Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sky View From the Shower

There are few beach pleasures that rival that of the outdoor shower.

For the best possible experience, it must be a wooden enclosure only partially covered on top so as to afford a view of the sky while showering.

It should be located not under the house, but next to it and on the oceanside to ensure the constant sound of the surf being audible.

The door must lock from the inside and anything else is gravy.

I am so enamored of the outdoor beach shower that I try to make converts of non-believing visitors.

One year a friend refused my offer of the outdoor shower because he assumed it would have only cold water.

No, my friend, these days we have hot and cold running water in outside showers, rustic as they may seem to the uninitiated.

Yes, there may be some sea grass growing up between the slats of the floor, but the water can be just as hot as you want it to be.

Diehards like me even shower outside when it's raining, like yesterday.

By the time we finished happy hour, the lightening show had yielded to rain.

Precipitation or not, we had to get cleaned up for dinner, so Thing 2 and I showered in the rain.

The rain only comes in on either side inside the stall, so as you stand under the shower stream scrubbing up, rainwater falls on either side of you.

It's like being under a wooden umbrella with the rain falling all around, except that you're also under water, albeit warm water and not rain.

This is my idea of shower heaven.

I bring all this up as I prepare to go outside to shower.

Regrettably, 3:30 was beach departure time for the magnificent Thing 2, which coincided with departure time from Georgetown for Thing 3, giving me roughly five hours to occupy myself before Thing 3's arrival.

I've already been informed that I am to be ready to head out immediately to celebrate the moment the car pulls up out front.

And although it's only 5:00 now, there's never any telling how long a beach shower can last, so I'd better get started soon.

Between the pleasures of an outdoor soaping and then happy hour, I've got plenty to occupy me for the next three hours before my next guest arrives.

Excuse me while I kiss the sky...or at least admire it from the shower.

Dudes Provide Cake by Candlelight

Best song randomly heard on the radio today: Metal and Steel, Bob Schneider

The theme for our happy hour today was lightening, with alcoholic accompaniment by Andre Brunel Cotes du Rhone Villages Cuvee Sabrine 2007.

Surrounded, as we are here, on two sides by water masses, we enjoyed a show of thunderstorms from three directions: out to sea, on the sound and due south.

Mother Nature was metaphorically wrapping her angry arms around us and we welcomed the embrace, but especially the show.

And what a show it was!

Double-forked lightening, horizontal lightening, heat lightening, we seldom went more than 90 seconds before seeing the next hit somewhere.

Had we been the easily-frightened types, the Cotes du Rhone was right there to soothe us.

As it was, it was right there for purely pleasurable reasons (yum, is that licorice on the finish?), as well as practical ones (hey, we can make a candle-holder for the porch out of it now!).

A couple of hours later, the lightening gave way to a gentle rain, our signal that happy hour was finished and it was time to get cleaned up for our dinner date.

Thing 2 and I were meeting the artist and his wife from last night for dinner at a locally-favored restaurant, Food Dudes.

Having doubts about a place with a name that sounds like it originated in a frat house, we were nonetheless assured that it was a gathering spot for locals for good reason.

It was small, in a strip center, had loads of local art on the walls and was filled with non-tourist looking faces; we were clearly the only ones who didn't know everyone else.

As it turned out, by the time we left, we knew more than a few of them, as various people were introduced to us and joined the conversation.

The Food Dudes showed their Asian influences with the fresh-tasting appetizer special we got.

It was a crab and avocado spring roll, more crab than avocado and enhanced by the cuke/cilantro salsa and hot chile sauce.

Appetites piqued by that course, everyone else ordered fish, but I was led astray by the siren song of the Dudes' south of the border influences.

I was most curious about their unique and colorful-sounding nachos: green chile con queso over blue and white corn chips, with roasted local corn salsa, house-made pico de gallo, sour cream and scallions.

Not a trace of cheddar, lettuce or jalapeno in sight.

Yes, please, I'd like those.

And they were everything I'd hoped they'd be.

The green chile con queso was worlds beyond melted cheese, the roasted corn salsa bathed in that queso made me forget my fondness for black beans on nachos and their pico de gallo provided the absent peppers' heat.

I will never think of nachos quite the same again.

Thanks, Food Dudes. How did I ever doubt you?

Their dessert specialty is 12-layer chocolate cake (it's actually yellow cake with chocolate icing) but Thing 2 and I were way too full to consider anything more.

Our new local buds insisted we take a piece home to share on the porch later and who were we to argue with local custom?

They were doing the same and they don't even have an ocean to admire as they eat theirs like we do.

Or, I'll bet, an Andre Brunel bottle candle holder flickering just enough candlelight to ensure we don't miss a crumb.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Reading for Lust, Letting Go of Heat

I've been coming down to this beach since I was seven years old and, hands down, today is the hottest day I can ever recall.

The radio says that with the heat index, it feels like 105 degrees, which is really saying something in a place with non-stop wind.

When Thing 2 and I walked this morning around 10, it was already unbearably hot on the beach, so hot in fact, that we came back and took morning naps.

Or maybe that was for other reasons.

Checking the sign on the lifeguard's chair walking back, I had to laugh about their water warning: H2O temp: Future Navy SEALS only! 55

That would be even colder than it was yesterday, but with the increased heat, it felt about the same to us and we're no future Navy anythings.

After our late morning siestas, we decided lunch was in order, specifically a retro lunch from John's Drive-in, a low-slung concrete hole in the wall on the beach road (sign in window: Owned and operated by the same family since 1980).

We couldn't bear the thought of eating in that asphalt parking lot, understandably, so we ordered and took our goodies back to the porch to enjoy lunch in the shade overlooking the ocean.

Thing 2 wanted that classic John's dolphin sandwich boat with a chocolate malted, but I couldn't resist the rockfish sandwich (but with a chocolate shake).

Besides the dolphin sandwich, John's is renowned for its variety of milkshake flavors, but I'm happy with the basics at least when it comes to shakes.

And calling either of our 10" long fish/roll combinations a sandwich is a gross understatement; it was the size of a sub.

John's retro vibe is further enhanced by the old-school crinkle-cut fries served in a red and white cardboard boat.

Served with a generous sprinkling of salt, all we needed was catsup.

And some downtime afterwards to digest.

I started my second beach read, Moll Flanders (written after Robinson Crusoe), ready for some harlotry and repentance, although I may have to take issue with a book written in 1722 by a man, but as the memoir of a lusty woman.

"I was so confounded, and driven to such extremity as the like was never known; at least not to me."

I know what you mean, sister.

Perhaps jut as engaging as the story is the book version I'm reading.

It's a 1952 Cardinal Edition paperback with a selling price of 35 cents.

As stated on the second page, this "edition includes every word contained in the original, higher-priced edition," including ten captioned illustrations from the original.

It's with a gentle touch that I turn each yellowed page, but it is definitely a kick to be reading a nearly 300-year old story from an almost 60-year old book.

Nerds are so easily tickled.

As I wind down this post, the temperature and wind have abruptly changed.

That hot air from the west has been replaced with brisk northeastern air and the promise of a thunderstorm.

Time for happy hour and a lightening show on the porch.

If you'll excuse me...

Monday, June 28, 2010

Hot, With No Chance of Early

Water temperature: 57 degrees
Beach Reading: Scientific Jefferson Revealed
Best song heard randomly on the radio: Waltz #2, Elliott Smith

Thing 1 had assured me he'd be up at 6 a.m. and ready to walk; I'd told him to have a good time because there was no way I'd be up that early.

Some three hours later when we did finally walk, it was to find the ocean temperature markedly colder, a shock after last night's moonlit stroll through bath-like warm water.

The beach was littered with tiny little fish flopping in the throes of death, so obviously there had been some changes overnight.

It was hot today, but luckily with strong breezes to moderate the heat, if not the sand temperature.

Reading on the beach for hours, I learned all kinds of new Jeffersonian tidbits (the ha-ha fence? How did I not know of this? His affinity for prehistoric animal bones and disdain for the concept of extinction? Tell me more.).

Thing 1 shared beautiful bits of language from the O.Henry short story collection he was reading.

Geek good times.

When lunchtime rolled around, we were too lazy to prepare anything, so we got take-out from the nearby Rundown Cafe.

The menu said only that their fish sandwich featured "grilled game fish of the day" so we each ordered one, not caring what that fish might be.

Turns out it was mahi-mahi and about as fresh-tasting as it could be; we enjoyed our lunch on the porch overlooking the brilliant mid-day blues and greens of the ocean.

It was later in the day that Thing 1 had to depart, so I used my brief alone time to take a beach nap before Thing 2 arrived.

Thing 2 was all about the ocean (damn New Englanders!), freezing or not, so we made our way into the surf, first feeling out calves go numb, but gradually adapting to the chill the further out we went and allowing it to cool our cores because it was one hell of a hot day.

As we were coming out of the water, Thing 2 inquired, "Is it too early to start drinking?"

On vacation, we drink and nap at will, so the answer was a resounding no.

