Thursday, March 31, 2011

Sufferin' Succotash

"Come hungry and loquacious."

Could there be a better invitation to dinner than that for a person like me who lives to eat and talk? I even got to pick our destination, with my companion's only request being "somewhere new to him" and he readily admitted to having little knowledge of the Richmond restaurant scene. The field was wide open.

We met at The Empress, although he was well into his wine and an order of sauteed calamari in garlic and herb sauce when I arrived under my umbrella, fresh from a meeting with a bunch of actors who now knew far too much about me.

Chef Carly greeted me and was kind enough to bring me some Hob Nob Pinot Noir to get my cold and damp blood moving. What happened to Spring again and can we get it back?

I took advantage of his invitation to partake of the appetizer and enjoyed the buttery, garlicky sauce on both calamari and bread before inhaling a crumb of bread and coughing in a most unladylike manner for ten minutes.

Only then was I fit to peruse the menu, urged on by owner Melissa to try something  new ("What haven't you had before?" she challenged me. Not much, I had to admit).There was only one order of lamb chops left and everyone there knows how I feel about those chops, but I willed myself to branch out.

Unable to resist the lure of bison, my companion went with the buffalo lasagna and I, a sucker for succotash, picked the grilled scallops with green bean and corn succotash with sauteed fingerling potatoes.I could see Melissa's approval in her eyes.

He loved his lasagna; I scarfed down my scallops and all the while we discussed curtailing risk-taking (his and mine), his time spent as part of the East Village scene in the 80s (Television and Talking Heads), and using it or losing it (that would be any and all parts of it). Loquacious does not begin to cover it.

He made a strong case for adding the Seville April Fair to my bucket list (except that I don't have one) and, based on his description, he may be right about it being something I need to experience.  If Byron could admire its women and oranges, so could I.

We followed food and wine with wine and dessert, but I deferred to his choices, what with him being an Empress virgin and me willing to eat just about anything. Besides, there are no bad choices on that dessert menu.

Like all first-timers, the award-winning chili chocolate pate blew his mind (that heat on the finish always has that effect on first-timers) but the chocolate/banana crepes disappeared just as quickly. We traded plates until both were gone. I have no dessert shame whatsoever.

Even more impressively, we outlasted the ten-top, the four-top and the deuces, but eventually even we had to go. Before we left, I was complimented on my conversational skills and although my eating talent went unremarked, I feel certain I had fulfilled both requests of his invitation as I had promised earlier.

"Rest assured, I am always both."

But to really challenge me, you'll have to ask me to do something more difficult than breathing...aka eating and talking. That's just too easy.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Strip Club Art is Not Linear

Ryan McGinniss gets the award for most creative start to a lecture entitled "Art History is Not Linear."

He showed an image of his birth certificate to prove his Virginia Beach roots.

A childhood drawing of happy-faced raindrops falling showed the splattered ones with upset faces.

"It's a conceptual drawing," he said to much laughter from the mostly student audience in the VCU Commons Theater today.

The product of an artist mother and computer geek father, McGinnis was raised ina  DIY household with activity stations everywhere.

 Living in Virginia Beach, he grew up immersed in the surf and skate cultures, recognizing the power logos had (see: 17th Street Surf Shop) and attracting him to the world of design..

It was in his junior high school band days  ("I was in a bedroom band. We never made it to the garage.") that he realized that music wasn't his strength and that creating the album art, T-shirts and flyers was what really interested him.

McGinnis spoke a lot about the enormous piece he spent three years working on for the VMFA.

The sixteen four-foot square panels are a mashup of images taken from the museum's collection and greet viisitors as they arrive at the museum's new entrance.

He made drawings from 200 of the works after choosing what appealed to him from the museum's holdings.

He showed the stages of his sketches for "Art History is Not Linear" which ultimately became the images in the panels.

In many cases, he recreated only a piece of a larger whole, like a knife from a still life or a face and folded hands.

And he stressed that there was no color correlation to the originals; rather, he intuitively chose the color for each drawing before overlaying them.

His latest work is a series called "Women," of which 65 pieces of a projected 200 have been completed.

They are done in black light paint and, like the VMFA piece, are a collage of assembled images, but this time of women's figures.

These new pieces have been shown only in strip clubs, one in NYC and one in Miami, that one notable because it was across from a more traditional art venue; it was an attempt to entice visitors to a non-traditional art venue.

At the Miami club, he also painted some of the dancers.

At that point, a student raised his hand. "Uh, could you explain this further please?" he requested in a small voice.

McGinnis did, but that's not to say that the student understood his objectives.

The students had endless questions about motive, technique and commerce.

But his advice to would-be artists was crystal clear and was received by the student body with a resounding silence.

"If you have a choice, don't be an artist."

Ryan McGinnis didn't have that choice, he said, and now his work hangs at MOMA and VMFA, among others. 

I'd say the chance of the artists in that room taking his advice are slim to none.

And Slim just left town.

Therein lies the optimistic beauty of the artistic soul.

Drummers Do It with Rhythm

It was a brave, new world at the Listening Room tonight, one that included drums and amps and bongos, oh, my!

Put another way, there were more musicians on the stage for tonight's performance than in your average three Listening Room shows of yore. With a whopping eighteen musicians playing throughout the evening, that's pure fact, not hyperbole.

And it was all very cool, just very different than business as usual. Even the energy in the room felt different; a friend and I tried to figure it out. Were there more new faces? Is it the bar that makes the crowd so much noisier between sets? Is it just not being in a church basement? We couldn't put our fingers on it.

But the bottom line at the Listening Room is hearing talented musicians play to a respectful and silent audience and nothing about that had changed.

Harrisonburg band David Bayard Richard was a septet with two keyboards, drums, guitar, violin, viola and cello. They were introduced by MC Chris Edwards as "indie pop piano ballad chamber pop" and that's probably as succinct a description as could be made for the band.

They came onstage and lead singer Richard responded with, "That's the first time we've been introduced...ever." We are nothing if not well-mannered at the Listening Room.

They had an interesting sound, alternating a more drum/guitar-heavy sound with a more string-focused one and occasionally all coming together. Richard's growl of a voice was very melodic and enhanced by the two keyboards.

The last song, which featured all seven instruments was beautiful, although the strings were tough to hear over the drums. On an earlier song, my friend had said that there were moments when the strings swelled that she felt close to tears, always part of the pleasure of chamber pop.

Playing next was Anousheh Khalili, she of the sensuous voice and writer of beautiful pop gem songs. Tonight she had a three-piece behind her and it added a whole new dimension to her music.

"I'm playing all new songs," she told the crowd. "So unless you were at my one other show, you haven't heard them." Turning to my seatmate, I told her I had been there. "If anyone had, it would be you," she whispered with a smile.

But as impressive as the new songs had been when she'd played them solo at Ipanema, they were even more so tonight with her band. Guitarist Tyler Crowley was a perfect fit with Anousheh's voice and keyboards, adding texture to her sound and proving that a good thing can sometimes be made even better.

Miramar, another septet, took over from Anousheh (who had used their keyboards to save lugging her own) with guitar/sax, bass, drums, two singer/percussionists and, yes, bongos. And if they were the first bongos at the Listening Room, it was also the first time that boleros were sung.

I've heard Miramar before, so I knew what to expect, but many in the crowd had the unexpected pleasure of songs from Puerto Rico and Greece as well as original material, none of it in English and all of it quite beautiful.

On the one hand, all the bands tonight had a common bond: keyboards, drums, guitars and vocalists; on the other, the musical genres were far-flung: indie, Latin, chamber, dance and pop. Music lovers with wide-ranging tastes, a group that would include me, had many itches scratched this evening.

Except for jazz. But conveniently, Brian Jones was playing at the Camel a few steps away, so once the show ended, I took those steps to scratch one last itch before the night was over.

No matter with whom Jones surrounds himself (tonight it was Parker, Ralston and Kuhl), his masterful playing is always a sight to behold and a treat to hear. And I love watching the young jazz musicians in the audience worship at his altar stage as he plays.

But unlike the Listening Room, there were no bongos. Pity.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Ed Nixon at Garnett's

Leave it to Garnett's to give me a way to show my support for the Rams by eating.

And as usual, I can't go there without running into all kinds of people I know, which is absolutely part of the appeal of the place.  The surprise was the Go Rams menu with new sandwiches named after Joey Rodriguez (with pickled jalapeno, natch), Jamie Skeen, Brandon Rozzell and Ed Nixon. Hello boys!

I'd spirited my VCU pal away from her desk and we took two prime stools at the lunch counter. The A Team was working the kitchen, so I said hello to Mac and Gregg (who, as expected, drooled over my dive into the offal menu in DC over the weekend) before beginning our girl talk extravaganza.

I'd arrived craving the farmer's salad (Romaine, apple, Irish cheddar, bacon in a creamy sesame dressing) but was sorely tempted by the Ed Nixon (grilled Gouda, bacon, tomato and caramelized onion on rye), so we agreed to order and share both.

F.R.O. was working the counter, GayRVA was in the house and the source of my latest writing job took a seat at the end of the bar. But before I could get to any of that, my friend and I had some bases to cover (diamonds! weekend trips! art lust!) since that's why we were there in the first place.

