Saturday, November 28, 2015

We Thought They'd Never End

Apparently Black Friday puts people in mind of me, resulting in two hard-to-pass-up offers tossed my way today.

One was going to the Altria to see "Ragtime" and the other was going to the Coliseum to see Cirque de Soleil's "Toruk." Naturally, I went to the Camel to see Avers and Rikki Shay.

But only after meeting my most artistic friend at the extremely crowded VMFA to see the recently opened McGlothlin Collection, followed by an Eternal Spring champagne cocktail at Amuse, because what could be lovelier than blood orange liqueur and pomegranate over bubbles?

The collection is awe-inspiring in the truest sense of the phrase, a collection of gorgeous American art spanning 1830
Modernity oozes off the canvas throughout, but especially stirringly in “Yachting the Mediterranean,” a large 1896 piece by Julius Leblanc Stewart (whom I'd never even heard of) showing Americans – wasp-waisted Victorian women and dandified men - aboard a yacht churning through water that seems about to spill out on the viewer.

From Winslow Homer (oh, those watercolors!) to George Bellows (Bud's favorite painter) to Childe Hassam ("Westminster Bridge" was absolutely breathtaking), we walked from painting to painting exclaiming over the McGlothlin's choices. We couldn't even imagine what it must have been like for them to actually live with these works in their home.

"A Gust of Wind (Judith Gautier)" by John Singer Sargent, echoing a Monet painting of a similar subject (the object of the painter's desire), was so splendidly executed that you had to wonder how neither of us had ever laid eyes on so much as a print of it before.

We left there bursting with excitement over what we'd just experienced. Just goes to show what happens when filthy rich people (with either great taste or excellent guidance) are generous enough to collect and donate art to the masses. The McGlothlins are my new art heroes.

Next came music and noshing at the Camel.

When my massive plate of black bean nachos arrived, the charming guy next to me insisted on offering me his bar stool, saying, "You can't attack that while you're standing!" I could have if I'd had no choice.

Once enjoying my new sitting status, we got to talking and of course I asked them the usual, about their first concerts. Now, we're talking about a couple of what looked like mid-20-somethings and their first shows were Hootie and the Blowfish in 2002 (I merely looked at him with pity) and Black Crowes in 1997 (so obviously he was older than he looked).

Hootie guy must have seen the pity in my eyes because he tried to compensate by sharing that his second show had been Aerosmith. When I mentioned that I'd seen them in 1979, his face fell. "Wow, you saw them before the drugs, before Joe Perry and Steven Tyler started..." and punched his fists together.

Son, there was no such time.

They were excited about seeing bands in as intimate a space as the Camel, so I couldn't resist mentioning a few I'd seen there, just to tease them. J. Roddy Walston and the Business, Young the Giant and Frank Turner impressed them hugely while they'd never even heard of Future Islands.

He and his buddy were up from Williamsburg ("Where nothing ever happens after 10"), both getting their masters degrees in business at William & Mary. Why on earth, I asked?

"Dollaz, dollaz, dollaz," one said. "A degree in English gets you minimum wage." Ditto a degree in art history, but at least you get to keep your soul.

Moving to the other room for music, it took forever for Rikki Shay - the new incarnation of what was the Black Girls or perhaps just a name change to address their white guys reality- to soundcheck, get their drink (or whatever) on and finally take the stage for their first show.

The name may be new, but the sound was the same eminently danceable hybrid of rock and funk it always was, with the occasional introduction saying, "Y'all might have heard this one before."

A really big crowd had formed for them but were rewarded with a particularly short set. "This is our last song. We wrote it today. For you!"  A guy near the front began hollering in excitement and the singer called out, "What's your name?" When he answered "Jessie," the singer said, "We wrote this for you, Jessie!" and the big lug went nuts.

In other words, it's still a Black Girls crowd.

Siting near me was a middle-aged couple who appeared to be on a date. They were so nearby that I couldn't help but notice their interactions as they moved through the evening.

Things seemed to be going well and he kept buying them more high alcohol Hardywood beers and by the third one, she was starting to warm up to him, snuggling against him and smiling often.

Then he must have said something drastically wrong, because it was like cold water had been thrown on her. She moved away, she wouldn't meet his eyes, the smile was gone. No telling what had happened, but it didn't stop him from continuing to buy them beers.

They were on their fifth each during Rikki Shay's set, standing on the banquette and attempting to dance when his beer just slid out of his hand like it was greased. It fell under their table, shattering and splashing beer all over my feet, but they never noticed.

Fortunately for him, though, it made her laugh, she offered him a sip of hers and everything was fine again. Fine enough that he began rubbing any body part of hers he could reach.

So fine that he went and got them their sixth beers. I'm not here to judge how much they drank, but when she returned from the bathroom, she leaned a bit too hard on the table to help her mount the banquette and return to her Prince Charming.

All of a sudden, their beers and several people's cocktails went sliding toward the banquette as the table slanted alarmingly and all of us around the table reacted, grabbing for the sliding beverages.

Not the lovebirds. They started cracking up like it was the funniest thing they'd ever seen. I see real potential in this relationship.

Finally Avers took the stage. "We're going to play a whole bunch of new shit if that's okay. We're Avers by the way."

The crowd may have been a bit smaller for them than Rikki Shay, but I feel pretty sure everyone in the room knew who they were looking at. Seems to me when Rolling Stone critic David Fricke told the band they were the best thing he'd heard all week at SXSW, people started paying attention to them.

