Cheese Curds Dartmouth: Long wait, big burger

In one week, the new restaurant Cheese Curds Gourmet Burgers + Poutinerie has created a bigger buzz than I've ever seen for a new food outlet in the Halifax area. Twitter lit up with talk about the large and interesting burgers, and news editor Ruth said great things. As a cynical reporter, I was hoping to believe the hype.

A movement grew in the newsroom to make a pilgrimage to the Woodside part of Dartmouth to put Cheese Curds to the test. We set out with a Saturday 5pm meet-up time, knowing we'd probably be waiting a while.

On arrival, the lineup was out the door and the people leaving said they'd waited 70 minutes from entry to exit.

Cheese Curds lined up out the door
News95.7 alumnus Bill Dicks joins the newsroom keeners to fill up on gourmet beef delights at Cheese Curds.

True enough, that proved true enough. There was a line to order and pay, a line to line up for food, and a line for food. We waited in line, observing the cooks grilling up the beef patties on the flat-top. At the end of the line is a station to get your burger topped with what I'm told is an impressive array of garnishes, including three types of onions, bruschetta and guacamole. I missed this part, as I was filling up the fountain drinks.

Cheese Curds Dartmouth legendary porker
My "Legendary CC Porker" combo moments before I gobbled it up.

After about 70 minutes, I received my Legendary CC Porker combo ($10.75). (See Cheese Curds Menu in PDF.) The menu calls this a "Double burger topped with cheese curds, 2 strips of bacon, fried onion rings, lettuce, tomato and topped with our CC Sauce.

As you can see, this is a large burger.

Half-eaten Cheese Curds Porker
Demolition in progress: Half-way through my Porker at Cheese Curds

It's a big, big bite. The patties are very tasty with a strong garlic flavour. Not that you've eaten my wife's burgers, but they're kind of like that -- obviously not lean ground beef, as they're very juicy. They have an honest, home-made taste that you don't get at even the good chain restaurants. I wasn't able to distinguish what the CC Sauce is, but I think it was good. The toppings seemed fresh.

As burgers go, it was above average. I was disappointed not to taste any bacon -- I'm not saying it wasn't there (I didn't check), but I didn't taste it at all. The onion ring was probably a nice touch, but the whole thing came off as a little mushy. I thought the same thing about the Baconator when I first tried it: Great flavour, but needed a bit more crunch and a bit less squish. I'm not calling it a flaw, because it's a necessary consequence of the ingredients in this particular burger. Taste beat texture on the CC Porker.

My visit to Cheese Curds reminded me of Licks Homeburgers in Toronto. Similar process: Order, move down the line for toppings, get your burger. Licks burgers are (were?) thick and garlic-heavy with good, soft but substantial buns. Licks fine-tuned the process to result in much shorter waits, and the burgers were never mushy. The burgers at Cheese Curds bear a "chef-inspired" label, showing much more craft and thought than anything ever served at Licks.

The meal came with fries, and I was really looking forward to them. I was disappointed. They're fries like you'd find in a pub, that is, fresh-cut with skin on. Just how I like them. But the ones I got were cooked more than I like. As a side, it was a bit of a downer, but considering Cheese Curds' partial claim to fame is its poutine, the extra crispiness may be a tactical choice to keep the fries from becoming soggy under the weight of curds and gravy. Just be aware of that -- consider a poutine rather than the fries.

The overall impression from the crew that arrived on time -- me, wife Amanda, producers Jennifer Casey and Meghan Groff, former Maritime Morning producer Bill Dicks, and talk show host (and soon RTNDA Lifetime Achievement Award winner) Rick Howe -- was that the food was good! Portions were good for the price, and the price was good. Reporter Amy Arts was about 15 minutes behind us in line, and reports via Twitter that she had the same burger I did, and was "not overly impressed. The onion rings and fries were bland." Well, the place is only a week old. Maybe they'll do some fine tuning on the fries and rings.

One may wonder, though: is it worth the wait? I think it is, once. Waiting more than an hour for a hamburger is patently ridiculous unless it's the greatest burger ever. Though not the greatest ever, these burgers are commendable, so I think the hour-plus wait is something worth enduring now, during the early, heady days of the restaurant's youth. You can say you were there in the beginning.

I expect that the buzz will eventually cool down and the lineups will become more navigable. At that time, I look forward to returning to Cheese Curds in Dartmouth to try more of their offerings, including the Triple Bacon Burger, with three kinds of bacon.

Check it out if you have the time, or wait until the dust settles and swing by for a burger worth buzzing over.

Visit Cheese Curds on the web at and find them on Twitter @CheeseCurdsHRM.