The Farmer's salad's combination of salty and sweet was even more impressive for the new dressing, tahini-infused and stellar. Ed Nixon's namesake was the muscular cousin of Ipanema's grilled Gouda, flexing its bacon and rye biceps. I didn't think there could be a better grilled Gouda than the one at Ips, but I stand corrected.

F.R.O. joined in our discussion of visiting artists, the speed with which dating becomes living together and the inescapability of social media. From there, there was no place to go but straight to dessert and hummingbird cake got the nod, mainly because when we'd first sat down, the cake had been on the counter being sliced and that memory had lingered.

"This icing is wonderful because it's not too sweet," my friend noted. It's true, Garnett's has a lock on hummingbird cake perfection, although their cardinal cake (red velvet with chocolate icing) holds a lot of promise for ending a future meal.

I ask you, how many places can I overindulge in Rams-inspired sandwiches and bird cakes? It's a very short list.

Goat Cheese Trumps Southern Rock

"Technically, it's illegal."

But what's a little raw milk between cheese-lovers?

Tonight's Curds and Wines event at Sprout was all about creating the perfect Virginia cheese plate, enhanced by a selection of Barboursville wines.

The raw milk cheeses were from Bonnyclabber Cheese Company on Sullivan Pond, out on the middle peninsula. I think that means due east.

And the cheeses we were eating weren't really illegal; they were just younger than what can be sold in stores.

But since we were all consenting adults, we mutually agreed to eat young goat cheeses. That turned out to be an outstanding decision on all our parts.

I ended up at a table with an enjoyable couple who were practically experts on Bonnyclabber cheeses, having bought them many times at the South of the James Market.

There were two cheese boards, each with five cheeses, plus plum/garlic, peach and cranberry chutneys, apple butter and dried apple slices, on the table.

They took one and I took the other. Somehow the two of them managed to eat the same amount of cheese off their plate as I ate all by myself.

I wasn't sure whether to question their appetites or be mortified by my own.

We began with their mild bleu cheese, paired with Barboursville's Brut (the house bubbly at the Inn at Little Washington, don't you know) and, for the condiment, the plum/garlic chutney.

Having never had a goat bleu cheese, I was wowed by its delicacy of flavor while maintaining its flavorful bleuness.

When enjoyed with the Brut, it was sublime.

I thought it was an impressive pairing right off the bat, but it was our first, so it was too early to make comparisons.

Next up was the Moonshine, a plain goat cheese with a corn whiskey-soaked corn husk wrapping.

With it we had the Sauvignon Blanc, now made with a small amount of Viognier after the winemaker's visit to New Zealand to learn how to up his Sauvignon Blanc game.

The grassiness of the fragrant wine was beautiful with the unbelievably fresh-tasting cheese.

When a spread of apple butter was added, it gained a new dimension, but wasn't quite as overtly fresh tasting, although still delicious.

Called Song, the grapevine and charcoal-ash rind cheese was served with the Barboursville Viognier.

The edible ash (touted as good for the stomach) was so fine that it offered only taste, not texture.

I ate an enormous amount of this cheese, mostly for that rind.

My new friends are considering moving to Jackson Ward and asked me what I thought of the neighborhood.

Could they have asked a more devoted lover of  this place?

I raved, I gave specifics, I heartily endorsed.

The Sandy Bottom cheese was a big hit with everyone, as was the Cabernet Sauvignon it was served with, Murmurs of approval came from every table.

The cranberry chutney set off the peppery rind in a Thanksgiving dinner-sort of way, while the Cab was juicy and earthy,

We finished with Barboursville Malvaxia and the Rocky Mount, which had a rind of rosemary, chopped jalapenos and seeds (and when you got a seed, you knew it!) wrapped in white lightenin'-macerated corn husks.

I was noticing a pattern here when it came to husks, but no mention was made of tequila-soaked husks, so I didn't ask.

My new cheese friends said they love to use rounds of this cheese on pizza for spice and heat and I could easily see why.

The Malvaxia's sweetness was a great foil for the cheese's hot peppery goodness, not that it would have been the right wine for pizza.

But we weren't having pizza.

When all was said and done, the five courses of cheese and wine had provided a stellar meal and I was stuffed.

My tablemates were taking the rest of their cheese home and I offered them my trifling leftovers as well.

At least that way I could say I hadn't eaten the entire plate.

Verdict: my favorite pairing remained the very first one, although I found a lot to like about the other four, too.

Maybe I'm just a sucker for bubbles and bleu.

Music at the Camel followed and there was a good crowd for a Monday night.

Members of Marionette greeted me when I got there and then they were immediately off to open the show.

Sound can be problematic at the Camel sometimes, but tonight it was good.

With room to move onstage, guitarist Adam was more energetic than usual and hearing them play a new song was an unexpected pleasure.

As usual, I enjoyed watching first-timers get sucked in by their unique sound and stop talking to listen.

Lorem Ipsum was next, followed by headliners, J. Roddy Walston and the Business. This was the band most people had come to hear. And, by most people, I mean dozens of plaid flannel-shirted guys who knew every word to every song. Not that there's anything wrong with plaid, but testosterone was rampant and I was clearly in the minority.

Fortunately, I had a few musician and a DJ friends there, so I didn't feel completely out of place. They were my salvation when it came time to discuss what we were seeing in between songs.

The media has described JRW & TB as Jerry Lee Lewis fronting Lynyrd Skynrd and that's not far off.

They certainly look like Skynrd and their musical inspiration is clearly 70s Southern rock.

It's the addition of JRW's piano that saves it from being a straight-line derivation, but I don't think the plaid set cared (if they even were aware).

So I stood on the banquette and watched some ferocious piano-playing and song-screaming while the crowd waved their fists and shouted the words to "Don't Break the Needle" and a half dozen other songs.

By then my Southern rock fix had been satisfied for the next, oh, thirty years and I was free to go.

But I can't drink sweet tea, either, so what do I know?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Correct on All Counts

After being all kinds of busy in the best possible ways this weekend, I was very much looking forward to sharing all that in a long lunch with a good friend today.

I suggested Bistro 27 for its terrific $9 lunch and when he registered doubt, it necessitated me proving my point. Besides, it kept us in the neighborhood and I hadn't lunched there in eons.

He had never had lunch there so the enticing menu quickly overwhelmed him, delaying the meal I so desperately craved. He wanted the burger, but it was too much meat, he was tempted by the sausage salad, but couldn't commit and all the while my stomach was growling.

I put an end to his indecision by suggesting we split a Cesar salad and then share the half pound grilled ground Montana Wagyu Kobe with Cheddar and bacon burger. Mercifully, he acquiesced easily and finally.

Chef Carlos came over to tell me about his Restaurant Week menu (lamb shanks! Chorizo!) and talk about how he loves to over-deliver that week and impress people. No doubt a second Restaurant Week will make even more converts to the Church of 27.

Our salads arrived along with the food for the trio at the bar sipping Rose next to us. We were amazed to see the tiny, white-haired woman was the one who'd ordered the enormous burger, which she promptly tore into and finished (I aspire to be that 90-year old eating a half pound of meat for lunch with my Rose).

I have a friend who considers Bistro 27's burger to be the best in town and, frankly, given the tastiness of that beef, that's not a difficult case to make. We'd gotten a mixture of white and sweet potato fries, thus satisfying every salty need we could have to complement our burger.

We talked about my weekend and the surprising number of interesting guys I'd met while in DC, perhaps an indication that I needed a change of scenery.

As a matter of fact, the same friend who had rated 27's burger #1 had also told me that I would have much better luck finding a partner in a bigger city where I might find more guys with my array of interests who would see me as a catch.

Could he be right about two things, the burger and me? I can't bear to tell him because he's right about so much so often (just ask his girlfriend). But now another friend was saying almost the same thing.

And he'd been so busy offering love life advice that he'd begun his lunch assault by filling up on fries, making him unable to eat the last bite of his burger. So sad for him, but fortunate for me.

Bartender Ron handed me the dessert menu as soon as our plates were cleared. "Are you presuming I want dessert?" I asked in mock-indignation.

"I know you at least want to browse," he said knowingly. But with my lunch partner too stuffed to finish his burger, I had no dessert partner in crime and declined.

"Maybe you're finally opening yourself up," my friend said, wrapping up his analysis as we approached his house. "Maybe your luck is finally starting to gather its forces."

Gather away. Ready when you are, Luck.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Mystery Science Theater RVA Style

Music and silent movies were not top-of-mind awareness this evening.

I know because when I drove home from Carytown around 6:30, the celebrating had begun. Bars were mobbed, porches were full of celebrants despite the cold, people were driving around with VCU flags on their cars with people hanging out windows and sunroofs shouting.

And rounding Stuart Circle, I saw that the police had closed Franklin Street from that point east. No entering VCU for a while, I suppose.

My guess is that that's why attendance at tonight's Silent Music Revival was the lowest I've ever seen it in the 3+ years I've been going to it.

I walked into Gallery 5 to find friends in the front row though, so with music and movies on the way, I had everything I needed for the moment.

Showing tonight were three classics from 1903-04, "The Untameable Whiskers," "The Cook in Trouble" and "The Great Train Robbery."