No doubt he was responding to their dense sound. One of the highlights of the break before their set - besides Romeo and Juliet next to me - was watching each of the musicians lug their massive pedal boards to the stage. We're talking some fantastic effects and reverb in the service of a pastiche of psychedelic, shoegaze, rock and pop.

In fact, one of the bonuses of ordering tickets for tonight's show in advance instead of buying at the door means that we get their new EP delivered to our inbox tomorrow. Seems they've been working on a new album and the EP is the songs that didn't have the same feel as the others. "But we still really liked 'em!"

For this listener, one of my favorite things about them is that they have multiple vocalists and they trade bass, guitar and keyboards like kids used to trade baseball cards. The tambourine always seems to be up for grabs.

With the possibility of four guitars for any given song, it's a constant guitar fest with meaty interludes where everyone gets to show off, the way they also do with the many false stops and precision restarts that characterize their songs.

Listening to songs such as "Love" and "Evil" tonight reminded me again how these guys (and girl) never disappoint sound-wise. Now, if you don't have a taste for an overly-dramatic front man flipping his hair, that's another story.

But not one I'll tell tonight. I left the daters groping, the audience applauding and hollering and bugged out after Avers' set, well satisfied with a stellar night of music.

Someday, I'll be be able to wow another graduate student who offers me his bar stool by sharing that I saw Avers in a tiny bar where the band barely all fit onstage.

Those were the days, my friend.

Friday, November 27, 2015

My Dinner with Strangers

I credit a yellow Siegel's Ham apron and the Curtis Mayfield radio station with carrying me through Thanksgiving with soul and style.

For the 3rd annual Orphans' Thanksgiving, I volunteered as a server, lugging platters loaded with turkey and gravy, mashed and sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts and top-on carrots, cranberries and stuffing and so ridiculously heavy it felt like I was carrying a small child atop the platter.

There were the usual odd demands ("I can't eat lettuce, so can I have a spinach salad instead?"), adorable couples (two bottles of Avinyo Pettilant and a celebration of it being no family, just them) and a lecherous man trying to get his drink on as quickly as possible ("I'll have a Leffe Blonde beer and a glass of Cotes du Rhone right away") while throwing sexual innuendo my way (caught it, returned it and moved on).

I had a ball watching as a trio of girlfriends moved through their wining and dining right into a food coma, occasionally joining in their discussions of womanhood circa 2015 and subsequent laughter about almost everything.

Best of all, few people hurried through their turkey day feast. There was lingering, there was non-stop conversation and there was plenty of spirited imbibing. Unlike at Grandma's, no one had to watch their intake lest they say something that might set off a relative's ire, so it felt more like an extended dinner party.

By 7:00, the last few people were finally moving on to whatever it is people do on Thanksgiving night. Me, I finally had my gravy-laden feast accompanied by several wines and a piece of non-traditional chocolate pate pie slathered in fresh whipped cream.

Another Thanksgiving in the rear view mirror of life. Of course I'm thankful for my interesting little life. Do I desire more? Hell, yes.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Woman of Heart and Mind

You know how it is with traditions.

You start doing something in 2010 when you're still trying to figure life out and next thing you know it's 2015 and it's still going strong. Thanksgiving Eve festivities, that is.

That first year involved dinner out at the long-shuttered Bonvenu, followed by music at Cary Street Cafe. We've since refined the process.

By mid-day, Jackson Ward was emptying out quickly. By the time I left to meet friends for the evening, it was starting to look like a ghost town. Slightly better in the Museum District (more older people likely hosting turkey day, I suppose), the trip in between was absent its usual traffic.

Walking in to Holmes' humble abode, I found him and Beloved deep in discussion of their Thanksgiving plans, which weren't sitting well with her. After wrapping up that business by saying they'd make the best of it, he turned to me and with mock seriousness proclaimed, "And tonight, we're going to do our best to have fun with Karen!"

Good luck with that, friends. That was the signal to pour glasses of Beaujolais Nouveau and toast to another year's harvest and friendship.

With Holmes at the helm and some killer blue-eyed soul courtesy of Paul Carrick playing, we glided through downtown, noting the scads of reindeer in place but not yet lighted (Grand Illumination being next week), to Castanea's welcoming light.

There, it was a family affair, with Chef Philip in the back and his wife out front. Since she's actually a nurse, she made an attentive and thoughtful server.

Best of all, I discovered that she's the source of their outstanding world music soundtrack, a stellar melding of Spanish and North African music that plays like the background of the coolest party you've never been invited to.

A bottle of the house Cava got us started while Holmes described going to the hot and sweaty July 1970 Atlanta Rock Festival in an attempt to make up for having missed Woodstock. There, he said, he saw Mott the Hoople and Procul Harum, but skipped Hendrix because he wasn't playing until 3 a.m. "I didn't stay up because I was trippin'."

Said Karen and Beloved never.

He recalled relaxing on the ground when a guy came by and informed him, "I hate to bum you out, man, but I think you're lying in poison ivy." From what he recalls, he wasn't.

We began with bacon-wrapped dates over a mango cardamom sauce, then went to what the chef calls adult fish sticks - brandade balls coated and fried up crispy - and fat albondigas swimming in a tomato sauce with pine nuts and the kick of paprika, before moving on to pizza.

Debating our topping options, Holmes opined, "It's not pizza if there's not pepperoni," and that's exactly what we got, the crust as fabulous as the thick slices of pepperoni.

