Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Code Orange Emotions

If I wrote down all that happened to me today, my head would explode. We'll leave it at discombobulated.

Aside from that, on my walk this morning, a guy smiled at me and asked, " Has anyone told you today what a fine-looking woman you are?"

I thanked him for being the first, especially considering the sheen I was sporting on a Code Orange day (pleading e-mail from my mother; "PLEASE don't walk today").

My parents came to town for lunch at Tarrant's and we were seated in the window table that used to seat the stuffed dolls.

I tried  a new salad, the tarragon chicken with apples, strawberries, grapes, tomatoes, cucumbers, candied walnuts, golden raisins and craisins in a  raspberry vinaigrette. It was the perfect lunch, full of water, on a miserably hot day.

One server asked if I remembered her from Acacia (I did) and another said she'd waited on me at Bobette; my parents inquired if I ever ate at home.

But they also wanted to discuss my absent love life, so there was a lot of ground we didn't cover. One hesitates to tread on TMI territory with the parental units.

My only plans for the evening involved  a close friend, her wedding plans and my recent unexpected cosmic gifts.

We began at Six Burner, where a man walked in and recognized me, saying, "It's my pinotage fan!"

What does it mean when I'm being remembered for my grape preferences? Fortunately, I think, he was a wine rep by trade.

Tonight's preference was the Broadbent Vino Verde because, as the bartender reminded  me, "That's some summer drinking." Indeed. And if isn't actually summer, it certainly feels like it.

We had an especially talkative evening, she telling me her three-month plan and me sharing my fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants plan (there are some things I can only tell her).

 As long as we both end up happier, I figure it's just different routes to the same goal.

Because she'd not yet had softshells this season, we had to have the tempura fried soft shells with chunky guacamole and rainbow cherry tomatoes.

I've had any number of variations of this dish already this year and this was definitely the most creatively delicious.

I heard one girl order it minus the guac ("I don't like avocado," she whined to the bartender. Your loss, honey) and thought the same thing the chef probably did when he got the order.

The crispy tempura, the creamy guacamole and the colorful and fresh-tasting tomatoes came together for a standout variation on a theme.

When my friend finally had to leave, I chose to stay because the bartender had morphed into his musician persona so we could talk about his upcoming show, as well as the Nissan Pavilion's ignorance and the Arcade Fire's video brilliance.

At the end of the evening and much vino verde, he thanked me profusely for my company and indulging his musical nerdiness.

I didn't leave any less discombobulated, but I'd certainly benefited from the bubbles and the distractions.

Any random sighing heard tonight will likely  be coming from Jackson Ward.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Plan A Must Go

I fear that today I was the weather wimp that I have teased other people about being.

Instead of carrying out the plans a friend and I had made days ago, we opted for late afternoon naps with a promise to talk later and make plans then.

By the time I woke up from mine, going to Belle Isle was the last thing I wanted to do, even at nearly 6:00. So I came up with Plan B.

Curious about the movie "Everything Must Go" showing at the Westhampton, I did some research to find out more about it.

Learning that it was based on a Raymond Carver short story, "Why Don't You Dance?" intrigued me. I knew to expect minimalist storytelling and drinking, the Carver hallmarks.

Discovering that it was about an alcoholic played by Will Ferrell (of all people) who hits rock bottom assured me that the story would be of interest to my friend, himself nearly three years sober.

But it wasn't merely a sad sack film about alcoholic binging and ugly behavior. It began the day he gets fired and his wife locks him out and leaves him; the bottom is in sight.

To the disapproval of his suburban neighbors, he sets up living quarters amongst his belongings which the wife has conveniently left in the front yard,.

His AA sponsor (he'd been six months sober before relapsing) is also a cop who tells him he has five days to hold a yard sale before he is breaking the law, so he reluctantly sets out to sell his possessions.

Along the way he finally gives up the multiple cases of PBR he'd been drinking daily because he runs out of money.

Watching the movie was interesting for me but I couldn't wait to hear my friend's thoughts because I knew it must have resonated with him in a way I could never understand.

Our discussion afterwards was illuminating, as has been our entire friendship.

I met him just before he marked his first year sober and I have watched him become a more thoughtful, confident and healthy person in the past two years.

But for him, the film had been downright painful in parts (and in ways it was not for me) encapsulating, as it did, the lowest part of an alcoholic's descent.

But it also had the effect I'd been hoping for, reminding him that the rough patch he's experiencing in his personal life is just one more part of the journey he's on.

I don't want to take too much credit, but I think he got even more out of Plan B than he would have out of our walk on Belle Isle. And I'm not talking about the buttered popcorn or the air conditioning that I got out of the evening, either.

As I like to tease him about so many things, "What would you do without women?"

Insert smiling, sober shrug. Sometimes we do know best.

Hold the Catsup and Mustard

It's so hot I couldn't eat a traditional burger on Memorial Day.

A group of us went to celebrate a friend's birthday (I'm beginning to think I only know Geminis) at Carytown Burger and Fries outdoors under the awning.

And, sadly, I couldn't bear the thought of a burger, despite my love of same. Hell, cheeseburgers were my birthday dinner of choice the entire time I was growing up when we got to choose our birthday dinners.

But I couldn't do it. I wimped out and got a salad, granted one with an abundance of bacon, avocado and blue cheese, but one that was mostly iceburg lettuce, tomatoes and baby spinach. Plant matter I could handle.

To make my self feel better about it, I had a bite of the birthday boy's cheeseburger, which merely confirmed what I already knew. It was too hot for eating flesh today, for me anyway.

Nearby, a certain local skull artist happily ate his. My friends ate theirs. The exotic looking family behind us ate theirs.

Note to self: adjust to summer's sudden arrival quickly. Life without cheeseburgers is not really living.

You can quote me on that.

Pie-Eyed for a Kindred Soul

Every Gemini celebrates her birthday in her own way.

Tonight's birthday girl chose pie and drinks as the centerpiece of her party and I'd have to say, those pies gave birthday cakes a run for their money.

We met at Ipanema on a perfect patio night, but the party was inside because the Sunday night regulars had already taken over the outside.

Being served up were four kinds of birthday pie: lemon chess, chocolate pecan, strawberry-peach and the Pennsylvania Dutch classic, shoofly pie (molasses), a nod to the honoree.

I had a slice of the chocolate pecan pie naturally and the birthday girl had lemon chess, but most guests went the sampler route, taking small slices from  multiple kinds.

How often does that opportunity present itself after all?

Likewise the guest list was also a sampler, but one of Richmond's scene, with foodies (discussing bacon ice cream), techies ("Tumblr is all about stealing"), poetry lovers (my lack of enthusiasm for certain poets having been noted), teachers (loopy and grateful that it was not a school night), musicians (best skirt and pants in the room) and restaurant types (they're everywhere).

We Geminis must attract similar friends since that list could apply to my party last week as well.

Different faces, same varieties.

Stellar indie pop music and Firefly/cassis cocktails were admirably supplied by barkeep Brandon, who knowingly smiled when he asked if I'd like something to drink.

"Yes," I responded.

"Vino verde?" he questioned, cocking an eyebrow.

I say if it's bare legs season, it's vino verde season, although a friend tonight said that she drinks it year round for its effervescence and low alcohol content.

To each her own, but when it's cold, I need blood-thickening red wines.

But until the leaves start falling, I'm firmly in the VV camp, birthdays and everyday.

The evening ended with an enthused discussion of local travel and day trips as the way to satisfy travel cravings during busy and economically tight times.

My recent excursion to the mountain vistas of Blenheim Vineyards and today's to the cliffs of the Northern Neck were both cited as perfect examples of getting away and coming back renewed from something wholly different.

If there's one thing we Geminis need, it's a little variety.

Put a candle in the birthday pie and light 'er up.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

My Invisible Escape

The best offense is a good defense.

Presuming that the city was going to let me down today (the sheer amount of parking in my neighborhood is testament to how few people are in town), I escaped it at 8:30 this morning.

Less than an hour's drive put me in Tappahannock for the departure of the Captain Thomas, a Rappahannock River-cruising boat that wends its way upriver to Ingleside Vineyards and back.

But the purpose of the six-hour excursion is not just to taste wine and turn around, but to take in the scenery, both historical, natural and merely colorful.

We passed steamboat docks where boats with shows would pull up and entertain the locals.

We saw long-time river resorts with shacks next to custom-looking houses and dozens of people in the water or lounging on the beach at 10:30 in the morning.

From a distance there was no missing an enormous white house erected by a local lawyer and painted with a distinctive Cavalier-orange roof as a nod to his alma mater.

Eventually we came upon cliffs, something I didn't even know existed on the sea level or lower Northern Neck. Made of clay and sand, their trees were homes to an amazing number of bald eagles.

Once the captain showed us a few, easily recognizable by their white heads, the entire boat was engrossed in being the first to spot another one.

Despite a sunny forecast, the weather was more like what Nick Hornby called "a grey, wet British summer" kind-of-a-day with leaden skies and uneven warmth all around.

We docked at Leedstown, unknown to me, but apparently the site of the signing of the Leedstown Resolves, a precursor to the Declaration of Independence declaring the citizenry of Westmoreland County independent from England.

It's now a campground, albeit one with the brick remains of Bray's Church where the document was signed at its center, and today was full of people enjoying the holiday on the waterfront.

