Tuesday, December 7, 2010

All American Southern Fried Italian

It was me, Jimmy, Billy and Skip against the suits.

And by suits, I mean men and women in earnest corporate dress having polite chit-chat at a post-work gathering (immediately overheard, him to her: "You don't look like the beer type.") because it was expected of them, not because they wanted to.

When I walked into Stronghill Dining, the bar area was full of mingling people, but with a private party vibe. And when I asked the bartender if it was okay to sit at the bar, he said it was. You don't have to tell me twice.

I ordered a glass of wine, noting that the music was a full-on 80s mix (I was told that "women of all ages love it"), but the conversation between the bartender and the three gents to my right was centered on Slayer and Motley Crew (their drug use and music).

There was a brief digression about how difficult it is to listen to Cyndi Lauper or, as had apparently happened recently, Pat Benatar all night, and then they were right back to heroin.

At the Whisky Grill last night, the cook and I had somehow ended up talking about the importance of a cast iron skillet when frying chicken (my grandmother's first rule of chicken-making) and I had been thinking about fried chicken ever since.

There it was on the menu: two pieces of buttermilk-fried chicken with house made sausage gravy. Hallelujah and pass the biscuits.

After perusing the sides, I concluded that the house made applesauce would be the perfect sweet to accompany my salty chicken. The bartender asked me, "Thigh or leg?" which made no sense to me, but I picked thigh.

Meanwhile, the party swirled around me. At one point, a woman walked up to a group of women and announced, "Stop talking business. This is supposed to be fun." Thank god she reminded them is all I can say. It can be hard to stay on track without a memo from the top sometimes.

My fried chicken arrived looking like a Southerner's wet dream, with a crispy thigh and half breast under and over a generous serving of sausage gravy. Having had Stronghill's superb sausage for brunch, I knew I was in for some gravy goodness.

But the bowl of "house made applesauce" bore a striking resemblance to Mott's out of a jar. Eyeing it suspiciously, I tasted it; it tasted like supermarket Mott's. "Is this really housemade?" I asked the bartender with a laugh and a look.

Glancing at it, he said, "Well, I'm sure somebody's mother made it...Yes, it's house made." Yea, yea, I moved on to that delicious thigh (and then breast) and that gravy full of flavorful sausage. As I ate, it occurred to me that it was my first chicken and gravy; better late than never, but also about frickin' time.

The bartender came over and made a great, polite show of asking me, "Aside from not believing that the applesauce is house made, how's your chicken?" Smartass niceties aside, I told him it was stellar. I may even have had gravy on my chin when I said it.

It was then that the guy sitting next to me asked how I was liking the fried chicken and introduced himself and his two business partners. I found out they were regulars at the bar since their (body) shop was a couple of blocks away. Jimmy was the instigator, Billy was the stressed-out one and Skip was the shy one. They knew a lot about cars. I don't.

After licking my plate clean, the bartender asked if I wanted coffee. "No, thanks," I said, so he offered me hot tea. "I don't do hot tea," I told him.

"Crack? How about some crack then?" he suggested, barely looking up, and getting points for quickness. Crack before a concerto? I don't think so.

It was getting on toward 8:00 and I had a show to see, so I asked for my check ("Sorry, you can't leave"), said good-bye to Skip (his friends having departed to go home to the "little women") and made my way down to the Singelton Center.

The VCU Symphonic Orchestra was promising me an American composer fix and I didn't want to be late. Ever since reading Joan Peyser's biography of Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland's two-volume autobiography (with nary a whiff of any sort of sexual life at all...really?), I have been on a mission to hear as much of Bernstein and Copland's music live as I can.

Tonight it was Bernstein's overture to Candide and selections from Copland's Rodeo and The Tender Land. Rodeo I've heard because I've seen the ballet, but the others would be firsts live for me. The other pieces being played, Mozart, Enescu and de Falla, were bonuses.

I'm anything but a pie-eyed patriot, but I find something absolutely stirring about classical American music. It just sounds so...American. Yes, of course, partly it's that incorporation of American folk music into the works, but beyond that, it's just our un-European interpretation of classical music.

And since I know nothing about music, that's merely my way of trying to explain how I could sit there happily with my eyes closed enjoying the music of these two extraordinary 20th century men being played by VCU students. Is this a great town or what?

The only possible thing to do after the performance was find someplace open for dessert and all-American Tarrant's fit the bill, but just barely. They didn't have any actual customers, but they were busy doing all the end-of-the-shift stuff so they had to be there anyway. I was in.

"For you I'd suggest the chocolate cannoli," my friend Danny said and I didn't argue. Owner Ted explained what the cannoli dough was made of (the coffee was a surprise) and then pointed out that putting chocolate on it was desecration and that, "No real Italian would eat such a thing."

As it happens, I'm Irish so that didn't affect me. And when Ted brought it out and offered me whipped cream on top, I took it. Probably just as sacrilegious.

While I scarfed it down, one of the servers shared the story of asking a customer if he wanted a second martini tonight and him replying, "I dare not. This one is way too good." She couldn't get over the use of the word "dare," repeating it in her distinctive NY accent. "I da-uh not!"

I'm pretty much over the dare not stage and reveling in the dares. Again, about time.


  1. Bernstein,Copland? ...those cats get my soul stirring to. have you ever been to Fallingwater? it's got that same vibe.... when you walk up the path and first catch sight of it..."i kid you not..you might think you're hearing Copeland." ..and then it hits you..classic Americana.. it's a powerful tug...went in the winter..was not disappointed. Fried Chicken.. oh yeah Baby..the trick is hot & fast..though not too hot nor fast.. takes a steady hand. the next Listening Room should be fun...always glad i attend..aren't you?

  2. I grew up in a family where we had my grandmother's fried chicken three out of four Sunday dinners a month, so I know all about hot and fast (but not too hot or fast).

    Like the regularity of a good fried chicken meal, I count on the Listening Room to be a highlight of every month and I'm never disappointed. If you've read my posts about the ones in the past, you know I always have a great time.

  3. ...honestly..i haven't read those posts but you are correct..a good time. those fellows & ladies put out a great deal of effort & charge us nothing but our time...outstanding & appreciated.

  4. Amen. I can't tell enough people about what a wonderful event it is.