Monday, January 31, 2011

Settling on a 7-Year Plan at Sette

If I needed an antidote to having recently seen True Grit, I got it tonight at the Westhampton seeing Another Year.

As a fan of director Mike Leigh's films, I knew to expect an ensemble of strong actors playing ordinary people, with loads of dialog and no pat happy endings.

Because the film is about a long-time happily married couple and the dysfunctional friends that are attracted to their stability, it was easy to see it first as a contrast between those lucky enough to find their soul mates and thrive together and those who don't.

But Leigh's films are so beautifully paced, unfolding in a decidedly un-cinematic way, that instead of focusing on the relationship haves and have nots, I found myself instead just enjoying the rarity of watching a long-time couple (frequently drinking wine and making pithy observations to each other) who still truly appreciate each other.

And I'm not totally unfamiliar with the concept anyway.

My parents are still more than happy with each other and I know two couples who continue to be poster children for long-term successful relationships.

Still, despite the overall darkness of the film, watching two people interact so intimately and satisfyingly made for a most affirming movie experience and one far more to my taste than a Western (even one with great language) ever could.

I had popcorn and Milk Duds at the movie because the box office guy gave me a free small popcorn voucher and a $2 candy voucher and I fell prey to both

"You want butter on that?" Duh. "You know 80% of people get their popcorn buttered?" Why eat it otherwise?.

Despite that, I went straight from the theater to Sette for dinner. The place was full of people on a Monday night.

Approaching the bar, the two people there immediately fled, causing me to say to the bartender, "I don't always have that effect on people."So you usually attract 'em?" he cracked.

Well, not necessarily, but clearing the room was a little disconcerting. Fortunately, a couple soon arrived and sat down near me, proving that I wasn't still repelling others.

The bartender told me that it was margarita/margherita night, meaning $3 margaritas and $7 margherita pizzas.

 "It's a great deal. Some of the frozen pizzas cost almost that much," he claimed, ever the salesman (and the second of the day to target me).

Deal or not, I could never be sold on a margarita, even given that tequila is the only thing I drink besides wine. Why on earth would anyone mess up fine tequila with anything but a slow-melting ice cube? But of course, margaritas so seldom involve fine tequila.

So I went with montepulciano d'abruzzo, and after enjoying my wine for a while, I let him convince me to try the margherita. Let's face it, if a pizza place can't do a margherita right, what hope is there for more elaborate variations?

I tend to stick to white pizzas, but Sette's fire-roasted tomato sauce was amply covered with Mozzarella and shredded basil, and I found it quite tasty, even more so after the bartender had grated a generous amount of Parmesan over it.

True, my plate looked like a blood bath when I finished due to extraneous tomato sauce, but that's a white pizza-loving girl's prerogative. Some, yes, all, no.

We chatted about his seven-year plan because he intends to leave the country at that point. He was feeling quite superior because his ex-wife just got pregnant with her new husband so her seven-year plan has now morphed into an 18-year plan.

Ouch. Sucks to be her, we agreed.

He asked and I had to admit that I don't have a seven-year plan, although I wouldn't mind it involving being part of a long-time couple-to-be, happily contrasting with all my dysfunctional friends.

And I already know how to drink wine and make pithy observations about others. It'll be just like in a Mike Leigh movie, except without the British accents.

And maybe better teeth.

Forget Comfy. Try Something New.

It was sort of bittersweet; tonight was the last Silent Music Revival put on by my friend Jameson, the genius behind the event.

He and his beloved leave for the West Coast soon and don't expect to be back before fall, so the shows will be managed by other capable hands, although not his.

In a nod to it being his last, he had made an unusual film choice, 1922's Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, a documentary about how superstition and a lack of understanding of mental illness once led to witch hunts.

To further add to the final night mystique, tonight's band, Homemade Knives, had been allowed to not only view but score the film.

This is notable because with every other SMR, the bands had improvised a score to a film they had never laid eyes on.

We didn't see the entire film, only a half hour segment of narrative about a woman being accused of being a witch.

The dramatized sequence had the woman being accused of making a dying man sick and the torture and questioning she faced as a result.

Homemade Knives' score was superb; it followed the narrative perfectly and added a dramatic element to it.

What was unsettling was how the audience laughed at the most inappropriate times, like when a bloody baby was about to be boiled, for instance.

Macabre moments seemed to make people giggle; it was very strange. Several other people noticed and made comments to me, so I wasn't the only one disturbed by it.

I lingered after the show to mingle, talk about the film and music and spend time with friends. Several people asked me what my next stop was and I told them I had nothing further planned.

But I began to feel like I would be a disappointment if I headed home at 9:30 and I wasn't ready to end my evening anyway, so I punted.

I couldn't think of any of my regular hangouts that were calling to me tonight, so I opted for something different, namely Patrick Henry Pub on Church Hill.

The bar only had a couple of empty stools when I arrived, but I snagged one on the corner and settled in to see what might turn up.

Within moments, I was delighted to hear the guys next to me start talking food, servers and Christian warriors (want some Jesus with that ice cream?).

Bingo! I had my conversational partners.

They turned out to be delightful, too.

One manages a Carytown restaurant and the other clerks for a judge and both were foodies with opinions to spare. We got right down to it.

Aside from an hour or more discussing the strengths and weaknesses of various restaurants, we got into a spirited discussion of who doesn't eat what.

It turned out that one eschews oysters because (and this was my favorite line of the evening), "Oysters are like licking the ass crack of the ocean." Come on, that's brilliant.

And, no, I didn't agree with him, but I laughed long and hard at how well he had expressed his feeling.

The other had yet to try foie gras for some vaguely ethical reasons.

I think our gushing descriptions of its taste may have persuaded him to give it a try very soon, perhaps even this week.

One had recently done a stint in DC, so he wanted to talk restaurants there. Like me, he loves Zatinya and Oyamel, although, unlike me, he hadn't tried the grasshopper or tongue tacos at the latter.

Next to my two new friends was a recent come-back to RVA, a guy who had grown up here and just returned after 25 years and living in Chicago, California, and Barcelona in the interim. He was saying what a tough time he was having finding out where to eat here now that he was back.

He was feeling his ignorance particularly keenly because his ex-girlfriend had been a food writer and he'd been the happy sidekick to all her eating adventures.

Now he felt like he was settling for the old and familiar, like a pair of comfortable pajamas (where have I heard that analogy before, hmm?).

Once he overheard our discussion, he joined in, asking me for recommendations on where to find raw oysters and my blog; I accommodated him on both counts.

I was surprised to learn that the disarming duo had not yet eaten at The Empress, despite knowing Carly and Melissa, so we made plans to have a threesome there in the near future and correct that.

The music was loud and varied (The Darkness, Erika Badu, The Cure) and our discussion deviated from food long enough to cover music (the one was amazed that I knew Mumford and Sons) and the Girl Talk show the other had attended last night ("A bunch of amateurs stumbling around by 9:00").

When I looked up and realized the time, I started wrapping things up with my new friends.

They thanked me profusely for my company and I did the same.

None of us had expected to stumble onto so much of shared interest with strangers and we all felt fortunate for having done so on a random Sunday night.

Sometimes punting is the way to go, never more so than when it leads to the potential for scoring.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Shiny, Deep and Ears Ringing

A friend had invited me to meet her for drinks and then join her for "The Color Purple" at the Landmark Theater.

That wasn't going to work because I had plans to see a music show at 9:00, but we decided to meet for drinks anyway.

Conveniently for me, she chose the Belvidere at Broad at 5:45. Foolishly, neither of us had considered the number of people who would be there at 5:30 for a pre-theater meal.

It's not like we had a tough time getting bar stools because we didn't, but the hustle and bustle around us was non-stop for the harried staff. On the plus side, they knew it would mostly go away by 7:45.

Except that it didn't. Oh, sure, plenty of people left to make the curtain, including my friend, but even more showed up looking for food and drink on a Saturday night. No one had any idea what the craziness was about.

My friend and I enjoyed the Hahn Cabernet Sauvignon as we chatted about our upcoming trips. In the blink of an eye, it was time for her to leave and I was left with half a glass of wine and no one to talk to. Luckily that didn't last long.

Friends of a friend came in, and took the table behind me, so with a swivel of the hips, I had two friendly faces and eager conversationalists while they ate their burgers and downed their beer flight.

