Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Beer's Still Not Working for Me

"Are you still walking for exercise?"
"I hadn't for awhile, but I'm getting back into it."
"Do you walk alone or does Ed walk with you?"
"No, he only walked with me when we were dating. You know, prospect vs. sure thing. Now that I married him, no more walking."

That was the conversation of the two females behind me as I sat down at the lecture at the Virginia Museum's Pauley Center tonight.

It was as if she were saying that Ed falsely advertised himself to her or something.

But even so, it's not like he was cheating, just misleading which brings us to the topic of tonight's lecture, "Is it Cheating? Optics and Vermeer" about the technology the painter used to create his incredibly realistic effects.

Lecturer Jorge Benitez, an artist who teaches at VCU, showed his enthusiasm for the topic with sly wit and commentary such as, "I'm not going to say much about these pictures. They're so beautiful, I'll just let you enjoy them" and "If Stalin had had Photoshop, he'd still be in business today."

Possibly my favorite bit came at the end when he told us, "I hope we have time for questions or discussion...or a riot."

The upshot of the talk was that Vermeer was interested in optical effects as a means to an artistic end and as a fitting finish, he'd brought a camera obscura for us to inspect.

We art nerds love that kind of stuff.

But we art nerds also get hungry, so I met a friend and his friend at Ipanema for dinner.

Mine was soft-shell tacos filled with spicy Korean-style seitan, napa slaw and hot mustard and my, but they were good.

I could only finish two of the three (my manly friend took care of the last one) and still have room for dessert, which was blueberry pie a la mode.

Hands down, blueberry is my favorite pie but this was elevated by a top crust liked you'd find on an apple crisp, a sort of crumble with brown sugar.

If it's on the menu the next time you're at Ipanema, I highly suggest trying it.

Afterwards, we went a few doors down to Strange Matter for their free weekly documentary showing, tonight's being Festival Express, a 2003 rockumentary about a train trip across Canada in 1970 with stops along the way for the bands on board to perform.

On board were Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, Grateful Dead, The Band and so many more.

One of the musicians characterized it as a "train full of insane people" and the partying did seem to be pretty much non-stop ("This train was not for sleeping.").

The film had performance footage as well as present-day interviews and scenes shot during the jamming and partying aboard the historic train trip.

The $14 ticket price was an issue for some who protested at the first stop while mounted police tried to quell them.

Jerry Garcia, relatively svelte and with hair and beard as black as coal, took the stage to try to calm things down, saying,"We'd like to have, like, 30 minutes of coolness."

Coolness?

For many of the musicians, drinking was fairly new, their self-medicating preferences having been LSD or smoking pot, but they quickly developed an appreciation for alcohol, even necessitating a stop in front of a liquor store along the tracks to re-stock.

"We were buzzing down the rails. Let's just say we achieved liftoff," Phil Leish deadpans.

The musicians expressed a desire for the experience to go on forever.

The impromptu jams that occurred endlessly on board sparked a lot of creative collaborations that then ended up on stage; watching these guys feed off each other musically was fascinating to watch.

It's not every night that even I cover so much ground: Vermeer to seitan to Joplin shaking her ass at the camera, with an actual camera obscura and a sip of 10% beer in between (a friend insisted I taste it. I don't need to do that again. Ever.)

And let's not forget the life lesson that kicked off the whole evening: prospect vs. sure thing.

I think I'm at the point where I see the beauty of both.

Going-Out Guru Service

Since I started blogging (originally because I was required to at work) back in 2008, readers have left comments asking why I didn't tell them about interesting goings-on before they took place.

It was as if they wanted me to be their social director and alert them to what caught my interest simply because I had an opinion on what sounded fun to me.

Of course, if you've read my blog more than once, you know I have an opinion on everything but it's really not my job to plan other people's calendars.

So, for the most part, I just deflected the comments and went on writing about my adventures doing what I do, but always after the fact.

But when someone contacted me and told me that they've been reading my blog for a while now and loved what I write and wanted me to tell their readers what upcoming events sound good to me personally, it's hard to resist the allure of getting paid to share my opinion (for a change).

And so I will.

Starting with the issue out today, I'm writing a column for Belle magazine (Style's girly imprint) called Lush Life.

It wasn't my first suggestion for a column name (that was deemed too racy), but I picked it because I wanted to emphasize how many no or low-cost events go on around here that are worth checking out, which for someone like me, provide the lushest kind of life.

I could suggest that you pick up a copy of Belle and read my going-out recommendations for April, but I know there are people who don't read magazines and papers.

Don't even get me started on those people 'cause that's a rant for another day.

But since you're obviously reading this online, you might want to head over to Belle's website for more of my suggestive little thoughts.

As I wrote in the column, you don't have to actually do any of them, but don't complain that you didn't know about anything good going on.

Now I'm telling you.

What Happens in Norfolk, Stays in Norfolk

Sometimes you simply have to get out of town, even if it's just for an evening.

One of my favorite new bands, Fanfarlo, was playing at the Norva tonight, so I invited a friend to join me for a night in Norfolk.

The drive down gave us a chance to talk about the kind of things you only discuss once and never mention again.

You know.

A Facebook friend had suggested we eat at Empire, next to the charming Tazwell Hotel, and since I'd eaten there before and really enjoyed it, we took the suggestion.

It's a tiny place with a fully visible kitchen and the bartender immediately wanted to be friends.

He was unapologetically playing pure '80s music and my friend about lost it upon hearing Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam.

It's the little things that make an evening.

As we endlessly scanned the wine list, the bartender tried to help us along by supplying his thoughts, like "The Pinot Noir is a nice light-bodied choice."

And the Malbec, I inquired? "Oh, that's just down and dirty," he grinned. "It's my favorite."

Sold!

Dirty was just where we wanted to go tonight.

Empire is a tapas place, so many small plates followed, all outstanding.

The two salads, one lump crab with arugula, goat cheese and lemon pepper dressing and the other watercress, jicama and orange with pickled peppers and honey vinaigrette, were probably the highlight; they couldn't have tasted fresher.

I had a black bean and lump crab cake with sweet corn hash and truffle scallion aioli and my friend got the petite fillet of beef with fried goat cheese and a lemon risotto cake.

We shared the orange seared asparagus with toasted hazelnuts. Had the hazelnuts been a dish by themselves, we'd have gotten them.

Sitting to my right at the bar were a couple who may have qualified for hipster status in Norfolk, but would never have passed in RVA

I overheard their discussion of the two cities ("Yea, I tried Richmond for a while, but it just wasn't the same," he told her. "I had to come back here." My condolences, friend.)

It's just my opinion, but Norfolk feels pretty souless and, as my friend pointed out, kind of like one big mall.

We walked over to the Norva, making sure we got there in time for opener Lawrence Arabia, a folky/psychedelic kind of group.

They delivered a short but interesting set, drawing from everyone from the Byrds to Big Star.

They're from New Zealand so they had great accents and attitudes; we particularly enjoyed the lyrics to one of their songs:

We love each other
We hate each other
We're afraid of each other
Cause we want to screw each other

Friend and I agreed that those lyrics reminded us of certain cliques in Richmond.

We were sorry to see them leave the stage.

Except that that meant it was time for Fanfarlo and their exceptional and eclectic sound.

I'm not going to rave too much about them because I did that last fall when I first saw them live, here. 

My friend had only a glancing familiarity with them, but I had every confidence that the beautiful vocals (every single band member sings), variety of instrumentation (melodica, xylophone, clarinet, mandolin, fiddle, trumpet besides the usual drum, bass, guitar) and sincerity would be enough to make a fan.

And it was. "They are an awesome live band," was her final proclamation.

Early on in the show, one of the band members observed that, "This venue is like America, vast and wide open. Please populate the front."

It was true; in a 1500-person venue, there were, maybe, 100 people.

I'd seen them play the 150-person Iota last fall and it not only sold out, there was a line around the block disappointed at not being able to get in.

But Norfolk is a strange town and what rocks Richmond or DC doesn't necessarily fly there.

It worked out well in that it was a far more comfortable show than when I last saw them squeezed between humanity, but their beautiful sound deserved a more intimate setting.

They're playing Bonnaroo this year and I wonder if the crowd will be able to hear that sonic beauty in a field of thousands.

But that's not my problem.

Our problem had been a need to get out of town and enjoy ourselves like we were on vacation, with no familiar faces around.

We had a terrific meal set to '80s music, followed by some of the most interesting and beautiful music made in the last year.

Driving home completely satisfied, we had a chance to finish our earlier chat about the unmentionable topics.

Or as my friend said, "These things must stay in Norfolk."

At least until the next road trip east.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Love by the Glass at Julep

It's not often that my evening begins with being serenaded by a full mariachi band on the street, but that's how it went down tonight.

I was in the Bottom, walking down 18th Street when I unexpectedly heard the blast of multiple horns and noticed guys in tight black pants and hats were gathered in the lot next to a Mexican place, playing for all they were worth.

On a Monday night.

So I stopped and played audience for a while (sadly, it was just me and that was a lot of people playing for no one) before clapping enthusiastically and heading into Julep.

I was in a restaurant practically every day last week and not a one told me that it was "Love by the Glass" week, which I only belatedly discovered tonight at Julep.

Apparently we now have an entire week devoted to trying Virginia wines by the glass, which is a great way to encourage customers to explore our wine industry, and not a soul seemed to know about it.

Well, Julep did and they were good enough to bring me up to speed on the missed opportunity of last week, so I tried to compensate by drinking the Autumn Hill Cabernet Franc tonight, not a difficult task considering how much I liked it.