Happy hour on the porch featured a 2006 Mendocino County Petite Syrah (complex and downright chewy, to Thing 2's delight) and two varieties of cheese.

Just as we were noticing the 14.5% alcohol content, Thing 2 got a call from friends, a couple of locals who live nearby, so we invited them over to join us on the porch.

They brought their lab, understandably a water-loving dog, so we convened on the beach for a while,the dog doing endless Frisbee retrieval, and discussed the changes we've all seen on the beaches since we started coming down.

Having a dog in the house here made me miss the beagle; this was the first time in 15 years that he wasn't along for the beach exploits, something he enjoyed as much as I do.

I got to know these people, Thing 2 caught up with their lives and beers were opened and tossed, wine was sipped and the sun began to set.

It was getting to be dinner time, so they left with plans to meet us again.

We cleaned up nicely and headed up to Ocean Boulevard for some sustenance.

Like almost everyone these days, OB is big on the local and the fresh (they grow their own herbs right out back), but they do it very well.

The chop salad had mixed greens, ripe tomato (and boy, was it), grilled local peaches, roasted sweet corn, house-smoked bacon (to die for), Wisconsin bleu cheese and buttermilk dressing (like my Richmond grandmother used to make).

I'm honestly not sure that this particular combination of ingredients could be improved upon.

Dinner was one of the specials, the local flounder with a fritata of crab and North Carolina sausage, accompanied by a hash of caramelized onions, potatoes and local butter beans (no words can do them justice) with hollandaise.

Judge all you want, but I ate those creamy butter beans first and I'm not the least bit embarrassed to say so.

With the Martin Codax Albarino, this was an outstanding beach meal, especially surrounded by the oddball collection of staff and customers we had around us for entertainment.

Best line of the evening:
Thing 2 during happy hour: "Could I already have a hangover after my second glass?"

Anything's possible on vacation...

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Hello Moon

So I'm back at the little oceanfront house I rent every summer, with the usual itinerary: eat, drink, read, walk, sleep.

With the changes in my personal life, there have been some adjustments to my vacation routine, though; I invited a steady stream of visitors to join me throughout the time I'm down here.

Taking a page from Dr. Seuss, I'm going to refer to my visitors as Things.

Thing 1 is my only guest at the moment, but that will change tomorrow.

In the meantime, we had Thai fish fritters made with sea bass (it was the fish of the day, so it was all over the menu) and served with sweet chile sauce at Colington Cafe (Skeeter's, my first choice, was closed today).

The sun went down over the marsh as we made the shift from country ham to crab, scallops and sea bass.

When we got back, it was to witness the orangest moon sitting right on the horizon, surely an indicator that a walk toward it was in order.

Thing 1 is a photographer, not that he took any pictures, but I hadn't even been down to the ocean since we'd arrived, so it was time to correct that.

The moon continued its accent as we walked through the water's edge, losing its color gradually, but gaining a brightness that illuminated a path across the ocean.

Definitely postcard-worthy.

And while I could wax poetic about the sound of the ocean all around me, the lively breeze that seems to be coming from every direction and the benefits of porch swing therapy, I probably ought to get to bed.

It's almost 12:30 and I've got a long day of eating, drinking and being merry to attend to tomorrow.

And then there's those ten books just begging to be read and talked about.

Thing 2, best bring your A game is all I'm saying.

Is it any wonder I keep coming back to this place?

Rolling Down Highway 460

I have been ridiculed on more than one occasion for the circuitous routes I take in pursuit of a scenic journey.

Case in point, the route that I take to the Outer Banks is a combination of newer, fast roads and back roads.

For me, 64 is almost as soul-sucking a road as I-95, so I spend only a couple of miles on the former and none on the latter.

Part of the reason for my route is the scenery, of which Route 460-East has an abundance, like the Melody Inn Motel and further along, a hand-painted sign with a big arrow, spelling out REST-ARAUNT.

And then there's the small-town eating options.

A friend was driving down following me caravan-style and I'd warned him in advance that if he wanted to follow, I'd be stopping at Adams Country Store for lunch for a sandwich.

That was my fair warning that if he was one of those press-on type travelers, he'd be better off not trying to follow me, but he was game.

Walking into Adams, the owner (Son) asked how I was doing.

Hot, I told him, but a sandwich was going to make me feel so much better.

"Mayo or mustard?" he asked, moving behind the case of pig.

No other questions were necessary, because you're going to get a country ham sandwich on white bread, so condiments are the only variable.

As he was wrapping it up, I grabbed a bottle of RC Cola from the case.

Gotta have my sweet to balance all that salt.

Talking to the owner, Son (an older man), and his Daddy (a much older man) was a delightful prelude to lunch.

I asked how long they'd owned the store (1961) and Son pointed to where the floor changed from one wood pattern to another.

"Used to be a dance hall next door. Daddy took down that wall and made it one big space and they used to have a dance here every Saturday night. We sold beer. Boys from Waverly and Wakefield would have fights out back about different girls."

I looked over at the beautiful hardwood floor that so many locals had shaken a leg on.

"So I could dance over there on that dance floor?" I asked the two men sitting amongst wooden crates of pork jowls.

"What kind of band do you want?" Daddy asked me enthusiastically. "Swing, bebop?"

I feel fairly certain that he was willing to find the music to have a girl dance on that floor today.

It was pretty sweet.

My friend and I took our sandwiches and drinks outside to eat on a stone table and benches under a huge, old tree.

The cornfield was just beyond the out buildings, which were full of ancient-looking farm tools and signs.

That RC Cola went down like a long-forgotten childhood memory, which is exactly what it was.

And that salty ham with nothing but mustard and white bread around it was probably just what the Waverly and Wakefield boys would have eaten back in the day, to keep up their energy for dancing and fighting.

I'm so not a fighter and you'd be hard-pressed to find a man who could truthfully say I've danced with him, but for anyone having a tough time understanding why I drive back roads, the answer is simple.

Country ham sandwiches and RC Cola in the shade of a big old tree...because that's the way to start vacation.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Irish Boys Sing Purty*

I had forgotten that the tag line for Ashland Coffee and Tea was those magic words: "A Listening Room."

And when two Irish guys are going to sing in a silent room, I am there, much as I was when I saw them a year ago in January in the midst of my life falling apart.

That time I'd driven to Charlottesville to hear Guggenheim Grotto and tonight I only had to meander up Rte. 301 to the Center of the Universe to hear those two beautiful voices together again.

I arrived in time to eat before the show.

My server told me right up front that he was new and I told him he could make his mistakes on me.

I ordered the spinach salad (dried cranberries, feta, walnuts, maple-seasoned chicken with Chianti basil vinaigrette) and was happily tucking into it when he came by to refill my water glass.

He did so without spilling a drop and then set the water pitcher down with a flourish in front of me and placed my glass on the counter.

We bonded.

I already knew how amazing Guggenheim Grotto sounded live, so it was really just a matter of enjoying it for the beauty of the sounds.

It was simply done like last time, with only guitar or ukulele and sometimes keyboard.

Kevin informed us that he has the mid-ranges and Mick does the upper and lower ends and together it is pure poetry.

Kevin explained the hat on his head as having resulted from a lyric, "I tip my hat to the willow tree."

Grinning, he said, "I love that line. Well, I wrote that line, but I didn't have a hat when I wrote it. Now I have a hat."

The heat eventually made him remove it for a while, but I noticed that it always reappeared for the suaver numbers.

Because I am constitutionally unable to resist coconut cake, I went for their dessert special of Coconut Three-Layer Cake.

The slice was enormous, easily two actual slices, and not one but two different couples commented on it and asked what it was.

It was a refrigerator style cake, so a dense crumb with exactly-sweet-enough icing and a generous amount of coconut (it could have stood even more, but that's probably just me).

About their song "Vertigo," Kevin said that they'd written their version five years earlier than U2 had written theirs.

"But I think this is what they were trying to say...in their ham-fisted way."

Don't you love Irish band rivalry? Besides, it's like comparing passion fruit and star fruit.

Toward the end, we were praised by Kevin, who said, "You've been easily the most reverent audience we've had."

Sound of clapping.

"That makes us sound like rock gods...which we are. I meant respectful, not reverent."

Actually, given what those two voices can do, the audience probably was a bit reverent.

And of course, we were all reveling in having a silent room in which to hear every nuance.

Well, silent except when the server broke a glass.

Bonding not feasible.


*My friend Isaac H. about why I would like another obscure Irish band.~2003

Drinking Pink and Drawing Analogies

I found the rose of my dreams and it's $68 a bottle.

On the other hand, I found the rose of my dreams.

For all the pink drinking I've been doing of late, the lure of a Rose Spectacular at Barrel Thief (Patterson and Libbie, mind you, even pink can't get me to Short Pump) was irresistible; $16 for sixteen wines and an array of appetizers to tamp it all down.

Count me in.

The wine reps and the male staff were all in some form of pink (pants, shirts, ties) which was almost as delightful as the wines.

The tablecloths were pink but fortunately not all of the food was.

