, one-sixth of a mile on a side, and all the way around the two central blocks of the city, all you had were a few mall entrances, a couple of banks, and a hotel. Walking around downtown was like walking through the desert -- there was nothing to see.

In case you didn't know it, that's the surest way to kill a downtown. Because downtowns have to please the eye. They need new storefronts with window displays every few yards. Banks are downtown-killers unless you have zoning laws requiring them to take up no more than, say, forty feet of store frontage. But malls are a decision not to have a downtown.

Thus downtown Salt Lake City died, despite the Olympics, despite everything.

But unlike Greensboro, they realized exactly what was wrong and this next year they are tearing down both of those malls and building ... you guessed it ... a downtown.

They are restoring several historic old short streets that used to break up the blocks (including Richards Street, named for an ancestor of mine). They're going to dig down several stories into the bedrock (the water table in Utah is something like four miles down so you can build basements as deep as you want) to have five levels of parking under the streets; but on top, it'll look like a real city. Which means it might actually be a real city.

There'll be a grocery store. People will live there. People might even shop there because it will be fun and convenient and not just a big old ugly box that keeps all the storefronts inside.

I bring this up because, throughout the entire era of indoor malls, Starmount Corporation in Greensboro has kept alive a different kind of mall: Friendly Center. I remember that when I moved here nearly 24 years ago, I thought Friendly Center was rather quaint -- a holdover from an earlier era. Despite the large parking sprawl in the middle of the complex, it had the feel of an old fashioned downtown -- store fronts facing the street.

At first, being Americans, we mostly went to Four Seasons, the indoor mall. And Koury Corporation has done a good job of trying to keep Four Seasons Mall interesting -- especially when they finished the top story and redid the food court.

But as the years went by, we found that we went to the mall less and less, and to Friendly Center more and more. We were tired of the long trek through the whole Four Seasons mall, loaded with Christmas presents, just to deposit them in the car so we could shop some more. At Friendly Center, the car was in the middle, not the stores, so we could drop things in the trunk on our way from shop to shop.

We have watched Friendly Center through all the renovations and expansions, as the place became more attractive and convenient and ... hey, what a thought ... friendly.

Now, Starmount is giving us a great big Christmas present by just about doubling the size of the Friendly Center complex. Admittedly, the new expansion isn't within easy walking distance of the old Friendly Center area, because there's that big wide Sears store and then the parking lots for the Grande theater complex and the big old Harris-Teeter. So we're really getting two outdoor downtown-like shopping centers within very close driving distance.

But look at what they're bringing in to make us all happier at Christmas this year. Already they have opened fine restaurants with P.F. Chang and Bravo!, and they'll soon have Mimi's Café, a chain that has one of the best restaurant meatloafs I've ever eaten, along with great pot roast, turkey breast, chicken pot pie, and other American traditional cuisine.

Harris-Teeter is going to be opening a flagship store there, one that is rumored to be competitive with the great grocery stores of America, like Wegman's, Gelson's, and Bristol Farms.

And we have also spotted signs for Ben & Jerry's, J. Jill, and Coldwater Creek, stores that we have loved for their catalogues and when visiting other cities, but will finally have here at home.

But please, Starmount Corporation, with all your thoughtfulness, can't you please do something about the horrible mess you've made of the traffic on Northline through the heart of Friendly Center?

I know, at Christmastime you hire traffic directors, but look at how it works -- or, rather, doesn't work -- the rest of the year:

You have installed raised crosswalks, which function as speedbumps, right at the main intersections, where the big parking lots funnel traffic out onto Northline. This means that almost all the cross traffic wants to turn right or left onto Northline. But at all these intersections, the cross traffic has stop signs, and Northline has none.

What is the result? Well, haven't you come down to see the result of your poor planning?

People in the parking lots get stacked up six to ten cars deep and wait, and wait, and wait, not because Northline is so busy, but because all the cars on Northline have to slow down to a crawl in order to go over those crosswalk speedbumps.

They have to slow down, but they don't have to stop. They have the right of way! It is illegal for any of the cross traffic to turn onto or cross Northline in front of them. Thus the speedbumps, instead of making it safer, have made it so frustrating for people in the cross-traffic cars that they begin to break the law and whip out in front of oncoming cars, trusting that they'll slow down enough (for the speedbumps) that there won't be a collision.

This means that the cars coming out of the parking lots are often going faster than is safe, just to make sure they don't get hit by cars on Northline -- which makes it more dangerous for everybody.