Cab Franc is a grape that excels in the Commonwealth and Autumn Hill's was lovely.

Dinner was corn chowder with clams, creamy, sweet and full of chopped clams, followed by a salad of mixed field greens with lemon balsamic vinaigrette, bleu cheese, applewood-smoked bacon, cucumbers and...wait for it...sugared pecan-crusted hush puppies.

The sweet/salty contrast of the hush puppies with the bacon and cheese was classic. In my world, fried bread is always welcome but roll it in sweet nuts and there's nothing more I can want.

About this time, a trio came in to the restaurant and sat down next to me.

They asked for a dessert menu, but qualified it by saying that they already knew what they wanted, which was Bananas Foster.

This is always a popular dessert at Julep, as much for the table side (in this case, bar-side) spectacle of its preparation as for the sweet, syrupy banana taste.

The third guy got his own dessert, a chocolate Napoleon.

What was interesting was that they ordered the Blue Point Oysters to come out after their dessert course.

As the host said, "I have to say that that's the first time I've ever seen it done in that order."

Amen, brother, but who are we to judge?

The threesome were highly entertaining when not ignoring each other and playing games on their iPhones.

We had a discussion of early romances, and by that I mean, second grade crushes and 8th grade heartbreak.

One told of being 12 and walking two miles in the snow to deliver a necklace to his beloved the day after Christmas.

She came to the door, he presented it, she thanked him and closed the door in his frozen face.

He got two houses away before her mom started calling him back, insisting he come in for a grilled cheese and cocoa.

But the experience didn't sour him on love.

As he put it, "Ever since I noticed that girls and boys are different, I've been a hopeless romantic."

Or a sap, according to his current love.

What we all realized as we talked was that when people tell stories about young love, it always involves the beloved's full name, as in,

"Yea, fourth grade I was nuts about Angela McMurphy," or "Jeremy Fishburne wrote me a love note in Mrs. Gettle's class."

People who can't remember what they ate for dinner yesterday remember the full names of kids they pined for 20 years ago.

What's up with that anyway?

I'd decided to order the Chocolate Napoleon because it looked so good, but I'm ashamed to admit that I was bested tonight by a dessert and that's a rare occurrence.

This combination of squares of chocolate wafer separated by bittersweet chocolate custard mousse and topped with Chantilly creme was too large and rich even for a dessert pro like me.

For possibly the first time in my life, I had to take home half my dessert in a box.

I felt like a dessert failure and here the people next to me could segue seamlessly from dessert to bivalves.

I was lucky they continued talking to me.

Actually, I think my appeal was being a good audience for them (just ask the mariachi band; I'm attentive. I'm appreciative).

When they got up to leave, they thanked me profusely for letting them be my entertainment.

The truth is, if you perform for me, I will clap and even laugh...except at the corny stuff.

Fair warning to all.

Lunch Lessons

I'd never set foot in Stronghill Dining Co. in daylight which made the new mural all the more striking when my friend and I got there today.

Painted on the right-hand wall as you walk in, it's an art deco-looking thing of beauty and done by a local artist Brett Bacon.

Let's face it, Stronghill's decor has always been noteworthy with those two-tone booths and sculpture hanging from the ceiling, but the addition of the mural adds to the visual stimulation in the best possible way.

I'm fond of their dinner menu, so I had presumed that lunch would be equally as interesting and it was.

My friend ordered the Cobb salad, the difference being it had lobster rather than bacon.

That turned out to be fortunate for me because apparently she's not much of a lobster fan, so it ended up on my plate.

I'd gotten the shrimp cake sandwich which had a creamy avocado aoili and fried shallots on it and came with a side salad.

Although the buttered roll was over-sized for the shrimp cake, I wasn't complaining because of the savoriness of the combination; avocado and shrimp belong together, a fact of which I had not been aware prior to today's lunch.

The hot topic for today was dating, which must be in the air, because it had been the subject of choice with the friend I'd spent last evening with too.

Last night's friend had decided that the way to meet guys was to put an ad on Craig's List with a list of what she's looking for in a guy and offer to buy him a nice dinner.

Her thinking was that, at the very least, she'd get a good story out of it and, with any luck, meet someone interesting or at least friend material.

She wants me to help her write the ad, which I'm happy to do.

My lunch companion today has decided to go the online dating route, albeit with strict parameters for both age (three years younger or older) and geographical distance (no more than five miles form her house).

A city-dweller, she has no interest in dating anyone who lives in suburbia (one guy she had a date with years ago had a big box store being built practically in his backyard, causing her to ask, "Why would you ever buy a house here?"). He did not call her for a second date.

It's funny, all the interesting uninvolved women I know want to be dating and yet everyone agrees that they must be doing something wrong or they'd be getting asked out.

Or maybe in our post-modern society, opinionated women are just not a hot commodity, no matter what they look like.

Nah, that couldn't possibly be it.

Or, as a male friend recently told me, "Just admit it; you're cute."

Luckily, opinionated and cute are not mutually exclusive.

Defining a Hot Bartender at Balliceaux

The local rag Brick provided a list of The Top Five Spots to Ditch a Lame Date and Find a New One, not something I was looking to do, but the explanation cracked me up. "Balliceaux: Skip to the back room bar...Flirt with hot bartender."

So instead, I found a girlfriend, we went to Balliceaux for Sunday supper and we sat at the front bar so I could tease my friend Austin about whether or not he qualifies as the hot bartender.

The real reason for my visit tonight was to hear Glows in the Dark, the only free jazz musicians I actually know and possibly the only ones in the area.

A lot of their music is based on movies and not everyone "gets" free jazz, but if you do, they're definitely worth checking out.

I hadn't seen them since last fall at Commercial Taphouse, not an ideal venue.

As I waited for my friend to arrive, the guy at the bar next to me asked what I was going to drink.

He told me I didn't want what he had (straight vodka, chilled) and I told him he was right; if I was going to have something straight up and chilled, it was going to be good tequila.

He promptly bought me a Corazon, which was as smooth as silk and defied every cliche about tequila I continue to hear from non-tequila drinkers.

Friend came and we perused the wine list where I was thrilled to see one of my absolute favorite wineries represented, K. Vintners out of Walla, Walla.

We ordered the 2008 Viognier, described as jasmine blossoms, wet stone and white peach aromas; it was heavenly.

Winemaker Charles Smith looks like a wild man and makes the most amazing wines.

I only wish they showed up on local wine lists more often. Kudos to Balliceaux for doing so.

For me, the options were limited for dinner because it was Sunday Supper and everything is large portions, designed for multiple people and my friend had already eaten.

I had a bowl of the spicy crab and coconut soup with tomato, red pepper and cilantro.

My friend tasted it and promptly ordered some for herself; it was that good.

I floated some bread chunks in it and ate it to the bottom.

Balliceaux is one of those places with an excellent dessert menu and after much deliberation, I chose the chocolate coconut tart, keeping the coconut theme going.

It was so dense, it could barely be penetrated with a fork.

The slivers of coconut meat atop it added a rich dimension to the very dark chocolate.

Only the chocolate cookie crust provided true sweetness; otherwise is was just the intensity of the flavors.

With Glows in the Dark wailing at the perfect volume for where we were sitting, we enjoyed being guinea pigs for Austin's mixology.

I'd never tasted St. Germaine, a cordial made of elderflower and with the most gorgeous, for lack of a better word, aroma and taste.

It was like drinking flower juice.

He also offered us a taste of a Negroni, made with Campari, gin and the French aperitif, Lillet, promising us a refreshing absence of sweetness and that's just what we got.

Meanwhile, I continued to tease him about his "hot" status.

In between Glows in the Dark's sets, Austin played music of his choice off his computer, which always works out well for me because our tastes are so similar.

As usual, we exchanged recent music find recommendations and discussed shows.

At one point when we were really enjoying an obscure song, a customer came up and asked him to lower the volume.

We both acknowledged that in our entire lives, we had never once made that request of anyone.

Now that I think about it, that must be what makes Austin such a hot bartender.

The rag was right.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sunday on Grace Street

A single gold shoe in front of the dance club Xscape surrounded by debris from last night's carousing.

Wasn't it kind of chilly last night not to notice one foot hitting bare pavement?

Further on, in front of the VCU Library annex, three guys smile and say good morning.

One says, "You're out here walking again," and as I pass by him, I remind him I walk every day.

From behind, I hear, "And it's working for you, baby! It surely ee-is. Mmm, mmm."

Up ahead at the Lutheran church on the corner, the congregants are out in front clutching palm fronds and listening to the grand poohbah read.

One girl is visibly shivering in a sleeveless dress, her hair still wet from the shower and bare-legged with just sandals on.

A guy in a suit at the back gives me a mischievous grin and points at himself, points at me and then points down Grace Street in the direction I'm walking.

Is he suggesting he'll abandon god and the flock and take off with a stranger? I don't even want to know.

I see a "For Sale" sign where the agent's name, George Cummings, had been altered by some juvenile-minded wit bracketing off [CUM].

I'm going to go with my gut here and guess the perp was a male not yet old enough to drink. And probably not getting laid, either.

Coming back toward the Ward on Grace, a guy gets out of his car carrying a Sunday paper and striding purposely toward the Village.

Clearly he is bent on breakfast and paper-reading. As we reach the restaurant, we both see the big cardboard sign over their specials board that says "NO POWER. Sorry for the inconvenience"

The guy looks at me and I say, "That'll stop you in your tracks. Now what?"

