Friday, September 30, 2011

The Best Occupation

All this Tennessee Williams drama of late has gotten me thinking.

Bear with me here.

People talk about how great it would have been to live in Paris back in the '20s with so many American ex-pats and a culture of art and literature.

No, it wouldn't, at least not if you were a woman. I wouldn't have wanted to be alive at any time before there was reliable birth control.

Ditto the difficulties of being gay before decriminalization and greater acceptance became the norms.

But without that time, we wouldn't have the tortured plays of Tennessee Williams so we wouldn't be celebrating his centennial and I probably wouldn't have seen my fourth of his works in a month tonight.

Richmond Triangle Players was opening "Suddenly, Last Summer" at their excellent theater in Scott's Addition (best leg room of any theater in town).

I walked into a lively crowd having cocktails and chatter before the show.

Deciding to head into the theater, the usher tried to hand me two programs; I told him I only needed one.

"Well, then shouldn't you be out there mingling?" he said slyly.

Judging by the good-looking and mostly male minglers, I don't think they were interested in my type, I told him.

"You sound like me!" he giggled, leading me to my seat.

I heard my name called and a theater critic friend waved and moved over to say hello.

As curtain time approached, he decided to stay next to me rather than returning to his seat.

Glancing over a few minutes later, he said, "Would you look at that? A cute guy just sat down in the seat next to mine!"

Timing is everything, my friend.

"Suddenly Last Summer," like "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" last week, is basically two monologues, one in each act.

And, like that play, this one had plenty of repressed homosexuality and money-grubbing family members.

I especially liked Jacqueline O'Connor's portrayal of Mrs. Holly; her spot-on look of Southern womanhood, right down to the pale pink gloves, and bewildered but rapt attention to her "daughter's" revelations showed a total engagement in the drama.

Lorri Lindberg playing Violet Venable with the passion of a deluded Southern mother, summed up the secret to survival with, "I have to have my 5:00 cocktail first to fortify me."

But the dialogue is always the high point of any Williams play for me.

"It takes character to refuse to grow old," Violet says about her dead son's lack of aging in photographs.

I had no idea it was as simple as that.

"Strictly speaking, his life was his occupation."

Now that one I had definitely figured out.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Going Dutch and Sexo

I didn't see a lot of crossover.

Chances are I was the only person at the documentary screening at the Virginia Center for Architecture and at the Guillermo Sexo show at Balliceaux tonight.

I noticed that the crowd was much smaller than usual for the monthly Richmond Modern film series as we mingled at the reception, enjoying beer, wine and apps before the show.

Tonight they were screening "Helia Jongerius: Contemporary Archetypes" about the Dutch designer.

Okay, so I'd never heard of her but I'm sure savvy types have.

She's apparently considered one of the most innovative and creative designers working today.

Her strength seemed to be putting together extreme differences; she combined a contemporary aesthetic with something from the collective memory of the culture.

What I liked most about her whatever (furniture, textiles, household items) was her disdain for perfection.

She considered imperfections to show the work of the artisan's hand.

"I'm not afraid to make failures because failures can be brilliant," she said almost philosophically.


I made a point to arrive at Balliceaux in time to catch Boston indie rockers Guillermo Sexo.

As I expected, they were three guys and girl who delivered reverb, psych-folk and a fair amount of shredding.

I ran into a DJ friend who was as into their set as I was.

He was a tad more enthusiastic about the lead singer's dress falling off her shoulder during a rambunctious drum part, but other than that, we both found a lot to like about the sound.

The main event tonight was Black Girls (Modest Mouse meets K.C. and the Sunshine Band) whom I've sen lots of times.

It was the lead singer's birthday and he was in high spirits.

"There's a reason you're out at a bar on a Wednesday night and it's not the music!" he shouted, exhorting the crowd to drink.

My Hornitos was in hand, so I was well ahead of him.

And he wasn't entirely correct, either. While I would have guessed that far too few people had been there to see Guillermo Sexo, plenty of people of all ages were there to see Black Girls.

Definitely not all of them (it is Balliceaux) but plenty.

Even so, after the third song the guy next to me leaned over and asked if I knew the name of the band.

When I told him, he asked if I knew the band members. Sorry, no. But clearly some people are still discovering them.

Encouraging the crowd to move to the music, the singer said, "I have a dream that all of Balliceaux will be dancing" and plenty of people obliged.

It doesn't take much effort to dance to music like that of Black Girls (K.C. made a fortune proving that back in the 70s).

As the show wound down, I made my way to the front bar only to run into (surprise) friends, musicians both, but not a couple.

He was trying to convince her that he's crossed the fence and can now date blonds. I didn't even attempt to join that discussion.

When I asked if they'd come for the music which was nearly over, they explained that they were there to drink.