And since nothing is better while eating than gross stories, Holmes regaled us with his days as an orderly at MCV circa 1971 to '73, making $1.90 an hour. "All the drugs, toilet paper and soap I wanted!" he says with gusto. Also, it turns out, all the patient meals he cared to eat, which was probably a lot given that he was 19.

If it sounds nervy of him to help himself, consider that he was the "prep" guy, meaning he had to shave people and give them enemas pre-surgery. "Yea, I had to wipe asses."

Pass the pizza, please.

The only way to top a story like that was with gelato, so we did and for my fifth visit to Castanea, I broke bad and didn't get double chocolate with coconut, choosing instead mint chocolate chip that tasted of fresh mint in the most unexpectedly refreshing way.

By the time we departed the Bottom, things were looking even deader than when we'd arrived, so the only logical thing to do was head back to Holmes' Hideaway and crank some vinyl.

Appropriately enough, he began by playing some live Buffalo Springfield, mainly because he'd seen them on November 19, 1967. Reading the liner notes, I learned that he'd seen them on the Buffalo Springfield annual Thanksgiving Tour, of all the unlikely coincidences.

The notes also divulged that on that tour, they'd been doing afternoon and evening shows and, sure enough, Holmes had seen them at the Richmond Arena one afternoon and BS had played DAR Constitution Hall that same night.

What band does that anymore?

I had no idea that Homes used to be a college DJ at UR, signing on saying, "Hi, I'm Holmes and this is the Feed Your Head show," before playing whatever the hell he wanted to, stuff such as John Cale's orchestral masterstroke, "Paris 1919," a baroque pop wonder that Holmes owns in multiple formats.

When Beloved and I requested some Joni Mitchell, he obliged with the sublime "Court and Spark" before introducing us both to the earlier "For the Roses" from 1972. She recalled "Turn Me On, I'm a Radio," but I didn't, although it didn't take long to see the beauty and sarcasm of the song.

Inside the album folder was a gorgeous picture of Joni naked from the back, standing on an outcropping of rocks in the ocean, sun glinting off the water, a picture I only wish someone would take of me.

We listened to so much music as we sipped the perfectly lovely Graham Beck Brut Rose, with Holmes only occasionally giving one or the other of us crap about our lack of knowledge or questionable taste. He justified it by saying, "I'm just an unmarried male curmudgeon in his '60s."

Things amped up when he pulled out a bottle of 120 proof Scotch and suggested we taste it. One sip in, Beloved recoils and says, "I think I hear Richard Harris when I smell this."  I stick to wetting my lips with it.

When he put on a 45 of Barbra Streisand's Barry Gibb-produced hit, "Woman in Love," he announced that it was a big drag song and began doing a pseudo-striptease for our amusement.

When he put on the soundtrack to "Shaft," he immediately asked our permission to turn it up and bathe us in Isaac Hayes' immersive soul sounds. Beloved and I wanted to hear the whole thing, but he was dissatisfied listening to what he called "incidental soundtrack music" and moved on to the Pretenders.

We were several hours into Thanksgiving before calling it quits. The two of them had to get up at a reasonable enough hour to make corn pudding, so we put a period on our Thanksgiving Even tradition with another evening of terrific company and entertainment under our collective belt.

My head had been fed, as had been my belly. Happy Thanksgiving Eve to us and many more.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Hollywood History 101

Where most would see "Breaking Bad," I saw "From Under My Hat."

The plan was dinner and a play with a friend, at least right up until the e-mail came saying tonight's performance was cancelled. I dithered about what to do, only deciding on a movie 35 minutes before showtime.

Good thing the theater's in the neighborhood.

"Trumbo" was showing, and that's a film I knew I wanted to see since I first saw a preview for it. Tonight, there weren't any previews - not necessarily a bad thing in this era when all the very best moments are divulged in the trailer - to sit through. I sat down, a guy sat right next to me (odd since there were so many empty seats elsewhere) and the movie began. Zoom.

I admit that although I knew vaguely about Dalton Trumbo (Hollywood screenwriter, blacklisted), it was only from reading books about others or about the era, so I really didn't know a lot. "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" seems to me a phrase we've all heard at some point, but beyond that, I was clueless.

Of course, I didn't know the actor who played Trumbo - Bryan Cranston - from Adam, unlike the couple behind me who immediately began by identifying hims as the "Breaking Bad" guy, which meant nothing to me.

Regardless of his prior work, he did a masterful job in this role, cigarette holder constantly in his teeth, glass of Scotch in hand, and always typing, whether in the bathtub or at his desk, ashes falling where they may, conveying the drive and ambition of a man who loved to write.

But what fascinated me was the character of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, played with real vitriol and pseudo-patriotism by Helen Mirren. She came across as an awful person, eager to exact punishment on every member of the Hollywood 10, while using her clout with studio heads and directors to ensure nobody worked if she didn't want them to.

You see, a few years ago I'd been given an autographed copy of "Under My Hat," Hopper's 1952 autobiography of her acting (who knew?) and writing career and reading it, I'd been charmed by a woman I'd previously only known from an episode of "I Love Lucy."

But after seeing "Trumbo," I realize now how much personal ugliness and reprehensible behavior she left out of her book. The Congressional witch hunts that ruined the careers of so many talented people in the film industry were aided and abetted by this nut case, who used her multiple platforms - columns, radio and TV  - to spew venom and lies.

That one woman wearing crazy hats (literally and metaphorically) had so much power in the industry is almost inconceivable in the crowd-sourced world of today.

