Thursday, May 16, 2013

Shutters and Mouths Open

Tonight's lesson: How to be a glutton after art and architecture.

It began in a rainstorm and ended in clogged arteries.

As I was dressing to go out, the wind was howling in the windows of the apartment and by the time I left, it was pouring rain.

The fierce weather meant that the lecture at the Virginia Center for Architecture was delayed to allow for latecomers.

I wasn't bothered in the least; the postponement meant that I could check out their new exhibition, "Art by Architects."

The 44 pieces were all by practicing or retired architects and in various mediums.

I hate to say it, but the pieces that delighted me most were mostly of, well, buildings and streetscapes.

Like Christina Canabou's "Tenement Street," a large drawing that focused not on the buildings but on the magnificent dome rising behind the shabby apartments.

The charming "Sicilian Street" by John LaMonica was tiny but evocative.

I was transported back to a 2008 visit for Patrick McClane's watercolor, "Bermuda Shutter," with its white-washed building and wall and deep green shutter, propped open but shading the interior.

Since so many of the pieces were about buildings, the ones that weren't stood out all the more.

Figures, nature scenes, and abstract collages all attested to what's in an architect's mind besides building plans.

I said hello to the Frenchman and found a seat in the third row for the lecture.

Tonight's lecture was "Poplar Forest: The Most Palladian Work in America" by architectural historian Travis McDonald, who's been involved with the restoration of Thomas Jefferson's country retreat for twenty-some years.

You gotta love you some TJ to work at a project that long.

It was interesting, I hadn't known that TJ envisioned Poplar Forest as his getaway from the hordes of people at Monticello clamoring to see him.

It was where he intended to be a hermit.

For the record, I shall need no such place when I retire.

An example of villa-style architecture, the octagonal house was, according to McDonald, "a fantasy impervious to reality."

Oh, my, if only all of life could be like that.

And, just for the record, the privies were octagonal, too. No lie, he showed us a slide.

The history nerd in me looks forward to someday seeing this unique house now that I know its story.

With such enlightenment behind me, I was free to head east to meet a friend for dinner.

Aziza's was mobbed when I arrived (hello, restaurant of the year) and my friend was missing in action, but conveniently, I found another at the bar.

He looked a tad stuffed and confirmed with a grin that he'd eaten far more than he'd intended to.

Since my dinner date was nowhere to be seen, I sat down to catch up with the one who was present.

I had heard that he was leaving Richmond, so I asked about his plans.

Turns out he's off to Palestine in two weeks to teach, with no plans to return.

I asked how his parents were taking his decision (not well) and he mentioned that his mother was appalled at his choice of destinations.

"Can't you just go teach in the East End instead?" she'd not-so-gently suggested.

He admitted to curiosity about how impoverished kids in that part of the world are different from our own disadvantaged youth.

Fact is, he's considering eventually doing his PhD on the subject.

It was a curious experience having a conversation with a guy I've known for four years, knowing I may never lay eyes on him again.

I did tell him how much I admire this great adventure he's setting off on (and if not now, when?) and all the potential it holds.

Then I asked him to text my friend and inquire where the hell he was.

"On my way down the hill," he texted back from high atop Church Hill.

The explorer left once the tardy one arrived, but we stayed at the bar because every table was taken.

Who am I kidding? We'd have stayed there anyway.

My friend started a new job a few weeks ago and it has been kicking his butt up and down the hill ever since.

You see, he used to be a bartender/photographer/perennial student and now he works a regular job and answers to a manager or two.

Whoa. It has taken some major adjustment for him.

Luckily, he'd caught twenty winks before our dinner, so he was starved and ready to chat.

With no further plans later tonight, we set out to become eating machines.

We got our socks knocked off with our very first dish: shad roe with sunchoke puree, citron brown butter sauce and, just in case that wasn't decadent enough, an oozing fried egg atop it all.

Best of all, it was my friend's first shad roe, making him a lucky man to start with shad roe of this ilk.

The sweetness of the sunchoke was a killer balance to the earthy shad roe and egg and we were still naive enough to go ahead and sop up all that puree and butter sauce until the plate was gleaming.

Rookie mistake and we're not rookies.

He was busy telling me about his upcoming trip to Nashville and the pleasures of photographing small children and we forgot to keep our eyes on the prize.

So when the pan-seared softshell crab with ramps atop cheesy polenta with bacon arrived, we dove in again, barely coming up for air.

In my defense, it was only my second softshell so far this season and I couldn't have controlled myself if I'd wanted to.

And I didn't.

The cheesy polenta was rich on its own and obscene with the chunks of bacon and the crab's delicate breading let the flavor of the meat shine through.

But, it should be noted, we were slowing down just a bit.

I told him my barber story only to learn he knew the barbers and the shop.

We walked about how people who grow up in California are different and why he might want to move to California (a woman, natch).

And then, brave souls that we are, we went on to our next course.

He was having a margarita pizza with hot Italian sausage and I, to my eternal optimism, was having some gland.

Pan-seared sweetbreads with English peas ('tis the season) and carrots in saffron sauce was exquisite, the sweetbreads with a silky texture, the fresh-as-a-morning peas and the carrots of various colors adding a sweet crunch.

I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.

Hell, I couldn't. At least not entirely.

I ate as much as I could before my taste buds shut down, telling me A) I was disgustingly full and B) all my savory needs had been met for the evening.

Even my compadre, a man and much bigger than I am, threw in the towel after one piece of pizza.

It wasn't like we didn't want to finish, just that it was impossible.

In fact, we knew as soon as he brought up that he hadn't known how foie gras came about.

When your dining companion starts talking about force-feeding in the middle of dinner, he's trying to tell you something.

Or maybe I'm reading too much into it.

In any case, we asked for boxes for our leftovers at that point.

He and I have been going to Aziza's for years together and we never fail to end a meal with a cream puff.

He even took a picture of me once with the cream puff approaching my wide-open mouth and posted it all over the internets for the world to see.

Tonight, with our boxes sitting on the counter and our filled-to-the-gills satiety, it appeared that a long-standing tradition was about to die.

Instead, Friend ordered his second cup of coffee and suggested we enjoy some after-dinner patter.

I told him about the gardening I'd done earlier this week and he shared that he'd prepared his beds but not yet planted anything.

We talked about the upcoming RiverRock festival, Toots and the Maytalls and doing yoga on a paddle board.

Another photographer came in and the two of them discussed some Haiti photos.

And then my friend looked at me, looked at all the coffee left in his mug and said, "Yea, we're gonna need a cream puff."

Hallelujah and spread the ganache.

Our server, to her credit, merely smiled but the look in her eyes said, "told you so."

Yes, we were full, and no, we had no more room for savory, but sweet was a whole different matter.

One of us would fork the puff to hold it in place so the other could break off the perfect combination of dark chocolate, sweet cream and delicate pastry.

At one point, Friend looked at me and said, "I wanna be in a vat of that cream."

I can't say I shared that wish, but I did scarf my half way before he finished.

My lack of a petite feminine appetite no longer amazes him after four years of shared meals.

His response is hilarious and always the same. "Whoa."

It just means he's impervious to my reality. Smart man.

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