To taunt our mutual friend, we took a picture of me and one of the guys and sent it off to him, saying we were on the way to the Girl Talk show at the National (he detests Girl Talk and would undoubtedly wonder how in the world we ended up together). Simple pleasures.

I enjoyed the Belvidere's house applewood-smoked salmon (they do it so well) after their departure and tried to keep up with the rotating cast of characters in the stools nearest me. They seemed to be the staging area for the next available table.

I was soon joined at the bar by a West End foursome waiting for a table. They asked me if I'd eaten there before, launching a 20-minute discussion of where else in the city they should try.

They apologized for living in Short Pump, but now that they're empty-nesters, they're committed to doing all their dining in the city and broadening their horizons. But they needed help.

They eagerly asked for some of my favorite places and dishes and I happily shared my opinions. "Boy, did we talk to the right person," one of the husbands gushed to his wife. "You're a goldmine of information!" he told me. That's me, shiny and deep.

Once they'd moved tableside, I ordered the dark chocolate brownie with vanilla bean gelato, Bailey's dark chocolate whipped cream and a dark chocolate ganache sauce.

When it arrived, a nearby girl grabbed her husband's arm and asked, "What's that? I need that!" They had just arrived. Down, girl. She watched me eat until I pushed the rest away; you could almost see her wondering why I hadn't finished.

When I left, there were close to ten people waiting for tables at the front and it was going on 9:00. I wished owner Julie luck with that (she was as perplexed by it as I was) and walked home to get my car and head to Gibson's.

Tonight's show there was further complicated because of the Girl Talk show at the National. Walking by to get in Gibson's, I passed a lot of kids in shiny clothes, their underage hands marked with a big "X," all ready for a dance party, which Girl Talk would no doubt deliver.

Down in the bowels of Gibson's it was much more civilized. The show began with Dave Watkins on dulcitar, looping himself for layers of sound. At one point, a friend acknowledged, "Ah, the ever-capable Dave Watkins. He's got three loops going at once!"

Before one song in which he'd also be playing drums, he told the crowd, "I'm going to lose my glasses on this one." Before long, they were sliding down his nose and he finally pulled them off and tossed them to the floor. It was an excellent set.

Lobo Mario played next, putting on their best mic'd show ever (since they frequently play without mics) and infusing their folky songs with an enthusiastic energy that engaged the diverse crowd.

At one point Jameson introduced "Laney on accordion" after a particularly robust accordion piece. "Yea, that was me shredding," she said self-deprecatingly. Their down-tempo cover of Elvis' "Can't Help Falling in Love" brought the house down.

DC's The Orchid headlined and, as a big fan of post-rock, I was thrilled to hear these guys perform. Like all post-rock groups, there was the serious wall of guitar sound (three) plus a drummer, with no vocals playing big, beautiful soundscapes alternately loud and quiet.

Unlike most post-rock groups, however, they had an amplified violin player (he doubled on keyboards), making for quite an interesting addition to their sound.

Unfortunately, during his solos (and between songs) the thumping bass of the Girl Talk show rattled the ceiling of the room. Fortunately, when they were all playing, their bold sound pushed right back.

When their stellar set was over, I said my farewells to my friends and headed over to Sprout, hoping to catch some of the show going on there.

Owner Laurie's band Catnip Dreams was playing and I hadn't seen them since last summer's Jonny Z Fest show where they absolutely shone on Shields Street.

As soon as I walked in the door, a friend came up to tell me I'd miss their terrific set. Drat the luck.

I headed to the back room for Green Hearts to find the room was packed. Finally a guy took pity on my abbreviated stature and gave me his step, where I could at least see lead singer (and WRIR DJ) Paul Ginder and some of the other band members rocking out.

Their sound was pure 60s/70s and most of the band had on skinny ties. They played tambourine, maracas and cowbell in addition to the usual suspects.

Songs were short and high energy and the crowd was moving non-stop during every 3-minute burst. Sadly, I also saw no less than four people with their fingers in their ears. Tragic, kids, absolutely tragic.

When they finished, the audience clamored for one more and Paul begged off, saying "We can't. We're old." The crowd refused to accept such an un-rock and roll sentiment and they played one more.

Afterwards, I went up to Sprout owner Jamie just before he began DJ'ing vintage vinyl, saying, "Sprout, always reliable for revisiting the past."

"Not a problem, is it?" he grinned.

Would I have been there again if it was? Not to mention that there's always the hope of meeting a like-minded soul over a sixties or seventies groove.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Eating Off the Menu at Cellar Door

It was such a nice day that I had the brilliant idea to stroll the Monument Avenue medians, something I hadn't done in a couple of years.

But every time I do it, I'm a amazed at how completely different it feels to be in the center of the street rather than on either side of it. There's something about being on the wide grassy expanse that makes the traffic seem distant.

And if I'm going to walk Monument Avenue, it only made sense to have lunch there, too. Of course, that leaves one option, but my last two visits to the Cellar Door had been delicious, so I wasn't adverse to a third.

When I walked in, I was pleasantly surprised to find four tables full and a couple at the bar deep in conversation. Things were looking up; tat's more than the combined number of people on my last two visits.

Maybe they'd heard about the Peruvian chicken I'd had on my last two visits, first by itself and then on a salad. Today I broke bad and got the Manchester, a sandwich of that chicken, tomato, avocado, Provolone and caramelized onions with Mediterranean potato salad.

The music was classic rhythm and blues (Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Jackson 5) and I enjoyed listening to it while waiting for my food. It soon became obvious that I must have arrived only a short time after the eight-top, the four-top and one of the two-tops.

The kitchen was clearly very busy making everyone's food, but I was in no hurry and my server was nice enough to chat me up in the interim. I asked about them doing music shows and he said they frequently happened on Mondays. I consider this a good thing since Mondays can be slow days and he agreed. Sprout is good about that, too.

He told me that Chiocca's was one of his favorite places to eat because of the enormous sandwiches. The vintage vibe at Chiocca's came up and he said that somehow the bar regulars at Chiocca's manage to seem less questionable than the ones at the Village, despite the fact that they could be the same people.

It's true: whenever I'm in Chiocca's, I feel like I'm in a time warp and it could be 20 or 40 years ago. Nothing much changes down there (okay, there was the addition of the ATM machine, but even that's old news now).

When my sandwich finally arrived, it was with profuse apologies from my server. I told him I understood that I had been in line behind fourteen other orders and felt the kitchen's pain and he thanked me for understanding.

My sandwich was an absolutely terrific combination of flavors, although not exactly as it had been billed. The onions were raw, not caramelized, which was still fine with me and the Provolone was missing in action, but that didn't matter to me, either.

The heat of the Peruvian chicken's jalapeno sauce paired with the coolness of the tomatoes and avocado and the crunch of the onion on thick ciabatta was a really delicious combination and I wasn't the least bit sorry for the changes from the menu's description.

As I was eating, a woman from the eight-top came over to pay and tell my server that, "Word is getting out about this place. My neighbor told us about it and then one of our guests over there arrived already wanting to come here."

I'm not surprised. A place that can give a customer something different than what she ordered and still impress knows what they're doing.

Now I'll just have to check out one of their shows and see if they're as good at that. Somehow I'm willing to bet that they are.

Don't Take Away My Storm Art

A few months ago, a storm brought down an enormous piece of a tree in front of a house on Grace Street. I walked around it for days, wondering why the city or the homeowner didn't move it out of the way.

And then one day, it had been moved up and laid down on the little front yard of a house. The piece of tree was huge; it was easily 12' long, with branches making it maybe 6' wide.

A few days later, I noticed someone had wrapped colorful ribbons around some of the trunk and branches. Then parts of it were painted a variety of colors. Eventually, little pieces of mirror were hung from the branches. Additional shards of mirror were laid under and behind the tree.

Because I passed by the tree on my daily walk, I was able to notice every time something new was added. Like the twinkle lights. And, once holiday season arrived, vintage-looking Christmas balls in blue and pink. The storm debris tree had become bona fide public art.

A friend joined me on my walk last week and when we came abreast of it, he made no comment; so I pointed it out, telling him how much pleasure I got from seeing it every day. It was as pleasurable in the rain and snow as it was in the sunshine.

So I was shocked today when, upon approaching it, I saw that the poor tree scrap was practically naked. Only ribbons and paint remained on the trunk.

A girl stood near the tree on the porch surveying it, so I figured she was the person to ask. "You're not taking it down, are you?" I asked, probably sounding inappropriately desperate.

