Sampling Dublin pt1: Yamamori Noodles

The first in an occasional series in which I document things I find/try whilst out and about in Dublin. As a non-native Dubliner (and indeed an Englishman!) my view might prove interesting or it might prove to be rubbish, but it’s my blog and you don’t have to read. Subjects will be varied and the stuff I decide to write about will depend largely on if I have a particular opinion on it or not.

Let’s start by stating one thing. I am not a food critic, and never will be. I like food, and I like wine, but I profess to not know anything about them beyond being an average punter. So take any restaurant reviews with a pinch of salt (see what I did there?)

Yamamori Noodles is located on South Georges Street in the city centre, a short walk away from Grafton Street. It’s a Japanese noodle restaurant, somewhat similar in style to a typical Wagamama but much, much better and certainly more authentic. We visited it for lunch on a Saturday afternoon when it was busy but not crowded and we were seated immediately. The menu is fairly standard and includes sushi and sashimi selections, a range of side dishes and a very decent variety of mains. Daily lunch specials took the form of bento boxes consisting of a selection of sushi a main and a side.

I had the sashimi starter platter to begin with, which consists of eight pieces chosen by the chef (presumably depending on what’s available) Salmon and Tuna were present, as was another non-descript white fish which I didn’t identify but eat anyway. No prawns. It all tasted lovely and I’m not suffering any aftereffects so one presumes that they are able to source nice and fresh fish and know how to prepare it. Certainly, it compared favourably to any sashimi I’d had before, but then that only includes one other Japanese restaurant in Southampton so I am no expert. Lana chose to have a side of Ebi Katsu (deep fried prawns) which came with a lovely sauce, much nicer than the standard sweet chili one you would get with the same dish in Wagamama.

For mains I chose Yaki Udon which again compared very favourably to the same dish I’m used to in Wagamama. Lana chose Tempura and rice, which arrived to gasps as a delicately arranged plate of prawn, plaice and vegatable tempura placed in such a way as to form a wig-wam type shape was put in front of her. The tempura batter was done to perfection and melted in the mouth.

One thing worth definitely worth highlighting was Iki beer, which was a new one on me. I’m used to drinking Asahi or Kirin in Japanese restaurants, but Iki was wonderful. If I were to try and compare it to any other beer the closest approximation would be Hoegaarden, and in fact it is subsequently unsurprising to discover that Iki is brewed in Belgium. However, unauthentic as it may be, the combination of brewed beer and green tea along with citrus Yuzu fruit is very thirst quenching and eminently drinkable (much more so than Hoegaarden which let’s face it is something that you start of drinking because it is different and cool, but quickly realise tastes very similar to what it looks like…)

Enough about the beer, what about the service? Well it was efficient, friendly and without problem. We were attended to quickly for drinks and food ordering and the dishes arrived without delay. They gave us green tea without asking which is always a nice touch. One thing I was particularly pleased about was that they allowed a gratuity to be given using the EPOS machine when I paid by card. It really annoys me when places skip past the option before handing you the machine to enter your PIN. If I had cash on me I’d be paying with it and then leaving you a cash tip. If I want to pay by card then let me pay everything by card. I know that it is probably much easier to share tips out amongst staff when they are all in cash form but don’t forget the customer is still the most important part of the deal. Without them there would be no tips! Talking of money, the prices were excellent certainly much cheaper than I was expecting given the quality of the food. Our lunch including drinks came to a very tidy €45.

So, overall Yamamori gets a very definite thumbs up from us, and the next time we are in town and looking for some Japanese food we will walk right past Wagamama and onto here. I’m also looking forward to trying out their sister restaurant Yamamori Sushi down on the Quays.

New glass

EF-S 17-55 f2.8 IS USM with EW-83J hood

As mentioned before I’ve been hankering after a new lens, specifically the Canon 17-55 f2.8 IS USM. Well after a fair amount of procrastination, I have it. It all happened rather by chance. Lana and I were in the city centre shopping and we wandered into a camera shop just for a browse. I asked if they had the lens in (just to have a look at and see the price) and the assistant said yes, but that they had also just taken a second hand one in which was €300 less than the new one’s price. On inspection of it and after taking some test shots on a 400D body I bought it. There are a couple of slight cosmetic marks on the outside of the body, but nothing to worry about. One often cited gripe about this lens is the fact that it easily lets in dust behind the front element. There are a few specks there, but again I’m not concerned about this. The shop honour a 1 year warranty on second hand lenses, and it can always be sent back to Canon for cleaning if it becomes too much of an issue (I can’t see that it has any effect on the images I’ve taken so far)

The lens is widely regarded to be L grade glass and the fact it isn’t designated so is probably down to the lack of dust and weatherproofing, and more likely that Canon don’t want to designate any EF-S mount lenses as L grade. The test shots I’ve taken so far indicate that the resolution of the lens is significantly better than the EF-S 18-55 kit lens it is replacing as my main walkabout lens. The addition of f2.8 throughout the zoom range and image stabilization mean it should also prove very useful in low light situations, something I’ve been quite frustrated with recently. I’m attending a friend’s wedding this coming week so am looking forward to giving it a good work out.

