Particularly when you're talking about restaurants and bands, two things that occupy an inordinate amount of my time, it's a delicate matter to ensure that you experience a good one at just the right moment. A bit too early, and things haven't gelled. A tad too late and you may miss the reason for all the word-of-mouth.
Sunday's goal was a road trip to Charlottesville to attempt a timing two-fer.
Tucked away in the unlikeliest of locations, the Alley Light rewarded our convoluted wanderings with a reservation set up at one of the clubby leather sofas near the open windows and a generously-sized table - easily the largest in a room full of overly petite tables - for all the tapas we kept ordering.
While we're scoping out the wine list, a guy at a nearby two-top swivels around and begins sharing his opinions unasked.
"You like bourbon? And citrus? This is the best drink I ever had! I'd like to steal their bartender for my restaurant. Not really, but kind of." He smirks like we care.
Within minutes, he's calling a buddy to say - in what is clearly his "outside" voice - that he just had the best small plate of his life. When a server comes over later, he makes suggestions about what the chef could do to further enhance the dish he's now eating.
Some people would call a guy like this a tool. (See: "Green's Dictionary of Slang" for tool: stupid, useless or socially inept person).
In a stroke of luck, he and his bimbo-looking girlfriend soon move to a larger table and we're able to go back to enjoying ourselves trying to decide what to order.
As it happened, the real challenge was finding a wine that was in stock since our first two were not. The server passed the buck to the owner, claiming he buys wine for all his restaurants and hadn't restocked, but an excuse is an excuse. A substitute was offered and liquid finally hit glass.
My first vote for eats was for a cheese plate with Mimolette, Comte and Bijou with Armagnac-marinated cherry puree, frisee and nuts. Relaxing and nibbling in the dimly-lighted room with a view of the crowd, our plump leather perch was practically perfect.
To die for French green beans under a fluffy pile of shaved frozen foie gras in a pool of almond shallot vinaigrette set the bar high from the start. Veal sweetbreads in anchovy sauce registered as decadent in texture as in flavor. Pork rilettes shone with a hint of rosemary, the accompanying pickled carrots supplying a jolt of piquancy.
After that romp through the land, we ended on a sea note with cured salmon plated around beet and oranges, clean on the palate and very different than the richness that preceded it.
I admit, my favorite time to visit a new restaurant is before it gets reviewed. Yet, despite the recent glowing words of a top-notch hired mouth, everything was spot on- it wasn't unpleasantly mobbed, the staff didn't seem panicked (other than the girl who couldn't produce a single wine we asked for) and every dish sang with flavor.
Beautifully timed, in other words. Nailed it.
From there, we ambled the downtown mall to the Pavilion to catch Mat Kearney's show on a cool, fall night.
Last time I'd seen Mat Kearney, it had been with my buddy Andrew at a seated show at the Canal Club back in July 2010.
Not only was he without a band - although he had a guitarist doing some backing vocals - but his sole means of percussion was an old Samsonite suitcase with a microphone inside. Tap it with your foot and voila! Instant drum!
And in what had to be one of the most endearing moves of all time, when his set had ended, instead of leaving the stage (because there's really nowhere "backstage" to go at the CC), Mat just squatted down for 30 seconds, then popped back up for the encore.
He scored even more points after inviting an audience member onstage to play
Well, clearly Mat's come up in the world, meaning he had a full band with him this time as well as fancy light projections. My first thought was this is great, since the songs on "City of Black and White," my favorite of his albums, deserve more than two guys, two guitars and a suitcase can deliver.
But here's the problem: even with another five years of success, Mat Kearney's sound is till far better suited to a smaller venue. The Pavilion, with its sides that open onto the mall and the bridge were just too massive for his earnest stylings.
Which is not to say I wasn't thrilled to hear full-band versions of songs such as "Closer to Love," his "Fire and Rain" and "New York to California" but for god's sake, man, how could you not do "Runaway Car"?
No, really, explain that, will you?
The crowd was all over the place: the barely legal girls dressed identically, the color of their tops the only difference; the clutches of middle-aged women on a boisterous girls' night out and the absolute best, two stoic husbands who sat, arms crossed and staring straight ahead, as their wives first danced in their seats and then stood to shake it with all their might as the men ignored them.
At one point, Mat even leaped down into the crowd to sing and move around, a surefire way to make die-hard fans out of anyone on the fence, not that I think the crowd wasn't mostly fervent already (the only exceptions being the dates who'd been dragged along).
But just to prove that he's still the same old Mat of 2010, you better believe he pulled out "Dancing in the Dark" for his final song of the night.
Now you know. Seeing Mat Kearney wasn't all it could have been this time. Don't get me wrong, it was still a fabulous meal followed by live music sung by a man whose voice and lyrics ("If you're still there, then you're still all I want") I very much enjoy hearing.
Don't sweat it, Mat, our timing was just off. It happens sometimes with men. Get back to me in four or five years and I'll reconsider.
But know that bigger isn't always better.