Providing the music, although not improvised as it usually is for this event, were Prabir and the Goldrush sans their drummer.

In a first-ever twist, the trio set up directly in front of the screen instead of off to the side or behind the screen, providing the kind of head silhouettes typical of Mystery Science Theater 3000. It added a nice comic touch to the three comedies being shown.

They did a fine job with the soundtrack, especially to what we were told was the first-ever Western, "The Great Train Robbery," with its shoot-outs, celebratory dancing and horse chases. Leave it to the Goldrush to provide music to gallop by.

Walking home afterwards, I passed a couple of backyard parties (got invited to one) and heard fireworks not too far off, all no doubt part of the citywide celebration tonight.

Not being the gambling type, I'm getting a kick out of how VCU must be wreaking havoc with so many people's betting brackets. How many people were willing to wager that VCU would go so far?

Mom and Dad, I'm talking to you.

Still Living in That Time Before Cell Phones

I assuaged my guilt about my corny morning movie by going to the French Film Festival this afternoon, although I left with a guilt of a different kind.

For some real French film making, I chose Jacques Perrin's "L'Empire du Millieu du Sud," a documentary about Vietnam's endless struggle against invaders.

Things got off to a slow start when the sound failed, not once, but twice, so we got to see the beginning of the film three times before progressing any further. It was well worth it.

Director Perrin began by saying it had taken over ten years to edit the huge amount of unreleased archival footage of Vietnam gathered from all over the world.

Accompanying that was poetry and writings about Vietnam written by Vietnamese, French and American writers, all of whom had some association with the country.

Beginning with the French colonization of Vietnam in the 1860s ("Colonization is not a right, but a duty" claimed the French), the film traced the history of the country that has had no choice but to put up with outsiders.

The descriptions of the heat and the adjustments the French made when they moved to Vietnam were so telling. Tennis had to be played at 5 a.m. before the heat set in. 8-10:00 was for work and then it was lunch and nap time. Work resumed around 5, followed by dinner.

The evenings were devoted to pleasures; one writer spoke of dancing as much as possible to convince themselves that they were alive. Luckily, they had the Vietnamese to wait on them to make such a lifestyle possible.

As the film followed France's defeat by Germany in the 40s, the Japanese invasion and eventually the U.S.' intervention, the Vietnamese people are shown being wounded, killed, burned out of their homes and generally suffering in the name of aid. It was tragic to see.

As a major documentary dork, seeing so much actual footage (laying booby traps, parachuting out of planes, graphic shots of treating wounded soldiers, pulling artillery up massive hills by hand) was fascinating and utterly depressing. I was glad I had come.

To lift my spirits after such a dose of reality, I walked out of the Byrd and across the street to Chop Suey for a poetry reading.

David Wojahn began by saying, "It's so nice that VCU has more than just the top ranked Creative Writing program!" He introduced poet Gregory Kimbrell by saying he writes of Planet Kimbrell, a world away.

With references to Edward Gorey and schizophrenia, Kimbrell read his story poems. In "The Age of Miracles" he wrote of "Our great-grandfathers who had caught fire just looking at the forest."

"The Morning Ritual" yielded my favorite line: "Though sometimes the ship sinks and one did not know why," and resulted in two poets in the room nodding their heads as he read the last line. Poet-approved poetry.

Emilia Phillips had a wonderfully clear reading style, perfect for the musicality of her poetry. I loved "Creation Myth" and its line, "As a child, my grandfather ate dandelion sandwiches, nothing but Wonder Bread and weeds."

The visiting poet was Sebastian Matthews, the son of a poet. He began by saying, "How great to know that VCU is going to the Final Four and twenty people are in this room for poetry." My sentiments exactly (and way to go, VCU!).

Matthews had recently collected some of his father's last writings into a book and began with some of his jokes.
What did the elephant say to the naked man? How do you eat with that thing?
Marriage #4 for him and #3 for her: These two believe in the format.
Laughter followed.

Given today's weather, it was fitting he read his father's "More Snow" with the line, "Roads were ramps to ditches."

His father's last poem, "Sad Stories Told in Bars, the Reader's Digest Version" was memorable for the line, "Not much of a story, is it? The life that matters, not the life I led."

Then he turned to his own work and read a jazz-focused one, "Live at the Village Vanguard," with references to the sounds in the room during the performance. "The laugh lifts up to step over the bass line." Just the imagery of that line satisfied me in that same glorious way that music does.

"In a Time Before Cell Phones" he as much as made my case for the unfortunate losses the devices have brought to the modern life (although happily not mine), things like "meeting by coincidence" and "we slept soundly in the dark spaces" referring to classrooms and waiting.

How lovely to have my afternoon end with a validation of my choice to live a life in the moment, with no chance of interruption or need to connect beyond those who surround me at that time.

I knew that poetry was just what I needed. Well, that and an Industrial sub from Coppola's Deli immediately afterwards, but not having a cell phone, I had to walk over there to order it.

It was my distinct pleasure to do so.

Richmond When It SIzzles

Of course I felt guilty going to see a cheesy Hollywood version of a love story set in Paris when the French Film Festival is going on.

Standing in line to buy my ticket, I was admiring the ultra-cool steel-trimmed boots on one of the guys in front of me; the other was dressed like a vintage 1960s mod-ster.

All of a sudden, Boots turned around and we recognized each other. He's the big-voiced lead singer of a band I'd seen not long ago.

A musician at an 11:00 movie? I had to ask what he'd come for. "Paris When It Sizzles," he said, eliciting an enthusiastic "yes!" from me.

I mentioned my French Film Fest guilt and he agreed. "But I may go later to see that Hitler film," he said by way of compensation. "And I was going to try to see the documentary." I told him. Now we both felt better about indulging our guilty pleasure of a morning.

And it was shamefully cheesy, but the 1964 movie had a few things to redeem it. The opening scene with, of all people, Noel Coward playing the movie producer role, was a sky shot on the Cap d'Antibes down to a fantastical hotel resort with movie types dictating memos to girls in bikinis.

There were loads of inside jokes about actors, Method acting, movie making, cliched scripts and new wave French film. So that was fun. There was a screen credit for the perfume Hepburn wore in the movie; when I saw my first purse credit, I thought I'd seen the ultimate in credits, but no. Credit for something unseen.

A movie geek friend had told me that William Holden and Audrey Hepburn had had an affair years before when they'd made "Sabrina" together and that he was still in love with her when making this movie. Watching the movie, there was something about his looks and interaction with her that seemed especially intimate and I guess that was why.

He wooed her with a meal of prosciutto -wrapped Persian melon, foie gras, Dover sole cooked in champagne and butter and ending with strawberries in cream but also including martinis, red and white wine and brandy, a meal that would work on plenty of women I'm sure.

Hepburn's character had come to Paris "to live," as she put it, spending the first six months doing a study of depravity and rarely getting to bed before 8 in the morning.

And here I was thinking I was pushing the envelope. I feel positively virtuous about my 3 a.m. bedtimes. Not to mention that my study is entering its third year; hers lasted a mere six months.


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Passing the Scrapple Test

Breakfasting in the morning is overrated, at least on Saturdays.

No surprise, I slept through the B & B's breakfast, but it was with no regret because the man who'd walked me to Bar Pilar last night, Tom, had recommended St. Ex (as in Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the French aviator and author of "The Little Prince") for brunch.

And, boy, did I need brunch after last night.

St. Ex was positively bustling when I walked in around 12:30, but, as is often my luck, there was one stool waiting for me at the bar. It was right in front of the taps, so eating space was tight, but it was good enough for me.

My server at Bar Pilar, which is owned by the same people as St. Ex, had told me she preferred BP's brunch menu, but I couldn't very well eat at the same place the very next day, now could I?

It was enough that I was eating on the same block again.

The brunch menu yielded an immediate choice, although it was listed under "lunch stuff"rather than "eggs and such," and this was clearly my first meal of the day.

The Smith Meadow Farm scrapple sandwich (two eggs, American cheese, lettuce, tomato, Texas toast with fries) had my name written all over it.

When I told the bartender my stomach's delight, he raised an eyebrow and asked, "Do you know what scrapple is?"

I laughed out loud. "Yea, I do," I said. "But why are you asking me that?"

He said that they are required to ask because so many people order it without knowing what scrapple is and then are horrified when it arrives and they see it.

Not me.

"They think it's just a cute food term or, like one girl said, it's scrappled eggs or something. I don't know, but we have to ask now."

I assured him I knew what I was getting into, so I passed the test and he left to put my order in, giving me a thumbs up as he went.

The guy on the next stool turned to me and asked, "Scrappled eggs? What the hell does that even mean?"

Not sure myself, I said that along the same lines, there were probably even more people who didn't know what head cheese was and would be just as horrified at its arrival.

In his clipped British accent, he responded, "Of course, scrapple and head cheese are really just code for "nasty bits," aren't they?"

My nasty bits were delicious, although I opted out of the lettuce and tomato.

The thick Texas toast was the perfect vehicle for the squares of scrapple, cheese and eggs that topped it; I left a few fries, but that was about it.

Humanity restored.

