Sunday, July 31, 2011

For Karen, Forever Ago

I bought my ticket for the Bon Iver show the second week in May, which meant I had to wait nearly three months for it.

At the time, the opening band was an unknown entity, so I felt doubly lucky when it was announced that the Rosebuds would open.

I'm a huge fan of the Raleigh band, having seen them in May 2008 when they opened for British Sea Power in Charlottesville. I fell in love with them that night.

As I told a friend today, I'd have gone to the show tonight if it had just been them.

But of course, it wasn't; the biggest draw was Bon Iver, made all the more significant because Richmond's own Reggie Pace is a member of the band these days.

When I arrived, the crowd was already shoulder to shoulder and the Rosebuds weren't coming on for another 45 minutes. That's highly unusual.

Just as rare was the temperature inside the National. I've been to shows in July there and about froze to death because of the air conditioning.

Tonight was nothing like that. If someone bumped into you, it was sticky. Body heat radiated off of everyone.

A friend of a friend recognized me as soon as I took up my usual post in front of the sound booth. She, too, was a big Rosebuds fan so I was happy to meet a kindred soul.

There's no one genre that the Rosebuds fit neatly into because their sound varies from folk to full on rock and a lot in between.

Like countless bands before them, the relationship between the two principals (who were once married but are no longer) makes for great songwriting fodder.

Tonight's crowd was either eager to be entertained or smart enough to appreciate the talent of what they were seeing, but seemed to give the Rosebuds the audience they deserved.

In a particularly satisfying Rosebuds moment, a very tall couple moved directly in front of me just before the band started. 

But when they began putting their heads together and talking to each other non-stop, a girl behind me yelled "Shut up!" at them and they soon moved.

She was my hero

But when it came down to it, most people were there for Bon Iver. From the moment the band took the stage, the energy in the room was palpable.

Having Reggie up there, such a familiar presence in Richmond with his tireless performing out with No BS, Glows in the Dark, and FTBB, made for an electricity in the room.

Justin Vernon noticed it, acknowledging the crowd throughout for their enthusiasm.

A couple of people bordered on obnoxious; a guy who tried to start chants of "RVA!" and a girl who kept shouting, "I love you, Justin."

After  awhile, the crowd began telling them to shush.

Some of the fans who prefer the band's first album "For Emma, Forever Ago" have a problem with the new self-titled album being far less spare and more lushly produced.

For them, the large touring band behind Vernon gave additional weight to many originally-simpler songs. Percussion played a major role in the show (drummer nirvana even), as did horns, and Reggie did both.

That said, some of the most spare songs retained that quality with just Justin and his guitar and a surprisingly hushed crowd.

I refuse to pick a favorite album. I fell in love with "For Emma, Forever Ago" back in 2008 when I was living another life. It was beautiful; his voice and earnestness captured me. I wore that CD out.

But that album, written after Justin lost his job, got dumped and had mono resonated in a different way with me once I experienced all that (substituting pneumonia for mono) myself a few months later.

The new album sounds fuller and is obviously the work of a man in a much better place. He has a talented girlfriend, his health appears robust and, well, his job is what he was doing tonight.

Nice work if you can get it.

You can't sound heartbroken, sick and upset when you're happy. Nor should you try to.

So I can honestly say I like both the albums equally, unlike a  lot of people, for the different life stages and mindsets they represent.

The band covered Bjork, closed the set with the heartbreaking "For Emma" and came back for an encore that included the crowd favorite "Skinny Love" and a crowd singalong.

Sweaty as the room was, I saw no one leave before the encore was over. Perhaps they were stuck to their neighbors, but that, too, is unusual.

As I was waiting in the endless line to exit the building, I stood next to Bon Iver's sound guy, whom Justin had introduced during the show as a major talent in their sound.

"You must love your job," I said to him.

"It takes a lot out of you," he acknowledged. "But yea."

"I'm sure it gives a lot back," I countered. "That was such an amazing show. But I guess it always is."

"Actually, this was one of the best ever. This was something special tonight," he said smiling.

"Well, it was great for us to see Justin and Reggie," I explained.

Instant reaction. "Reggie is such a sweet guy," he enthused. "And so talented!"

Seems like the rest of the world is discovering that Mr. Can't Stop, Won't Stop Reggie Pace is one in a  million.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Dozen Lost Weekends on Film

I would have been satisfied with just the film fest, but my companion wanted dessert, too.

We agreed to meet at Can-Can and the one block walk from my car there left my tissue paper-thin silk dress wet with sweat.

Such an attractive way to enter an establishment.

But once seated at the bar, that was forgotten in the pleasures of  a Framboise fizz, made with mint tea, fresh raspberries, raspberry syrup, soda and a splash of lime.

As beautiful (and frothy) as it was delicious, the greatest pleasure was the bits of fresh raspberries that came up through the straw, bubble tea-like.

No wonder the barkeeps were making them endlessly.

Dessert was chocolate sticky toffee pudding cake, served with orange segments and the best part, brown sugar glaze.

The cake became something truly decadent after being dredged in that buttery glaze.

We left a bite or two, but only because we ran out of glaze. That and we intended to get buttered popcorn at the Byrd anyway.

Then it was on to the 48-Hour Film Project screening to see what local filmmakers had wrought in the 48 hours of last weekend's heat.

I saw a lot of local actors and directors in the films, including a handful I'd just seen in the gender-reversed Hamlet that Firehouse had done.

As with the past four years of this event, the acting, scriptwriting and technical savvy vary widely from film to film.

It seemed like there were more suburban locations used and fewer city landmarks than I recall from past years but Belle Isle, as always, put in an appearance.

Outtakes used over the credits continue to get a good laugh. It seemed that music was used to especially good effect this year.

No subject was so taboo as to be off limits: cancer, death and diarrhea all reared their comedic heads.

As a precaution, the audience was warned ahead of time about language, subject matter and possible nudity (butt cracks and a bra and underwear shot being the extent of that), "In case you brought children or are easily offended."

At the conclusion of the screening, we cast our ballots for the audience favorites while the judges will decide which film goes on to the National 48-Hour Film Project screening.

Personally, I would be quite satisfied with cancer, death or diarrhea representing Richmond.

But I'm no film critic.

She Covets Antelope

As exciting as all the new restaurant openings have been, it's doubly so when the restaurant is in my neighborhood.

Such was the case at the Magpie, a charming place in Carver and a short walk from my house. I knew one of the owners from my forays out (Stronghill and Bacchus) and, even closer to home, from census taking in Jackson Ward.

The last time I'd set foot in that space, it was the Leigh Street Grill and my friend and I had scarfed down some most excellent chicken and waffles.

Today, I found a turn-of-the-century style restaurant with a pressed tin ceiling, an elaborate red velvet settee and one of the most eclectic art collections I've seen, with lithographs, oils, local art and etchings.

On the stereo was Pandora tuned to a classic rock station. Except for the occasional misstep ("Rock Me Like a Hurricane"?) it was straight on with The Who, Beatles, Rolling Stones and the like. Scorpions need not apply.

Pale green walls had a faux-marble finish and the dark wood everywhere was quite striking against it.

The menu had so many interesting choices that I labored over it while trying to decide. Wine was easy; I chose the Thurston Wolfe Lemberger Rose and was quite satisfied with its peppery dark fruit.

One stool away was a familiar restaurant face obviously enjoying his meal, so I solicited his opinion on what to order.

He had high praise for the grilled housemade sausage, so I stored that information for the future and ordered instead the local heirloom tomato salad with basil and Mozzarella ice cream.

It's hard to go wrong with a Caprese salad at this time of year, but this one had an ace in the hole.

The beautiful heirlooms tasted of summer, but it was that Mozzarella ice cream that will be the topic on the lips of everyone who orders this dish.

Its sweetness, the creamy texture and, yes, the cold of the ice cream made for a truly memorable tomato dish, a variation on the classic sweet and salty.

As a side note, it has romantic origins. The chef created it for his vegetarian girlfriend who eats a Caprese salad anytime she sees it on a menu.

The small bar lends itself to being a community space and, at least tonight, there was much shared conversation and offering of shared wine among us.

Just as I was getting more rose, a familiar restaurateur came in with a friend and they added more lively voices to the group.

For my next course, I had the braised Wagyu beef tongue ravioli, made with Dave and Dee's oyster mushrooms over an asparagus puree with grilled white corn kernels.

The earthiness of the tongue complemented the elegant taste of the asparagus and the niblets of corn gave a nice crunch to an otherwise creamy dish. Well done.

The chef stopped by to ask how I'd liked my food and I shared my thoughts. I put in a plug for seeing the seared antelope with drunken blackberry sauce on the small plate menu so people like me could try it.

I briefly considered the small chocolate milkshake with peanut butter cookies on the dessert menu, but opted for a half a pink instead.

But one of my fellow bar sitters had it and the look on his face said it all.

Before long, I expect to see the same slow drivers I usually encounter in front of Black Sheep in front of the Magpie.

We neighbors call it the "Carver cruise" and it's where those unfamiliar or unsure of the neighborhood drive by the restaurant v-e-r-y slowly and usually repeatedly before letting out the womenfolk directly in front of the restaurant and then doing the manly thing by parking the car.

