Saturday, January 31, 2015

Bon Appetit

One must follow food porn with actual food, n'est-ce pas?

Showing at UR's International Film Fest tonight was the French bio-pic "Haute Cuisine" based on the memoir of Daniele Delpeuch, who served as private chef to French president Mitterrand.

When I invited my favorite Francophile to join me, she informed me that she'd already seen it on Netflix (not that watching a movie at home in any way compares to seeing it on the big screen, but I digress). She wavered, saying that it had been a charming film, so I sweetened the pot by suggesting that we go out for a bite afterwards and she climbed on board.

As many times as I've been to UR for their weekly screenings, tonight's crowd was by far the largest I'd ever seen. We took seats in front of three women, one of whom I knew, and we were all soon relating about short grandmothers (not one of us five had had one who'd been over 5' tall) and the inevitability of tall men sitting in front of us at theaters.

Mid-conversation, three men clambered over us and sat down to my right, effectively doing exactly what we'd been discussing to the women behind us. When I turned around in empathy, the three burst out laughing.

"Are you in some sort of ladies' club?" the man next to me inquired quite seriously. You mean like the She-Ra Man Hater's Club? No, sir, I'm not.

Usually the film is introduced by a professor who provides a bit of background and suggests elements to watch for, but tonight a different man greeted us, joking, "Tonight's French film didn't arrive, so we're going to show an Italian horror movie."

It wouldn't have mattered since obviously the predominantly female audience had nothing better to do on a Friday night than watch a mature French woman effortlessly cook meals for the President of the Republic. Being French, she couldn't help but do it with perfect make-up, lots of jewelry and impossibly soigne ensembles under her simple (but chic) black apron.

As if we didn't already know French women are different than us, watching the lovely 58-year old actress Catherine Frot with her flawless skin, impeccable posture and cheekbones to die for was a solid reminder that however they do it - all that wine and foie gras, high heels worn everywhere (including the kitchen) - we should be emulating it from birth.

"Haute Cuisine" fits solidly into the food movie trend of the past few years with mouth-watering shots of edibles being prepared, plated and served. Because this one was also French, there were just as many sexy shots of ingredients like truffles, cep mushrooms and Savoy cabbage to titillate the audience.

But the most satisfying part of it all was that she wasn't preparing fancy food for the Prez. He'd hired her because he wanted a woman to cook the rustic dishes of his youth, the kind of dishes his grandmother used to make. The chef even uses vintage cookbooks to seek out era-appropriate inspiration.

The movie's drama arrives courtesy of the large staff of the all-male main kitchen who resent the presence of a woman in their historically male domain, even though she's in a separate, smaller kitchen. Chauvinism and bad behavior are rampant. Still, she perseveres right up until bureaucrats try to control what she cooks for the sake of the president's health.

Lesson #1: never tell a French chef she can't cook with butter and cream or she'll resign and take a job in Antarctica where lonely men on a base appreciate her cream puffs cooking. The end.

When the lights came up, the first words out of my friend's mouth were, "That's a movie that'll make you hungry." Not having eaten since lunch was every bit as effective for me.

My plan was to go to Acacia to check out their late night bar menu but the sleek bar was full up, so the hostess graciously put us at a small nearby table with bar menus. Overhead, middle eastern techno pulsed out the beat of a Friday night.

We debated the appeal of drinking Rose in the winter (not a problem for me), something she resists despite drinking white wine during cold months. Makes no sense to me. After my ruby red glass of Tavel Chateau d'Aqueria Rose arrived, we considered the menu which was heavy on fish.

Leave it to Acacia to do a bar menu that's more Acacia-like than bar-like. I chose fish tacos after hearing that they were made with fresh flounder. Two fat tacos stuffed with fish and jalapeno slaw boasted plate mates of fresh guacamole and recently-fried tortilla chips with a pretty little mesclun salad on the side.

It may have read as a snack but was most certainly more of a meal. After watching a movie about the pleasures of food, it would have been completely unsatisfying to have noshed on average food afterwards. Even she had to admit that her lobster bisque was the perfect decadence to put a period at the end of a story about a French kitchen.

And not just any kitchen, but one where a middle-aged woman stole the show with her unflappable demeanor, peasant cooking and devotion to fresh ingredients.

Much as I enjoyed the movie, I admit I'm not inspired to cook any more often because of it. That's what chefs are for.

On the other hand, I am rethinking how often I put on heels and go shopping at the farmer's market. Ineffable French style has to start somewhere.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Hello, Old Friends

When you usher in an historic presidency, it forges bonds.