For the most part, period details were terrific, although occasionally, dialog skewed modern. "Her timing was always amazing," doesn't sound like anything that was said in 1948, when the word "amazing" wasn't the go-to adjective. Thankfully, no one used "awesome" or I'd have thrown popcorn at the screen.

Watching Trumbo literally cut and tape sections of his screenplays together served as reminder of how much more technically difficult the rewriting process used to be on a typewriter.

You know how I love a good history lesson.

I was surprised at how much the film's themes continue to resonate given that we're still trying to figure out where to draw the line between intrusion into people's personal lives and protection from the bad guys, and not wearing nearly as stylish clothing in the attempt.

That Trumbo went to jail for almost a year and then had to write using other people's names (earning two Oscars along the way) to earn a living reminded of what a shameful period in our country's history this was.

Back when I'd been reading "Under My Hat," I'd mentioned it to a few people and most of them had no idea who Hedda Hopper was. Now I realize what a good thing that is.

The shame is that more don't know who the brilliant Dalton Trumbo was. It would be wonderful to think this movie might change that.

Hot Sex and Banana Hammocks

So many stories of where I've been
And how I got to where I am
Oh, but these stories don't mean anything
When you've got no one to tell them to...

Man, when I heard Brandi Carlisle sing that song at Groovin' in the Garden back in May 2009, I was still reeling from having been through the wringer that year. A lifetime later, I heard it on the radio tonight after spending a day hearing stories.

Tanisha Ford had some terrific ones, gleaned while researching her new book, "Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style and the Global Politics of Soul," and shared them at a lecture at the VCU Depot.

Saying she was introduced to the soul generation by her Mom, she began by showing us a picture of her mother in her dorm room in 1972. Everything about the photo screamed '70s soul, from her Mom's gorgeous Afro to the poster of Angela Davis to the beaded curtain to the African print bedspread and pillows.

From there, she cleverly tied together the way black women dressed and the development of the modern Civil Rights movement, using everything from Blue Note jazz album covers to photographs of people such as South African singer Miriam Makeba (the very one I'd seen at the VMFA in the South African photography exhibit "Darkroom" at the VMFA in 2013) and covers of "Drum" and "Ebony" magazines to illustrate her point.

A 1973 article in "Drum," a South African tabloid, warned young women that they'd be fined or even jailed if they were caught in a mini-skirt.

Sorry, but having come of age when I did, I've always felt that mini-skirts were my birthright.

Perhaps most fascinating was how African Americans had first looked to Africa for inspiration, but once the notion of "soul" became a global concept in the '60s and '70s, the rest of the world looked to the U.S. for what was deemed to be modern and soulful.

Being part of that first generation who were offered women's studies classes in college all but guaranteed that I'd have a life-long interest in women's cultural history, so I was totally into Dr. Ford's history lecture with fashion on top.

Less women-centric, but still fine entertainment for this audience member, was tonight's installment of Secretly Y'All, Tell Me a Story, with the theme "through the wringer." Because who among us hasn't been at some time or another?

Waiting to get into the back room at Balliceaux, I chatted with a woman who'd come in from the east end while maintaining my place at the front of the line. Sitting down in a folding chair, I heard my name called by an artist I'd met at Crossroads a few months ago and when I looked to see who was down next to me, it was the vintage queen I'd seen at Mr. Fine Wine the other night.

"Oh, you again?" she joked, as the handsome chef with her handed her a bourbon cocktail.

So, the show. A blind man, a formerly homeless woman and a Senate intern walk into a bar and they're limited to true stories lasting no more than 5-7 minutes. Holy cow, that bar was Balliceaux!

I'm not sure if it was the theme or if the stars were just in alignment, but tonight's stories were stronger than they've been in some time, with some real heart breakers and major life affirmations thrown in for good measure.

Elaine explained how she'd lived in 30 different places, including her Honda Accord over the course of a year during which she continued to assure herself that she wasn't homeless (homeless people have bad teeth, smell funky and have drug habits, or so she thought). She became an expert in doing laundry in any sink she could find.

Henry was a Senate intern during the government shutdown a few years ago, taking complaints and threats from voters back home, experiencing a shooting just outside the senator's office and being rewarded with a pizza party for his effort. He's till trying to dig out of the hole that experience left in him.

Bill shared the tragic story of an abused woman friend who got a restraining order against her abusive husband, who then showed up anyway and beat her to death with a gun in front of her kids and sister, leaving behind "blood mud." His point was that her death sent out a ripple that affected so many others.

Richard called his move to Portland after his divorce a "hail Mary pass," but was grateful to land in the home of his friend Cheryl and her husband Ed, whom he described as the nicest heroin addict he'd ever met. After taking a room with another Cheryl, he was kicked out for putting a non-dishwasher dish in the dishwasher (horrors!), but found a good home with a nice Asian man, but only after pretending to be someone else.

Elizabeth grew up in a strict family, got engaged after three dates, then got married and went to prom. Unfortunately, her young husband robbed a house - "That's a felony" - just as she found out she was pregnant. "He came in shackles to see the birth." She raised her son without him and was very happy with how life had worked out.

Kristin was a career-oriented VP in finance by age 30 and then another skier ran into her at Wintergreen and she wound up with a brain injury where she couldn't remember names, places or much of anything about her life for months. Now back at work part-time, she's regained her sense of humor. "This brain injury thing, it's all in my head." Ba dum bum.