I'll be walking over, so none of that affects me as long as they leave a stool open for me at the new neighborhood joint.

After dinner, I was meeting a friend and his new girlfriend at Balliceaux.

They weren't yet there, so I found a barstool, ordered a Hornitos and struck up a conversation with the guy sitting next to me.

It was fate; he's living in NYC and considering a move down here and if anyone relishes the challenge of convincing someone what a great town this is, it's yours truly.

Over the course of the next hour or so, I learned that he was into art, music and restaurants (and iPod apps, but I was willing to overlook that), so we found loads to talk about.

He's decided that rather than build the new Institute for Contemporary Art at Belvidere and Broad, it should be an Institute of Contemporary Cuisine.

I say why not both?

When he finally left to meet a friend at Selba (after soliciting my opinion on it), I moved to the back bar where Amazing Ghost was to play.

Tonight's show had been billed as "Christmas in July" and when I walked back there, the DJ was playing music from Vince Guaraldi's  "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

It may be the first time I'd heard that song in July, but it wasn't completely unwelcome, either. My favorite server had already warned me that he'd be playing an inappropriate Santa in the shortest possible shorts.

I found a musician friend with whom to discuss over-produced sophomore albums (Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, in his opinion) as the crowd around us continued to grow.

Finally my friend showed up and we moved back up front so I could met his beloved and be able to talk about what she could do in Richmond (telling me that, "I've told her so much about you that she thought you were multiple people").



Are we noticing a pattern here?


But of course, I do think there are myriad reasons to stay in Richmond, so we spent several hours drinking and talking about all the things they need to see and do.


The fact is, I'd met this friend when he moved back here and became a regular reader of my blog.


He was always leaving comments, amazed at an activity or food or something he hadn't known was in Richmond until he read my posts.


I don't look like a cheerleader, but maybe that's my lot in life, at least for the moment. It's not like I don't have the time to do it.


On the other hand, I did come home to two phone messages and an e-mail from a friend who's in DC on business.


They all said essentially the same thing, although the voicemails used a fevered voice to convey the message.


"Brace yourself. I met the man of your dreams in DC. You need to meet this guy! It's all arranged. Can you be up here Tuesday night?"


Surely I need to be selling someone on how great Richmond is that night.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Come On!

You never know who's going to be on vacation any given week during the summer.

A friend and I were craving Garnett's today but arrived to find an "On vacation until 8/1" sign on the door. Time to regroup.

We decided to give Six Burner a try since they're now doing lunch and arrived to find business men types, small groups and two women at the back table with a small baby.

Considering the blanket of heat, it was amazing that anyone was venturing out at all.

Opting for the bar, we absorbed the menu quickly so we could order as soon as possible. We'd gotten a late start, we'd already made a detour and we were both hungry to start with.

My friend is the kind of guy who can eat a burger every day if presented with one. On the drive over, he'd mentioned getting a salad today because he'd had two Five Guys burgers yesterday. Two.

Luckily for him, there were four salads on the menu, in addition to things like an oyster po' boy, a monstrous grilled cheese with avocado and fried green tomato, and a BLT with avocado, which I ordered.

To no one's surprise, he got the 1/3-pound burger on a brioche bun with a mound of fries, essentially a slight  variation of his lunch yesterday. And, for all I know, the day before.

But I don't judge such things, so we moved on to more compelling conversation.

Our bartender friend who'd given up his player ways, gotten married and moved north is now expecting his second child. Color us both impressed.

He surprised me by saying that every single day he still thinks about a mutual friend who died unexpectedly a few years back. I have a picture of her that he took and it always gives me a twinge when I look at it. She was so young.

Naturally he asked about the state of my love life, giving me a disgusted "Come on!" and a brief lecture about its lack of forward progress.

If he weren't right, I might have given him crap about the lack of forward progress in his diet, which is still heavily indebted to pizza and burgers at nearly 40.

In any case, forward progress varies from eater to lover.

Like Sugar on My Tongue

You'd think that people who had been naked for a week wouldn't get nervous about much.

Butt tonight's Lobo Marino Homecoming show dispelled that theory.

The Firehouse Theater played host to a show of three Richmond favorites, all with wildly divergent sounds: Allison Self, Homemade Knives and the returning heroes, Lobo Marino.

The house was slow to fill up and the show didn't start on time, but once chanteuse Allison Self opened her mouth to sing, all that was forgotten.

If you haven't heard Allison before, it's a shock when you first hear this twenty-something's voice, because it sounds like a vintage 20s or 30s record, maybe something from Lucille Bogan's era.

Although she did a couple of original songs, Allison leans toward covering classic Americana and did so tonight with excellent choices by Loretta Lynn, Gillian Welch and the Memphis Jug Band while accompanying herself on ukulele.

During the break, I was talking with friends about the next band, Homemade Knives. A story was told about a  friend who brought tissues to their show because, she said, "Their songs make me weepy."

There is something heart-breaking and sad about HK's lyrics as well as Will Loyal's earnest and low-key vocals, especially with Anousheh and Jonathan's beautiful harmonies behind him.

Will commented that he took up the guitar late and didn't seem to be getting any better at it.

"Are we in tune?" he asked Jonathan, who answered affirmatively.

"He's the one who knows," Will acknowledged.

Late in the set while Jonathan was playing guitar and harmonica, his holder suddenly slipped.

Without missing a beat, he caught it and returned it to the upright position in time to play the next note.

Afterwards he asked rhetorically, "How was that for a harmonica save?" Pretty damn impressive, actually.

Favorite lyric: "I will hold you like sugar on my tongue."

Both Jameson and Laney of Lobo Marino had mentioned during the break how nervous they were, which seemed odd considering how many times I've seen them play out and how many friends they had in the audience.

Taking the stage, Laney noticed a lot of new faces in the crowd and introduced themselves, saying they were just back from tour.

"We've played all over the country. I've never been as nervous as tonight," she laughed. Playing in front of strangers carries no stress compared to playing for friends apparently.

In between playing songs like "Pope's Nose" and "Animal Hands," they told stories of their travels.

Describing the creepiest place they'd slept brought on stories of a bar in Florida near the lake where the alligators were relocated when Disney Land was built.

Adorned with decapitated baby dolls and zombies on the ceiling, a woman in the bar told them that the place used to have a spirit living there, but that she'd cleared it out. Laney said she'd slept just fine.

She also acknowledged LM's third member, multi-instrumentalist Nathaniel (banjo, drum, trumpet, to name just three) who had joined them for part of the tour before returning to Virginia.

Addressing her remarks to Nathaniel's girlfriend, she said, "Thank you for loaning us Nathanael. He missed you so much. It was pathetic."

Who doesn't want to hear that they were missed? Certainly not me.

For us long-time LM fans, it was a thrill to be treated to a new song written while the band was in California with no clothes on.

For a week they were staying at a clothing-optional commune, which had nothing to do with optional, as Jameson explained. "That means no clothes."

There among the giant redwoods and the nudity, a new song was written. Tonight was its debut.

"That proves we were productive on tour," Jameson said afterwards about the beautiful song.

The next time I'm struggling with low productivity, I think I'll strip down and see what it does for my creative juices.

Let's just say I've been inspired by the Homecoming King and Queen of Lobo Marino.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Maryland Stamp of Approval

I've concluded that if I take a  guy to M Bistro, he will order the lamb burger.

It's happened twice now, so I'm beginning to see a pattern. Apparently the combination of BBQ bacon and lamb on a bun is irresistible to men.

It's fine with me because they always give me a bite, which given the number of truffle fries I ate off of my friend's plate today, was plenty.

My own lunch was the crabcake on heirloom tomatoes with mixed greens, fennel, a green olive relish and a grilled tomato vinaigrette.

Crabcakes are Chef Michael Hall's signature dish and I was curious if it would measure up to my raised-in-Maryland standards.

Did it ever! Lump crabmeat lightly bound with no filler was sauteed just enough to form the golden brown crust that frames the lumps.

I have no tolerance for deep-fried crabcakes, breaded crabcakes or any other adulteration of the crab meat beyond seasonings. This one would fly in Maryland, a fact I shared with the Chef.

Although the dining room wasn't as mobbed as the first time I'd been in, there were still familiar faces (Daphne Maxwell Reid) and local restaurant people, no doubt curious about the buzz.

The ABC license has finally arrived and the bistro will open for dinner tomorrow night, so I'm curious to have a meal in the space during the evening.

I think it has great potential to be an appealing nighttime spot, but I want to see what the room looks like after dark.

I especially want to see what the giant "M" bat symbol on the side of the building looks like at night.

For dessert, we inadvertently chose the one thing not made in-house, the raspberry sorbet, a refreshing option on a hot afternoon at Rockett's Landing, where concrete seems to be everywhere and shade trees are still in short supply.

But not lamb burger lovers. They too seem to be everywhere down there.

How Often, Indeed?

How often do you do something crafty at happy hour?

Almost never, but today was different. I went to the Anderson Gallery's happy hour to meet a friend (and ran into several others) for the final event of the series.