Anything in particular, I asked?

"Alcohol on ice," the more smart-assed of the two responded.

My alcohol on ice long gone, I left them at the bar talking about wife-stealing.

Like I said, not a lot of cross-over.

Which, I guess, makes me the missing link.

I do have some brilliant failures to recommend myself to both crowds.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Not Afraid to Pair Food and Music

Given my present mood, did I need to see a tear jerking play tonight?

Not really.

Would I have missed Firehouse Theater's staged reading of "In My Father's Eyes"?

Not a chance.

The playwright was a heart surgeon (he has surgery scheduled tomorrow), the composer was David Friedman ("Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin," and "Pocahontas") and the cast consisted of four people and a a narrator.

The story of a man who falls madly in love with an aspiring actress/singer/dancer who dies when her child is born flashed back and forth in time.

The dysfunctional relationship between father and daughter alternated with the epic love story of man and the woman he worshipped but never really knew.

And I wasn't the only one tearing up at various developments in the story.

At intermission, several people acknowledged how moving some of the relationships were (the painter and the widower? the dead wife's longing for a different life? both achingly sad).

The cast was uniformly strong (Scott Wichmann being a personal favorite) and because of the extensive staging, the audience got a lot of bang for their five dollar buck.

But then that seems to be the case with all of Firehouse's staged readings.

At the talkback afterwards, playwright John Anastasi told of working with Broadway composer Friedman.

Apparently the man could sit at the piano and come up with a melody in minutes.

"Do you like that?' he'd ask to Anastasi's enthusiastic yes. "Okay, what do you need in this part?"

He'd then create lyrics on the spot to fit the scene. That's talent with a capital "T."

Before the show, I had the good fortune to run into a friend and her group, making for satisfying theater talk and chef talk.

Plus it's not every day I meet Phyllis Richman's cousin.

That group left after the play but my friend and I decided to have a quick drink at Ballieaux.

When our bartender told us it was half priced wine by the bottle night, we were less concerned about quickness and decided to enjoy a little Provence pink for peanuts.

Our Mas de la Dame Rose kept us going through the talkative company that showed up.

And the soundtrack? Interpol, Killers and the like, all loud.

A music friend and I got off on talk of Ian Dury and Wye Oak.

A massage therapist joined us to share his input on healthy eating, cheap pasta and tooth repairs.

We were joined by the chef for the upcoming Mint in the Fan who waxed poetic about lamb innards, quality salt and creative panna cotta.

And music. Finally, a chef devoted to making the music heard in a restaurant as creative and interesting as the food.

Count me in.

Good company, spirited conversation and girl talk make a person forget all about the sad relationships that began the evening.

Besides, in my father's eyes, I'm golden. He told me so earlier today.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

I Did Not Talk into That Phone

If there's a line to sit at the bar on a Monday night, it must be Stuzzi.

As pizza lovers and cheapskates throughout Richmond know, on Mondays they do Margherita pizzas for a buck.

There are plenty of candy bars that cost more than that, so naturally the lines form.

Instead of waiting behind the girl who informed us she was ahead of us in line, we allowed ourselves to be led to the far end of the bar where there was a bit of space, albeit with no stools.

An overly-friendly guy came up to make small talk with us about the Blue Goat and as I was responding to his first question, my friend cut me off.

"We need to order wine, so save your answer for after we do that," she instructed.

Apparently she'd had a stressful day and needed her wine sooner rather than later.

The end result was that the guy disappeared immediately, no doubt worried that she'd turn that tone on him. Frankly, I didn't blame him.

We appreciated our server's honesty when we inquired about a particular wine ("Nobody who orders it likes it") and instead got the Volpetti Frascati Superior.

Not long afterwards, the couple next to us turned over their stools in a time-honored Monday tradition.

That's one thing about Mondays at Stuzzi; people generally get in, eat cheap and get out. Turnover is rapid.

But since we'd ordered a bottle, we saw no reason to hurry.

When our Margheritas arrived, I inquired after some Parmesan cheese.

Not surprisingly, the tiny ramekin of cheese cost exactly as much as the pizza. One dollar.

Before me sat the best and worst restaurant deals in RVA. But even combined, my meal was a steal.

As we ate, my friend showed me pictures on her phone of the townhouse she's thinking of renting.

In a moment of what could only be called blackmail threatening, she mentioned that she still had the picture of me using her cell phone when we were in DC last month.

And, just for the record, I wasn't using the phone; I was looking up something online to show someone.

Nevertheless, she's already shown that picture to one mutual friend who delighted in seeing evidence of me using a dreaded mobile unit.

How in the world do public figures think they can get away with anything with practically everyone (except me) a potential photographer?

How much is Parmesan cheese worth to someone being blackmailed?