Before he can answer me, another guy lounging against the Village's window looks up and nonchalantly says, "They still got beer."

 It is 10:15.

On Grace Street, you see, breakfast is in the eye of the beholder.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Eating Voyeurism at Cafe Gutenburg

It's not every night I see someone do something I've never seen before, but I don't want to jump the gun.

Like other food voyeurs, I went down to Cafe Gutenburg tonight for the 1st Annual Tofu-Eating contest to celebrate their one year anniversary because, you know, nothing says celebration like vegetarian gluttony.

The tofu trash-talking was already in progress when I got my wristband and found a prime viewing location.

There were ten contestants, evenly divided between the sexes; there was the guy with the Swiss cheese hat, the girl with the sequined shoulder pads, the guy with the samurai headband and others who just wore their everyday look.

The chosen ten had twelve minutes to eat four pounds of tofu scramble and if the weight doesn't give you some idea of the size of the portions, I was told that they came in at about three quarts each.

Three QUARTS!

Once the contest began, the cheerleading started in full force.

"Find your spirit animal!" when a contestant took a momentary break from eating.

"H2 NO!" when a contestant dared to drink water and take up valuable stomach space.

"Shake it out!" when a contestant stood to stretch.

"That's the way!" when a contestant burped eight minutes in, trying to make more room.

Of the ten, three chose to eat with their hands for speed's sake.

Getting close to the end (and, just so you know, twelve minutes is interminable whether you're competing or watching a tofu-eating contest) one girl got a stricken look on her face and then vomited into her hand.

Being a trooper, however, she ate it (she'd have been disqualified otherwise).

The guy next to me looked at me and said, "She's eating what she threw up!" causing another guy nearby to respond, "She's my hero."

After twelve minutes, their troughs were assessed and the emptiest-looking three taken to the back to be weighed.

The winner was cheese-head guy, who had declared before the start that he'd never eaten tofu before; apparently this was to psyche out his fellow contestants.

And he even used a fork.

Needless to say, the one thing I wasn't going to eat after such an event was tofu, but I was hungry despite what I'd seen.

Gull was setting up to play and despite how many times I've seen Nate perform, I never get tired of a man who can play guitar, drums and sing simultaneously.

So I did order the Gulf Shrimp Nicoise with grilled shrimp, romaine hearts, baby green beans, plum tomatoes and a lemon-caper dressing, which had a unique flavor and really complemented the salad, much like the way Gull's music complemented my meal.

One of the contestants came over to talk to me while I ate, rubbing her belly and telling me how stuffed she felt, even pointing to the area of her body where she said all that tofu was now lodged.

I can't imagine any of them will be able to look at tofu for a while; I know I won't be able to.

So I got to see something new tonight. It might have even come close to the time I saw a girl throw up into her hair at a show in Norfolk, but it couldn't quite match the spectacle I saw tonight.

Happy anniversary, Cafe Gutenburg, and many happy returns.

I'm thinking your tofu scramble should become the featured item on the menu from here on out...if nothing else, for sentimental reasons.

Secco and French Film

Like a lot of wine lovers in Richmond, I'm looking forward to seeing what Carytown's soon-to-open wine bar Secco is going to add to the mix.

Given that it's the brainchild of Julia, owner of River City Cellars and a font of wine geekiness, I'm expecting good things.

Today I got a sneak preview with a savory sandwich that will be on the menu once they open for business.

They'd hoped to be in business in time for the French Film Festival but circumstance prevented that, so Julia offered compensation today in the form of sandwiches from the upcoming menu in the form of take-out (in, it should be noted, eco-friendly containers).

There were only two choices, a panini of braised fennel with apple and melted Fontina D'Aosta and the one I got, a bocadillo of Duroc pork confit with house-made kumquat preserves and St. Agur bleu cheese.

I took mine just around the corner and sat down in one of six dining room chairs for sale in front of Shepard Street Antiques. I figured I was a good advertisement for eating in these chairs but I also wanted to enjoy my lunch in the sunshine.

My sandwich got a lot of admiring glances and eventually the owner came out with her husband and asked if my lunch was from Secco.

Since every trace of it was gone, I had to describe it for them; I raved about the bocadillo's crusty bread, salty succulent pork contrasting beautifully with the sweet preserves and creamy stinky cheese, with assorted olives and for dessert, a dark chocolate-covered fig.

And here's the clincher: it was a mere six bucks.

As I finished gushing over the fabulous fig finish, the owner moaned, "Don't tell my husband that! He'll spend all our profits eating at Secco."

Not my problem; I was just trying to answer your question, ma'am.

Despite having lived two blocks from Carytown for over a decade, I never stroll and shop there.

 So of course, I hear my name called as soon as I get up to throw my trash away and it's my former Whiskey Wednesday neighbor who left J-Ward last month (I know, it's a shame to see the tradition end).

He and a friend were heading to "some hippie's' party" and he suggested we do a walk and talk to catch up with each other as they made their way to their drinking event.

He also claimed he never "does" Carytown, so we figured our meeting up was highly unlikely and yet here we were.

As they headed off to a purple haze, I made a u-turn and walked down to Plan 9 to get a ticket for an upcoming show at Alley Katz I want to see.

I was trying to fill the time before tickets went on sale for the 4:00 showing of The Hedgehog (Le Herisson) at the Byrd , but I knew from previous years that times are malleable at the French Film festival so there was no need to hurry.

As it turned out, the wait to buy tickets was about half an hour and the wait to get in about the same; both stetches were ideal for people watching.

You can't imagine the number of people who already had an unlit cigarette between their lips by the time they hit the lobby; I surmised a higher than average smoking percentage in the festival's patrons.

I saw a woman walk by with hair longer than her knees; it wasn't especially attractive but it was definitely novel.

Before the film started was the presentation of the French delegation, after which the speaker suggested a break before beginning the film by saying, "There are some of you who'll have to run out for a cigarette, I'm sure."

Funny thing is, there had been a break in between films barely 20 minutes ago.

C'est la vie, at least in France I guess.

I was seeing The Hedgehog, the story of a suicidal 11-year old, a reclusive concierge and a new resident at the building at which they both lived.

The couple sitting next to me were members of a book club who had read the book and one told me I was in a for a surprise with this story and boy, was he right.

Meanwhile, his partner ogled my popcorn until I finally gave it to him once I reached capacity, resulting in a very sincere "merci" even though he was as American as baseball.

The story of a woman opening herself up to love just before a tragic end resonated with the 11-year old, who had come to the conclusion that you have to "pursue the stars or end up as a fish in a bowl."

It was a fairy tale kind of story told in a most un-Hollywood way, which is just what I like about foreign films.

That and the fact that there are always more attractive men at the French Film Festival than at any other one event in Richmond all year.

And I say this as someone who has attended it for the last ten years (this year is the 18th annual).

Lest I sound shallow, though, please know that I go for the French cinematic experience.

Handsome men and sexy accents are just gravy.

Birdwatching with a Bridge-Builder

I abandoned Grace Street and my usual four-mile walk today for the sake of a Heron Rookery Walk being offered by the city's Department of Parks & Recreation.

Like most everyone, I've seen herons down by the river, but I was curious about their city digs.

It was the perfect tie-in to the Loft Tour going on downtown today and I saw plenty of people waiting at the Loft Tour stops as I drove down to the north end of the Mayo Bridge to meet the group.

Usually these walks are led by the James River's most enthusiastic and articulate cheerleader, Ralph White.

Unfortunately, recent surgery had taken him out of the game temporarily, so we were being talked to and led by two birding guys who had plenty to share with the group.

Our leader did apologize in advance for not being able to live up to Ralph White's high standards of knowledge and entertainment, but then, who could (no one knows the river and parks like Ralph and his passion for it is contagious)?

As he began explaining the mating customs, he apologized again.

"Ralph actually demonstrates the breeding rituals, but I'm not going to do that," he said and blushed.

We headed down toward the river and after descending a metal ladder (to the obvious consternation of several of the group members), took the Pipeline Walkway to the first island.

It was a far cry from Grace Street to be standing on the sandy shore in the sun with the river lapping at it and admiring the heron population just across the active water.

The first surprise was this extensive heron rookery essentially in the center of the city.

It currently has about 45 nests in it as the herons begin breeding season.

The most amazing part of that is that as recently as 2006, there were no heron nests downtown.

 In 2007, there were seven; obviously, the heron population has gotten the word out about the amenities of downtown living in RVA.

The second surprise for me was learning that these birds, despite a six-foot wingspan, only weigh about five pounds with their hollow bones.

There were many herons walking branches, sitting on nests and just generally doing the Saturday morning thing.

We were told that a few have already laid eggs and others are preparing to do so.

As it turns out, herons are monogamous for a year, so the males choose a mate (unlike most of the bird population where the female does the choosing) and do the nest-sitting during the day while females replace them at night.

An enormous osprey nest atop a tower was pointed out to the group and, serendipitously, an osprey swooped down into it, to our amazement.

Ducks swam by and geese honked.

We all used binoculars almost continually and one of the Audubon guys set up a high-powered scope for even closer viewing.

The true bird-lovers in the group were beside themselves.

Since we'd only come a short distance on the Pipeline Walkway, I wanted to explore the rest; this was my daily walk after all.

The walkway was a metal grid with metal side rails over a big pipeline and water on both sides. I continued walking to see where it went, only to discover that it abruptly ended.

