Recent posts with visuals

May 16, 2015

Great graphics: Pop Chart Lab

A popular Introduction to Psychology textbook challenges the reader to memorize a string of letters:


This is a difficult task for most people – the 15-letter string exceeds the magical number seven 1 rule for information processing. However, when shown the following string:


most people are able to recall it perfectly after a very short period of time. The information is exactly the same; it is the relationship between the reader and the data that has changed. Visual design matters.

The human mind is capable of processing, very quickly, a large volume of complex information – if it is presented in the right way. Charles Joseph Minard's visualization of Napoleon's disastrous 1812 Russia campaign is a great example of proper presentation. Edward Tufte2 has called it ”the best statistical graph ever drawn”3.

The graphic communicates, simultaneously, the size of Napoleon’s invading force, its geographic position and direction of movement, and the recorded temperature. The brilliant visual design ensures that complex, interlinked variables are immediately and intuitively interpreted as a cohesive whole.

Great graphic design does not have to be limited to serious topics – in addition to being informative, it can be amusing, beautiful, decorative, irreverent, witty – ideally, all of the above. Pop Chart Lab, a design collaborative, has produced some of my favorite examples of exactly this kind of graphic design.

For the literary connoisseur with a pop-culture streak, Pop Chart Lab offers The Cocktail Chart of Film & Literature, featuring classics such as the whiskey sour and the cosmopolitan, as well as the more recent additions to the blended beverage repertoire.

The design is clean, almost stark, with limited colors and streamlined graphics. At the same time, the visuals convey a plethora of information – the name of the featured drink, its native novel or film, the character imbibing the concoction, ingredients and their measures, the appropriate serving glass and even the recommended garnish.

The overall design is a stylized film script, the abstracted stack of pages in ”double blue” ( the color-code for the final script) held together by the three brass split pins. A script is the intermediate phase in the metamorphosis of a novel into film – a toast to all the great cocktails immortalized on the Silver Screen.

For those interested in all things typographical, Pop Chart Lab has devised the Alphabet of Typography.

Colorful enough to suit a child's room - the visual cleverly features the four typographical inks (magenta, cyan, yellow and black) - it is sophisticated enough to grace the home of a font-obsessed adult.

For the architecture aficionado, Splendid Structure of New York City offers a virtual tour of the city’s most significant landmarks.

Rendered in beautiful detail, the blueprint design perfectly complements the subject matter. The various buildings are immediately recognizable; each one is shown to scale relative to its neighbors, and indicates its street address, height, date of construction, architectural style and location in the city.

Design a walking tour that illustrates the changing façade of New York over time, focus on a favorite style, or concentrate on a particular neighborhood - all with the assistance of a single page. Landmarks of world renown share the visual real estate with important but more obscure structures, helping to avoid the bane of the curious traveler - getting home after a trip and realizing that you were within walking distance of a hidden treasure and did not know it.

As a decorative element, posters often suffer from an unfavorable perception of immaturity; an object best reserved for college dorm rooms. This is both unfair and impractical - not everyone can afford original art, even from a lesser-know artist. More importantly, a beautiful poster is art in its own right. The key to a fabulous poster presentation lies, unsurprisingly, in how the poster is framed - you need to create the right context for the viewer. Choose a quality frame with a wide mat - this immediately draws the eye to the artwork and creates a lot of negative space, elevating and enhancing the visual experience.

Custom frames can be extremely expensive - for the graphics sold by Pop Chart Lab, a custom frame can easily cost several hundred dollars. This is where Ikea provides a beautiful and affordable solution. The Ribba series offers a frame in a 19¾ x 27½ inch (50x70cm) size, available in a range of colors and finishes. The frame includes a mat, and is perfect for framing an 18x24 poster. The local framing shop should be willing to cut the enclosed mat to the right size for your chosen graphic (mine did it for free), or order a custom mat in a contrasting or complementary color, creating a bespoke look for the fraction of the price.

For the Splendid Structure of New York City, I suggest the Ribba frame in glossy grey. The neutral color anchors the graphics and enhances the blueprint look.