My second stop of the day was the Museum of American Art/Portrait Gallery over on 7th Street and I had the good fortune to get a parking space right in front of it.

Literally, I parked by the front steps. Such luck on marathon/Cherry Blossom weekend bode well for me, I thought.

I was there to see "To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America," a show about manning the home front during WWII, focusing primarily on the little-known painter Ault, with some Rockwell Kents and Hoppers thrown in for good measure.

Much like Gauguin escaping Paris for the wilds of Tahiti, Ault abandoned Manhattan for Woodstock, New York, seeking the isolation of the country with his wife and muse, Louise.

A dark personality, Ault was not the untamed artistic sort.

Every day, he began by tidying his studio before he allowed himself to begin painting. In some cases, he then painted the tidy studio, with or without himself included.

His paintings avoid storytelling, instead stating images and leaving it at that.

Many were of an intersection in Russell's Corners, painted day and night, summer and winter. No figures are ever present, nor any brushstrokes to be seen.

"Old House" showed a field with a haunted-looking house in it, but the structure seems to float on the grass rather than being firmly attached to it.

His masterpiece, "January Full Moon" shows an old barn in moonlight; it is nothing more and yet there is everything to be appreciated in its stoic beauty under a bright moon.

There was only painting in the show from after the war years and in it, Ault seems to demonstrate that a new world order has superseded the old.

His purely representational wartime paintings yield to one of abstractions, perhaps as a metaphor the the promise of the unfolding but unknown future.

The world he knew was coming to an end.

I'd been unaware of George Ault before reading about the opening of the show a few weeks ago, but after an hour with his works, I felt a sense of a man who created secure and enclosed worlds of lonely calm from inside a tidy studio, safe and secure and, like most Americans, not sure of the war's outcome.

It was a lesson in the 1940s.

My final treat to myself was in the same building, but on the Portrait Gallery side.

"One Life: Katherine Graham" was only one gallery, but so full of artifacts and photographs that defined an era, that it felt like more.

Photographs of the Washington Post publisher spanned her colorful life.

She was there as an eager, young reporter at the San Francisco News.

Another showed her radiant in a wedding portrait to her beloved Philip Graham ("He combined the parts of her life that she had always felt were separate. Here was a man who was intellectual, attractive, witty and charming." Excuse me, are there any more like him out there?)

Her stint at the Post began in the pre-women's rights-era, so many photographs showed her as the lone woman at all-male editorial and board meetings.

Her mask from Truman Capote's Black and White Ball was there, as was the wooden wringer Bob Woodward had given her as a reminder of the travails of the Watergate investigation.

The Pulitzer Prize for her autobiography (and favorite read of mine), Personal History, sat next to her mask.

Just as impressive as her prize was the first page from her biography, written in longhand on a yellow legal pad.

As old-school as I can be in a few ways, I can't imagine so daunting a task as to write out one's life on paper.

How much easier it would have been if she'd been able to keep track of her life online with daily posting.

Blogging as autobiography-in-progress, so to speak.

A Balloon Called Moaning

When I checked into the B & B, the desk clerk told me breakfast was served from 7-10:00; when I laughed, she asked why. "I don't think I'll make it," I explained.

An hour later when I left the B & B for Bar Pilar, recommended to me by my D.C. food critic friend, I was debating whether to move my car or not before beginning my evening. Not sure how strict the parking enforcement was, I turned to the guy walking behind me and asked.

He turned out to be a neighborhood resident, full of information and absolutely charming. He was surprised to hear that I was a D.C. native since he was not.

When I mentioned I was going to a show, he asked which one because he was, too (his was Harlem Dance Theater at the Lincoln). Then he asked where I was headed to eat and I told him Bar Pilar, he said he'd walk me there.

I told him I'd seen the Gauguin show this afternoon and he had a quick response. "Yes, but did you see the Canaletto show?" he challenged me, asking about the National Gallery's "Venice: Canaletto and his Rivals."

Of course I'd made a point to see the exhibit of 18th-century Venetian view painters; the enormous canvasses with the minutest of details were breathtaking in their scope and revelatory in the depiction of daily live, both of upper and lower classes (and dogs were in so many scenes it surprised me).

I mentioned the Picasso show at home but it was the mention of the Ife art of ancient Nigeria that made his eyes light up. Confirming to him that it is a must-see show, I tried to convey the sculptural beauty with which he'd be rewarded for the soul-sucking drive down I-95.

"I just need to find someone to go down with me and do it," he said. I assured him that if he couldn't find someone, he could come down anyway and that I'd happily see the show again. There's nothing like a fellow art geek with which to enjoy something like that.

Then we reached Bar Pilar and he extended his hand, so I introduced myself. Then it was his turn, "I'm Tom and it's been delightful walking and talking with you."

My evening was off to a great start and I wasn't ten minutes in. Inside, BP was filling up, just as I'd been warned it would early. Taking the only free stool, the bartender put a menu in front of me; it was the Bar Pilar "Offal" happy hour menu, which I already knew I had every intention of sampling.

Holding it up, I said, "I drove two hours for this!" and the guy sitting next to me responded, "On the house then!" to the bartender. To get the ball rolling, I ordered the Aria Cava and grilled beef heart with salsa verde off the offal menu, each a steal at $4.

My seatmate Mark was curious about where I'd come from and why, but he was delighted to learn I'd grown up in the same county he had ("P.G. County represent!" he exclaimed), even going to the same high school as my first (that would be first everything), DeMatha. We'd found our first common bond.

The Hemingway-themed restaurant had an old Underwood typewriter at the end of the bar and photographs of Papa with fish on a dock. Everywhere around me, people were ordering Dark and Stormies, which arrived in a glass half full of dark rum with an accompanying small bottle of Fentiman's ginger beer.

Meanwhile, I felt like I was being rewarded for my drive; when my glass of Cava reached half-mast, the bartender said, "Let me top that off for you," and filled it to the brim. What a lovely thing.

My three pieces of beef heart were delivered and I couldn't help myself, so I dug right in while Mark and I continued to chat each other up. It was wonderful, crispy-grilled but rare on the inside and the salsa verde gave it a nice spice. Mark was on his way to a dinner date, but with a twist: he planned to tell his date that he just wanted to be friends.

He lives in the Atlas neighborhood, which I haven't visited but am eager to, so he gave me the skinny on where I need to go. We laughed about our childhood memories of H Street, so different from now.

I ordered another wine off the offal menu, this time a Ruffino Orvieto, but paired it with a regular menu item, the salad of warm frisse, bacon, sunny egg and bleu cheese. I figured it best to put some sort of plant in my belly before returning to offal. And do I even need to wax poetic about warm greens with bacon, egg and cheese on top? I think not.

Mark asked about my plans for the night, which led us to music and we never looked back. He was envious that I'd seen the Mountain Goats last night ("Do you go to a show every night?" he wondered) because they are a huge favorite of his. Turned out we had loads of music favorites in common.

My next course was veal sweetbreads with polenta and caper sauce paired with Casa de Campo Malbec. I'd now had five of the six offal menu items, but at $4 a pop, who was counting?

All of a sudden, it was time for Mark to leave for his date, but not before telling me how much he'd enjoyed our conversation. "At the very least, we need to be friends on Facebook," he said. By the time I got back here from the Black Cat, the friend request was waiting for me.

I finished out my BP time with an enormous red velvet cupcake with cream cheese icing and a chat with an Indian attorney who extolled the virtues of life in Mississippi, of all places. We hit it off when we discovered he eats out every night of the week and more restaurant recommendations rolled my way.

It was great, I barely had to walk half a block to get to the Black Cat and I arrived in time to snag a stool at the bar for the first two bands.

My bartender was older, smart-assed, tattooed and accommodating ("Would you like another Hornitos?" and when I said he'd have to twist my arm, he actually took hold of it...and grinned before bringing it to me).

Washington state-based Lonely Forest had a poppy indie sound and the singer's voice had lots of character. I really enjoyed them.

The next band was from Nashville, but less to my taste. It worked out well, though, because a guy sat down next to me and we began chatting. He asked what I thought of the band, I shared and he clutched his heart. "Ooh, that was harsh. I can't listen to them the same after that.."

A graduate student in philosophy at American University, Philip was ashamed to admit that it was his first Black Cat show after almost five years living in D.C.

I didn't judge (okay, maybe a tad) but I also didn't hesitate to tease him unmercifully about his musical laziness, which he readily acknowledged. "You just met me and you've already figured me out," he laughed. Years of practice, my friend. He'd only discovered the Joy Formidable this morning while searching for something to do tonight.

We left our stools and made our way to the stage, maybe three people back, for an excellent vantage point to hear the Joy Formidable play. I'd seen them up close all evening because they were sitting two bar stools away, just around the corner of the bar from me.

This was epic, primal, shoegaze-sounding rock full of reverb from a Welsh trio who looked like they were thrilled with how into them the crowd was. Lead singer Ritzy was adorable, her eyes wide when she sang and her pale blond bob swinging in time as she shredded.

Fact: I wouldn't have been anywhere else but front and center for that aural assault on my eardrums tonight. I've been waiting almost a year to hear the songs on their EP "Balloon" live and I finally got that pleasure.