I enjoyed particularly the curried crab salad on watermelon wedges, the aged Camembert with peach slices, black olive tapenade on crostini and the grilled Atlantic char, but only the watermelon qualified for pink status.

Beginning with the simple and fruity Domaine Guindon Gamay, through the not-so-pink Domaine Brazilier (absolutely loved its white peppery goodness) to the Edmunds St. John Gamay (California's only true Gamay grower) to the Thurston Wolfe Lemberger (my first experience with 80% Lemberger, 20% Grenache) to the Bisson Golfo del Tigullio (actually made as a red wine but that's as dark as the grape gets and a personal favorite), and ending with the unusual 1998 R. Lopez de Heredia Rioja, tasting of nuttiness and incredibly complex, this was definitely an extravaganza of pink wines.

The intriguing trio was the Domaine du Bagnol Cassis, which was incredibly aromatic, followed by the Chateau Pradeaux Bandol (less nose but striking on the palate) and then the star, the Chateau Simone Palette.

Such a wine begged to be discussed with a man in both pink pants (courtesy of his grandfather) and a pink-tie (courtesy of his girlfriend), so said wine rep and I agreed on an analogy between these wines and women of different ages.

The first was a 20-something whose scent was impossible to ignore (pay attention to me!).

The second, a slightly older woman, took a bit more time but rewarded the sipper with much more in the mouth (slightly delayed gratification).

The last, the "elegant older woman" as he dubbed the Chateau Simone Palette, is considered the best rose in the world, with a Grand Cru designation.

That, understandably, was my favorite.

As luck would have it, I'd run into a fellow wine geek and friend who were as enamored of the "elegant older woman" as I was and who had managed to convince the management to offer it by the glass for the afternoon.

Hell, with three of us sharing, there was no reason not to buy a bottle.

So now that I've identified my favorite Rose, I would think it's time to share a bottle of pink with someone who'd enjoy it as much as I do.

Those who prefer the more obvious or accessible need not apply.

Pescado's in High Summer Mode

One of the husbands I borrow on occasion lives south of the river.

I don't hold this against him because he eats everything and likes coming in to the city to eat.

It also means that although he's been telling me good things about Pescado's for a while, he sensed that there was not much likelihood I'd end up there.

Which probably explains why he seized the moment and suggested we try Pescado's China Street tonight.

While it hasn't taken quite as long as Center Stage or the VMFA to complete, it does seem like it's been a work-in-progress for some time now.

Since I hadn't been to the original, I was unprepared for how colorful it was, with its blue walls, yellow and orange woodwork and mottled green bar.

Even underfoot, it was a floor of many colors. The bar was smaller than I would have expected, especially given the limited bar options in Oregon Hill.

One neighborhood guy at the bar observed that he was seeing "a lot of regulars. I completely support that in the neighborhood." I could see his point.

Our end bar stools had a straight shot view to the kitchen and the abundance of staff.

My friend knows restaurant kitchens intimately and he found several things to praise about the design of Pescado's kitchen; the overhead sauce caddy alone put him in a reverie.

But that aside, it was clear the kitchen was on point all evening (or at least the three hours we were there).

We began with white sangria (vino verdhe, triple sec and gobs of fruit and their juices squeezed into it) because my friend wanted to and I hadn't had it in years.

It certainly seemed appropriate given the decor and the menu.

To munch as we sipped, we got the conch fritters and I have to say that they were the best I've had since discovering them in Guadaloupe when I was 21.

Instead of oily, heavy balls of dough, they were full of clearly discernible ingredients with a light, crispy outer shell.

They were served with micro-greens and an aioli, an updated take on a classic island appetizer. We were definitely into the beach vibe by this point (although Guadeloupe still would have been preferable).

Because he's the Pescado's expert, he insisted we get the voodoo shrimp (shrimp, habanero, banana, chorizo, allspice/rum/garlic sauce over bread with a fried egg on top) and I had to admit that its depth of flavor and intense heat were perfectly balanced. T

he dripping yolk didn't hurt the overall effect, either.

I wanted the arepas (South American corn cakes with pork and a pobalano/corn salsa with a jalapeno sauce) and, hands down, I picked a winner.

The pork was tender and plentiful, the little corn cakes perfect with pig and that corn and poblano salsa positively made the dish, with its freshness and subtle flavors.

I shared but not as much as I should have.

We lingered over our pitcher, talking to a couple of guys trying to rationalize not going to Friday Cheers.

I told them not to beat themselves up too much cause there'll always be good music in Richmond on another night.

One guy looked amazed. "I've been here six months and I didn't realize there was a good live music scene here."

Well then, you've come to the right person, my new friend.

Band of Horses, Manchester Orchestra and we were off and running.

Also offering conversation was a couple who lives in the neighborhood and had walked over; of course they are thrilled to have a new spot in O-Hill.

He was telling us he'd just gone to his 40 year reunion, so naturally I asked, "Anyone dead yet?"

They thought that was hilarious, but actually several people had died, so there you have it.

Not so funny after all.

Afterwards, I met friends for a drink at Mint and got to praise Bobby in person for his superb watermelon soda offering at Broad Appetit.

He showed his gratitude by making a watermelon and vodka drink for me so I could have a grown-up watermelon soda.

As I pointed out to my friends as I tasted it, though, I'm the boring customer mixologists dread.

All I want is my single spirit on ice.

So dull.

Seeing the rate at which I was drinking my pretty in pink drink, Bobby poured me his new favorite tequila, Cazadores Reposado.

He'd fallen for its delicate flavor, lush finish and, most importantly, because it has a picture of a deer on the label. I understand completely being captivated by something so random and odd.

And the connection between tequila and deer is...what?

It didn't matter because I liked it as much as he did.

These friends eat out as much as I do, so when they asked where I'd had dinner and I told them, their response came as if rehearsed. "Pescado's CHINA STREET?"

It was pretty funny to hear their shock in unison.

Needless to say, they'll be there tomorrow night and, like my friend, make comparisons since they've eaten at the original too.

Tonight they were heading to White Dog for one last helping of the bread pudding so many people swear by.

I wished them well and moved on to Poe's Pub for music by The Wiremen, followed by Marionette.

I arrived shortly after the Wiremen started and they were making almost too much sound for the room to hold.

I've seen them several times at Ghostprint Gallery, but you really can't compare a show there to a Poe's show, if you know what I'm saying.

Poe's is a noisy place, a fact suffered only because it used to be a loud AND smoky place and now it has only half the annoying factor.

They were incredibly tight and I love what that trumpet brings to their sound.

The lead singer had a bit of a warble which made me think Brian Ferry; my musician friend Adam heard Jeff Buckley doing Billie Holiday.

Either way, it was a great voice.

The crowd filled the room, so clearly others knew these NYC guys are worth a trip up the hill.

I rave about Marionette every time I see them, so instead of repeating myself, how about I just suggest that you make a point to hear them live?

You won't be disappointed and you may begin to understand why I see so many of their shows.

The only problem tonight was the band's starting time.

Fortunately for me, the late start gave me a chance to do a song-by-song analysis of The National's High Violet with guitarist Adam, something I'd been jonesing to do since becoming infatuated with it last month.

It was gratifying to hear that he'd fallen in love with the same songs I had (but then we have a history of mutual National attraction).

I had tried to get some of the friends I'd seen earlier in the evening to join me for music, but they all had issues with the late starting time.

Sort of like I have issues with going to the other side of the river if I don't have to.

Happily for me, sometimes those places cross the river for me, like Pescado's did.

If I'm patient enough, perhaps everything I want will come.

I can wait.

Friday, June 25, 2010

A Little Dinner Music

It was almost as good as a scene from a 40s movie.

People were having dinner and drinking, some chatting softly, others raptly listening to the music.

The lights were up, so the focus was on eating and servers moved about discretely.

But the melodic strains of Jonathan Vassar and the Speckled Bird "on stage" transformed the meal into so much more of an urbane dining experience.

Kudos to Jason at Olio for bringing in a band music-lovers would almost certainly come to hear, to a place offering creative and affordable food and drink.

I've been a fan of the restaurant since my first wine dinner there back in 2008, but this was my first time experiencing the music/dinner combo.

Even the band acknowledged that they didn't expect customers to shut up for their sets, but many did, the better to appreciate the beautiful harmonies, variety of instruments and passion the musicians brought to the room.

I arrived during the second song and conveniently found waiting for me a two-top with a clear view of the band. It was kismet.

Perusing the menu, but never losing sight of the 100 degree temperatures outside, I opted for the Smoked Salmon Nicoise (Norwegian salmon, fresh goat cheese, roasted red peppers, cukes, roasted tomatoes and red onion with balsamic dressing).

It's enough to move, much less digest, on a day as warm as this.

It wasn't long before an old friend and his new girlfriend came in and asked if they could join me at my prime spot of a table.

Pointing a finger at me, my friend admonished, "I should have known you'd be here." Well, duh.

A restaurant I like providing a band I like during dinner hours? Can we see more of this please?

