Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Here I Go Again

I'll just be blunt about it: without the food angle, there'd have been no art.

My weekend away was set in motion two days after returning from France, when an email arrived July 12th notifying me of another in the Smithsonian's culinary lecture series (so far the series had rewarded me with evenings listening to Anthony Bordain and Ruth Reichl), this one called "Mid-Atlantic Cuisine on the Rise."

As a life-long resident of the mid-Atlantic (where every grade school child had to study the history and bounty of the Chesapeake Bay), my interest was piqued not only by the topic but by the chefs discussing it: Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen (where I'd enjoyed a lovely meal a year and a half ago) and Jeremiah Langhorne of the Dabney (where I haven't eaten, but will).

So, with a primary stated purpose of learning - regional focus! culinary history! chef humor! - I could then concoct a well-rounded couple of days in support of my food curiosity and slide in a little art as long as I was in the neighborhood.

Or so I told myself as I set out to fill up 48 hours with all tomorrow's fun.

Stop #1 for lunch was brasserie Le Diplomat, because an outside table on a sunny afternoon is the best kind of welcome back to my hometown, even when spoiled kids and incompetent parents are just on the other side of an open window.

That the meal involved an exquisite warm shrimp salad with lemon buerre blanc and mesclun that I will surely dream about in days to come only added to the welcome back vibe.

Dinner was a dream, set at Kinship, which was clearly styled by a designer with an eye for subtlety and style and lit with hanging pendant lights and recessed lights so as to be completely flattering to my fair sex, no matter her age.

But I'd have eaten a torchon of white mushrooms in the dark, so fabulously conceived was this dish, but then I'd have missed the gorgeous purple tones of huckleberry gastrique on which it sat next to baby beet and wild mushroom salad.

Never - at least in my experience - have mushrooms tasted so much like duck liver.

Green and white striped tzatziki terrine of grilled octopus with dill-lemon vinaigrette was far lighter in flavor and rosy yellowfin tuna tataki felt very regional with spring onion and butter pickle salad with shiso tempura for crunch over a chilled bowl of dashi - a kind of Japanese stock - gelee to tie all the flavors together.

Agreeing with the woman at the table next door who had raved about it, I only managed to score a bite of pan-seared lamb ribeye with crispy eggplant, patty pan squash and green tomato chutney, but it was a mighty fine bite.

Our server scored high points for his relaxed attitude, patience and humor (when asked if he had a spiel about the menu, he said yes, "But I'll give you the colloquial version") as he came and went throughout the night, appearing out of nowhere with exactly what we needed before we even asked for it.

Full or not, I wasn't leaving Kinship without dessert, savoring whipped chocolate nougat with every bite, but probably most impressed with the one-two punch of whipped creme fraiche under a drizzle of espresso caramel, although the incredible smoothness of chocolate sorbet didn't hurt, either.

After a meal like that, there's not much more you can do beyond sleep for ten and a half hours and get up and go see some art in the pouring rain.

At the National Portrait Gallery,"In the Groove: Jazz Portraits by Herman Leonard" delivered stunning black and white photographs from the '40s through the '60s of iconic musicians.

A young Quincy Jones in a sporty striped shirt, pencil in hand, sheet music spread out in front of him, appears to have been caught mid-studio session. A still life of Lester Young includes all the sax player's essentials - his instrument case, his porkpie hat, sheet music and his lit cigarette atop an empty Coke bottle -  suggesting that he's just momentarily stepped away.

At the Smithsonian American Art Museum, "Harlem Heroes: Photographs by Carl van Vechten" provided a sepia-toned history lesson of handmade gravure prints from a series of significant black figures of the Harlem Renaissance such as James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and Richmond's own Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, strikingly shot shirtless.

It's not that art is exhausting or anything, but lunch necessarily followed at breezy, blue and fish-focused Drift on 7th, with a voluble server who admitted that on this soggy afternoon, he wanted nothing more than to be home, curled up with his dog.

Instead, he went out of his way to ensure that we enjoyed our lunch of tuna tartare with avocado and crispy shallots, fish tacos and fish and chips along with the palest of pink Provence Roses to wash it all down, but he was still probably glad when we finally moved on so he and the pup could be reunited for a rainy day nap.

Bar Pillar had barely opened its doors when we stopped by for a pre-lecture glass of bubbly before high-tailing it to the main event, the mid-Atlantic cuisine lecture.

Washington Post food section editor Joe Yonan moderated Spike and Jeremiah's discussion of what mid-Atlantic cuisine is - a combination of what grows here, how the local people have used those ingredients for centuries and, duh, the Chesapeake Bay - so we're talking oysters, crabs, rockfish, country ham, apple butter, sorghum, lima beans and peanuts.

And corn, of course, since we made full use of what the Native Americans taught us about growing and cooking corn after stealing their land.

Both chefs were wildly enthusiastic about their insistence on only using ingredients from the collection of eco-systems located within 150-200 miles of their restaurants.

Unfortunately, that local sourcing didn't extend to the wine glass and both admitted to a huge carbon footprint when it came to their wine lists.

For shame, gentlemen, although Spike did allow as how Virginia wine has made huge strides since his first 1991 restaurant.

On the food front, he laughed about how "older people love their shad roe" but how few today would embrace terrapin or canvasback duck on a menu.

Talking about the over-abundance of eel and snakefish and trying to find uses for it, he said that even commercial fishermen are reluctant. "They'll say, I don't know why you'd want to eat that!" he laughed before Jeremiah called salmon "the bane of my existence. I hate having to have salmon on my menu!"

It's a sentiment I share.

Both showed their testosterone by rhapsodizing about working with fire - Spike uses a wood-fired oven, Jeremiah a wood-fired grill to cook everything - which inevitably brought us back around to the evening's theme: "It all comes back to pizza."

What man doesn't agree with that?

As for the female vote, my favorite quote of the evening came from Spike and was heavily seconded by Jeremiah. "Chefs learn by failing." Can I get an amen on that?

Since we were already on the Mall, we headed up to Barrack's Row and EatBar for dinner, a place where an entire wall is covered with thousands of cassette tapes in boxes and represent the gamut when it comes to music. As in Oingo Boingo to White Snake, with a list of juke box album offerings on the back of the menu.

Music and food, my kind of place.

Argyle Brut paired perfectly with Trinidadian chicken wings, batter-coated and pulling off spicy and sweet at the same time, while the most obscene award went to ham fries, which combined  potatoes, ham, chili paste and balsamic-glazed pearl onions for a rib-sticking indulgence that sent me straight to the tomato, corn and winter savory salad with buttermilk dressing in penance.

A fair amount of my attention went to the juke box (why not, it required no cash outlay?) where I played everything from the Velvet Underground's "All Tomorrow's Parties" to Paul Westerburg's "Dyslexic Heart," with a somewhat protracted tangent about who produced Bowie's "Modern Love" (Nile Rodgers) after I played that song.

And why? Because my food curiosity is matched only by my music curiosity, which is roughly matched by my art curiosity.

Wait, did I mention the Spanish singer/guitarist and drummer/percussionist we randomly caught at Rumba Cafe? It wasn't planned, but there's always time for for some things. I can sleep in Richmond.

Consider that the colloquial version of the story and I'm sticking to it.

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