Well, not ended, but the grid we were walking on and the handrails went away.

Now if I wanted to go on, I would have to walk on a cement-covered pipe, rough with pebbles and beside water that was far more agitated.

There was a guy from the group walking just ahead of me, so I figured if he was going to do it, why shouldn't I?

Once the surface changed, though, he turned to me so I asked if we should continue.

"I used to build bridges, so I can walk on a steel beam," he said with a grin. "I could dance on this!"

Okay, so he was telling me that we were going on sans walkway and guard rails.

I was in.

Not surprisingly, it turned out to be the best part of the walk. The water was so turbulent you could smell it.

We got out further and discovered two herons only a couple of rocks away; he took pictures and I admired them preening in the sunshine.

 Eventually we got to the point that the pipe was underwater and had to give up and head back, both really pleased that we'd chosen to go this route.

Only at this point did my new companion think to turn and ask me, "You can swim can't you?"

NOW you ask?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Holy Happy Hour, Batman!

Best happy hour in recent memory: today from 5-7:30 at Garnett's.

Because during the arsenic hours, wine is only $3 a glass.

Because all the time, they have appetizers that only cost $6 or $7.

Because it ends up qualifying as dinner it's so satisfying.

And when the check comes, you'll marvel at how full and wine-happy you are for so little cost.

A couple of glasses of shiraz, a couple of malbecs, the smoked salmon plate with tomato, capers, red onion, brown bread, Benedictine spread and Mac's fabulous pickles as well as the cheese plate (Gorgonzola, Brie and Muenster) with oil-brushed toast points and we had enough food to keep my girlfriend and me occupied for most of our visit.

It also fueled the required girl talk, which was why we met up in the first place.

Perennial Garnett's customer Cy came in and sat down next to me with a companion.

He and my friend kept eyeing each other until they both acknowledged that they recognized the other.

A few quick questions and hints and voila!

The two degrees of separation in RVA were revealed. "Your were at so and so's party! You're the one who was dancing with all the middle-aged women!" my friend exclaimed when she figured it out.

Cy's blush and ducked head confirmed every word. Hilarious.

Up next was Gallery 5 and what an interesting experience that was.

The bands playing were Shark Attack (firmly rooted in the 70s), Duchess of York (technically proficient but seemingly without any passion) and Trillions (formed from the ashes of Prabir and the Substitutes).

Fear not, though, Prabir may be long-gone, but the rest of the band's coifs remain firmly in place.

I say that with tongue in cheek only because I remember seeing a Prabir gig in NOVA listed as a "must-see" in the Washington Post's "Going Out" section, with a reference to the band's poppy sound and hipster haircuts.

Present and accounted for.

Trillion's sound is still plenty poppy, but with a more recent angular heritage, including a lot of The Strokes' influence.

Appealing voices and well-played instruments made for the best set of the night.

I had met Charlie, the singer and organizer of the show, earlier and stumped him when I asked him what he was listening to lately.

"Romantic period classical," he finally said.

Anything recent. I wondered? Not that he could name, to his embarrassment.

Oddly enough, the same thing had happened when I'd asked the sound guy Matt that exact question earlier.

After he acknowledged his parents' classic rock and a few jam bands, he had a hard time citing any current music he's listening to.

Does this strike anyone else as odd?

If a 20-something musician or sound guy isn't paying attention to the music his generation is making, who is?

I probably already know the answer, but I think it needs addressing.

Talkin' 'bout your generation.

Be the Boss of Me and Tell Me What to Eat

Let me tell you what I consider a most satisfying evening; the only requirements are well-prepared food and interesting conversation.

I went out tonight expecting the one and unexpectedly got the other.

I know, I know, I just seem to be lucky that way.

This week has been extraordinarily busy for me and it feels like I've been around people every single second of it.

So tonight was all about me going out by myself and enjoying my own company and the Post. 

I wanted to eat at Aziza's on Main because so far I'd only done lunch there.

Taking a sat at the bar, the single unpleasant element was that big screen over the bar because otherwise the vibe was perfect, with a few tables laughing and eating, just the right amount of lighting and great smells coming from the kitchen.

My server and I recognized each other right away; we'd met at Garnett's the night it opened and had each swooned over a different chocolate dessert.

A couple of months later, we had run into each other at Balliceaux and talked wine and men.

She offered me wine tonight and I was impressed to see that glasses were only $5.50 and, although the selection was limited to two reds, one white and one sparkling by the glass, the bottles were so reasonable ($18 to $40ish with just a couple that were more) that I'm guessing most people go the bottle route.

For dinner, I chose the jumbo lump crab with lime and basil and was rewarded with a nice-sized portion consisting of huge lumps of crab meat chilled and seasoned just enough to let the crab flavor shine through.

Wisely I also got the white beans and pancetta; the pancetta bits were small but plentiful and the warm beans swimming in that broth were sop-worthy; three pieces of Billy bread took care of every bit of it.

I'd planned my meal to allow room for one of Billy's renowned cream puffs with chocolate ganache.

A nearby bar sitter, upon seeing it, commented, "You guys keep making those things bigger, don't you?"

It was a very generously-sized piece of pastry, frosted thickly with ganache, and I had no trouble finishing it.

In between eating so much good food, my server and I talked about the in-progress wood-burning pizza oven being built; in fact, I even got a tour of the back room and the partially completed oven.

It's going to be magnificent.

A few more months and they'll be serving their pizzas and I'll wager it's going to be much harder to find an open table at Aziza's once that happens.

Best of all, the plan is to have a "baker's table" back where the oven is housed.

It'll seat eight and there will only be two seatings, at 6:00 and 8:00.

You'll pay a flat fee and will be served whatever they want to serve you from that oven; you'll hand over the decision-making to the pro.

Since I'm just a lowly eater, I'm more than happy to let someone more qualified tell me what to put in my mouth.

It'll be entertainment and sustenance all rolled into one experience and, frankly, I can't wait.

Conveniently, they plan to be up and running in May, which just happens to be my birthday month.

Can I come up with seven friends game enough to join me for an evening of the unknown?

Oh, I bet I can.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Don't Call Me a Foodie

I have no taste, nor do I claim to; I am not a gourmet although most definitely a gourmand.

I eat what I like and make no apologies for it.

My penchant for putting meat on a white pizza has been fodder for discussion, my omission of shrimp in a mussels and shrimp dish was questioned and the list goes on.

Just this week, a friend read my post about having Mahi-Mahi souvlakia the other night at Basilis and took me to task for having a fish version of something he deemed should have been pork, or at the very least, lamb.

But Mahi-Mahi? Blasphemous apparently, not that his chiding mattered to me.

Actually, I think it made me a little defiant, which paid off in spades today in the most unexpected place.

I was craving broccoli at lunch (always a sure sign that I've been eating more salad greens than true veggies of late), so I decided to get lunch at Peking, good old Peking.

Like a lot of people, I order pretty much the same thing whenever I do Chinese and for me, that's Hunan something.

I don't really care what the protein in it is and I've eaten them all: shrimp, chicken, pork, beef. I like this dish because of its heat and the abundance of broccoli and mushies.

But one of today's specials was Hunan Fish and I admit, I was curious. The fish was tilapia, a fish I never seek out since it seems to be pretty much defined by its preparation.

But in this case, it made my taste buds sing because it was such a good conduit for all that spicy sauce.

 The fish was so completely infused with the Hunan flavor as to take the dish to a whole new level. Its texture was perfect and each bite brought another hit of that heat; the flavor of the sauce was one with the tilapia.

And of course, it's not on the regular menu.

Okay, now I've laid myself bare again by eating something that will undoubtedly be scoffed at by someone with superior taste buds.

Not that it matters, because I'm the one who had the exceptional lunch.

But then, I always concede to the superiority of just about everyone else's palate over mine.

I just like to eat.

Spoon-Fed and Satisfied

Can you really have too much music in one evening?

And what about if some of it is unintentional; what if you just stumble into music before your planned music?

And aren't I the wrong person to pose this question to?

Our challenge was a limited amount of time to eat before going to see Spoon at the National tonight.

I wanted to catch at least part of the first opening band and all of the second, so we didn't have much time and decided to choose a place between my house and the venue, a distance of less than a dozen blocks.

That's how we ended up at Marshall Street Cafe, a restaurant I hadn't eaten at in at least a year and a half.

It's small but attractive with white tablecloths and flowers on the tables.

And, as we found out on walking in, they had live music tonight.

It was a three-piece, consisting of Skip Gailes on keyboard and sax, Wayne Short on guitar and Kat on vocals, which were mostly from the Great American Songbook.

I wasn't familiar with her, but the other two have been around for ages and their talent is already a given.

Given some excellent happy hour specials on beverages, including $2 off on any appetizer, I was surprised that more people were eating than drinking.

I ordered the tarragon chicken salad on a bed of mixed greens and my friend got a Philly Cheese Steak, but helped himself to my excellent chicken salad while I scored a few of his sauteed onions.

Both dishes were tasty and satisfying and they helpfully got us in and out quickly.

As we walked in, we caught the last few notes of the Strange Boys, so I can't really speak to their performance at all.

A musician friend there dismissed them as "fifties-sounding rock; both of us were eagerly anticipating hearing Deerhunter, though.

And they didn't disappoint with their significantly pop version of shoegaze and post-punk.

The first few songs stayed closer to the pop realm and then they were off and running with their more ambient punk sound.

Around this time, the guy standing next to me in an already overcrowded room struck up a conversation and within five minutes, we had discovered our three degrees of separation.

