Thursday, June 30, 2011

Nortonians Do Foxy

As historical topics go, some speak to me more than others.

Today's Banner Lecture at the Virginia Historical Society practically screamed my name.

Author and friend Todd Kliman, whom I'd met last year here, was talking about his book "The Wild Vine" and a favorite couple were meeting me to hear the story of the Norton grape, followed by lunch.

Having read Todd's book last year, I knew a lot of the material covered in today's talk, but I always enjoy hearing a writer read his own words aloud.

Like me and unlike many who consider it too "foxy," Todd is a Norton lover ("I love what I perceive in it") who referred to it as the "gumbo of grapes."

But he's also enough of a traditionalist to appreciate researching history he can hold rather than just Googling everything.

"Had I not read Dr. Norton's letters at the Valentine Richmond History Museum, it would not have been the same book." he admitted. RVA's  obsession with the past has once again provided tangible links to what came before us.

Only a true history geek can savor the pleasures of putting on white gloves and holding the actual letters of a long-gone melancholic (big sigh and scent of gardenia).

Those in attendance were noticeably entranced with Todd's discussion of wine growing requirements in the Jamestown colony, Jefferson's acknowledged failure at viticulture and the English obsession with creating a wine-producing colony in the New World.

The smart ones in the audience will purchase the book and take the time to read the entire story of our native grape and the transsexual winery owner now devoted to the propagation and elevation of it in the 21st century.

Take it from me, it's a fascinating intertwining of stories and a stellar read, whether you like history, biography or just want to learn more about wine ( a "foxy" wine being comparable to a wet dog smell).

As one who lives six blocks from Norton Street and has seen Dr. Norton's gravestone at Shockoe Hill Cemetery, I would be the first to encourage locals to check out the limited legacy of the man who brought us the earthy and rustic Norton grape.

Just don't look for it on local wine lists. Todd told a story of going into Comfort when he was researching his book and asking why Norton wasn't on the list.

"They sneered," he said and yet the restaurant is within walking distance of Dr. Norton's former wine-growing farm. Norton's out there (Horton and Chrysalis, among others, make it) but hard to find.

So we knew it was hopeless to seek some out for lunch. Instead we went to Can Can, took a window table and ordered Domaine de Mirail Rose.

Norton was not forgotten, just put on the back burner. The lecture had run long and we were all starving.

I happily enjoyed grilled chicken over arugula with white asparagus, lots of radish, honey roasted peanuts and a rhubarb vinaigrette, while she savored a Salad Nicoise. He went with a manly cheeseburger and generously shared his frites with the womenfolk.

Since we'd all been Virginia winery hopping in the past week, we had to share notes about wines ( none of us had had a Norton on our outings last week, although I did have a chocolate Norton dessert sauce over cookies) and compare impressions of tasting rooms since they run the gamut from chalet-like to wedding-worthy to glorified porches.

The consensus was that it's more about what you're tasting and with whom you're tasting.

Why, yes, I am still working on that part (big sigh and scent of gardenia).

Know any Norton fans?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Just Give It To Me Slow

Slow Food RVA took over today's happy hour at the Anderson Gallery, satisfying on several levels.

Or, as a friend I ran into said, "Of course you're here. Food and music!"

Tables were set up just outside the gallery for partners in the slow food movement to share edibles meant to be savored and appreciated.

I'm not enough of a milk drinker to appreciate the raw milk tasting, so I went straight to the Olli table to eat cured meat.

There was no way I could resist telling the charming meat cutter about my experience at Fiola in DC.

When I had teasingly told Chef Fabio Trabbochi that I had come up from Richmond to eat Richmond meats, he agreed with my wisdom, saying that Olli made the best cured meats he has tasted in this country.

My story was enough to make a meat cutter smile (and it so distracted him that he forgot what he was cutting).

Manakintown Specialty Growers were serving pimentos de padron peppers the traditional Spanish tapas way, sauteed in olive oil with a touch of sea salt. Supposedly one in five is hot, but I had eight and all were mild (and yummy).

Apollo was doing the olive oil tasting with three offerings ranging from a light Provencal style through the more robust Sierra to my favorite, the  Barouni, a pungent and spicy oil which I was told most people find too strong.

I liked it a lot and will seek out subtlety in my next lifetime.

Style's food critic John Haddad, also Vice-Chair of Slow Food RVA, spoke briefly to acquaint people with the group.

The premise, that slow food is based on there being a story behind all good food, extends to a mission of celebrating, educating and advocating. All three seemed to be in play today.

The Gourd Trio, playing gourd instruments and wearing gourd hats, then entertained the crowd with songs about stray gourd vines and neighborhood ethics (with a shout-out to Southside).

How better to follow up food than with food? I headed over to Acacia and miraculously found a great parking space mere steps from the door. Hey, I don't no stinking valet parking.

As I was about to parallel park, a car came up behind me and stopped. Once in the tiny space, the guy pulled up next to me, paused, smiled and gave me at thumbs up.

Who doesn't like a pat on the head, even if it is only for a minor skill like parallel parking?

The mini-wine dinner at Acacia got off to an auspicious start when I arrived to find my reservation for one set up at the bar obviously waiting for me.

As I sat down and was greeted by bartender Aaron, I saw frantic hand waving behind him.

Two girlfriends, one a like-minded eater and the other half of a certain restaurant-owning couple, were signaling madly from the far reaches of the bar.

Seems they were on a girls' night out and had stumbled into Acacia at the last minute. They were just finishing up their first course.

It seemed silly to eat alone when I could have company, so I invited them to move to the bar stools on either side of my place setting and I'd try to catch up as best I could.

First came sauteed rock shrimp cake with cilantro cucumber Greek yogurt sauce paired with 1 2009 Chateau de Valcombe Costieres de Nimes Blanc.The wine's fresh straw flavors were lovely with the shrimp.

Our able bartender suggested catching me up to where my friends were on the menu, so I went on to my second course while they chatted with me about nearby bar sitters.

Beet and goat cheese ravioli came with salmon confit, sliced Mandarinquats (my first) and a basil puree.

Matching the beet pasta and salmon beautifully was a 2010 Chateau de Valcombe Coustieres de Nimes Rose.

While my one of my friends is not much of a rose drinker (I try not to hold it against her), I am, so I really enjoyed drinking this beautifully balanced wine with the moistest of salmon.

As happens at Acacia's wine dinners, the wine rep came over to tell us anything we wanted to know about the wines and to make us laugh.

After sticking her nose in a glass of sauvignon blanc, my friend handed it to me with the request to, "Tell me what that funky smell is."

"Cat piss," I responded handing it back and she had a laugh attack. When it subsided, I got the wine rep to explain it to her in wine lingo.

"Cat pee-pee, that's what it is," he told her. "Swirl, it's gases; it'll go away." Further laughter, this time at the expert's expense. Oh good, at least it wasn't just me.

By this point, I had caught up with my friends and we got our entrees. Two of us went for the roasted leg of lamb with an eggplant tomato terrine, grilled local potatoes and a black olive sauce.

The third had the sauteed rockfish with sweet corn farrotto, zucchini linguine and a cumin lime sauce. The corn farrotto spoke to my summer corn jones and the fish was Chef Dale's usual perfection.

Over in lamb land, the two of us got three large slices of leg meat to savor with our 2007 Chateau de Valcombe Garance Syrah, a big tannic wine to go with our juicy red meat.

The fish eater had a 2007 Chateau de Valcombe Costieres de Nimes Prestige Rouge, a  blend of  Syrah and Grenache. She was happy to share and I'm always happy to taste.