Artist Hope Ginsburg was conducting a felting workshop, known as "Felt-Making for Nomads" and promising the acquisition of a new skill set to craft bowls, socks or a weatherproof house for life on the steppes.

With plenty of bowls, socks and no desire to live on the steppes, all I made was a blue felt ball, but that's all anyone made. Some balls were just bigger or more colorful than others.

The group was comprised of 95% females and the rest confident males. During the extended period where all you do is roll your ball from hand to hand, conversation started flowing.

That's when I realized that felt ball making was the perfect activity to accompany group therapy. As we stood around, talk flowed from all of us on any number of unrelated topics.

How often do you have group therapy at happy hour?

With finished balls in hand, my friend and I walked across the street to Cous Cous for a bite afterwards. The wine choices left a lot to be desired (Siema Pinot Grigio) but the drafts were cheap.

Life is a series of compromises.

We munched on a lamb wrap thick with meat, lettuce, tomato and enough sauce for ten wraps and the curry platas, fries with that divine curry sauce. Felt-making works up an appetite, it would seem.

My friend was telling me about the motorcycle class she took over the weekend but I'd done nothing nearly as ambitious as all that since she'd last seen me.

Does being invited to go skinny dipping count?

When she left to go home and work on a drawing project, I went to the Virginia Center for Architecture for another in their Modern Monthly Movies series.

This time it was "Journeyman Architect: The Life and Work of Donald Wexler." The architect who sat next to me asked if I knew who Wexler was, but I didn't.

I explained to him that I was there to learn about a desert architect I hadn't even known existed. He nodded approvingly.

As I was to discover, Wexler was a major force in the mid-century Palm Springs architecture scene, both private and public.

His motto of "Stay small and keep busy" was as sensible as his "Architecture is fine art but also a business."

This from an architect who couldn't ever remember a design of his being turned down by a client.

That could be construed as proof that he was a people-pleaser or that he was the right man in the right place. I came away inclined toward the second.

The houses and buildings he designed were notable for their steel construction, canopies, and ability to bring the outdoors in.

Looking at some of his designs for the Palm Springs Airport and singer Dinah Shore's house show an architect with a commanding grasp of desert design.

Placing an airport inside a ring of mountains makes for superb views and dramatic landings. Architectural score.

And I liked his spirit. "In the 50s, 60s and 70s," he said, "There was no fear in architecture." That has to be the last time that was the case.

My final plans were to meet a friend at Amour Wine Bistro to catch up after nearly eight months.

The evening got off to a fine start with Lucien Albrecht Cremant d'Alsace Brut Rose.

The Alsatian owner teasingly suggested that I should like a wine from his homeland and he was right. He need not have worried; it had a  lovely creaminess and a lingering finish that I loved.

My friend and I had tons to talk about. At our last meeting, I'd learned she had a new boyfriend (a restaurant-owner, no less) but no more details.

Tonight I got to hear the very romantic story of their first meeting. I was not surprised that bubbles were involved.

We allowed ourselves to be talked into a peach tart and kiwi sorbet, two lovely desserts we did not need, but ate anyway.

To accompany such fine desserts, I had Chateau de le Roulerie Coteaux de Layon, a perfect pairing made all the better for not being overly sweet or highly alcoholic.

Sipping bubbly afterwards, we talked about some of the new restaurants on our radar and she admitted how great it was to have a boyfriend who cooks so well.

She considers herself spoiled, but I'd say lucky is more like it.

And all she had to do was sit there with friends until he noticed her and fell for her.

That doesn't sound too difficult.

How often do you sit at a bar and end up with a boyfriend?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Laid Off Lunch #5

What goes around comes around.

When I got laid off in December 2008, my friends met me for lunch and listened to my tales of adjustment and confusion at the unexpected twist my life had taken.

And one by one as they've been laid off, we've had lunch so that they can tell me their tales of adjustment and confusion.

For today's lay-off lunch, I suggested Ettamae's Cafe, a favorite of mine in the neighborhood and a place my newly unemployed friend had never been.

Walking in, I was greeted as the "Duchess of Jackson Ward" by the "Jester of Jackson Ward." Chef Matt, who was a tad busy working over a hot stove, merely called me Karen.

My friend arrived, having awakened a short half hour earlier; he's already learning one of the pleasures of unemployment.

We settled in upstairs and ordered lunch while catching up.

He'd recently been to Philly for the first time, so we discussed our consensus about Philly locals and the abundance of great live music any night of the week.

And don't even get me started reminiscing about Naked Chocolate Cafe...

Back in J-Ward, I got one of today's specials, a cold sesame noodle salad with arugula and cilantro; he got the enormous salmon cake sandwich on my recommendation.

If my Richmond grandmother had been at the table with us, she'd have been appalled at our manners.

We had so much to talk about while the well-oiled noodles were slipping out of my mouth unintentionally and his thick sandwich was challenging his ability to get his movie star smile around it.

It wasn't pretty, perhaps, but very satisfying.

He's still at the early-onset stage where he can't find enough to do to fill his days. He's also unsure how to feel about himself since he, like most guys, defined himself by his work.

And while I had had neither of those issues, one thing we did agree on was that extroverts like us need people by the end of the day. I now have work, but it's solitary work for the most part.

Like me, he's found that more frequent evenings out are doable when no night is a school night.

Sounds like he's already learned two of the benefits of unemployment.

A New Deal for Richmond

Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort ~Franklin D. Roosevelt


The Roosevelt, Church Hill's new restaurant, opened with a nearly full house despite no ABC license. Even so, neighbors and friends kept the tables turning over all night.

When I arrived, there were two men working on the side of the building, repainting the old advertisement that had been painted there decades ago.

I complimented their work. "Wait till you see how good it looks when it's done!" one guy said as I walked underneath his cherry-picker to go inside. I intend to.

Because of all the glass on the corner building, diners get to enjoy an ever-changing light level, from early evening sun right through softly-lit nighttime glow.

I met Southside friends at the bar where I was greeted by a familiar face behind the bar. I started with a Sprecher root beer to whet my whistle.

Evidence of the achievements and the creative effort of The Roosevelt are myriad.

The former Que Pasa has been transformed from a garish orange and yellow shell into an enticing New Orleans dining room, a well-dressed lady hinting at pleasure.

Kendra Feather does it yet again.

Pale blue hand-stenciled walls set off an enormous old map of Richmond, vintage black and white photographs and WWII posters ("Eat More of These!").

A hundred details express the creative effort that went into this place. A wooden box turned on its side and hung on the wall houses small plants.

A black beaded chandelier hangs over the bar and an ornate black-framed mirror is over the fireplace. Ferns frame the front door. New Orleans-style jazz plays on the sound system.

Toto, I don't think we're in Richmond anymore.

The creativity extends to Chef Lee Gregory's menu, which was everything I expected out of a culinary whiz who's been on my short list for years.

How could I not be devoted to the man who, unbidden, introduced me to my first crispy fried pig's head?

Everyone's already talking about his Double Downer, a double burger made with Sausage Craft custom patties, cheddar and bacon jam.

I know I'm a lucky person because not one but two people offered me bites of their burgers.  One told me it was the best burger in Richmond. Believe him.

But with a chef like Lee, you get the satisfaction of a burger but you also get potted pork (rillette-like) on crostini with onion jam.

You get smoked bluefish salad with radish, cucumber, egg and the tenderest butter lettuce in a buttermilk dressing. The smoked fish melts in my mouth like buttah

Pimento cheese is served with house-made potato chips. Sliced candy striped beets are roasted and served in an orange juice and ginger sauce that has everyone raving.

Mussels, roasted with  vermouth and garlic, are served with grilled bread. Gnocchi, mac and cheese style, melts in everyone's mouth and causes rapture for its delicate flavor and decadent texture.

And that's just what I ate. Still to come for me are the Frogmore stew, Kentucky fried quail and the roasted pork belly with red eye gravy.

By about 8:00, the place was in full swing, tables busy, servers hopping and music lost in the crowd conversation.

"You'd never know it was opening night," my friend observed. True that.

The staff was on point, food was coming out steadily from the kitchen and every dish except the mussels elicited the same response.

"This isn't like any other dish in Richmond," was how my friend put it repeatedly.

"Lee Gregory," was how I responded each time he did.

All three of us got dessert. The winner for most Southern was the peanut butter pie, which had much more of a peanut taste rather than peanut butter. Very real tasting.

For best use of a seasonal ingredient, my roasted peaches with caramel ice cream scored high points. Even with my peach allergy, I finished every bite of the classic peaches and cream pairing.

And (drum roll) for most charming and creative presentation, the award definitely went to the buttermilk panna cotta, which is made in a small Mason jar.

It arrives with the lid on; once that's opened, a layer of local blueberries sit atop the panna cotta, which has a delicious tang from the acidity of the buttermilk.

Once the crowd began to clear out, the music became more integral to the vibe and the room took on a more relaxed feeling. Had alcohol been available, I feel sure the bar would have been mobbed.

Who wouldn't be curious to check out the all-Virginia wine list knowing it's the first in Central Virginia?