"No, no," she said reassuringly. "But it's been so wet lately, it was looking kind of bad. When I walked by, it was making me more sad than happy."

"So it's just getting a facelift, then?" I inquired. She nodded. "Exactly."

Good thing. You can't spoil me with yard art and then take it away. Well, you can, but that block would never be the same.

From the wrath of the weather gods to Grace Street, art for passers-by. I get it. In fact, I love it.

Hello, It's Me

Sometimes you have to go to a wine and cheese tasting to learn about ceiling fan settings. Or maybe that's just me.

When I got to Olio, owner Jason came over to greet me and ask how I was. My standard answer these days is, "Cold," and I usually place my cold hands on the questioner to further demonstrate what I mean.

Leading me across the store, we stopped under a ceiling fan. "This is the hot spot" he said smiling. "Reverse the fan blades and it pushes the heat down." Duly noted. Next he suggested some wine to further the process.

Among the wines being poured was the absolutely beautiful Mumm Napa Pinot Noir, velvety and with a dense berry flavor (and at $31.99 at Olio, a steal of a deal). My only regret was drinking it out of a plastic cup, but I soldiered on for the sake of the grape.

Jason suggested second helpings, but I had places to be, so I stopped by the cheese counter and picked up a half pound of Italian Tallegio before one final stop under the fan and exiting stage right.

If it's Friday, I must be going to the VMFA for their Friday film series, but tonight's installment had a twist; there was going to be a guest speaking for the first hour.

And I lucked out when I got there, running into an acquaintance and all-around interesting guy whom I hadn't seen in awhile to sit beside and share discussions of history and movies with before the festivities began.

Speaking was Marine Sgt. Kristopher Battles, the last remaining U.S. Marine Corps combat artist.

This was a guy who, after getting his degree in painting, ended up reenlisting at 38 to document war in the same way that combat artists have risked their lives doing for their country and their craft for over a century.

His slide show presented some of his works, including a sketch of three non-functioning urinals in an abandoned hotel. "This is my homage to Duchamp," he said, amusing the art geeks in the audience. He also cited Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent (also a war artist) as influences.

"And isn't that the best artist name ever?" he asked rhetorically about Sargent. I've always thought the same thing, so I loved hearing this cheerful Midwestern artist say what I've been thinking since college.

Not surprisingly, the audience contained plenty of Marines in addition to art geeks. Calling his work "the greatest job in the military," he explained why. "We are not restricted in our field range, our medium or our subject matter."

His talk was followed by a screening of They Drew Fire, a documentary about WW II combat artists. The film interviewed an array of former combat artists, most of whom agreed that it was essential that a man be a fighter first and an artist second.

The sheer number of combat artists in WW II was amazing. There were over a hundred, working not only for publications like Life and Yank magazines, but for entities like Abbott Laboratories, documenting military hospital work. Apparently the demand was huge for interpretive war imagery back in the States.

One former artist told of making a painting of soldiers rinsing blood off stretchers in the river on a hot night. One of the soldiers performed this odious task naked, but the military censors would have none of it, instructing the artist to cover the nudity.

"It was okay to kill people in war, but not to show nudity," the artist complained. "I put drawers on him, but it bothered me." He was understandably not happy with the military's censoring.

I walked out of the museum with a wider appreciation for the role of combat artists. I had been struck by the risks taken by the artists in the "Civil War Drawings from the Becker Collection" exhibit I'd seen and to that I could now add an appreciation for the men who'd done it in the wars since.

My favorite evenings are ones like tonight where I get to learn something and then sit back and enjoy myself. I was meeting one of my favorite couples for a date at Acacia and I arrived to a full-on noisy full house.

They were stationed at the bar and I joined them toward the end of their pork terrine, managing to score a couple of bites before the plate was whisked away.

The bar was full of colorful characters (the strapless dress and Wilma Flintstone-like necklace begged for commentary), so we ordered libations and I perused the menu.

Since we'd first met over pork belly at Balliceaux, we ordered it for sentimental reasons, along with the duck confit and butternut squash hash under a poached egg. Both were terrific, although one among us found the hash to have a tad too much squash despite the excellent flavor profile of the dish.

As we were discussing current movies, the issue of making beds and anonymous commenters, a bar sitter came over and tapped me on the shoulder. "Who am I?" he asked from close range.

I told him he was Rick and he expressed amazement that I recognized him (I later heard from my friends that he'd been glancing over all evening; color me oblivious). We had met back in the 90s when I was working in radio and hadn't seen each other in eons.

He was the one who had tried to curry favor with me by making me a tape (!) of Porno for Pyros, a band name I remember him telling me he did not understand, but thought I might like. He got an A for effort, as I recall.

After that trip down memory lane, my friends and I moved on to dessert. Naturally the one I chose was chocolate, although the best part of it was the brown butter ice cream, with the caramelized bananas and chocolate Chantilly cream a lovely complement.

The deep and decadent butter flavor of the ice cream made every bite taste sinful. We also shared the apple skillet cake with caramel sauce and the tiniest amount of bacon brittle under the ice cream.

This led to a discussion of desserts in RVA and whether comparisons can be made between desserts at a place like Acacia and more casual restaurants.

The verdict was that quality comparisons can be made, but not creativity comparisons. Few places in Richmond innovate with dessert like Acacia does.

And speaking of few, few people would admit to not knowing about reverse ceiling fan settings. But like I said, the best nights always involve me learning something.

In the words of Todd Rundgren, something/anything.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Digging the Accents

Go to two stellar shows, one cool, one hot and you will meet charming, handsome men from other countries. I know this only because I went and I did.

Starting at the VMFA for the Jazz Cafe, I found a nearly full room and no available tables, which wasn't the least bit surprising because the Brian Jones Quartet was playing. As many times as I've seen Jones play and in as many configurations as I've seen, he never ceases to impress.

Tonight's stellar show was courtesy of Jones on drums, J.C. Kuhl on tenor sax, Daniel Clarke on keys and Randall Pharr on upright bass.

I love watching these guys play; Pharr is always smiling, unlike a lot of oh-so serious bass players, Clarke's delight is tangible and they tend to crack up when one or the other of them goes off on a particularly colorful improvisation.

I propped myself up on a wall near the band, but it wasn't long before a nearby couple offered me one of the spare chairs at their table. They also invited the guy standing next to me but he bowed out saying, "I can't. I'm holding up the wall." Not sure, but I think he was afraid I'd bite.

My new-found seat afforded me a close-up view of the band, who whipped through a varied repertoire, including Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis' "Blue in Green," the classic "Bye, Bye, Blackbird" and the surprising "Eleanor Rigby."

Jones came over to say hello during one of the breaks and I commented that in all the times I've seen him play, this was the first time I'd seen him in a button-down shirt. "I can clean up," he laughed. And well, I might add, admiring his all-black ensemble.

They did three sets for the devoted crowd. When the bewitching hour of 9:00 rolled around, Jones said, "We're going to play one more. Not sure what it's going to be, though."

By the time they finished, the museum was closed and the security people couldn't usher us out quickly enough.

It was a short drive to Balliceaux for No BS Brass Band's show and I mercifully arrived before the hordes. Taking up a seat at the front bar, I ordered the chai-infused chocolate pate and a Zin blend and settled in to discuss the bartender's recent visit to DC and Zatinya.

As the No BS musicians began to straggle in, I was about to move my headquarters to the back room when I felt a tap on the shoulder and my favorite Brazilian chef appeared.

In all the years I've known him, I've never once run into him out at night, so I couldn't have been more surprised...or pleased with the company.

He asked what I was drinking, ordered two more and we began a spirited discussion of going out versus staying in. Eventually his lovely wife arrived, followed closely by all kinds of interesting friends to whom she introduced me.

I met a scientist-type from Colombia, a Spaniard recently relocated from NYC and a host of other characters, almost all of whom had recently read my piece in Style. It was an interesting starting point for conversation with strangers.

In what seemed to be almost a violation of fire code, people continued to arrive and I quickly realized how lucky I was to be ensconced on a bar stool and off the beaten path.

The people around me were constant targets for the moving crowds, being jostled and knocked into at every turn.

One thing that soon became apparent was how many of the attendees were first-timers. I heard an awful lot of people say, "I heard these shows are amazing" or "These guys are supposed to be great" as they made their way to the back room.

By the time No BS finally started playing, I knew there was no way I was going to join the masses in the back room, much as I would have liked a view of the band playing.