We then piled into school buses for the short jaunt to Ingleside, passing Ingleside Plantation on the way (41 rooms, two occupants, oh my)  where we took a tour of the winery and did a tasting of five wines clearly chosen for their appeal to non-wine drinkers.

For lunch, I'd brought a pretty traditional picnic of fried chicken, watermelon slices and hummus and veggies, which I enjoyed in the courtyard under enormous trees.

Afterwards, I peeked at the museum of local Native American artifacts and stuffed wildlife before finding a shady bench and taking out my book.

Moments later, the winery tour guide walked by and shouted at me, "You're supposed to be drinking wine, not reading!" Pour me some Petit Verdot Reserve instead of Blue Crab Blush and we'll talk, I thought, politely saying, "Don't you worry about me."

On the ride back, the sun finally put in an appearance and a father and daughter argued whether the moon was visible  just behind the clouds; they asked the captain for confirmation.

Suddenly an older woman pointed and gasped, "The man in that boat must be a nudist. He just pulled his pants down  and back up. And he has a beer!" Boating and beer: shocking.

All in all, a very different day than my usual. Almost no conversation, but the history and nature parts satisfied my inner nerd and it's always a pleasure to be on/near the water and smelling the salt air.

But I hadn't realized how invisible I was amongst the couples and groups until on the cruise back when the captain's assistant went around passing out photographs of passengers disembarking before lunch.

There wasn't one for me. No doubt I'd been at the back of someone else's group and went uncaptured.

After all, who goes on an all-day boat cruise by herself? Who else?

Or it could be I don't photograph outside my natural habitat. But now there's no proof that I ever left the city.

Surf and Turf with Two

It's tough to say no to surf and turf.

True, I was being invited by a happy couple, so I'd be the odd man out.

And I do have an early morning tomorrow, so I really didn't need a late night with lots of good wine. But how better to celebrate Memorial Day than with a cook-out?

A long-time friend invited me to join him and his girlfriend for a backyard feast of lobster, lamb and veggies. His only concern was that I like butter, garlic and mesquite. Check, check and check.

When I arrived, they were chopping and I joined them in sipping a White Haven Sauvignon Blanc, of which we made short work.

Talk centered around the new Egyptian Gallery (she being as big an art nerd as me), ocean swimming and past loves.

Next up was the New Harbor Sauvignon Blanc, tasting less of cat you-know-what, which lasted through the grilling process and into dinner.

The lobster tails were succulent with melted butter and  followed by medium -rare lamb and grilled vegetables with onions, garlic and butter. It was a meal to savor and linger over as darkness descended.

It was at that point that I shared my contribution to the evening, the lovely 2001 Bodegas Carrau Tannat Amat, a rustic red to die for, which I'd been cellaring for a while now.

It's been a huge favorite of mine since the wine dinner at Bistro 27 with Francisco Carrua, the winemaker who kindly invited me to Uruguay after I fell in love with his wines, here.

My friends were as impressed with the black plum and blackberry nose of this wine as I had been, savoring how it continued to open up as we sat on his backyard deck enjoying our meal with the fireflies lighting up all around us.

We drained the bottle of Tannat before deciding that we needed chocolate, so we gathered our forces and walked over to Bonvenu to scratch that itch. It was a lovely night for a walk, even a short one.

Carytown had a decent crowd, although certainly not the typical Saturday night usual. Good or bad, it didn't matter to us; we were three blocks away and it was convenient and that's all that really mattered.

Although the bar was full, we settled for a table and ordered a bottle of the  Pol Deau Blanc de Blanc to accompany a chocolate ganache with cream and blueberries as well as a flourless chocolate torte.

If bubbles and chocolate can't finish off a satisfying evening, nothing can (okay, besides the obvious and currently unobtainable).

On the stroll home, my friend offered to perform an impromptu viola solo when we arrived at his house, but those of us with a busy day tomorrow bowed out.

There was no way we were going to top that meal or the Tannat, so I decided to head out while my star was still ascending.

Besides, happy couples need some time alone on a lovely spring night so I was extraneous at that point. At least that's the way I'd feel if I were part of the happy couple.

I almost remember what that was like...Tannat and fireflies, as I recall.

Friday, May 27, 2011

On Silently Not Getting the Girl

"Studies have proven that it's okay for you to be happy."

That's taken from part of the pre-movie entertainment at VMFA's Friday Films.

In between slides about the museum's gift shop, art classes and upcoming films, that one appears seemingly apropos of nothing. Not to worry, I took note.

Tonight was the final night of the regular Friday Film series, although the museum intends to intermittently show films.

For such a momentous occasion, the event's organizer Trent Nicholas chose a film he'd always wanted to show but hadn't.

It was Charlie Chaplin's "The Circus" from 1928, made on the cusp of talkies, and he'd refrained because it was a silent film. For the final night, he decided on a little self-indulgence, even if no one else came. But the faithful came.

My silent movie expert of a friend Jameson would probably choke on his Lobo Marino (orange soda and PBR, a South American favorite) if he heard me say this, but it may have been my first Chaplin film ever.My apologies to those more film-savvy than me.

The comedy was much more romantic than I expected, especially since the guy (the Little Tramp character) didn't get the girl (she went with the stereotypically macho tightrope walker...boring). Just like real life sometimes.

Along the way Chaplin showed off his physical comedy skills, most of which are lost one me. The amazing part that did impress me was that he also wrote, directed, produced, wrote the music, sang the theme song and acted in this film; it garnered him a special Academy Award for all that.

One of my favorite moments came with a line of dialog rather than a pratfall or sight gag.  Chaplin was engaged to help give a horse a pill by blowing it through a long straw into the horse's mouth while two others held the horse's mouth open.

Naturally he failed, inadvertently swallowing the pill himself. His explanation? "The horse blew first." I found that hysterical.

Once the short film ended, I saw no reason not to go upstairs to Amuse, especially since I hadn't been since the madness of Picasso had been lifted.

I arrived to a subdued dining room and only one couple at the bar; it was quite a change from the past few months. In all fairness, it was also the start of the holiday weekend, undoubtedly a factor.

Settling in with my Montand sparkling rose (the bartender's only question having been "Are you starting with Rose or absinthe tonight?"), I was pleased to see that the "safe" menu had finally exited along with the Picasso hordes.

Piquing my interest was the Spring Vegetable Garden with curry "soil" and creme fraiche. When it arrived, it was easily one of the prettiest plates ever set before me.

A variety of local, organic baby veggies (beets, carrots, peppers and radishes) sat atop "dirt" made of crumbled gingersnaps and curry with a knotted spring onion in the center and a dollop of creme fraiche on top.

The combination of the spicy but not sweet crumbles and the fresh baby veggies was inspired. I hope this dish stays on the menu all summer. It's just the kind of dazzler at which Amuse excels.

Noting that the absinthe drip was without iced water, I inquired about its unused look only to discover that it hadn't been active since that final Picasso weekend when I'd been in.

Somebody needed to change that and I was sure that I was just the girl to do it. And they had changed absinthe brands

Bartender Stephen offered to fill it in readiness if I thought I might need a green fairy tonight. I did so he did.

Meanwhile, I enjoyed a plate of grilled asparagus with Pecorino and olive oil while the drip was readied.

As the dining room began to empty, I sipped my absinthe while discussing a Post article I'd brought to Stephen about muddling and muddlers.

His new summer drink menu calls for much muddling, so I knew he'd be interested. He's already engaged a coworker to go on a muddler buying trip based on the piece's recommendations. Always happy to be of service where I can.

Leaving the restaurant, I passed a clutch of security people and somewhat guiltily asked if I was the last person in the museum.

I was, I was told, so I apologized. "It's okay. It just means that you're special," one of the guys said, attempting to be polite when surely they wanted me gone.

Hey, I was just busy being happy and lost track of time. I know it's okay because studies have proven it.

Entering the Egyptian Door

The VMFa is the gift that keeps giving.

Since reopening its doors last year, I've logged countless hours at films, plays, lectures, Amuse, the Jazz Cafe, and artist talks.

And every time they open a new show or exhibit, I'm there.

But one of the most satisfying reasons I keep going back is when they open a new gallery.

When the Ife exhibit opened, then so did the African galleries.

And now finally yesterday, the Egyptian gallery was ready for visitors in all its ancient splendor.

I know someone who's always been a fan of Egyptian art, so when I messaged her opening day to ask her when we were going, her response was "ASAP."

That turned out to be 24 hours later.

The beautiful new gallery greets visitors with the large and headless statue of the King of Kush; it's positively majestic.

It's almost like he's beckoning you into the room.

From that point on, we were immersed in the beauty of Egyptian art.

The head for a statue of Sekhret is that of a lioness, down to her whiskers and seeing that it was made in 1391 B.C. boggles the mind.

A cosmetic bowl with cover made of faience is shaped like a lotus flower and has three compartments with a sliding lid.

It's the kind of thing you could imagine on a grand lady's dressing table had it been another era.

And because of the Egyptian obsession with death and afterlife, there are all kinds of objects associated with that fascinating subject.

An elaborately decorated inner coffin is done by painting plaster over wood and although there are chips in the wood, it is remarkably intact.

Of course the star of the show is the coffin of Tjeby with its mummy inside.

She and I spent much time looking at the photographs from where the coffin had been found, looking at the position of the mummy (left side looking out where the eyes were painted on the side of the coffin) and trying to understand the detailed mummification process.