After waiting in line for over two hours to vote that memorable day, I watched the 2008 presidential election results roll in at the home of a reliably liberal couple I'd known for years. Although we'd both shared Floyd Avenue addresses, I'd moved after 13 years, while they were still there. All of us were rooting for Obama.

With each state that got on board with the progressive agenda, I cheered and noshed on appetizers, keeping one eye on the TV screen. Yes, we can make this change for the better. I, for one, was more than ready for my president to be someone other than a white man.

Flash forward six years.

Despite shared ideologies, tonight was the first time I'd caught up with my Obama-supporting friends in ages. They walked into Sidewalk Cafe where I'd taken up residence near the end of the bar for dinner. Welcome, old friends and Democrats.

Of all the places to finally run into them, that it was at Sidewalk Cafe made perfect sense. A place that's been around since 1990 back when the first Bush was in the White House, it's a reliably easy place to end up for a quick meal, extended drinking or C, all of the above.

While it seems like every year another group of VCU graduates takes ownership of its booths and tables for happy hour and late night bull sessions, the reality is that it's an easy go-to for neighbors and long-time city dwellers on occasion, too. Think Joe's Inn without so many screaming toddlers.

For years, I was never more than an occasional customer mainly because of its devoted smoking clientele and the sepia-toned walls that held the odor and color of nicotine. But post-smoking ban, fond memories of their blackened steak and blue cheese salad were enough to put me back there and in place to randomly run into my former neighbors.

The strange part was, I almost didn't recognize them when they came in. Part of that was how bundled up they were for the weather, but another part was simply that they looked older than they had that historic November night years ago.

Because we all do. Life exacts its toll on our faces and bodies - changes my mother with her glass half full brand of optimism always referred to as "badges of honor" - exacerbated by poor lifestyle choices and lessened a little by good DNA.

Coco Chanel famously said that nature gives you the face you have at 20, but it's up to you to merit the face you have at 50. In my friends' faces, I could see the years of expended energy they'd put into raising three sons, but I could also see the easy companionship of their long-time marriage.

On my way back from the loo, I stopped at their table to hear about what's going on in their lives these days and we fell into easy conversation about many things. Once we got busy talking, I wondered how in the world I hadn't immediately recognized them. Their passion for politics and enjoyment of life was still very much in evidence with every word that came out of their mouths.

That's the thing, really. It's not being a certain age that changes how people look, it's how they live their lives as the years go by. Speaking from my own experience, I'd say passion and enthusiasm go a long way toward keeping your spirit young.

Which is not to say I'm giving up walking, sunscreen and moisturizer any time soon. I like it when someone posts a six-year old photo of me online and a friend in Scotland comments, "Do you have a portrait in the attic by any chance???"

What I've got is excitement for whatever - current events, pudding, dancing - is catching my fancy lately. I'd like to think it's written all over my face.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Welcome to My Life

No one sets out to be the poster girl for middle-aged singlehood.

A succession of life's lemons dropped in my lap led me on the path to that dubious distinction, with nary a clue in advance of where I was headed. But then, I can be pretty oblivious.

The great recession of 2008 claimed me as one of its countless victims when I was laid off as a webcast producer in December that year. Disappointing, but I'd already learned the life lesson that jobs come and go.

While I was wading through the miasma of applying for unemployment and scouring the Web for job listings seeking my limited skill set, I came down with pneumonia. And not the garden variety, but the "so severe we're going to put you in intensive care for five days" kind. For the first time in my life, it occurred to me that I might die.

With so much negative juju swirling around me, you'd think I wouldn't have been surprised when my boyfriend of six years ended our run, but I was. The fact that we were living together in his house only added another layer to the quagmire that had become my new reality.

Endless Internet searching revealed that in just over two months, I'd faced four of the five major life stressors: job loss, moving, illness and break-up. The only one missing was death and that would come a year later when my beloved 15-year old beagle died. It's a good dog who hangs on until you have the wherewithal to deal with losing him.

I wish I could say that with a winning smile and a good attitude I soon restored my life to its pre-cataclysmic state, but that's not what happened. So many days, all I could think about was how much I hadn't wanted to end up here at this late point in my life. Upheaval was for the young.

Learning to knit together the fabric of a new life happened incrementally, somewhere between uncertainty and loneliness. What I thought I knew for sure was that I didn't want to forge a different path. Or did I?

Months of applying for jobs I really didn't want taught me that job seekers of a certain age are less desirable, no matter how impressive the resume. But those same months of not having to be at an office from 9 to 5 opened up entirely new doors formerly invisible to this morning person.