As it was,  a couple of single neighbors stopped by only to find the kitchen closed (well, it was almost 11:00) and no alcohol being served.

Both enthusiastically promised to be back. Frankly, I'd be surprised if anyone in the room chose not to come back for five-dollar desserts and entrees that top out at $17 (and there's only one of those).

The Roosevelt appears to already have a handle on where happiness lies.

At least the kind you can find in a neighborhood restaurant.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Proper French Lunch

When lunching with a French friend, a French restaurant is required. We chose Amour Wine Bistro.

There were already people seated when we arrived, so we took a back table near the bar. Tucked away in the back, we felt away from the sun and hustle and bustle of Cary Street.

Lunch got off to  a fine start with a bottle of Mas de Cadenet Rouge, a lovely complex French Rose chosen by my friend. All I had to do was drink.

He informed me that few French drink white wine, preferring to go pink throughout the warm weather and red all winter long. I would fit in nicely based on that.

There was a picture-perfect watermelon sitting on the shelf between the dining room and the bar.

A bowl of big, beautiful Hanover tomatoes adorned the bar. The weekly soup is a chilled blueberry with a sour cream swirl; the berries come from the blueberry farm off Genito Road where I've picked berries myself.

Bread arrived with a dish of chopped Hanover tomatoes, roasted garlic and bacon.

It would have been fresh and lovely in vegetarian form, but, as we all know, bacon makes everything better.

Lunch was tartlette flambee, simple and satisfying, followed by a cheese and charcuterie plate.

The beautifully arranged tray had fresh blueberries and grapes, all kinds of dried fruits, mustards, cornichons and bread to complement the Morbier and Comte cheeses and the Olli prosciutto, Saucisson sec and rosette de Lyon.

Enjoying the soft meats, my friend told me about his father's daily habit of eating great hunks of the rich and creamy Morbiere, a cheese he said they always had on hand growing up.

In fact, he said, they'd always have a wheel or two of cheese in the house. Sadly, I grew up in a house where the biggest hunk of cheese would have been Velveeta.

It was really a perfect lunch, leisurely and satisfying with wine, bread, meat and cheese the stars.

It led to a discussion of the French tradition of vacationing for the entire month of August, a most civilized habit I could happily embrace despite a childhood tarnished by Velveeta.

Such a meal cried out for a final course, so we chose the chocolate, caramel and sea salt creme brulee, as it turned out, an outstanding choice.

The darkness of the chocolate set off by the large crystals of fleur de sel with a caramel sauce on top impressed us both.

To make a stellar experience even better, we enjoyed two dessert wines, the Rivesaltes Domaine Cazes Ambre, both the 2006 and 1996 vintages.

The 2006 added a lovely note to the creme brulee, but the 1996 took the dessert to a whole new level with its dark color, nutty taste and long toffee finish.

As if that weren't enough, my friend ordered an espresso. "Single or double shot?" he was asked rhetorically.

Please, he's French. Single shots are for small children and the sickly.

We enjoyed freshly made madeleines while he drank his caffeine and I finished my wine.

If the staff at Amour had offered me anything else to eat or drink at that point, I would have declined. Nirvana had been achieved.

The French certainly know how to enjoy a mid-day meal.

Girl Groups and Gazpacho

I got my music fix early and I got it nearby.

Steady Sounds was hosting a show with locals White Laces and Bake Sale from Memphis. How could I resist a free show three blocks from home?

Waiting for the show to begin, I flipped through albums, looking to see what was over-represented. My conclusion: bad 80s one-hit wonders and Dan Fogelberg.

I'd have thought that since his untimely death a few years ago that he would have been rediscovered by now. Apparently not.

I did, however, happen on a vintage copy of Elvis's first Christmas album ("I'll have a blue, blue,blue Christmas without you..."), eliciting a smile for an album I'd heard of, but never actually laid eyes on.

I was looking forward to seeing White Laces again since the last time had been at the Courtyard on a First Friday. Loud is an inadequate description of that show, and I know from loud.

The screaming guitar and pounding drum reverberated off those hard brick walls, essentially preventing the crowd from appreciating White Laces' sound.

Tonight, as they explained, it was just the two of them (guitar and bass),  so that they purposely wouldn't be too loud for the space.

A performance that I could actually hear yielded an opinion I'd anticipated; I like White Laces' shoegaze sound. Especially like tonight when I could actually appreciate the bass line, hear the vocals.

Lead singer Landis acknowledged, "We're trying to make all our songs sound as much like Galaxie 500 songs as we can." Well done, guys.

Their set was too short, but helped me realize that I need to get out and see them play again.

Up next was Bake Sale from Memphis, a four-piece girl group who were all about some garage rock.

Let's just say that my friend Paul would have approved and he is tough to please. Prickly, even.

They meshed girl group vocals (with two or three at a time sharing vocals) with screaming guitars and pounding drums. THey were hard and fast and cute.  That's not sexism, that's fact.

At one point the guitarist with the pale green guitar (as opposed to the yellow guitar) handed off her guitar to the drummer and they switched places.

Every guy in the room had their laser beams set to the female quartet rocking our faces off.

It's highly irregular to have such a high level of musical satisfaction before 9:00, but the circumstances were unusual. Thanks, Steady Sounds.

Happy with the first few hours of my evening, I was off to the near West End to meet a friend for drinks at the Blue Goat.

She is one of the countless Westhampton neighbors who is positively thrilled with their new hot spot.

As it turned out, a Monday night at 9:15 was light years from last Wednesday's 6:30 visit.

The bar was  mostly full but not every single table was occupied. It was a great opportunity to relax and enjoy the ambiance.

The rose had already exited the menu, so I moved over to the tequila selection, flummoxing my bartender by choosing the Hornitos.

Best of all, I could easily hear the music tonight and it could have been programmed for me.

I heard a couple of favorite Pete Yorn songs, another couple of Everything But the Girl favorites and a terrific Latin-infused cover of "You Can't Always Get What You Want."

Let's just say I was so impressed that I asked for the music's source. Turns out that it was the owner's mix. Tres impressive.

My friend ordered the white gazpacho, a lovely melange of cucumbers and white grapes with a definite heat behind it. She thought it was superb and I agreed. The contrast of heat and cool was addictive.

We drank and talked until the bar was long-closed (officially it's 10 during the week), but didn't feel too bad since a few other people lingered as well. The weekend end time is "until...."

As one of the servers noted, "Once the Continental Lounge opens, this'll be a regular destination bar block."

I think my friend echoed the neighbourhood sentiment.

"About damn time."

Monday, July 25, 2011

Birthday Presence

I freely admit to disappointment if I go to a birthday party and there's no cake.

At The Richmond Scene's two-year party tonight, the cupcakes were huge, there were two kinds and they had been baked by the mom of Chris Payne, TRS's founder. Cake was present.

But most people were there for music, not cake. The four-band bill promised some excellent variety over the course of the evening.

Arriving at The Camel mere seconds before the bands started, I slid over to the bar for some bar food, planning to move to the stage side of the room after I ate.

I had a clear shot of the stage when Dogs on Main Street (aka Mac) took it. It was maybe the third time I'd seen him and I continue to be impressed with how invested in his performances he is.

As I watched and ate, I had a steady rotating cast of friends stop by to say hi as they passed by from the other side. It was like playing musical dinner companions without asking to play.

Then there are the friends who seem to sniff you out when you have, say, black bean nachos, and then claim to feel guilty when you insist they have some.

No, really, I won't judge you for helping me with my nachos.  I'm happy to have the help.

Eating accomplished, I asked the bartender for my check, only to be told, "No, you can't leave."

There's always one bully at a birthday party. Anyway, he relented.

I arrived on the stage side of the room just as Dave Watkins began playing.

After having recently raved about Dave's debut CD, due out in two weeks, here, it was nice to hear some live improvisation on the heels of that.

From my perch on the wall, I had a great view of both Dave and the people around me who had never seen him before.

One by one I watched them nudge each other ("Man, look at what he's doing!") as they tried to figure out how one guy was making so much sound ("Can you see him?" one guy asked incredulously of his buddy).

Pay attention, boys, you may learn something.

Between sets I caught up with various friends and was introduced to a guy I see at shows everywhere. He said the same of me, so we thought it about time we met.

Baseball-sized vanilla and chocolate cupcakes were passed around the room for the cake-obsessed (I wasn't the only one, it turned out) and the merely festive.

When Snowy Owls were introduced, it was with the admonishment to move closer because, "These guys are a rock band."

I would be more specific and say they are of the nu-gaze mode, with lots of fuzz and moody vocals.

My pleasure comes from lead singer/guitarist Matt, whose inner shoegaze rock god always comes out with this band, but also because I am rabid about the "music from a cave" sound.

In a new twist, bassist Allen Bergendahl had me mesmerized tonight with his contribution to the band's essence.

There were some screaming bass lines that epitomized what I like about the band's sound and the quality of the sound was so much better than it had been at their last show.

By the time their set was over, the air conditioning had chilled our little group to the point that we joined the smokers outside just to warm up.

No establishment has re-calibrated their thermostats since it stopped being 120 degrees in the shade, making dressing for summer problematic indoors after a while.