A trio breezed past us, looked in the case, said, "That's cool" and moved on within about twenty seconds.

We were flabbergasted at their lack of curiosity; ours was boundless.

Equally as absorbing were the mummified animals.

Both the mummy of an ibis as well as that of a falcon had X-ray pictures of the birds inside the linen and resin, showing the animal's skeleton, underneath the actual mummies.

Corny jokes aside, it was illuminating.

After over an hour, we felt satisfied that we'd seen everything we could see and headed downstairs so my friend could check out the gift shop ("The best part of museum field trips when I was a kid," she said. Um, not to this nerdy kid it wasn't.).

While she looked around, I headed across the hall to the bathrooms near the new glass entrance.

A guard saw me and smiled.

"You know it's bad luck to come in one door and leave by another," he advised me.

He must have seen me come in through the Boulevard entrance.

"I'm not leaving," I assured him. "Don't worry."

Now can I use the facilities, sir?

"Wouldn't want you to have bad luck," he said.

Mummies, cosmetic bowls and caring guards...the VMFA always yields up unexpected pleasures.

The (Not) Unhappy Hours

There are worse ways to start an evening than with an unhappy hour or two.

The Poe Museum was doing their monthly Unhappy Hours social coinciding with the opening of their new exhibit "Price and Poe: A Match Made in Hell." How could I not check that  out?

Arriving just as a friend did, we walked into the walled garden moments after a performance began. A costumed interpreter was speaking and singing as Poe's mother, the actress Eliza Poe.

She told her life story, sang some period songs and did two monologues, one from Romeo and Juliet and another written for Eliza Poe by a fan. Best line: "And female fortitude shall conquer pain." An enduring sentiment, for sure.

After the performance, a devil's food birthday cake (with a photograph of his face iced onto the cake) was cut in honor of tomorrow being the 100th anniversary of Vincent Price being born.

The "Match Made in Hell" exhibit is small, but illuminating. I don't think I realized that Price had starred in eleven adaptations of Poe's work. And I haven't seen a one of them.

And I had certainly never seen a life mask of Price, right down to his moustache hairs, done five years before his death.

A highlight of the evening was running onto one of the nude models from Gallery 5's recent Disrobed exhibit.

"Last time I saw you, you were naked," I said, sidling up to him. His laugh was so loud and hearty that it made heads turn so it was totally worth mentioning.

Leaving the formerly nude behind, I drove to Sprout to meet a friend for dinner to find the place packed. Luckily my friend had already secured a table because people kept coming in, too.

My friend already knew that he was going to get the sliders (and why not considering how amazing they are) but I succumbed to the pizetta of the day.

With Faith Farms Food sausage, Dave and Dee's mushrooms, bechamel sauce and feta/cheddar, it was mind-blowingly good. So good that when I gave another friend a taste, he ordered one for himself. Our server called it the meatzetta for its generous amount of spicy sausage.

Part of the reason for our early arrival was the "surprise" first performance of a new local band, the Blood Vows.

The inaugural set was short, only four songs, but full-on hard and energetic. Fronting the group was band photographer P.J. Sykes who turned out to have a whole different persona with a guitar in his hand rather than a camera.

I said it then and I'll say it now. He was a monster and I mean that in the best possible way. Go hard or go home doesn't begin to cover it.

The Cinnamon band followed and by then the room was packed and getting warm. I felt myself glowing but most of the guys had a full-on sweat going.

Every time I see this duo play again, I am more impressed with how melodic they are, what good songwriters they are and just how good they are at harmonizing, non-stop crashing drumming and shifting dynamics. Very compelling stuff, all.

Silversmiths were next and the crowd thinned noticeably, but it was 11:30 by then and a school night, so to speak, so perhaps it was understandable.

Last but by no means least were Snowy Owls, a group with somewhat hushed vocals but big fuzzy guitar, bass and drums.

For a lover of soundscapes like yours truly, their borderline shoegaze effects are the stuff of sonic dreams.

A good-sized crowd stayed for their set, confident that this was the best place to be for music in Richmond this Thursday night (okay, Friday morning by now).

A talented musician who had been up north for a while was happily back tonight, a friend cut loose and got uncharacteristically loopy on a school night, and just before the last song of the evening, a semi-drunk guy stepped down hard on my sandaled foot (and spent the rest of the show apologizing for it).

There are worse ways to end an evening than with throbbing toes. Fortunately I'd been lulled into a musical euphoria, so I barely felt it at all.

I can try beginning my night with unhappy hours all I want, but I never quite get the hang of not enjoying myself when friends and good music are involved.

And sausage. One can never underestimate the happiness quotient of a good pig product. Fact.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Visitng the Mill and the the Fairy House

"Sharing is overrated."

That's what our server (and co-owner of the place) told us at the Mill on MacArthur, where we went for lunch today.

She'd given only my friend a specials menu, so I was attempting to read it over his shoulder when she made it clear that that wasn't necessary. It was such a great line that I laughed out loud.

The former burrito place was attractive and welcoming with the exception of the big-screen TV over the bar.

Since we were the only people at the bar, we dropped hints about having it turned off, but it was suggested that we just avoid looking at it.

Not my idea of customer service, either.

We began by sharing the black bean and corn cakes drizzled with lime-cilantro sour cream.

They had enough flavor that salt was not required, all too common a necessity  when black bean cakes are under-seasoned.

The music, well, it was something all right.

It was Pandora with the song "Come on Eileen" as the starting point, resulting in what the bartender referred to as "a lot of good cheese."

Thompson Twins, Tears for Fears and a lot of 80s one-hit wonders supported her assessment.

Given the heat, I chose a salad, specifically the wilted spinach with button mushrooms (Dee's), red onions, hard boiled egg and bacon in a warm bacon dressing.

A classic.

The dressing was not hot enough to wilt the raw spinach, but given how fresh-tasting the spinach was, I was more than fine with that; it was a tasty salad.

My friend opted for one of the specials, a grilled tuna and arugula wrap with grape tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions and a smoky balsamic sauce with a potato cake side (he'd had them last visit and wanted me to taste them).

He found the tuna especially fresh and raved about it .

The Mill uses a lot of locally-farmed produce as well as locally raised chicken and beef, so their intentions are in the right place.

It's good to see places concerning themselves with that more and more.

It carries over to the dessert menu where Bev's ice cream is featured.

They had lots of other choices, too, like cookies, key lime pie, cake pops,and cheesecake.

No fools, we went for the buttermilk biscuit berry shortcake (a mere $4) and the mile-high concoction that arrived was a textbook example of a traditional Southern dessert.

Blueberries and strawberries sat on pillows of whipped cream on top of and in between the sliced biscuit.

When we finally rolled out of there, thank god it was for some walking.

Friend took me to Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens for a stroll (the giant mortar and pestle alone was worth the heat).

It couldn't have been a more serendipitous time to be walking the grounds because the musicians were doing soundchecks for tonight's Groovin' in the Garden show, which I am not attending.

With hats to save us from the afternoon sun, we found a bench and sat down to listen to some fine guitar work and singing, not by Nanci Griffith herself, but by the rest of the band.

They were singing a classic Griffith song, though:
I want a simple life, like my mother
One true love for my older years

It sounded great over the empty rose garden, probably better than it will sound tonight once the masses and shrieking children that are so common at LGBG shows blanket the hills.

After that unexpected treat, we walked through the back of the rose garden; and, yes, I stopped to smell them (as Friend noted), but we also enjoyed how every breeze lifted the fragrance and brought it to us even after we left the area.

Our destination was the wildflower meadow where artist Patrick Dougherty had created "Diamonds in the Rough," by weaving a dozen truckloads of saplings together to form what looks like an enormous fairy house with a thatched roof.

With a height of 25', there were eleven domed rooms, twenty doorways and eighteen windows (I know because I looked through all except the four on the second story).

It was amazingly sturdy and should last years before decomposing.

Looking up through the woven branches at the blue sky was beautifully disconcerting.

The structure had a real sense of enclosure but you never lost a sense of the surrounding nature.

With the massive tree-hung wind chimes making beautiful music just across the water, it felt as magical as it looked.

I may be a city girl through and through, but today's sunny afternoon on Northside delivered food, music and art in a practically perfect package.

It even came rose-scented.

Pouring the Glass Over My Head

My inner (and outer) nerd was dying a slow death of late.

Don't get me wrong, I love, nay, need to prolong my birthday celebration for as long as I possibly can, as long as friends are willing to fete me.

But enough is enough.

My brain was craving exercise.

Which is why I was eagerly anticipating tonight's documentary at the Virginia Center for Architecture; showing was "Modern Views: A Conversation on Northwest Modern Architecture" and a subject on which I knew nearly nothing.

The film covered the histories of five prominent Northwest modern architects and their vision of a clear, simple aesthetic with forms devoid of ornamentation and using new technologies.

Most of them were graduates of the University of Washington.

What I found fascinating generally was learning about a school of architectural design which I hadn't even known existed and specifically, learning of their insistence on integration with the environment, a unique feature of Northwest architecture.

Some of the most amusing scenes were old footage of an American Institute of Architects design competition with the renowned modernist Philip Johnson as one of the judges.

As he sat there with another judge perusing entries, he was brutal, tossing aside submission after submission with a witty dismissal indicating his disdain for the work.

Even the other judge had to laugh at his callousness at times; the man knew what he liked and eschewed the rest.