Anya's story was about her brother in Poland who'd been cross country skiing at night when a truck overtook him. Luckily, it was high enough that he could lean back and go under it, although he arrived home bloody and disoriented. At the village hospital circa 1995, the only bed was in the psychiatric ward, where the very old man in the bed next to him decided to stab himself with a fork to the wrist, causing spurting all over her brother. Anya was good enough to bring the fork for proof.

By the time intermission rolled around, I think it's safe to say that we were all gobsmacked with the stories we'd heard. What could possibly top any of those through-the-wringer moments?

Taylor could. He walked onstage, cane in hand, joking that, "The good thing about speaking in front of a crowd is I have no idea how many of you there are."

Seems he'd been coming home from helping his girlfriend assemble a Barbie car on Christmas eve when he feel asleep and hit a house. One TV newscaster pronounced him dead on the air (he wasn't). He woke up from the coma exactly two years almost to the minute that his Mom had died, but everything was dark.

He was told he was blind, "you won't be able to move the left side of your body and it's doubtful you'll ever walk again." Taylor responds by getting out of bed, walking over to the doctor, shaking his hand with his own left hand and thanking the man for saving his life.

He's still blind, but he says he's better at everything else now. Damn.

Donna found Tree Farm Guy on Craig's List, happily dated him for years ("We had hot sex!) but he didn't want her to move in and they broke up. Sniffing around on Craig's List, she creates a profile for herself ( and answers Tree Farm Guy's ad looking for men. She's still hopeful about finding a nice guy, but TFG wasn't it.

J. Michael's story was about forsaking good friends for the shallow allure of a social fraternity, only to learn that his friend had died in the interim and he never got to re-connect with him. His advice was to keep good people in your life (TFG was not good people, not to mix stories or anything).

Mark called his saga frivolous after the preceding blockbusters and he was right. It began with a trip to the Chilean desert, a difficult bike ride after a pedal fell off and an ass-numbing four-day jeep ride during which the driver was eating cocoa leaves non-stop and ended with a Frenchman improbably named Jeff coming out in a thermal shirt, a fleece vest and what Mark called a "banana hammock" before disappearing.

Brandi was wrong, these were stories that did mean something, whether you had someone to tell them to or not. And, despite being asked several times, I'm not going to be sharing my "through the wringer" story, either.

But let me assure you, it's how I got to where I am.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Letting 'Em Down Easy

Today is National Start Your Own Country Day, which I neither did nor celebrated, but it's also the last day of Virginia Cider week, and that one I addressed.

Blue Bee Cider and Camden's Dogtown Market - which could arguably be considered a modest attempt at starting the chef's own little universe, if not country -  were doing a pairing dinner to celebrate the seasonal apple harvest.

Seeing as how I was solo (and keeping my pours short to accommodate an early morning), I took my place at the end of the bar, next to a favorite beer geek and close to the cider queen, Courtney, to sip easy-drinking Winesap on Tap, poured out of growlers from the cidery next door.

Now there's a short distribution route.

That's when the music hit me. Bluegrass had been chosen as cider-appropriate and it was sounding more like a hoedown and less like eating music than anything I could think of short of death metal. I offered my opinion that although I enjoy bluegrass, the music was ill-suited for a five-course meal and was told that nothing suited cider better than banjo-picking.

"Don't we have too many teeth to listen to this kind of music?" the beer geek asked rhetorically. Yes. Yes, we do.

Winesap apple-roasted chicken salad "kotopoulopita" was introduced by the chef as, "kinda Greek-like, but not at all really," but the raves I heard were about how fabulous they were with phyllo dough encasing the savory chicken mixture.

One woman was so taken with the dish that she asked if it might show up on the regular menu sometime. Not a chance, she was told - turns out the chef hates dealing with phyllo. It was tasty while it lasted.

Beer Geek told me about his recent trips to Key West, Burlington, Vermont, Indiana and Appomattox, sharing photographs - yes, kids, actual hard copy pictures, not digital files  - of his progress around the country.

Sharp cheddar and walnut fondue with housemade potato chips was described by the chef as, "Snack food, yea!" while I would call it flat out obscene and a lovely pairing with Charred Ordinary (and a language lesson for those who didn't understand that ordinary was the word for tavern in Colonial times). Tiny jam jars held the rich, nut-studded fondue, which had some people using their finger to get every last drop out of the jar.

A particularly fast, twangy piece came on and Beer Geek observed, "I feel like I'm robbing a bank!" about the silent movie-sounding soundtrack. So I wasn't the only one objecting to the frenetic pace of bluegrass while eating.

In simplistic terms, the next course was hops and hot dogs. I mean, technically, it was Hopsap Shandy (a hops-infused cider) with killer housemade bratwurst, pickled mustard seeds and housemade pretzel sticks. The satisfying explosion of the seeds when bitten provided the same pleasure as popping bubble wrap, but in my mouth, so not nearly as annoying to those around me.

A woman made the comment that Chef Andy had "spoiled her" for other restaurants because he makes so much of his food in house, pointing to this course as a perfect example of that. She'd recently been in Washington and been appalled at what she had to pay for lesser quality.

Another woman pointed out that she only moved to Richmond eight months ago and already feels like she spends all her time eating out because it's the city-wide pastime. And her point was...?

Aragon, which Blue Bee's Courtney described as the ideal bridge between those who've only tasted "six-pack ciders" and the next level of liquid apple drinking, was paired with braised pork shoulder over spaetzel with "Smokey Jus."