When I said goodbye to a girlfriend, she gave me a look. "You're leaving before me? Wait, where are you going?"

She didn't believe me when I said home.

Truth be told, I'd celebrated The Richmond Scene, enjoyed three excellent sets of music and had a cupcake.

I could leave the birthday party happy.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Clay Street Burden

Our tour guide gave out on Clay Street.

Anyway you look at it, it was an awfully hot day for a walking tour. Our guide said she'd shorten the two-hour walk by half an hour in deference to the heat.

When I was the only person there waiting for the tour to begin, she had even suggested canceling it, but soon more people arrived and she seemed to feel obligated to carry on.

We were touring Carver, the neighborhood adjacent to my beloved Jackson Ward, a neighborhood alternately known as Elba, Sheep Hill and Buchanan Springs.

Settled by Irish (my people), Germans, Jews, Italians and freed blacks, the neighborhood was also home to some enslaved blacks who were loaned out to work the factories and brickyards in Carver.

We admired a couple of Queen Anne houses with their impressive bays and turrets. We saw the old Moore School in front of which Carver Elementary was built; I'd never even noticed it before.

I finally found out where all those mid-century ranchers on Leigh and north of there came from. That's the Hartshorn development, a 1960s HUD project.

Hoe unfortunate that back then it was deemed progress to take down late 19th century homes and replace them with siding-clad one-level boxes.

As well as I know the area, I hadn't known that Leigh and Catherine Streets were primarily for black residents, while Marshall and Clay catered to whites.

There you have it. Without even realizing it, I'm just part of a long Caucasian tradition on Clay Street.

Turns out that it was only in the early twentieth century that Carver and Jackson Ward became predominantly African-American.

No doubt a city ordinance requiring blacks to live north of Broad had a great deal to do with that.

It was when we walked up to Clay Street that our tour guide became over whelmed by the heat and, I guess, the walking.

As she stood there bright red and unable to speak, the group realized that something was wrong, which she finally acknowledged.

A couple of women offered to go get their cars for her. Finally one took the lead decisively, only to turn back to her husband and yell, "Where did we park again? And where are we now?"

As the minutes stretched out waiting for her to come back and rescue our guide, it became clear that she had to be lost somewhere in the adjacent six blocks.

Someone asked her husband if she had a good sense of direction.

"Nope," he said laconically. Oh, good, the rescuer might need her own rescue.

As I stood there thinking how close to home I was (although my car was back at Maggie Walker, where we'd met), another attendee started talking to me about the neighborhood.

He saw it as very sketchy and asked my opinion. I saw him as very West End and unused to city living. Naturally I raved about the area.

Finally the woman returned, screeching up to the sidewalk to pick up the guide and, presumably, her monosyllabic husband.

The last thing our guide told us was that if we ever wanted to do the Carver walking tour again, it was on her.

As the group disbursed, my new friend walked alongside me, peppering me with questions and listening when I pointed out places of note.

And although I'm really good at walking no matter the weather, I'm no tour guide.

But I feel like I have to do my best to convert 'em one person at a time.

Sketchy is in the eye of the beholder.

Rain, Rain, Pelt Away

I couldn't bear the thought of missing the rain.

Because I had plenty of indoor plans for the evening, I made sure I got to be outside when it began to rain.

That put me parked at Fountain Lake with the car windows partially down, the white noise of the fountain competing with the more precise sound of the rain hitting the car roof.

Interestingly enough, I could see the rain hitting the lake, but couldn't hear it over the other sounds.

But after the week's heat, I was more than willing to feel the rain. Getting wet sounded good.

There were no more than a half dozen other cars parked along the lake. Did they get caught there and have to wait it out?

Or had they come there intentionally, like me, to enjoy the rain on the lake?

I'll never know.

From Byrd Park to Selba, I then went to check out yet another new Richmond restaurant, my fourth this week.

Walking in, I was glad I'd arrived before sundown. The beautiful skylights allowed waning sunlight to illuminate the beams and ceiling details.

The bar was bustling and the bartender was being pre-emptive, warning people that others were in front of them. Luckily, it didn't seem like anyone was in a hurry.

Food was everywhere, being passed and on tables for the taking.

Before I knew it, I'd had turkey meatloaf, vegetarian spring rolls with ponzu sauce, smoked salmon, mushroom tart, pork loin, panzanella, crabcake and raspberry truffles (yes, plural).

Twice I was told that everything was an abbreviated version of something on the regular menu, so we were tasting a good variety tonight.

Of course, the hook with Selba is the garden room, a conservatory/botanical garden-like room with extensive plantings of flowers, herbs and greenery.

It sits under extensive windows and looks beautiful. Unfortunately, the air conditioning was still set on heat wave and it was freezing in there.

Usually such gardens are a tad warm and the overwhelming scent of plants and flowers dominate, but tonight the low temperature kept all fragrance at bay.

The garden room would have been perfection except for the presence of two large flat screens (as a guy said to me, "Are they trying to make that beautiful space feel like s sports bar with those screens?"), which detracted from the overall vibe.

Screens aside, it's a truly beautiful and relaxing space while the front bar area is lively and hip.

I ran into a few people I knew and then, unexpectedly, into a local sous chef. I didn't recognize him at first because he was totally out of context.

He, on the other hand, greeted me with, "Hi! You're Karen, right?" Well done.

It was great fun to encounter someone else there alone and chat about the new space and other up and coming newbies.

But after a couple of hours, I had plans to head to Capital Ale House for music.

Two of my favorite local indie bands were playing a free show and that's irresistible on a Saturday night.

Ilad had just started when I arrived and listening to the first few songs, I realized it had been a while since I'd heard them last (they don't play out often).

There was a lot of new music I hadn't heard before, the overall sound was less rock-like and Cameron was doing a lot more singing.

When the audience was given a choice of two songs, only me and one other guy voted our preference.

"This is a democracy," Cam said. "They outnumbered you naysayers." So the two of us got our song.

I've been a big fan of Ilad for years. Gabe Churray's keyboards add a truly unique element to their sound.

I see the project as an outlet from Scott and Cam's other bands, which tend to lean more in the jazz direction. Ilad is more about soul and rocking and they excelled at both tonight.

The best thing for me about going to a Marionette show, besides hearing the band's genre-bending sound, is getting to see my friends in the band.

Marshall solicited my opinion of onstage drinking, Keith kindly insisted on buying me another tequila, Kevin asked why he hadn't seen me at the National lately, and Adam, well, Adam and discussed a whole lot of things.

Like why he's so touchy about 90s music (his age), the hazards of falling in love to Death Cab for Cutie (he did) and how being hot can make a musician play harder (ahem).

When their set finally began, it was with the band making noises of all kinds, blowing plastic flutes, drummer Kevin on guitar and guitarist Adam beating on the back of his guitar.

That cacophony is the prelude to a set of ambitious indie music that hangs together in a way less-experienced bands can only wish for.

Despite the late start, a good part of the crowd hung around, many of them obviously Marionette fans, like me.

But I'm guessing that, unlike me, they didn't stat their evening sitting in the car with the windows down, listening to the glorious sound of rain falling.

There's music and then there's music.

I heard the best kinds tonight, natural and man-made.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Isn't It Ironic?

A nomination for Prom Queen is all the proof I need.

The oppressive heat wave blanketing the city has actually made people crazy. And not just a little a little loony, but wacko.

"Whose (yes, incorrect usage) the prommiest of the Prom Queens?" the survey asks.

What does that even mean?

Admittedly, I don't know much about prom kings or queens. I never went to my prom (or any prom).

I graduated from high school a year early to escape such inanity and start college.

But if you went back and asked my former classmates if I ever was or possibly could be prom queen material, they wouldn't laugh at the notion.

They'd look at you puzzled and ask, "Who's Karen?" (Correct usage)

Probably not surprisingly, I was a nerd in high school. My boyfriend was in college already and my friends tended to be older.

I was a complete non-entity to my high school classmates.

Oh, my teachers loved me because I was a straight-A student, but I was pretty much invisible to all but a small clutch of fellow nerds.

Ergo, most definitely not prom queen material.

And I wouldn't have even known about the nomination had a friend not sent me a congratulatory e-mail earlier this evening.

But he has a tendency toward the ironic, so I'm telling myself that he meant it that way. Please, let there be no sincerity to your words, friend.

~Cue musical segue~

Meanwhile, over at a bustling Six Burner, I was happy to see a Virginia wine as the featured white.

Stone Mountain's Virginia Table Wine "Maquillage" was just the pink pick-me-up a non-prom queen type needed.

The label, with its renderings of make-up, seemed particularly apropos for a nerdy type who didn't even start wearing make-up until she was in her mid-twenties.

A blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot had just the right amount of spice and berries while satisfying my Virginia jones.

Tonight's crowd made for a lot of new restaurant talk so I heard about progress on Pasture, The Roosevelt's beer and cocktail list and the neighborhood buzz on Blue Goat.

When I went to leave, a group of guys halfway down the block called to me, so I walked down to see what was up.

"Hey!" one guy said, smiling at me as I approached. "You looked nice, so I wanted to say hello."