It's so true that you barely have to scratch the surface in RVA to discover mutual acquaintances and unexpected connections.

In this case, we had a radio connection (he's till in it); he somehow even knew one of my exes from the early '90s and pulled his name out of thin air.

What are the chances?

Then it was Spoon time and since they define the band's sound as simply as 'rock and roll,' we got an evening of rock and roll.

Britt Daniel started on the stage alone with his guitar (as my friend noted, "That takes balls."), then was augmented by the keyboard player and soon the entire band, which, after seventeen years, were incredibly tight.

The thrill for me was hearing his voice with its gravely resonance; the charming grin doesn't hurt, either.

As expected (finally!) it was a sold-out show, although most fans seemed to be of the fairly recent variety, reacting most strongly to the most recent material.

Of course, there were a number of people there for some reason other than to hear the music, including two guys who simply walked a path through the masses the entire evening, every ten minutes or so, they looped around by us again.

Personally, I was thrilled to hear "Everything Hits at Once" from 2001's Girls Can Tell.

They ended their encore with what is undoubtedly one of their hardest rocking songs, "Jonathon Fisk" from 2002's Kill the Moonlight, scoring major points with long-time fans in the audience.

For me, it just capped off a superb evening of music that began at dinner.

Because, the truth is, I really can't have too much music, especially when I can incorporate dinner and making new friends into the mix.

Or, as Spoon would sing, "That's just how we get by."

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Starting Greek at Basilis, Ending Satisfied at the Listening Room

I got props from three different guys tonight and that's a damn fine showing for a Tuesday night, if I do say so myself.

I've said before that I blog for compliments, but sometimes the payoff isn't immediate, which only makes the eventual nod all the more satisfying.

Almost a month ago, a friend read yet another of my Listening Room posts and asked if he could go with me to the next one and naturally I agreed.

Another friend had also been swayed by my rave reviews of the experience and was planning to come.

Friend #1 and I began in Carytown to check out the new Greek restaurant, Basilis, for dinner.

The place is not elaborate, but that's part of its charm along with a menu that'll remind you of the Greek festival.

When we got there, they were down to their last order of one of the two specials, the Mahi-Mahi Souvlakia and it had my name on it.

My friend ordered the moussaka and we shared a spanikopita and a tiropita, craving that buttery, flaky goodness.

My stick o' fish was perfectly cooked and, with the green beans in tomatoes and pita, a practically perfect meal (it came with white rice, too).

My friend enjoyed his moussaka so much we had to sit around for 45 minutes before he had room for dessert, which we chose from the dessert case.

It was the fruit tart, but let me explain Basilis version; it was ladyfingers with whipped chocolate cream (like a light chocolate mousse) and a thin layer of tiny pieces of fruit in the center.

It was light and not in the least guilt-inducing, but not much like any fruit tart you might know.

Before we left, I went to the ladies' room, which turned out to be a lengthy process because of how I'd dressed for the evening.

In order to do what I needed to do, I had to unbutton first a jacket and then a sweater and then unzip my dress, because it had a split skirt I couldn't just pull up, and then remove two pairs of tights, black and magenta.

I felt like I was in there for days.

I tell you this only because I'm renowned for my fast bathroom visits, so I felt I had to tell my friend why when I came out of the loo as an explanation for my extended absence.

As I'm telling him, the guy behind the counter walks by us and says to me, "You're so cute," and walks into the kitchen.

Random.

Yet another example of a totally random comment from a stranger directed at me.

But it was nice, so I'll take it.

And then there was the Listening Room, with coffee from Apropos Roasters and coffee cake from Garnett's. We found seats and the music began with Paul Watson, a trumpeter I've seen on multiple occasions.

Tonight he had a guitarist with him and he played trumpet on some songs and sang on others.

At one point, Jonathan Vassar joined him on stage and the two of them puffed up their cheeks and made mock trumpet noises for part of the song, an impressive thing to watch.

By song #3, my companion turned to me and mouthed the word, "AMAZING," with a big grin, followed by a silent, "thank you."

Paul mentioned being tired of playing in bars where people are more interested in partying than listening to the music.

" But that's just me," he rationalized.

No, Paul, it's me and lots of other people, too.

After the first intermission, one of the organizers, Chris Edwards, announced the beginning of the second group's set by teasing his co-organizer.

"Jonathan Vassar, less talking, more sitting."

Can you tell that Chris usually works with children?

Hezekiah Jones, a four-piece from Philly consisting of guitar, lap steel, bass and violin with two members singing, captured the audience with a beautiful folky sound and compelling lyrics.

"This is called 'Cupcakes for the Army," lead singer Raphael said, "and it's about baking."

Or war, but we got his drift.

A couple of songs were written during the three blizzards this past winter and the resulting time stuck inside.

Midway through their set, my other friend, sitting in front of me, turned and mouthed, "WOW!" (Oh, I know.)

Last up was Chris Kasper and for most of his set, all but Raphael of H.J. joined him on stage, adding another dimension to his voice and acoustic guitar.

Chris mentioned how lucky he felt to find people he could stand on stage who could also play their instruments; this is apparently key to a good musical relationship.

They did a song of theirs currently getting a bit of airplay in Philly and acknowledged the thrill of it.

Favorite lyric:"Find me when I'm a bit older...and my tongue a bit bolder." (Oh, is that how I got this way?)

Both the friends who attended for the first time tonight came because they'd read my last four posts about this event and I'd somehow convinced them that they just had to experience the audio pleasure that is the Listening Room.

Sure, I could say I told (wrote) them so, but the real satisfaction is in having turned them on to one of RVA's hidden treasures.

It's all part of my top secret movement to convince the music-going public that the best way to enjoy a show is with their lips sealed and their ears wide open.

But I did tell them so.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Getting a Brazilian Fix

Everyone should have a neighborhood restaurant where they know they can go and get great food and interesting conversation.

And when I want that combination with a Brazilian accent, I go to Bistro 27 for a surefire evening.

You see, the beauty of being a familiar face is the unexpected, like pheasant ravioli in sage butter sauce that arrived unbidden and melted in my mouth.

It's also the reliable, like the scallops wrapped in bacon with the most perfect al dente lentils, which I've had before and still can't resist for only $11.

Or getting my chocolate cup with mixed berries but instead of just mascarpone, the cold mascarpone on the plate is flavored with coffee and the mascarpone on top of the cup is heated.

It's a divine combination suggested by Chef Carlos to change up a dessert I've had before.

Usually he plants himself on the stool next to me, but I'd brought a friend tonight, so instead he just stood next to me to provide dinner banter.

He'd like to see a movement to move Valentine's Day to the second Sunday of February, thus assuring men plenty of time to shop for their women ("You know, the chocolates, underwear. Priscilla's will do a great business.").

The business benefits to restaurants of a full weekend devoted to the holiday wasn't lost on him, either.

He raved about the Big Apple, a Latino market on Jeff Davis Highway.

With its butcher and fishmonger, Carlos was caught up in all the un-American protein choices they offered.

I found out that brains are in stock at the Big Apple, since brains have been a hot topic around this blog lately.

He left with goat and beef tongue, which he promptly used to make tongue tacos; I would have loved to have tasted those.

He raved so much about the selection that I feel sure I'll be heading southward soon.

At the James River Film festival tonight, we saw Big River, a sequel to King Corn, and Big River Man, a documentary about a Slovenian endurance swimmer, Martin Strel, who swam the Danube, the Yangtze and the Mississippi Rivers before taking on the full length of the Amazon.

His intention was to draw attention to the plight of the rain forests and it ended up being a winner at the 2009 Sundance Festival.

Originally a gambler, now when he isn't swimming he gives flamenco guitar lessons; to say this is an unusual man is a colossal understatement.

When he begins the swim, the river is at flood stage and that turns out to be one of the minor bumps in this journey.

His navigator is a young Wisconsin poker player who took a leave of absence from his job at Walmart to make this trip.

Strel loses twelve pounds in the first nine days and by day 45 he is beginning to show mental illness from the stress.

Three weeks later the crew no longer treat him like a human being but rather like an animal or monster who had no energy for anything except swimming; they even spoon-feed him.

Much of the land they go through in Peru and ultimately Brazil is completely uninhabited.

When they do see a city, it's almost foreign to them, eliciting religious babble from the navigator about heaven and hell; he too appeared to be coming unhinged.

The footage of Strel's descent as his brain struggles to function under the stress is disturbing in that way that good documentaries put you right there.

Finally reaching the end of the swim in Brazil, Strel is met by huge crowds and media from twenty countries, but his health is so precarious he is immediately taken to hospital.

The final images of him in a Speedo and skull cap sprawled on a couch, looking at promotional posters of himself after squandering the sponsorship money are heartbreaking.

But the film itself is a testament to commitment and it wasn't hard to see why it had taken a Sundance prize.

It was also the first U.S. showing of the film tonight (besides Sundance) and it was a free event, put on by the Biggest Picture, RVA's environmental film fest of the last two years as part of the James River Film Fest.

Leave it to Richmond to provide me a very Brazilian evening to feed my belly as well as my mind.

Alone, but Not for Long

Isn't it always the way that when you think you'll have a simple little evening that it snowballs into something else altogether?

Tonight was Project Resolution at the Firehouse Theater, a regular event on my calendar, so I knew I'd spend a couple of hours watching local films-in-progress with the audience providing comments and constructive criticism afterwards.

But tonight there were only three offerings, making for a much shorter screening than usual.