How long can the line get for $1 pizzas?

No comment.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Saluting My Sex at the Copacabana

With summer fading fast, I am grabbing on to its last vestiges whenever possible.

I'm enjoying the last of the heirloom tomatoes, still wearing sundresses when the weather allows and tonight going to an outdoor concert (in a sundress).

The Richmond Concert band was giving their Fall performance on the lawn of Agecroft and, amazingly, the forecast was for no rain.

Unlike the other concerts I've been to there, this one was out front under a giant magnolia tree rather than behind the house facing the James.

I set up my chair facing a huge fork in the tree's branches which framed a particularly dramatic patch of sky.

Naturally I had to do a little crowd-watching and in doing so, I noticed that not everyone was there solely for the music.

As the music played, people were reading (newspapers and books), a woman was knitting, one guy had headphones on (a game, perhaps?) and one man made no bones about stretching out on a blanket, taking off his glasses and putting his baseball cap over his face to nap.

The program for the evening was "May I Have the Envelope, Please?" so we were treated to a selection of award-winning music once we got the patriotic stuff out of the way.

I thought it was surprising to see so many older people tapping their feet to "California Dreamin'/Monday, Monday" until we were reminded that those songs are 45 years old.

It was an eclectic program with music from the Tijuana Brass, Henry Mancini, "Titanic," and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

I'd be curious to know how often the theme from "Dirty Dancing" shows up on the same program as "The Stars and Stripes Forever."

A "Summer of '69 Woodstock" medley of CSNY, Ike and Tina Turner, the Who and  the like got one of the biggest ovations of the night.

No doubt about it, though, the most audience toe-tapping came with Barry Manilow's "Copacabana."

The most moving part of the evening came during "Home of the Brave," a medley of all the armed forces' songs.

Vets of each branch were asked to stand when their song played and only the Coast Guard was not represented in tonight's crowd.

Ages ranged from what looked like a 30ish guy with a baby and a toddler to a much older looking gentleman who lifted himself out of his scooter with great effort.

Vets who were band members participated, too, continuing to play their instruments as they stood for their branch of the service.

But I was most struck by how many women stood up, many of them white-haired and clearly older.

As stirring as it had been to hear music from "West Side Story" and "Romeo and Juliet" outside under a dramatic gray, blue and pink sky, seeing those women stand and represent was every bit as beautiful.

It wasn't what I expected to take away from a little night music.

To quote my college boyfriend Curt whenever I said something enthusiastically pro-female, "Right on Sister Boogie Woman."

Or, in this case, Women.

Sacrificial Brunch

Holmes had e-mailed me a few days ago with an invitation to brunch.

Actually, he'd gotten an invitation to the 2300 Club from a friend and scrawled at the bottom was a note. "Hope you can come. Please bring your female friend, too!"

Since the last time I was out with Holmes and his squeeze we had met the guy doing the brunch inviting, he presumed that I was the female friend being invited by proxy.

"Are you leading the lamb to the slaughter?" I responded.

Given his reply, we decided to forgo the 2300 Club but meet for brunch anyway.

I wanted chicken and waffles but he wasn't interested in either of the places I knew have it so we settled on Selba.

Since it was their first time there and Holmes is a musician, I knew they'd enjoy the live piano music.

Since they're both Bloody Mary lovers, I knew they'd appreciate the fact that they make their own tomato and celery juice base (we watched).

Because I don't do Bloody Marys, I had a Bellini made all the better for the addition of St. Germaine to the white peach puree and bubbles.

The floral notes it added were a lovely addition to a traditional brunch sipper.

As a bonus for Holmes, the two (annoying) TV screens had football, NACAR and baseball on at various times.

Luckily there was a talented man playing piano for the females to be entertainment by.

The bartender provided one menu and said that if we were greedy and needed one each, he could accommodate. We made do.

Nothing on the brunch menu was calling my name except the house-cured bacon and the Sausagecraft sage patties and they were out of those.

Nothing, that is, until our server (one of two I knew moonlighting from their usual restaurants) said that today's special was, wait for it, chicken and waffles!

I got so excited that she looked at Holmes and said, "Well, I guess we know what she's having."

Holmes had Fontina-laced eggs with Sausagecraft Iberian Chorizo sausage and a bacon cheddar muffin and his love had an omelet with the house bacon on the side.

Meanwhile I was in heaven with my (only quibble: boneless) fried chicken and Belgian waffle.

I used every ounce of whipped homestead butter they brought me to fill the deep wells of my waffle and then drowned the whole thing in real maple syrup.

I lost track of whatever they were talking about while I gave in to a sweet/salty eating frenzy of crispy chicken and crispy waffle.

When I came up for air, it was to enjoy a few bites of the Chorizo and the bacon, both stellar.