Meanwhile, people parked near those intersections have to wait a ridiculously long time just to back out of their parking places, since they are blocked by cars waiting forever just to turn.

All that is needed is for you to make each of those raised-crosswalk intersections a four-way stop. How hard is that? The Northline traffic has to slow down anyway. They almost stop already. But with a four-way stop, the cars would all take turns having the right-of-way. Nobody would get so frustrated they needed to take chances.

I know. It's so hard to listen to advice from a newspaper columnist. Doing what I suggest would be like ... like a soldier surrendering to an unarmed man.

So pretend you didn't read this. Pretend that you were planning this all along. I promise not to gloat here in the Rhino after you install the new stop signs. Really. I swear it. It was all your idea.

*

Meanwhile, I have the great pleasure of telling you about a new restaurant in Greensboro that is so good it will almost make me not miss Mark's on Westover, which closed this year.

When we first moved to Greensboro, one of our favorite haunts was Swenson's, a chain restaurant and ice cream store that was run by the Gutman family, who were wonderfully kind to us in our first months and years here. They moved their restaurant across Friendly Center during one of the renovations, into a hidden-away location on Kathleen Avenue behind (a below the hill from) Great Harvest Bread Company.

It's kind of a backwater of the mall, without any big stores there to draw a crowd. And gradually, for various reasons, Swenson's faded and then was gone.

The location stood empty for a long time. But now it has an occupant again, and I believe that backwater location will be a plus -- because it means you won't be fighting with the big stores for parking spaces.

Because the new restaurant, Muse, is extraordinary. We arrived at 5:30 on a Saturday, just when they started serving dinner. We were seated immediately and found ourselves in the hands of what may just be Greensboro's best waiter, Lee Spencer. Throughout the meal he was warm and friendly, making us feel at home; and yet never intrusive. He was there every time we needed him, and never there when we were caught up in conversation. It was partly because of him that we found ourselves smiling through the entire meal.

I say "partly" only because, from time to time, they would bring us food. And when the food came, our smiles were entirely because of the quality of what we were offered.

It started with an unmenued "amuse bouche" course of tiny pastries with an olive tapenade. They were light, flavorful, perfect. Then hot rolls -- not reheated, freshly baked -- with a robust olive oil for me and plenty of soft, meltable butter for my wife and daughter.

Because it was our first visit, we were determined to all eat different things, so we could get as wide an experience of the place as possible. But I couldn't do it. My wife and I both had to have, as our appetizer, the tartlette of tomato, mozzarella, and a basil sauce on a pastry -- something like a combination insalata caprese and quiche lorraine. The mozzarella was not stringy, it was light like a quiche; the basil was not a pesto, but a subtle minced mixture that gave just the perfect touch of flavor.

My wife and I both had the same thought. What city are we in, exactly?

Oh, yes. Greensboro. But not the Greensboro we moved to 24 years ago, which didn't have a single restaurant to which we could have taken visitors from New York or L.A. This is now the city of Leblon and Green Valley Grill and Revival Grill and 223 South Elm and Southern Lights and Positano and Grappa and other unique restaurants that could hold their own anywhere.

And now Muse moves into that handful of restaurants that would be favorites of ours no matter where it was located. If it were in L.A., it would be in our regular rotation with Jiraffe, Campanile, I Cugini, La Serenata, Lucques; if it were in New York, it would take its place among Gotham Bar and Grill, Eleven Madison Park, Rossini, Noho Star; if it were in Oklahoma City, it would finally give us a place to eat there.

It didn't stop with the appetizer, of course. While the others had a perfect caesar salad, I had the potato-leek soup with truffle oil and shaved asparagus; I can only compare it with the wonderful mock turtle soup at the Library in Charleston, which up to now was my most perfect soup in the world.

Entrees? The crab cakes were like no others -- tender, moist, flavorful, with a surprisingly light and delicate texture. The thai shrimp was spicy and delicious on a bed of pasta. And the grouper was just barely cooked enough, so that the flavor emerged completely and yet the fish melted in my mouth.

Greensboro has so many good restaurants that I fear we may not have enough people in the city to keep them all in business. But do add Muse to your list of restaurants to try. I heard enough of the other waiters' conversations to know that even if you don't get Lee as your waiter, you'll have a wonderful time at Muse.

It's the kind of place where you can dress up, or not, and still feel comfortable either way. So don't get so excited by the new part of Friendly Center that you forget to check out something glorious tucked away in the old familiar part.


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