The period covered in the film was roughly from the 30s to the 50s and I thought it was interesting how, in their early quest for modernity, the brash young Turks architects used flat rooves and big overhangs on their houses.

Eventually, they had to accept that in a region known for its wetness, a pitched roof is a necessity unless you want leaking and pooling problems.

After their aha! moment, they adjusted accordingly.

Perhaps most striking was how green and environmentally conscious these architects were fifty years ahead of their time.

In an area starved for natural light, they used window placement and solar panels; they were ahead of the curve in insisting on natural and local materials.

I may have been the only brain-dead one there, but the room was packed with architects, members of Modern Richmond and artsy types.

A local art gallery owner took the seat next to mine, so I had another art nerd with whom to chat before and after the screening.

We discussed the differences between the Main Street art crowd and the Broad Street crowd (my preference having been stated here previously).

I mentioned how much I liked the new Arts District banners now lining Broad.

The tallest man in the room (and possibly in the city tonight) took the seat directly in front of me, so I moved over a seat.

Fortunately another architect noticed his oblivious move and the surrounding short people and threatened to throw crackers at the back of his head if he didn't move to the back.

That made him my architectural hero for the evening.

And although my usual M.O. would have been to stop somewhere on the way home, I opted to bring my recently re-engaged mind home and enjoy some reading on the back porch instead.

I'd received a book as an unexpected birthday present today and I wanted the pleasure of a good read from a surprising source.

To make the warm evening even better, I was listening to music with references to a character from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel.

You know, just in case I get lucky and find someone who wants to get all literary with me.

Another year older, another year just as foolishly optimistic.

Seriously, I will die with my glass half frickin' full.

But isn't that the way to go?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Beach of the Food Gods Playing Jazz

"Tonight is not a birthday celebration," was how my smiling friend began the evening.

I was okay with that. Instead, we were meeting for dinner at Aziza's because it was time after a month of not seeing each other. He brought me a gift from NYC of a bialy, a flat and an egg bagel.

And, because he's from NYC, he instructed me on how they should be heated and eaten. Some friends have all the nerve.

But some friends also have compatible food tastes and great conversational skills, so we ordered a bottle of Twin Vines Vino Verde to kick off the non-celebration.

It was Tapas Tuesday at Aziza's, so there were nine amazing choices, none of which I'd ever seen on their menu before. And these were not small tapas.

We began with lamb sweetbreads and pork belly with wild mushrooms, asparagus and soft-boiled egg because, as my friend said, "If we don't eat it now, we'll be too full later." It's hard to argue with that kind of twisted logic.

The sweetbreads had the creamiest texture, the oozing egg made a rich dish richer, and who doesn't love pork belly?

I suggested we switch gears to something a trifle lighter for the next course by choosing lump crab and white anchovy salad with Manakintowne radishes, turnips and basil sauce.

A circular mound of crabmeat had thin-sliced radish and turnips between layers of the greenless salad with the anchovies on top. The Long Island guy loved it as much as I did, although he ribbed me about eating "light."

I can't seem to stop eating softshelled crabs lately, and the ones on this menu were no exception. The accompanying corn, haricot vert, fava bean and Parmesan sauce was a decadent take on succotash we both agreed, and perfect with the crispy fried softshell.

Tucking into my plate, my ladylike appetite and I finished way before my friend did. Laughing, he told me how much he loves my enthusiasm for eating (that and my forthrightness).

This friend likes to be my personal life coach, so he wanted to hear about my meager dating attempts and advise me on the nature of me.

Mostly I wanted to laugh as he politely told me I don't have a chance of meeting someone right for me because I'm so odd uniquely different. It takes a good friend to throw the cold water in your face.

We tried to do the traditional Aziza thing and finish with a cream puff, but barely made a dent in it after our outstanding meal.

As my friend said near the end of the night, "That's the best meal I've had in a  while." Amen, brother and I've been wined and dined a lot of late.

Then my evening moved from the Bottom west to the Camel for Glows in the Dark's CD release party and show.

Opening were New York's Zaha, an experimental jazz group on a five-city tour who we managed to snag as they come south. Jazz lovers were everywhere in the crowd.

It was fascinating to watch because one member of the band used sound-painting, which is a universal sign language for live composition. Sometimes he played keyboards, but mostly he shaped the music in front of our eyes.

So he stood facing the musicians, gesturing with his hands, head and body to create music as we watched. I'd never seen anything like it, but it took the music to a whole different level, especially visually.

Headliner Glows in the Dark was playing music from their new album "Beach of the War Gods," comprised of songs inspired by movies and no one riffs on movie music quite as well as Glows in the Dark.

At one point group leader and composer Scott Burton asked how many people had phones with Internet capability.

Although it was only four or five, which surprised me, he instructed them to look up "Gary Glitter Glows in the Dark" so they could watch a  video of the song while it was being played live.

Absence of phone aside, I had no desire to watch a video when I could be watching five of RVA's best jazz musicians play new music.

For that, you could call me old-fashioned. And as my friend pointed out, you could call me uniquely different. Just please call me to eat.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Granita Absent, Friends Present

Friendship's the wine of life ~ Edward Young

It was the best ten-hour birthday celebration ever. A girlfriend picked me up for a drive to Charlottesville, giving us an hour or so to spill our guts and anticipate our adventure as we wound our way through twisting mountain roads.

We started at Blenheim Winery, not because it's owned by Dave Matthews, but because it came highly recommended to us.

Honestly, I was amazed to learn that DMB fans make pilgrimages to the winery, even those not partial to wine. As our host agreed, that's downright silly.

Our host was charming, providing humor, information and a personal take on what we tasted ("This is how I'd do it if we were at my house"). The blue tick hound was almost as personable, but not as well spoken.

He shared the winemaker's preference ("Fruit always drives the bus") and, my personal favorite, a taster's take on the wine ("So enticing one could date this wine"). We enjoyed immensely, leaving with three bottles.

From a panoramic view of the mountains and vineyards to the downtown mall, we meandered our way to the C & O for dinner. Talk about an institution.

The staff was still shell-shocked from graduation weekend and fourteen-hour shifts, but welcomed us warmly to the bar that time left behind.

I drank Chateau Ducasse Sauvignon Blanc while my friend snapped bar pictures and  made sure everyone knew it was my birthday ("Thank you, sir. Who are you?").

After a salad of Boston lettuce and Pommery mustard vinaigrette, I ordered the marinated jumbo lump crab with shallots, poblano peppers, pickled green tomatoes and mint granita.

Delivering my plate, our server said, "Somehow we lost the mint granita since yesterday. We won't charge you for this dish."

Did I feel the absence of the mint granita? I did not, but perhaps I was distracted by the sheer size of the lump crabmeat and the tartness of the  pickled green tomatoes.

We'd so enjoyed our winery/dinner combo that we asked a nearby local for a recommendation for the next winery to check out and he provided; we'd already decided on the next restaurant. I can see this becoming a regular thing for us.

Driving back, my friend checked with me several times. "Are you ready to party?" Am I ready to drink good wine with friends and talk? Why, yes, I think I am.

Arriving at Secco, I was surprised to find eight friends already arrived (we were a tad later than planned). Before long, another eight or so arrived and then still more. All told, there were about thirty people in and out and adding to the merriment.

I'd invited some people, my friend had invited some people and we ended up with a nice crowd of restaurant types, musician types and people from my past. I ordered a glass of the peppery Peyrassol Rose and owner Julia said, "That's your bottle." Oh, my.

The most flattering part of it all was those who never stay out late who came and stayed out late.

The friend who said he'd come for one and then had to leave  who stayed for three.

The one who doesn't even come to shows that start late and hung till almost midnight.

She who doesn't go out on weeknights who came and stayed.

The friend who bypassed Mongrel and wrote a happy birthday message to me on the bottom of his flipflops.

The favorite chef who came after working lunch and dinner.

It might have been the most flattering birthday ever because of the stellar company coming and hanging. For a change, I actually had too many people to talk to.

At one point, the sous chef emerged from the kitchen with a lit cake covered in chocolate mousse and there was singing before devouring of a chocoholic's dream dessert.

I made a wish for the second time today (same wish) and blew out the candle.

As the bartender noted, "Friends, wine and chocolate, what more could you want?"

The answer popped out of my mouth before I could self-edit. "I get off at midnight. Let me check with the wife and make sure it's okay," he responded with a salacious grin.

What I meant was, lucky me, I don't need to wish for more good friends.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Give Me Figs and Poetry

Start with a sunny Monday and report to neighborhood joint for birthday lunch with the dynamic duo.

Allow server to insist on a glass of Tenuta San Pietro Gavi di Gavi  due to the occasion. Savor a pizza of fig (a nickname since childhood), chicken, red onion and Brie which arrives unbidden.

Add in card and gift opening (including a book of musician Ryan Adams' poetry...sigh) and well wishing of staff, making for lip prints left on multiple cheeks.

Caesar salad with grilled shrimp and Caprese with pesto follow, as does discussion of upcoming shows, birthday requirements and the pleasure of being thanked on an album cover (you're very welcome, guys).

As if so much stellar food and drink weren't enough, server arrives with lit candle in tiramisu.

Chef comes over to congratulate me on turning 32 (as if) and my birthday lunch at Bistro 27 winds down after two plus hours.

Time to move on to the next step of the festivities...

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Out of the Loop and That's How I Like It

I don't appreciate Edo's Squid like most people do.There, I said it.

