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Big Hero 6

We went to see Disney's Big Hero 6 over the weekend. I was not planning on seeing it opening weekend but we had family visiting so we were looking for fun things to do together. The movie itself was pretty straight forward. The world was an off the shelf modern Asian city and required little in the way of explanation. The villain was pretty obvious but the story did not really care so there is no loss there. The characters were straight from central casting archetypes that you have seen in a dozen other movies. Again though, this matters little since they are clearly bit players in the story. The action was even set in "San Fransokyo" so clearly we were looking for broad appeal.

The animation did nothing to distract from the movie but it didn't add anything either. It was that now so common CGI look that just tries to get out of the way. In many ways it was computer animation trying to be live action. Maybe it is a case where you do not notice the special effects when the entire movie is one giant special effect. To get on my soapbox for a second, this really is a mistake, the best part of animation is that you can use the art to help set the mood and tell your story. At least give me a different color palette once in a while! You can do more with animation than we're doing right now and without resorting to expensive hand drawn art. Once you you make the decision to go animated, you need to take advantage of it.

Overall, Big Hero 6 was also very well done. The downsides do little to distract from the story. The lesson of the movie was felt by the kids without any of us feeling like we were getting hit over the head with it. The action did not get boring. Baymax had enough light-hearted moments to balance out the more serious points. If you have kids it is worth seeing this movie with them. However, you may find there's not enough there if you aren't aiming for a good kids movie experience.

I should mention this movie has a new short at the beginning called "Feast". This is where you get something with more broad spectrum appeal. The kids loved it and the adults were really into it as well. The dog was expressive and told a story that we do not normally see. Although it is still the generic computer animation look, it felt like the there was a bit more effort put into using colors, time of day and perspective. Hopefully, they will keep exploring with their shorts. Disney has better movies in them than we're seeing right. If we are lucky, they will break out of their comfort zone in the future.

Ponderosa!

I finally visited the Ponderosaagain. Wait, no a Ponderosa Steakhouse. Those are not the same thing. Either way, I have not been in one since I was a kid. We were on our way from Milwaukee to the Twin Cities for a short vacation and needed food. The only real option that did not require exploring random small towns was when we were passing the Wisconsin Dells. There was a bunch of restaurants there and some water parks our kids desperately hoped were the destination. However, the second I saw a sign for Ponderosa the decision was made.

The salad/buffet line was not as massive as I remember from being a kid but that is the way it normally works. It still had plenty of variety though. I also got a steak since it cost almost nothing to add to the buffet. The steak was definitely worth it. Did I mention it was only a few dollars more? It may not compete with Louis Benton or similar places but it was good and it had been a long time since I had a steak. The Ponderosa locations around here closed a while ago and there was definitely some nostalgia at work through our meal. However, the food was good and everybody made a few trips to enjoy the different things they liked. The entire restaurant from the restrooms on up looked and felt extremely clean. I mention this because most restaurants don't give off this vibe. This is especially true of any restaurant that builds its menu around a buffet line. I almost wonder if it was a newly built place.

Overall, I liked the food and the variety seemed though out. I did not spent time wandering around the buffet because the taco ingredients were in three different places. (I am looking at your Golden Corral). I appreciate not having to stick to the salad bar because of a buffet that only consists of cheap poorly made food. Ponderosa was worth the stop and not just because of nostalgia.

Eataly's Pizza

We tried a new pizza place called Eataly's Pizzeria. I knew this place was going to be good when I had to wait another five minutes for my pizza because they had to cut up more peppers. The second clue that this place was good was when my son ate three quarters of a pizza. The third was that it took all of my will power not to eat the other pizza all myself. The cheese was great and we will definitely be going to the place again. Did I mention the cheese was good? Seriously, it is worth the trip just to taste the cheese. Keep in mind that their seating is very minimal but it looked like they did pizza by the slice for lunch if not more times of the day.