All of a sudden, it didn't matter how late I stayed up or how late I slept in. Family and friends soon learned not to call me before 10, preferably 11. Better yet, e-mail me and I'll get back to you whenever.

One of my responsibilities as a producer had been blogging and it didn't take long for me to miss that outlet, that audience. I started a blog because I wanted to share what I was doing, going through and feeling, but I had no idea if anyone would read it besides a few close friends.

Delighted when they did, I was downright thrilled when I heard from local editors who wanted me to write for them. I like to think that I willed it to be. When I'd applied for my little apartment, I'd written "freelance writer" as my occupation despite the fact that I was doing nothing more than collecting unemployment and sending out resumes daily.

Perhaps I had been the change I wanted to see.

As a died-in-the-wool extrovert, though, in the early days, the most challenging part of being jobless and living alone was the lack of social interaction. I craved company like I do Milk Duds with buttered popcorn. True, I didn't have much money, but part of the beauty of a town like Richmond is the wealth of free culture.

I set out to own it. Every evening, I went out. Not every night except when I was tired or every night when the weather was good, but every single night of the year. I would find something, anything, occasionally spending a few dollars, but always seeking out something to do and by default, people to talk to.

In doing so, I found myself welcomed into practically every scene in which I participated. I went to play readings and met people in the theater. I went to music shows two and three nights a week and soon had musicians coming up to me and asking, "Who are you? You're at every show." I was devoted to poetry readings and met people capable of shaping words into beauty. At history lectures, I met other history nerds, at art openings, gallerists and artists. And I did it alone.

Why? Most middle-aged people are already in relationships and that's how they socialize, as couples. Since I had no intention of dating (it took four years for me to dip my foot in that pond), that was out.

The infrequent availability of friends meant that I could sit at home waiting for them to be free or head out alone and take my chances with strangers. You might be surprised at what people will say to a woman out by herself. I know that writing about these solo adventures in my blog made for some pretty colorful posts. Some of the stuff I left out was even better.

I've also made new friends along the way who occasionally provide company so I'm only alone 90% of the time these days. But it's also a rare place I can go now that I don't run into people I know or at least recognize from past happenings, meaning conversational opportunities arise even when flying solo.

Posting a picture of my legs on my blog didn't hurt, either. More than a few people have come up to me guessing who I was solely because of the tights I was wearing.

One of the editors who contacted me to write mentioned specifically that my pluck in doing so much alone was impressive, role model-like, even. One of the first pieces she contracted me to write was about dining out alone, a subject I knew well but also one I wouldn't have expected anyone to need instructions for.

In the years since, I've heard from countless women, both in online comments and in person, that I'm an inspiration to them. How is that possible, I wonder? Some make it sound like I'm doing something extraordinary in venturing out by myself night after night. Not true.

All I'm doing is putting myself out there in the hopes of having an interesting experience and somehow I manage to do that every single night. Still.

Would I wish the triple whammy of job loss/illness/break-up on my worst enemy? Absolutely not. Do I feel grateful that it happened to me?

With every fiber of my wildly happy middle-aged being.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Intimate and Grand

Oops, I did it again. Set out for culture and ran smack into the nexus of sports and cops directing traffic.

Unlike last night when I was on foot, tonight's inconvenience was brought to me by University of Richmond's basketball game, meaning I sat in a backup of cars trying to get somewhere completely different than where I was headed.

My goal: the Modlin Center for the opening lecture of "Garry Winogrand: Family Intimacies" by the photographer's first wife, Adrienne Judith Lubeau-Winogrand, a delightful former dancer who took many tangents to tell us a small part of the story of her marriage to the central figure in American mid-century photography.

How much more fascinating it was to have the woman who was his subject and bedmate talking about a dead artist than a curator.

"I had the honor to be Garry's first wife," was how she launched the lecture. Seriously, how many first wives refer to the honor of their first (failed) time at bat?

Showing photographs as she spoke from an armchair onstage, she told us she'd had no idea he went to burlesque houses at night until she saw the photos. "I feel I really made him happy," she said. "He decided on me and I went along for the ride."

Actually, I see a kind of romance to that.

Displaying a rare shot of him, she said, "He looks terrific, doesn't he? The problem was he smoked three packs a day, drank like a fish and sometimes stayed up for 24 hours." She thought that might explain his early death at 56, although his daughter was convinced it was all the darkroom chemicals he was exposed to regularly over the years.