We saw Through the Looking Glass, a short about a cat wanting to escape his house for the outdoors, which included a scene of the cat using the litter box and a scene where a gloved finger substituted for a cat's paw.

The second was an animated music video called Cad for a DC artist, Celeste Starchild; it was vintage 30s-style animation with a catchy hook-filled song behind it.

The last was another animated film, this one called Survival of the Fetish, about rekindling the spark in a marriage through perversion. Hey, whatever works.

Because it ended so early, I was unexpectedly able to make another night of the James River Film Festival and see The Lady from Shanghai at the Grace Street Theater.

Director Orson Welles set out to make this studio-ordered film noir a disorienting experience and he definitely succeeded.

His final cut was 155 minutes, but the studio edited it to 87 minutes, probably causing it to be even more confusing for the audience.

Welles' fake Irish brogue and the shoot-out in the hall of mirrors alone were worth the price of admission, though.

And I not only ran into the P-Res guys there, but a couple of other friends as well, giving us a chance to compare who'd seen what so far at the festival.

I scored pretty well with three films in three days.

Leaving the theater and walking up Grace Street, I heard my name called from Ipanema's patio and answered the call of some restaurant friends lounging on the patio.

Before long, a couple of other restaurant friends showed up and I heard how both their restaurant and Ipanema had been slammed tonight because of, what else, Wicked crowds.

This play has been very, very good to the local restaurant scene, if a bit overwhelming from 5:30ish to 7:40.

What about dessert, you ask?

Well, the blueberry-lemon cheesecake was to die for, especially for blueberry fans like me.

Around midnight, yet another restaurant friend showed up, just as wiped out.

We now had three places represented, so the dirt flew fast and furious and chef and owner comparisons were made and discussed.

Before anyone realized, it was after 1:00 and Monday.

So my low-key early evening alone had morphed into something far more social, to my great pleasure.

The joy of going out alone is who I may meet and chat up along the way and tonight offered up some choice conversations.

Let's just say I had a wicked good time. GB, that was for you.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Hermitage Grill: Retro and Raunchy

I've been accused of being a city snob because I so rarely go beyond its borders for a restaurant meal, although I did venture out to Patterson and Libbie just the other day to eat.

And today, as we start another week, I found myself eating in the county again, so let my detractors please take note.

I'm not sure I can be made fun of anymore for a solely city-centric worldview.

Instead of going west, today I went north to meet my friend Holly who's a regular and a big fan of the Hermitage Grill.

She assured me that the place was friendly and the food consistently good.

What more could I want for Sunday brunch except directions to the place since I had no clear idea where it was?

It's a small, square place (capacity 40) with a Royal Crown Cola clock and a neon Rx sign that was acquired during the demolition of Lakeside Pharmacy in exchange for two barbecue sandwiches.

That's a damn good deal, I'd say.

There are only three bar stools and my friend and I took up two thirds of them.

A regular named Jason took the third, but I suspect most of the people in there today were regulars based on the greetings they got from the staff.

The menu kept the retro charm going with Fried Bologna and Onion Ring Eggs Benedict and Don's SOS (Shit on a Shingle) over Texas Toast.

If you were looking for something truly different, there was Cornmeal-Crusted Catfish with Tarragon Bernaise.

I ordered the Spicy Black Bean Burrito and was pleased to find that it contained just enough eggs and cheese to bind the beans and was not stuffed with inexpensive green peppers as filler, a pet peeve of mine.

My friend had the Flank Steak and Eggs, pounded out and blackened; she ate every bite.

Afterwards, we moved outside to the long picnic table that serves as a smoking area and is covered with crab meat cans for ashtrays.

There, we sat in the sunshine catching up on each other's lives and watching the non-stop parade of shoppers at the Lakeside Market just across the street, a place I've obviously never frequented or I'd have known where the Hermitage Grill was.

And maybe because it's Sunday and maybe because it's a beautiful day, but of the dozen or more people we watched go in, only one came out with anything but beer (he got a newspaper).

At one point, the owner came out, locked the store and went to his car to get something.

As he returned, an approaching customer starting giving him a hard time, saying, "You're supposed to be in the store selling beer, not out here."

I'm sure it was a lighthearted exchange, but I also guess that it points to the store's role in the neighborhood.

We finally went back inside to cool off and pay our bill.

My friend had mentioned how tiny and unusual the bathrooms were, so I went to find out. In the ladies' room were a toilet and a mirror on the door.

The only part of the mirror not painted over was the face; a woman's body and even a hat covered the rest of the mirror.

When I sat down, my face filled the mirror, making it look like I was sitting on a beach reading The First Wives Club.

It was cute and clever and I mentioned it when I got back to the bar.

Steve, the bartender, told me that most, but not every, woman agreed with me.

Seems a woman was having dinner with friends one evening and went to use the bathroom just before her food came.

She came out sputtering, saying she was appalled and would not eat at such a restaurant.

Her complaint?

When she stood up after using the toilet and looked down, apparently her "stuff" was front and center in the mirror.

"I shouldn't have had to see that!" she told Steve and stalked out, never to return.

So here's your fair warning, ladies.

If you don't want to see your naughty bits in the bathroom mirror of the Hermitage Grill, pull up your drawers as you stand up.

Or, better yet, get a grip.

Women as Advertisements

Tonight I was the poster girl for eating out, apparently. My plans were for later, so I intended to have a leisurely dinner at Tarrant's, knowing I'd have to wait until after the pre-Wicked/Symphony crowd cleared out. I could tell by the harried looks on the staff's faces when I arrived that it had been a crazy day. Between Saturday Stroll, drunken post-Irish festival attendees and then the theater crowd, they'd already been through the wringer.

Need proof? By 7:30, Tarrant's was out of their renowned garlic knots, those yeasty rolls they make and douse in oil and garlic. I know people who go there just for those rolls. I sat at the end of the bar and made it simple by just getting a Cobb salad and while I say "just," I think their Cobb is the best in the city. The bands of bacon, red onion, avocado, tomato and bleu cheese are generous and rest on top of a varied array of mixed greens.

Moments after my salad came, a foursome entered and one of the girls immediately stepped over to me and said, "That looks amazing. What is it?" I told her and she ogled it for a while until her date grabbed her arm and pulled her away. Not even five minutes later, a group of six came in and a girl looked at me, looked at my Cobb and said, "Omigod, that looks so good. It's like you're an advertisement for this restaurant looking so content with that salad in front of you! What is it?" So if you haven't had it, it's a big, beautiful-looking salad that's perfectly delicious.

As I was winding down, local artist and noted character Nate Motely came in for coffee and pliers (don't ask) and insisted on giving me one of his drawings. We see each other a lot around town (821 especially) and he loves to talk art with me; I'm guessing that's why he gifted me with this piece out of the blue. I'll admit, it made my night.

Then it was on to Plant Zero for another night of the James River Film Fest and to see Patti Smith: Dream of Life. Shot over a decade, the film was as interesting visually as it was for its content. It began with Smith saying, "Life is an adventure of our own design, intersecting fate in a series of lucky and unlucky accidents," and went on from there to show her in concert, on the road, visiting grave sites and at readings and protests. Directed by Steven Sebring and for the most part black and white, it was a compelling look at a fascinating woman.

In an elevator scene, she comments on someone asking her what it feels like to be a rock icon. "When they say that, it makes me feel like Mount Rushmore," she wryly notes. With her androgynous face and strong bones, she'd actually be a magnificent addition to that monument.

Her 1931 Gibson guitar was a gift from Sam Shepard and she named it Beau. Naturally, it had a lot of allure to musicians and she told of how when they came over, inevitably they'd compliment the guitar. She'd ask them if they wanted to play it, of course they'd accept and begin by tuning it. "And I'd get my guitar tuned!" she said gleefully. Even the mighty Bob Dylan tuned Smith's guitar this way.

Sebring had originally been scheduled to talk after the film, but scheduling conflicts prevented it. I would have liked to have heard the discourse afterwards because it appeared that the audience members were long-time devotees of Smith and undoubtedly would have had questions and information to share with the man who filmed her for ten years.

The documentary was fascinating for me because I didn't know enough about this seminal female figure in music history. Her one-upmanship stories of her skill at peeing in unusual places endeared her to me; I've been there myself, all urge and no place to go.

I came away feeling like Smith could be an advertisement for women carving out their own path in life. I wouldn't mind being thought of in that way myself.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sipping Moonshine in Carytown

A nerd like me goes to book readings to learn and to be read to.

And sometimes, like today, I am rewarded with not only words, but moonshine.

And is there really a better way to let the words wash over you than sitting in front of an open window while passing a quart Mason jar of moonshine around the audience?

I'm not sure there is.

I showed up at Chop Suey Books to hear Max Watman discuss and read from his new book, Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw's Adventures in Moonshine." 

What I didn't anticipate was getting to experience the glories of "corn squeezins" firsthand.

Watman offered it up first thing and I was one of only three in the audience brave enough to give it a try.

Interestingly enough, as the reading progressed, more people reached out for the jar as it went by.

The first thing we learned was who drinks moonshine and while you might guess that it's a favorite at bluegrass jams and stock car races, the bulk of it is consumed by African-Americans in nip joints and shot houses.

Apparently Philly has an extremely high percentage of such places, but the author was put off by its size and crime, so much of his search for nip joints was centered around Danville, VA.

Despite romantic ideas of what such a place would be (dark, smokey, women in bright dresses dancing, customers sipping 'shine, circa 1935), what he finally realized was that the reality was probably going to be much seedier.