But the fact is, we were getting full and none of us did full justice to our meals at that point. What was I thinking ordering lamb on such a hot, summer night?

Well, besides that I love lamb, it got me that eggplant tomato terrine which married those two flavors in layers of red and green that tasted as good as they looked. It was a highlight of the meal.

We had the leftovers removed to a five-pound box for my friend to take home to her handsome boyfriend and moved on to important topics of discussion.

Why can't perpetrators of crimes against children be punished the same way they inflict pain? Why don't the people who wear pink and green go further east to eat than Acacia?  Why do only certain restaurants have wine dinners?

Lost in discourse, one of us suddenly realized it was going on 11 and some people had to be up and go to work early in the morning.

And therein lies the beauty of slow food. Conversation is meant to be an integral part of the pleasure of a good meal and should be savored along with the food and wine. There should be no timers on good eating.

If there is a story behind all good food, there should be stories to go along with all good food.

We shared some tasty ones tonight.

A Pink Statement of Pride

It's not often that a rose crawl becomes a hurricane party.

Today's Carytown Rose Crawl required that I pull out one of my two pink dresses so as to be attired appropriately. I settled on the hot pink mod little shift that looks like it's straight out of 1967.

We began at Amici, a new addition to the crawling process.

As a guy held the door open for me, I walked in and was surprised at the number of people in attendance, including Matt from Secco wearing a pink headband.

The crawl was already paying off in spades.

Amici's rose of choice was Negroamaro Salento and a glass was poured for me almost as soon as I walked in. Well balanced and fruity, it was a nice start.

Our rose crawling group quickly filled the bar area and as I glanced down the bar, every glass held pink. I was definitely where I needed to be.

I met a few new people (another food writer, a woman with a large pink purse) but chose to catch up with a friend I hadn't seen in a while instead of chatting up the masses.

Almost before we knew it, it was time to move on to Amour Wine Bistro; they get points for both the wine offerings (there were eight plus two flights) and the four different food pairings.

With a bit of assistance, I chose the La Bastide St. Dominique Rose and the eggplant caviar on a baguette.

The rose had some gorgeous fruit and a long finish and the eggplant bruschetta 's fresh flavors made for a satisfying snack as we began Round #2.

The crowd grew at Amour as people who couldn't get off work by 5:30 joined us for the second stop.

I (re-) met a farmer and said hello to a few people I knew. Our rose crawlers were steadily growing, much to my delight.

Walking down to Can-Can, some of us who had been on the Riesling crawl a few months back wondered if Can-Can would be better prepared than last time (they were supposedly unaware of the Riesling crawl so I skipped them).

Strike Two; the bar was crowded with their regular crowd (shudder) and they had only two bartenders on staff, so the rose group had nowhere to go and no one to serve them.

Along with several other people, we beat feet and opted out of their offering. It was a shame.

Heading to Secco, the sky was looking ominous and I briefly considered stopping to roll up my car windows.

Bad call not to have done so since we were barely ten minutes inside Secco when the monsoon arrived.

Knowing my open car was being drenched when there was nothing I could do about it in no way hampered my continuation of rose exploration.

The bar had only one seat available, but I quickly claimed it and adventurously ordered the "Dealer's Choice" flight. It's not like rose-loving Secco was going to steer me wrong.

Fifteen minutes in and the lightening seemed to be striking the very heart of Carytown as Chef Tim and I watched from the doorway.

Moments later, we lost all power.

But with back-up lighting at the front and back and some well-placed candles (including the loo), who really needed electricity?

Um, the kitchen so they could cook and the wait staff so they could use the register system, but we customers could drink just fine in the semi-darkness.

My flight arrived on a pink placemat with pink post-it hearts announcing my wines.

From left to right, I had Mazzolino Brut Rose (list notes: "It makes us giggle"), followed by Fenouiellet Rose (beautiful nose and a long finish) and finally the Tete a Claque Rose (refreshing and dry).

Barely into my first glass and enjoying the bubbles, a guy approached me, hoping for help so he could place an order.

He moved here from Poland ten years ago and was looking for a good red, so I recommended a personal favorite, the Chateau Muser "Jeune Rouge" from a  very old wine-growing region in Lebanon.

He got two bottles and came back twice to chat me up. It may sound like I was pimping owner Julia's wine, but honestly, I was just recommending a favorite of mine to a stranger.

After a bit, the amount of oxygen left in the room became scarce, so the front and back doors were propped open to cool things off and improve air flow.

And that's when it began to feel like a hurricane party. We had no music, no food, and no light. You'd have thought people would leave for brighter pastures, but they didn't.

I chatted with a girl who loves her Church Hill neighborhood as much as I love Jackson Ward.

I met a guy who works at Edo's who admitted that it's impossible to hear any music there, much less his favorite band, Led Zeppelin.

I met a bartender who blogs about going out who offered to over-serve me if I came to his bar.

After a while, the chef and sous chef were so bored that they began polishing glasses. Finally the sous chef told me that they could still produce some food in the dark.

Cheese was out because they didn't want to open the refrigerator, but they had spicy almonds, marinated olives, and the tortilla Espanola, which I opted for.

He brought it out seconds later and I felt like all eyes were on me as I ate it, but that didn't stop me. Eggs and ramps were just what I needed at at that point.

My pink dress was mentioned several times by strangers, but only after owner Julia acknowledged her pink underwear did I allow that I was wearing the same. Hey, anything for a good rose crawl.

I ended on Punkt Genau for its bubbles and refreshing quality in a room where the temperature continued to climb. 

The transplanted Pole returned to chat and, all at once, Dominion let there be light.

Although it had been just under three hours in the dark, the mood inside the bar had been convivial. The restored lights were immediately dimmed to power outage levels and the remaining devotees carried on.

But after a time, the thrill of being trapped by the rain and in the dark had spent itself, so people began cashing out.

Still, with a personal best of six roses under my belt, I felt no shame about calling it a night.

Even if a certain Facebook friend did immediately give me a hard time about being home at a reasonable hour.

I hope he took note so I don't have to do it again any time soon. 

What's the point in being home this early anyway?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Don't Try to Sell Me

I seriously needed to exchange my dutiful daughter hat for my fun-loving female one tonight.

Which is to say, I put on a favorite dress and walked over to Bistro 27 for a little supper and conversation, hoping for the best, but with the latest Spin in my bag in case of the worst.

I never needed to open it.

Upon sitting down in my usual stool, a guy greeted me from the corner of the bar and insisted that I get a drink immediately.

I hardly needed him to tell me that, but he was apparently letting me know that it was an imbibing sort of a night.

The bartender brought me Vinho Verde and up to speed on the changes in his life (sobriety! baby! board games!) and I informed him of mine.

There was no shortage of chatter, mind you.

Eventually the chef came over to talk and we got lost in talk of China, offal and frozen food (the restaurant kind).

There are few things as satisfying as talking to another tongue lover while looking at the Reserve wine list.

Vinho verde only gets a hungry girl so far, and eventually I ordered the salad of fresh avocado, diced baby shrimp, heart of palm, and mixed vegetables with a homemade European cocktail sauce on the chef's recommendation. 

The saucy mixture arrived in a hollowed-out avocado skin with assorted lettuces and Belgian endive all around the plate. 

The contrast of creamy shrimp salad and fresh crispy greens was truly a taste of summer.

Meanwhile the guy who had greeted me revealed himself to be a top-notch #1 salesman (he said so himself) and his mild-mannered companion was a business acquaintance.