More than a few people I knew tried it, only to come back shaking their heads in amazement at the sheer mass of humanity sweating back there. One guy came back glistening with sweat and saying, "I need water!"

I didn't even try. I had a host of interesting conversationalists to choose from; a guy told me about his non-fiction writing classes, another about his acclimation to RVA, one had just opened an online store, a photographer wanted to buy me a drink, and another told me about the light shows he designs for his drumming friend. I chatted with three different restaurant owners. All compelling enough discussions to justify staying put.

The down side was that it wasn't always easy to hear the No BS show, but since the stairs were packed with people, there wasn't much I could do about it. Luckily I periodically got an earful, so I didn't feel like I was missing out completely.

Besides, the party (and it was a party) going on up front was amazing; lots of smart people, witty conversation, mingling and requests for my card. I went for music and got social intercourse.

No complaints from this camp.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Hate On Style Readers! I'm Having a Hot Dog

Well, the haters are back and all because I had the temerity to complete an assignment for Style Weekly.

When Style asked me to write an essay about dining out alone, I did, here. You see, I'm a freelance writer and I write for pay, so I write what I'm paid to write, unlike the blog where I get to choose my topics. And that's apparently what ignited the posters' ire.

The story had barely shown up online before the haters reared their ugly and anonymous heads. Issac summed it up well: "F**k 'em. Trolls hang out in the comments section every week. Tell them to ask for a refund if they aren't happy."

And why is it that negative commenters never have the nerve to use their real names? Tess had a theory: "The trolls do protest too much methinks. Sigh...Anonymity is such a cowardly thing to hide behind when you only have negative things to say. If they were TRULY uninterested in you, then they wouldn't even read your blog/articles. The fact that they're even commenting shows their interest. Bam."

Several people agreed with Enzo, who said, "Adhere to the philosophy of: if you're not pissing off somebody (especially as a writer), you're not doing your job properly."

If he's right, I'm doing a damn fine job at this, especially considering I was just completing an assignment.

It was with that brouhaha festering that I took flight tonight despite the snowfall and messy streets to find a welcoming place to eat and drink and forget about such nonsense.

Bistro Bobette welcomed me in from the cold and wet and provided a lovely respite from the online fracas. There were only two other tables occupied when I arrived, but other sanctuary-seekers continued to arrive throughout the evening (including a local restaurateur who came over to say hello).

Wine was the first order of the night and the well-balanced and spicy 2007 l'Appel des Sereinas Syrah was just the thing to take the sting out of the haters' comments.

I'd come with a purpose; I wanted to eat the hot dog I'd so enjoyed bites of at BB's recent party. Called Bob's Dog, it's only available at lunch or at the bar, so I was in the right place to finally partake of it as the chef intended.

That would mean his own recipe was used by the masters at Sausagecraft to produce a hot dog so unlike any other hot dog you've ever put in your mouth. Nestled in a baguette, it was dressed with harissa mustard with melted Gruyere on top. A mound of frites cozied up next to the dog.

When I asked the chef why he used Gruyere, he said simply, "Because I grew up with it." Hey, it's his creation, so he can make any executive decision he likes.

The hot dog was sheer heaven. It could have been naked and it would still have been outstanding, but surrounded by that baguette, slathered in spicy mustard and covered in melted cheese, it bordered on a religious experience. I used the frites to cool the heat from the mustard.

My server had come out from the kitchen and said, "Seeing him make yours makes me want one." I had responded with, "What do you think is going to happen when you see me eating it?"

Music was courtesy of Pandora with Thievery Corporation as a starting point, and I was enjoying the mix,but it soon became unacceptable to the staff.

It was switched to Buena Vista Social Club as the launch and one server said, "Nothing like Spanish music in a French restaurant," to which I responded, "And while I eat a hot dog." It was truly a multi-cultural experience.

For a change, I was all alone at the bar, but eventually the chef came out and joined me for wine and discussion of fish (red mullet, Dover sole and smoked bluefish), the power of DC critics (we both know one) and Restaurant Week (like me, he agreed that it should be moved to January or August, when local restaurants really need the business).

The syrah was calling for chocolate, so I asked for the croustillant, a flaky chocolate crust covered in a dark chocolate mousse. One of the servers walked by and noted, "I bet those two are good together." Yes, ma'am, they are.

Best of all, I hadn't given a second thought to my online enemies while I was enjoying so much good food and drink. That's the power of a great hot dog; it pushes everything else right out of your head.

But driving home, I began to wonder what new criticism would await me. Instead, Dave expressed bewilderment, "I can't for the life of me figure out why anyone would hate a blog about simply living life, eating great food, seeing great music, conversing with friends and strangers, and enjoying what our city has to offer..."

I'd have thrown my arms around him if he'd said that to my face at that point. You can hate me all you want, but all I'm trying to do is point out what a great place this is to enjoy life.

No doubt that statement will garner me even more haters. Oh, well.

Black Sheep and Lamb for Lunch

On a cold, rainy and occasionally icy day, lunch at Black Sheep is about as cozy as you can get in this town. Even better, it was a slow lunch day so the vibe was even more relaxed than usual when we got there around 1:30.

It was a long-overdue get-together with a friend whose life had been crazily busy for the past few months, so we were in it for the long haul lunch.

The soup DJ was weather-appropriate, a white bean, Chorizo and kale mix guaranteed to take the chill off, so Friend ordered a cup and finished it while I was telling her a story. She apologized for not offering me a bite, but I knew I had plenty of food coming.

Strangely enough, she'd gotten up at 7 a.m., so she ordered breakfast (barn and bay eggs) and I'd gotten up at 9, so I was all about lunch. I was sorely tempted by the fried bologna and cheese, but ended up ordering the salad of arugula, Belgian endive, dried figs, toasted pecans and shaved roasted leg of lamb with pomegranate/molasses vinaigrette.

If I'd expected a whole lot of green with a garnish of meat, I'd have been disappointed, but I know all too well that Black Sheep never skimps on protein (witness their battleships). And I was anything but disappointed

Lamb was everywhere on this salad, under, over and throughout; it was a lamb lover's delight, punctuated with so many figs that I wasn't sure I could finish them all and I love figs.

We had a far-ranging chat because we had so much to catch up on. Now that she's in a relationship, she had tales from the happy home front that contrasted with our former late nights of debauchery.

I got a chance to tell her about some recent successes and she was a supportive friend, reminding me of how well I've handled a couple of long-term difficult situations without taking a negative turn.

And then we had a cosmic reminder of just that when one of her exes came in and walked by sullenly, reminding us both that this is a small town and one's past never really goes away. You just never know where it'll turn up.

Black Sheep's baker, whom we both know, came out to talk to us for a bit, which inevitably led to us deciding that it was dessert time and Black Sheep does dessert so well.

Friend got the La Brea tarpit (chocolate creme brulee) and I got one of today's specials, the coconut cake, thick with a not-too-sweet butter cream frosting and toasted coconut.

If there's one thing than can woo me away from chocolate, it's coconut cake. And to make it even more obscene, it came with a scoop of ice cream which I never even got to.

We'd gotten so cozy and comfy inside that we were surprised to walk outside and find ice falling from the sky. Not as surprised as looking up from a good time and seeing your ex, but just as unpleasant.

But the creative food and chatty company more than made up for those flies in the ointment.

Everyone's an Actor or Musician

From the wine bar, I got girl talk from a good friend. From the movie, I got laughs and Richmond scenery. From the music, I got a familiar voice and two bands new to me.

With the exception of meeting the man of my dreams, I think I got everything I could need tonight.

For a change, I sat on the couch at Secco rather than at the bar, providing an even closer view of the Hopper-esque view of the interior of The Eatery across the street.

We also had a great view of people coming around the corner, including a man in patchwork pants that were truly something, we just weren't sure what (my friend: "I'm rethinking taking up quilting after seeing those").

I also enjoyed my first Lebanese wine, the 2008 Chateau Muser "Jeune Rouge," a blend of Cinsault, Syrah and Cab. It was velvety smooth and full of spices, making me wonder why I'm such a latecomer to Lebanese wines (perhaps it's an availability issue and, if so, thank you, Julia).

My friend had loads of relationship talk she needed to get off her chest while I had only a few minor stories to share (or minor stories about major events).

We did both over a selection of new cheeses, including the Westfield Farm White Buck (soft, flaky, bloomy rind with just a whisper of bleu), the P'tit Basque (smooth, nutty) and the Romero (firm, vibrant, rosemary-infused).