For the Alphabet of Typography, the Ribba frame in glossy red echos the graphic's bursts of primary color. The bold color choice is also in line with the subject matter - a well-designed font should grab your attention.

For The Cocktail Chart of Film & Literature, the brushed aluminum Ribba frame subtly references the finish of a cocktail shaker. Alternatively, a white frame provides a clean and modern look.

To forestall any potential frustration and disappointment, it is worth mentioning that Ikea's product selection varies by country. If your preferred frame color is not available, purchase the aluminum frame (available in most markets) and paint it with an enamel spray paint in the desired color.

As a small design bonus, Pop Chart Lab has created the (possibly) only greeting card you would ever need (click image to enlarge).

Suitable for all occasions, it offers a total of 276 different felicitations in a single card. I find especially thoughtful (and amusing) the inclusion of less positive sentiments.

Interested in the minute details of great visual design? Through June 3rd, 2015, the Ladislav Sutnar: Visual Design in Action - Facsimile Edition project is looking for funding on Kickstarter. Sutnar is one of the lost masters of graphic design, a pioneer of data visualization, the man responsible for the now ubiquitous parenthesis framing the area codes in US phone numbers. 5

1 Miller, G. A. ”The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information.” Psychological Review 63(1956): 81–97.
2 Edward Tufte is a guru of visual design, a staunch critic of PowerPoint charts (the use of PowerPoint format may be inadvertently responsible for the Space Shuttle Columbia explosion) and a great proponent of graphics that are both useful and beautiful.
3 Cookson, Clive. ”Edward Tufte” FT Magazine 26 Jul. 2013
4 Translation of text:
Figurative Map of the successive losses in men of the French Army in the Russian campaign 1812-1813.
Drawn by Mr. Minard, Inspector General of Bridges and Roads in retirement. Paris, 20 November 1869.
The numbers of men present are represented by the widths of the colored zones in a rate of one millimeter for ten thousand men; these are also written beside the zones. Red designates men moving into Russia, black those on retreat.
The informations used for drawing the map were taken from the works of Messrs. Chiers, de Ségur, de Fezensac, de Chambray and the unpublished diary of Jacob, pharmacist of the Army since 28 October.
In order to facilitate the judgement of the eye regarding the diminution of the army, I supposed that the troops under Prince Jèrôme and under Marshal Davoust, who were sent to Minsk and Mobilow and who rejoined near Orscha and Witebsk, had always marched with the army.
5 Stinson, Liz. ”Master designer who gave the area code its parentheses.” Wired 6 May 2015

May 8, 2015

Bouillon with spring vegetables, mint

            The very smell of mint reanimates the spirits, and its flavour gives a remarkable zest to food.
~ Pliny the Elder, Natural History

Spring brings with it a kaleidoscope of flowers, young leaves in every shade of green and the first produce of the year – asparagus, peas and tender fresh herbs. It also often brings cold thunderstorms (occasionally featuring hail), and chilly, foggy evenings - in other words, perfect soup weather. Not a winter soup, laden with meat, robust legumes and earthy root vegetables. Rather, a spring soup, soothing yet light – a cashmere throw instead of a hefty eiderdown comforter.

This recipe was inspired by a recent meal at Le Comptoir, one of my favorite restaurants in Paris. The addition of mint brings an unexpected burst of flavor to the broth, a riff on a classic combination of mint and lamb. In fact, the soup features two quintessential mint pairings – mint & meat and mint & peas.

Bouillon with spring vegetables and mint
The recipe is very easy, although it does consist of several steps. Most of the components may (or, indeed, must) be prepared in advance; final assembly takes less than 10 minutes.
Serves 2
  • 2½ Cups home-made chicken stock (roasted or otherwise)
  • 6-7 stalks of asparagus
  • 3-4 scallions
  • ½-1 Cup green peas (frozen or fresh)
  • 5 fresh mint leaves
  • ½ Tablespoon (or less) neutral oil – rice bran, canola, grape-seed, light olive
  • Kosher salt
Clarify the stock
While not essential, this step makes for a more attractive presentation and an ethereal-tasting bouillon.
Freeze the stock in an ice-cube tray, muffin tin or a Ziplock bag placed flat in the freezer. Once frozen, place the stock cubes (if using a Ziploc bag, break into smaller pieces first) in a strainer lined with a coffee filter or a paper towel. Put on the counter (or in the refrigerator) to slowly thaw. The gentle melting process will result in a crystal clear stock, leaving behind the sediment which gives stock a cloudy appearance.
This bouillon would also work beautifully for floating some lovely ravioli.
N.B. Do not re-freeze previously frozen stock.