They were drinking like there was no tomorrow, no doubt to forget their day jobs.

From what I overheard, the only topics on which they could discourse were sales and girls. 

The part where sales guy was discussing a friend's daughter ("I told him I wasn't into relationships because I'm taken. The only thing I could do for her was make her happy in bed") was just this side of repulsive.

When he left to make a call, his friend quizzed me on where I lived and where he should eat since he's new to Richmond from Harrisonburg. 

I vacillated between being honest in my opinions and telling him the kinds of places he'd probably like, since it seemed likely that never the twain shall meet. 

Let's just say that I was honest, but spare in sharing.

And as soon as his friend returned, he clammed up. 

I guess he wasn't supposed to be talking to me.

But the chef had no such restrictions, so we swung from what he's going to cook for me to my love life with overseas travel and renovations to the restaurant in between.

When I finally decided to leave, there was only one table lingering and that was a Martin Agency function where everyone was sounding pretty loopy.

Walking down Broad Street, I came across a guy leaning on a cab outside Comfort while the cabbie sat idling. Inside, they were doing their pig and brews dinner, but he'd apparently cut out early.

"You call for that cab?" I asked him just to see what he'd come back with.

"Not sure," he said. "Why? You want a ride?" 

No, indeed. 

I fully intended to stroll back to my house and unless I ran into Prince Charming, I had no interest in being driven.

Make that especially if Prince Charming happened along.

New Spiciness in Jackson Ward

The best part of the morphing restaurant/food cart trend is that the food is not an issue.

Whether it's Kenn-Tico opening a restaurant to showcase their popular MCV cart or Olio adding a cart at VCU (and soon a second restaurant), the only potential problems were in the execution of the space/cart. The food was already well-executed and popular.

Add to the list Jackson Ward's newest eatery, Thai Corner, a spinoff of the popular Thai Cabin food cart downtown.

Yes, we J-Ward residents, already a lucky lot, have another new place to chow down.

Second Street, with Nate's Tacos and Ettamae's and now Thai Corner is becoming quite the little dining destination and the neighborhood couldn't be happier about it.

A favorite Leigh Street neighbor joined me at Thai Corner today for lunch and a look-see.

One of my favorite architectural features of the 'hood is all the corner commercial spaces and this one has been renovated beautifully.

The bar, fronted with bamboo and with a rock and "jewel" crusted lip, sits waiting for the beer and wine license to come.

Large red and black shades hang over it. Nearby a wooden figure of a woman stands guard.

Bamboo also lines the back walls and paper screens sit in front of them. Fabric is draped from rods on the ceiling, which gives a warmth to the space (and painted tin ceiling).

The menu is fairly long and includes specialties from the cart.

I was a little surprised to see tangy chicken wings and cheese wontons, but satisfied with a noodle section, stir fry noodles, curry dishes, fried rice and house specialties.

My friend got a cart specialty of crispy tilapia in green curry sauce with rice; the spicy sauce with hints of coconut milk was made even better with Kieffer lime leaves from the owners' own plant (they move it indoors during winter).

My Thai beef salad was an enormous serving of spicy-marinated beef over lettuce, onion, tomato and slivered cucumbers with a liberal scattering of cilantro. It couldn't have tasted any fresher.

We shared until both plates were licked clean, knowing that Thai Corner is only open for lunch right now (albeit a long lunch, 11-4:00) and that we probably won't get back in the next couple of weeks.

But we'll definitely be back. Carytown may be overrun with Thai places, but sometimes a girl just wants to stay in the neighborhood when she craves spiciness.

Or when she needs to rest her feet on the bamboo footrail of a bar.

Where else but in J-Ward?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Life Lesson #1

Now I know the point at which you have to acknowledge your own mortality.

It happens when your mother has a heart attack and has to be Medevac'd from the idyllic Northern Neck to Richmond for treatment only five days after you sat on the dock with her watching the tide come in.

The woman who gave up flying in airplanes ten years ago has now had her first helicopter ride. Her assessment?

"There's a lot more water between here and there than I realized. But the ride was so smooth!"

It happens after she's had three stents put in her arteries and I walk in to her hospital room to find her smiling and wearing her usual pink lipstick.

When I comment on how good her lipstick looks, she says, "You're the third person who's said that!"

As someone who wears lipstick on her daily walk, I realize that the apple doesn't fall very far from the tree, even if the tree is a little less sturdy than it used to be.

It happens when she is made to stay flat in bed for hours after the procedure is over and gets hungry.

Her nurse brings in lunch, hands it to me, lays a towel over her chest and says with a grin, "Be gentle with her."

As I prepare a forkful of food for her, I tease her by saying, "Boy, we've come full circle, haven't we?"

Laughing, she says, "You just love it, don't you?"  What I love is teasing her about the absurdity of the situation and having her agree.

By the time I left her five hours later, she has scrutinized Venus' tennis dress, applauded Judge Judy's grammar corrections and assured me that Casey Anthony most certainly killed her daughter despite the trial not being over.

She goes home Wednesday morning and I can already tell she's going to be just fine.

But now I know that I won't always be.

At least with the lipstick, I can look my best until that day.

Bottoming Out after Saturday in the Slip

I don't wait for engraved invitations anymore. I ask. And sometimes I get text-like responses.

So where have u been recently? I was thinking a bit later in the evening. 8 or 830 ish. What say? U going to some show later?

This quasi-invitation came from half of one of my favorite couples when I suggested a Saturday night couple date.

We established that I had no music plans for the evening (I know, a rarity on a weekend night) and I listed out my recent destinations. Result: Bistro Bobette at 815.

Crossing Cary Street to get to Bobette, a cab driver called out to me, "Hey, you in the black dress, you got a nice butt." Thus I was welcomed to Shockoe Slip.

I was greeted with hugs and kisses and Mas de la Dame Rose was offered before I could ask for it; my friends shortly arrived. 

It was a good foodie night at Bobette's bar, with a nearby trio of guys (including the Welshman still hoping for lip prints on his shirttail) eating even more than the three of us did. We don't often see that.

Every time they liked something, they ordered another dish of it. Ah, so these were smart men.

I was eager to hear about my friends' recent jaunt to DC; they'd done eleven restaurants in 2 1/2 days. Even I was impressed.

But tales of food can't match the real thing, so we wasted no time in availing ourselves of two of tonight's specials.

The rabbit pate with hazelnuts had a subtly rich flavor enhanced by the accompanying lentils. The lamb heart was rich, rare and as easy to cut as butter. I'd eat it anyway, but I'm hoping that eating heart improves one's love life.

After such rich starters, we naturally opted for more of the same, choosing a special of spicy rack of lamb and the mixed grill of quail, beef and bacon-wrapped pork.

The seven lamb lollipops were done in a spicy jus boasting coriander for flavor and crunch; sauteed pattypan squash and tomatoes accompanied it.

The chef himself doesn't usually care for lamb, but loves this locally grown lamb for its young, white meat. I could see why.

As for the mixed grill, how can you go wrong with fowl, cow and pig on one plate? The quail especially was melt-in-your mouth succulent.

Midway through dinner, a new couple joined us at the bar . In an odd coincidence, the female half of that couple, like the female of the couple I was with, was Russian.

They hit it off like a house on fire, alternating between Russian and English as they discussed god-knows what animatedly. 

It was pretty cute to see, like two stray dogs discovering that they liked to play together.

They paused only when the lavender ice cream came out with its distinctive aroma and high butterfat. 

I admit I had one sachet moment, but the flavor was so beautiful that I, like the others, was quickly won over.