Nips joints, he was told, were rough places where cops don't rush in to stop a fight in a place that technically doesn't exist.

He gleaned this information from a guy named Skillet, his antics and those of his friend, Tuba who grew up in his family-owned nip joint ("If it was a Saturday night, Tuba was cutting someone," Skillet boasted).

And although the moonshine Skillet procured for Watman came in Sierra Mist bottle, he described it as smelling "...like poison, vile and sharp. Like stomach acid and Sierra Mist."

 He said it had no lingering finish; rather it pushed into his mouth and exploded and his right cheek immediately went numb.

The fine 'shine we shared today was nothing like that, though.

Instead, it was sweet and a little grainy although the smell still made my nose hairs react.

I've tasted moonshine a few times in the past and this was much better than what had come before it.

The older woman sitting behind me, who had grown up with grandparents who made moonshine on their farm, announced midway through the lecture, "Someone take this away from me or it'll be gone."

Clearly she had a connoisseur's appreciation for good 'shine.

Me, I was just happy to have a tasting aid to enhance my pleasure and understanding of the subject.

Dispelling the notion that author readings can be dry affairs was just icing on the cake.

Stellar Saturday Stroll in Jackson Ward

Hard as it is for me to accept, I know that there are people who only come to Jackson Ward for First Fridays.

Of course, it's their loss; they're missing out on experiencing an area of the city that has much more to offer than just one night's activities.

And while that's only my opinion, apparently it's also the motivation behind the newest reason to get you here, the Saturday Stroll.

Put aside your concerns because you'll be coming to J-Ward in broad daylight, but you're not going to be disappointed.

These strolls will take place on the third Saturdays of the month and feature all kinds of ways to shop RVA.

And don't we all want to support the local economy?

Businesses are open, artists and craft vendors are located all along the streets and in front of galleries and the restaurants and food carts are ready to feed you; here's your chance to try out the Belvidere @ Broad for lunch, a meal they don't normally serve!

Over at Gallery 5, Amanda's amazing cupcakes are for sale.

Of course there's music; do you have any idea how many musicians live here?

Josh Small was playing today, the hula hoopers were out shimmying and you could have a caricature done.

Galleries had doors flung wide open, inviting you to come in; there was even an artist's talk over at the Black History Museum.

There were artists creating graffiti projects on boards near Quirk Gallery. Bizhan from Gallery 5 was one of the artists spray-painting away and I teased him about going back to his roots; he was a fairly active street artists years ago.

He laughed and acknowledged that he was out of practice and his index finger was already sore.

The other issue was the limitations of the size of the board.

With street art, one tends to have a much bigger "canvas" to work on.

Next month, he's planning to add some wheat pasting to the painting he'll do.

And let me point out that it's really pretty cool to be able to watch street art being created since most of it is done late at night and away from the view of the public.

I only wish Richmond would designate some of its old and derelict buildings for graffiti artists to better visually.

Imagine what a win/win situation it would be to artistically improve the ugly facades and give artists an outlet for their large scale work.

Maybe someday RVA will see the benefit to the city in such an endeavor.

I saw lots of people I knew, neighbors and locals, but there were plenty of visitors, too, out enjoying a beautiful day in Jackson Ward.

Anything that gets people down here to see what we have to offer is a very good thing in my book.

And I know we have some convincing to do; not everyone is as sold on the 'hood as me.

One woman with a stroller suggested to her posse (another family with a stroller), "Let's go eat at Lift. They actually have good sandwiches."

No shit, Sherlock.

We actually have a lot of very good things down here and now there's an easy way for you to check them out.

Just save the third Saturday of the month and we'll knock your socks off, J-Ward style.

Friday, March 19, 2010

One Fine Day: Dishing, Fishing and Hotel X

I sold out again, only this time for a different reason (does that make it any better?).

A good friend wanted to meet for drinks at Can Can, but I'd just had lunch there yesterday.

Before I could even protest, though, she enticed me by saying she wanted me to meet a friend of hers whom she described as a "foodie" and who also happens to be a dining critic.

Okay, maybe I can repeat a location just this one last time.

It was a beautiful Friday, all the doors and windows were open and people just kept arriving.

Meanwhile we ordered carafes of Corbieres and a cheese plate (a triple creme, a mild bleu and a goat) and started telling each other what we knew.

It worked out well because we knew a lot of the same restaurant people and each of us had different details about them.

She told me a delicious story about a place she had intended to review but the experience was so off-putting that she told her editor, "You don't want me to do this review."

We discussed which restaurants consistently do things right and which have a habit of inconsistency.

The importance of quality front-of-the house management drew anecdotes from us both.

Only other commitments prevented us from doing this kind of talking all night.

Naturally, wine god Bob Talcott came over to say hello (and told me how great my magenta tights were; he mentioned something about blushing if he said more) and discuss the weather.

"This is going to turn out to be the finest day of the year," he proclaimed. It certainly ought to be in the running we agreed.

Afterwards, I went to Plant Zero to be part of the 17th Annual James River Film Fest and experience "Georges Melies Meets Hotel X."

It was a lot like the Silent Music Revival events, with a band accompanying a silent film.

I've seen some of Melies' films before (he made over 500) and he's known as the father of special effects.

Originally a magician, he was one of the first to use time-lapse, dissolves and multiple exposures, thereby translating his magic tricks onto the screen.

We saw three shorts tonight and one longer feature, The Impossible Voyage.

Besides its length, it stood out for the hand tinting, which must have been a laborious process back at the turn of the 20th century...cell by cell by cell.

Hotel X did a superior job at intently watching the film and reacting to it musically. I've seen a lot of these silent film/live music shows and this were easily one of the very best I've seen.

It helped that the band had multiple percussionists given all the clamorous goings-on in the films. Later, when asked why the band had chosen these in particular, they said it was because three were short and only one was long; I don't doubt that live musical improv to a film would be challenging.

After the screening, James River Film Fest t-shirts were distributed to the band as a thank-you for their superlative performance.

One of the drummers and a personal favorite of mine, Lance Koehler (also of No BS Brass Band) draped his over his snare drum and played it that way for the two songs the band did after the films.

Eventually Hotel X's groove became too much for some members of the audience, who began to dance in the areas around the movie screen, totally into it.

Driving back into the city across the Mayo Bridge, I think I got confirmation about Bob's assessment of the weather today.

There were a couple of guys, one leaning over the bridge and one comfortably seated in a folding chair, fishing off the bridge.

They had their bait buckets, they had their coolers, they had their back-up rods and at 10:30 on a March evening, they were still out there enjoying this weather.

The wine god may have been right about this fine day, but these gentlemen seemed to be putting in their vote for it as a fine night, too.

I'm willing to bet that the sliver of a moon in the clear sky wasn't hurting the mood any either.

The Grill at Patterson & Libbie: No Brains!

I didn't know a lot of people who went to Freckles restaurant on Patterson Avenue, but I was a regular there for years because I worked nearby.

In the past five years, I'd been more of a semi-regular, but the staff always knew me (and my order) and I still saw a lot of the same faces that I had seen there for years.

Their breakfast business had a devout following, maybe because they were one of the few places you could always get brains with your eggs.

Or maybe it was just their price points.

The place had looked like a bad rec-room from the 70s with smoke-stained wails and ceiling tiles (with ads on them!), an obviously homemade bar and family and dog pictures everywhere.

The bathroom was literally a hole in the wall, barely big enough for a toilet.

The atmosphere screamed old school family restaurant and the owner and her son were almost always there, although in recent years, her health had deteriorated and all he wanted was to sell the restaurant and finally have a life independent of it.

The reason I kept coming back was twofold and probably unlikely to have mattered to anyone else in RVA.

I always got the chef salad (minus the ham and cheese) with blue cheese dressing.

Big deal, right?

Well, actually it was because the owner made the most amazing croutons, big and sauteed in oil with nothing crouton-like about them except that they began as bread.

They were barely crunchy because of how much oil they contained.

Secondly, she made her own blue cheese dressing and I use the term dressing loosely because hers was mainly chunks of blue cheese with just enough of a creamy binder to prevent it from being a bowl of cheese chunks.

It was the best blue cheese dressing I have ever had anywhere and I've eaten a lot of it.

So, with the opening of the Grill at Patterson & Libbie, I was naturally curious to see what changes had been wrought, both in terms of the interior and the menu.

A friend and I lunched there today, not sure what to expect, but hoping for the best since she lives in the neighborhood.

Let's just say the renovation is tansformative.

The blue pleather booths are gone, replaced by larger and lovelier booths,

The bar is no longer low-hanging and seedy looking.

There are even two spacious bathrooms.

The waitresses all appear to be seasoned vets and everybody was hustling.

With their patio, they're sure to be a popular destination now that the weather is nice.

Since there was no chef salad on the menu (no brains, either, and that's a real loss in terms of an offbeat breakfast option), I decided to try the wedge salad.

It wouldn't have croutons, but it would have blue cheese.

When our server brought it to me, it was two large iceberg lettuce wedges drizzled in balsamic and a side dish of dressing.

Looking at it as she set it down, she observed, "They forgot the bacon," which was funny, since it's a three-ingredient dish.

She hurried right off and returned immediately with a bowl containing five slices of bacon (a bit flabby to be crumbled, but a generous amount) and I realized that, oh! this was a deconstructed wedge salad.

No matter, I set about shredding my bacon and sprinkling it over my wedges.