Referring to his second wife, she said, "She only lasted two years. By then, he'd drained her bank account. Should I say that?'" Seems she's still friends with Wife #3, whose daughter was flower girl at her own daughter's wedding. Very cozy, indeed.

Many of the photographs were of Adrienne herself - sleeping, holding their children - and she wasn't shy about admitting that'd felt like she was married to a lens, not a man because he was always shooting her. "It was a constant presence."

After her talk, we adjourned to the Hartnett Museum to see the exhibit, a window into another era since most of the pictures were from the '60s and '70s.

Some were downright old-fashioned, such as a child on a wooden horse or a baby carriage in a park. I heard several young women marveling over that antique.

Ethan on 93rd Avenue, New York showed the artist's son dressed in a striped romper (something toddlers don't wear anymore), pointing a toy gun at a window. We don't allow that anymore.

Another showed the little boy slightly older running down the street, cowboy hat in hand. Adrienne had said during the talk that that picture usually hangs in her living room and she's already missing it terribly. What I found interesting about it was that the wide sidewalk held not a piece of trash, not so much as a cigarette butt as far as the eye could see.

My favorite in the entire show was 1967's Adrienne After the Bath, a photograph that could have been modeled on a Degas pastel. She sits naked on the closed toilet in a narrow, tiled bathroom, a towel around part of her body with a curved, young hip exposed.

It was one of the most exquisite photographs I've ever seen, all the more meaningful for having just seen the subject herself 58 years later. She's aged well, probably a result of her dancing career.

After mingling at the reception, I went into the other gallery to see Anti-Grand: Contemporary Perspectives on Landscape, another new exhibit but as different as it could be: all the works were post-2000.

I had flashbacks to the '70s with Village Green by Vaughn Bell, a large, house-shaped plastic terrarium set on legs with the steamed up interior walls every former hippie chick recognizes.

What made this one so cool was the opening on the bottom of the "house" that allowed the viewer to stick your head inside to inhale the humid, plant-scented air inside. Groovy to the nth degree and very 21st century. We can't just look, we have to experience.

There was something very compelling about Mono Lake, CA, a huge digital print of the lake that had been soaked in Mono lake water causing water stains through which you could see the actual photo.

Inheritance was a large, wooden black box into which slides of endangered wildlife areas were projected while a humidifier spewed steam out of the opening, sort of an implied scolding for what we have wrought.

The show's strength was the wide-ranging notion of landscape as interpreted by an array of international artists during the new millennium. Even video games were included, not that I knew what to do with them.

As I was coming out of the bathroom afterwards, Adrienne was headed in and I took a moment to thank her for sharing her life stories with us. I said I'd been especially impressed with how she'd said she'd held fast to her own dreams and goals, even when her husband hadn't paid much attention to them.

"Oh, but he came and photographed me at the dance studio, did you see?" she asked eagerly. I had, but I also sensed it must have been challenging to hold fast to her artistic soul (Robert Motherwell was her painting professor!) back in the '50s when motherhood reigned supreme. Despite no longer being young, she still had the body of a dancer.

Leaving UR, I decided that the big game was still being played because cars were parked everywhere but there wasn't a soul in sight. Go, team.

My cold hands and I stopped for the fabulous and very French hot chocolate Amour serves, namely Les Confitures a l'Ancienne, while eavesdropping on a couple discussing their divorces, what Ritalin does to kids and the probability of weed being made legal in Virginia.

We had a joint discussion (ha!) about why firemen are different than policemen (she claimed there was scientific study to explain the different personalities) and why Amour should have scantily-clad firemen at their fire department benefit dinners next month.

After the chocolate, I indulged in a half glass of J. Fritsch Pinot Gris, a rich, semi-sweet sipper to complement what I'd just had and send me on my way after an evening well spent.

Part of that was the mid-century romance! He decided on me and I went along for the ride. That's as quaint as a baby carriage, but I don't even think we allow that anymore.

Although as long as you're sure it makes both people happy, why not? Should I say that?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Catfish Thai Style

For me, it will always be a love/hate relationship.

I love the VCU Cinemtatheque series, but I hate when it coincides with a VCU basketball game, like tonight. Despite only having to go a half a mile to the Grace Street Theater, it's like competition dodge ball to run the gauntlet between focused fans on foot and in vehicles.

Come on, people, I just want to see a free movie.

Twice, I almost got mowed down by people, heads down and charging toward the Siegel Center, oblivious to those of us not caught up in fandom. It's not like I don't want VCU to win, I do, but I don't have to watch it to make it happen.