We saw a loopy woman led out by her husband after she fell asleep in her chair. No one at her table seemed to find anything unusual about her post-dinner snooze while they chatted, but it seemed very odd to us.

As the last customers in the place, but not yet out of conversation,we decided to move the party six blocks east to Mint.

Of course, Saturday night parking in the Bottom is problematic at best and the omnipresent cops with their cars blocking half the intersections don't make it any easier.

We arrived just as the last diners were leaving, so Julep became Mint right before our eyes.

Shades were lowered and the music went from restaurant-stuffy to very cool. I heard a band I loved, the Budos Band, a ten-piece on Daptone records which says a lot, doing instrumental soul music.

One of the servers took note of it and came over and said, "This sounds like music from a '70s King Fu movie." 

He then proceeded to do bad lip synched dialog to simulate such a movie for our amusement. But the music reference was apt, I'd have to say. And I want more.

And then the Russian and her boyfriend showed up and it was a full-on party.

Mixologist Bobby told me about his ever-evolving drink list and then acknowledged the inevitable.

"You want a Don Julio?" he asked with a touch of resignation in his voice. I just nodded.

But when he brought it to me, it was more than just tequila and a slow-melting cube.

"I know you're a purist, so I only put the ground mustard seed on part of the rim," he said with a smile. 

He'd also slipped in a lime twist, no doubt to make himself feel better about having to pour such a boring drink. And as it turned out, the mustard seed was a nice touch.

Once I began sipping, I heard about one of his new creations, a tequila and absinthe drink with an avocado yogurt, which sounded so wonderful that I had to taste it.

Okay, so I might consider a cocktail if it contained that many things I love.

For entertainment value, Bobby told us about having run over a passed-out guy on the 14th Street bridge late last night. 

It wasn't so bad; Bobby was on his bike and only ran over the guy's foot and the guy never even stirred. 

Of course, it scared Bobby to death, though, so he called for non-emergency help and an ambulance was dispatched to help drunk guy get off the bridge.

If not for Bobby, he'd have probably slept it off on the sidewalk till daybreak, woken up and strolled home feeling much better.

What lesson can we learn here?

If not for going out all the time, I'd never get to hear such great stories. Or an evening of Russian conversation.

I wouldn't get to try mustard seed with tequila. Or find out that I might have the potential to be a cocktail drinker.

And then there was the cabbie commentary on my backside. I just can't get that kind of thing at home.

At least not yet. I remain eternally optimistic.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Somehow I made it this far in life without ever having seen a regatta.

That was corrected today at the 8th annual Rocketts Landing Sprints Regatta on the sunny banks of the James.

A friend had invited me because he had been invited by someone throwing a huge party and despite a guest list numbering in the hundreds, he wanted to ensure he had good company.

For me, the best part of the part wasn't the food or the open bar or the view, although I appreciated all three, but the canopies.

I'm not so foolish to go to a riverside event on a sunny day and not wear a hat or slather on sunscreen, but the fact is, the temperature under the canopy was markedly more comfortable, even with non-stop grilling going on nearby.

Coming off that grill were burgers, hot dogs (the same all-beef ones served exclusively at Camden Yards), Italian sausage and corn on the cob. It was the antithesis of last Saturday's Veggie Fest.

I was foolish enough to start with a cheeseburger before making my way to the enormous hot dog that I knew I had to have. 

Frankly (ha!), I don't know how much they cost at an Orioles game, but at free, they were downright delicious.

Although the boat races weren't as frequent as I would have liked, they were a thing of beauty to watch when they did happen. 

The boats were going upriver in 1000-meter sprints and watching them glide across the water belied the work involved in making that happen.

More than a few of the participants were happy to share about the physical challenges of this kind of racing; looking at their bodies backed it up.

You knew a race had begun when audience members would start cheering on their friends and family as they passed us. 

We were almost exactly in front of the finish line, so it was exciting to watch how close some races were.

The crowd was not one with which I had a lot of familiarity. Instead of tattoos and plugs, there were men in shorts with embroidered dogs and big hatted women.

So I didn't fit in, but I still ran into two people I knew (both bartenders), and was introduced to dozens of people, many of whom were happy to talk to me.

Since this is one of the oldest regattas in the country (1888), I intend to jump on future regattas with an enthusiasm for a time-honored tradition, even if I was a little late catching on.

Besides, I like all the meat.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Tasting Like a Girl

Sometimes it's not where you go, but just that you're getting away.

A friend was in need of a road trip and sent me a list of options (National Zoo, Natural History Museum, river, Southern MD for crabs, and on and on), telling me to choose our destination.

I chose wineries and dinner in Charlottesville and we set off shortly after mid-day with ham biscuits and cookies in the cooler.

The bitch of it was that we hit a nearly one hour back-up twenty minutes outside of C-ville. So we sat, munched  and chatted while waiting for the traffic to merge and move.

The delay changed our plans and we began our odyssey at King Family Vineyards, a stunning location from the moment we pulled in.

Bellying up to the tasting bar, we agreed to taste whatever they were pouring; sadly, that did not include the Cab Franc or Petite Verdot, two of my favorite grapes.

I liked the Crose' Rose' done in the Provence style, and the 2009 Meritage done in a Bordeaux style,  but surprisingly, my/our favorite was the Loreley, a 2009 dessert wine.

Not to gush, but this "straw wine" (rather than an ice wine), a blend of Viognier and Petit Manseng, had to be one of the most delicately beautiful wines I've ever tasted.

Before I could self-edit, I described it as, "Tasting like a girl," and both our pourer and my companion agreed enthusiastically that that was a perfect description.

Tasting of  tangerine, peach and gingerbread, it had the most beautiful aroma and a creamy mouth feel, but none of the excessive sugar you'd expect.

We were so impressed with it that we got two glasses of it and went outside to find a shaded table and enjoy it at our leisure.

King Family has a beautiful piece of property at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and we watched horses on the polo field as we sipped (they  have weekly polo matches there on Sunday) and chatted.

A glass apiece was not sufficient, however, and we got two bottles so we could each have access to this creamy delight at home.

From there we backtracked across C-ville to Keswick Vineyards to see what they had to offer.

Their Italian grape Verdejo impressed us greatly with its drinkability and grassy notes. It was the best kind of summer wine.

The 2009 Petite Verdot had a big nose smelling of violets and with good tannins. I could see why it had won a Silver at the Virginia Governor's Cup.

But once again, we were blown away by their dessert offering, the 2009 Nektar, a dessert wine of 100% Viognier.

Neither of us are particularly inclined to dessert wines, but this high alcohol (14%) and high sugar (10%) beauty tasted like liquid apricots. Two more bottles were purchased, along with some Verdejo,

In spite of ourselves, we had become dessert wine fiends for a day and we had no idea what that was about.

While our charming pourer was having us taste Chocolate/Norton sauce over cookies (divine, really, but then I've always been a fan of the Norton grape), it occurred to me that he could be of assistance in our dinner plans.

We'd planned to return to C-ville for dinner, but I began to think that we were actually closer to Gordonsville. Correct, he confirmed. That settled it.

So it was that we went to the charming French bistro Pomme for dinner, a place I hadn't been in over  five years, despite having had a superb meal there last time.

We were given the front window seat and our young server Ben was eager to be of assistance.

I asked for a glass of Ma Couleur Cotes de Provence Rose after teasing him about the few Virginia wines on the list. My friend settled on a Cotes de Rhone.