Before long I felt another friend's hand on my shoulder, so he too joined us and then someone's musician friends came and the table got livelier still.

But when Antonia of Speckled Bird started doing her vox saw, all conversation ceased.

Hearing the human voice mimic a saw in the context of a beautiful song mutes even strong men.

My friend looked at me incredulously, "She's doing that with her voice?" he marveled. Why, yes she is, so keep it down, will you?

It was too funny when early on a group walked into the restaurant just as the third song was ending.

Jonathan glanced over to welcome then and then gave them a quick update, saying,"You missed all the happy songs."

That's an oversimplification, of course, because while much of their folk/Americana sound has a mournful tone to it, other songs are just flat-out beautiful, if not skipping-under-the-rainbow cliched.

As my friend and I were sharing a tiramisu close to the meal, my older friend leaned over to educate the newer friend. "If you go out with Karen, you have to be prepared to share dessert," he said, stating the obvious.

And, for the record, I don't twist anyone's arm; I'm just willing to oblige someone's sweet tooth indulgence by sharing the calorie burden with him.

After their second set, the band said goodnight even as the audience called for an encore.

But the tiny Antonia, she of the beautiful new accordion and angelic voice, had to disappoint the adoring crowd.

"But I'm hungry. I'm going to get cranky if I don't eat soon."

She had more than sung for her supper (as had Jonathan and Chris), so the audience respected that, they were excused and conversation took off at a much higher decibel level.

Diners lingered, sipping and chatting, for another hour or so as the musicians ate and moved around the room.

It was all very civilized and even a bit old-school. I absolutely loved it.

Since it was still a reasonable hour (10ish) when I left, I parked my car at home and walked the two blocks to the Belvidere for a nightcap.

I hadn't been in weeks, which is a crying shame for a place I could crawl to.There were only a few diners at that point, but Ben had a mostly full bar with my seat conveniently open.

A nearby couple turned out to be Jackson Ward residents too, even having left the city once only to return for missing all it offers (walkability, better restaurants, endless cultural options).

We hit it off at once.

I ordered an 1800 on ice and shared with Ben the story of why I'd started drinking good tequila in the first place (let's just say it involved a lot of tequila, a lunchtime job interview and I got the job...'nuff said).

But what I really wanted to talk about was beer, not tequila.

I'd heard some scuttlebutt that the Belvidere was thinking of adding an ABC/off premise license to provide a take-home beer source for the neighborhood, something my beloved J-Ward falls a bit short on.

But what had piqued my interest was the possibility that they'd be offering growlers.

Given the Belvidere's eclectic and ever-changing selection of beers on tap, I have to think that there are plenty of RVA types who would be thrilled to be able to refill their growler right in the 'hood with something new and different every week.

I couldn't have been more excited about this idea if I drank beer myself.

Ben also believes in the idea for the same reasons I do. Now all we have to do is convince owners Julie and Dave that they need to become Richmond's growler central.

Musical dining and a local growler source, both concepts hearkening back to another era in city living.

It's like what the J-Ward couple said about the current state of life here: "Richmond's becoming a great town in spite of itself."

I'd go so far as to say that Richmond's becoming a great town because of itself. Enjoy.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Spreading the Blog Hate

I was caught off guard by who came to my defense when negative and inaccurate comments about me started being tossed around in the online world, here. Let's just say I was impressed with the array of interesting people who had my back.

And to those people, all of whom named themselves, I extend a heartfelt thanks for the kind words. For those willing to blast me but not leave their real names, please allow me to address your concerns.

Ex-Chef: Sorry, but I am not, nor have I ever been, Karen Miller. I have never lived or worked in North Carolina or been a part of the hospitality industry. You can get snarky all you want, but there's no reason to trash another Karen and then point people to my blog. At least have the decency to hate me for me.

To A Lowely Line Cook: I have said repeatedly in my blog that I am NOT a food blogger. Mine is a lifestyle blog with occasional food references. And yet again I'll point out that I did not ask to be on eatingrichmond.com. Jason asked me to add my blog and I declined, citing specifically that I was not a food blogger. He persisted saying that I would be relevant on the site, I disagreed, he insisted and I finally relented. For the last time, I am NOT a food blogger (nor having sex in the city, if that was your implication; I don't watch TV so I'm not exactly sure).

And to Stop Eating at Chains: You certainly are a regular reader of my blog for someone who clearly doesn't enjoy what I write (and thinks my head is going to pop). Here's the thing, though. I don't for a moment believe that I'm great, as you seem to think. I do think I'm having a great time, all things considered. If that annoys you, so be it.

Better yet, lighten up.

Warm for a Lot of Reasons at Stuzzi

I couldn't have been more surprised when a friend suggested Stuzzi for dinner.

She's the only person I know who actually loves cold weather, prefers it even.

We are very poorly matched in this because I get cold at the drop of a hat and she gets hot when my teeth are still chattering.

My first two visits to Stuzzi had been quite warm and while I loved that, I knew it wasn't her style.

Turns out she was enamored enough of the pie to overlook the temperature issue, which admittedly was far cooler tonight than on my last couple of visits and really quite pleasant.

When I arrived a bit before 8, the place was full, with people waiting for tables.

The music was just loud enough and the mix was excellent. When I asked about it, all anyone knew was that it was the restaurant iPod, so multiple people had contributed to the mix.

I loved the variety of the music...and the volume. It really amped up the ambiance.

Since I'd not gotten it last time, I ordered the Margarita pizza (A.O.C. and all) preceded by the Gorgonzola salad; my friend got the Carnivore because meat is her god.

The crust was not soggy, the sauce, cheese and basil sang with freshness and I ate the whole thing.

Meanwhile, I struck up a conversation with the guy next to me, a student of psychiatric genetics, and we eventually got to talking about looks, his in particular.

He had beautiful curly hair which he'd only discovered he had two years ago.

His mother had never told him it was curly and he'd always kept it short, so he'd had no idea.

His driver's license showed a guy with short, dark hair without a hint of curl.

I asked if his longer locks got him lots more attention, but he demurred.

"I'm not exactly up Richmond's alley," he said by way of explanation. And he didn't look like a hatboy or a WASP, so I knew what he meant.

He said his goal is to be a writer, but at 25, he feels like a lifetime spent in Fairfax County does not represent enough life experience from which to knowledgeably write.

So instead he's spending his time acquiring the experiences which he hopes will inform his future writing endeavors. I can't think of a better plan and told him so.

It was on this visit that I noticed the diversity of the crowd under the dimmed lights with the music pulsing.

There were a few families with kids early in the evening, some older couples throughout, but mostly, as owner Peter put it, "There's no one here over 30."

I think it's safe to say that his price points are appealing to almost everyone.

Peter came over to talk like an Italian (or was it a New Yorker?) and bring me an Aperol Spritzer, a truly refreshing Italian summer beverage, with which I wasn't familiar.

It was the same color as my dress, surely a sign of something.

"Be careful, it'll make you amorous," he warned grinning, going on to explain that he's so busy working seven days a week that he has to date on-site.

When things finally wound down, pizza genius Giuseppe came over and sat down next to me to chat and have a Campari.

Although we'd been introduced before, this was our first in-depth conversation and he gave me the full story about men and women from "someone who knows, an Italian," to phrase it like he did.

In any case, I think that now I'm clear on what it is men want in a relationship and why.

Lesson learned: I was right to be concerned about my cold-loving friend.

It can get warm in Stuzzi.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Abnormally Attracted to Bizarre

One person's gross is another person's history.

Or at least that's the premise of the new exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society. Bizarre Bits: Oddities from the Collection showcasing some of the weirder stuff that's been donated to the VHS for the sake of history and the pieces shown range from 'oh, interesting' to WTF?

For those enamored of body bits, there was s smallpox scab (framed!), an articulated brain for student use and a letter which enclosed the finger and toenail clippings of a Navy man out to sea and missing his wife, because, you know, nothing says 'I miss you, honey' like nail clippings.

For the morbid, there was a scarifier with thirteen retractable blades which made shallow cuts to draw blood without opening a large vein (it looked like a torture device to me), a hair wreath containing locks of hair from 125 friends and family members, and actual building nails from the collapse of the second floor of the State Capital (framed in a box, the nails spelled out NAILS; that alone was weird).

There were silhouette portraits cut by a woman born without arms who held the scissors in her teeth (I wish they'd had a picture of her doing that) and a letter from a husband home to a wife where she had blacked out the lines where he wrote graphically about them getting busy when he got back (apparently she was willing to do the deed but not have a paper trail).

And because this is Virginia, there was a pack of Junior Partner cigarettes, complete with a picture of a young boy contentedly holding a cigarette on the box.

But don't worry for the boy, the box informed that the cigs "will not injure your health in any way" and "contained no opium."

In other words, Good Housekeeping-approved and perfect to keep the little ones busy.

The exhibit is definitely worth a look-see for its sheer strangeness.

Where else are you going to see a piece of tree fungus carved into a likeness of R.E. Lee and Traveller?

You're not, I'm telling you, you're just not.