USS Silversides... Etc

We have a membership to the Grand Rapids Children's Museum and that periodically gets us in for free at other places. In this case it was the USS Silversides Submarine Museum. The museum itself is not huge but covers a good deal deal of submarine material in a small amount of space, not just material related to the USS Silversides itself.

The highlight is of course the sub itself. The kids were amazed at how big yet how small it was. The shower schedule was a big hit. Crew 13-15 days. Officers 3-5. Cook-daily. I guess the importance of saving water has its limits. The fact that it still ran was something the kids had a hard time grasping. They seemed to assume that something that old should be broken. I tried to convince them that they should switch to cots at home but they were having none of it.

They also have the USCGC McLane. The Coast Guard cutter made for a nice contrast to the sub. I am not sure the kids noticed but they kept sticking out there arms to see if they could touch both sides of the hallway, etc. The kids were big fans of the four tier bunk beds. The cutter clearly had some restoration work left. The ship had been well used.

If you have never been there than you really should make the trip. It is not far and the cost was reasonable for what you got.

Chloe Élan

We tried another new restaurant tonight. This time around it was Chloe Élan in Ada. The initial experience was not the greatest. The location is in a strip mall near Amway. The first room was a small bar area populated only by staff. We were than led to one of two main floor dining rooms. It threw me a bit that the room was completely empty since the other room appeared to be reasonably busy. The decor was very "modern" for lack of a better term. It was not offensive or anything, it just felt like you could have dropped the room into any of a dozen restaurants and it would have fit in.

We were waiting for another couple to arrive so we tried to order the cheese plate. Unfortunately, had been cleaned out by an Amway party the previous day. This gave me an excuse to order the tuna tartare. Melissa is not a huge fan of seafood so it was a hard sell. However, she gave it a try and enjoyed it as much as I did. It was about this time we realized why the other couple was a half our late. They had been lead to the other, extremely crowded, dining room. The staff never made the connection. The main courses were good if not Earth shattering. The drinks were similar, a good variety but nothing so amazing that I have to go back for the food or the experience.

In the end the only thing memorable about the experience was the weakness of the service. The place was not that big with only two main rooms on the main floor and no one at all downstairs. There was no reason for one room to be extremely crowded and another to be empty. There was also no reason for them not to connect two couples both waiting for another couple who arrived within ten minutes of each other. This is probably a fine place to eat if you're in the area but there is no reason to make a special trip.

Pizza Ranch in Hudsonville

Tonight cooking was not going to happen so we tried a place in Hudsonville called Pizza Ranch. The location is an old strip mall with basic decorations. The focus of the restaurant was clearly on the food and not on selling you "ambiance" or "an experience". The place was also packed with both people and seating. There was a but as well as items off the menu. The buffet was open so that is what we went with.

The buffet itself consisted of three parts; salad, pizza and fried chicken. The salad bar was solid food service style, solid, but nothing to write home about. It was the kind of salad you can get anywhere with the strengths and weaknesses inherit. The pizza, however, was good. They had a wide variety of options and it was busy enough that it was always fresh. The chicken was a mixed bag. The coating was not to my liking. It lacked flavor and almost tasted burnt. However once the coating was removed the chicken underneath was quite good.

If you go than I would recommend focusing on the specialized pizzas and trying the chicken. It really comes down to location, the farther you have to drive to get there the less reason there is to go. There are lots of good pizza places and how many of us have the waistline for a buffet?

The Symphony... and video games

There are certain things most of us feel like we "should" do. This could be any number of things from reading the newspaper to going to a museum. We checked one off the list today with a visit to the symphony. Now as much fun as it would be to talk about some high brow performance with lots of commentary, this will not be it. In the end we went and saw the Grand Rapids Symphony perform
Play.

Play is a collection of video game music that has been adapted for performance by the symphony. The first half they focused on classic Nintendo fare. This was probably the most fun because everyone in the audience was clearly familiar with the music. The concept was new and different. In addition, this was the music that had the most room for the symphony to play with and tweak things.