I'm sorry, but when I see "Smokey Jus" on the menu, it looks like a name to me and I assume he's a far-flung cousin of Smokey Robinson or a regular at Smoeky Joe's Cafe, while the beer geek thought it sounded like a cowboy's name. Let's rustle up some grub, Smokey Jus.

Semantics aside, the dish was a bowl of winter comfort, long-cooked and deeply flavorful.

Coming around to offer more cider, my server raised an eyebrow when I declined. "You're letting me down, Karen," she announced. "Complaining about the music, not drinking much. Who are you?"

One of the couples at the dinner had the distinction of being there to celebrate both their birthdays today. They live on Floyd Avenue, my home for 13 years, and I went over to chat with them about the old 'hood. You see, today I'd driven down Floyd only to see that a roundabout is being installed at Dooley Avenue.

Floyd, I hardly know ye!

They inform me that another will go at Belmont and the speed limit will drop to 20 mph, all part of the Floyd Avenue bike route. This is all terrific news, but none of it helped me when I moved in back in '93."

Of course we discuss InLight, which was practically in their backyard this year.

"I loved how diverse it was, " the birthday girl said. "And everyone was smiling!" Further proof that my thesis - that InLight is the visual equivalent of the Folk Fest with wide appeal and a solid 8-year history - is a sound one, if I do say so myself.

Cupcakes tricked out with lighted birthday candles were delivered to the happy couple and the room gave them a round of applause, presumably for making it this far in life. Or maybe just to temporarily drown out the music.

Back in my seat, another rapid-fire bluegrass song plucked at my last nerve, with BG noting, "Okay, this song was used in "Bonnie and Clyde." So we were back to music to rob banks by, lord help us. A server hilariously began clogging behind the bar.

Firecracker, a dessert cider, was made with ginger-infused eau de vie and was our final pour. Courtney said she wanted a dominant ginger taste and got it, noting that she's had ginger-infused ciders that barely whispered their gingerness.

"It's an expensive ingredient," she said assertively. "I wanted my cider to taste like it." Mission accomplished. Paired with goat cheese mousse with sweet pickled Black Twig apples and graham cracker crumbles, the Firecracker was everything you expect a feisty ginger to be.

The kind of cider that says in its own liquid way, if you don't like me, move on, buster. Go start your own country, or maybe your own restaurant where you can make all the rules.

And for heaven's sake, turn off that damn bluegrass while people are eating.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Worth My Barking Dogs

No one gives me a Saturday night quite like Mr. Fine Wine.

For that matter, no one serves a pre-dance party dinner quite like the one my couple date and I ate through at Metzger, but only after I had to defend my thesis (potatoes don't belong in anything called nachos) and break from their wine choice (I don't start an evening of dancing with Meinklang Pinot Noir, I begin it with Casas del Mar Cava).

We had the last reservation of the night and even as we ate, every time a table around us was vacated, it was cleared and moved outside, the better to create a dance floor from the tiny restaurant. This wasn't my first Fine Wine rodeo, so I knew the drill.

Considering how much we ate, I'd say we did a fine job of doing it in the relatively brief span we were allotted. Borscht salad got its kick from sauerkraut vinaigrette; my fried sweetbreads currywurst-style tasted so enticing that even sweetbreads-averse Beau had to admit they were fabulous; a rich stout-braised pork pie would be an ideal dish on a cold, wintry night; scallops and mushrooms over a chestnut puree was pure perfection; and the evening's special was an enormous plate of steak and potatoes that fed all three of us amply.

By this point, there were only a few tables left standing around us, but that didn't prevent us from ordering chocolate and squash, a seasonal take on my requisite ending to a meal.

Beau was so impressed with the Kuri squash cake that he said he'd eat it by itself, while I far preferred having it adorned with chocolate mousse, chocolate malt, sage ice cream and divinely crunchy candied sage leaves.

Then, and only then, fully sated and with Mr. Fine Wine cranking up the turntables, did we relinquish our table. The chef ducked out the back door, telling me she was going home to put on her face and change clothes before coming back to join the party.

With Mr. Fine Wine, everybody's all in. "Thanks for coming," she said. "You never miss one of these, do you?" Sure don't.

The next three hours were an absolute ball. We began with a bottle of Paul Direder Gruner Veltliner but by the time Pru and I returned from our first dance-off up next to the turntables, it was clear water was going to be as essential as grape if we were to go the distance. And lots of it.

With Mr. Fine Wine, it's a marathon, not a sprint, especially as the room began to fill to capacity (and beyond?) and heat up. As usual, I didn't hesitate to go over and open a window to allow the cold night air in.

At one point, Pru looked at the mass of humanity quizzically and asked if I knew anybody in the room. Are you kidding?

Let's see, besides the oenophile taking the first level of her sommelier tests this week who greeted me when I arrived before they did? Other than the guy who came over to our table to hug me and tell my friends that he only runs into me at the coolest events?

Well, I congratulated the former freelancer and now reporter while ordering wine. The electronic musician/visual artist gave me a hug and told me to come dance with her. Familiar foodies and servers were rampant, especially representing the Church Hill contingent.

Even Grandma Muriel, aka the talented sax player who calls bingo at Gallery 5 wanted to chat, although he was noticeably without his peignoir and mask tonight.

But some of the best conversations and dances came courtesy of strangers. I love how when Mr. Fine Wine is spinning, there are no formalities.

A guy is dancing next to you one minute and the next he's bumping hips and circling around you. Or you're just standing there catching your breath and you feel a hand on your back inviting you to dance.