Which makes me wonder what bits of ephemera will be donated to the VHS to represent the 21st century.

I don't see how it could possibly be as fascinating as what I saw today.

Luckily it's not too late for us to get our weird on.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Hot Music, Sweaty Musicians

"Hi everybody. I'm Dean Lee and this is the noise I make."

That brilliant line was the kickoff of the eighth installment of the Listening Room, which followed a bottle of excellent half-priced Alma Negra Malbec/Bonarda and pie at Sette with a good friend.

Unfortunately for her, she couldn't make the show.

When Dean made his pronouncement at the start, the crowd was actually sparser than usual, but by the middle of his set, the crowd had almost doubled, more chairs were being put out and things were warming up nicely with the warm bodies of assorted music lovers.

It was just Dean, his guitar and harmonica (he apologized for a couple of missing reeds) and a collection of interesting songs with offbeat lyrics.

Dean's songs had a way of ending surprisingly, even for him, which added a certain charm to his performance.

Favorite lyric:"Went to the show and they didn't play my song."

I know that feeling, Dean.

When his set was over, he ran off the "stage" with his arms overhead in a victory stance, as if to celebrate being finished.

Actually the audience was sorry to see him go.

Before the Orioles (Nick Woods and Matt Wirt) could play, a string of lights fell from the ceiling, as happens every month, causing MC Chris to say, "Now it's a real Listening Room show."

Then the audience was treated to two voices with two guitars and Matt's guitar had a thickness, a richness that made it pure pleasure to listen to.

When I asked him why it sounded so amazing, he downplayed it, saying it was just a pawnshop guitar.

"Maybe it's the person playing it?" he suggested. Maybe it was.

Nick said they'd been together for three years and, "we didn't conquer the world but we did make our first $5 CDs."

The lyrics were at times laugh out loud funny ("I wanted the bridge to sound like Nirvana Unplugged") and sometimes more introspective ("I feel the exact same as I did a year ago today").

Near the end of their set, Nick removed his shirt, using it to wipe sweat from his face.

"I feel like the bass player in the Roots. That's one sweaty dude." It was a tad warm for the audience and we weren't doing a thing, so it had to be hot as hell under the lights and playing their hearts out.

Frankzig referred to his band, the Music Club, as the Miami Sound machine and the duo was such a cool complement to the unique sounds of Frank's classical guitar playing.

"I know you're wondering and, yes, we were all extras in Carlito's Way," he said by way of introduction, telling us that Ray would play shaker things with his ham hock hands and Justin would play bongos.

And then a second strand of lights fell, as if to reiterate what a real show it was.

Frank and the Music Club played a Latin-influenced set with few lyrics and the most impressive Flamenco-style guitar playing the Listening Room has ever witnessed.

With percussion being shaken, scraped and turned and Justin's bongos anchoring it all, they were three mesmerizing musicians to watch.

Favorite song title, after a rough translation: "I miss my beer-drinking Mama."

Don't we all?

The set closed with Frank imploring the audience, "Hopefully that was remotely painless."

His shirt was soaked through from his energetic guitar playing and the audience completely wowed by their set.

As the band gathered up their stuff, I went up and asked a few bongo questions and was told that people who ask questions should have a drink bought for them as a reward for their musical curiosity.

How does the Listening Room keep topping itself?

Hollywood Cemetery in the Hot, Hot Heat

The Richmond restaurant world is almost as incestuous as its musical world; you're likely to see a member of either group at another place or in another configuration somewhere.

So it was that on walking into Perly's today that the waitress eating at the end of the bar looks up and says, "Hi, Karen."

It's not that I go in Perly's often, because I don't, but I actually know the waitress from the Belvidere.

Later as I'm leaving, I hear a voice from the corner table, "Hey, Karen!"

It's a fellow Census worker and waitress from Tarrant's. It's 11:45 in the morning and the familiar faces are everywhere.

I ordered a turkey sandwich because their menu said that they roast their own turkey (I asked to verify), but it can't compare to the turkey sandwich at Comfort, which I had just last week.

Ideally, I want big, irregularly-shaped chucks of turkey to mimic a day-after-Thanksgiving Day turkey sandwich; Comfort gives me that, but Perly's doesn't.

Still, it's a perfectly fine turkey sandwich, with chips on the side, another post-Turkey Day requirement. I'm satisfied.

I am having lunch with my long-time friend from Williamsburg, here, and it's good hearing his stories after so long; he was in radio forever so he has a Voice with a capital V.

We couldn't be more opposed politically, but we have plenty to talk about without that (and I do try to avoid it).

And in all the years I've had lunch with him, I've never seen him eat anything except either eggs and sausage or a hamburger with fries and mayo.

He's an odd one, but unusual in a fascinating sort of way. He calls himself "the last of his kind" which may very well be true for a host of reasons.

Afterwards we went to Hollywood Cemetery, a favorite place of his and one he hadn't visited in several years.

Because of the heat and his health, we drove it rather than walked it, parking periodically under a shady tree to roll down the windows, admire the view and chat.

We could see all the people sunning themselves on the rocks and enjoying the water at Belle Isle.

I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that at least a few of them were restaurant workers I know, but it was too hot to walk over there and find out.

And no one was shouting, "Hey Karen" from across the river.

So the last of his kind and I stayed in the shade, amongst the past, talking about the present and hoping the best for the future.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Bouchon: Seeking Talk. Finding Brains.

The beauty of Bouchon is that every time I go there, I meet a bumper crop of entertaining people.

The clientele draws from people in the neighborhood (Vistas on the James, Riverside on the James, Monroe Ward) as well as travelers (Boston, Cincinnati, Williamsburg) and tonight was no different, so I had no shortage of engrossing conversational partners.

And that wasn't even counting Chef Francis and wife Wendy, who wanted my opinion on a dozen different rva restaurants.

Maybe Antonia was right about my restaurant referral service, although I always qualify these conversations by reminding people that all I can offer is my opinion and that I'm not any sort of expert.

The discussion got off to a synergistic start, though, when we discovered that we shared the same opinion of the holy grail of RVA dining and rolled on from there.

I debated over the menu while sipping a Loire Muscadet and had just about decided when I heard the specials, changing everything.

"Calf brain with capers, croutons, lemon and brown butter," my server said. Done.

I turned to Francis and asked why I would order off the regular menu and pass up such an infrequently-seen delicacy, to which he answered, "Only if you have no brains do you pass up brains."

That's me, always providing the humorous set-up. Then he excused himself to prepare my brains.

Just as I was chatting up a nearby bar-sitter about music (there are few people with whom I can discus Nick Zinner and he was one) and he was sharing his wine geekiness (telling me about a can't- miss upcoming tasting), a plate arrived from the kitchen bearing Caillettes, a specialty from Provence, made of veal, pork and Swiss chard.

These fat little sausage-like bundles were incredibly rich, so the accompanying frisse helped offset the indulgence.

Well, that and the wine. The meal was off to a superb start.

Then came my brains and they were a sensory delight. I was inhaling the heady scent of the butter-sauteed brains, I was looking at a plate of brown butter with tiny little croutons and capers and the texture could only be described as creamy.

Good god, they were wonderful and I ate every bite. I told Francis he was ruining my figure and he just laughed. Apparently he's okay with that.

I enjoyed conversation and Rose with a Petersburg-born local with a bowtie and an affinity for history and the symphony; he seemed to be as big a Richmond booster as I am.

It's always fun to talk to someone who doesn't blanch when they learn I don't have a TV, although he did have to explain a Sex and the City reference to me as a result.

When the subject of the Virginia State Capital came up, I shared that I was undoubtedly one of the few people who has ever stood on its roof and marveled at the magnificent 360-degree view of the city.

We talked about touring the renovated Capital together since I haven't been since it reopened and he had nothing but raves for its new look. History geeks unite!

The local next to me started to chat up the visitor from Cincinnati about restaurants, offering recommendations.

I mostly stayed out of it (although I didn't always agree with his picks) until he started raving about the Tobacco Company. I prefer to show our best rather than our most cliched side to out-of-towners, so I interjected. I had to.

If a person is only in town for three nights, I prefer not to underwhelm them, especially with all we have to offer now. The visitor thanked me for my input with a wink and a smile.

From an empty bar on my arrival through all kinds of conversational tangents with a full bar, I left a half-filled bar to carry on without me.

I have no doubt that my next trip to Bouchon will again yield an array of good talkers and an excellent meal.

It always does.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bats in the Dell. See?

If you haven't heard Porgy and Bess live with bats flying overhead and fireflies twinkling all around, you have truly missed one of the great pleasures of summertime in Richmond.

As magical as tonight's performance of it was for me, it was made even more so by sharing it with a recent transplant from NYC, one who had never experienced a Dogwood Dell performance.

The city's 54th Festival of the Arts is in full swing and having missed Virginia Opera's performance of Porgy and Bess last month due to financial constraints, I was eagerly anticipating tonight's show of highlights from it.