I made a quick stop at Ipanema to buy a ticket for the upcoming Bijou/Byrd Theater fundraiser (showing "Finding Vivian Maier," up for an Oscar as best documentary), chatted with the man with the magnificent mutton chops and scooted across stopped traffic on Grace Street to the theater.

Not only were students pouring in, several saying they'd heard the movie was good, but grown-ups, too. The king of Video Fan sat down behind me, ideal because I then had someone to talk film with. He's busy working on the upcoming Twin Peaks festival and shared that they'd nailed down showing "Eraserhead" during the event. Can't wait.

I inquired what he knew about tonight's Thai film, "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," the 2010 winner of the Cannes Palme d'Or prize and he confirmed that he'd heard it was terrific. In fact, they'd just recently gotten it in at the store, but he'd held off watching it to see it on the big screen. That's a smart man.

Just as the lights were dimming, a Frenchman I know slid into the seat next to me, saying, "There were too many kids on their phones around me. I had to move." There ought to be a law.

The film professor with the booming voice who usually leads off these screenings with an explanation of why the film was being shown and what the director is known for was absent tonight, leaving us in the hands of an assistant professor who mumbled a few words and rolled the film.

"If he'd talked much longer, he'd have put everyone to sleep," the Frenchman observed dryly. He should know since I once heard him snoring at a Russian film screening at UR.

From the opening shots of a buffalo in the woods, which probably lasted close to ten minutes without a single word being spoken, you could tell this was going to be an exquisitely shot movie. It was soon just as clear that belief needed to be suspended.

The tale of a man dying of kidney failure who assembles his loved ones for his last days began to cross into mystical territory when the ghost of his dead wife shows up on the veranda to chat with him and the others. Before long, his long-lost son arrives, only he's become a monkey ghost, complete with black fur and glowing red eyes.

What was most interesting about all this was how matter-of-factly it was presented. No explanations were offered for how dead people could just show up and talk to humans, but it came across plausibly.

What if our dead loved ones do have the ability to reach out to us as we slide toward death and help us make the transition to the other side? I can't say that's not possible.

One of the oddest scenes involved a princess who gives herself up to a catfish who thinks she's beautiful and, yes, there is woman/catfish sex shown as she floats on the water. It no doubt sounds far stranger written out here than it played out in the movie.

As a whole, sitting in the darkened theater, the meandering movie was trance-like as it unfolded, every Thai landscape enthralling, every conversation a consideration of what life and death mean. When the spirit world begins to recede at the end, we know it's because our hero has died and they're no longer needed.

Absent out usual professor, there was unfortunately no post-film discussion like there usually is. Given how enigmatic the movie was, it was particularly missed. I'm always curious what others have to say.

As the credits rolled, a student near me turned to his friends and said, "I liked it. It took you to another place." And as a 19-year old, it's probably a place he wouldn't have gone to on his own. in the lobby, a girl announced, "I'm going to have to go home and Google that movie."

Outside in front of the theater, a cluster of students was deep in discussion when I passed them. "And then she gave birth to a fish...right?" one asked tentatively. "No, I think she just had sex with it," another proclaimed.

Potato, potahto. My takeaway came from the ghost of the ex-wife. "Heaven is over-rated." Well, there's some good news.

Ultimately, it was a film not to be dissected, but one to be enjoyed in the moment. Kind of like life.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Just Getting Warmed Up

For me, the attraction was the weather. For others, it was the night before.

We may end up with no more than a dusting of snow, but baby, it's cold outside.

Monday means Shoryuken Ramen is up and running at the Lunch space, so I made sure I arrived at 5:00 sharp to get a a stool (I had to displace a woman's large, silver bag to do it) and a bowl.

I was remembered from my last visit and the first question was if I'd been at the Elby's last night. Holding up my still-sore feet now encased in flats after last night's platforms, she laughed saying she couldn't hang with the restaurant crowd. "Too hardcore for me. I'm in bed by 9:30."

She was right. No way she could hang with that crowd.

Explaining that the weather had brought me in, she said some people suffering from Elby hangovers had called this morning hoping to get delivery of soul-reviving ramen to their homes mid-day. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.

Luckily, only my feet were hurting this morning, so my ramen needs didn't arise until an appropriate dinner time.

Even tucked into a corner, every time the front door opened to admit new guests, an icy gust would sweep through the dining room. A woman I had seen talking to a man in a car outside came in to ask for a table for two, despite being alone.

"He's outside, but he's coming in, even though he doesn't want to," the woman explained to a server. When the man did come inside, it was only to sit sulkily across from her while she ate a bowl of ramen. The things we do for love.