"Hey, there," I said, smiling as I turned on my heel, back toward my car.

For the record, that kind of thing never happened to me in high school.

What the hell?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Curious Enough To Go Find Out

My curiosity takes me many places and, for the early evening, it was to Goochland.

While dining at the Blue Goat the other day, I noticed one of their suppliers was Nadolski's Butcher Shop.

I commented on it to my dinner companion, who informed me that they do butchering demonstrations.

Hot dog! I wanted to see some slaughter, so I came home and did the 21st-century thing and Googled them.

Lo and behold, I'd missed a pig butchering demo by four days. Four days!

On the plus side, I noticed that they did wine tastings on Friday, so I figured it was time for a road trip to downtown Goochland.

To my amazement, I walked in to find my favorite Virginia wine rep was doing the pouring. Small world.

"Do you live around here?" he asked, as surprised as I was.

"Nope, drove thirty miles to taste your wine," I teased him, since I'd had no idea he would be there.

"I've only got one Virginia today, but you're going to like it," he promised.

For that matter, I liked the Prieure Saint-Hippolyte Languedoc Rose for its beautiful fruit and intensity so much that I bought a bottle.

Hell, if I could have afforded it I'd have bought a case.

Every bit as impressive had I been looking for a red wine was the Chester Gap Cabernet Franc from Front Royal, a winery I now know I need to visit.

Soft with smooth tannins and a lovely long finish, I especially liked the cocoa on the back end. It was easily one of the very best Cab Francs I've ever tasted and I'm a big fan of the grape.

Drinking finished, I perused the meat counters, ogling cheese, fish, enormous hunks of local meat, and sausages, and eventually picking up a pound of breakfast sausage for the mornings that require eggs (you know the kind).

I shared how I'd ended up at the shop today so naturally I was asked about my visit to the Blue Goat. He said that they are placing big orders with the shop, which was great to hear.

Hopefully other people will, like me, see them on the menu as one of the restaurant's sources and make the drive west to check them out.

My usual question-asking yielded information about the next butchering event and the fun involved in being there for it. Blood! Guts!

And, as I pointed out to my slaughtering source (who lives in the Fan and drives out there every day), now they know to expect me next time.

I took his recommendation and drove back Route 6 rather than repeating the mind-numbing I-64 and thoroughly enjoyed the rolling hills and fields that lined the road.

It had been a  few years since I'd made that drive and I'd never done it alone. Even the prison seemed somewhat scenic from a safe distance.

Before I knew it, I was back in the (shudder) West End and almost home, but with all kinds of new information, a nice pink and some local pig.

Inquisitive people are the funnels of conversation; they do not take in anything for their own use, but merely to pass it to another ~ Sir Richard Steele

I would paraphrase Sir Richard and say that I do not only take in things for my own use, but also to pass them on to another.

So that's one rationalization for my insatiable curiosity.

Wanting Too Much

If only I could find someone who's looking for a literary nerd, food and drink enthusiast and a music fanatic rolled into one, I'd be all set.

But, alas.

My evening began at the Library of Virginia where author Charles Shields was talking about the subject of his last two books, writers Harper Lee and Kurt Vonnegut.

He contrasted the difficulty of getting Lee to cooperate on a biography (she never did) and the relative ease of getting Vonnegut to tell his story (a postcard with the word "okay" and a drawing of the author smoking).

Lee never agreed to talk to him and Vonnegut gave multiple interviews.

When asked "Do you believe in God?" Vonnegut answered, "I don't know, but who couldn't?"

That's the kind of answer an interviewer lives for.

Vonnegut wrote lots of letters, making the process of writing his biography much easier than Lee's.

Shield said that in a 600-page book about Vonnegut, there are 1800 footnotes due to the 1500 letters he had access to.

He contrasted that to Lee, who stopped giving interviews in 1964.

I was fascinated to learn that she had rewritten "To Kill a Mockingbird" three times before arriving at the final version.

Didn't someone annoying say, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again"?

Her comment after the third rewrite says it all. "All I want is a merciful death." No wonder she never wrote another book.

Shields was asked about the lack of written correspondence as a hindrance to future biographers, but he's hopeful that digital records of e-mail, TV and radio broadcasts will replace the handwritten word of yesteryear.

Let's hope so because I would be a sad puppy if biographies went away.

After so much information  gathering, I moved on to Aziza's on Main to meet a friend I hadn't seen in over a month.

She had stories of near-breakups and Cape May; the best I could do was mornings that ended at 6 a.m. (don't judge).

We enjoyed a bottle (or two) of Cassillero Del Diablo Sauvignon Blanc (mouth-filling but with great acidity) as we caught each other up on significant developments in our personal lives.

She chose a red pizza with pepperoni and onion for dinner while I kept it simple by ordering the head cheese (pig head with carrots, basil and turnips and roasted veggies on the side) and grilled bread.

I was rewarded with three thick slices, fragrant, flavorful and with enough chunks of pig to satisfy my inner pig fanatic.

Fact: head cheese makes me happy and I don't see it on enough menus.

By the time we got into our second bottle, we were over-sharing to a degree not seen in ages.

She loves my directness and I applaud her relationship success. She is light years ahead of me in that department.

Once Aziza's closed down, she headed home and I went to Cous Cous for music.

The Cinnamon Band was playing and I like them because they make a whole lot of sound for two guys.

It took some time before the music actually began, this being Cous Cous and all, but that gave me time to visit with any number of friends who were there.

I ran into the birthday boy (a photographer) while ordering my Hornitos, then saw a couple of musician friends, another music lover who suggested we dance on the bar if Peaches came on again and the biologist who is taking it easy this summer.

The Cinnamon Band continues to impress every time I see them, engaging the audience with their harmonies, exuberant drumming and low-key charisma.

When they inevitably make it big, I will know that I have been devoted to them since the beginning.

If I had a significant other, I would have just shared my thoughts on Vonnegut, Lee, head cheese and the Cinnamon Band with him and been done with it.

I'd be sound asleep in all likelihood by now.

Instead I sit here scantily clad and sweating in my 94-degree apartment, doing this writing exercise  and wondering if things will ever cool down.

Oh, yes, or if the weather will ever improve. Hope springs eternal in the optimist.

The pragmatist just keeps her fingers crossed and mouth shut, ready for anything.

But secretly hoping for the best.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Cracking the Egg

The finest achievement of Faberge's craftsman were their incomparable translucent guilloche enamels, inspired by French objects of art.


As far as I'm concerned, that one sentence from the exhibit explains why it's so hard for me to see the pieces in "Faberge Revealed" as art.

Oh, they're beautiful. Skilled Faberge craftsmen used painstaking techniques to craft some of the most beautiful objects ever made for a tiny group of incredibly wealthy people.

But they took their inspiration from art. They were making objects for sale. Faberge is all about stuff.

And because I'm not much of a "stuff" person, I wasn't fawning over the pieces in the exhibit.

The objects that captured my attention were so ostentatious, so over the top, that I found it difficult to focus on anything but that.

An opulent silver caviar dish over a foot long and shaped like a sturgeon (teeth and all!) with a well to hold an obscene amount of caviar was the definition of flamboyance.

The show is full of cigarette cases, parasol handles, sweetmeat boxes, cane handles (all made with colored golds, precious gems and enamels) and other accoutrements of the rich.

A dessert cutlery set included such things as sweetmeat forks in two sizes, sliced fruit forks, pastry slicers, a pie spade and two lemon squeezers.

Sounds like I would have loved going for dessert at the Tsar's house.

In other examples of over-the-top excess, there was a match striker (two-colored gold, Cabochon sapphire and enamel), a match safe (even smaller, just as showy) and a bookmark (diamonds and gold).

Leaving the exhibit we passed through the gift shop where an employee wore a tiara. How appropriate.

Afterwards, my friends and I discussed what we'd just seen and a couple of things became clear.

The show has hundreds of objects, so plan to see it in smaller bites so that museum fatigue doesn't set in. The objects are small and there's a lot of fascinating stuff worth reading. A lot.

And, truth be told, some people appreciate "stuff" more than others. My friend loves to shop and loves collecting things.

I hate to shop and although I do love buying local art, I eschew "stuff." So we could see where the show had much more appeal for him than it did for me.

My appreciation of the beauty of the pieces was marred by the sense that it was a) a business venture and b)  intended only for a tiny percentage of people ever to see or experience.

Ironically now much of it is in museums for even the lowliest people to see, enjoy or disdain, so the ultimate joke is on Faberge.

But you won't know how Faberge moves you until you take the time to see the show.

And even if you think you already know, everyone needs to see a jewel-encrusted match safe before they die.

Tiara-wearing is optional.

Lobster Lunch in the East End

Obviously I wasn't the only one eagerly anticipating the opening of M Bistro and Wine Bar.

Today, the first day they were serving, I saw six people I knew in the mere hour I was there lunching with friends. The place was packed.

I'm sure all of them, like me, were admiring what a handsome space the Bistro is.

I was especially taken with the red and black area rug under tables near the booths where we were ensconced, but the tasteful light fixtures with their large shallow circular shades added a lot, too.