The last was a raw milk cheese and easily my favorite of the three; I don't need no stinkin' homogenization.

We had planned to move from there to the Byrd, but Friend had to bow out, so I went for an evening of independent film alone. Showing was Antihero, a collaboration of VCU theater students and graduates made last summer on a shoestring.

And, of course, using RVA as a location guaranteed me several things. I'd recognize locations (the fight on Monument Avenue, for instance) and there would be bikes and PBR.

Beyond that, I've seen one of the lead actors, Joe Carlson, chew scenery in any number of theatrical performances over the years. Even wine god Bob Talcott had a role as a mean drug kingpin, although he looked very dapper in his seersucker suit.

The movie told the story of two RVA guys partying and breaking into houses once they discover that one of them has psychic powers. Despite their less-than-lawful start, they wind up doing all sorts of good deeds (reviving an overdosed girl, preventing a rape) along the way.

The dialog alternated between bro-speak (everyone called everyone "dude") and under-the-breath witty ("Why do they call it a grilled cheese when it's fried?").

The good-sized audience cheered, laughed along and generally showed support for the offbeat comedy and its local crew. I have no doubt but that many PBRs were raised in celebration shortly after the screening ended.

With the movie over by 9:00, it only made sense to stop by the Camel on my way home. Tuesdays they always host a couple of jazz bands and there's no cover, making for a tempting way to finish out the evening.

This week it was the Lucas Fritz Quintet followed by Old Soul, two bands about which I knew nothing. That was corrected pretty quickly after I arrived when musician Lydia Ooghe came over to say hello. Only then did she tell me that Old Soul is her "side project."

LFQ got things rolling with some original material; I especially like "Ultra Hang" and "The O." I got a kick out of Fritz introducing the song "Just In Time" as "from the Old American songbook."
I think he meant the Great American songbook, but technically he's right; they are old songs It just sounded funny coming from someone of his tender years.

In addition to Lydia on vocals, Old Soul also had Marcus and David from No BS Brass Band and Matt, the drummer I had befriended at the Zakir Hussain show at the Folk Fest last fall.

So I didn't know the band by name, but I was familiar with four of the seven members, which actually isn't all that surprising. It's a fact; Richmond's music community is as incestuous as its restaurant community. When it comes to music, I'm not sure that's a bad thing, though.

Old Soul had a very full sound with both alto and tenor sax and fabulous keyboards, not to mention a vocalist on many of the songs.

A highlight was the two-part piece, "Sleeps Vary" and "Morning Doubts," as was the last piece, written by Matt and featuring drumming that had the entire crowd quiet and enthralled, which unfortunately had not been the case throughout the entire evening.

It was a terrific way to finish things up. Like I said, except for the obvious, I got everything I could have wanted this evening.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bones at Balliceaux

Somewhere, an old southern cook is spinning in her grave and the micro greens are only part of it.

At issue is the southern soul food staple, chicken and waffles, that long-time marriage of salty and crispy with sweet and bready. It's a combination so perfectly balanced as to leave no room for improvisation.

But this is 2011 and what chef doesn't like to riff on an old standard? The challenge, I would think, would be finding a way to improve upon something so classic without alienating fans of the original.

Balliceaux does it beautifully with their take on chicken and waffles, and I say this as someone who just ate it for lunch and had to wipe the residual grease off her fingers before beginning to type this.

Two perfectly fried chicken thighs arrived atop two Belgian-style waffle squares. The perky little micro-green gracing the thighs were nothing more than eye candy to remind the eater that this is the twenty-first century. I could have downed them in one bite, but merely smiled at their presence, pushing them to the side.

What did grab my attention at first bite was the spicy maple syrup, a definite change-up for its kick where sweetness usually delivers. The syrup benefited from the addition of red pepper flakes and it added a new dimension to both the waffle and especially the yard bird.

Subtle heat infused every bite since the syrup was not the sort of thing to be contained by the indentations of the waffle. I know because it ended up on my chin, on the napkin in my lap, and on the handles of my knife and fork.

By the time I finished eating, my fingers were a lovely mix of greasy and sticky. Maybe knowing that will reassure those dead southern cooks trying to process all this change.

But probably not. My Richmond grandmother's speciality was fried chicken and she never accepted that people stopped frying their chicken in bacon grease like she did.

Come to think of it, I had kind of a hard time with that myself.

And the Award Goes To...

A Monday evening as full of surprises and delights as this one was deserves to be recognized. And the nominees are:

Best use of pig: A tie between Bistro 27 and Sausagecraft. B27 for their fried pork and Pecorino cheese sausage with a frisee salad and balsamic vinaigrette with french fries. The earthy pig and salty cheese combination did a happy dance in my mouth, convincing me that this had to be a Sausagcraft creation and it was indeed; hence the tie.

The large salad and its tangy dressing assuaged any remorse about eating so much succulent fried sausage and the fries made up for being so virtuous by having a salad. Full satisfaction, zero guilt.

Best cameo in a bar: The random girl who walked in to Bistro 27, ordered a glass of white wine and told the bartender she needed a place to sleep for the night and asked if could she go home with him. He demurred and offered to check nearby hotels for availability, securing one quickly and asking them to send a van to pick up their new guest at once.

When he told her that the van was on its way, she immediately ordered another glass of wine on top of the half glass she still had. The van pulled up a minute later, she literally poured the wine down her throat and wandered out. Glancing over, one of the servers sniffed, "Rough trade."

Best use of a product from the Center of the Universe: Stuffed squid full of baby shrimp and scallops braised in basil tomato sauce over Byrd Mill grits from Ashland. This new dish on 27's menu sings with flavor and texture and could make a calamari lover out of anyone.

Best way to alienate staff at a restaurant: The woman in the hat who snapped her fingers at the chef to get him to run her credit card that very second. His question? "How would she feel if I did that to her?" Fair enough. Is there ever really a time when snapping at someone is appropriate?

Best outfit for a lead singer in a classic rock revival band: A red Halliburton jumpsuit worn by lead singer Carlos of Du Brut, playing at Sprout tonight. The band cited the Who, Guns and Roses and AC/DC as influences. Carlos' hair was pure Slash, thick, dark, curly and below his shoulders.

He used his head to swing his hair for maximum effect while on stage. Note: it was impressive (full disclosure: he gave me their CD on my way out but I'd liked his hair when we'd talked music two hours earlier).

Best musical talent displayed by a restaurant owner: Jamie Lay, co-owner of Sprout and lead singer (and masterful dancer) of the high-energy 60s-influenced band Baby Help Me Forget.

His talent is too big for the stage where his bandmates (drummer, two guitarists and bass player) perform, so he gyrates, drops to his knees and wails from the center of the room as the crowd dances wildly around him. Occasionally, he jumps from the 8" stage to maximum effect. Name another restaurant owner with that kind of talent.

Best band to cover tonight: The Beatles. Du Brut covered "Helter Skelter" and BHMF covered "Birthday" and both renditions got enthusiastic responses from the audience. If you're going to cover, cover from the originators, I guess.

Best way to end a show: Destroying a guitar and writhing on the floor. As BHMF's last song wound down, Jamie was singing and dancing horizontally on the floor with the microphone stand laying beside him in sections.

Meanwhile, one of the guitarists started hitting the neck of his instrument until it snapped and then threw the body on the floor until it shattered. I have no doubt that it was the first time most of the audience had seen a guitar destroyed at the end of a performance and they were ecstatic.

So maybe I personally wasn't in full ecstasy mode, but after such stellar food and interesting entertainment, I wasn't far behind.

Monday. It's not just for boredom anymore.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Beaten by a Roy's Chocolate Shake

When you throw a post out into the blogosphere, you never know how it will resonate.

Some posts are hot for a day or a week or, with a controversial one, even months (the one about EatingRichmond will seemingly never die).

And sometimes I have to think that it's the subject that makes it a perennial favorite. Two of my most consistently popular pages are the one about Roy's Big Burger, here, and the one about the Grill at Patterson and Libbie, here. Months after they were written, readers continue to find them and sometimes even comment on them.

Such was the case recently with the Roy's post and the reader must have liked what he read because he became a follower.

In fact, reading his tribute to Roy's got me in the mood for grease-soaked parchment paper with a cheeseburger inside enjoyed from within the confines of my car. You know, the true Roy's experience.

It wasn't hard to find a willing partner for a late afternoon burger, at least not once I mentioned it would be at Roy's.