But then, I'm not a big pasta person. After a while, I get tired of every dish being heavy on garlic and I love garlic. The decibel level is the absolute highest in Richmond and conversations must be endlessly repeated.

And the speed with which the staff clears tables and seats diners during peak periods when the line is down the stairs is excruciatingly slow. Like tonight, there can be a dozen people in line and five empty tables and no one is being seated for half an hour. Huh?

But as my dinner companion reminded me, they do fish really well and I do love fish done right. And he was taking me out for my birthday, so I asked him to choose the destination and he's exceedingly fond of the Squid.

So there we were, shouting our conversation and trying to decide what to eat from a  list on which skate wing had already been 86'd. I would have enjoyed some skate wing for my birthday.

A bottle of Venica Collio Pinot Grigio "Jerera" with its long finish bought us time to decide what to eat while the room bustled around us.

Apparently we'd arrived at precisely the right moment because the trio who arrived just after us were not seated for a full hour after we were. They looked starved and we felt guilty about that but it had nothing to do with us.

It was hard not to enjoy the early evening light coming through the windows and bringing the spring evening inside, but the screaming child I could have done without.

I was sharing with my friend a couple of good stories (the stranger asking me to dance on the sidewalk and the stranger sliding the postcard into my lap at the concert), but he's such a cynic that all he could conclude was, "Men always have a strategy to get laid."

Nothing like being a buzz kill for my tales of serendipitous romantic encounters.

We ordered arugula salads with shaved Parmesan and I got one of the night's specials, the softshelled crabs.

Opting out of the usual pasta side, we left it up to the kitchen, who delivered a bowl of flash-cooked snow peas with a hint of soy sauce and oil to them. Major Asian yum.

My friend commented on how strange it was to be in a restaurant so crazily busy and not know a single soul, so of course it was only a matter of minutes before someone I know showed up at the table to say hello and talk of the danger of late night get-togethers (my impending birthday celebration).

For a change, I was chided for not eating more than I did, so different than the usual accolades about my hearty and unladylike appetite. I pleaded last night's rare rib-eye as a factor still in my diminished capacity. I guess I'm just not a rib-eye kind of a girl.

But my Maryland childhood makes me most certainly a crab kind of a girl and these were seasoned and fried up perfectly, so I was very content.

Unlike the unfortunate people still waiting for a table in a room with as many empty as full tables when we left. I just don't get it.

But yes, my friend, the fish was really good. There, I said it.

Mist Me Quick

There's something to be said for a birthday lunch looking at nearly naked men.

I went for a scenic drive up Route 301 to Fredricksburg to celebrate with my two favorite sisters (when you have five to choose from, some just rise to the top).

Standing on the street corner waiting for them, I knew they'd arrived when I heard, "Hey, honey, have much  you charge?" yelled from the window of a passing car. My baby sister, the card.

They arrived bearing presents and we decided to begin at Bistro Bethem at a sunny table with a view of the street.

Rose and beer were poured and we got down to eating while talking a mile a minute since it had been six months since we'd gotten together.

After so much rich food lately, I couldn't resist the whole avocado stuffed with Dragon Creek lump crab meat and micro-greens and pine nuts scattered over it then drizzled with EVOO.

I can never get enough crab and avocado is one of the few worthy vehicles for it, in my humble opinion.

We also shared a dish of grilled asparagus spears, Serrano ham,a sunny side up local organic egg and roasted red peppers; it was a hearty side salad to my crab.

All of a sudden our eyes were caught by a trio of girls outside the restaurant. Their faces and legs were panted deep blue and they were dancing on the sidewalk.

With no identifying clues, we couldn't imagine why, but we watched as traffic slowed and people pointed. Dancing girls, whatever. Back to present unwrapping.

From there we walked a half block to Kybecca WIne Bar for another course. The outside tables were being kept temperate by a fine mist released from the edges of the awnings. It was the first time I'd seen such a thing at a restaurant.

The chef, we were surprised to see, had cut his hair and shaved his beard, making for a striking change in his appearance, but he was just as friendly as ever.

I love the way their seating is arranged against the banquette with two additional chairs, making for three-tops, something I've never seen in Richmond either.

The beer drinker was excited about something hoppy and the other two of us got the Bebe Prosecco Rose, a beautiful deep pink bubbly that suited the festive and female occasion (celebrating me and talking about the other sisters).

Despite there being no appetizers on the brunch menu, we convinced the chef to do a cheese plate for us with little effort. The Epoisses de Bourgogne, a rich and strong-smelling washed rind cheese, was my favorite, oozy and pungent.

The Fromager d'Affinois, a cousin to Brie, but a triple creme was downright decadent (at 60% fat, I guess so). With the fig compote, it was heavenly.

The Beehive Barely Buzzed cheddar, our only hard cheese, was nutty, full-bodied and unique with its lavender, oil and coffee rubbed rind. I'm not a coffee drinker, but this totally worked for me.

As we sat there sipping and nibbling on our bread and cheeses, we looked out the window to see a trio of girls leading a duo of guys on pink leashes. The guys were dressed only in black Speedos.

And before you recoil, the guys had the bodies for Speedos, so it was okay. Actually, it is awesome eye candy and about as unexpected on the streets of downtown historic Fredericksburg as I could have imagined.

Again, there was nothing to indicate who they were or why they were doing this, so we just watched and enjoyed. I was prepared to step out under the mist if overheating became an issue.

And it's only my birthday eve. No telling what I might happen on tomorrow.

Spending a Day's Worth of Talk

It must have been the Rapture or maybe the Rapture not happening, but what an odd day.

In the seven hours between when I got up and when I went to meet a friend for drinks, I did very little. Okay, next to nothing. No culture, no conversation, no interesting adventures.

By the time we sat down at Avalon to catch up, I must have been like a faucet you can't turn off.

The music was especially good tonight; a Pandora station with Death Cab for Cutie as the starting point provided non-stop indie pop as the background for my chatter, much to my satisfaction.

Luckily he's a long-time friend and enjoys my stream-of-consciousness ramblings, so rather then trying to escape. he suggested we walk over to Acacia for an impromptu birthday dinner once my Seven of Hearts viognier was gone.

A quick phone call yielded the information that they didn't have a reservation open until 9:45 (graduation weekend), but we felt fairly confident there'd be room for us at the bar. As always, the techno music was pumping.

They did. Apparently graduates' families aren't bar eaters, so we had our pick of stools. Settling in with a bottle of Horton Viognier, I convinced my friend that it was time for him to experience sugar toads.

Fried up crispy and served with a salsa verde aioli, the little fish were as big a hit with him as they are with me. They were the chef's choice to serve at Broad Appetit a couple of years ago and that's when I became  a fan.

And speaking of the chef, he was not in house tonight, having escaped to Atlanta for the food show, which wasn't surprising considering I knew of several others who were away in Chicago at the restaurant show.

But a good kitchen carries on in the chef's absence and Acacia's did that tonight.

Next up we had rabbit pate on brioche, a decadent delight with the earthy pate smeared on the soft, buttery bread. Peruvian style tuna ceviche with avocados, onions and cucumbers finished off our assortment of  first courses.

"I love how much you love to eat," my friend noted. Nothing like being praised for my consumption.

For dinner, we split a ridiculously big pan-roasted rib-eye with a spicy potato pancake, warm market vegetable salad (fresh peas, green beans and white beans), all in a roasted garlic sauce.

Such luscious red meat was savored with a perfectly lovely Efeste Final-Final Cabernet/Syrah blend from Washington. The rest of the viognier would have to wait until the red meat was devoured.

After that course, we took a break from eating, discussing the Atlantic Monthly versus the New Republic, walking tours of Ireland and how visual men are.  That last topic could have lasted the entire evening, but eventually dessert called (okay, we called for it).

Our server recommended the chocolate French macaroon ice cream sandwich with little dots of marshmallow fluff. It was fairly light as desserts go, but satisfied our mutual sweet tooths and allowed us to finish up our Virginia wine.

By the time we walked back over to  Avalon to retrieve our cars, I was extremely full and feeling much better for having gotten all my unspent conversation for the day out of me and into a willing ear.

Every now and then, it's enough to do nothing more than share a meal and talk a friend's ear off and call it a day.

Hell, we're not even supposed to still be here. And if the rapture's just late arriving, it was a fine way to wrap things up, eating and talking to a friend.

I could have done a whole lot worse.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Slim Jims and Falling Men

What is the good of kissing a girl if she does not feel it? 

This and other pertinent questions about love were addressed in a movie I'd never even heard of but saw tonight at VMFA called "Stairway to Heaven" from 1946.

The film had an unusual disclaimer showing what I took to be the dry British wit:
This is the story of two worlds, the one we know and another which exists only in the mind...of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war.
Any resemblance to any other world, known or unknown, is purely coincidental.

It also had a credit for "Motor Bike Shots," apparently a distinct skill set in 1946.

Filmed in glorious Technicolor which practically made color one of the characters of this English film, it told the story of a WWII flyer who had to jump from his plane without a parachute to avoid being burned to death. 

He radios this information to the ground and it's received by a young American woman who is as taken with his voice as he is with hers ("I could love a man like you, Peter.").

And while he should have died, he didn't and coincidentally lands near where she lives. From their first meeting on a beach, they're in love, but Heaven isn't so quick to give him up. 

He was scheduled to die and cheating death isn't allowed, a good thing to know on the night before the end of the world.