Writing a song: Part 4: First complete demo is ready for listening

See also: Part 1: The BeginningPart 2: Fattening up, Part 3: Lyrics, EQ, Compression.

First draft is done! Give 'er a listen.

Changes in this version:

  • slight lyric changes, new performance of vocals
  • guitar solo! The solo was comped together from ten awful attempts to come up with something. Some slicing and dicing, and I have a solo that almost sounds like I meant it to sound like that
  • changes to the drum arrangement, mostly moving the kick drum
  • more compression, EQ and panning adjustments
  • compression on the master bus to glue it all together
  • a quick spit-polish job on the mastering to brighten it up and make it a bit louder
Now, I'll have to take it to the car, the living room, the ipod, and other places to check the balance to see if it sounds good everywhere other than the studio. I've had problems before with my monitors deceiving me, and ended up with mixes that were either too bassy or shrill and overly bright or strident. A well-produced song will sound good on all systems, even bad ones.

Any feedback on this mix is welcome! IMHO, not a bad job for a few evenings' work through the week.

Not my first original song ever, but probably the best one so far.

Writing a song: Part 3: New lyrics, EQ, compression

See also: Part 1: The Beginning, Part 2: Fattening up.

Good gravy, I'm a lousy singer. I got three takes into recording vocals for this song and had to stop because I was losing my ability to sing even as poorly as I was on the first few takes.

Today I put together some lyrics for the Outside song. Yes, they're dark, but the whole album is intended to come from the perspective of people struggling with mental illness.

I edited some of the guitar parts to put them more in time with the beat. I applied EQ to most tracks to help them sit in the mix with other instruments, and tweaked compression and reverb settings.

I replaced the 4Front bass VST plugin with another plugin that sounds more like an electric bass -- in this case, a fingered Fender Jazz.

I added a string synth pad to add drama to two parts of the song using DSK Virtuoso VST plugin.

Overall, the mix is sounding big and loud. I've yet to give it a good listen on other systems, which is necessary to check whether the mix sounds really good or is just good in this room. I've had issues before with bass response being misleading -- either too much bass or too little. Does it sound okay on your end?

I've yet to redo the drums. For the most part, they're not too bad, but the kick drum is kicking twice in the wrong spot for me -- I want it in the middle of the bar, not the start. I figure if I'm going to tweak that, I might as well redo the whole thing to my liking.

I'll also need to redo the vocals and perhaps some BG vocals.

The big missing piece is a solo in the middle. Yeah, I don't have ideas for that.

Writing a song: Part 2: Fattening up

See also: Part 1, The Beginning

After the Sunday talk show, I fiddled around a bit with the Outside song. It's sounding pretty cool already!

As you can see from the waveform, the levels are squashed all to hell. I have not spent any time on mastering -- just ran it through a rock preset on Ozone to make it big and loud. Even so, sounds good, if lacking in dynamics!

I tightened up the bass part, added some variation in the articulation, and found a decent-sounding amp model for the part.

I re-recorded the guitars for a total of four tracks: two tracks in matching style, and I think I used the 7D:Start Me Up patch on the PodXT. I played open chords on the left track and mostly bar chords on the right with different tone settings on the Strat; these parts are panned about 60% left and right. I recorded a dirty part with patch 10D: Sunshine Of Your Love, which is panned 24% right. I did one pass with an acoustic guitar and a large-diaphragm condenser, and that's panned 22% left. The dirty and acoustic guitars have a bit of reverb on them to put them in space.

I've put the ReaEQ plugin on all the guitar tracks with a high-pass filter to leave room for the bass and the kick drum. In some of my older mixes, I didn't have the good sense to use subtractive EQ to make space for all the instruments, and ended up with cluttered, muddy mixes.

I'm also trying to record at lower levels in general. When I first learned about digital recording in 1992, digital-to-analog converters (DACs) weren't the best quality and everything was 16-bit/44kHz at best, so the prevailing wisdom was to record as close to 0db as possible without going over to avoid the distortion and noise that would come from lower-level signals. Heck, in the analog tape world -- which is where I learned my stuff the first time around -- recording hotter is better because of the effects of tape saturation. Well, through the Home Recording Show podcast, I learned last year that today's gear is of such good quality that it's wiser to peak around -6db or even lower, and having 24-bit quality to work with offers even more headroom. Plus I won't have to pull my faders down so far when I'm mixing.

I tightened up the synth and piano parts to clean up some overlapping notes. The piano has the same bit of room reverb. On the woo-woo synth part, I tweaked the patch to have a low-frequency oscillator (LFO) pan the signal back and forth as it plays.