Because it's a big place, it wasn't anywhere close to full although the Garden Room had a good crowd.

I saw the Chef and the Mrs. from Bobette, a local theater critic I know (so many new openings to discuss) and a musician I'd sat next to at the Ballet Russes lecture the other day.

And unexpectedly and happily, I got my chicken and waffles.

Without, it should be noted, being led to the slaughter.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Driving a Life Off the Lot

"When a woman says she wants a new car, she wants a new life."

Let me just start by saying I am mostly happy with my car. It's not perfect and it could use a tune-up, so make of that what you will.

But that was the premise of "Becky's New Car," the new production at Barksdale Theater at Hanover Tavern  where I spent my Saturday evening.

My companion and I made sure to get there in time to have a little something to eat and drink before the show, only to roll up and discover that not one, but two weddings were in full swing.

The pub was closed due to one of the weddings and the restaurant was full of everyone who'd made it there before us.

But we weren't bitter because we should have made reservations (apparently) and we were not alone.

Sitting on the wide front porch of the tavern enjoying the night air, almost every person who was arriving for the play was bummed to hear that there'd be no pre-theater food or drink.

As one women put it in her most dire voice, "You mean I can't have a drink during the play?"

No, honey, you're going to have to brave live theater sober.

The story of a woman whose life takes a detour when she meets a rich man was full of comic observations ("Life is chaos and holidays").

David Bridgewater played the loving if not overly romantic husband ("Aw, Becky, we've had a good day. Let's not ruin it by having a talk") in his usual sure-handed way.

Even when he's ad-libbing, he's in full command.

The psychology-studying and spouting son provided all the psychobabble to explain what the characters were experiencing around him, reminding me of Peanuts' Lucy when she hangs out her "Doctor is Real In" shingle.

It was a play where the fourth wall was non-existent.

Melissa Johnston Price, the Becky of the title, was talking to the audience soliciting their opinions about whether to cheat (all three voted no and yet...), helping with her office duties (poorly, as she pointed out) and assisting her in a costume change (that's two full slips I've seen onstage in a week).

Eventually her husband and lover meet ("Things unravel much more quickly than they ravel"), making for an encounter both realistically uncomfortable and wildly hysterical.

It was the unpredictability of the story that kept it from being just another relationship saga. Characters seemed like real people with real issues, just with much wittier takes on everything.

At times it felt a little like a Shakespearean comedy with parallel events happening, like the husband and lover talking to each other on the phone without knowing who the other was.

And Becky's son falling in love with the rich man's daughter without either knowing the other's parents.

But, also like with the Bard, everything came together neatly (including the husband telling the audience how things would end between the lovers..his way) in the last scene.

And the audience, who had been laughing throughout, heard words of wisdom for the ages minus the thees and thous and forsooths.

"Love has made you impossibly stupid."

Well, duh. Who needs a drink to understand (or enjoy) that?

Friday Cook's Tour

So this is what happens when a chef calls you up and says "Guess what? I have tonight off."

You meet at Secco because they're having a fire sale on Riesling. And by that I mean every Riesling, Reserve and secret stash included, is five bucks.

Say what you want about today being the first day of Fall, but I wore shorts on my walk, all the ceiling fans in my apartment are on and it was 74 degrees when I left to go entertain the chef.

It's Riesling weather any way you look at it.

After tasting several, it was clear that the Schafer-Frohlic Nahe Riesling was the medium dry of my dreams.

I heard through the grapevine that it was owner Julia's favorite Riesling, but all that did was validate my choice.

When the chef joined me, she jumped right on the Riesling bandwagon with me.

Secco was hopping with all kinds of people I knew: the birthday boy from Amuse, the happy bubble-sipping couple at Table Q and the book store owner waiting for her handsome date.

Naturally we had to eat since the Chef couldn't resist using our date as a fact-finding mission.

We had the squash blossom with house-made ricotta with ricotta whey basil sauce, the green of the sauce so pretty the Chef made cooing sounds.

We also had the smoked bluefish dip with pickled mustard seed, which scored points for its Mason jar presentation and the silkiness of the dip.

All the while, I reveled in Echo and the Bunnymen ("The Killing Moon" especially), the Cure and Big Country.

If I'd heard the Waterboys, my head might have exploded.

It was great fun watching my friend take so much pleasure in being out on a Friday night instead of being in a hot kitchen.

By the time we made to leave, Secco was crazy, with people waiting to sit and our stools a valuable commodity.

Then for your next stop, you drive the chef to Bistro 27 for a variety of reasons.

I love the vibe, the food is reliably great and I knew my friend would run into Spanish-speaking people.

When we arrived, the place was at capacity.