The door kept opening. One of last night's Elby award-winning restaurateurs and a friend came in for dinner. A friend of a friend I'd run into just the other night at Dutch & Co. arrived, saying she'd gotten off work at 4:00 so she could ensure making it to the pop-up in time to score a table. Her husband and a friend were joining her and she kindly invited me to be their fourth but I demurred, not wanting to horn in on other people's plans.

Anyway, I soon had company at the bar in the form of a young couple who were making their first visit to Shoryuken after being bitten by the ramen bug eating at noodle shops in San Francisco.

They were the last two people to slide in and find seats in the first wave. After that, newcomers had their names put on a  list and went to wait patiently either in their cars or next door at Supper.  This time of year and in this weather, tiny Lunch barely has room for its legal number of occupants and their accompanying big coats.

Tonight's special - because it's always classic ramen or a vegetarian version plus one special - was Thai peanut ramen, a double soup ramen with pickled papaya, peanuts and Thai basil. The smell coming from the kitchen was beyond enticing and the girl near me said as much as they waited to order. "The smell is killing me," she moaned.

It didn't help when my bowl arrived and I began slurping up noodles while they eyed me hungrily. They were right to covet my bowl because the depth of flavor in the broth spoke to the beauty of combining two types for a complexity that would have been fantastic any day, but on a windy cold night like tonight, was sheer perfection, especially along with assertive but not fiery Thai heat. And the yolk of the soft-boiled egg was that one perfect bite that required eye closing to fully appreciate.

As much as I want to try the classic ramen one of these days, Chef Will keeps offering these killer specials (last time it was wontononmen) I can't resist.

But the couple had gone classic and once their bowls arrived, we chatted while we all ate. They were aghast when I told them about the man who'd eaten nothing while his wife ate and amazed at how small the Lunch space was.

It makes sense, though, as  a friend who lived in China said that noodle shops are tiny places there. Clearly they've nailed the authenticity on that point. Our stools faced directly into the kitchen, causing my dinner companion to observe, "We've got the best view in the house."

It was true. Watching the ebb and flow of movement as the kitchen staff put together bowls of ramen was a study in anticipation as people leaned and ducked to allow others to finish a movement as bowl after bowl got the final touches.

I was the fifth person of the first wave to finish and much as I might have wanted to continue the chat with my fellow bar sitters, seats are at too high a premium for that, so I made my way over to talk to the people who'd invited me to join them and meet their friend.

Like me, all three had ordered the Thai peanut ramen and its tantalizing aroma was wafting up from the table as we talked restaurants and movies. But you can only stand in the aisle and block servers for so long before you know it's time to cede the space to the second wave.

It was only fair. My soul had been fed, my belly warmed and now it was time to address my lingering post-Elby's pain. Time to soak my disco-weary feet and start a new book.

Maybe not the most exciting Monday night, but all in all, not a bad way to spend a frigid evening. Unless, of course, I get a better offer.

You Should Be Dancing

It turns out that I'm not up to the task of dancing in 5" platforms for five hours after all. But I tried.

Tonight was the Elby's, Richmond's annual awards blowout for the restaurant business. How could I miss that?

I haven't since its inception four years ago and with this year's theme, "disco," there was even less chance I wouldn't be there. Come on, the 70s? My era? I not only planned to attend in period-appropriate attire, but critique those who dared to show up in inappropriate togs.

For example: white boots, fitted dresses, sequins and anything that looked like it came straight out of the '80s. Let me assure you, I was there and I know if we were wearing it or not.

I arrived at the VMFA a few minutes early, walking in with a favorite sous chef and nabbing a Prosecco, lemon and bitters cocktail so I could lean against the ticket counter and judge everyone who arrived thereafter. It's not that I was being critical, just looking to authenticate what passed for '70s garb.

Before long, I had plenty of company: the professional eaters, the chef clad in tight pants and no shirt, the restaurant owner with a hot haircut and jumpsuit.

We all mingled until being ushered to the auditorium for the awards. Luckily for me, I found a seat near friends and settled in to see what politics had been in play to determine the winners.

New this year was an onstage band and a group of nubile dancers who launched the show with their gyrations before host Jason Tessauro proceeded to sing and dance, thus dazzling us all.

Sure, we knew he could saber a bottle of bubbly, but sing and dance in a silver lame suit? Impressive.

In his repertoire was a song set to "Copacabana" about Metzger and another set to "Bad Mama Jama" about Julia at Secco. Both were hilarious, as was a tune set to "I Will Survive" about making the drive to Lehja to eat while cheating on Lee Gregory.