It had been so incredibly hot today that the musicians and singers were not able to even do a sound check until 7:30, so we arrived to the sounds of a mini-preview as they worked out the audio kinks.

There were five of us and we set up camp on a quilt and chairs in a shady spot on the grass and laid out food and libations.

We had wondered if the temperature would deter people from coming to the park, but no.

Like us, there were plenty of people more than happy to spend a warm night outside for the sake of some classic American music.

Free was undoubtedly also an incentive for many.

The program started with Rhapsody in Blue, followed by Japanese and then excerpts from An American in Paris.

And then the concert highlights from Porgy and Bess began, fourteen pieces in all.

Children danced, couples cuddled and fanned each other, while the rest of us just took in the magnificent sounds of a baritone, a soprano and a chorus teasing us with bits from Gershwin's masterpiece.

At dusk the fireflies came out followed shortly by the swooping bats and the light at the top of the Carillon was turned on.

By that point, it wasn't just the transplant who was swooning over the experience; we all felt like we were having the perfect summer night in Byrd Park.

Woman may born you, love you and mourn you
But a woman is a sometime thing
Yes, a woman is a sometime thing

Defining a Dad's Duties

I am not a Daddy's girl because that was never a possibility. I have five younger sisters, so I was just part of the group of females who shared his life. He was an old-school dad who never changed a diaper or made us a meal, and since I wasn't one of the athletic daughters, we didn't even share his love of sports like some of my sisters did. But the reality was that in his own way, he had a huge hand in shaping the female I became.

So on this Father's Day, I thanked my Dad for making me who I am. For challenging me to share my opinions at the dinner table every night until I left for college (I no longer need any provocation to do so). For suggesting books he thought would interest me and then telling me to write about why I liked them...or disliked them (write your thoughts and feelings, he always said). For telling me flat-out that I had lovely legs when I was eleven (he takes credit because he has great legs).

For modeling how to treat a woman you truly love (he still thinks my Mom is the love of his life). For demonstrating how far a sense of humor and a good vocabulary can take a person in a room full of strangers. For teaching me how to eat crabs until there is not a shred of meat left in them (and hanging in there eating as long as any man).

Every year for Father's Day I drive to the river to spend the afternoon eating crabs and talking with my Dad. For many years, I was the only daughter who did so, but this year two other sisters came and we had great fun reminiscing and reminding each other of long-forgotten stories.

Judging by his reaction, I think my Dad got a kick out of my laundry list of why I thought he'd been a superlative Dad. But driving back, it occurred to me that he probably would have preferred that I'd written out my list. As the man who taught me the importance of the written word, he would have loved having something to refer back to.

I've been home less than an hour and it's already written; I'll drop it in the mail as I leave the house tonight. Happy Father's Day, Dad, with love from Eldest Daughter.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Bar as Community Table

There are advantages to being bar sitters.

It was after 7:30 when a couple of friends and I decided to walk over to Kuba, Kuba for dinner.

We're no fools, so we were fully aware that going to Kuba, Kuba on a Saturday night was foolhardy (add in Chelsea Handler and you could call it downright stupid).

But, risk-takers that we are, we put foot to path.

Kuba, Kuba was mobbed; people were waiting outside and in. As we stood there assessing, we noticed a couple of bar stools being vacated.

We paused long enough to see if any of the waiting crowd wanted the seats, but everyone was holding out for a table.

With that barrier out of the way, two of us happily planted ourselves.

The guy sitting next to me, seeing my farmer friend standing between us (this time it was a man sandwich), offered us his seat since he was only waiting for take-out.

We accepted his offer, resulting in our little group being seated within five minutes of walking in the door. Fate!

All three of us had had long and busy days, so we were starving.

I got the mussels in Tasso ham broth, she got the paella and he got the salmon.

I thoroughly enjoyed my mussels and ham and soaked up as much of that cilantro-laced broth as I had room for, then passed the rest of it to the farmer for his dipping pleasure.

My friend ate the seafood out of her paella and as much of the flavorful rice as she could hold and then passed the rest of her bowl to the farmer.

The farmer finished his salmon with its accompanying salad and fruit medley (praising the watermelon for its sweetness), slathered butter over his own Cuban toast and then used my friend's leftover bread to sop up my broth and finally finished off the rest of her rice.

His Clean Plate Star was awarded, although he probably deserved three.

Clearly men and women define starving differently, although the man had worked the land for 13 hours today, so his activity level trumped ours in spades.

We teased him because we could see him rejuvenate as he ate.

We also teased him because the two of us know what topics to bring up to make him blush red in the face, right down into his shirt collar.

There may have been some intentional baiting just for the pleasure of watching his reaction.

As we were finishing our food, we noticed some of the people who had been waiting when we arrived finally being seated.

On the one hand, we felt bad for them because they must have been famished by then.

On the other hand, we'd offered the bar seats to them first and they'd declined.

We settled for admiring their ability to delay gratification, something we hadn't been as keen on doing.

Our willingness to barsit had not only fed us fast, but we now had time to leisurely sip our wine and chat up the late coming arrivals, several of whom had also been at Veggie Fest today.

Being at the bar felt like a community table where everyone was welcome, the staff participated and all conversation became communal.

I totally respect those who choose to wait for a table, but I'll never understand it.

Barsitting: all the fun and none of the wait.

Besides, where else can you get a compliment about the view from behind?

Veggie Vanna

Why do we have food festivals in the heat of a Richmond June?

I propose a motion that we move all food fests to the fall or spring so that they don't have to be sweat fests.

Anyone second the motion?

I'd probably have just skipped the Vegetarian Festival today, even though I had enjoyed it when Andrew and I went two years ago to shoot video (which was saying a lot for two carnivores like us), except I'd agreed to play helper.

Second banana.

Able assistant. Whatever you want to call the person who agrees to assist her talented friend give the final cooking demonstration of the day at Veggie Fest.

So blazing heat or no, I was going to Bryan Park along with half the known world.

The only thing we had time to taste was the dairy-free gelato (strawberry and dark chocolate) which helped cool us down but got to be too sweet before long.

And then it was showtime, so we tied on our aprons, plugged in the Cuisinart and turned on the microphone.

The cooking demonstration was well attended despite being the last of the day and involved demonstrating "new classics," that is, dishes that were vegan before anyone cared about veganism, namely French potato salad and roasted root veggies with Romesco sauce.

There were large spring onions, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, potatoes and, perhaps best of all, spaghetti squash to provide a canvas for the glory that is the Romesco.

Friend demonstrated, shared historical and culinary tidbits and spoke knowledgeably while I stirred and smiled.

And then I smiled and served plates of these taste delights, which the sweaty crowd devoured.

Granted, it was a pretty simple job, but I'd like to think that Vanna herself couldn't have done it any better.

And, let me assure you, she too would have been sweating like a stuck pig, albeit a tofu pig.

Forget Smitten, Forget Safe

When Andrew e-mails me and says, "It's been forever since we did drinks," we do drinks. And on a day as beautiful as this one, we do them outside, in this case on Ipanema's patio.

He tells me about moving to suburbia with his main squeeze and I tell him about my curious social life lately. He tells me a couple of juicy blogger stories and I enjoy them even when I only know of the people involved (and especially when I actually know them). We compare recent hangovers and the vastly different causes of them. And eventually, we talk music because that's what we do.

And before we know it, it's time for me to leave to make a reading in Carytown, so we never even get to the traditional CD exchange of new music. If I didn't know that I was going to see him twice in the next three days, it would've been a shame. As it was, I'll just have to delay my gratification for whatever he was going to offer up. My CDs for him will stay in the car, at the ready for the hand-off. Besides, the delay gives me time to dig up some good Micheal Buble jokes.

Chop Suey was hosting another promising reading, which seemed like the ideal activity to bridge happy hour and meeting a friend for wining and dining. Kill brain cells, enrich brain cells, kill still more. The reading was being touted as a "boy sandwich reading" with the only male author reading in between two women. Let's just say I liked the imagery.

Rachel Glaser read from her short story collection, Pee on Water, an abbreviated version of one of the stories, which dealt with art ("Are Jesus paintings of Jesus covers of Jesus paintings or of Jesus?"), music (Cobain and Coltrane got nods) and sports. At the end, the question remained: Is the U.S. a cover of England? (Quite possibly, yes.)

Next to read was Mike Young from his book We Are All Good if They Try Hard Enough, a poet who texts himself with the interesting things he hears ("It's a really expensive way to take notes," he observed). He mentioned how impressed he was that the convenience stores in RVA sell fried chicken. I was impressed with his way with words, such as "Dancing is putting yourself on inside out." Another favorite was, "The world is something I will gather for you and brush off." His poetry was full of such imagery.

Last up was Natalie Lyalin, author of Pink and Hot Pink Habitat which included poems that originated in nightmares, which were just as dire as they sound. I was particularly fond of the line, "A listless day slid into a tense night." Ah, yes, I know those days and nights of which you speak.