Turns out my friend had had many a childhood burger there, although never a milkshake. Once I described the shakes to him, he was all about a 3:00 "snack."

At the point when the cashier asked him whether he wanted a large or small shake, he looked confused. The cook in the back held up the small cup for reference's sake and Friend at least had the sense to guffaw.

"Large, please," he said with the false authority of someone who had never tasted their milkshakes. He was sure he could conquer a large.

Once I had come up for air after inhaling my cheeseburger and half the large fries, he glanced over at me. "Ketchup on your lip," he told me, crumpling his paper.

"Milkshake only half-gone," I reminded him, knowing his issue was less easily solved than mine.

Handing him the milkshake's still-plentiful remains when I dropped him off, he looked beaten. "Can't do it," he admitted.

Many can start, but not all can finish. Roy's milkshakes. Yea, that's what I was talking about.

A Sucker for the Right Words

I told three different friends I was going to see True Grit tonight and all three expressed amazement. "You? Why?"

I knew why they reacted that way; I'm not the type for mainstream movies, Westerns, adventure movies or remakes. But I was invited to step outside my movie comfort zone and I decided to accept and see what happened.

The delightful surprise? The language. Not a contraction to be heard. Phrasing that required the listener to pay attention. A vocabulary that presumed a certain literacy level. All together, that combination made the dialog some of the very best I've heard in a recent movie, much less a Western.

Post-Grit, we were seeking a place that wouldn't close early on us (it being Sunday night and all ) leading us directly to Avalon and a guaranteed four hours of uninterrupted conversation, overly loud music and a lively crowd.

We took a table so we oculd talk uninterruped, ate a veggie flatbread pizza (pesto, goat cheese, Mozzarella, onions, mushrooms and asparagus) which we both liked a lot, and drank Spanish and Washington state wine while discussing, well, nothing I'm sharing.

And we were interruped by Jason, the bartender, who kept coming over to chat and try to tempt me to try his latest acquisition, 1800 Silver because it was new to the bar.

After much pleading on his part from close range, I agreed to one, not because I wanted it, but because he wasn't going to leave us alone until I said yes.

It didn't rock my world, but it was pleasant enough tequila and I sipped it down. But there are far too many really good ones out there now to settle for the merely pleasant.

My, my, couldn't that statement apply to a host of subjects?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Saying It with Hips

I've seen bellydancing maybe twice in my life and I was more than a little impressed with what those women could do with their hips.

So when a friend suggested an afternoon watching a theatrical bellydancing performance at the Byrd, I agreed. My prior experiences had been in restaurants and bars, so I was curious what a full-blown show would entail.

What we weren't prepared for were the scores of people waiting in line to buy tickets. Who would have guessed how popular hip-shaking would be on a cold Sunday afternoon? While waiting, I ran into a woman I know who actually asked me if I did bellydancing or if I was there for anthropological reasons.

Billed as "Raqs Luminaire: Dance of Lights," it was a series of dances by various performers interpreting things like freedom, expansion, longing and love (natch). I was surprised at how much of it was done to contemporary music rather than traditional middle eastern music (not that I was familiar with what it was, but it was obviously newish).

Also a tad surprising were some of the props: what looked like fire on a rope, light sabres, and masks. I shouldn't have been because the event had been billed as bellydancing fusion, which apparently opens the door to just about everything. A violinist played between dances, adding a live music element to the recorded music that was being danced to.

It was very cool seeing live entertainment on the Byrd Theater stage, decked out in ambient lighting and a mystical-looking backdrop.

Not that it inspired me to take up bellydancing or anything like that (perish the thought), unlike my friend who starts classes this week, but it was definitely a lyrical reminder that it isn't the size of the body, it's how you choose to move it.

That's the part I'm still trying to decide.

Wait, Dolls are Drugs?

Usually I go to the Movies & Mimosas feature at the Bowtie to see a good movie I either haven't seen on the big screen or haven't seen in years.

Today I switched it up and went to see a truly bad movie on the big screen and thoroughly enjoyed it.

That's right, I gave up $4.50 and two hours of my life to watch Valley of the Dolls, easily one of the campiest movies I've ever sat through.

When I arrived, there weren't a lot of people in the audience, so I asked the girl sitting nearest me why she was there.

"Because I don't have a life and I love movies," she admitted.

Turns out it's usually the costuming that attracts her; she won't be coming to see The Breakfast Club next week because "they wear the same costumes for the whole movie."

It never would have occurred to me to make that a deciding factor, but to each his own.

I got a foreshadowing of what she meant during the opening credits when I saw a line acknowledging "Handbags by Lewis Purses."

Definitely the first time I've ever seen a purse credit in a movie.

And because I had never seen the movie (or, god forbid, read the book), I had no idea what the movie was about other than prescription drug abuse.

I didn't even know that the "dolls" of the title referred to pills. Duh.

The usual 1967 details were appealing, as always.

Glass milk bottles outside apartment doors, women wearing hats and gloves everywhere, and hair teased unbelievably high.

When one character is trying to get off the phone with her mother, she says, "Gotta go. I'll write you tomorrow."

Ah, yes, letter writing, that lost art.

Favorite dialog:
Her: Are you wooing me?
Him: If you wish to be wooed.

One thing that did stick out jarringly was the negative gay stereotypes.

"Some queer deigns to design their clothes..." or "You know how bitchy fags can be."

Just as bad was the old-school thinking that "Ted Casablanca is not a fag...and I'm the dame who can prove it!"

Still, in 1967? Just embarrassing.

But the whole movie was kind of embarrassing in that high camp sort of way.

The audience was in the spirit of it, though, laughing at the overly dramatic moments and cheesy dialog as if it were intentional.

And, maybe it was, given that it was made in the sixties.

But at least the costumes and purses were good.

Just Bring Me the Skate Wing

I had my biggest couple date ever tonight (five of them plus me) and I drove further for it than I usually do to share a meal with the mated.

But an occasion was involved (my father's birthday) and all the couples were related to me somehow (including my favorite sister as well as my least favorite sister; the other three didn't attend) and I never mind a relaxing road trip up Route 301 to Fredericksburg.

We met at the Kenmore Inn for cocktails because several of the attendees were staying the night there. It's a quaint old house and a great place for wine and cheese in front of the fireplace.

Naturally, we lingered longer than we should have to make our reservation on a timely basis, despite the fact that it was a mere two-block walk away.

My Dad had chosen La Petite Auberge, a mainstay in Fredericksburg since the chef/owner left La Nicoise in DC to open LPA in 1981 and give the locals traditional French cuisine in a very old-school-looking dining room.

The only fly in the ointment was that it was the dreaded Restaurant Week, a virtual guarantee of crowded restaurants and slow service.

Luckily, we were in no hurry; even better they put us in a smaller room just off the main dining room and assigned us two servers, one for drinks (Tippy) and one for food (Jody), no doubt a strategy to contain us in the room.

In addition to the regular menu, there is always an extensive list of daily specials and tonight there was also the Restaurant Week menu, making for an infinite number of choices, or so it seemed with our large group.

My choices were narrowed down immediately because one of the specials was skate wing with capers and black butter.

What followed was a table-wide discussion of how nobody had ever seen skate on a menu before (one guest wouldn't consider eating it because she "likes" skates; must be their winning personalities). This is the point where I start looking for strength to deal with my family.

It took a while for Tippy just to get all the wine and drinks to the table, an unenviable job considering how well lubricated this crowd already was.

And now I have to mention the music because a) it was so unexpected given the restaurant and its clientele and b) it plucked on my last nerve for the four hours I was forced to endure it.

Classic rock. In a French restaurant.

I spent the evening listening to Bob Seger, Steely Dan, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles and worse. Every time the guy next to me recognized a song but couldn't remember the artist, he turned to me for the answer.

In quick succession, I satisfied his curiosity: Argent, Cream, The Band. I know the pain was written all over my face.

Luckily the food was a good distraction. My mesclun with shaved Manchego, dried cranberries and pine nuts was a nice little combination before an entree I knew would be obscenely rich.

And was it ever. A generous portion of skate wing sat in a pool of black butter with capers scattered about and snow peas on the side so that my arteries wouldn't close immediately; the potatoes Lyonaise I never touched. I love the sweetness of skate; it reminds me of scallops without as much texture.

Around me, others got rockfish (the fish my family grew up eating at least every other Friday for my entire childhood), stuffed flounder, salmon, mussels, crabmeat, steak; two of my favorite people at the table couldn't resist the calf's liver special, endearing them further to me.