Naturally, this also results in some pretty spectacular conversation. Coming back from the loo, I rounded the corner and a smiling stranger grabbed me to dance. When the song ended and another seamlessly began, he didn't let go.

"I know you're older," he says between twirling me. "What, 41?" Trying not to laugh, I answer a question with a question, curious about where he falls in the 20-something continuum. He's coy about admitting it, but already on to other things. "Do you like cocaine?" and suggests we adjourn to his car.

I pass. Give up one minute of Mr. Fine Wine? It is to laugh.

Reaching down for some lip gloss, I find an empty Underberg miniature and have a pang of regret for not finishing our rich meal with the German digestif bitter. Next time.

It's so crazy crowded around 1 a.m. that when Pru goes out for a cig, she's gone for so long Beau gets worried. Then he's gone for ages. Turns out - and I had no idea because I was too busy dancing with others in their absence - that we'd reached critical mass and were on a one for one policy. They'd both had to wait for someone to exit the restaurant before they could be re-admitted.

All those sweaty bodies meant it was so hot that even Mr. Fine Wine had to shed his colorful cardigan and was spinning in his t-shirt. With only a dress on, I didn't have that luxury.

We were still dancing when lights came on to signal closing time, but I couldn't leave without telling the DJ what a fantastic evening he'd curated. I'd also been really impressed with one of his recent radio broadcasts, a tribute to Allen Toussaint, and mentioned that.

Taking my hand and thanking me, he said, "We met last time, didn't we?" We certainly did, not that I'd expected him to remember. As if I wasn't already high enough, my evening ended in the best possible way: leaning over the turntables still playing, talking to Mr. Fine Wine.

Hella good night...

Friday, November 20, 2015

What a Little Moonlight Can Do

The working for the weekend crowd was in full force tonight. In costume, no less.

Walking toward Vagabond to eat, Pru and I pass three women already in line (and in '80s attire) two hours before the sold out Legwarmers show.

Who stands in line for hours to see a cover band?

Inside Vagabond, it gets worse. The dozens of people inside and obviously going to the show are dressed like a parody of the '80s. One guy looks like Doc from "Back to the Future," a movie that just happens to be playing at the Byrd tonight.

Don't these people remember the reality of the Reagan years?

Never have I seen so many lace fingerless gloves or, yeesh, legwarmers. Yes, Madonna wore a net skirt to sing "Like a Virgin" on the MTV music awards, but tonight women are walking around with net skirts like it was a thing back then. It wasn't.

Seated at the edge of the bar, we have a bird's eye view of people coming in to pre-game before the show. The bartender tells us people have already sat down and ordered a drink and a dessert to satisfy the $15 minimum that qualifies them for early entry to the National next door.

"They leave the dessert," he says, shaking his head. "What possible difference does it make to get in a little early for a show like this?"

Beats the hell out of me.

That said, in spite of himself, he says he's been singing along to every song that's come on the '80s station they're playing tonight in the restaurant. "I grew up listening to this music," he says half-reverently. May Bow Wow Wow forgive you.

Another staff member comes over to share an anecdote with us, a look of astonishment written all over his face.

"These people called to ask about our corkage fee and I told them it was $15 as long as we don't carry the bottle," he said, still shaking his head. "Pretty standard for the industry, right? They just showed up...with a box of wine. That's like three bottles! I've never seen anything like it in all my years working in restaurants."

So not only are they costumed poorly, but they're crass as well. Or maybe they still think it's hip to be square.

As the bar fills up with more concert-goers, I tuck into spicy goat tacos with Thurston Wolfe Pinot Gris, followed by an exquisite Italian take on rockfish collar prepared with basil cooked in olive oil and a little Thai salad that eats even better than it smells, an amazing feat considering the aroma that announces the dish's arrival.

As if that weren't delightful enough, Pru casually mentions, "You're not gonna believe it but I'm on YouTube," explaining that she was roped into playing bells onstage at a recent performance of "Forever Plaid" and naturally, Beau filmed it. She's right, I don't believe it.

The world's gone mad tonight. Or should I say Madge?

Fleeing the former kids in America crowd, we make for the Basement and Theatre LAB's production of "Lady Day at Emerson's  Bar & Grill," where, mercifully, the crowd is less hungry like the wolf.

Yet again I am impressed with how the malleable Basement has been transformed, this time into a small Philly jazz club with a postage stamp-sized stage, a piano off to one side and low tables for drinks for those with a front row view of Katrinah Carol Lewis as Billie Holiday.

Just as impressive is how much more diverse the crowd is than typically. I especially enjoy the couple sitting nearest me because they don't hesitate to react to what's said onstage.

When Lady Day is talking about how much she likes cooking, she says, "I cook pigs' feet real good. I boil 'em, then I bake 'em till they're crispy like potato chips," I hear him mutter appreciatively, "Mmmm, mmm!" almost licking his chops.

Clearly he appreciates a woman who can cook a mean mess o' pig's feet.

Set in 1959, the year she dies, the play portrays her after her prime, as a drug user (thanks to a man, natch) and post-jail time, but as a singer who can still move people with her voice and poignancy, albeit while moving through a bottle of booze onstage.

Between songs, she talks to the audience about her life and tries to get her pianist to interact with her.

For me, it was fascinating seeing local musician Larry Branch play the part of pianist Jimmy after years of seeing him play keys around town in various ensembles. Besides being seriously talented, his taciturn demeanor and valiant attempts to keep her on track added a note of pathos to the show.