We established a beach head at the very end of the bar, probably crowding the service bar area, but in full view of the kitchen (much to her delight).

You can take the chef out of the kitchen but you can't take the kitchen out of the chef. Not on a Friday night anyway.

And speaking of kitchens, when I kissed Chef Carlos hello, it was a very sweaty face I kissed.

Our wine came quickly as did the quips from the staff ("What mischief have you two been up to?") but we were all about food.

Because she likes surprises, I was in charge of ordering.

In rapid succession, we had lamb lollipops, escargots and mushroom in Pernod, butter, garlic and parsley, cheese empanadas with pesto aioli and calamari stuffed with baby shrimp and scallops in a basil tomato sauce.

She got to talk to three Spanish speakers, two fluent in Portuguese and me, not that I could compete.

We tasted some of the specialty cocktails with the hot, hot heat of the Angry Mango being the standout.

It comes with a warning that if you can't take the heat, have a ginger beer chaser.

We preferred to think that we were stronger than that.

After sliding out the side door, you take the chef to Rowland's for a nightcap.

Things were winding down there but we lucked into a couple of interesting people, one a Florida native with strong opinions about restaurants and politics; the other a visitor from Stratford-on-Avon.

That led to spirited discussions of race, politics, economy and mindfulness.

When all was said and done much later, the chef thanked me profusely for showing her a real Friday night.

"Everyone knows you and we ran into so many people" she gushed. "It was so much fun. We need to do this again soon!"

What, do what I do all the time?

Too bad chefs work so much; otherwise we'd make a great going-out pair.

I mean, yes, let's do it again the next time you have a Friday night off.

Or any night you get off, or even when Hell freezes over, which might come first.

Friday, September 23, 2011

I Want a Man Like Herb

Did you hear about the ballerina who wasn't very good?
She was only a one and a half, one and a half.

That, my friends, is the kind of tutu joke the old guy behind me tells when I go to a lecture called "Ballet Russes: From Dress to Dance" at the VMFA.

On the plus side, I started at Amuse with a glass of Routas Rose listening to the story of the bartender's friend whose husband decided to go body surfing in a hurricane and broke his neck a couple of weeks ago.

Seemed like a bad call, so I was having a hard time feeling sympathy for the guy but apparently so is his wife. At least he's not dead, she said.

At the lecture I ran into two people I knew when I expected to see no one familiar.

Wait, I know people who want to hear about dead dancers and rotting costumes? Who knew?

But at Stop #2, the Visual Arts Center, I was friendless. Not that it mattered since I was there for a film screening.

They were showing "Herb and Dorothy," a documentary (like the kind I won't be able to go to the Westhampton to see much longer, here) about art collectors.

I loved the story of an NYC couple who lived on her income as a librarian  in a one-bedroom apartment so they could use all of his income as a postal worker to buy art.

Starting in the 60s, they amassed a collection of over 4800 pieces of contemporary art.

They became friends with the artists from whom they bought work, many of whom went on to great success and acclaim.

Their entire life was going to galleries and art shows and finding stuff they loved.

And they were adorable together, still holding hands and discussing every purchase together.

Herb said he originally asked Dorothy out because she looked intelligent ("Not because I was cute?" she teased him).

Eventually they donated 1,000 works to the National Gallery of Art and the rest are being given out in batches of fifty to one museum in all fifty states.

That's right; the VMFA has five years to display their fifty pieces from the Vogel collection.

I get warm and fuzzy just knowing that people like Herb and Dorothy exist.

But after a lecture and a documentary, I put away my nerd hat for a little food and drink.

Now that Bobby Kruger has moved his mixology magic to Fanhouse and the scandalously illegal downstairs bar has been removed (please note tongue in cheek), my curiosity was getting the best of me.

I couldn't have picked  a better evening to hang out.

The downstairs has a liquor station but no bar. High community tables fill that space and I had company come and go from my end of it all evening.

My libation of choice was a Prosecco with pepper and plum syrup, the spice of the pepper on the front balanced nicely by the rich plumminess on the finish.

The expanded menu made choosing tough.

My crab bisque was delightfully light instead of tasting like a bowl of cream and the grilled tiger shrimp gave it a nice char flavor.

I'm a sucker for a fish taco and this one benefited from the freshest of greens on it.

The beef tender (a cut I hadn't even heard of) over a Himalayan salt block with two dipping sauces was out of this world.

I couldn't decide if the best part was how the very rare meat picked up the essence of salt or what an impressive presentation it made to be served the beef on this large amber chunk of salt.

The music was spot on, just as it always was when Bobby was at Mint. Anyplace I can hear the Helio Sequence and Bon Iver is okay in my book.

My evening would have been terrific based solely on what went into my mouth, but I was unexpectedly treated to all kinds of friends, both staff and customers.