Once dinner service begins, I will be quick to come down and see how the space transforms itself after dark. I can imagine it will be quite atmospheric.

And while the patio out front was seeing no action on a 97-degree day, no doubt it will once the heat wave moves on.

After being told by the hostess and the water-pourer who would be our server, someone of a different sex entirely showed up, so I teased him about what he'd done with our intended server.

He took it well; it's always a good sign when you can crack wise with your server and maybe even help him relax on opening day.

The menu was simple but interesting with some creative salads and a variety of sandwiches. I chose the lobster roll (celery leaves and truffle oil on a New England round bun) with fried asparagus on the side.

They were not serving the housemade ranch chips today, but our server spoke well of the tempura fried asparagus.

There had been some crankiness in the car on the way down because my couple date was as hungry as I was. He ordered the lamb burger with BBQ bacon and she got a salad.

Our food took no time at all; clearly the kitchen is well-staffed.

The chef made his way through the dining room at one point, dapper in his chef coat and blue jeans, and smiling like only a man who finally has his own restaurant can.

The lobster roll was piled high with dressed lobster and the mound of fried asparagus had the lightest of batters crusting it.

My friend was waxing poetic about the BBQ bacon on his burger and gave me a piece to prove his point. To my taste, bacon doesn't need BBQ, but it was distinctly flavorful, manly even.

I did take advantage of his offer to "help" him finish his lamb burger, finding it as satisfying as he had.

The big, beautiful, thickly cut yellow and red tomatoes that came with my sandwich and his tasted like they came out of the garden yesterday.

We were too full for dessert, so that pleasure will have to wait for next time.

Where I will undoubtedly run into more wine reps, restaurant owners, servers from other restaurants and various people I know.

Finally, a Rocketts Landing restaurant for the rest of us.

Tails, Ears, and Cheeks but No Tats

This week's proverb: If you must choose between two evils, pick the one you've never tried before.*

So it was that I ended up at the Blue Goat with someone else's husband.

It's not questionable in any way; the wife knew about our rendezvous, she had plans of her own and we're just friends anyway.

But we were both enticed by the thought of a restaurant devoted to "nose to tail" eating. No one told us that we'd be doing nose to tail near West End style.

The poured concrete bar is interestingly shaped. The music (Coldplay, U2)  is a good volume but sometimes tough to decipher over the conversation bouncing off all the hard surfaces.

The walls have been stripped to the brick, the ceiling to the girders and the carpeting has given way to linoleum. It's a very attractive space.

Arriving at 6:30 meant arriving at peak time, apparently. Some were even willing to sit outside in the 100 degree heat, but we weren't among them.

People continued to stream in long after we settled into two stools at the far end of the bar nearest the front.
Unfortunately, the seats provided a view of the two large flat screens that sucked the soul out of the bar. I know some people enjoy TV at a bar, but I'm not one of them.

Our bartender was a familiar face (from right here in J-Ward) and supplied us with a heavily bruised martini and a Bodegas Borsao Campo de Borja  Rosado, a deep pink rose with good fruit and a refreshing finish.

As we glanced around the lively bar, there was not a seat available. The place was hopping, but then it's new so the curiosity factor is still quite high.

After catching up on each other's lives and recent restaurant meals, we looked at the menu (well-priced at $7-$17) for what looked good.

This is the friend who, like me, eats absolutely everything, so the menu held a lot of temptations.

For our first course, we chose braised goat, Ricotta and Swiss chard homemade ravioli with sage brown butter and shaved Pecorino as well as balsamic-braised pig tail with Gorgonzola polenta.

We loved that the pig tail had a deep sweetness and while we understood the choice of the salty Gorgonzola as an accompaniment, we couldn't rave about the combination (but very much appreciated them separately).

The ravioli's pasta  was a tad thick and we looked for more spice in the raised goat, although most people would have just savored the lovely sage butter sauce.

After enjoying these two courses, my friend observed that perhaps the food had been spiced to suit the crowd. 

Even the familiar preparations seemed geared to making the diner comfortable with creative ingredients for those who don't usually eat the unusual.

Always a fan of pork cheeks, these were doubly appealing for the spaetzle that accompanied them. Fork-tender, they too were light on the seasoning.

The batter-fried julienne strips of Smithfield pig ears with a sunny side up duck egg with crispy Swiss chard, peppers and onion looked like calamari but packed a salty punch. Incredibly salty, almost inedibly salty.

We did get a kick out of our server telling us to "Break the yolk and mix it all up," as if that wouldn't have occurred to us.

As it turned out, though, the egg was well-done and so there was little yolk to drip despite her instructions.

That's when it hit us. The nose to tail menu was catering to the crowd. We'd only had four things, but all of them seemed to point to making the food accessible to the clientele. Fair enough.

Unfortunately for us,we were not the expected clientele We were looking for something more rustic, more earthy, more flavorful and instead got a very safe selection of body parts.

Still, we did get pig tail, cheeks and ears and that's saying a lot for Richmond.

At one point, my friend looked around and asked, "So what's the one thing that's missing among the people here?" I looked around and hazarded a guess.

"Tattoos?" I asked. He was terribly impressed that I'd nailed it on the first guess.

"Maybe no tattoos means safe food," he hypothesized. It should be noted that neither he nor I are inked. 

Still, we usually eat closer in to downtown sharing the bar with the inked and the food suits us better. Necessarily, conclusions are drawn. 

But we realized that we were in the minority when the women next to us (both from the immediate neighborhood) told us that it was their second visit and that they'd be back. 

But their order told a different story. They'd chosen frites, salad and a charcuterie plate. Not a body part in sight. Ladies, come on. How often do you see this kind of a menu?

And that got my friend and I discussing the restaurant's concept. Can it hold up to a neighborhood that likes food safe and familiar?

Only time will tell, but if the menu doesn't satisfy the foodies willing to drive in and it's off-putting to the locals desperate for a neighborhood restaurant, it seems inevitable that the menu will morph.

Only time will tell. For now, I like the five-choice tequila listing ($7-$15) and the energy at the bar, but I think it's safe to say that the place is not geared for people like me and my borrowed husband.

Which is fine because neither of us lives in the neighborhood and clearly there are plenty of people from right around there who will happily support it. 

Once my fiend left for suburbia and his wife, I drove eastward to Secco for a change of pace.

After some pink indecisiveness, I was offered a flight of Mazzolino Sparkling Rose, Domaine Brazilier Côteaux du Vendomois Rose Gris, and Domaine de Fenouillet Ventoux Rose, three lovely pale pink selections with my name on them.

Happily, I found  a server with whom I could talk upcoming music shows, a chef to talk food and a bar sitter to talk walking Grace Street with.

I could feel myself relaxing into my kind.

You can take the girl out of the city (proper) but not the city out of the girl, even for pig parts and goat. But I tried.

Lesson learned.

*From The Blue Goat menu

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Heat Drove Me to Flights of Fancy

On any given beautiful day, I can happily spend hours in a museum.

So on a god-forsaken hot and humid day, I can think of no better place to spend some time than taking in a new exhibit.

And what cooler place is there than the thick stone walls and leaded windows of the Branch House, which houses the Virginia Center for Architecture?

The new show "Flights of Fancy" looks at the form, function and geometry of fences and staircases. Ho-hum, right?

Hardly.

Artist Kirsten Kindler's fascination with architectural detail led her to explore the wrought iron fences that pepper neighborhoods like my beloved Jackson Ward.

From there, she meticulously cuts out imagery from magazines and assembles architectural collages that suggest the intricate design work or directly uses staircase imagery in a new way.

The "Mirrored Filigree" triptych was three 8' tall works on paper that resembled the wrought iron of the porches I see all around me, but in muted shades of silvery blue, bronze gray and brown.

"Study for Impossible Fence I" was enormous and elaborate. At its center was a square with interlocking lines which could have been inspired by the motif on my own iron fence.

From there, the design mutates with curlicues, bead-like imagery and assorted curvilinear shapes.

"Study for Impossible Fence II" looks like a Victorian chandelier that morphed into adjoining and elaborately flocked wallpaper.

A sculptural piece called "Information Entity" uses hand cut magazine images of film projectors, cameras, monitors, phones, microphones TVs and binoculars, layering imagery over each other.

Standing taller than the viewer, it comes across as communications overload, an apt metaphor for our 21st century lives.

For me, the most striking piece was "Escalator Treehouse" a nearly floor to ceiling work on paper showing a series of stairs and railings going up a multi-branched tree.

A spiral staircase winds itself around the trunk and stairs and railings connect branches and trunk. It is almost Escher-like except that the stairs actually go somewhere.

Another sculptural piece of paper mounted on plastic film, "Balustrade Sphere," is hung a few inches from the wall, allowing shadows to be cast behind it.

At its center is a simple Doric column and the many staircases are supported by a single black footed urn at the bottom.

The delicacy of the cut-outs of staircases and railings must surely require a variety of scissors and the surest of hands.

The strength of the show is how Kindler translates the beauty of three dimensional objects (and heavy ones at that, iron) into the most delicate of two-dimensional images on paper.