Color me blissed out. Walking back to the B & B afterwards, my ears were ringing, which I expect will continue well into tomorrow.

Which is just fine, because tomorrow involves only brunch and more art, so all I'll need are my mouth and eyes, both of which got a workout tonight, but are still fully functional.

I should only be so lucky as to have such great random conversation from strangers again. Fingers crossed...

And, if not, there's always art and food.

Friday, March 25, 2011

How To Be Happy by Paul Gauguin

Amongst the pleasurable lessons I learned at the crowded National Gallery's "Gauguin: Maker of Myths" exhibition was this: Be in love and you will be happy.

It was the name of a woodcut print. It was the name of a carved and painted linden wood piece. It was one of two things inscribed on the wooden panels Gauguin made for the entrance to his house (which he called the house of sensual pleasure) in Tahiti.

To enter his studio, you had to walk under the inscription and through his bedroom. There was really no missing his point.

The exhibition explored how Gauguin used myths throughout his career, blending fact and fiction to blur the lines between reality and his fertile imagination.

And given his artistic gift (when he was 28, his landlord taught him marble-carving and a bust of his wife showed his immediate mastery of the medium), he could blur that line using any number of methods.

This was beautifully illustrated in one of my favorites in the show, "Clovis Asleep," an especially Impressionistic piece for Gauguin, with a lovely blue wall covered in planets and stars over the slumbering child's head, surely signifying his dreams.

Another piece I couldn't resist was a pair of wooden Dutch shoes from which Gauguin had removed the bright paint, adding two decorative motifs (Breton women and a goose); he took to wearing them frequently to show his identification with the Breton peasantry, as well as his rejection of Parisian excesses.

I found it fascinating how Gauguin used questions for titles of paintings. It is supposed that many of the questions came from overheard conversations in Tahiti, but it gave an intimacy to the figures in the works, as you literally saw them and figuratively heard them.

"Ondine in the Waves" was the simplest of compositions and yet spectacular: a nude woman's back with an S-curve of red hair stood against an entire background of green waves. A study in color and form, it was mesmerizing.

Making my way through the exhibition and around the masses of humankind, it was hard not to get caught up in the beauty of the tropics. Even through the primitive paradise Gauguin sought turned out to be a thing of the past, I'm thinking he may have been right about the secret to happiness.

I was all kinds of happy looking at the fruits of his labors of love this afternoon, even without being in love. Yet. Give me time.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Beautiful Gas Mask Memories

It's gotten to the point where every band that plays the National says what a great venue it is.

Sometimes they praise the amenities, other times its historic beauty, but it reliably gets a shout out from the stage.

I'm there so frequently that my shout outs come from within: the wristband guy ("Where you been? Ooh, like the tights!"), the drummer/bartender who agreed that it was going to be a memorable show ("I think John Darnielle is an amazing songwriter") and the assorted musicians in the crowd ("I expected to see you here").

A couple of songs in and my longtime music buddy showed up at my side, having known exactly where to find me.

We both noted the non-sold out house (he even extended his long arms to prove how much room we had), the first in a long time for either of us at the National.

It was nice to have some breathing room.

Tonight's opening band, Megafun (high-energy folkies from Durham) not only praised The National, but also gave props to local band Fight the Big Bull.

First they asked how many people knew of them, and while there was a definite response, I was honestly surprised that it wasn't larger.

Praising their music, calling them good friends (and wishing FTBB bassist Cameron a happy birthday), the drummer insisted that the audience say their name slowly out loud and make a point to go see them.

I have and I will again and with any luck, others will take heed, too.

Megafun had much going for them: all three sang, the acoustic guitar player pranced across stage like he was a rock star, the banjo player's illustrative hand motions and their boundless energy onstage broke every stereotype of sedate folk music.

It was the first night of the tour, although they had opened for Mountain Goats before.

"We love how respectful Mountain Goats' audience is," they said and it was true; tonight's crowd was practically using their listening room behavior, for the most part only talking during song breaks.

Richmond musicians, including many from FTBB, were everywhere.

It was all very civilized for a Thursday evening.

After intermission The Mountain Goats took the stage and unlike the days when that meant that it was just John Darnielle up there, he was accompanied by a drummer, bass player and keyboard/guitarist, all looking quite dapper under pink lights.

After the first two songs, Darnielle took the set list from his pocket, unfolded it and said, "Oh, no!"

As the crowd waited for an explanation, he told us that it was the first night of the tour and they were playing a lot of songs they had never played live before.

This became amusingly clear when they began a song and moments in, he ended it.

"Let's start over," he said, turning to the keyboardist. "What key is this in? C? I got lost."

When told it was e-minor, he responded woefully, "E-minor is the saddest chord."

I turned to my music buddy, who confirmed this as truth.

Part of the pleasure of witnessing opening night on tour was the lack of stale stage banter and the sense that everything was unfolding for the band as it was for the audience.

Darnielle said at one point, "You'll be able to say you were at that Richmond show when we sang "Liza Forever Minnelli" before we knew we shouldn't."

There was no song they shouldn't have sung and given Darniell's prolificacy, there was much to choose from.

This listener was happy to hear anything they were willing to play, maybe especially "Woke Up New," but it's hard to deny the pleasures of "Jenny," "Beautiful Gas Mask" or "Estate Sale Sign."

After a three-song encore, including a Silkworm cover, the lights came up and the spell was broken.

Walking down Broad Street, my buddy admitted that it was one of the best shows he'd ever seen and there was no arguing that.

Standing on the corner of 8th and Broad discussing the show, a car careened around the corner, windows down.

"Hey, we like your legs!" two of the guys called out in unison.

Looking at my friend, I rolled my eyes.

"This is my life," I said.

"I know," he replied for the hundredth time, having previously heard this complaint from me, before asking what shows I'd be seeing this weekend.

I ran down the list and within moments, we were talking bands and shows.

Actually, that's probably a better indicator of what my life is.

Happily, I feel no need to roll my eyes about it.

It just is.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Two Dogs in a Day: Don't Judge

I had my second hot dog meal of the day, so I know I'm going to hell in a purple basket, to quote Julian Casablancas of the Strokes.

A friend was just back from two weeks of business travel and insisted we meet at Bistro Bobette for wining, dining and storytelling. Bartender Olivier greeted us with, "Getting an early start tonight, ladies?" It was 6:30.

We lucked into it being a night with live accordion music and had the pleasure of several regulars' company (one of whom said, "After we talked last time, I went and looked up your writing. I like your style!"). A restaurant owner and his love came in for a romantic dinner date.

We started with a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc while discussing the new BYOB law with Olivier; it's the source of much restaurant discussion these days. Just how much is an appropriate corkage fee?

The spring menu was out so I ordered the new pink shrimp, avocado, mixed greens and brandied tomato tarragon ailoi salad, betting that it would be a winner.

The greens were a minor part of this outstanding combination bound together with aioli. Big chunks of ripe avocado and pieces of shrimp clung together in the deep sundae dish it was served in. It tasted more decadent than it probably was, a rare combination.

My friend was telling me about the tasting menu she'd recently had in Baltimore, which began with caviar topped cranberry sorbet atop oysters on the half shell, moved through seared foie gras and on to kangaroo steak.

This is a person who won't eat lamb, so the tasting menu had exposed her to all kinds of new foods. I made sure to give her an especially hard time for finally putting on her adventurous eating suit after gasping at so many of my choices when we're out (sugar toads? eww! wild boar? yuck! sweetbreads? never!)

But for dinner I chose a relatively old food, Bob's Dog, the bistro's house made hot dog with harissa mustard and Gruyere on a baguette with a mound of frites.

Sure, I'd had a chili dog for lunch, but there really is no comparison between a regular dog and the Bobette dog, so I didn't feel the least bit redundant or guilty.

Yet another regular came in and joined a woman at the bar. We were intrigued when we overheard her tell him, "I'm so good at my job it's scary."

My friend and I agreed that we now had to know what she did (art dealer) and why she was feeling so full of herself (scored a large-format Sally Mann photograph for a client for $4,000 less than it was listed).

She introduced the regular as her "boy toy." He demurred. "Except I haven't been a boy in a while," he said sheepishly, but with a certain amount of male pride; it was pretty cute.

That exchange apparently prompted him to send us drinks to match his, made with Guatemalan Ron Zacapa rum, creme de gingembre, 151, orange juice and maraschino cherry liqueur. Fortunately, our moms hadn't told us not to take drinks from strangers.

Crepes filled with whipped cream and chocolate required more wine and more interesting details of our unfolding personal lives, but since the chef and the accordion player were still eating dinner at the bar, we knew there was no rush to finish up. So we continued to dish men and drink wine.

A DJ friend recently sent me a video of Ann-Margaret and the Bay City Rollers singing "Saturday Night" in front of an audience of old people (one woman actually had an ear horn; no kidding, in 1977 even?) with a note saying, "I imagine this is what heaven looks like."

Just further proof that I'm at peace with going to hell in that purple basket.

Frankly, My Dear, Just Eat the Damn Dog

When the hundred or so people at today's book talk at the Library of Virginia were asked how many had not seen the film "Gone with the Wind," one person raised her hand (and she was a graduate student in military history; go figure).