The second half was the opposite in a lot of ways. The games were much more recent and of less universal appeal. The music was good but the was much less of a difference between what the symphony played and the original music. This further limited any novelty appeal. However, this was probably a good thing, the second half was a nice contrast from the first.

The other thing they had going on was video of the games in question. This as also the most fun in the first half. The people who set it up clearly had a lot of freedom to choose material. In addition, there was the greater depth of material to choose from. The newer games in the second half ended up feeling a bit more like a trailer for the games in question. This could be because there was simply less footage to choose from and many of us were less familiar with the games.

The audience itself really helped with the enjoyment. There was a huge variety of people. You had adults dressed for the symphony like it was old hat. There were kids of all ages trying to figure out what you wear to a symphony of video game music. I am not sure I saw more than a couple people who were not really excited to be there. The excitement lasted the entire show with a few people around us barely able to contain their excitement of what was being played and how they felt about it.

Overall it was certainly worth seeing if you are at all interested in video games. If you like classical music your enjoyment will be that much more. If not, this is a great chance to broaden your horizons without having to work at it. The one real negative was the one guy who wore sweats that probably had not been washed in a week. I do not care how dressed up you are but this is a public place, wear something clean.

Bagger Dave's

Better in some ways than Red Robin worse in others.

Cost: About the same, shake was good and appropriately sized but pricy. Iprobably would not bother ne t time.

Ambiance: Bagger Dave's was definitely better. It was not nearly as loud and the seating felt a bit more comfortable. Kids liked the train along the ceiling. TVs were actually playing stuff we cared about but that could have just been timing.

Food: We both got burgers. In my case the beef was a bit dry but otherwise things were good. My wife was a big fan of the turkey and we didn't try the black bean patty. Red Robin probably has a better non-burger menu but Bagger Dave's at least gives a better impression of variety by giving you a list of toppings and asking what you want. No asking what they got, its just there. I wish Red Robin would just list the toppings and let you decide without having to have a long conversation with the waitstaff.

Drinks: Special mention for Bagger Dave's. The pop was apparently homemade. If we go back i will have to give it a shot and see if it is any good. The beer menu is a good selection of craft beer. No asking what they got, its just there. I appreciate that since most places I go I end up in a entirely too long conversation when I ask what they have.

Service: Weak, might have just been our server though. He seemed a bit overwhelmed trying to keep up with his tables.

Location: Red Robin is closer than Bagger Dave's. We usually do not make it down to Canal Ave. it is likely that out of sight out of mind will limit our return visits.

website: http://baggerdaves.com/

Brookfield Zoo

We did not have any plans for this weekend but we figured we had come all the way to Chicago and had time to do something else if we could time traffic and distance. It didn't take long to figure that the we'd all enjoy taking in a different zoo. We usually go to John Ball Zoo a few times a year and went to Binder Park Zoo earlier in the year. The Brookfield Zoo looked like a good candidate, it was easy to get to, large and on our way back to Michigan. These were important criteria given our limited time budget.

Once, we go there I began to notice a couple of things. The first thing was that the was a noticeable division of old exhibits/buildings and new. The new exhibits were quite good and we got to see animals that we didn't get to see in the zoos we had been to. My favorite had to bee the aardwolf. I had never heard of such a thing. My wife was a big fan of the aardvark once we found it hiding in its den. The Polar Bears were also quite impressive. The one thing everyone enjoyed that I did not expect was the dolphin show. I had no idea they had a dolphins. If we were to go in the future we would probably skip the show itself and watch the dolphins from one of the under water viewing areas. These are free and I am betting it would be good time to watch them during the shows.