Young Ben told us the specials and there was no resisting the fish terrine, made with monkfish, sole, shrimp, scallops and red and yellow peppers with a basil aioli. I am a complete sucker for a seafood terrine.

And it was delightful, creamy ad tasting of the sea with big chunks of peppers and a house-made mayonnaise drizzled over the whole slice.

With some crusty bread, it made for a delicacy of a first course.

Ben kept trying to move us along and we kept taking our time, assuring him that we had no place to be, which seemed to perplex him.

We ordered the Hugl Gruner Veltliner to give him something to do and he ended up abdicating this responsibility to someone else. Apparently locating Austrian wine was beyond him.

House salads followed next, elevated by the soft butter lettuces and the chopped beets. They were so perfectly dressed that it led to a discussion of the scourge of overdressed restaurant salads.

The two of us negotiated about entrees, finally settling on the classic fillet de sole St. Germain (lightly breaded sole with Meuniere butter) and one of the evening's specials, fillet Mignon with lobster.

We shared these two dishes, admiring the perfection of the sole and wishing the fillet had been a tad more rare. The lobster meat was sweet and plentiful.

Eventually we stopped eating to save room for dessert, although they were out of two of their best.

The manager stopped by to pour us more wine and I commented to him on the absence of a good Virginia dessert wine on their list.

As it turned out, they were only temporarily out of the Loreley and would soon have it back on the dessert wine listing. Their stock grew hugely in our eyes when we heard this.

Despite the holes in the dessert menu, we made do with a special, Edelweiss cake (white chocolate and raspberry cake), and the perennial standby, chocolate lava cake.

The Edelweiss was the star, impressing my friend (who had visited Austria and come back desolate about dessert here) and  even me, the white chocolate hater.

My friend had a coffee since he had to drive back, but being the considerate and thoughtful friend that he is, he chose a route to please me.

Instead of the obvious I-64, we came back on a secondary road, Route 33, winding our way rhrough countryside and small towns.

With daylight lasting so long, we had wonderful views of heat lightening and hills as we tore around curves and over rickety bridges (he has a fast car and a lead foot).

And he's a good and long-time friend. Did I tell him that I had a a fun day? I did, because I had.

Could I also have imagined spending that day doing the exact same thing with another? I could.

Sometimes people need to get away and the "with whom" has multiple options.

Sometimes just getting away is enough.

It's a Small World in RVA

The best time to go out with a girlfriend is when her guy's away.

That way, she doesn't have to leave early to see him and we can eat, drink and gab for as long as we want without any guilt about him.

We did happy hour at Balliceaux, possibly my first time ever, but enjoyable for how peaceful it was. Usually when I'm in there, it's in full show mode and the crowds dominate.

She opted for Legend Brown and I went with Verdicchio di Castello di Jesi Classico, a soft white with hints of almond that suited me just fine.

Among the more interesting topics were men with lizard-size brains, barflies and reading between the lines. In other words, men. We might have also touched on beach reading and book swapping.

By our second glasses, we were craving munchies and ordered the smoked bluefish dip (a perennial winner there) and the cheese plate (the goat cheese brie being our favorite).

When we parted ways, her plan was to go home and read a book and crash. Mine was up in the air.

After a change of clothes and shoes, I opted to head over to Gallery 5 for the Girls Rock RVA show featuring three female-centric bands.

Upon arrival, it was clear that the first band was a ways from playing, so I headed down the street to Comfort to kill some pre-show time.

And here's the part where Richmond gets small. The last time I'd been in Comfort had also been just before a show and I'd met an engineer-type guy there who had been quite friendly. He'd insisted on giving me his number, not that I'd used it.

Taking the only open bar stool tonight placed me at his side again with one small difference. He had a female companion.

We said hello and I ordered a Hornitos. Ignoring his companion, he began wildly chatting me up. It was great to see me again, was I on my way to a show, how had I been kind of stuff.

I found it a bit awkward as he ignored his date and enthusiastically talked to me. Finally, in desperation probably, she leaned over him, extended her hand and introduced herself.

They were about to order food and he turned and asked if I was hungry. Would I consider joining them for dinner? I declined politely, hoping to finish my drink and go.

The moment she left for the ladies' room, he leaned over and said, "This isn't a date. She's an old friend I call sometimes for dinner."

What do I say to that? This is not a person who owes me any explanation. We had a conversation once and that's it.

When she returned, he insisted on buying me another drink , despite my insistence that I hadn't finished my first.

"Better to plan ahead," he warned. This was getting odder by the minute.

I got a respite when their food arrived and shortly thereafter a bartender I know from, of all places, Balliceaux.

He sat down next to me and I happily engaged in conversation with him to allow the happy couple their space.

After a few minutes talk of a daggering show at the Hat Factory, it seemed like a good time to leave and return to Gallery 5 for the show, so I said my farewells.

My new best friend grabbed my arm and told me how wonderful it had been to see me. His date looked on.

Over at Gallery 5, I learned that I'd entirely missed the first two bands. Disappointed, because I hadn't been gone that long, I asked someone if I'd missed some good ones.

"I'm taking the fifth," he said demurely. Now I felt better.

But I'd made it in time for the Diamond Center and a friend showed up with a companion to provide some rational company.

All was right with the world again.

As usual, the Diamond Center put on their psychedelic best and rocked the crowd magnificently. I think it was the first time that Kyle played the twelve-string for the entire set and not just the first three songs, pleasing me no end.

Launching into a crowd favorite, my friend noted, "I love this song."

"It sounds like sex," I pointed out.

"Ideally, yes," she said with a grin. Oh good, it's not just me then.

Unlike the Cous Cous shows where people are so jammed in that there is no view of the band and people talk throughout the set, tonight's audience was attentive and even dancing along at times, making for a most enjoyable show.

And unlike the low-slung Cous Cous, Gallery 5's high ceilings gave the Diamond Center's big sound somewhere to go instead of swallowing it.

Walking home after leaving my friends at their car, I ran into a neighbor who had left J-Ward last summer for Cumberland County. And here he was walking his dog on Marshall Street.

I was thrilled to see he was back and said so. He has, hands down, the best art collection in the Ward and his presence in the 'hood had been sorely missed.

We chatted for a while, updating each other about our lives, with me enthusing about his return.

I told him that I'd just left friends who had asked me where my car was; I'd explained I was two blocks from home.

"You should have said 'My sandals are my car,'" he quipped. "We should have bumper stickers made saying that. My sandals are my car. Jackson Ward."

Makes sense to me. As we hugged goodbye, he acknowledged, "This is what I missed. Running into friends and neighbors on the sidewalk at midnight."

Amen, brother. Welcome back to the Ward.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Be Me and Report Back

Does anyone else really want to do what I do?

Tonight that would have started with the happy hour at the Anderson Gallery for a performance by the Bird and Her Consort.

For the uninitiated, that would be Jonathan and Antonia Vassar of JV and the Speckled Bird.

Using guitar, accordion and classical voice, the duo performed what was termed as "parlor music" with an open parasol sitting on the floor in front of them.

Before the show, the older gentleman sitting next to me in the gallery inquired if I knew what parlor music was and I was of no assistance, but we were both willing to find out.

After listening to their beautiful interpretations of vintage music in French, Italian and English, I would say parlor music involves sad songs of love, passion and longing, some of which I even recognized.

They had recently performed at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden and after a sad French song, a French Canadian couple had informed them that it had been sung too slowly.

"But I think they're wrong," Antonia said defiantly tonight. She sang the song at the exact same tempo as she had the last time and it was stunning. What do French Canucks know anyway?