But when asked how many had not read the book of the same name, the number jumped to more like 25. I was not among them, thanks to a birthday gift from a long-ago boyfriend.

To my beloved Karen,
Margaret Mitchel would have wanted you to have this book on such a momentous occasion as do I.
Lovingly, Curt

The occasion really wasn't all that momentous; I was born on the 23rd and I was turning 23 (he was 30) and a hardback copy of a classic I'd never read was my reward for that.

I broke up with him eight months later, but not before reading the book. Twice. And I still smile when I see his inscription, in green ink no less.

Today's book talk centered on "Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood" with co-authors Ellen Brown and John Wiley taking turns at the podium, talking about how this book about a book came to be.

Brown, who had not read GWTW before starting the project, began by telling the audience of the impact of the book when it was written in the thirties. It won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and was nominated for a Nobel Prize. It was the best selling book in history up until that point.

Her point was the contrast between that recognition and the highbrow literary critics of the time who labeled it an overblown romance novel written by a housewife in an Atlanta apartment.

That housewife spent the rest of her life protecting her book like a child (she had none) and trying to avoid having her biography written. She was so busy with that that she never wrote another book.

Wiley spoke about Virginia's connections to the book, including Mitchell's point that most Civil War fiction up to that point had been set in Virginia and now it was Georgia's turn. She also wanted the story of Sherman's march told (maybe that fact will get the military history student to finally watch the film).

He was full of fun facts, like how GWTW spent 16 months on Richmond's local bestseller list, despite costing a whopping $3 during the height of the Depression.

At one point, the Richmond Public Library had a waiting list of 160 people wanting to check the book out (a former librarian in the audience confirmed this).

The film opened nationally in Atlanta in December 1939 but didn't reach RVA until February 2, 1940. It opened at the Loew's Theater (now part of CenterStage) and was subsequently re-released every seven years, always playing at the Loew's.

That changed in 1967 when GWTW played at the Westhampton Theater (where I saw it in 2000) and ran for an unbelievable 27 weeks, well into 1968. Wiley said that that was when a whole new generation (like himself) first discovered the movie.

One of Margaret Mitchell's nephews had come down from NOVA for the talk and brought with him memorabilia and photographs belonging to his famous aunt. Wiley also contributed from his immense GWTW collection, considered the largest.

Foreign-language copies of GWTW, souvenir programs, pictures of Clark Gable with Mitchell were fascinating visuals to go with what we had just heard. The black and white photo of the Peachtree Street house in which Mitchell grew up had a distinctly plantation-like look.

While the masses lined up to have their books autographed, I strolled over to the Positive Vibe Express and fell prey to the siren song of a chili dog. When it was ready and I was called, another lecture attendee waiting for her lunch spoke excitedly to me.

"Oh, good, you got a hotdog, too!" she said as if I'd done something major. "I was feeling a little guilty about ordering one."

"Why?" I asked. "I can easily eat two and I've even been teased for that. I only got one today."

"Well, they say they're bad for you, but I don't eat them that often. I feel better knowing you're having one, too."

I didn't have the heart to tell her I had also purchased a Pearl's Double Trouble cupcake (chocolate with chocolate icing) for after the chili dog. No need to lead her further astray than I already had.

Not on a momentous occasion like this.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Laugh Attack at Acacia

"I can only take a little Karen at a time," my friend deadpanned when I asked why we hadn't gotten together in two months. And then before I could react, laughed loudly, saying. "I'm joking!" Haha.

We were being tended to by Arthur at the bar at Acacia, he with a heavily bruised martini and me with a glass of Tocco Prosecco; the front windows were wide open, making for a marked contrast to the frigid January night we had last met at Lemaire.

I am adamant about being called an enthusiastic eater rather than a foodie, but every time the two of us get together, we spend the first hour discussing the wonderful and unusual things we have eaten since we last saw each other. Perhaps that makes me a situational foodie.

"All this food talk is making me hungry," my friend announced, so we began with the duck ham (with Asian pear, frisee and pistachios) and olives wrapped with marinated mackerel. While both were good, we agreed that the mackerel could have been put to better use; the olive overwhelmed its flavor.

Usually Acacia's pulsing house music complements its spare but trendy interior, but tonight the music came in and out. My friend said it had been completely absent when he arrived and there were times when it was lost in the near-capacity crowd. I missed it.

There was a new salad on the menu and, given the seeming change of seasons, it was impossible to resist. Mussels and crab meat salad with cucumbers and radish sprouts in a red pepper mussel vinaigrette was as light as my Prosecco and as fresh-tasting as a Spring day.

A half dozen plump and perfectly cooked mussels nestled in an ample bed of crab meat and greens. I already know that I could order this salad again tomorrow and enjoy it just as much. The flavor combination was exquisite.

Our bar perch afforded an excellent view of Arthur's mixology skills in action and my friend was entranced watching him make unknown drinks. When he told Arthur that he was interested in trying something different to drink, Arthur's dry wit surfaced. "Congratulations," he said and we presumed sarcasm.

"No, really," Arthur insisted. It seems that most people are afraid to move out of their alcohol comfort zone. With my friend pointedly looking at me, it was the golden opportunity to share my recent forays into absinthe and limoncello. I can't tell you how impressed he was.

And he did step out of the box, ordering a bourbon-based cocktail called Iron is Hot and being quite happy with it. I stayed in my box (that would be my earthy, funky with lots of dark fruit box) with a glass of Les Petites Pas Dom Pas de L'Escallette. Baby steps.

Then came the uproarious part of the evening where he grilled me like a steak about my dating progress since he last saw me. He was laughing hysterically, eyes watering, at my answers to his questions and I was laughing just as hard at his appalled reactions.

"That's the funniest thing I've heard in ages," he gasped, talking about my life, although he does approve of the path I'm on now. He really cut me no slack whatsoever.

"You realize the problem is that no one can keep up with you," he explained to me like I was a child. "I couldn't. I'd be dead." Now there's the kind of dating encouragement a girl needs from a good friend.

It really was the best part of the evening, even if we may have disturbed our neighboring barsitters with the decibel level and length of our laughter. Maybe that's why we needed the music louder.

After parting ways, I went to meet a friend at the Camel for music, supposedly jazz, but a bit more loosely interpreted tonight. But, hey, it's free music on Tuesdays, so it's hard to complain about genre-bending.

SCUO played first and I know these two guys from other bands like Glows in the Dark and Ilad. The SCUO project is cool because it began as a way to write music that was more difficult than they could possibly play in practice. Say what?

It's definitely minimal (guitar and drums) but when executed by two of RVA's best jazz musicians, absolutely compelling. They played a variety of songs named for body parts tonight (legs, hands, arms), but "Shoulders" was my favorite.

Next up from New York was Zevious, billed as a fusion trio in the punk/jazz movement. Since I didn't know there was a punk/jazz movement, I'm going to go with sort of a math rock/progressive rock sound where the bassist was every bit as busy as the guitarist, if that tells you anything.

When I left after their set, it was with my ears ringing, partly from their volume and partly with the sound of my friend's laughter still in my ears.

Maybe that's why he can only take a little of me at a time. The laughing is too much for him.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Who Are You and What is This Limoncello ?

I thought I'd gone to the VMFA for the Collector's Circle lecture, "The New Art of Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston" to make up for my last heartbreaking visit there.

You see, when I visited Boston in Fall 2008, the museum was closed for renovations and I'd been terribly disappointed at missing the chance to see their world-renowned collection.

So naturally I wanted to come hear about the $504 million dollar expansion that had thwarted me and now housed the premiere collection of American art.

In one of those unlikely coincidences that define my life, I ended up sitting next to and conversing with a woman who had been born in Hampton, VA but lived 40 years in Cape Cod and then Plymouth and had just moved to Richmond. She said she moved here because she missed Spring and said it was gray in Plymouth until Memorial Day.

She was there out of guilt; she hadn't been to the Boston Museum in 20 years and it was half an hour from her house. A poker face is not my strong suit; I'm sure my amazement was written all over my face.

So she was taking the opportunity to get a preview of the enormous new wing as an enticement to make it to the museum the next time she's up there. I certainly did my best to further guilt her into it.

Together we listened to Dr. Elliot Bostwick describe the 3,000 new pieces the museum had acquired since 2001, making for a collection that spans the art of the Americas from 900 B.C. to the twentieth century (including a blank bowl Jackson Pollock had painted while he was undergoing detox and Jungian therapy).

She showed pictures of workers dissembling period rooms from the old addition, numbering and photographing them, only to painstakingly reassemble them in the new wing. Numbering bricks, no wonder the museum had been closed when I was there.

After the lecture, my new friend thanked me sincerely for the art pep talk. Just doing my job, ma'am. Now on to some nourishment after all that enlightenment.

It had been ages since I was at Stuzzi and since I was right there, I set my taste buds for pizza. I walked into a full bar except for one seat and the guy next to it extended his hand toward it in welcome.

Debating over which salad to start with, my seatmate, the stranger, suggested the arugula with shaved Parmigiana while I picked a glass of wine.

There was no decision to be made about the pizza because it was $1 Margarita night, so the bartender automatically assumes everyone at the bar is there for that. And actually, everyone was, so why shouldn't I jump on board?