My final stop was Secco to meet a friend I hadn't seen since 2009, but since I arrived first, I started with the 2009 Xarmant Txakolino, not that I was able to pronounce it properly when ordering. Still, it was as light and refreshing as a Vino Verdhe, so I sipped away until my friend arrived.

I did ask that the level of the music be raised because the weekend eve crowd was drowning out any sense of ambiance in the place. Julia obliged, not a bit surprised at my request (she is my band bitch, as she likes to call herself, so she's aware of my affinity for the right music).

It was my first foray into Secco during prime time and it was mobbed in a Friday manner; there was a waiting list to sit at the bar so I stood. The staff teased me for not using my usual discretion and coming at a more civilized time, but I felt up to the challenge.

I ran into a former Floyd Avenue neighbor (we'll call him Fly Guy), a couple I had recently met and befriended at Balliceaux (they were headed to Stuzzi for their fourth visit) and a couple of guys willing to discuss what makes a woman desirable (one actually told me it was as basic as ready, willing and able).

We shared the Gorgonzola-stuffed and fried olives, the duck terrine (with pistachio and dried cherry) and the flamenquines (Serrano, fried potatoes, Meyer lemon mayo) and a bottle of red that drew praise from owner Julia (I won't bore you with what it was). The later we stayed, the more manageable the crowd became and the easier it was to enjoy the music and catch up after so many months.

She had some concerns about my life based on her blog reading, but I assured her that I was up to the multiple challenges that worried her. As another friend had recently commented on the same subject, "They're totally smitten and think you're safe," to which I'd responded, "They underestimate me then."

"They always do," she shot back.

Me, safe? Obviously they don't know that I subscribe to a line from a Mike Young poem: I want to reincarnate as an emotional guitar solo.

Emotional guitar solo types are never safe. I thought everyone knew that.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Poolside Dining at Best Cafe

My earliest memories of eating at a museum are of dried out burgers in the basement cafeteria of the National Gallery of Art.

Even as a child, I appreciated that I was there for the art, not the food, so whatever was available was good enough; it was just sustenance between morning and afternoon gallery roaming.

And I was fine with that.

I'd fallen in love with the museum experience the very first time I stood in wonder in the rotunda of the National Gallery, a passion that has never waned.

Fast forward to 2010 and a friend and I made plans for lunch at the VMFA, followed by a tour of the Tiffany exhibition today.

As it turned out, we couldn't have asked for a more beautiful day for an al fresco lunch, although neither of us had had any idea that that would be the case.

We'd already eaten at Amuse, so we were going to give the Best Cafe a shot and see how it stood up to my misty cafeteria memories.

To start with, dried out gray burgers were not an option.

We could choose from salads, wraps, paninis, a couple of entrees, hot dogs and pizza.

And then there was the unexpected glamour of wine and desserts; clearly we weren't in a basement lunchroom anymore, Toto.

One of the salad options was country ham, asparagus and mozzarella over mixed greens and that sounded pretty wonderful to me.

With a piece of unexpectedly good cheese-sprinkled bread, followed by flourless chocolate cake, it was the perfect summer lunch.

The Best Cafe is situated alongside the reflecting pool, which I have admired on previous visits from inside for its mirror-like stillness.

But today it was appealing for different reasons, so we took our meals outside to enjoy on the patio.

The breeze rustling through the enormous magnolias and the constant rippling motion of the water made for a tranquil oasis on a Friday afternoon.

My friend teased me because I was so quiet (a second night of less than five hours sleep will slow down even a talker like me on occasion), but part of the reason was just my enjoyment of the experience.

I wouldn't have changed anything about the moment.

As for Mr. Tiffany's glass, I was impressed with the scope of the exhibit.

Knowing that he'd been a painter first, I would have been disappointed had some of his paintings not been included.

I'm also one of those people who are not satisfied with simply seeing the fruits of an artist's labor, either.

I need the historical context to full appreciate a body of work and was rewarded with vintage photographs of his homes, studio, store, and glass factory as well as pictures of the workers and artists who brought his vision to fruition.

I definitely appreciate a side of history with my art entree.

The chapel-like room that housed the full-size Tiffany windows from a church in Canada was the centerpiece of the exhibition and absolutely breath-taking.

Even a heathen like me could appreciate the majesty of these ecclesiastical scenes rendered in eye-popping colors with light streaming through them.

If anything, I became a convert to the church of Louis Comfort Tiffany, so perhaps I'm not a completely lost soul.

And although personally, I still go to museums for the art, and food is just the fuel for doing so, a place like the Best Cafe will be far more likely to impress a ten-year old on her first visit to a museum than a basement cafeteria could ever hope to.

I understand that not every kid will experience the genuine frisson of pleasure that I did on merely being in such a place. If hot dogs and pizza help win her over, so be it.

But we want her to be won.

Still Running with Scissors

In my never-ending quest to check out the new and interesting in RVA, I went to the Off the Wall: Intersections of Art and Architecture opening tonight at the Virginia Center for Architecture.

Barboursville Winery was doing the pouring (always a good thing) so the crowd sipped as we investigated the new exhibit.

Because of the shift in how people view public art over the past forty or so years, there has been a change in what is being created and the line between art and architecture has blurred; artistic conventions have been questioned, resulting in a melding of the two.

From public squares to playgrounds, the exhibit showed how we've come to see architecture as art.

"Your Black Horizon Art Pavilion" was a fascinating installation consisting of a slotted entrance (overlooking water) to a pavilion which created patterns of natural light through which a visitor walks in order to get to the black box where a band of light mimicked the rhythms of the natural light patterns.

The art and architecture were read as one element. and it was very cool.

My other favorite was a proposal for last year's InLight exhibition.

Called "Tree Wraith," it appeared to be the shadow of a tree on the facade of the Greater Richmond Convention Center.

Solar cells delineated the tree and were used to collect energy during the day and emit it at night.

The name comes from the fact that an actual tree could not grow in this spot up against the building; in some ways, it suggested a memory of the trees lost to the construction of the convention center.

I wish it had been executed because it added a humanistic element to that behemoth of a building on Broad Street.

Afterwards, I met up with a a friend and we walked over to Bistro 27 for a meal because she had a craving for their calamari with polenta.

A handsome nearby barsitter was eating a Caesar salad with grilled shrimp and it looked so appealing (as did he) that I ordered it.

It's not something I ever order, as evidenced by Dave bringing it over and setting it down in front of my friend.

When we pointed out the mix-up, he glared at me. "Since when do you order a salad for dinner?"

Never, I had to admit, but that doesn't mean that I can't change things up occasionally. It happens.

Our primary purpose in getting together had been to hear live music at Six Burner tonight and we weren't the only ones.

My bar stool of choice was occupied when we arrived, so we made do with a table until the bar cleared out some and then moved over, the better to chat with the staff and not be blown out by the speakers.

Bartender Josh delivered the CDs he'd promised me last weekend, told me why I'd like them and guaranteed a good show.

The crowd started out noisy, chatting over opener Kevin, but quieting down for singer/songwriter Eric Manwiller; he had an excellent singing voice which seemed to capture the audience's attention, even with all the beer being poured.

Favorite lyric: "I ain't running with scissors no more."

Personally, I haven't made that commitment yet (perhaps that's part of my problem).

But Josh, Eric's producer, had been right on the money about this guy and we couldn't resist leaving with the CD.

We made one final stop at Balliceaux because Amazing Ghost was playing and they never disappoint.

I'm happy to say we arrived in time to hear them cover "Born in the USA" and while it's a few days past Flag Day, it was rousing (and unexpected) nonetheless.

As usual, the audience was full of local musicians, so there were plenty of interesting people to talk to, even if my favorite bartender was absent (but then I knew he would be).

From tree wraiths to the Boss in eight hours. What a strange, full evening it's been.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Courting Commentary at Full Kee

Through a series of random events, a friend and I unexpectedly ended up having dim sum at Full Kee today.

It wasn't what we'd planned to do, but he'd mistakenly thought his doctor's appointment was at 11:40 when it was actually at 1:40, so we punted.

It was fine with me because I hadn't been in for dim sum since Easter a year ago and while it's not quite as much fun doing it on a weekday as it is on a weekend (I do so enjoy just choosing from the cart rather than ordering off a limited menu), it's still a pleasurable way to do lunch and savor a wide variety of tastes.

So we ordered all kinds of things like roasted pork in a bun, shrimp and chive dumplings, spare ribs and black beans, sesame balls and at least a couple more on which I'm drawing a blank.

We hadn't gotten together in several weeks because he'd recently moved (to J-Ward, even...smart man!) and had been busy getting settled.

What that meant was that he'd done his homework last night catching up on my blog so he'd know what to ask about and what to give me a hard time about.

All is fair in love and blogs, as they say.

But what had struck him was the recent spate of commenting that had been going on here. Some posts have gotten more than a dozen comments and that's a lot for this little blog.

The first one that had caught his eye was the Ode to Delicate Men commentary, here, which was particularly interesting for the array of comments it elicited, some about the history angle and others about the appeal of such men.

It's not often that a post about a history lecture gets people going, so I was thrilled to see it.