Prepare the peas
If using frozen peas, take out of the freezer, run under cool water and set in colander to thaw. If using fresh peas, shell the peas.

Roast the vegetables
Preheat the oven to 425°F/220°C (400°F/205°C for convection oven).
Wash the asparagus and scallions. Trim the roots and bright green tops from the scallions and peel off the first leaf (it is usually wilted and papery). Hold an asparagus spear near the ends and gently bend – the point at which the spear will be ready to snap is where the tender part of the stalk becomes tough. Peel the woodier root end without snapping off, or remove and save for making stock.

Place the scallions and asparagus on a baking sheet, gently coat in oil (a pastry brush simplifies the job), and sprinkle liberally with salt. Roast for 12-15 minutes, until the scallions are completely soft and caramelized.

Remove from the oven, cool slightly1 and cut into bite-sized pieces.

This roasted asparagus and scallions preparation can also be used in other dishes. It makes an excellent pizza topping, a tasty filling for a quiche (add the peas as well) or a simple vegetable side (leave whole).

Final assembly
Wash and dry the mint leaves, stack them neatly, fold in half laterally and cut into thin strips. Kitchen scissors work marvelously here, reducing the effort of the traditional chiffonade technique – rolling the stacked leaves into a tiny, minty cigar, and cutting with a knife. (A tiny cigar is not an easy thing to hold while wielding a sharp knife!)

Gently heat the bouillon in a small pot; add the peas and cook until tender, 2-3 minutes. Be sure to keep the bouillon at a very gentle simmer – do not let it boil.

Add the sliced asparagus and scallions, and allow to heat through, another minute or so. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Divide the soup between 2 bowls, sprinkle with the mint and serve.

I find this is the best way to store asparagus if I am not using it immediately after purchase – trim off ¼ inch (1cm) off the root end, stand in a tall container with an inch or so of cold water, cover with a plastic bag (secure with a rubber band) and refrigerate.

1 Or cool completely, wrap in foil or place in a covered container, and refrigerate for up to 24 hours in advance. Slice right before final assembly.

May 3, 2015

Postcards from Paris: Le Comptoir

There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it.
~ Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

I first stumbled across Le Comptoir by accident in 2006, less than a year after it opened. After a late, lazy start to the day and a leisurely amble thought the Jardin Luxemburg, I was slowly making my way to Boulevard Saint-Germain in search of a quick bite. The bistro looked unpretentious and cheerful, offering a view of the Odeon wisdom tree1 and the Les Editeurs facade across the square, and ample opportunity for people-watching (the French national pastime).

That first meal was simple - some beautiful bread, salad niçoise accompanied by a glass of white wine, and a chocolate pot de creme - but it was perfect. In the ensuing decade, every time I returned to Paris, I would strive to have at least one meal at Le Comptoir.

Chef Eric Ripert, that grand maestro of seafood, has described Le Comptoir as ”the perfect bistro” 2. During the day, the restaurant offers a brilliant, casual menu featuring some of the great French classics - œufs mayonnaise (deviled eggs) so good some patrons order them every day; plump escargots swimming in garlicky butter; generous slices of fois gras perfectly paired with sweet brioche toast and served alongside Little Gem lettuce dressed in the most delicious vinaigrette and garnished with fried shallots; an entire pig's foot, boned, stuffed, dredged in breadcrumbs and fried to achieve a crunchy, crispy crust, contrasting nicely with the tender, juicy flesh it encases.

Pied de porc désossé et pane, purée de pomme de terre
Several of charcuterie plates feature artisanal products made by chef Camdeborde's father, and the wine list is excellent.