Of course, with a one-woman show, you need a hell of a woman to pull it off and Katrinah is that woman, alternately (deservedly) disparaging white people and then breaking your heart with her back story.

Except when she's hilariously telling the story of a white restaurant hostess who refuses to let her use the whites only bathroom. Holiday solves the problem by pulling up her dress and taking care of business on the woman's sequined shoes and then Lewis goes into her breathtakingly beautiful rendition of Holiday's classic "Strange Fruit."

Past performances have proven what a gorgeous and robust singing voice Lewis has, so it was all to her credit that she managed to sound so much like the life-weary Lady Day as she moved through her repertoire, needle tracks on her arms evident.

No question, Billie Holiday's story was a tough one and by the time it finished, my interest had been piqued to find a good biography of the woman to further flesh out my understanding of her now that I knew bits and pieces.

When the lights came up, I heard the guys behind me tell friends that they'd "snuck out to the bar halfway though to get another bottle of wine."

Why not? I feel sure Lady Day would have approved.

What Lovely Fervor

A good daughter cooks and bakes for her mother and answers her father's questions before going out to play.

"What band sang 'Highway to Hell'?" he asks from the family room. AC/DC, I tell him

"Who was the 'Originator'?" When I say Bo Diddly, he fills in the crossword blanks with a satisfied smile. "Ah, yes!"

At this point, Mom gets involved. "If you need any more assistance, you'd better ask her now before she goes because I can't be of any help to you on this stuff."

I assume that she means she doesn't know anything about music history. "I blocked out that whole rock and roll period!" she says with disdain, although the truth is she's been to multiple Neil Diamond concerts and some of her favorite songs are by Stevie Wonder.

It's all rock at this point, Mom.

Today's road trip to the Northern Neck had been motivated by Mom's bridge luncheon tomorrow, so I'd spent my time helping make chicken noodle soup, chicken salad and a Viennese torte, all of which took a solid three hours and endless conversation.

Answering Dad's questions takes seconds, and that includes him asking me about my love life.

As parents go, mine are pretty cool.

After driving back through a series of rain squalls, I consider my evening's options and decide that Quill Theater's historic play reading series wins out because it's "Luminous One: An Evening with Ethel Barrymore" and I know nothing about the woman besides that she's a distant relation to Drew.

It doesn't hurt that it's being presented at the Branch House and while I've already seen the new exhibit, I certainly don't mind seeing it again. To my amazement, I overhear a woman say she's lived in Richmond for 17 years and never been in the building.

"What is this place?" she inquires of her clueless friend. Tragic.

I, on the other hand, am enchanted to find the heavy leaded windows are open on this unusually balmy, wet November evening, allowing the moist air inside. This fact alone makes the evening special.

The one-woman show, ably written and directed by Melissa Rayford and starring the reliably impressive Melissa Johnston-Price is set in Richmond and kicks off with its premise.

"I've been asked to write a memoir. Horrors!" Ethel exclaims, standing next to a typewriter. From there, she reminisces about some of what's happened in her life, never writing a word.

She talks about her grandmother who "experimented with marriage" (haven't we all?), her memories of going to the Jefferson for the wedding of Charles Dana Gibson and Irene Langhorne, saying, "By the time she married, she'd had 60 proposals," and dancing on the Jefferson's rooftop garden the night before.

And, like my Dad, Ethel's father kept his word count to strictly what was necessary. When she cabled that she was getting married ("I was constantly trying to let myself get married and it never worked"), he responded with, "Congratulations. Love, Father."

When she broke the engagement and cabled her father the change in events, he responded, "Congratulations. Love, Father."

Turns out Ethel's life involved Winston Churchill, Henry James, the Duke of Manchester, Teddy Roosevelt and Spencer Tracy while wearing black, white and gray clothing because they were cheapest.

Apparently the Barrymores are known for two things: mismanaging money and drinking excessively.

In a particularly telling moment, Ethel complained about the current generation expecting art to be an instantaneous pleasure. As if. Or, as Ethel put it, "If you don't like it, you need to figure out why!"

When the reading ended, we broke for a dessert buffet and mingling. In the course of commiserating about the evils of Verizon, I manged to devour four little sweeties, as my Scottish friend would say, followed by chatting with a handsome stranger.

My mother and her sweet tooth would be proud.

A panel discussion followed, where we gleaned obscure tidbits such as the fact that if Drew Barrymore's children become actors, they'll represent 300 years of Barrymores in the profession. And how Ethel's hair was imitated just like Jennifer Aniston's was a century later. That the Barrymores gave each other red apples on opening night.

Yet another fine Ethel-ism: "You grow up the day you have your first yourself."

The logical place to end my evening was celebrating the third Thursday of November, also known as the day Beaujolais Nouveau is released and as good an excuse as any to visit Amour, enjoy some young wines and sample Beaujolais Nouveau sorbet (while patting myself on the back for missing last night's guests).

Not only is this years' Georges du Boeuf Beaujolais Noveau far better than the usual bubblegum-flavored sipper, but one of last year's Noveaus has aged amazingly well and how often does that happen?

My favorite French teacher and part-time model tries to convince me to consider modeling in local fashion shows and I wonder how I would like being looked at for wearing clothes not my own. The entire bar discusses the difference in "cruise people" and "boat people."

In the strictest sense, I qualify for neither. On the other hand, I've been proposed to eight times, I've experimented with marriage and I've laughed at myself for as long as I can remember.

And you know what I'd hear from the Northern Neck about that?

Congratulations. Love, Dad.