After the show, I was asked what was next on my agenda for the evening. But it was a devoted fan of Antonia's who asked me the question of the day.

"So have you ever considered having someone take over your life for a few weeks to give you a vacation?" she asked with a twinkle in her eye.

Silly me, my initial reaction was that she was suggesting that my life might get tiresome. Then I realized she was offering herself up.

"I'd need some advance notice," she qualified. "I'd have to rest up and go to the gym." All I had to do was hand over my itinerary and she was going to live it and blog it for me.

It was a most intriguing idea, even if she would need me to plot it out for her. Someone pointed out that she'd have to modify her 9:00 bedtime to be me. That's the least of her worries, I might add.

Stop number two was the Virginia Center for Architecture for a screening of "Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman."

Had I known who Julius Shulman was a month ago? No, but once a little research divulged that he was the premiere architectural photographer of the twentieth century, I was in and interested.

Because architectural photography is the primary means by which most people see a given building, it is hugely significant.

And the twentieth century was an optimistic time when architects believed they could change the world and the photographs of their work shaped the world's perceptions of the West Coast and that lifestyle.

The film was made before Shulman's death in 2009 (he was nearly 100!) so it included his ruminations, jokes, and thoughts as well as visits to some of the houses he had shot decades ago.

Sadly, post-modernism drove Shulman  into retirement, but his photographs became invaluable for restoration projects of any number of modernist houses that had fallen into disrepair.

Eventually, his photographs were seen as fine art and he had gallery shows both here and abroad.

A fascinating observation made during the film was that "The houses in real life were not as beautiful as Julius' photographs."

From what was shown in the film, he clearly had a knack for picking the best possible angle of any given structure. Luckily, his legacy lives on in the archives of the Getty Museum in L.A.

Last, but not least, was dinner with a long-absent girlfriend at Pescado's China Street. She'd been traveling for work so much that it had been a month since our last rendezvous.

When I walked in it was after 8:30 and every table was taken, as was every bar stool. I'd never seen the place so crowded.

My friend had finally snagged a table after much waiting and our server immediately poured me a glass from her bottle of Santa Digna Sauvignon Blanc.

I didn't get too far into it before we were able to move to a couple of available stools and get settled in for some catching up.

Conch fritters made for a fine start and then I had the smoked Pacific marlin tostada with black beans, radish and roasted corn salsa.

While it qualified for "tall food" status, it was the trio of flavors; smokey fish, fresh corn salsa and hearty (and heart-healthy) black beans that got my taste buds singing.

My friend had the tetilla tamales of roasted chicken, masa, tetilla cheese, tomato/basil jalapeno sauce and cilantro aioli, which I had to taste because I'd never had them before.

Instead of the usual Latin music or reggae, we enjoyed a soulful mix tonight that even got our bartender busting a move at one point. Old-school soul certainly has stood the test of time well.

Co-owner Bob dropped by to talk restaurants and near West End development with us and we all got passionate about the possible demise of the Westhampton Theater. Now that would be a loss.

Eventually my friend went on to the delicious Los Cabos salad while I enjoyed the switch to Conde Villar Branco Vinho Verde, a fizzy little gem that was perfect given today's heat.

We were so busy catching up with one another that all of a sudden we looked up and the staff was putting chairs on top of tables. Oops, time to go.

And therein lies the challenge for my replacement. Sure, you can be me as long as you can hang until you've finished doing all the good stuff every night.

Only then is it okay to cut bait and go home and tell the world about it.

Well, except for the really good stuff, which doesn't happen nearly often enough, and that's what remains the great mystery.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Battleships and Birdseed in the Heat

It's true; no matter how frigidly cold or steamingly hot it is, people will wait outside Black Sheep indefinitely for a table.

Since it's only three blocks from my house, I consider myself a Sheep expert and know when to show up when it's the least likely I'll  have to wait. I've earned that knowledge.

But then, I'm also prepared to walk away to eat elsewhere and most customers do not seem to consider that an option.

So it was that my lunch companion and I slid into the last table available and the line began to form outside immediately afterwards.

Because of BS's proximity to my house and neighborhood, I took attendance to see who I might know.

Let's see, a former co-worker and fellow music lover, a talented umbrella-toting poet and a wine rep's family outing. And the place just isn't that big.

Eager to eat, I made my selection at once while he hemmed and hawed over the battleships, trying to decide which he wanted, finally settling on the SS Sultana.

Thirty seconds later, he'd had a moment of Old Dominion devotion and switched to the CSS Virginia.

Because I've had the Virginia but not the Sultana, I gently guided him back to his first choice so we could get some food.

My Cardinal consisted of baby spinach, dried cherries, pickled onions, beets and assorted seeds ("Birdseed" they called it), a marriage of sweet and savory, red and green, that pleased the eye as well as the palate.

His Sultana with grilled spiced ground lamb and beef had chopped Romaine, cucumber, green onion and tomato all doused in a Russian dressing overflowed the crusty baguette.

He cut me off a piece of the monster and took a bite of my beautiful salad; we were both impressed with the other's choice. We sure know how to eat, this guy and I.

We talked about his upcoming camping trip and he asked about my weekend plans. We look to be equally busy over the next few days, albeit in wildly different ways.

And since neither of us finished our lunches, neither of us qualified for dessert (a family rule at my house growing up), despite him ogling a nearby diner's peanut butter pie.

Besides, the guilt over the sweaty people still outside awaiting a table in the mugginess was starting to weigh heavily on us.

And who really wants guilt for dessert after such a satisfying lunch?

The Long and Winding Road

Even when it's not stated, the first rule of the Listening Room remains the same.

And it wasn't stated tonight; the new Chris, who replaced the former Chris as emcee, neglected to remind attendees that there is no talking at the Listening Room.

But when you have two bands as hushed and beautiful as South China and Small Sur, people instinctively shut up anyway.

But just in case, I had brought my official badge of the Listening Room police, a birthday gift from a favorite couple. I was advised to consider mounting it on a sash for a feminine look. I'm considering it.

Upon walking in, I also fell into a discussion of the old "Perry Mason" show, of which I am a huge fan.

Give me '50s-era Los Angeles, an imposing attorney, his hot secretary and the big lug of a detective set to the most unsettling theme music ever composed and you've got some magnificent TV noir.

I was just amazed to find a kindred soul who appreciated it as much as I do. Who knew there were others?

But then I had to remind myself that I was really there for the music.

Portland Maine's South China made it easy with their set consisting of cello, accordion  and guitar with two voices.

It would be too simplistic to call them folk because they had an experimental edge to them, especially evident in the cello playing. It was a unique sound for the Listening Room, compelling but unusual.

They'd come down a day early to visit Hollywood Cemetery and were still adjusting to the heat. Imagine if they'd come during that last heat wave, the poor northerners.

Baltimore's Small Sur was up next and although I had heard them last night, here, I enjoyed them no less tonight.

A few songs in and the lead singer asked the audience if we had any questions.

"Did you play that song last night?" I asked. A friend had thought not when I asked her, but it turned out she was mistaken so I got public validation. Besides no on else was asking anything.

Tonight's show differed from last night's in that sax/guitar player Andy also played the piano on several songs, the Firehouse Theater conveniently having a piano stage-side and all. It was a lovely addition to their sound.

Like last night, the songs were romantically beautiful, full of imagery of entwined lovers and much longing.

Afterwards, I joined some friends in going to Sprout to wish co-owner Jamie a happy birthday and enjoy some Gatao vinho verde. It is the first day of summer, after all.