I have to say, my salad was spot on, a generously-sized serving of peppery arugula, not overdressed and loaded with fresh cheese. My pizza arrived before I could finish it and I kept right on with my salad because it was too good to stop. Besides, pizza doesn't have to be hot to be enjoyable.

The stranger turned out to be a musician in a local band I'd seen at, of all things, a raucous and raunchy Christmas show (he'd been the baby Jesus) at the Firehouse several years ago. He asked if I'd been at the performance where he got naked, but, alas, I hadn't. I'm sure I would have remembered that.

The turnover was constant at the bar as people came in, ate their Margarita with their drink and left. Soon a wine-lover and her beau sat down on the other side of me and she was all about me having a glass of her wine

Since it was Masi Costasera Amarone (and $75 a bottle), I was only too happy to oblige her. It didn't hurt that it was my kind of wine, with nice acidity, soft tannins, good structure and a long finish. If you insist, I will drink your lovely wine with you. And she did, so I did.

It was at that point, as the lightening was flashing non-stop, that I had the pleasure of my first Zeppole doughnut with custard and strawberry sauce.

Being a heathen, I was unfamiliar with the traditional St. Joseph's Day cake, made and served on March 19 and available from then only until Easter.

The owner told me that in NYC and Italy, people wait in lines at the bakeries to score these taste delights during their limited availability.

The fried dough had been sliced in half and an ample amount of custard spread between the halves with a thin topping of strawberry glaze on top. The former stranger who now knew me by name gallantly volunteered to help me finish it.

Before the zeppole completely disappeared, the sky opened up and the rain fell so hard we couldn't see across the street. Despite having finished dessert, it didn't seem like a wise time to exit the building.

Luckily, I got more incentive to stay, this time from a guy at the end of the bar who asked if he could buy me a Limoncello. To his great surprise and delight, I had never had one; he got one promptly delivered to me and one to my amazed seatmate ("It's wearing the dress, isn't it?" he wondered. Hell if I know).

There's a lot to recommend sipping what tasted like an alcoholic Lemonhead while watching a downpour from inside a dimly-lit pizza joint. The Red Hot Chili Peppers soundtrack was all wrong, but overall it had been an evening of surprises from all these people I didn't know.

Once again, I must have on my stranger magnet without even realizing it.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Silver Tongues Offer Fool's Gold

I was chatting online with a friend, telling him about the show I planned to see tonight and he responded, "Well, I do want to see a show at Balliceaux one of these days."

Color me surprised because he's a show-going guy, much the way I'm a show-going girl (in fact, it's how we met; you can only see someone at shows so many times before introducing yourself), and yet he'd never been to Balliceaux for music? It was news to me.

If you've read this blog for more than a week, it's pretty obvious that Balliceaux is a regular destination for me and with good reason. The food is creative, the acoustics are good and a variety of musical genres (as well as film and storytelling) are booked in the back room.

Now let's see, I've seen rhythm and blues, free and experimental jazz, neo-soul, Ethiopian-style grooves, rock, '60s Asian pop, brass bands, New Orleans parlor-style jazz and that's just what I can remember off the top of my head.

Tonight's show was being called "1001 Nights: A Musical Tribute to Lhasa de Sela," the world music singer who died of breast cancer just over a year ago at age 37. The evening's proceeds were going to the Virginia Breast Cancer Foundation in her memory.

The event had been organized by Evrim Dogu, one of those people I admire for his multiple major talents. Besides being a devoted de Sela fan, he's a talented musician and the baking genius behind Sub Rosa Bread (if you've ever been to the Byrd House Market, you know the crusty perfection of his loaves).

He'd been planning the event since her death last year. Twelve local musicians and one out-of-towner were interpreting de Sela's catalog one song at a time. There were songs in English, French, Spanish and Arabic, all languages de Sela had used on her albums and in concert.

Some performers I was familiar with, like the Bird and her Consort (Jonathan and Antonia Vassar), Laura Ann Singh (Quatro na Bossa) and Chris Milk (the artist/musician/puppeteer, whose painting of a guitar player, "Song," hangs in front of me as I type this).

Others were new to me, but not to the large crowd of friends and fans who'd come to hear this dream bill; the place was packed. And one musician was familiar to me, but not on the program; playing his always-superb trumpet was Paul Watson.

It was a night of truly beautiful music and after each song, you'd wonder how the next could possibly match it, but it always did. At one point a friend turned and tapped me on my leg, whispering, "It's so amazing!"

And she'd had no idea who Lhasa de Sela was when she'd walked into the room; I say that because I had to tell her. On the other hand, I had known and I was every bit as impressed. You can't hear a song like "Fool's Gold" and not feel the passion inherent in her songwriting.

It's just too bad that my friend didn't choose tonight to have divested himself of his Balliceaux virginity with this once-in-a-blue moon performance.

Now use your silver tongue once more
There's one thing I'd like to know
Did you ever believe the lies that you told?
Did you own the fool's gold that you gave me?

Stranger with a Big Mouth

I want to take a train trip. Between seeing "Strangers on a Train" this morning and last night's "Barney's Version" with his profession of love occurring on a train, I'm feeling nostalgic for a train trip and it's been ten years since my last.

And unlike 60 years ago when "Strangers on a Train" was made, I know the likelihood of having a lunch on the train (like the murderer-to-be did) of lamb chops, French fries and chocolate ice cream is slim, but I'll make do. The trade-off will be the motion and passing scenery, both still part of train travel.

Since it was my first time seeing the film, I didn't know that part of it took place in Washington, DC, my hometown. Which made it obvious to me that whomever was in charge of continuity on the film was not a native, because to get from Arlington to Union Station, the car should be driving toward the Lincoln Memorial over the bridge and not away from it. Oops.

There was even a little political humor. "Oh, Daddy doesn't mind a little scandal. He's a senator." The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I'd decided for something new and exciting to walk to the theater, a first for me since I sometimes bike and all too frequently drive the meager two miles. Moments after taking my seat, a man took the one next to me and beside the much older woman on the other side.

"So what is this movie about?" she asked of him straight away. He launched into a long-winded synopsis of the movie, so detailed that I was hearing specifics I didn't want to know before seeing a film for the first time ("A random conversation on a train leads to a murder...).

"You shouldn't tell her everything," I finally said to him, trying to keep him from ruining the movie for me and she agreed, so he stopped. I've seen him at the Movies and Mimosas feature often enough to presume he's a film buff of sorts.

Fifteen minutes in and he was sound asleep. Really? First you over share the story and then you're slumped in your seat like a corpse? Hitchcockian, maybe, but a tad annoying, too. He finally woke up but dozed again later.

And when the film ended, he went right back to pontificating about the movie ("This was his first bad guy role; you know he usually played comedy, blah, blah, blah") as we walked out.

I could have said something else to him, but held my tongue because of a line in the film. "One doesn't always have to say what one is thinking."

I'll try to remember that when I'm on my train trip and tempted to say something I probably shouldn't. You never know how a stranger on a train might take a random comment.

SuperMoon Over Romance and Jazz

Saturday night is apparently date night at the movies, or at least it was tonight at the Westhampton, where the audience was easily 90% couples, treading up the stairs in pairs as if to the Ark (except I don't think the animals brought buckets of buttered popcorn with them).

And it was crowd of a certain age because it was a movie about finding love after multiple failures. "Barney's Version" told the story of a flawed (overweight, alcoholic, smoker, curmudgeon) but ultimately likable man disappointed by past relationships who eventually meets a women who completely captivates him.

He pursues her until he wins her (necessitating a divorce before she will allow him to do so) and a long-term successful relationship ensues. Until, that is, this flawed man feels threatened and cheats on her; then she walks and he is destroyed at losing the love of his life.

His wooing of her, sincere, romantic and utterly convincing, is no doubt the reason that Paul Giamatti got a Golden Globe for the role, but much credit also goes to the script.

The dialogue between the two is completely believable for two people who meet as adults, with a fair amount of life experience behind them, but wide open to the possibility that great love is still possible.

The pleasure they demonstrated in each other's company was palpable and a real treat for any hopeless romantics in the audience besides this one. I did wonder briefly how it might have affected the less-than-happy couples there, though.

Walking out of the historic theater, the first thing I saw was the Supermoon and it was absolutely beautiful, incredibly big and bright. Scientific explanations aside, I prefer to think that it was further proof that something wonderful is out there.

My head full of romantic (and maybe even achievable) notions, I went to Emilio's to hear Moore and O'Leary for an evening of jazz. I think the last time I'd been there was for a Jazz Society show with my friend Dave and that had been a couple of years ago, so I was a tad overdue. Luckily, the gaggle of fourteen-year olds and their parents were on the way out.

My very talented friend Marshall (of local band Marionette) was playing saxophone (which I'd never heard him do) with his partner in jazz Jacob Moore on guitar; sitting in were C.J. Wolfe on drums and Wyatt Allen on upright bass.

I had met Wyatt at the Folk Fest last fall, where we'd discussed my live music frequency and we've since run into each other at loads of shows. But it was my first time hearing him play and, in fact, the first time these four had played together.