Most of the movie was devoted to him making a case (and his eventual trial) for being allowed to live now that he's smitten ("I've fallen in love with her. Her accent is foreign, but it sounds sweet to me. We were born thousands of miles apart, but we were made for each other").

Not surprisingly, the movie attracted mostly couples (there were a lot of hands on each other's thighs), not that a single couldn't enjoy the sheer romance of it (when asked to prove his love, Peter responds, "Well, give me time, sir. Fifty years will do").

The hopeless romantic in me needed to come back to reality after that, so I went to Sprout for dinner and music. After a laughable recommendation from my server for the tofu salad, I got the steak salad instead and devoured it will chatting with the evening's headliner.

The topic du jour was the death of somebody I'd never heard of, but it had resulted in a shot called the Macho Man that purported to taste like a Slim Jim. 

Those brave enough were required to say, "Oh, yea!" before downing the dark brown shot. Of the three people I saw take one, to a man (no female was so foolish) they drank and then said, "That does taste like a Slim Jim."

The only thing I can attest to is one guy's breath, which reeked of Slim Jim.

All three bands played hard and fast, beginning with Precious Fluids, a fraternal duo, who covered Neil Young, the Beatles and Dylan in a nod to his 70th birthday on Tuesday (yes, he's a Gemini, too).

Who Are the Southern Baptists? played next and with their raspy-voiced singer, they covered the Grateful Dead, which got some girls dancing, and mercifully declined to cover "Free Bird."

Paul Ivey vs. Board of Education had a new guitarist tonight, but she admirably held her own and had a clutch of friends and fans cheering her on.

They covered "Both Sides Now" and the Clash and did a tribute to the Rapture but it was the song "Crushed Glass Pastry" about the difficulties of love that closed their energetic set.

As Paul had mentioned during our dinner chat earlier, despite years of experience, relationships are still tough to figure out at any age.

If only it were as easy as talking to a man on the phone and then having him fall out of the sky from a burning plane. I'm confident I could make the most of that.

I've got a birthday coming up and I'm not getting any younger, after all. I need to get started on that fifty-year plan as soon as I can.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Use Me to Get to the UK

I'd like to think that it was a birthday lunch, but it was really all about British Airway points.

A long-time friend had suggested Bistro Bobbette for my birthday celebration today. That's one place that will get no argument from me ever.

After a miscommunication about where we were meeting, I finally arrived to find him halfway through a glass of Courbieres and a plate of country pate. So much for waiting for the birthday girl.

I quickly ordered some Muscadet and dove into his pate and cornichons, always a great way to start a meal at Bobette.

He felt guilty about misreading my message and making me late, but as far as I'm concerned, guilt is a great way to start a birthday lunch.

One of today's specials was a salmon terrine with spring veggies and  I wanted that for my starter. Creamy and pink, its delicate salmon flavor was a delightful spring-like beginning to my meal.

The way I see it, if someone else is willing to go to the trouble to make a terrine, I'll be the first in line to eat it. This one was no exception.

My friend was sharing with me that our lunch was the inaugural purchase on his new credit card, acquired solely for the British Airways mileage points he'd accrue through using it.

He knew a birthday lunch with me at Bobette would get him off to a great start mileage-wise. Before he knew it, he'd be in Ireland or Wales.

Our main course reflected a special and a standby, both strengths at this place. He ordered the lamb brochette over cous cous and I got the trout amandine over French green beans.

The lamb was barely medium rare, pink and perfect, and my trout crispy and buttery at the same time. We both agreed that the green beans were praise-worthy, crisp, fresh-tasting and buttery. Coincidentally, we'd both chosen the right wines for our entrees.

When it came time to refill, my friend had a surprise suggestion for me. Rather than another Muscadet, his perusal of the cocktail list had him suggesting a Bobette as the ideal libation for me now.

 And while I rarely venture beyond wine or good tequila (okay, or a good absinthe drip), this sounded tempting. "I think you'd like it," he said sweetly. What a guy!

Sparkling wine, Campari and an hibiscus flower made for a beautiful drink that tasted as good as it looked. Silly me, I assumed he'd suggested it for its festive quality but he laid it out for me.

"That gets me fifteen B.A. points," he laughed, losing him all his thoughtful friend points. It didn't matter because I like it and, to our server's great satisfaction, I also ate the flower at the end of the drink. According to her, most people leave it. Tragic.

Our final course was the croustillant with its multiple layers of crispy and creamy chocolate and just lovely with the Bobette and the end of his Courbieres.  By then, we were done. Stick a fork in us.

"Can I come to your place and take a nap?" he asked, not for the first time. Negative, I answered. "But I need to see your bookshelves," he countered, smiling.

It's true, every guy should see my bookshelves; it can only help a person understand who I am. But I can't let just everyone see my bookshelves, now can I?

Even birthday girls need to exercise a little restraint. I've got to; there's days left to go in this celebration.

Sound of Music Before Death

It was a first. A woman named Shari Ann left me a message today saying that she had an urgent message for me about the bible. 

I'm presuming she was calling to tell me about the end of the world, but I'll never know since I deleted the message. If I thought there was a hell, I'd be going straight there, I'm quite sure.

My second first of the day was a visit to the new Sound of Music Studio over on Foushee Street for a show. I'd seen bands at the old Broad Street studio, so I was eager to see the new space.

I was even more eager to hear the three bands on the bill: LA's Ferraby Lionheart, DC's Vandaveer and RVA's Low Branches, the only one of the three I'd heard previously. Knowing how amazing they are and that they'd chosen the bill, I knew to expect great things.

The intimate space with its two-floor ceilings and professional equipment provided a cozy and high-tech setting for the show. A grand piano and a couple of lamps softened the serious equipment vibe.

The room was a mix of people I knew and didn't, including some of RVA's best musicians (including one in a "Listen Local" t-shirt). A photographer and videographer did the heavy lifting while I just sat back and enjoyed.

With no fanfare, Ferraby Lionheart took his place and began. His low-key demeanor belied a sure voice and sincere, accessible lyrics.

He told of driving from LA to Texas with a friend and waking to see daybreak in the desert with cacti along the sides of the road, resulting in the song "Under the Texas Sky" and the line "I miss you like the honey jug misses the bear." Come on, you know that feeling, admit it.

His last album "Jack of Hearts" was recorded in Nashville and he played several songs from it including the prophetic "Pocketknife," with the lyrics:

There's nothing stirring in the night
There's no one here but you and I
What will we do with all our time?
I think we made it to the end of the world

At one point, he moved to the piano, saying, "I was figuring I could fiddle around on this thing. It's so big and pretty!" And the songs he played on it were just as big and pretty.

A friend had told me that she had listened to his new CD non-stop the past two weeks and by the end of his set, I could see why. His take on vintage folk pop was a knockout.

After an unusually short break, Vandaveer took the stage, which means that the tall and dark Mark Charles Heidinger and the blond and curvy Rose (wearing a particularly notable pair of cute lace-up wedge espadrilles) began their set.

With Dylan-like phrasing and Tom Waits-like songwriting and Rose's incredible harmonizing, Vandaveer's sound could probably best be called modern folk pop with a heavy does of storytelling in each song.

The audience knew that the show was being recorded, so they put on their listening room behavior, causing Heidinger to note, "It's like a library in here. Somebody should cough or crack their knuckles." A friend leaned over and said, "Yea, a really awesome library." True that.

The songs ran the gamut from light to dark, happy to sad but always heartfelt and well written. With Rose's impressive lungs and his engaging folk troubadour voice, the crowd was mesmerized.

"Like my tie?" he asked, fingering it proudly. "It's local." Apparently on his way to the thrift store, a guy leaning against a bar sized him up and asked if he was in a band. "Yes, I'm a musician," he admitted. The questioner made  a sound of disgust.

"So I had to buy a tie to look less..." Heidinger said, trailing away. He looked very un-Richmond like, but very suitably musician-like. We'll say that he looked completely believable when singing, "Peace and love and harmony and  all the things that lovers need."

Low Branches closed the show with the elegance of their hushed music, tonight augmented by the oh-so-talented Josh Quarles on cello. The addition of his strings added a beautiful depth of sound to the duo's striking arrangements.

Christina's voice is undeniably unique, the kind that has the audience holding its breath to hear her finish singing  a word or phrase. 

Matt, who has recently gone from shaggy bearded longhair to a very attractive haircut and face scrape, anchors everything with his guitar and slide playing, drums and backing vocals. I just had to keep staring at him because he looks so different now.

When the show ended, as always to the shy Christina's relief, the audience applauded their approval and many stuck around to let the musicians know how much they'd enjoyed the show. It was practically a musical love fest right there on Foushee Street.

Whew. I'm just glad I got in a really stellar show before Judgement Day arrives.

It may be the end of the world as we know it, but frankly my dear, I feel fine.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Not Your Birthday Lunch at 821

"I will pick you up for lunch at 1:00 but this is just a regular lunch, not your birthday lunch."

When I got in the car, I asked why he'd sent me that message.

Seems he hadn't had time to plan anything special.

Forget special, I told him, I just wanted to have lunch with you like we do almost every week and call it a birthday lunch.

No planning required.

To underscore that fact, I suggested 821, always a favorite of mine and now that I've made a convert of him for their black bean nachos, of his too.

Highlight #1: the server who for years has teased me about my inability to order anything but the black bean nachos admitting to me that she's now addicted to them, too.