After all the disdain for my skate order, two people requested a bite of mine and one came back for seconds.

Both proclaimed it delicious, but the others remained highly skeptical. Sometimes I wonder how this family produced me. Make that often.

But extended family conversations are great fun because everyone has different memories of the same event. It was hysterical hearing different people's versions of long-forgotten vacations, conversations and escapades; I shared nothing for fear of being trampled underfoot. Who hit whom with a broom that summer in Maine?

And because we are a family raised on the principle that dessert is an inalienable right (we had a different dessert every single night growing up), all kinds of sweeties showed up after the meal.

There was chocolate mousse, key lime pie (in a chocolate cookie crust and drizzled with chocolate sauce), poached pears, creme brulee and chocolate ganache cake, which was my choice.

After-dinner drinks and coffee abounded, but not a drop of cream or a hint of sugar were to be found anywhere on the table. I come from a long line of people who consider it a personality flaw to drink coffee any way but black. It doesn't affect me, because I don't drink it at all.

By the time everyone was pleasantly replete, we were just about the last customers in the restaurant.

We bundled up, said our goodbyes to each other (some of these people I only see once a year at this dinner) and made our way out to the frigid street.

It was a beautiful and bright drive home thanks to the magnificent moon that followed me down 301. For long stretches, I was the only car on the road, which made it all the easier to relax into my thoughts and my music.

Without naming names, you can be sure I didn't play anything remotely resembling classic rock.

Okay, Decemberists followed by Lissie. I felt infinitely better before I even hit Bowling Green.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

My First Pasties

I'm always treated to something unexpected when I go to author readings (hello, moonshine!); today it was a look at a pair of Gypsy Rose Lee's crooked-bow pasties. Hell, they're probably the first pasties I've seen up close, period.

This was at the Fountain Bookstore, a reliable place to hear interesting authors talk about their new books. The talk was delayed due to A/V difficulties (projector and screen having to be procured) only to end up using a new-fashioned computer instead. Hey, you make do with what you have.

Author Karen Abbott was accompanying the talk on her new book "American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare, The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee" with a slide show of photographs, some previously unpublished, of Gypsy and her life, which included a seriously deranged mother, a dancing prodigy sister, intimacy with various members of the mob and the attention of NYC's elite writing group.

Abbott, who took three years to write the book, said she was compelled to write the book after hearing Gypsy described as "the most private public woman in the world."

The description that captured my imagination, though, was of her "public body and private mind, both equally exciting."

A self-satirist who used witticisms and jokes onstage to titillate her audience, something that wasn't done at the time, Gypsy was also determined to be taken seriously as a writer.

At one point, according to Abbott, 11,000 people a week were coming to see her show, including members of the Algonquin Roundtable.

I found it interesting that she found zippers vulgar, preferring straight pins, which she tossed into the audience as she removed them. This woman truly was a trailblazer in a lot of ways.

After the talk, Abbott brought out the black pasties (with red tulle sewn around them by her own mother, for modesty's sake apparently), which unfortunately she did not put on for our amusement. She did show how Gypsy would attached the bows crookedly so that she could correct that during her performance.

I'm not complaining. I finally got to see pasties, even if I didn't get to see them in use. And they did belong to the stripper who changed burlesque from a hurried nudie show to a languorous tease.

Abbott quoted a man who claimed he'd watch Gypsy take fifteen minutes to remove a glove and said he'd have watched just as eagerly if it had taken her half an hour.

That's the "public body" part; I would have been curious to know what the "private mind" was thinking as she did it.

Cause, let's face it, it's all about the mind.

On Not Turning into a Pumpkin

For whatever it's worth, it seems I've become a regular at more than just my favorite restaurants.

As I often do, I began my Friday night at the VMFA for their Friday film. When I arrived, the event's organizer, Trent Nichols, greeted me with, "Welcome back!" as he tore my ticket (badly, but he said he doesn't practice between Fridays and it showed).

This week's film was An Unlikely Weapon: The Eddie Adams Story." Although you may not recognize the name, you'd know his photograph. It's the Pulitzer Prize-winning one of the Chief of Saigon Police shooting the Viet Cong prisoner in the head on the street in 1968.

Adams deserves more name recognition than he probably has. He shot thirteen wars, six presidents, untold celebrities and countless Penthouse cuties. But it was his Vietnam-era photos that got him noticed.

The documentary was fascinating, having been shot before Adams died in 2004, so it gave a true sense of the man in his own words.

He was not impressed with the prize-winning photo credited with changing public opinion about the war; he said the light wasn't right and the composition was terrible. Like any true artist, he was his own harshest critic.

Tonight's audience was full of photographers, eager to ask questions of producer Cindy Lou Adkins after the film. Unfortunately, I couldn't stay for it because of a must-see show at the Firehouse.

It was the Low Branches EP release show and, yes, they're friends, but they're also incredibly talented and I wanted to see and hear this first show at the Firehouse, where the Listening Room will soon take up residence.

The doors had opened 45 minutes before I got there, so I wasn't surprised when the Richmond Scene's Chris, acting as door guy, said he'd been wondering where I was (he might as well have tapped his watch).

When I went to buy the EP, Low Branches singer Christina was doing the selling. "If you hadn't shown up, I would have found out your phone number and called to make sure you were okay," she told me.

The show began with some of RVA's best singer/songwriters: Jonathan Vassar, Nick Coward, Chad Ebel and Will Loyal, alternating turns and each singing a song before beginning the cycle again.

They ended with all of them doing a song of Christina's, a marvelous collaboration of voices and small guitars (they say only very secure guys play small guitars).

The stage was a cozy and eclectic setting for this talented bunch. There were seven lamps, one bird cage, one stuffed deer's head and multiple instrument cases and amps placed artfully around wooden risers. Very homey, assuming the homeowner had slightly odd taste.

The Low Branches put on a magical performance, augmenting their sound with some of the musicians who had played on their record.

Josh of the Speckled Bird and Adam of the Last Battle played cello and lap steel respectively, adding an additional lushness to Matt and Christina's already-beautiful sound.

Her unique voice and Matt's ability to provide just the right instrumentation to enhance it (not to mention when we occasionally get to hear him sing, too) are the hallmarks of their music.Their set was over way too soon.

What could be better after a show of low-key folk than some fuzzy guitars and loads of reverb? I met a friend at Cous Cous as the bar was filling up (many of the arrivals had come from the show I had just attended).

He was not happy to hear that the Diamond Center wasn't starting until midnight, but I cajoled and he stayed; we did some people-watching and age-guessing in the interim.

At one point, the girl next to me turned and said, "You have the most beautiful nose." From there, she praised it every which way, talking about its delicacy, my profile, bad noses and worse. When she left, my friend quickly leaned down and asked, "Did she say what I think she said?"

Nodding, I told him, "And that's exactly why I blog. I get the most random comments in the world made to me and I have no idea why." Who raves about a stranger's nose to them in a bar?

Not long after, I thought the band was close to starting when they turned on their smoke machine and began stinking up the place with a rank smell.

But no, they weren't and my friend got tired of inhaling that mess and waiting,and headed out. "I'll read about what I missed in your blog tomorrow," he said, after asking if I'd hate him if he left (of course not - his loss).

He hadn't been gone three minutes when the Diamond Center cranked it up with the unmistakable sound of a twelve string. From there it was one reverb-drenched psychedelic song after another filling the packed room.

As if that wasn't soul-satisfying enough, DJs Greg and Sara were doing a psychedelic light show on a screen behind the band. It was too groovy for words and I mean that sincerely; I've heard them spin 60s vinyl and it was amazing, but now I know that their talents also extend to light shows.

I wasn't the only Diamond Center fanatic in the crowd, so there was a lot of dancing and booty-shaking going on throughout their set. I heard more than one person tell a friend, "This band is so good!"

When the final ribbon-bedecked tambourine-shaking song ended in a cloud of smoke, the crowd clapped and whistled in appreciation.

Because I'm such a fan of their sound, it was my fifth or sixth Diamond Center show. You could almost say I'm a regular with them, too.

But let's not. I'd rather just be thought of as a music lover who was lucky enough to see two amazing shows on a Friday night. Even a non-regular could have done that...if they're willing to stay out past midnight.

I got that one covered.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Lunching with Scum at The Empress

Fully two weeks ago, I ran into a friend and we talked about getting together for lunch that week. I heard nothing from him, so I finally took the bull by the e-mail horns.