However the other things we noticed was less positive. It was clear they still had a lot of cleanup to do at the very least. There was no real flow to the zoo. We are used to an obvious path that allows you to see pretty much everything at the zoo. The map listed a couple of paths but when we tried to follow them we found that what we thought were entrances to the various zoo buildings were not entrances or were old entrances that were no longer in use. We had to back track several times to try and find entrances. This meant that our limited time was cut even further. I am hoping that in the future they will be able to use the unused spaces in the park to not just expand their offerings but to improve the flow. There was lots of concrete that just seemed to be taking up space. The other negative thing was the service/food quality of the place we got food. Someone needs to tell the cooks that bison meat is not the same as beef. It was ridiculously dry by the time I go it. The service was also terrible. The customers would get a number but often times after far too long a wait the food would be served up with a different number. This caused further delays and a great deal of frustration.

Overall it was a good time and I would not mind going back at all when we had more time. There were several areas we ended up skipping because we ran out of time or had to go over very briefly. I'd still skip most of the extra cost items like the trolley, dolphin show, etc. There did not seem to be much benefit to them unless you were someone who had been to the zoo a great deal and were looking for something new. The only lasting disappointment was we did not get many pictures because the battery died and we did not have any spares or the ability to charge it.

Papa's Dog's and More

Today we finally stopped by Papa's Dog's and More for lunch. We had intended to stop by for a while now but just hadn't gotten around to it. This is primarily due to the location, they are in a strip mall on the end of 28th street that Grandville has sucked the life out of. We have almost not reason to head down that way. They had apparently just moved into a new location a couple doors down from their smaller original location. The new one looks like a pretty basic setup but clean and had plenty of tables which were being put to good use while we were there.

The guy, who I think was the owner, gave us the run down. Their schtick is that they bake skinless Koegel's or other sausages into homemade bread. This does mean you're limited to what they have on hand or you get to wait forty-five minutes for them to cook what you're interested in. However, they have plenty of their standard Papa dog's so we went with them. The kids went with basic white bread while Melissa and I tried the Garlic Cheese Bread and Pretzel Bread. The bread was quite good. I'd definitely like to see more hot dogs places take a moment and re-evaluate their buns. There is certainly room for the basic hot dog bun to improve. Another point in their favor is the toppings bar. The selection was huge. They had an actual salad bar full of toppings of various types; a cooler full of various salad dressings and other condiments; and crock pots of chili and cheese.

However, I am not really a fan of the dog being baked into the bread. I would rather have traditional shaped buns made out of their various bread types. There must be a trick or two that I am missing when it comes to keeping the toppings on. No matter what I did the dog rolled and dumped the toppings and a look at my family's trays confirmed I was not the only one. Still, I would definitely be willing to go back. The food was good and you could spend plenty of visits trying out various toppings/dogs combinations. The pricing was reasonable and the location is close enough that there's no real planning needed to go. If you want something specific than you will want to call ahead so they can have what you want available.

Cinco de Mayo

Lunch during the week and Dinner on the weekends are clearly different things. I've been to many restaurants where ordering the lunch special resulted in food so terrible that you'd question whether it was the same place that served the amazing dinner you had the weekend prior. I try and keep this in mind if lunch turns ends up being more than a tv dinner.

In this case, one of my co-workers and I decided to try a new Mexican restaurant that opened up near where we work. The name was Cinco de Mayo and it is in an old Perkins building at 3300 Alpine Avenue Northwest, Grand Rapids, MI 49544. It appears to be part of a chain of restaurants know variously as Cinco de Mayo, El Burrito and others. I'm not sure of the exact relationship and which ones are tied in but the restaurant I was at was clearly a work in progress. There was a small bar area that was unfinished and waiting a liquor license. The dining area was clearly redecorated Perkins but comfortable and appropriate for the style of restaurant. The menu was well laid out and had a large selection. The service quick and efficient. The food off the lunch menu was good but not great. Prices were reasonable for a sit down restaurant.

I would have no problem going again if someone wanted to go. However, there is nothing to draw me there again either. The whole experience reminded me of an Applebees. Like Applebees, it is a solid middle of the road restaurant where you can find something to eat. The problem is if you know what you want there are so many other specialized restaurants that are better. There are cheaper places to get your fix of Mexican and places that have a better Mexican. If you go, skip the lunch menu and the specials. You are better off digging into the menu and looking for something that they can hit out of the park.