A girlfriend I haven't seen in six months. A sous chef who throws the best parties. The beer rep I run into all over town (and swears she'll make a beer drinker out of me yet). One of my very favorite food geeks.

Honestly, I couldn't have asked for a better array of company, one after the other all night long.

It was like an impromptu cocktail party with great guests, especially after my geekfest earlier.

Just what I needed until I find my very own Herb.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Wednesday Paycheck

Tonight I got paid for my work in food and drink.

I could get used to this. Seems to me I can probably eat and drink far more than I'm worth.

We met at Ettamae's for dinner because I wanted to eat in the 'hood.

That and they call me "Legs" at Ettamae's (it says so right on their website), which can be pretty satisfying after a long day with no one but myself for company.

The boys and I started with wine and an antipasto platter, full of marinated mushrooms, artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, meats and cheeses.

I refused to place my order until I'd grazed off of it in case my order changed.

It sure did.

Actually, I'm sure a lot of it also had to do with those hot yeasty rolls that arrived at the table with mounds of salty butter.

Spare ribs became a shrimp-salad stuffed tomato after so much meat and cheese.

Not so with one of my dining companions and his penne pasta with the kielbasa I recommended provided some delicious bites for me.

But my shrimp salad was notable too, not overly mayonaised and with a piquant flavor that complemented the last of the Hanover tomatoes.

The collards were out of this world and the server almost got a fork in her hand when she tried to remove the bowl prematurely.

Chef Matt is a pro with collards, corned beef and kielbasa, in case you haven't been in my neighborhood lately.

Our trio enjoyed the conversation almost as much as the food, but that's probably because we're all such different people.

One of us is the kittens and ice cream type and one is the smart-alecky non-fashionista type and then there's me.

And not one of us had room for dessert, a real shame at Ettamae's.

Then they were off to Cafe Diem (just can't do it) and I to Xtra's to meet a friend for $10 bubbles and conversation.

I've been to Xtra's on Wednesdays before and the bubble-seeking crowds were monstrous.

Not so tonight where the vibe was low-key and kind of relaxing.

It was odd, but the bartender says it swings one way or the other on Wednesdays.

But, yes, every single person in the room, even the craft beer pro who waved hello, was drinking bubbles,

As did we. The Simonet Blanc de Blanc Brut did a fine job of lubricating her upcoming date concerns and my, well, lack of dating concerns.

Our server asked if we wanted to order food before the kitchen closed and I declined, still full from dinner.

"No, alcohol is good," my friend told him.

Grinning, he replied, "Alcohol is good."

Makes me wonder how he gets paid.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

You Can't Handle the Truth

It's funny. People don't say goodnight to me, they say "What's your next stop?"

Which is understandable when I'm asked at certain points in the evening, but I get asked it when events end at 10:00. And 11:00. Even midnight.

So I'm trying something new. Sometimes I'm going home instead of making a third or fourth stop.

Scandalous, I know.

Tonight I made two stops. That's it.

The first was at Six Burner for half-priced wine night with a favorite girlfriend. It was an interesting night. Oddly enough, we saw the owner serving tables.

When another server asked if I was having my usual pink, I opted instead for red. Raised eyebrow. "It's been an emotional couple of days and I want red tonight," I told her.

"It's more dramatic, too," she said, enabling me.

Later, the bartender kept forgetting about us and finally said, "Next time just throw a shoe at me to get my attention."

All I wanted was another glass of the Gabriele Rausse Cabernet Sauvignon. It hardly seemed like shoe-throwing was in order.

Besides, we were slurping oysters. The roasted oysters with horseradish, bacon, Parmesan and roasted red pepper were a good way to get in the mood for the Shockoe on the Half Shell Festival this weekend.

After a couple of hours of chatter about her new husband's long-awaited return from his cross-country trip and some of my male "admirers" coming out of the woodwork en masse, we made to leave.

"What's next?" she asked. Okay, fair enough at 7:30.

It was the Listening Room, putting me back at the Firehouse for the third night in a row, but the first for music.

First up was Grant Hunnicutt, who usually plays upright bass in the River City Band and Ophelia, playing guitar tonight.According to him, he'd brought in a few "ringers," namely Jessica from the Jungle Beat and Jonathan Vassar, not that he needed anyone.

With his new CD about to be released, he played songs of Jonathan's, songs he and Jonathan had written together and, as he put it, "old super hits."

Favorite lyric: "Where you are now is my home and where I'll stay."

Saying he was going to play one of his favorite Ophelia songs, he zoned and called to David Shultz, "What's the first line?" before launching into a stellar rendition.

It was a pleasure to see Grant front and center for a change. He's such a  low-key guy but so talented, with or without ringers.