Me: Whatever happened to us having lunch soon? Hmmm?
Him: Why, yes, I am scum. This scum has to eat today, though, if a certain dreamboat would like to accompany him.

And although I had already scheduled a noon interview, I agreed to a late lunch with said scum at The Empress. Who can resist such wit, especially apropos of nothing?

Because we got such a late start, there was only one other customer when we arrived. But the music mix was good and just the right volume and our front booth gave us a great view of passers-by and the sunny blue sky.

We were both having a tough time deciding what to eat; he was trying to decide between breakfast and lunch and I was trying to decide between a big salad and beef brisket, something my friend loves as much as I do.

So the decision was made for us when our server informed us that the beef brisket had just come out of the oven this morning. Sold.

But first we started with half salads, he with the grilled Romaine and me with the chopped arugula, aged Fontina, garbanzo beans, sunflower seeds and red wine vinaigrette with seared rare ahi tuna. We then shared the smoked beef brisket panini with horseradish cheddar and dill aioli on sourdough bread.

It was my first panini at The Empress, so I had no idea that it would be the size of a book; we were very glad we had already decided to share it since no one needs a sandwich that large if they're planning to have salad first and dessert after. And we had and we were.

The punch of the horseradish was slow to show itself, but terrific when it did, especially in tandem with the tender brisket. As we ate, we talked about guests who drink all your liquor, art openings with the black-clad crowds and the problems of keeping cilantro fresh in the fridge.

When we were asked if we wanted dessert, we both nodded, surprising owner Melissa, who clearly wasn't expecting two people who'd just eaten so much to want more. Please, the two of us would start with dessert if it were socially acceptable.

I've enjoyed the Empress' chocolate soup and we've both shared the chili and ginger-infused chocolate pate, which meant that we had to try something different today, namely the chocolate and strawberry crepes.

The chocolate filling was magnificent, as rich as a ganache, the strawberries abundant and all contained by a crispy crepe. My friend made embarrassingly loud sounds of satisfaction as he ate his half.

I was amazed that the staff even needed to ask if we were enjoying our dessert. You don't think he makes these sounds for nothing, do you, people? I mean, maybe he makes them at other times, although I only hear them when we're eating, but they clearly indicate great pleasure.

They whisked away the licked-clean plate and we sat chatting about the fullness of my dance card. An old Blondie song came on and my friend began softly singing along with a big smile on his face. I've never seen the scum look so satisfied.

So it took longer than it should have to make it happen; the end justified the delay, at least at that moment.

No Show and Tell, No Gifts Please

A very large and smiling man is walking toward me on Grace Street. He stops as I approach.

Him: Hi, beautiful!
Me: Good morning.
Him: (in a sing-song voice) I have something to give you.
Me: (now fearing it will be a view of a body part) Oh, yea?
Him: (proudly) It's a dollar!
Me: (visibly relieved) No, no. But you have a nice day.
Him: I will because I saw your beautiful face.

Two blocks on, a guy stops his car in the middle of the Harrison and Grace intersection and calls out to me "Morning, gorgeous!" while pointing his index finger at me, gun-style. I smile in return, but he doesn't move the car until I'm halfway up the block. Horns are honking at him for doing this.

For the record, I am wearing yoga pants, a fleece and earmuffs. Earmuffs! I couldn't look any less beautiful or gorgeous.

Still, you have to appreciate the kind of guys who see what they want to see, whether it's there or not, and compliment strangers.

And I'll go right on thinking it's a good thing as long as all they do is talk to me.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

No Way to Keep the Beat

It's my week to catch up with everybody after the holidays. Tonight it was a former work buddy and we met at Xtra's, just to see what it had to offer in the evenings, since I'd only had lunch there.

It was pretty empty when we arrived but continued to fill up steadily, despite 30-plus year-old music. When I walked into a Journey song, I kind of felt like the tone was set, if you know what I mean.

On the other hand, the wine list was varied and very much suited to my taste. Any list that carries two Charles Smith wines is fine in my book (Boom Boom Syrah, yum, yum) plus they had several South African choices.

Wanting to start white given the evening ahead, I ordered the Graham Beck unoaked Chardonnay (twice), surprising even myself.

My friend had summoned our meeting because he was seeking guidance from me about some new job responsibilities with which he's not entirely comfortable. I understood his concern, but could offer no real solace since I think it's a bad idea for both his personal and professional selves.

He wailed when I didn't offer the direction he was so desperately seeking from me. I got the sense that I was supposed to make everything better for him and didn't. Hey, a bad idea is a bad idea, no matter how it's couched.

We munched on fish taquitos (grilled mah-mahi, carrots, cabbage, and cilantro wrapped in spring roll wrappers and fried, with roasted pineapple vinaigrette), causing my friend to recommend 7-11's taquitos after my next late night of partying.

Duly noted and filed, I told him, except I don't eat at chains, much less ones with gas stations and lottery tickets.

Like all my other friends lately, he had to know what was up in my personal life and he didn't hesitate to offer criticism of my nerve and suggestions for improvement in the future. Everybody knows how to carry on better than I do, or so they think.

I left him strolling down Cary Street and went to the museum for the Jazz Cafe; the Lawrence Olds Quartet was playing and there's nothing wrong with some old-school jazz and blues standards on a Thursday night.

The crowd was so different from a few weeks ago when I was there for Hotel X. Tonight was a mix of an older crowd and a much younger swing-dancing crowd.

Two girls next to me were in the latter group; I overheard one say, "And then when he starts twirling you, there's just no way to keep the beat," while the other nodded seriously in agreement. Yea, I knew that.

Olds' voice is deep and silky smooth and he was backed by guitar, keys and upright bass. Both crowds kept the dance floor hopping all evening and most dancers ended every song with a low dip, not something you see every day (hair-brushing-floor-low). I was sure this one guy was going to drop the girl, but he heaved mightily and brought her back up, thank goodness.

There was a cool swing vibe going on and I stayed and listened for a good while before leaving to do the art thing. The new exhibit "Civil War Drawings from the Becker Collection" was open, so I took the time to see it and compare it to the concurrent UR exhibit I'd seen last week.

Like that one, it contained a wealth of imagery of both battles and the daily life of a soldier. "Drumming Out a Coward" taught me what the phrase "drumming out" meant.

In addition to the coward having his sword broken and his buttons and rank ripped off his uniform, he wore a neck sign saying "coward" as the drummers marched him out of camp. Now I know.

A drawing of "Crow's Nest Signal Station" at Dutch Gap showed an elaborate treehouse-like contraption that wound its way up a tree with a series of ladders; it would have been the delight of any adventurous child.

I found "Negro Worship in the South" fascinating because there had been a similar drawing in the UR exhibit, except that this one was done post-war, so the blacks had been emancipated. They looked far more dignified and less cartoonish than they'd been depicted in the earlier drawing I'd seen.

After the security guard had warned me that the museum was closing in fifteen minutes, then five minutes and then just keep hovering about, I finally left him locking doors as he wished me a good evening. I can take a hint.

It wasn't very late, so I decided to stop by Six Burner and arrived to a pretty dead room - one booth occupied, one bar regular, and a server's girlfriend.

Bartender Josh greeted me with, "You're the first real customer I've had all night." He said it had been really slow, but graciously poured me a glass of wine and cranked the music up.

I asked if the kitchen was still open and he went to check, coming back to say, "Sorry, nothing but stainless steel back there. I guess they gave up cause it was so slow." It was okay, I told him, conversation and wine were enough.

Server T. spotted me and came over to ask, "Aren't you usually in here a little earlier? Where you been?" I gave him the rundown and he put me in my place with, "Squeezed us in, huh?" Ooh, I love places where the staff verbally abuses the customers.

Chef Philip came out dressed to go and stood at the far end of the bar smiling at me. "I see you eating everywhere," he said. "I saw you at Comfort Sunday." Josh kindly pointed out that I wanted to eat his food tonight but the kitchen had been closed. He winced. I felt better.

While listening to an NYC artist Josh is currently recording, we discussed poetic men who have a way with words, the realities of fatherhood ("It used to be martinis at a bar after work and now it's canned beer in a cup"), and the beauty of capturing everyday sounds.

By then, I was starting to feel as guilty about keeping Josh as I had about the security guard, so I said my goodnights.

Hey, what happened to Thursday being the new Friday anyway? Come on, weekend.