Beginning with "Beautiful Love," they did a great job working their way through a selection of jazz music described by Marshall as "normal jazz, nothing weird," and appropriately ending the set with "How Great is the Love?"

The short answer? Don't know, but open to finding out. Only then can I give Karen's version.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Eating It Up: Phil D. and the Funky Brunch

Let's be honest here. I went to Sprout's Funky Brunch, not to dip my hip or glide my stride, but to see what soul food goodies might be on the menu and listen to Phil D. spinning late '60s and '70s funk.

After the last themed brunch at Sprout, a British Invasion one I'd raved about here, there was no way I was going to miss their take on funky jams and food.

Dressed in my best 70s funk look, I arrived at Sprout to find it being painted a lovely shade of blue in the afternoon sunshine. Inside, the music was fine, the tables filling up and the bar empty. I sat down, pulled out my Post and was greeted with, "Would you like a drink?"

Nope, I was here for food and the menu offered some soulfully appetizing options, but I was blind to anything but the country-fried steak with eggs, hashed browns and (wait for it) sweet potato biscuit (or toast but who would be so lame?).

My only concern was that it might be more food than I could eat, but my server, who has served me on more than a few occasions, assured me that I could handle it, insisting that it was the perfect way to lay down a base before starting my Saturday night activities. Hmm, how well do these people know me anyway?

Phil D. was spinning madly and although I couldn't identify by name a single song I heard, I could definitely appreciate the great bass lines and intense grooves that filled the room, practically calling out for people to dance (don't look at me).

Instead they were eating, as did I the moment my plate hit the bar. My steak was from Mount Vernon Farms and easily the tastiest piece of beef battered and fried up country-style I could have hoped for. And, oh, that gravy...

The eggs were nicely cooked and seasoned with the hashed browns crispy and full of onions. But let's take a moment for a reverie on that sweet potato biscuit. Pale orange with a traditional biscuit crumb, it was as well executed as the music I was so enjoying.

I asked for butter although the biscuit didn't need it, but then I never claimed to know my limits. When my server asked how I liked everything, I swooned and pointed at the orange gem in my hand and mouth.

"I know," he laughed. "They did a test batch yesterday and I ate, like, five when they came out of the oven." Oh, to have had access to five of those beauties!

A friend arrived and I gave him a bite of my steak and eggs just to enjoy his reaction. Foolish man that he was, he'd already had breakfast at home with his girlfriend, but I convinced him that he needed to have one of those biscuits and some Polyface Farm sausage links at the very least. Oh, he thanked me alright.

Apparently my server did know me way too well, because he'd been right and I'd finished every single bite on my plate. Handing it back all but licked clean, he just grinned at me. "I knew you could."

Just like I knew Sprout could deliver on funky food and grooves for brunch. Bass and biscuits; that's my idea of a righteous way to start a Saturday.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Maybe My Hair Smells Good

"Wow," said the staring stranger, who looked like Colonel Sanders, except with a bow tie instead of a string tie. "You are exquisite." His girlfriend was sitting on the other side of him.

My evening was off to an odd start as I took one of very few available bar stools at Amuse before tonight's Friday Film. "Will you taste my absinthe?" he inquired, leaning in and extending his glass the moment I sat down.

Bartender Stephen raised his eyebrows in empathy and asked what I wanted to drink. An absinthe and a vaporizing gun perhaps? He set up the drip, but sadly offered me no defense.

"Why do you not have a boyfriend?" the Colonel asked, making a huge but correct assumption. I told him I was just getting back into dating and the reasons for that.

"Do not be quick to make your pick!" he lectured me loudly. "Do NOT be QUICK to make your PICK!" I assured him that I wouldn't, not sure why he should care.

"How many mistakes are they allowed to make before you eliminate them?" he asked in that way that made it clear it was a quiz.

"ZERO!" he said so loudly that the manager came over to diplomatically try to lower his decibel level. This was getting weirder by the second.

I kept wondering why his girlfriend continued to chat with the strangers on her other side when her man was so loudly flattering me. Finally, she turned to join our conversation and he introduced us.

"Look at those honest nails," he said, grabbing my short, un-manicured and unpainted fingernails and holding them up for her inspection. "And no jewelry, not even pierced ears!" he raved as if his girlfriend would be as worshipful of me as he was.

Nodding and smiling, she said, "Those kind of things really impress him!" We had just entered the Twilight Zone.

Further talk revealed his name, John Henry, and his location twenty minutes south. He told me extensive details about the restaurants he has owned, the art he has collected and even shared his motto, "Have Tools, Will Travel." I didn't ask.

What I did do was ask for a menu in hopes that that would give me a bit of breathing room. I chose the chicken, cheese and Chorizo-stuffed piquillo peppers, much to Stephen's surprise ("I know how you love the mussels and sausage").

The Colonel asked for the check and his girlfriend left to talk on the phone and it was at that point that he slipped me his card and suggested we get together (ahem).

When he got to the end of the bar, he stopped and smiled at me, as if we shared a secret. Actually he'd shared quite a bit with me considering we'd been strangers an hour ago.

With my new friends gone and my peppers arrived, Stephen and I were finally able to discuss what had been going on for the past hour.

Like any good bartender, he'd been eavesdropping and was appalled at the suggestions made and the graphic verbiage used. On the plus side, we agreed, it was quiet now.

Then Harry the wine rep arrived to have a beer before conducting the Art of Spanish wine lecture and tour downstairs. The poor thing heard us talking about the other guy and for a moment thought we were referring to him, when actually I was thrilled to have his charming and knowledgeable company while I enjoyed my mocha mousse tower with house-baked ladyfingers.

He tried to get me to join his lecture tour even though it was sold out, but I explained that I had a film ticket for the very same time. I did convince him to try his first absinthe, though, making me two for two in tempting friends to the dark side.

As I was finishing mine and he was starting his, Stephen came by with amuse bouches, saying to me, "I know you already had dessert, but here," presenting us with smoked salmon tartare with creme fraiche, beet and caraway seeds. It was the perfect savory bite after the sweet richness of my dessert; I was officially done now.

Tonight's film was "Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies" about the intersection of technology and art. The screening began with a performance by Slam Nahuatl.

I had two favorite lines: "Unhappy people avoid mirrors" and "One is a moment, the other forever; take your pick." Perhaps they resonated because I'm fine with mirrors and I have made my pick.

The movie, produced by Martin Scorcese, had a host of interesting people sharing their thoughts on how Picasso and Braque were affected by the rapidly changing state of the world.

Artists Julian Schnabel, Chuck Close and critic Adam Gopnik all weighed in on how and why these two kicked down the conventions of representational art.

The importance of the development of motion pictures on painters of the time was enormous and very much reflected in their work. Even Picasso's fractured faces could be construed as showing multiple angles in succession, much the way film could.

Likewise, the Cubist move away from color was considered a function of their exposure to and admiration of the black and white films of the time.

Afterwards, we were treated to a short interview with the director Jean Renoir, son of Impressionist Pierre Auguste Renoir, from a 1956 TV program, "Accent." Done in the garden of his childhood home in Montmarte, it was a fascinating glimpse into the world of his father and his friends, Cezanne, Utrillo, Monet et al.

After an over-eager admirer, the absinthe fairy and favorite dishes, slam poetry and two art films, I was ready to head back to J-Ward and a celebration.

Almost a year ago, one of my neighborhood joints, the Marshall Street Cafe, had had a run-in with a minivan, here. and tonight they were finally back in business.

I arrived to a full house and the band was in full swing playing "The Girl from Ipanema." Sidling up to the bar, I scored some wine, met the guys at the end of the bar (who offered me some fries) and was handed a long-stemmed rose by one of the proprietors. Not bad for five minutes in.

The band was having as good a time as the packed room was, grooving on vintage Motown and Stax courtesy of two keyboards, guitar, trumpet, sax, drums and two vocalists, one male and one female.

I was approached by a guy trying to unsuccessfully get the bartender's attention, so I took care of that for him. He introduced himself as Jessie and I learned he was a jazz musician, too. His band's keyboard player had been borrowed for the night and he was here checking things out.

When the bar table in the front window emptied out, we snagged it, just as the band broke into "Brick House" and the embarrassing white-people-dancing began. Now the entertainment was twofold.

During the set break, Jessie looked at me and told me to drink up because he was buying me more wine. "You're awfully bossy for a guitar player," I told him.

Fellow J-Ward lover and resident, not to mention musician, Prabir came in with a friend and I brought him up to speed on what he'd missed. Three of the five really bad dancers had just left, so he'd missed his chance for the full show.

The well-chosen musical nuggets continued in the second set ("Respect," "What's Goin' On?" "Neither One of Us") with the crowd chiming in on the choruses and Prabir talking about chord progressions, as if I understood such.

Marshall Street Cafe has added "& Jazz Bistro" to its name and are doing live music practically every night now. It was exciting seeing the place hopping like it was tonight and no doubt that'll continue as word gets out about all the music. They're even doing a jazz brunch on Sundays.

I just may have to take my honest hands and un-bejeweled self over there some Sunday and see what happens. I'm not counting on being called exquisite again, but I like the sounds of that quarter-cut fried chicken and Belgian waffle.

Watch how quick I make my pick for that.