And then there was the Dishing in Dawn post, here, an innocuous little piece about going to a fish fry in the country over the weekend.

The commenting began Saturday afternoon and continued right through yesterday, although with the exception of the first commenter, very few of the remarks had much to do with community eating or fried trout.

But that's fine because I got to hear from readers, regular readers apparently, from whom I'd never before gotten a comment. It might have been even more gratifying than having lunch with Alma and Evelyn, no small feat.

Which is not to disparage in any way the readers who regularly comment on my blog.

I have been hugely flattered to see some of the same names cropping up on my comment pages of late and have tried to convey my pleasure in their attentiveness.

I'm inclined to think that these are people with whom I would want to have face-to-face conversations and actually get to know better.

I'd just have to hope that they'd like me as much in person as they do when reading me on a screen.

But I'm the nervy sort, so I'd probably be willing to take that chance.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Let Me Entertain You

A close friend who's in the service industry once suggested that the ideal business for me would be entertaining out-of-towners.

Her reasoning was that I'm familiar with the local restaurant scene, I always know the interesting cultural stuff that's going on and I can find common conversational ground with anyone.

She was sure that local businesses would hire me to entertain their out-of-town clients in the evening so they wouldn't have to; she was equally as sure that I'd be a natural at it.

So what did I do tonight?

How about spend an evening with an out-of-towner I'd met recently, here, introducing him to places he'd never been and talking about his former hometown Dallas, a city I've visited repeatedly, and his current one, RVA, about which I have a thing or two to say.

I hadn't been hired, but I think that if it had been a job interview, I'd have been offered the position by now.

We began at Mezzanine, a place I hadn't been to since before the Mission of Burma show in February.

That night, there'd been snow on the ground and the girls and I had sat on the heated patio shivering as we gorged.

Tonight, it was so muggy that an inside bar table seemed infinitely more appealing.

Twin Vines Vino Verdhe also helped me forget the heat, while he went with the Villa Pozzi Pinot Grigio.

He started with the fried Washington oyster special (five for $10 and a "steal," according to our server) and I had the tomato stack layered with goat and Feta cheeses.

He hates raw tomatoes and loves red sauce. I love raw tomatoes and can live without red sauce. Between us, we had all the bases covered.

Despite the hot and humid evening, I opted for the braised short ribs with local grits and hoison, mainly because it came in an appetizer-sized portion, although it necessitated I switch to the Alegoria Malbec.

He had another special, the seared sashimi-grade tuna with wasabi mashed potatoes and a stir-fried veggie medley.

Both portions were overly-generous and neither of us cleaned our plates.

Although I had not finished my dinner, I did order dessert (chocolate Kahlua mousse with toffee bits), breaking my mother's cardinal rule that you had to eat everything on your plate or you didn't get dessert.

I think I'm entitled; I choked down more than a few gray green beans in my childhood for the sake of some chocolate pudding.

Afterwards, the man from Dallas suggested a walk down Cary Street and we ended up at Bin 22 for a couple of glasses of Bigi est Montefiascone (he attributed his affinity for Pinot Grigio to his family's roots in the region) and a discussion of the nature of South Africans (his employer has an office there) and people-watching in NYC.

Walking back up Cary Street, I felt optimistic that I had been both informational and good company.

As a result of the evening, he now knew of two new restaurants.

He'd also added the First Fridays Artwalk to his calendar and had the scoop on the Richmond Forum, both new bits of information to him and gleaned from me tonight.

I'll tell you what, as far-fetched as it sounds, my friend may have been on to something.

A Lesson in Passion

I just spent an hour under the spell of an absolutely fascinating 82-year old white man who helped change the course of social history.

 All while eating a peanut butter sandwich on wheat bread and a clementine.

If I'd known I was going to be in the presence of greatness, I'd have brought a more impressive lunch.

The man was civil rights activist Paul Gaston and he was at the Library of Virginia to discuss his new book Coming of Age in Utopia: The Odyssey of an Idea. Gaston grew up in Fairhope, the Utopian Alabama community founded by his grandfather in 1894 and later run by his father.

It was a community devoted to balancing the rights of the individual with the claims of society. It also refused entry to blacks.

I wasn't surprised to learn that the group began chipping away at its founding principles almost from the beginning.

Despite that, Gaston grew up believing that there was a possibility of a just social order, as did the intellectuals and reformers who were attracted to Fairhope.

By the 1950s and his graduation from college though, Fairhope had become a right wing conservative place and his mother advised him to create his own Utopia in the larger world.

He began by taking a job teaching at UVA, mainly because he sensed the great changes were coming to the south and he wanted to be a part of them.

He chose to teach a Southern history class, intending to hold up a mirror to white Southerners and their beliefs.

Several of his former students were at the lecture and shared how significant his class had been to them, mainly for the perspective it had provided at the time.

Gaston also dove head-first into the Civil Rights movement and his extensive participation in first UVA's "coat and tie" demonstrations and later more radical attempts to further the movement.

Like his grandfather, he believed that it's always changes from below that creates social change.

In fact he said that the theme of his book is that simply talking to people doesn't work. "Direct action at the local level was the only thing that would work," he said.

During the question and answer period, Gaston was asked about whether he'd known William Faulkner at UVA. "We met at adjacent urinals at Cabell Hall," he shared.

As Faulkner was zipping up, he turned to Gaston and drawled, "Good morning, suh," to which Gaston answered in kind.

And that was the end of that.

"You wanna know anything else about Faulkner?" this wry and passionate man then teased us. "He was difficult to talk to and almost never answered questions." Which would have made Faulkner about as different from Gaston as possible, because our speaker had a brilliant response or compelling anecdote for everything asked of him today.

When asked how he had taught Southern history, he deadpanned, "I still have all my lecture notes, but I didn't bring them today."

His answer involved teaching those of deeply-ingrained privilege what it was like for others.

He taught what slavery was like for the families and about honor in the Old South, such as how duels came about. "Only a gentleman would shoot another gentleman."

As the time allotted for the lecture ran out, this sit-in participant who had challenged the status quo at UVA, this man who had had his tires flattened for participating in demonstrations, this man who fought tirelessly for changes in the civil rights of blacks, summed up the lecture.

"Approach Virginia history like you would approach a Virginia tea. With respect."

And gusto, I would add.

Paul Gaston exuded a gusto I only hope to have at his age.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Looking for Amour (Bistro)

I'd be the first to admit that I could use some some amour in my life.

As a matter of fact, I could use a lot of amour after being without it for so long.

But instead of brooding on that (interesting what a lack of sleep makes you dwell on), I decided to see what the new Amour Wine Bistro in Carytown was all about.

Which leads us to the first truism of Richmond's dining scene: even in a new restaurant, you're bound to see familiar faces.

When I walked into the former Cajun Bangkok space tonight, the server greeted me enthusiastically, although I didn't immediately recognize him.

Why? Seems he's a photographer I'd met out and discussed music with extensively.

We talked about it again tonight, although we never did quite recall where we'd first met.

Leading me to the bar, he handed me off to Gerard the bartender, who immediately recognized me, too.

First he asked where I lived and then he snapped his fingers.

"Tarrants!" he nodded. "I never forget a beautiful woman."

That, or I was enough of a regular when he was serving there that I stuck out in his mind (more likely).

The owner Paul I did not know, but he engagingly introduced himself in his French-accented voice and shook my hand.

I tried to compliment his restaurant's interior, but he shrugged it off as giving the place a good cleaning and improving the lighting, at the same time acknowledging that he'd been planning it in his head for four years.

It was when he began explaining the wine list that his full Alsatian passion began to show itself.

The list is almost entirely Alsatian and offered in full and half glasses as well as two and three-glass flights of half glasses.

I opted for the Pinot Blanc flight which included Sparr Dia Reserve and Trimbach, thinking them the perfect choices for a hot day.

To accompany my whites, I ordered the mushroom and leek galette and the tartelette flambee, two crust-based offerings.

Paul said that the tartelette was a customary way to use up the leftover bits of food in an Alsatian house at the end of a bread making session.

Whatever was around went on the leftover scraps of dough, rolled out into thin rounds; in this case it was a milk product somewhere between sour cream and cottage cheese, caramelized onions and bacon.

Simple and satisfying, it was easy to see the appeal of the dish on many levels.

The gallette's crust was a much thicker, doughier version with the mushrooms and leeks baked deep inside of it.

I would recommend either, which I did when nearby barsitters admired them and asked what they were.

The barsitting couple were just back from Italy and shared details of their trip with me and the staff before we started discussing favorite local restaurants.

They were having a difficult time adjusting to eating and drinking here after the relaxed and leisurely pace of Italy.

Paul jumped in to say that, as a Frenchman who's only been in this country for ten years, he too encourages that slower pace in his restaurant.

"I don't want to turn the tables five times," he said. "I want people to relax and enjoy."

Whether it was the Pinot Blanc or my abbreviated night before, I was already well into relaxation mode.

 Amour Bistro had succeeded beautifully.

 All I really need now is that other elusive amour.