During the break, the scientist arrived, full of energy after a busy day teaching VCU students about plant life's asexual reproduction.

In a high point of the evening, he demonstrated how he'd shown them just that. It was so funny I made him repeat it at the next intermission.

Russell Lacy played his long-delayed set next. He'd been scheduled to play last February but had been in a car accident.

"This song is about Virginia. I was out of the state for a while. Funny how you miss home," he said by way of an introduction.

He had a fine voice, tender and at times almost bluesy. My musician friend suggested that he'd listened to a lot of James Taylor.

"Here's one I wrote after my wreck," he said, beginning with the lyric, "I always pray a little too late." The song came across beautifully heartfelt. "As long as you don't die, you can get a good song out of it," he explained philosophically.

You have to appreciate a musician with a sense of humor.

The intermission afforded me a chance to enjoy a piece of Thai tea Tres Leches cake with salted caramel made for the occasion.

And speaking of occasions, today was David Shultz's thirtieth birthday, so after he walked onstage and scooped his guitar off the bed (part of the set for "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"), the audience burst into "Happy Birthday."

It was at that point that the scientist leaned over and pointed at David and quietly said, "That guy sells me all my latex gloves for the lab. It's a lot of gloves."

I swear I couldn't make this stuff up.

And then David, minus the Skyline, got down to singing.

Favorite lyric:"Something's drawing me to you. Must be madness in my bones."

He also covered Paul Simon's "Gumboots," saying he just recently learned it. The crowd ate up his version of the song and its spirited delivery.

Promising two more songs ("And then we can all enjoy our evening"), he began a song, promptly forgot the lyrics, grinned and stopped.

"And that song was called The Falling Tree," he said sheepishly. "That song's really good when you do it right."

His entire set had been really good and who knows, maybe thoughts of his birthday celebration were crowding his mind.

David's a Listening Room alum and what's an occasional missed lyric between regulars?

It was as I made my way to the door after the show that the absence of good-nights became clear.

When asked, I shocked more than a few people with my intent to go home.

It's good to know I can still surprise people.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Never a Dull Walk

My daily walk down Grace Street is like an hour with a schizophrenic companion.

Let's take today, for instance.

From behind, I hear my name called by a bicyclist.

Coming abreast of me, I see it's my former mailman.

This one guy delivered the mail to me for the entire thirteen years I lived on Floyd Avenue in the Museum District.

It could also be noted that for thirteen years my beagle barked at this man six days a week despite the mailman greeting him by name.

But I digress.

Out of nowhere comes my former carrier who stops to chat with me about my walk, some of my former neighbors and what he's been up to.

After ten minutes, he pedals on and I begin to ruminate about how the encounter was so Richmond.

I've been gone from Floyd Avenue for over six years now and he not only remembers my name and the dog's, but recognizes me from the back.

As I'm basking in my medium-sized city glow, I begin to hear a high-pitched screech as I approach the corner of Grace and Meadow.

It's not quite a siren, but just as loud. All of a sudden, a black truck careens around the corner, its front end smashed in badly.

It's making all kinds of noises like it's about to explode.

The driver crashes into the first car parked on the south side of Grace Street.

But rather than stop, he begins to back up at an alarming speed into the intersection.

That's when I knew to get off of the sidewalk and take refuge in the narrow space between two houses.

The guy lurches up Grace Street and suddenly pulls right, crashing into another car.

The keening sound is even worse now.

Once more he backs up and starts up the street in fits and starts.

Now I hear sirens for real. First one cop comes around the corner, followed by a second and eventually two more from the other direction.

He tries to drive on and finally stops. I wait to make sure nothing else is going to happen before I return to the sidewalk.

Walking up toward the capture scene (and home), I become part of the communal conversation of walkers and bikers who just witnessed something out of a cliched chase scene in a movie.

Was he drunk or drugged up? What happened? Is he going to run? So glad I didn't park my car on the street today!

A few blocks on and life was back to normal. Students were milling around between classes and cars headed west on Grace not knowing about the major blockage they'd soon face.

Once again, Grace Street, with its split personality, had delivered the good, the bad and the ugly.

Why would I want to walk anywhere else?

The King of Ambiguity

When every seat at an art lecture is taken, I know it'll be a riveting artist talking.

Tonight that was El Anatsui, one of the contemporary African artists in the Anderson Gallery's new show, which I'd been thoroughly impressed by.

When asked how he got his artistic start, he said, "The letter 'g' was very intriguing to me. In kindergarten I'd take my slate and sit in front of signs and write the letters. I didn't know what they meant but I liked the forms."

I don't know what's more fascinating to me: his early dedication to form or that he used a slate.

After years using wood and then clay, he now uses discarded aluminum tops from Nigerian liquor bottles to fashion large-scale wall hangings, three of which are at the Anderson.