Finally, as you can see from the photo above, I also bought the EW-83J lens hood as well (again, the lens is not L-designated glass so it doesn’t come with one as standard) Normally Canon lens hoods are widely regarded as a rip-off. The price for this one on Warehouse Express is a whopping £43.99. For some reason it only cost me €25 (£17.44) which certainly cannot be sniffed at! I suspect that the assistant discounted it as I didn’t barter with him over the price of the lens, something I only thought about after the fact.

Faldo’s Seve trophy stupidity

So is Nick Faldo showing his infamous stubborness in this week’s Seve Trophy? The Seve Trophy is a golf competition between teams representing the UK and Ireland versus Europe. It is being held this week in Killenard, Ireland. Nick Faldo, English golfer and winner of six masters is the captain of the UK and Ireland side – a role he will be taking up for Europe in the 2008 Ryder Cup.

Given the tournament is in Ireland you would think that Faldo would find it sensible to include one or two Irish players in his wildcard picks. Afterall, there’s a few of them around. To be fair Padraig Harrington, winner of this year’s Open was in but had to withdraw. However Faldo decided to leave out Paul McGinley, one of his named Ryder Cup vice-captains, who has now pulled out of that role as well.

The Irish media (and the players) have been complaining about the poor attendance at the event yesterday and today, well I’m sure crowds would have been swelled a bit if there was a bit of home interest out on the course. The fear is that Faldo has too much ego to do the right thing, and it already appears to be affecting the Ryder Cup preparations.

Of course, the other reason for low crowds, which the UK media have gleefully picked up on, is the fact that the Irish National Ploughing Championships are taking place at the same time just up the road from the Seve Trophy. Now I’d never heard of these championships until they were mentioned in conversation earlier in the week. Apparantly they really are a big thing, and are pulling in 50,000+ crowds! To be fair, it is much more than the name suggests and is Irelands largest agricultural fair.

EA Game Face

As mentioned in my previous entry, I’ve been playing the Electronic Arts Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2008 game on my XBox 360 since the weekend. One feature of the game is “Game Face” which allows you to model your career golf character on your own face. Now face modelling in video games isn’t new, for instance 2K Games’ Oblivion had an extensive modelling editor which took the approach of using sliders to alter every part of a model head to match your own. The FaceGen engine used behind this has a demo downloadable app with which you can plug in a photo (or for best results a couple of photos) and it would create the 3D model for you. It was then just a simple case of copying the slider settings manually into Oblivion to create a pretty realistic likeness to yourself.

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2008 takes this much further though. The Game Face engine is part of the game code, and allows you to use one or two photos to create the 3D model directly. Naturally, I spent a good amount of time playing around with this before I even swung a club in anger in the game itself!

My first attempt was with my XBox 360 Vision Camera, a 640 x 480 web cam that plugs directly into the console. I took a head-on and side profile shot of myself, taking care to make sure that the lighting on my face was even (the 32″ reflector from my camera gear came in handy here!) The game then processes the photos to create the 3D model. It takes about ten minutes if you use a single photo, or up to about 20 minutes if you use two, the latter giving a more accurate render. EA keep you up to date on progress with an amusing set of status updates. So, here’s the result of the Vision cam render…

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Overall, very good, and certainly better than you could hope to achieve using a traditional slider approach. It isn’t perfect though, so I broke out my Canon 400d and took some proper photos of myself:

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(It was a bad hair day, and the morbid expression was suggested as being best for the rendering!)

In order to get the game to use these photos, you have to upload them to the EA website. Now this proved to be one of the most frustrating experiences on the web I’ve ever had. Firstly I had to register. Now I was already registered for the EA web site, and it knew about my XBox Live gamertag, but apparantly this wasn’t enough. Getting the correct registration involved constant back and forth between three different EA sites, and lots of patience and experimentation. Finally, though I got to the page where I could upload my photos… except it wouldn’t let me. Apparantly their servers were very busy and I should try later. Checking various forums it appears that they’ve pretty much been like this since the game was released three weeks or so ago. Finally a day later I managed to get them uploaded whilst the US were asleep. Once I got started it was pretty painless. The web app does a good job of helping you optimize the photos ready for the rending by zooming them to fit a profile overlay.