What goes around comes around, sweetie.

Highlight #2: our server who when he noticed us admiring the James Callahan piece on the wall (my friend saying, "I just don't get the whole zombie thing") made sure to ask if we'd noticed "the shark and the boner in the tighty whities."

Actually, I had noticed the shark, thank you very much. Ahem.

And how better to end a birthday lunch than with a look forward?

We stopped by the National so I could get a ticket for a future show and then drove to nearby Shockoe Hill Cemetery for a reminder of the fact that I'm not getting any younger (or intending to be buried, but I digress).

Referring back to the first evening we ever spent together, my friend let loose an  inside joke.

"Another year older. Whoa."

Birthdays are for celebrating with smart-assed friends.

Enjoying a Moorish Rub

I hadn't been in Lemaire in easily three months and when I walked in tonight, the bartender made  a beeline for me and said, "I'm going to Arcade Fire. Are you?"

Well of course I am, but it struck me as funny that that was how he greeted me. As he told me later, "I'd been dying to share that with someone and as soon as I saw you, I knew you'd be the one."

I'm always  glad to be somebody's "the one." We'd barely finished our talk of the challenges of ticket ordering and show expectations before my friends arrived to celebrate my birthday with me.

It was a couple date, with two of them and one of me, not that there's anything wrong with that.

I ran into wine god Bob Talcott, finishing up a glass and asking after our plans. He'd not yet formulated his, so we wished him luck while ordering a bottle of the Four Bears Sauvignon Blanc, which rewarded us with a lovely citrus nose and a long finish.

Although I'd seen my friends recently, I had several good stories to share as we scanned the menu trying to decide how best to sample it.

We settled on an array that included the Georgia sweet Vidalia onion bisque (with local lump crabmeat and bacon, oh my), the butter-basted jumbo sea scallops (I'd give butter-basted shoe leather a try in all likelihood), the Virginia microbrew beer-battered Hawaiian blue prawns, the crispy fried mac and cheese with cheese truffle fondue and one of the evening's specials (and my choice), a Moorish-rubbed pork skewer over arugula.

The bisque was the best kind of heart-attack-in-a -bowl, the butter-basted scallops obscenely rich, the prawns came with heads and tails on (to the consternation of the male), the mac and cheese a bit of overkill to my taste and the pork a standout.

The spicy Mediterranean flavors dominated the outside while the medium-rare insides were soft and succulent with the peppery arugula the perfect complement. Meat, seafood, veggies, pasta; we had it all.

After sharing my recent pheromone-fueled adventures, I was told of the wisdom of not dancing on sidewalks after midnight (her) and the idiocy of not joining someone when invited to sit in the front row (him).

In a relevant note, I was given a lesson on the history of the UR campus (which I consider a devil's triangle when trying to navigate) by my friend the alum, which helped me understand it much better.

I'd still prefer an urban campus any day, but I know I can't avoid the UR campus entirely because sometimes their events require my presence (and additional lead time to allow for my poor navigation skills).

The dessert menu led to my second discussion in as many days of white chocolate not being chocolate; I never bring it up, but I always agree. We decided on the "tasting of chocolate" selection, a trio of milk chocolate banana pot de creme, a Grand Marnier truffle torte and dark chocolate sorbet.

Each of us had a different favorite on the plate (pot de creme being mine) so we made short work of the sampler.

Lemaire attracts such an eclectic crowd; there was the businessman with his napkin tucked into his shirt collar, the very young couple canoodling on the banquette, the very old couple sipping their (what else?) old fashioneds. No one is ever out of place at not-your-mother's Lemaire and it's a fine place to celebrate an upcoming birthday.

When my couple date was busy making goo-goo eyes at each other, I discussed watching Coachella being streamed live with our bartender.

There's always something good to discuss with a person who considers me "the one" when it comes to music.

As for someone who considers me "the one" in all respects, there's just no telling when or if that conversation would ever end.

Totally willing to find out.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Eat, Drink, Swoon

When you experience things in threes, they just naturally fall into good, better and best.

After last night's debauchery. tonight's plan was a simple one: meet a friend for food and drink and spend the evening listening to music.

We lucked out by picking Six Burner because my favorite bartender was pulling a rare Tuesday night shift, allowing me to get his take on the Flaming Lips show I'd passed up for the Fleet Foxes show Sunday.

Today's alternately sunny/ stormy weather was very summer-like, so I went with my favorite summer libation, the Broadbent Vino Verde. Seeing it back on wine lists means humidity and daily ice cream are just around the corner.

We were two art geeks meeting to debrief; she had just come back from NYC and going to MoMA and I had to share my trip to DC and the NGA.

She is the only person I know whom I could reference a trompe l'oeil oculus and have her get it, much less care (much less have her say, "I love that you said that!"). This is only one reason why I value our long-time friendship (that and, like me, she eats everything).

So, yes, Tuesdays are a good day to drink half-priced wine at Six Burner, but every day is a good day to eat there and we enjoyed all kinds of  taste delights.

There was the octopus/olive and sweetbread terrine, an item not even yet on the menu, but interesting enough to check out. The artisanal cheese plate featured Cashel blue, Appalachian Tomme and the divine Nancy Camembert.

But the best of the bunch was the duck confit, potato gnocchi, duck jus with blood orange, Parmesan and a dusting of cocoa.

On the occasions that this dish shows up on 6B's menu, I am compelled to order it for the sheer richness of it; the pillowy gnocchi and the fatty duck are a match made in taste bud heaven, with the blood orange and cocoa providing the contrasting tang.

Before we knew it, we were stuffed and she had to go meet a wedding photographer for her upcoming nuptials and I was off to the Listening Room at the Firehouse Theater.

It was a bittersweet evening because Chris Edwards, one of the founders of the LR is leaving for Portland next month so it was his last night as MC. His easygoing and humorous introductions have set the tone for the LR for nineteen months now and he'll be greatly missed.

First up was Charlottesville's Chris Campanelli and the Dusty Jackets, a folk rock band. Campanelli admitted that his first choice in life would be to be part of a Dylan cover band and that "This is what I'm doing until that happens."

With a newly-purchased glockenspiel and two vocalists to harmonize, they played a solid set and Campanelli raved about the LR environment and the pleasures of being actually listened to.

During their set, I did have to play LR attendant for the first time when a threesome in the front row continued to whisper during the band's set.

I figured they were first-timers and just didn't know the rules of the Listening Room. A finger to my lips did the trick. They were very gracious about it and ceased conversation.

After the set, they apologized and said that they were playing  in the third band of the evening. Sometimes even musicians need to be schooled.

Up second was Small Houses, also known as Jeremy Quentin. It went like this: a guy walked onto the stage, started playing guitar and singing, moving closer to the mic to sing and stepping back to play. His voice was at once intimate and intense, as was his stage persona.

Saying that many of the songs had been written while he was living in Boston and trying to convince himself to move back home to  Michigan, the audience was then treated to what might arguably have been one of the top three performances at the LR ever. Ever.

After the first song, a photographer gave me a look of amazement and whispered, "Well, that certainly wasn't what I was expecting!" I nodded. But no one who hadn't heard him before could have expected what we'd just experienced.

His intensity showed itself in his performance, as he rocked up on the balls of his feet when making a point with his lyrics.

Occasionally pushing the thick shock of hair out of his eyes to sing, he came across as a Romantic-era poet. Let's just say he could have worn a sweeping black cape with aplomb.

He asked if we'd prefer a Woody Guthrie or Tom Waits cover and when Waits won, he acknowledged, "Got it. You picked the right one."

But then he followed it by doing the Guthrie cover anyway. Let me assure, you, they were both the right one.

"Tired  and Twenty Cities" was preceded with the comment, "Never leave Philly and hit DC at 5:00." This from a guy who'd been on the road for twelve hours a day the last two days to get here.

The buzz after his set was terrific as the female contingent fanned themselves and the musicians acknowledged the talent of his voice and guitar playing. Some of us did both.

Haze and the Transients were the final band of the evening and the only local one. Their set was wide-ranging, from a song about an eleven day fling ("Sweet as a Margarita") to Shakespeare's Sonnet #50 set to music and titled, "Heavy."

The covered Dolly Parton's "Jolene," mentioning Mindy Smith's cover. Personally, I'd take the White Stripes' gender-bending version over any other, but that's just me. It was an inspired cover to play.

A funny moment came when the band played one of the guitarist's two original songs and he led off in the wrong key. "The guy who wrote that song should really know what key it's in," he joked.

Their last song had the surprise element of a chorus, seated in the first two rows, who stood to do the background ahhing. It was a first for the Listening Room.

That, in fact, is the enduring beauty of the LR. Despite being nineteen months in, they continue to surprise, delight and pique the interest of the attendees with choices of music we might otherwise never hear.

But let's refresh everyone's memory. The first rule of the Listening Room is there's no talking. You could say that the only other rule is to sit back and enjoy and I'm really good at that.

Don't make me go all Listening Room cop on anyone again.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Roll Up Your French Cuffs and Pour

Since nobody was seeking the pleasure of my company this evening, I went to Secco, knowing I'd have a comfortable place for dinner and wine.

It turned out to be so much more because owner Julia and friends were ensconced on the front couches and beckoned me welcome when I entered.

Before long, the four of us were knee-deep in discussions of women's rights, Buckroe Beach (my grandmother would be so proud) and one-legged men with knives and chocolates (oh, I saw him).