I was pleased to see Acacia win as Richmond stalwart while Jackson Ward entry the Rogue Gentlemen won for best cocktail program. All hail the Ward.

When Acacia won for wine program, sommelier Thomas said that, "We all love wine," causing an audience and staff member to shout out, "Yea, we do!" Autumn Olive Farms won for purveyor of the year, thanking Manakintowne Growers for setting the bar high 29 years ago.

When Comfort's Travis Milton won innovator of the year, he took the stage in his usual jeans and plaid attire, saying, "How in the world did I beat Travis freaking Croxton?" Appalachia trumps oysters apparently.

From there, we followed the same dancers upstairs to the marble hall for the big party under the disco ball. I had no worries about my disco worthiness, having planned my ensemble based on a 1977 photo, even using jewelry and a purse from the era.

Maybe it was my '70s-appropriate outfit, but I think it's safe to say that never in my life have I been told a half dozen times how beautiful I looked. You know, it helps to have been around for the '70s the first time.

DJ Marty Key absolutely nailed the soundtrack while playing videos from the era on the marble walls, most of which I'd never seen before (pre-MTV and all that). Who knew they were making videos of those disco songs?

Friends had managed to nab a table, so I joined them with nibbles and Prosecco to discuss the award winners, many of which we thought bad choices. As far as we were concerned, politics should not play into selection.

It seemed to everyone that the party was more crowded than last year, although it may have been the way the room was laid out. I spotted a friend tending bar and we commiserated about the crowd not properly appreciating the music of the time like we did.

All we could do about it was dance, him on one side of the wine table and me on the other. Such a waste.

Making my way around the room, I ran into plenty of friends as well as several people I had met out and about who remembered me. Meanwhile, I picked up small plates from the students at Culinard, tasting through various dishes as I went.

But eventually, I gave into the disco ball, joining the crowd on the dance floor for all the classics of my youth: Chic, ABBA, Earth, Wind and Fire, Commodores. You know, that stuff holds up amazingly well on the dance floor.

All too soon, the lights came up and it was time to vacate the VMFA and head to the after party at Can Can, where DJ Marty had mysteriously transplanted himself. No videos there, but plenty of kick ass disco music - Michael Jackson, Bee Gees, Vicki Sue Robinson - that eventually got me dancing with an award winner, a wine pourer and a front of the house manager, not to mention untold strangers.

Yes, there was bumping going on.

One woman and I discoursed on Richmonders who are slow to dance even when the music is great because of whatever repressed Puritanical breeding they are saddled with. "Just get up there and move," she said of the reluctant as we grinded up against each other.

Over the course of several hours, I had deep chats with one restaurant owner, light conversation with a cheese monger and witty repartee with a butcher. Sometime around midnight, I took off my platform shoes to let my barking dogs relax.

"No, no, there's glass on the floor," a restaurant owner warned, wine bottle in hand. I was past caring. I wasn't going to stop dancing, so I'd have to take my chances with the floor.

As I did, two different people gave me a hard time because I wasn't wearing tights, something we eschewed in the disco era.

"I get the historical accuracy, but you always wear amazing tights," one nominee insisted. Not when simulating 1977, my dear.

In case you can't tell, I had a blast tonight. A camera crew came around and interviewed me (for who knows what) and when asked why I was there, I said simply for the music. To dance.

Sure, people were getting awards, but that doesn't affect me. I'm going to eat where I want to eat. I went for the music to dance. And as instructed back in the day, I didn't stop until I got enough.

Okay, I stopped when Marty stopped playing. Unfortunately, all good boogie wonderlands must end.

Only problem is, it'll be weeks before I get all the glitter out of my apartment. Small price to pay for so much fun.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Winter Night

Truth be told, it was not how I would have wanted to celebrate Robert Burns' birthday.

In a perfect world, I'd have been eating haggis, neeps and tatties while listening to "Address to a Haggis," followed by a dram of whiskey and the singing of "Old Lange Syne."

But in the true spirit of making the most of a Saturday night, I got myself to Dutch & Co. instead. There, I spied a barkeep hand-bottling eye-catching "adult sodas," for a function tomorrow. The deliberate motions of squeezing the simple device to put orange bottle caps in place was very satisfying to watch.

Our conversation revolved around his backyard gardening with plans for a greenhouse and hoop houses to extend the season for vegetables for the restaurant and herbs for the bar. Honeysuckle for syrups, is already in abundance, as it tends to be all over Richmond.

