Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Eating for Sport

Pin a rose on me. I helped a guy figure out how he wanted to die tonight.

It was while I was over-eating with two friends and blathering about how good the food, glorious food was that our server dropped in on the conversation.

"I know, right?" he said, joining right in. "There's a 600-pound man trapped inside this body and all he wants to do is eat. That's how I want to die...eating." He paused. "Or with a woman."

What about both? I asked him and his eyes lit up. "Yes! That's how I want to go. Food, a woman and well, you know." I did know. "Maybe with an egg cracked over us."

Be still my heart. This is a man I get.

And these are the kinds of conversation we were having while an eclectic world music station played everything from French torch songs to African percussion to Bollywood dance rhythms, making for a party soundtrack. The lighting may have been a tad bright and I have no use for a big screen with football on, but otherwise, Castanea was definitely working for us.

The fact of the matter is, my original plan had been to go hear a scholarly talk on the movie "Django Unchained" and then see the movie for the first time. See a little violence, learn a little something, you know, typical Tuesday evening.

But I'd run into a friend who wanted to go to the opening of the new Belle & James downtown instead so I donned opening party attire (as in, cute tights) and met a favorite couple there, where we ogled the gorgeous bar and arresting art.

There were so many more people crammed into the space than we'd anticipated, some looking incredibly stylish - a favorite sommelier - and others spouting cliches and platitudes - the mayor dubbing Belle & James a "New York City restaurant" before he'd even tasted a bite of food.

I ran into the parents of a good friend and was tickled to hear that he'd shared with his mother the dating advice I'd given him. She told me that since she'd married her first date, she hadn't had the life experience to advise him.

And while I don't date for sport (one of the pithiest descriptors I've heard lately), I definitely have had enough dating experience to advise a good friend when I can.

The place was so packed that mingling was pretty much limited to the area immediately adjacent to where you stood, but luckily it was central enough that I spotted a few familiar faces and made do with those around me.

After an hour or so, the three of us left the movers and shakers behind to meet at Castanea so we could really talk. Despite all leaving in separate cars from the same place, I arrived a full 15 minutes ahead of each of them and the bartender warmly welcomed me back. When my friendsy didn't show up shortly, he asked if they could have stopped to canoodle, delaying their arrival.

I like the way he thinks, but it is to laugh. I told him no, that hell would have to freeze over first before their delay could be blamed on canoodling, and eventually she walked in the door and a bit later, he did, too.

You'd think people with GPS systems could beat a Luddite who still uses maps, but apparently not.

We were in wildly different wine moods, so she who wanted bubbles got a Lambrusco and he fell in love with Ancient Ruins Merlot/Cab Franc, resulting in a fascinating lecture on the many micro-climates and abundance of completely different soils at this Pasa Robles vineyard.

After one sip, I had to have Casa Ferreirinha "Planalto" Branco Reserva, a Portuguese wine that drank like a mouthful of rainwater (or ocean, according to my friend who praised its hint of salinity), with a finish that just dropped off at the end, like leaping off a cliff into the ocean. I only wish I was drinking it at the ocean.

Since it was their first time, they wanted to taste all over the menu and since I'm the last person to preach moderation with a glass of wine in hand, we dove right in.

Speaking of the sea, we got a bowl of it in the form of panzanella fruit de mar, a bright citric combination of mussels, clams, calamari, shrimp, anchovies, orange peppers, onion, olives and bread that was exquisite with my wine. So good, in fact, that the female half ordered a glass for herself to enjoy with the seafood.

We got our meaty fix with albondigas, Spanish meatballs noticeably absent any filler, with pine nuts and a chunky tomato sauce, before taking it over the top. Impressed as we'd been with both of those, when the cresto de gallo showed up, it rocked our night.

Perfectly pan-fried chicken livers had a texture to die for and the al dente cresto de gallo (looking like ruffled tubes of pasta with a cockscomb) equally so. A Marsala wine sauce gave the dish its richness while rainbow Swiss chard complemented the understated but definitive spiciness that had us all moaning with pleasure.

There's nothing more unappealing than an overcooked chicken liver where all you taste is that overpowering mineral quality that reminds you you're eating a filtering organ. This, I'm happy to report, was the furthest thing from it.

Make no mistake, we were full by this point, but having too good a time talking with our amiable Dutch server, taking in the terrific music playing overhead and discussing theater, Chartreuse-centric bars and sushi at 2:45 a.m. to notice.

Which may or may not explain ordering a shakshuka pizza sporting garlic, tomato, paprika and two runny eggs atop it. Smokiness dominated and the eggs imparted an obscene richness to each slice.

Given our bloated state, we moved on to cinnamon-spiked digestifs with a nose of orange and bitters that righted our world and prepared us to face the final frontier: dessert.

Part of the reason we'd come had been because I'd told my food-obsessed friend about the Sicilian pistachio gelato made from pistachio paste flown over from Sicily and he had to have it. She went with prickly pear, a beautiful rose-colored sweet thing, and I had - no surprise here - double chocolate.

We stopped short of licking the designs off the howl, but otherwise left little. If there's a better $3 dessert in town, please tell me about it.

When the chef came out to check on our satisfaction level, my friend let slip that tonight's visit represented his 646th Richmond restaurant visit and that, yes, he keeps a spreadsheet with notes.

I couldn't let the opportunity pass to point out that he also keeps a spread sheet on the qualities that make up the perfect woman. His long-time girlfriend sitting to my right, who's never seen that spreadsheet, was surprised to hear that she scores 56 out of 72. She thought she was a 60.

She may want to consider cracking an egg over herself. I hear some men like that.

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