Thursday, August 11, 2016

Buttermilk and Biscotti

You never know what you'll learn in the shade.

Rounding the corner on to Meyer from Leigh Street, I know I can rely on a shady stretch to cool down briefly, but not necessarily one offering local history and cultural commentary.

It was my response - "Hot" - when a man taking a break from weed-eating asked how I was that set us off.

"This ain't hot," he responds. "I don't even use air conditioning in my truck." Clearly he had no idea who he was talking to. I don't use it in my car or apartment, I informed him. Haven't since '93.


Instead of looking gobsmacked, we jumped right into the decline of Western civilization due to over-use of air conditioning, lackadaisical parenting and general laziness.

We were soul mates, I tell you.

Like me, he was a come-here (albeit in 1963), who'd married here (1971) so, unlike me, had all kinds of memories of the city in the '70s. Cary near Harrison Streets was a hotbed of eating pleasures, he assured me, mentioning Johnson's Burger Bar, a barbecue joint and a diner where he could get all-you-can-eat string beans, mashed potatoes and chopped hamburger steak.

For sixty cents.

Discussing summer weather and the need for hydration, he slid into the conversation that he only drank two things: water and buttermilk. I happen to know that my Richmond grandmother drank only water, buttermilk and (unsweetened) iced tea, so apparently there was a time when this was a thing.

"Buttermilk's good for you," he said in that same tone my grandmother used to. Look, if you have to convince yourself, maybe it's time to reconsider what you're drinking.

Although I bet it makes a helluva fine milk mustache.

But he also said with some pride that he'd never been in a club - "You don't mix people with guns and drinking" - and if you don't do that and only drink water and buttermilk, where exactly are you getting your pleasure?

No, seriously, I'm asking.

We talked for a good 15 minutes before I resumed walking so he could get back to work. He did not approve of the men he's seen sitting near Lowe's, as he put it, "drinking right out in public instead of working."

I bet my grandmother would have felt the same way. Shiftless, I can just hear her saying it now.

Curious about these restaurants and that area, I had no choice but to consult my native Richmond authorities when we met up for dinner.

Holmes immediately flashed back to first hearing about the ultra-fab JB cheeseburger at Johnson's from a friend's letter while he and his family were vacationing in London. Not to question his recall or anything, but who remembers their first mention of a new burger joint?


Our drive to Nota Bene took us right by the long-gone eateries. conjuring up for the natives other restaurant and club ghosts of their youth where now looms VCU's Life Sciences building.

The restaurant was nearly full except for the bar, which was empty, and while the diners were making a racket, the music at the bar - Holmes dismissed it as "whiny white boy music" and said the bands sounded like Dylan-wannabes, but it was right up my "music from a cave" alley - soared right along side it, providing us a musical soundtrack undoubtedly absent where the table-dwellers sat.

An unusually large party of wine people had already depleted the specials board, but we nabbed the last of the crusty potato and leek focaccia alongside ricotta and blistered grape tomatoes, a dish almost as memorable visually as on the tongue.

Unable to resist the siren song of the roasted cauliflower or the sugar toads, the historians duplicated our order last visit, but then, some things are just too good to pass up, even if I did have to remind Holmes the easiest way to eat toads.

The peppery assertiveness of the arugula in my salad was ably met with chickpeas, pickled onion and oil-packed tuna all dressed in lemon and olive oil, a simple and satisfying summer supper for someone like me.

And someone like me, according to Holmes anyway, is someone who all but requires chocolate at the end of a meal - not true, but who can stop the slander? - a fact he shared with the owner, who recommended the latest addition to the dessert menu.

What's not to like about housemade chocolate almond biscotti drizzled with vermouth ("Because of who we are," she admitted with a shrug) served with a little Mason jar of sweetened ricotta made obscene with orange and lemon zest, almonds and bits of chocolate?

Not terribly sweet, with contrasting textures and supremely complementary flavors, the dessert opened with the kick of vermouth and finished with a breath of orange while laying on the charm of the cheese and chocolate.

I need not require something to take great pleasure in it. I'm beginning to think it's better if I don't.

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