A major reason for my affection for Dutch & Co. is their $5 menu which reliably offers some of the most creative small plates in the entire city. My first tonight was a dreamy salmon tartar, sunny and orange in color and accompanied by salmon skin blinis and chive yogurt.

While I was savoring every bite, I was busy discussing tomorrow's big Elby's party, which had everyone abuzz with its disco theme. As I explained to the several on the staff, my ensemble for the party is almost exactly a copy of the dress I wore New Year's Eve 1977 when I was headed to a waterfront restaurant and, yes, a disco to ring in 1978.

Don't tell me what disco was because I was there.

My second course was duck liver mousse on grilled bread, two generous slabs that almost certainly shut down my arteries after the first few bites. The tang of pickled carrots and onions, the crunch of nuts and the spice of gremolata made for perfectly balanced flavor in every decadent bite.

Meanwhile, a couple came in and joined me at the bar, then another while behind me, the dining room was filling up quickly.

My final course was venison pastrami atop warm turnip risotto, a glorious combination that the kitchen took over the top with balsamic mushrooms to add a sweet complement to the savory.

As I was declining dessert for lack of room, the woman at the bar nearest me looked over and said she recognized me. One well placed question and we recognized each other as friends of a certain man known for prodigious restaurant-going and spreadsheets devoted to finding the ideal woman.

They live in the Museum District and it was their first visit to Dutch & Co., and she was already proclaiming the duck breast the best she'd ever eaten. I assured her that its liver was every bit as fabulous as the breast.

Before I left, we made plans to have our mutual friend set up an evening so we can all get together and gorge.

On my way to the car, I passed a couple walking two of the liveliest beagles, both adorable. The smaller one had so much personality I couldn't help but squat down and spend some time rubbing its velvety ears. It was almost as satisfying as dessert and far less filling.

Then it was over the river to Crossroads for a little night music. Garden and Gun magazine had recommended Another Roadside Attraction for its vaudeville take on Americana and that was enough to lure me.

I found a seat at a table with a couple who lived one house away and we wiled away the time until the band began chatting. They highly recommended I come sometime for Sunday's Bland Street Jam, where they'd recently seen a bill so diverse it included R & B, opera and Hank Williams covers. "You never know who will take the stage!" she raved.

Another Roadside Attraction - husband and wife Lucy and Jordan- was a colorful duo with a distinctive array of instruments including a guitarron like you see mariachi bands play ("also a flotation device for small children," he joked), three banjos, guitar, washboard, kazoo, harmonica and drums made of plastic buckets and suitcases.

Both had terrific voices, enthusiasm and the ability to trade off instruments all night long. They started with songs with country-like titles, meaning they included parentheses, such as "If My Baby was Made of Strudel (I'd Eat Strudel All the Time).

They did a kids' song called "Johnny Rebek" that had Lucy playing a washboard outfitted with tin cans for drumming, bells and whistles using metal-tipped gloves to strike everything.

Mostly, though, they did original material like "The World Ain't No Oyster," following that line with, "but it's yours to hold." Jordan, in homemade striped pants, gave a short dissertation on loons and then followed with a song about the birds, competing with the milkshake maker as he sang.

One of my favorites was "Breakfast with You," a song listing just about every breakfast food ("The waffle iron's hot") and why he wanted to share them with his honey. I think it had to do with sleepovers and happily ever after.

Wayne the Train's "Juke Joint Jumping" seamlessly segued into "Blue Suede Shoes" and Jordan's hip shimmying, to the delight of the crowd.

Hands down, they got the most laughter from "Roadside Miracle Mustache Wax," partly with lines like "Those stray hairs will be a thing of the past" but probably also because of Jordan's magnificently waxed beard and 'stache. Lucy, in a colorful handmade skirt. more than held her own on xylophone despite the absence of any facial hair.

You know what, Garden and Gun had been right on. With their amalgamation of ragtime, mariachi, vaudeville and Americana, Another Roadside Attraction was one of a kind entertainment. By the end, they had us all singing the refrain "Fancy pants" while doing jazz hands on the chorus.

That was after Jordan insisted we all pick up one of their hand-stamped books of matches. Or a CD. "They're marked $15, but it's donation based. Pay $7 and you win. Pay $20 and we win."

Hell, we'd already won by showing up and letting them go full tilt at us cabaret-style. Jordan, with his Kona coffee-fueled energy and Lucy, with her low-key presence and exquisite voice, were the best thing Roanoke has sent to Richmond in a while.

With apologies to Robert Burns, my heart might have wanted to be in the Highlands tonight, but I couldn't have had a better time than I did.

Longing for haggis was a thing of the past.