The blue cheese dressing was quite good and by that I mean it wasn't as magnificent as Sue's, but it had a good amount of chunks in it, just not as many as in hers.

The dressing was slightly sweeter than hers, closer to the typical blue cheese dressings, but still better than most.

My friend had the three-cheese grilled cheese with coleslaw and got a side of mac and cheese.

It was the baked version; she deemed it quite good and she's a mac and cheese snob, so that's a good sign.

Looking around at the customers, I actually recognized a few from the Freckles days; others looked like neighborhood residents.

They don't have their liquor license yet, but they stay open until midnight Monday through Saturday (Sundays until 3), so I expect they will do a brisk business.

Entrees are served after 5:00 and not one was over ten bucks.

Whether or not they draw the fanatic breakfast following remains to be seen; they no longer have the center filled with tables they can combine to accommodate large groups.

They wisely serve breakfast until 3:00, so expect to see a carafe of syrup and assorted jams on your table if you go in for lunch.

And although there aren't any brains for breakfast anymore, they do have bologna (as well as city ham and country ham), so you can still have a non-standard side for your eggs.

I have to admit, I loved what Freckles represented.

Their inexpensive, old-fashioned way of doing business was downright quaint by the 21st century.

They even kept candy bars for sale by the register in case you needed something sweet to go.

When a regular need something and the staff was busy, we knew we could just go grab the cracker basket or a roll-up and they'd appreciate it.

So maybe the Grill at Patterson & Libbie is just the logical evolution of what a neighborhood place has to be these days.

I'll go back, but I'll also probably always compare it to what it was as Freckles.

Damn! Now I'm sounding like a Richmonder, always bemoaning change.

Luckily the blue cheese dressing didn't change too much.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Buying Me at Bouchon

Allow me to acknowledge that I can be bought.

Granted, bought by a friend, but bought. A friend who hasn't seen me in several weeks, but bought.

Me: Where do you want to eat?
Friend: How about Bouchon? We always meet interesting people there.
Me: No, I just ate there less than a week ago.
Friend: How about if I buy the wine, then can we go?
Me: (Sigh)
Friend: Oh, come on.
Me: Okay.

It's not that I don't enjoy Bouchon; I do.

And last week's visit had been to experience the early prix fixe menu and tonight's plan was to sit at the bar and enjoy the frugal bar menu.

At least that's the rationalization I was working off of. I had to justify revisiting a restaurant so soon after having been there in a town rife with excellent and varied choices.

Bouchon was crawling with Gen Ass types when we arrived around 7:45; I mean suits as far as the eye could see.

We even had to wait for three of them to vacate their bar stools to even sit down ("I kept it warm for you," one of them told me, patting his stool).

So that you know, the wine for which I sold my preference down the river was a Lauverjat Sancerre Moulin des Vrilleres and I only had one glass.

As soon as the bartender saw me, he placed the framed bar menu in front of me, saying, "I know you like the bar menu."

It's true, the prices are the draw but the food always delivers.

Splurging on three $4 choices, I got the Bouchon salad, the quiche du jour (sun dried tomatoes, Swiss cheese and mushrooms) and the Croque Monsieur.

I've had the salad before and knew it was well done and found the quiche to be the deep-dish variety and full of flavor.

The Croque Monsieur was the highlight, thick with French ham and melted Gruyere on brioche. That was three very different tastes, more than enough food and all for a mere $12.

I patted myself on the back for a job well done.

For the same $12, my friend got a personal favorite there, the Coq au Vin, but then also splurged on pommes frittes (an itch I had scratched at lunch) and the speck tart (easily my favorite thing on the regular menu and one I've ordered far too often).

I think she was just jealous of my multi-tasting and couldn't settle for just one dish after all.

A nearby bar sitter was celebrating his birthday with some wine tasting with the chef once things settled down.

We toasted him and I asked if he wanted to tell me his age; he wound up as if to deliver the magic number in a big way and then said, "No."

His pregnant pause was so beautifully done that we both laughed out loud; I even felt it worthy of compliment.

The couple next to him, port drinkers, consisted of a guy raised in South Boston ("That's tobacco country, you know!") and his gal pal ("I was not a home wrecker. I am not the other woman.") who talked loudly and to anyone who would listen.

My friend, who travels constantly for work, gravitates to Bouchon because "it doesn't feel like it's in Richmond."

I don't know, with Gen Ass suits and tobacco country refugees, it certainly doesn't feel far off to me.

Not that it matters, what with the gift of wine and a $4 menu.

Some of us are just so easy to please.

Improvising Our Way to Can Can

There's two ways to look at an unexpected change in plans.

A favorite friend and I thought we were going to a lecture, except that one of us had the date wrong (totally my fault, but totally understandable if you saw all the stuff I keep track of on my calendar).

Since we already had planned to eat together afterwords, we just changed our plans to replace the lecture with a walk and then eat lunch at Bonvenu, as we'd talked about.

Except that Bonvenue only does lunch on Saturdays and Sundays; instead we admired the lunch menu and hope to make it back some weekend to try it.

No problem, my friend said, let's go to Can Can and have moules and frites.

Given the beautiful day, the fact that she was off and out for a change and that we now had a bonus hour in which to goof off, it sounded like the most wonderful lunch we could have hoped for.

Plans? What plans?

Noonish at CanCan apparently means a crowd out the door to get in, so we made a beeline to our favorite table, known as the bar.

The front windows were wide open and the sunny air was pouring in.

Since we'd already determined what we'd be eating, the only decision remaining was the broth (white wine and garlic, natch) and the beverage.

She looked at me and asked, "Should we have a glass of wine?" and before I could answer she qualified it with, "But I can only have one!"

You know, as opposed to the four or five glasses we usually have at lunch.

Kidding.

We usually go dry at lunch, she and I; it's dinner where we're less circumspect (see: Sunday at Ipanema).

So it was that I enjoyed a glass of rose (complimentary because they didn't have a full pour left and it was the last bottle) and she the chenin blanc with our mussels and fries.

I was a little disappointed that at the end of my bowl, five of my mussels were still closed and thus inedible, but I made up for it by eating every last perfectly-cooked fry.

I'm not ashamed to say I even emptied the last little salty bits of the paper cone into my hand to make sure I didn't miss any.

The pace of our walk after lunch was decidedly slower than beforehand, but why rush on a day like this?

True, we hadn't improved our minds any without the lecture, but the drawn-out pleasures of a leisurely girls' lunch out (and with Style's State of the Plate issue to dish over) can't be overstated.

Or as my friend said midway through our sunny lunch, "It feels like I'm on vacation!"

Breaking the (Sette) Pizza Rules Again

Q: What do you wear when your evening starts with a Poetic Principles reading at the Virginia Museum and ends with a show at the Canal Club?

A: Something that makes the guard at the museum say to you, "You look mighty nice for a poetry reading," when what he really means is, "That's not how folks usually dress to come here, miss."

And actually it wasn't a poetry reading because Christine Schutt is no longer writing poetry; her latest book is "All Souls," a novel set in an all-girls' school.

As she read selections from it, though, her poetic roots became obvious. Her cadences were completely poetic.

Every sentence came across as a phrase in a poem; it was lovely. Reading about a group of feckless girls, she referenced their "wayward society swagger;" it's practically a poem title itself.

Tonight was the last of this year's Poetic Principles, a series that will restart in October.

Then I headed east to meet a friend at Sette Pizza before the music portion of the evening.

I began with a half Sette Chopped Salad (lettuce, tomato, Gorgonzola and bacon with a balsamic vinaigrette) because I was starving and couldn't wait for my friend any longer.

When he did arrive, we decided (SPOILER ALERT: Pizza purists, stop reading now) on the Florentine (white sauce, baby spinach, and goat cheese) and, with all the nerve in the world, we had them put bacon on it.

The bartender grinned at me and said, "Bacon is gooood," which supports my argument that bacon makes everything better.

The pizza was delicious, gooey with the two cheeses and amply sprinkled with the tiniest bacon bits.

When we got to the Canal Club, The Dig was midway through their set; I'd seen this NYC group before and was sorry to have missed all of their set.

Next up was Port O'Brien and I can see why people like M. Ward are calling them their favorite new band.

Their combination of folk and indie rock, drawing as much from the 60s as from 80s bands like the Replacements, is pure ear candy.

In talking to the audience, they asked if Richmond had lots of good things to do.

Someone shouted out GWAR and the lead singer said, "Really? GWAR is from here? That just made my day!"

Toward the end of their set, a box of sound was distributed to the audience, including pots, pans and spoons for us to make noise with.

They closed by saying, "Goodnight Richmond, home of GWAR!"

And then it was something completely different, the headliner, Portugal the Man.

Whereas Port O'Brien pulled from 60s and 80s pop, PtM is much more experimental and psychedelic.

There were even elements of prog rock; at one point, my friend said that the sound reminded him of early Yes and Genesis, extremely complex.

To complement such complexity, lead singer John Gourley even adopted a sideways stance throughout the show, facing stage left and his backup singer rather than the audience.

The crowd wasn't huge; it was St. Patrick's Day after all and plenty of people had green beer to drink, but the people who were there were clearly fans, singing along to almost every song and cheering the band raucously.

An audience of true fans is always the best kind anyway for their contagious enthusiasm.

Let's just say we all left completely satisfied, even the friend I ran into who cut out a bit early (she knows who she is).

Most importantly, the designated duds did a seamless job of taking me from the literary to prog rock.

Not that anyone was looking.