As we sat there talking about Best Coast and happy hours, I heard music start up in the back room.

A last minute show had been booked for Philly's Chris Kasper; when I went to check it out, he and a violinist were in the back room playing their hearts out and sounding terrific...for no one.

Which was a real shame because as someone who has seen him perform twice before, he's the kind of talent that deserves a roomful of listeners, like he had at the Listening Room when he played there.

Even so, I stood at the archway to the room listening to the well-crafted songs and beautiful harmonies, finally going inside and sitting down with my wine. It was a show for just me.

I felt obligated to apologize for the absence of Richmond's music-loving population, but they knew the show had been booked at the last minute and understood.

When they finished, he insisted I take one of his CDs and I was happy for the gift, both of the record and of the unexpected performance.

To quote a regular commenter to this blog, "It's a long road with many twists and turns."

I count myself as fortunate for how often that road puts me in a surprisingly interesting place.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Welcoming Summer with a Brown Paper Tablecloth

Best way to celebrate the first day of summer: on the Northern Neck enjoying summertime food and drink.

Truthfully, we were celebrating a belated Father's Day, but today being the start of the "living is easy" season, we made sure that the lazy porch meal fit the new season.

First off there was white sangria full of fruits and unknown liquors, but tasting mainly of mango and peach and the kind of libation that can be sipped all afternoon long without a second thought.

After a pleasant enough hour spent sipping and watching the tide come in, we were sufficiently hungry to do justice to the afternoon's feast.

Lunch was a half bushel of crabs heavily seasoned, paired with watermelon and hushpuppies as an accompaniment. Is there a simpler or more delicious summer meal? Not in my family.

As always, talk ranged over the latest news from my five sisters and their goings-on (I try to stay out of the fray and just get the bulletins).  There's always scuttlebutt with my family.

The sister who got married in New Orleans a few weeks after September 11th is having a ten-year anniversary party this fall.

I attended the fifth anniversary soiree down there and am still debating this one, so that was a major topic today. Will she or won't she?

After sating ourselves on crabs, I brought out the dessert I'd made to celebrate the summer solstice: peach ice cream.

Despite a mild peach allergy which causes my mouth to itch when I eat a little bit of peach and my tongue to swell when I overdo it, I think peach ice cream is irresistible.

And homemade peach ice cream enjoyed with white sangria on a breezy porch with  a view of the river? Downright decadent.

But I was only doing it for Dad. Really, it was all about the man who made me possible.

Or, as my Father's Day card said, "Thanks, Dad, for impregnating Mom!" Love, Karen.

He loved it and she cringed. Guess which one I favor.

Monday, June 20, 2011

An Evening Grace Street Pleasure

In yet another of those odd coincidences that define life in RVA, I got invited to a house show and potluck tonight at a house that I pass on my walk every single day.

The occasion was that Baltimore's Little Sur was in town for tomorrow night's Listening Room, so there was going to be a small gathering and dinner and I was invited.

That's like hitting the Monday night jackpot.

Walking in to the house, I found plenty of familiar faces and about as many new ones. No problem; I'm an extrovert and can make friends in a room full of interesting strangers.

And I figured they were interesting because the food they'd brought was, always a good sign.

Among the things I noshed my way through were a beautiful beet/lentil dish, a flavorful white bean and arugula combo, sesame noodles, a spinach and garlic version of hummus and bread, a watermelon stuffed with feta and herbs and homemade mac and cheese.

For dessert, there was rhubarb crisp, two kinds of cookies, muffins, fresh berries and handmade jelly candies.

By the time everyone had had seconds (and thirds; Christina, you know who you are) and been well lubricated from the beer and wine table, the music started up.

Small Sur's sound came from guitar, bass, drums and a saxophone, which sometimes was replaced with another guitar.

Lead singer Bob's voice had a pure and haunting quality, which put me in mind of a male version of the Low Branches, the band who performed just after them.

He began by saying, "We're playing the Listening Room tomorrow so we'll play a different set tonight."

The spare arrangements were enhanced by the addition of the sax and the tenderness of Bob's voice.

Charmingly introducing a song, he said, "This song is about a reservoir near where we live where we like to go swimming. It's drinking water, so we're swimming in our own glass. It's great."

After having just heard these guys, I'm already looking forward to hearing them do all different material tomorrow. It'll be a rare musical double dip.

Add in these guys to Beach House and Wye Oak and it's clear that Charm City is a great music town these days. Note to self: head up there soon. Not that any place beats Richmond, of course.

The Low Branches played next and it was easy to understand how the two groups had been attracted to each other's sound. They're first cousins, musically speaking.

A always, there was the pleasure of Christina's voice but tonight we also got a new song, one she said they would play "because you seem like a forgiving group."

While that was undoubtedly true, we didn't need to forgive anything. Parts of the new song were downright upbeat, a highly unusual sound for the Low Branches.

"I must have taken my happy pill," she admitted after the show about writing the song.

My happy pill came in the form of delicious food, chatty friends and a quiet storm of music on a Monday night.

You can bet that when I go by that house on my walk tomorrow, I'll still be smiling.

Bottom Expectations

Do small chairs make a restaurant a "chick place"?

I don't think so, but I have a (male) friend who does, so when I'm in the mood for a place like Chez Foushee with its small chairs, I usually ask a female to join me.

Actually, today's lunch came about when I ran into a neighbor I hadn't seen in months at the neighborhood drug store. Right there in line, she immediately insisted we make lunch plans.

But she's only lived in J-Ward for three years and with my almost six-year tenure and penchant for eating out, she always defers to me about where to go.

So we ended up at the charming Chez Foushee and she fell in love with their dark wood bar and the decor the moment we sat foot in the place.

"How did I not know about this place?" she asked rhetorically. Considering it's been open for a decade and a half, I had no answer anyway. But now that they do dinner, there's really no excuse.

We walked in just after they opened and the sever who greeted us looked apologetic for the lack of bustle. "It'll get busier in a few minutes," she assured us as if that mattered to us.

So we took our window seats and did the girly thing ordering iced teas and salads. She had the potsticker salad, always a good choice.

I had the Foushee Market Salad, of romaine, red onions, shredded carrots, cherry tomatoes, marinated white beans, Manchego cheese and that loveliest of antipastos, artichoke caponata, with a  Balsamic vinaigrette.

As we sat chatting non-stop about what's been happening in our lives since our last meeting, the dining room did fill up as promised...with women. And more women. We never saw an actual man come in during our entire time there.

But our server was a male and after he cleared our plates, asked if we wanted dessert.

Begging off, he got mock-indignant with us, asking, "What do you mean you don't want dessert?" I felt it was a valid question, but my neighbor was a tad taken aback.

There are certain expectations in a chick place and apparently dessert-eating (especially after salad-eating) is one of them. Now we know.

The thing is, a girl's got to ensure that she still fits on the small chairs.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Stick Your Finger in My Pain

When talking about love, a former boss always used to say, "There's a lid for every pot."

One of the oddest lid/pot combinations I've ever seen was the couple in Rajiv Joseph's play "Gruesome Playground Injuries," the subject of tonight's staged reading at Firehouse Theater.

Joseph is the theatrical golden boy at the moment because his play (and Pulitzer Prize finalist) about Iraq "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" just finished a Broadway run, making this a most interesting choice for Firehouse to stage as a reading.

Imagine two kids who meet in the school infirmary at the tender age of eight; she's throwing up non-stop and he's ridden his bike off of the school's roof. Because boys are dumb.

The immediately bond over shared maladies.