Her manipulation of dimension and space is the best kind of mind f*ck. Intellectually, you know it makes no sense, and yet it reads believably.

For those of us who can't cut on a straight line, her ability to cut out, for example, endless minute balustrade openings is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

And cool. It was deliciously cool admiring wrought ironwork and fences from someplace other than the sidewalk on a day like today.

In Case the World Ends

Some days are like a gift from the music gods. Today was one.

It began with a road trip, always a fine time to listen to new music, and for this drive, I had two new CDs.

But not just any CDs, These were both advance copies from musician friends: Dave Watkins' debut CD and Paul Ivey's "This is the Hovercraft."

Since I'd been given Dave's first, I started with it.

How could I not fall in love with a CD with a song called "Marshall Street"? Hello, J-Ward Girl here.

And, as a porch-lover, don't even get me started on "House That's Mostly Porch," which decisively kicks off the album.

For that matter, how could I not be enamored of Dave's unique dulcitar playing and looping?

His soundscapes were the ideal music to accompany me as I drove 60 mph down a mostly deserted road.

Creating endless melodies and rhythms, adding in other instruments and occasional voices, his album is a post-rock lover's roadtrip wet dream.

And like any great post-rock CD, it has that one achingly beautiful but oh-so-short song ("In Case the World Ends") that makes a fan glad that someone makes this kind of music for the sake of giving your heart something to swell about.

Paul Ivey's CD brought back the energy and word play of really good late 70s and 80s New Wave.

Paul is such a talented guitar player and his voice has the sincerity and condescension of one who has an opinion on everything (hmm, funny I should like that so much) and a romantic's heart somewhere deep down.

"Gosnell's Hope" is Paul at his sweetest and "Look Out, Optional Claude!" is the oh-so-short song I want to hear in a club and watch everyone fall in love with it.

"Crushed Glass Pastry," which I've had the pleasure of hearing live, rocks and shows Paul's guitar chops, always a good thing. Favorite lyric: "You're only sorry cause you couldn't get away with it."

After three hours in the car listening to such terrific music, it was a good thing I had more in store. Otherwise, tonight would have been a let-down.

The Listening Room had a meager crowd until five minutes before showtime and then the floodgates opened.

Starting a little late (highly unusual for the LR), Richmonder Matt Lisk got things going by dedicating the first song to his Mom, a fairly regular LR attendee.

After a song where he whistled to replace the other guitar part his band would normally do, he dedicated "Sara's Song" to his sister.

His voice reminded me somewhat of David Gray's and he did several songs on piano rather than guitar.

In a nod to LR founder and local favorite son Jonathan Vassar, he even covered "A Match Made in Heaven."

As the first band to do a repeat performance at the LR, Philadelphia's Birdie Busch (with Todd from Hoots and Hellmouth on upright bass) brought her beautiful voice and lively stage banter back to RVA.

She was halfway through her set before she noticed the people seated on the side and said, "If we were Bruce Springsteen, we'd have a walkway to you."

Comic pause. "Maybe on our third visit," she laughed, before covering Neil Young.

An audience member yelled out (against the LR rules, but the crowd hadn't been reminded to keep quiet tonight. Ahem, Mr. Payne), "Anyone ever say you remind them of Joni Mitchell?"

A Jewel joke resulted, but the implication was clear. Her dulcet tones and heartfelt songs clearly drew from Mitchell and other early female folkies.

It was a shame that the first two sets had run long because a good portion of the audience left after their set, no doubt because it was a school night and getting late.

Those who stuck around for New Yorker Annie Crane's set were rewarded with a unique voice, despite the singer/songwriter having caught a cold from her sister.

She had just come from a songwriting workshop for high schoolers, teaching them about the songs that migrated from the old countries to the New World, and especially Appalachia.

Many in the audience got goosebumps when she sang a traditional Irish song a capella, a song like the kind her mother had sung in her childhood.

Her voice had just a bit of twang to it, leaving the listener with the sense that she was walking a fine line between Americana, folk and country.

Comparisons have been made about her voice to Emmy Lou Harris and Gillian Welch, both apt. Just a shame that more people didn't get to hear her.

In a nod to today's god-awful humidity, both the Philadelphian and the NewYorker made comments about the heat. Naturally, it never occurred to the Richmonder to state the obvious.

It's July, right?

Humidity reigns (although as the clerk in the grocery store noted to me today, "If it rains, it's just gonna feel worse.").

Humidity aside,  for me awesome music reigned today, start to finish.

I should probably offer up a sacrifice to the music gods.

If I had a Jewel album, I suppose I could just break it and toss it on a funeral pyre.

But I don't, so I'll just say thank you, oh musical ones, from the bottom of my tone-deaf, music-loving heart.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Play's the Thing with Girl Parts

I know all about being surrounded by females.

Because I grew up in an all-girl family with five sisters (okay, obviously there was my Dad; that's where all those sisters came from) I never knew a shortage of females.

The same could be said for Firehouse Theater's staged reading of  "A Gender-Reversed Hamlet" tonight.

There were nineteen women in the cast and only three guys.

It was beyond awesome.

Some of Richmond's best actresses had been pulled together to create a female cast in a play where usually men rule.

Not surprisingly, there was a full house to see how "Hamlet" played with estrogen.

There was a period of audience adjustment as we got our minds around seeing a black man (Todd Patterson) play Ophelia and a very tall white man (Joe Inscoe) play the role of Queen Gertrude.

Seeing Joe bend down almost a foot to lay his head on the King's shoulder required a certain open mindedness that challenged people, resulting in some tittering at what they were seeing.

But mostly, we were caught up in the drama of one of the best family tragedies ever written and the novelty of women playing men was forgotten.

Needless to say, this was not a sit-down style staged reading.

The actors moved around, interacting, grave digging and even fighting as the script required (scripts replaced rapiers).

Afterwards during the talkback, several people mentioned the uncomfortable laughter about men in women's roles.

It was explained away as something we're not culturally as comfortable with as women playing men.

The irony here, of course, is that in Shakespeare's time, all the roles would have been played by men.

Come on, Elizabethan women were not worthy of being players.

But that was then.

In tonight's version, Hamlet had a ponytail. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were babes.

Maybe it's my unique family history, but I really liked my Shakespeare with breasts.

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Citizen's Right to Feed

Although I don't work downtown, I've got no problem lunching down there with the worker bees.

When I'd seen Amuse's chef Greg Hanley last week, he'd asked if I'd been to Citizen yet to sample the food of Greg Johnson, former sous chef at Amuse.

I hadn't then. I have now.

Located below the Mutual Building on Main, the courtyard entrance is actually on 9th Street and a lovely entrance it is, shaded and adorned with plants and a bench for lingering.

Down below, Citizen was a demure space that looked like a typical downtown office lunch spot.

But changes are coming; they're planning to reupholster the seat cushions and were taking votes on the color (I voted, natch).

The simple breakfast and lunch menu isn't large but isn't ho-hum either. Breakfast is served all day and the eggs are local, so I plan to make my next visit earlier in the day and break my fast there.

The Chef said that sweets are on the way, maybe pastries and, with any luck, maybe Country Style donuts from over on Williamsburg Road.

That's great (but dangerous) news for a donut-lover like me.

For lunch, there were six tortas, pressed sandwiches on bolillo rolls (from a Latino bakery on Midlothian Turnpike) and each came with a side and a housemade pickle.

A woman ordering in front of me was on her third visit, despite Citizen only having been open for a week.

She said she intends to go down the menu until she's tasted everything. My kind of woman.

Today she chose the pulled pork with cabbage relish and cumin potatoes and the Chef told her it was his personal favorite.

I chose the salami, ham, Provolone torta with tapenade and on the side, curried chickpea stew.

But rather than eat inside, I took my lunch out to the courtyard.

Citizen plans to provide outdoor seating in the courtyard, but until they do, I planned to make my own.

No one else was out there, so I spread out my feast on the bench and had at it.

I really enjoyed my torta, appreciating that it had just enough tapenade to make it flavorful without overwhelming the meats.

But the star was the curried chickpea stew which, with a slightly larger serving, would have been a meal in and of itself.

A thick melange of delicately-flavored curried chickpeas, tomatoes, corn, and celery had me spooning up a hot dish like the temperature was thirty degrees lower.

Impressive, too, was the house-made pickle, a reminder that there is no resemblance between commercial pickles and those made at the hands of a pickle lover.

Biting into this one was an exercise in appreciating a well-seasoned cucumber.

As I sat eating, a couple of lawyer-looking types entered the courtyard and peered around the railing.

"You should go down," I advised them unasked. "The food is really good."

"They should have better signage," the one grumbled. Actually, I think word of mouth is going to make every downtown worker aware of Citizen very quickly, so signage will  be superfluous.

So they went downstairs and I went back to my newspaper and delicious $6.00 lunch.

It may be the closest thing to all those long-ago lunches I ate in Farragut Square that I've had since moving here.

As a bonus,  there were no annoying pigeons begging for food. Or bloated lobbyists walking by.

Then again, the Gen Ass isn't in session.

Note to self: now's the time to enjoy Citizen.