I switched drum kits and added a bit of reverb on the snare and room mics.

I added a pitch-shift effect to the small voice before the last chorus to make the comeback sound even bigger.

Here's a shot of the project so far in Reaper:

Still to do:

  • write lyrics
  • record main vocals
  • record bg vocals, if any
  • re-do drum track, maybe trying to play it on the keyboard
  • record a solo

Writing a song: Part 1: The Beginning

I've produced a few records from my home studio, most recently finishing "Mind The Gap" at the end of 2010. Pretty much everything has been covers, but I've intended to do an all-original record with a mental health theme. Problem is, I'm not much of a songwriter. Not much at all, really.

Now I'm working on something original, and I figured I'd share the process as I go through it.

It's a song tentatively titled "I Don't Want To Go Outside Any More" -- I'm going to abbreviate it Outside from now on, simply because the full title is too long to type.

Back in 2007, I had an idea. A melody or something, with a few scattered lyrics. I was using Adobe Audition for recording and FruityLoops for drums back then, and on October 9, 2007 I laid down a bit of guitar so I'd be able to remember what I was cooking up. Here's how that sounded:

The idea stuck with me ever since. From time to time, I've had ideas about the lyrics and was able to imagine the whole song in my head. Unfortunately, the best ideas come as I'm trying to fall asleep. The best lyrics have slipped my mind. The middle part with the bridge has disappeared. It's been a year or so since I last tried recording anything. But last weekend, I decided to sit down and sketch out the structure of the song.

I use Reaper for recording now, so I laid out a drum loop, a piano intro, a synth bit, then used the MIDI keyboard to lay out a bass part that had most of the melody in it. By moving stuff around, I was able to assemble what amounted to a song. I was still missing almost all the lyrics, so I mumbled through it.

The trickiest part came as I was trying to figure out the guitar part. It's one thing to hear it in my head, but another to try to play it. I am not a trained musician and my musical theory knowledge is just what I learned in grade school and skimming through guitar magazines years ago. There was a part in the chord progression that just didn't work with what I was playing. I went through the major chords and a few minor chords and nothing was really working for that one spot. I don't know enough to even know what key the song is in, but the song keeps coming back to a G major chord, so I did a Google search for chords in the key of G. It had an Am instead of A, so I tried swapping the A in the song for an Am -- hey, that sounded better! And in place of the weird progression I had, I put in a D7th. It fixed the gap! Problem solved! Score one for the Google!

Here's what I ended up with:

Here's what you're hearing:

  • Virtual grand piano right off the top with a simple chord
  • A synth line through the Triangle synth
  • Drums, using a series of some pre-programmed grooves
  • Two guitar tracks played through the PodXT using presets that I didn't note. I should've made a note in case I liked them. The left guitar is a more accurate example of where I see the song ending up in terms of guitar phrasing
  • MIDI programmed bass through the 4Front bass module and a guitar amp simulator
  • Vocals were done in one take, Shure Beta58a straight into my Focusrite Saffire LE's preamp and heavily processed after heavy use of Auto-Tune. The vocals are, frankly, terrible
A look at the layout in Reaper:

So, where do I go from here? Some changes for the next revision:

  • Simplify the bass line to counterpoint the guitar, and dial in a decent sound
  • Redo the guitars, tracked left and right
  • Perhaps redo the drums from scratch
  • Make up some lyrics and take another shot at a new scratch vocal
  • Tidy up the synth line -- I just did a rough performance, then quantized it to the grid
Yes, that essentially means doing the whole thing over again, but if I'm to be honest with myself, there's absolutely nothing in this demo take that is good enough to keep. But it's a decent guide for further revisions.

Even though the end result is a bit of a mess, it feels very rewarding to get this music out of my mind and into the computer after all this time. Really nice.

More to come, eventually.

Tired but not sleeping

I've felt a little tired and blah this week, but not as tired as I appeared on TV.

I regularly end up standing behind politicians on TV, especially during scrums after the weekly provincial Cabinet meetings. This week, I was on CTV News for a good long stretch. (You can see it around the 3:22 mark of this video.)

I had a visible reaction when Premier Darrell Dexter said he wanted the Amalgamated Transit Union and Metro Transit to get back to the "negotiating trable" to settle the current strike. Trable. Not table, but trable. I blinked. Usually I maintain a stern and flat scrum face, but I couldn't suppress a reaction this time.

As the clip wore on, it appeared that I was falling asleep. I don't remember falling asleep. I don't remember being riveted and on the edge of my seat, but I was certainly awake.

Today was my last day at work, and I'm okay with that

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