Over the next thirty years, they continue to see each other periodically, always due to one or the other's sickness or injury.

They're both damaged souls and whether it's a fireworks accident that causes Doug to lose an eye or Kayleen's self-medicating and cutting, the two continue to share a bond of personal pain throughout their friendship/love.

Like many in the audience, I kept hoping that they would acknowledge their feelings for each other, but there were always hospital beds and comas and psychiatric institutions keeping them distracted.

As with any two-actor production, even a limited one like a staged reading, it's all about the chemistry of the actors and Molly Hood and Billy Christopher Maupin, both stalwarts of the local theater scene, were terrific.

Unlike some readings where the actors sit and merely read, scenes had been blocked and there was not only movement but the actors played to one another, often emotionally.

Only occasionally did their scripts get in the way, which made the evening feel more like a production than many readings do.

Music marked scene transitions and the passage of time.

From "Signed, Sealed and Delivered" through "Every Breath You Take" to the incredibly sappy but appropriate "I Will Always love You," the music helped with the ten- and fifteen-year jumps the script made. One particularly clever device was that the scenes did not play out in chronological order, so we saw them first as children, then young adults, then teens, then slightly older adults, and so on.

A new friend and fellow theater lover found me after the show and joined me for some conversation before the finale. These readings always include a talk-back with the director and actors afterwards and I usually stay for the insight to be gained as well as hearing other audience members' interpretations to compare to my own.

Because of the troubling nature of the script (self-destructive behavior, even in a relationship play, much less blood and guts, aren't everyone's cup of tea), I wanted to hear how much others liked it.

A lot, as it turned out. A spirited discussion of how to direct, whether the characters loved each other and the use of a narrator all came up. At the end, my friend cleverly noted, "That was like the best episode of 'Inside the Actor's Studio' I've ever seen."

Don't I know it. I'll tell you what; for five bucks, Firehouse's Readers' Theater series is one of the best  entertainment values (with a capital "V") going.

I say that as a lid still in need of my pot, but one who's always appreciative of a good night's entertainment.

I Like to Watch

I could probably make a case for myself as a non-sexual voyeur.

The fact is, I like to watch restaurants, at shows, at museums, at the beach, almost anywhere really.

It can be fascinating to try to figure out something about the people and interactions I witness, especially when I'm with a like-minded person.

Which means I couldn't pass up one of the best voyeur films of all times, Hitchcock's "Rear Window" showing at the Bowtie's Movies and Mimosas this morning.

Rallying a couple of Hitchcock lovers to go with me, we settled in the raised front row to enjoy a film that continues to be suspenseful despite multiple viewings over the years. Hats off to the master.

But aside from Grace Kelly's beauty (and wardrobe) and Jimmy Stewart's classic low-key delivery and perennial bachelor charm, it's all about sharing the Peeping Tom experience with the characters in the movie.

I've never lived in a building that afforded me the kind of multiple views that Stewart had from his apartment but I feel quite certain that I'd be as sucked in by the tableaux as he was.

Of course, part of the premise of the film was that it took place during a summer heat wave, so everyone had their windows open.

Heat wave or not, I have my windows open from April through October, so, like in the movie, it's often voices, someone's music or an unidentifiable sound that pulls me to my front windows to see what's happening on the sidewalk or street.

My rear windows provide a view of the alley overlooking my backyard, which is rarely as interesting or as busy as the street view.

But I have seen a couple torridly kissing and a party attendee relieving himself back there. The best time for good alley viewing seems to be during neighborhood parties when I get home late.

Of course, the real takeaway from "Rear Window" was simply that the convalescing Stewart had to turn to his  neighbor's windows for entertainment while his broken leg healed. It was 1954 after all.

Now a person would simply turn to his computer, TV or video games to be entertained instead. Or even sit there looking at their phone as a diversion; I see that all the time, although, Luddite that I am, I don't quite get it.

"We've become a race of Peeping Toms.What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change. Yes, sir. How's that for a bit of homespun philosophy?"

So with all our modern distractions, we may not be the voyeurs we were in 1954, but the advice is probably just as relevant.

Resolved: I'm on my way out in order to look in.

I just can't imagine I'll be anywhere near as interesting as some of the other people I watch.

What I can be is as hot as the people in a 1954 heat wave, but I'm okay with that.

"You'd think the rain would have cooled things down. All it did was make the heat wet."

All the more reason to leave my windows open. Front and rear.

Nice Night for a White Wedding

Chains do not hold a marriage together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads which sew people together through the years.
~Simone Signoret

A close friend had a huge party tonight to celebrate her pirate wedding at the VMFA last weekend. After a stealth ceremony, they wanted to party with 75 or so of their favorite people.

I made the list, although I never actually got the invitation; I like to tease her about that.

The dress code was all white, following the bride's lead, and only a very few people ignored that request.

She wore a tag saying, "Yes, I AM the bride" and another woman (who had been congratulated twice) wore one that said, "No, I am NOT the bride." It was pretty funny.

The lavish party was held in their backyard, a fairyland of multiple level decks, secret gardens, ponds and twinkling lights.

Local flower-decorated tables were scattered throughout the trees and under a canopy. There was a beer bar on one side and a wine bar on the other.

When I arrived, the groom greeted me and then pointed me towards the wine bar. Teasing him for presuming I'd want wine, he laughed."Your life is an open book and she reads it to me after every time she sees you." Gulp.

An Irish band played all evening long under the stars as disparate groups of friends introduced themselves to each other. In most cases, people turned out to have far fewer than six degrees of separation.

Within the first ten minutes I was there, I discovered connections from Floyd Avenue (my former long-time home), Baja Bean (and a former boyfriend) and a former reader (back when I worked in publishing).

Amazing how quickly you can connect the dots in this town.

I was invited to join some guys at the cigar-smoking table (they thought I looked lonely) and they provided all kinds of raucous conversation. As the daughter of a former pipe and cigar smoker, the smell was familiar.

The guest list was all over the place; I chatted with a guy who had just graduated from VCU and with an 80-year old doctor who volunteers at a clinic twice a week because retirement bores him.

The food was outstanding and plentiful with everything from pork loin to smoked salmon ((done by a friend to their smokey taste) to barbecued drumsticks, tabbouleh to bean salad to sesame noodles, Caprese to meats and cheeses to chicken fajitas. I ate some of everything being offfered.

And because everyone knows that the bride and groom never take time to eat at their own celebration, I became the friend who nudged them both into eating, getting her a plate and even making his plate up for him. Eat, you two, you'll need your strength for later (wink, wink).

It was very sweet to see them kissing and dancing and doing all kinds of romantic things I don't usually see them do. Everyone else seemed to be enjoying it for the same reasons.

The beautiful wedding cake was nontraditional carrot cake (with brandy-soaked raisins) and decorated with marzipan vegetables in tribute to their shared love of gardening. They disdained the traditional cake shoving gesture, to their credit.

After dinner and once it was dark, I found a quiet corner from which I could see the dancing area and the band but remain hidden by plants.

It was a cozy spot to savor the magic of the evening. So many white-clad people milling about, disappearing behind bushes and tall plants. Odd pairings coming together to dance and then drift apart. An occasional raindrop felt.

I got to thinking how very satisfying it was to help a long-time friend celebrate having found a partner for the rest of her life. And we did celebrate.

I do foresee a hungover happy couple in the morning, but then that's all part of the "for better or for worse." I have no doubt they'll work through it.

A long marriage is two people trying to dance a duet and two solos at the same time.
~Anne Taylor Fleming