The Shiraz

We periodically go out to dinner with another couple and this time around we were going to try The Shiraz. Unfortunately, life intervened and they were unable to make it so it was just Melissa and I. The chance for the two of us to spend time without the kids was certainly appealing though.

The Shiraz identifies itself as a Persian/Mediterranean restaurant and the decor seemed to match it well enough. The location is just off 28th street so the exterior and view from the windows are not terribly impressive. We arrived around six o'clock and tables were mostly empty. The private banquet room was closed off and empty. The main dining area only had half a dozen tables in use. The wait staff took the time to explain the menu which primarily consisted of various Kabobs and Khoresh's, though there was other stuff as well.

Melissa got one of the Kabob's while I got one of the Khoresh's. They were both well prepared and portions were not completely out of control like many restaurants. The food was not spicy hot and there was no one flavor that dominated the meal. You could actually taste the ingredients of the meal and this is something I appreciate, greatly. However, like the decor the food was nothing to write home about. I enjoyed the food well enough that I would certainly be willing to go back and try and find their standout items. However, Melissa was not impressed by the food and was more interested in trying other area restaurants next time around.

The real question is the service. On arrival, the dining room was mostly empty and they wait staff took the time to explain the menu, answer questions and get us what we needed. However, by 6:30pm and later the dining room was filling up and the wait staff were clearly understaffed. They tried to provide the same level of service but this meant long wait times and at least one group got up and left without even ordering. If you go I would recommend an early dinner to be on the safe side and avoid the window seats.

National Train Show at Devos Place

Today, I took my son to the North American Model Railroad Association train show at Devos Place. This is apparently a big deal if you are into model railroading. It looks like a number of people made coming to the convention their vacation for the year. We were looking for something a bit different than them though. He loves looking at train layouts in ways I cannot even explain. He has never expressed much interest in building one himself at any level of difficulty. It just is not his thing. Price was reasonable to get into the show although I have got to find a cheaper place to park downtown.

They look like they filled about two thirds of the main space so that was nice. It was more vendors than layouts but there were still a lot of layouts. The layouts ranged from two foot by two foot displays to displays that required multiple volunteers to run. They also has trains form tiny Z scale to larger O scale. Henry was in hog heaven. I do not feel I am exaggerating when I say that he spent at least 45 minutes per layout. He just couldn't get enough. I had to pry him away a few times to get him to look at different layouts. I did not get a chance to look at much of the vendor stuff but some of the stuff they were doing to show off the modeling gear and trains were impressively detailed. It was definitely a win and I am very glad we went.

Dinner at Skinny's

Tonight was dinner out before the kids catechism. The school was pushing some reading thing at one of the local restaurants. The place is called Skinnys and it is a small place with a huge menu. It seemed like thirty people would be about the max you could fit in there. The decor was kind of fun with a grab back of travel pictures, unique bottles/cans and other miscellaneous. The tables and chairs were a bit cramped but the place was packed they did not seem like they were used to it being that busy. However, the staff were still very friendly and the food arrived in a reasonable time frame.

The menu includes pizza, chicken, burgers, subs, pasta, some Mexican and a few other things. We got pizza, breadsticks and fried mushrooms. The mushrooms were excellent and the pizza was very good. The bread sticks were good as well but, than again, they're kinda hard to screw up. I am definitely interested in going back. They had an olive burger on their board and I would like to try the chicken.

Smashburger

We finally tried the Smashburger that opened up on 28th street. I am not sure what I think of the place. It certainly feels like they are aiming for a high end fast food chain. It has the look and feel of one, certainly. You walk in and order than find a place to sit. They bring your food and clean up after you. The food was good and had some variety including an olive burger and a Boston Cooler. I thought the variety was better than a place like Red Robin even if Smashburger did not have the number of menu items. However, when all was said and done I am not sure that it was particularly memorable. If we went back it would be to get a Boston Cooler. The burgers themselves were merely good and not worth the money.