I was given mega-points for my pronouncement, "Until you legislate your members, keep your laws off my ovaries."

Only a certain  kind of man would be so impressed with such a line.

Such sustained discussion required sustenance and I began with the Domaine Bagnot Cassis Rose and the smoked farro salad.

I've said it before but that farro salad is an amazing combination of flavors and textures and totally unlike anything else in town.

One of my favorite mixologists came in for a bite to eat and joined us on the couch for some gossip and updating.

I was sorry to hear that he's no longer making cocktails at Acacia: I had certainly noticed his absence when I'd been there last week.

From there I shifted to the Commanderie de Peyrassol Rose, and the prociutto-encrusted arancini with sweet pea/marjoram sauce.

The giant risotto balls filled with creamy peas and sauce were crispy outside and creamy inside and set on a bed of pea shoots.

It was a lovely springtime dish.

When we lost the couple, Julia and I moved on to more important topics like our parents' relationships (mine having been more successful than hers),what we learned from our own past relationships (be nice) and why phone communication is highly overrated.

It's satisfying to talk to another person who avoids the phone as assiduously as I do.

As we were admiring her 1966 copy of  "The Galloping Gourmet," I couldn't help but note the recipes it included for suet, sweetbreads and oxtail tongue, things likely to be absent from all but the trendiest cookbooks today.

Best of all, the photographs showed Kerr dredging poultry and sauteing livers in French cuffs and cuff links.

As Julia pointed out, we see so few French cuffs these days, unless it's on the arms of Barboursville's Jason Tessauro, author of "The Modern Gentleman."

In one of those bizarre coincidences that seem to dot my life, twenty minutes later he was in the  bar with a visiting winemaker from Portugal and we were tasting Crasto wines from across the pond.

Well, hello, Portugal.

Wine importer Bartholomew Broadbent had brought him here as part of a multi-city tour and so it is that we were enjoying a selection of whites, reds and ports from Douro while discussing Richmond's dining scene and, once the young sous chef joined us, music (311, really? How old are you again?).

With plates of roasted, spice almonds and marinated olives, we were all soon enmeshed in drinking very good reds, including old vine beauties that dazzled and ports that could make a convert out of anyone.

For something completely different, we ended with the utterly wonderful Coenobium Rusticum, a wine with lovely acidity followed by a long finish.

Likewise the conversation, which segued from all kinds of double entendres to intellect being the primary vehicle for foreplay.

 I do so enjoy the lead-up to my birthday celebration.

The most wonderfully unexpected experiences always seem to drop into my lap...and glass.

Fortunately, my multiple Gemini personalities can handle them all.

Monday, May 16, 2011

BD Kickoff: Jaleo and Fleet Foxes

My birthday, which arrives next Monday, has over the years become a pastiche of traditions that make me happy.

I spend a good week celebrating, preferably with as many of my friends as possible, in as many possible ways as we can think of.

And there is always a birthday show, often out of town, involving a band I'm eager to see, even if it requires a splurge.

This year's celebration kicked off today with a solo road trip to Washington for a few of my favorite things: art, food and music.

1. The Art Part

Ever since I'd read the Post's article on "Out-Vermeering Vermeer," I'd been dying to see the Gabriel Metsu show at the National Gallery.

This Dutch master, with whom I had no familiarity, was a gifted visual storyteller with a knack for color and brushstrokes and I spent a good part of my afternoon admiring works I'd never even seen in books.

Skilled at paintings of market scenes, his depictions of sellers and buyers were informative and charming.  "A Baker Blowing His Horn" had one of the most elaborate loaves of bread I've ever seen.

"A Vegetable Market in Amsterdam" showed all kinds of drama: a vendor arguing with a customer, a man hitting on a maid, a dog staring down a rooster.

Have I missed all that at the Byrd House Market?

But my favorite Metsus were the many which depicted a man insinuating himself into a woman's world. "Woman Tuning her Cittern Approached by Man," "The Intruder" showed a man bursting into a lady's bedchamber with two woman showing surprise, "A Hunter Visiting a Woman at her Toilet," ( I overheard a man tell his wife, ""That doesn't mean a toilet, it means she's doing her make-up." Seriously) and "A Man Visiting a Woman Washing Her Hands."

That's a lot of men where they shouldn't have been.

My favorite title was "Woman Composing Music with an Inquisitive Man."

And as he leaned over her chair, the man smiled, clearly showing intent of I can't say what.

Couldn't he see she had music to compose?

I also took in "The Gothic Spirit of John Taylor Arms," a printmaking exhibit of a twentieth-century architect- turned- printmaker who embraced all things Gothic at a time when others were embracing modernity.

His prints of Venice (with every building mirrored perfectly in the canals) and France were breathtaking and while there were a few of New York City, he gave up on Gotham because he "did not love the buildings and couldn't etch what he didn't love."

Now that's a devoted printmaker.

2. The Dinner Part

I left my car parked in front of the NGA and walked up to Jaleo just in time to beat the rain.

A native Washingtonian who lived in the neighborhood sat down next to me and provided company for the next few hours.

She's a regular at Jaleo, so I listened to her recommendations and then ordered what I wanted.

Jaleo does happy hour every day except Saturday, so I enjoyed the Campos de Luz white wine because of its appealing price tag and easy drinkability.

I was high on art anyway by that point.

First I did the endives with goat cheese, oranges and slivered almonds.

My new friend described them as "the perfect first course...or last."

With their clean, crisp flavors, I tended to agree.

Next I had my first sea urchin, mixed with diced peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers and served over ice.

The cilantro-laced oil gave a richness to the urchin I hadn't expected.

Carlos was our bartender and he knew my seatmate well, but it was my glass that received the bonus pour when he got near the end of a bottle.

I asked if it was because I'd driven up from Richmond.

"It's so that you'll come back," he said.

Spicy chorizo wrapped in paper-thin slices of crispy potato arrived and there were six good-sized pieces of sausage, more than I expected. my new friend, concerned about the spiciness, offered up Pepto-Bismol should I need it.

Not likely with my iron gut.

Carlos insisted I try the shrimp sauteed in garlic, butter and guindilla pepper because of its classic nature.

Good, but too rich by that point in the meal.

He also suggested the dark chocolate mousse with cocoa spongecake and hazelnut ice cream and I managed to find room for that, but then I had all that extra wine to finish it with.

Before I left, my friend gave me her number and insisted I return for a night out to celebrate my birthday, even offering a discounted hotel room to entice me further.

"We could have so much fun," she laughed.

3. The Music Part

My choice for birthday band this year was Fleet Foxes because I needed to hear Robin Pecknold's voice live before I die.

Lyrically and harmony-wise, they really have no folk peer at the moment.

The show was at D.A.R. Constitution Hall, always such a civilized place to see a show because it's a seated venue and they require shows be over by 11:00.

Because I hadn't bought my ticket the day they went on sale, I was in the upper tier in Row L.

It was high, but it was on the side of the stage so I had a good view.

Within minutes of sitting down, a girl came over and asked, "Are you alone?"

Seems he wanted to trade one of her mismatched tickets so she could sit nearer her friend, also in the upper tier.

"It's in the orchestra, third row. I don't think your view will be obstructed."

From Row C? No, I guess not.

I graciously exchanged my nosebleed ticket for her third row.

I honestly don't know how these things happen to me.

Seattle's Cave Singers opened the show with beautiful harmonies (well, you'd better if you're opening for harmony virtuosos FF), guitar, drums, washboard, tambourine and harmonica.

The only fly in the ointment was all the talkers during their set.

Not so for Fleet Foxes; the audience was positively worshipful except for shouting out between songs.

 I honestly don't understand how people can think bands want to hear things like "We love you" and "You're perfect!" every night.

At least be creative with your shoutouts, kids.

The best I heard was, "Play what you want!" to which Pecknold replied, "Thank you, sir."

Pecknold was not a big chatter between songs, but it didn't matter given how tight and beautiful the band sounded throughout.

Lots of guitars, drums, mandolin, upright bass, keyboard, tambourine, two flutes and even a bass clarinet made for every complementary sound required.

As a result, much tuning went on and it became a running joke.

"No one understands the meta spectacle thing we're trying to do with the tuning thing," they joked. "So be amazed."

This crowd was more than happy to listen to these guys tune.

In between bands, I struck up a music conversation with the two twenty-somethings next to me in Row C, only to learn that most of the music they listen to is old.

CSNY, Dylan, that sort of thing.

I made my usual case for new music, but they consider their generation a failure at creativity.

Fleet Foxes is one of a very few current bands they tolerate.

Imagine my surprise, when I asked where the one guy lived (the monosyllabic one having returned to looking at his phone) and he said, "Richmond, Grace between Strawberry and Allison."

You mean a block I walk every day of my life?

Small fricking world, isn't it?

I drive two hours up soul-sucking 95 to sit next to  someone who lives less than a mile from me.

It is to laugh.

And the music was to savor.

The haunting lyrics, the multi-part harmonies, the evocation of a sound that will never go out of style all made for the best kind of birthday show.

As any FF fan in the audience could predict, the band did the title track from their new album "Helplessness Blues" as the final encore.

The crowd could no longer contain itself and rose to its feet to listen to the ode to becoming part of something bigger than yourself.

All I can say is, it's a hell of a start to my birthday week celebration.

Keep it coming.