Monday, January 9, 2017

Bad is in the Ear of the Beholder

What are the chances of happening on a spontaneous joke-off on an icy Sunday night? Pretty good, as it turned out.

All I really set out for was sustenance and some relief from so much of my own company (see: a movie for one this afternoon) but I knew I wanted it set to the musical stylings of DJ Fine Wine, which meant I was headed to Metzger.

No sacrifice since it had been too long anyway.

Given the weather and knowing this city, I had the sense to call ahead to ascertain the restaurant's game plan for tonight. Open till 10, which suited me just fine since I knew winding my way through the icy streets of Church Hill was going to be slow going with plenty of un-plowed streets and bad parking jobs.

The Hill didn't disappoint.

Inside, only a few tables were occupied, while at the bar was a single couple deep in conversation and red wine, making my mid-bar choice of stools neither invasive of their personal space nor too close to the wait station.

The first words out of my mouth were sincere appreciation to the bartender for being open tonight. Seems they'd been busy with neighborhood folks yesterday and far less so for brunch and dinner tonight, but hung in there anyway. "Everybody got out yesterday so today they're staying home," he conjectured.

Not everybody.

Ten degree nights require something ruddy so I asked for a glass of Paul Direder Zweigelt, but when I asked for the Brussels sprouts with fried squid, the barkeep winced, saying it was the one thing they were out of.

Instead, I requested the winter squash, a dish so seductive it made me inordinately grateful that the sprouts were long gone.

Squash roasted to that exquisite texture hovering somewhere between toothsome and tender shared the plate with curls of endive, sunflower seeds, dates, satsuma mandarins and pureed squash. The contrast between decadent sweetness (date slices), savory earthiness and nutty bitterness (endive) was matched only by textural swings from soft and chewy to crisp and crunchy.

Vegetarians would swoon and carnivores would swear allegiance to this squash, I'm telling you. And to enjoy it to obscure vintage soul music only intensifies my pleasure.

In the meantime, a couple had joined us at the bar and were regaling the barkeep with mutual friend stories. In the course of their discussion, he mentioned the way a friend told a joke, how excruciatingly long it could take him to tell jokes and yet how beautifully he could tie together a string of bad jokes at the end of it all.

"Here's one of his jokes," he said and wound up making both the bartender and I laugh out loud with it. It was really funny, we both acknowledged. Naturally, they couldn't tell just one joke and soon the bartender trots out one of his favorites and there's more laughter.

Immediately, they're on a roll, except these are jokes that, even if you haven't heard them before, you can tell they're classics, the kind of jokes that guys were telling back before pop-top beer. I mock them as a Milton Berle rip-offs and the guy volleys back, proving my point.

Knock, knock?
Who's there?
Two who?
To whom!

See what I mean? But I can't complain because they're both excellent joke-tellers with succinct timing and superb vocal inflection when required. They've both told a few jokes in their day.

What's the best time to go to the dentist?

After a particularly satisfying punchline, the bartender decides to bow out on a high note, effectively ending the joke-off. The bar sitter throws out a couple more just to get the last word.

Meanwhile, I order Black Forest Cake, which gets the attention of the original couple when the towering dessert arrives. A coffee can-sized dark chocolate cake is covered thickly in Chantilly cream, brandied cherries and Kirsch, but is notable for the dozen or so pieces of chocolate sticking out of the top like a crown of edible spikes.

"We're getting that to go," he brags. It occurs to me that my chocolate is going to be a lot taller than his chocolate if his is going in a to-go box. He claims he's already made peace with this fact.

He makes sure the bartender and I know he's from Charlottesville, which doesn't excuse his annoying habit of referring to the bartender as "my friend" in every sentence ("Once is the limit for 'my friend,'" the barkeep shares after he leaves).

Perhaps trying to impress us even more, he says of his companion, "This woman is a star from Tuckahoe."

When that gets no reaction, he corrects himself. "No, from Midlothian." The bartender blinks twice, says "okaaaay," and walks slowly away to get them a bottle to go.

Somewhere midway through my Black Forest cake, I notice the guy to my right eating the schnitzel is glancing over at my dessert covetously. I see him lean over to his partner and suggest, "We should think about dessert."

She points out that he's left over half his schnitzel uneaten. I point out that it was seeing my chocolate that derailed his desire train. He admits as much.

Once my wine and cake are gone, I start layering up to leave this pitch perfect soundtrack and head home, not forgetting to thank the bartender for all the bad jokes. He looks at me reprovingly.

"I prefer to think that they're just classic jokes," he says, polishing a glass while sounding like he's talking to a child. Whatever.

Ready to go, I turn to his partner in yucks and thank him as well for his bad jokes. He nods and smiles and goes back to talking to his date.

My hand is on the door to leave before I hear him calling from behind, "Wait! Those aren't bad jokes, they're..."

I know, I know, tried and true jokes. Proven winners. Funny for a reason. Jokes my grandfather probably laughed at in his lifetime.

Jokes that made my night.

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