The menu is completely recognizable as French bistro fare, and yet still manages to surprise. Roasted marrow bone is served with sweet pea puree and crowned with smoked lard foam; at least one soup on the menu combines the chewy, gelatinous texture of Japanese tapioca pearls with velvety smoothness of fois gras. One of the recent revelations was a bouillon served with vegetables and, surprsingly, mint. The presence of the herb in the broth was completely unexpected, and at the same time made immediate sense (and I am gleefully appropriating this idea for home cooking).

Even the oft-overlooked items are of a superb quality - the bread comes from Boulangerie Kayser on the next block, and the butter - from Jean-Yves Bordier - is a frontrunner for the title of ”the best butter in the world”.

The chocolate pot de creme that so impressed me on that long-ago first visit deserves a separate mention. It remains the smoothest, most luscious and intensely chocolate mousse I have ever had the pleasure of tasting, perfectly balancing lightness and richness. It would not surprise me in the least to learn that the pastry chef has struck some sort of an unholy bargain.

Quenelle de chocolat, éponge olive, crumble de cacao
On weeknight evenings, the bistro dons formal linens, and transforms into a gourmet restaurant. A reservation-only single seating offers diners a 5-course prix fixe chef's choice menu (including a fabulous all-you-can eat cheese board), that day's best ingredients transformed through the lens of the chef Camdeborde's vision.

Bouillon de poulpe et pois chiches au beurre noisette

Coquille Saint-Jacques de Normandie avec amande et citron

Bouillon clair de legumes, menthe et foie gras
I knew of chef Yves Camdeborde's stellar reputation as the owner-chef of La Regalade, but did not realize that he left it to pursue a new venture in the 6th, this time as a hotelier as well as a restauranteur. A classically trained chef, he has come through what has been aptly described as ”an ancient system of ruthless apprenticeships meant to identify, like incarnate lamas, the three or four godlike cooks born in every generation” 3. Chef Camdeborde left school to start his culinary training at 14, and apprenticed at some of the greatest temples of haute cuisine in Paris - the Ritz, the Relais Louis XIII, Tour d'Argent, and Les Ambassadeurs at the Hôtel de Crillon.

Concerned by the impact of the French recession on his prospects in the world of haute cuisine, he did something unprecedented - in 1992 he left the kitchen at the Crillion and opened La Regalade - a small, affordable bistro catering to a mix of neighborhood locals and visitors, and offering uncompromisingly fresh ingredients cooked with the technical expertise of a master. Seen as an incredible risk at the time, his endeavor revolutionized the Parisian culinary scene. Other classically trained chefs followed in his footsteps, forsaking positions in prestigious kitchens to open their own bistrots modernes.

As can only be expected at a restaurant offering incredible food at affordable prices, it has become increasingly difficult to reserve a table for the weekday dinner service. For a reservation during the high season (April - September), it is advisable to book at least four months in advance. Do not despair - it is possible to experience Le Comptoir even on short notice. The restaurant opens for lunch service at 12pm, and generally arriving 15-20 minutes before opening will ensure a table for the first seating. Bistro service continues until 5.30pm on weekdays (excluding holidays), and until 11pm on weekends (when the prix fixe dinner is not served). Alternatively, stop by once the lunch rush is over, sometime after 2.30pm. If you absolutely must experience the dinner, book a room at the adjacent Hôtel Relais Saint-Germain - it comes with a guaranteed table reservation.

Le Comptoir
6, Carrefour Odeon 75006
M: Odeon
Mon-Fri: 12pm - 5.30pm (à la carte bistro); 8.30pm reservation-only €60 prix fixe dinner (excluding holidays)
Sat-Sun: 12pm - 11pm (à la carte bistro)

1 Some artistic soul has decorated the tree with old textbooks. They look like secretive bats, or particularly unwieldy fruit, heavy with the weight of knowledge contained within.
2 Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. Season 6, Episode 24: 100th Episode - Paris
3 Jeffrey Steingarten, The Man Who Ate Everything, Part Four: Hauts Bistros. This is a fantastic book. Humorous, well-researched, and incredibly insightful, my copy has traveled the world, been loaned to friends and bears copious notes.