From that point it is back to the XBox to go through the Game Face process again, this time telling it to download the images from the EA server. This was painless, and the render process started. 20 minutes or so later, and I have one of those WTF moments when this appears on my HD TV:

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Now that is pretty damn near photorealistic. The Nokia N80 camera phone photo from my TV screen doesn’t do it justice. Let’s put it this way, I got Lana to look at it and she freaked out when a bald, blinking me stared back at her from the TV!

The final stage was to “dress” myself with a hairstyle, beard, clothes, etc. etc. Of course, the proof is in the pudding, which in this case is how the avatar appears in-game. Here’s are some more (poor) camera phone shots:

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All in all, Game Face is pretty awesome and it is quite a surreal experience to see yourself on the screen. I can only see more games taking this sort of approach to give added realism. Imagine how this technology could enhance an adventure or FPS game. Of course, the real-time 3D graphics in a golf game are much simpler and less dynamic than a typical FPS, but it is probably only a matter of time and processing power.

Too many games to play

I’m amazed by the sheer volume and quality of games coming out recently, or due in the run-up to Christmas. Having owned an XBox 360 from day one I don’t remember any period in which so many quality titles have been published or are due soon. After effectively ignoring the 360 for about four months whilst we moved over to Dublin and then had a wedding to organise, I’ve been firing it up over the past week or so and began to start reading the likes of Eurogamer to catch up with what’s going on.

Some of the motivation to switch the ‘Box on came from a couple of my work colleagues discovering Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero 2. This culminated in a session last Friday where we plugged in two guitar controllers for a bit of a rock-duel. I started to play GH2 before we moved over, but finally got around to completing it on medium level in preparation. Another game which has been gathering dust was Forza 2. I’ve just not got into this as much as I was expecting though, mainly because there’s just too much else to play.

The weekend saw me buy Bioshock (10/10 on Eurogamer) and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2008 (8/10) So far I’ve played about 2 hours of Bioshock which is thoroughly awesome in terms of graphics, sound, atmosphere and just about everything else. It carries the mark of any good game in that it gets terribly hard to put down. I’ve dabbled with golf games before, but the fact that I’ve started to play the game for real has caused me to get more into Tiger this time around. The way the gameplay is structured means you no longer arbitrarily allocate points to particular skills but rather your golfer improves in an organic fashion the more you play. This makes it seem more realistic and means you can’t just go in and quickly build up a player capable of winning the majors. Another simply awesome thing about the game is the “game face” functionality, but I’ll blog about that in more detail later.

Of course, midnight tonight sees the arrival of Halo 3 (another 10/10 Eurogamer review, put that into the context that they rather controversially gave the original Halo 8/10) I’ll probably hold off of getting it until I have Bioshock out of the way. I’ve never got into multiplayer FPS games so have only really played Halo for the single player campaign.

Then there’s the list of other stuff either out and attracting my attention or on the way:

  • Skate – a 9/10 review and finally a Tony Hawk beater? I’m a big fan of THPS games, so am seriously tempted by this
  • Project Gotham Racing 4 – Again, huge fan of the series and this one will be a no-brainer purchase
  • FIFA 2008 and Pro Evo 2008 – I’ve never really got into console footy games, but they are still both major releases
  • Guitar Hero 3 – The leaked tracklist looks awesome. Knights of Cydonia anyone?
  • Mass Effect – If it is anywhere near as good as Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic then I’m sold

Then on top of this there are the games which don’t particularly tickle my fancy but which will still be important and popular releases, such as Sega Rally, Half Life 2: Episode 2, Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty 4 and probably more that I’m not aware of.

Have gamers ever had it so good? Even those foolhardy PS3 owners will be able to play some of these 😉

Quiet

I’ve been quiet on this blog for a past few weeks, for the simple reason that I’ve been busy getting married and going on honeymoon 😉 The wedding went off great, and Lana and I really enjoyed the day. We had a wedding blog up and running before the big day which we publiscised to the guests but which I guess people may want to look at now.

For the honeymoon we flew to Boston and spent ten days touring New England before fying back from New York. We drove over 1200 miles in all, taking in six states. I spent a lot of time behind the lens, shooting about 1000 frames. We took along the iBook and so I did some quick processing of some and stuck them up on flickr as we went along. I want to spend a lot more time going through them now we are back, so expect more 😉 Here’s a slideshow of them (which should update with new ones as I add them):

I originally wanted to buy a new lens whilst over there, and had my eye on either the EF-S 10-22 f3.5/4.5 or even better the EF-S 17-55 f2.8 IS I tried the latter out in Calumet New York (B&H was closed as we were there on a Saturday) and it is a lovely lens, but in the end I decided to wait and think about it a bit more, despite the tempting exhange rate. I did buy a couple of little bits, including a diffuser for my 430EX Speedlight and a 32″ reflector.