Why bottle tops? Because liquor was used for trading by Europeans with the Africans, consequently it also became part of the slave trade.

"The art I create is data," he explained to the rapt audience. "I like to see how people interact with my data."

When a student asked the nonsensical question, "What advice would you give to an American artist starting out?" the look on the artist's face was priceless.

Given that Anatsui had talked about his writing slate and his trips to the marketplace where he'd first seen artists printing on textiles, drummers and weavers, it was hard to fathom what commonalities the student might have anticipated.

"Advice? I don't give advice," he explained patiently.

It's a good thing Anatsui  also teaches back in Nigeria; he's undoubtedly used to the inane question or two.

My grandmother used to say, "Never be embarrassed for somebody else," but good god, even the people behind me tittered when they heard the question.

I had every intention of sliding over to Ipanema for a (*sigh*) drink before my next engagement but instead ran into a chatty acquaintance who took up all my free time before I had to be at the Firehouse Theater.

Tonight was yet another installment of the Tennessee Williams Centennial Celebration and as a person with a certified nerd badge, I wanted to be there.

They were doing a staged reading of "The Night of the Iguana" and since I'd neither read it nor seen it, I was eager to get a good seat.

B9 didn't fail me.

As my seatmates and I acknowledged, it was half-play and half-reading with the actors sometimes engaging in some very physical action.

Let's just say that a script sitting in for a liquor cart took quite a beating.

Of course Williams always give the viewer alcohol (in this play it was rum and Cocas) and evocative language to live by.

“Yea, well, you know we live on two levels, the realistic level and the fantastic level and which is the real one, really?”

A question I ask myself often.

"Do I look like a vamp?
"They come in all types."

Never judge a vamp by her cover. She may have secret nerd badges.

"There are worse things than chastity, Mr. Shannon."
"Yea, lunacy and death."

To be honest, none of them hold much appeal.

"Accept whatever situation you cannot improve."

Haven't I seen this embroidered on a pillow somewhere?

"You're bigger than life and twice as unnatural."

Still can't decide if this is a compliment or an insult. 

I suppose I'd have to hear it said to me before I'd know how to take it.

And even then, it would probably depend on who it was coming from.

But then, doesn't everything?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Ninja Talk

I am not a person who goes to the movies and talks to the screen.

Yes, I might gasp or grimace involuntarily, but that's the extent of my noisemaking.

Truth be told, I find movie talkers annoying and I wish they'd shut up. Except like tonight when that's what they're supposed to do.

Since I was headed to the Firehouse, Garnett's was an obvious choice for dinner.

I walked in to find two tables occupied and within half an hour, every table was taken. I took full credit.

Just after I ordered my grilled Gouda with bacon, grilled onions and tomato on rye, I got company.

We've known each other for probably five years now and he's been a chef, sous chef and pastry chef here and in bigger cities.

Which is to say that we immediately got busy talking restaurants and chefs and food.

"None of this can go in the blog," he reminded me. None of it is.

I always enjoy talking to him because he doesn't mince words and he has strong opinions.

The fact that he's so talented in the kitchen doesn't hurt, either, since I've eaten the fruits of his labor in multiple locations.

I'd planned to read the new Atlantic Monthly while I ate, but it was much more fun to dish with him.

It also slowed me down from inhaling my grilled cheese, the perfect warm sandwich on a gray day like today.

We talked right up until I left for the Firehouse Theater for the FilmRoasters take on the schlocky "American Ninja."

I'd never heard of these guys but they apparently do the Mystery Science Theater thing live with running commentary during the corny movies they screen.

And corny doesn't begin to describe "American Ninja," an 80s film with an enormous body count, little blood, a female lead with big 80s hair and high-waisted jeans and a picture of a smiling Reagan in the Colonel's office.

You know, back when catsup was a vegetable.

While I was prepared for the three film roasters to make pithy remarks about the movie, what I didn't know was that the audience would do the same.

Most of the time, the film's dialog was obliterated by live commentary, a lot of it laugh-out-loud-worthy.

Before the film began, one of the Roasters said. "You all know how this works, right?"

Someone called out, "We have to listen to you guys be more annoying than the movie!"


The first scene with the girl prompted someone to say, "Nice shoulder pads, honey!"

When the director's name, Sam Firstenberger, came on the screen, someone said, "I wonder if this is his second movie."

Groan. You get the idea.

During one of the many Ninja fight scenes with characters spinning and jumping off rooves, someone said, "Every stunt double's wet dream."

And of course when the American Ninja finally kissed the 80s babe, there were all kinds of disgusting slurping and sucking kiss noises.

For the big chase scene, someone said, "Ninjas in rear view mirror may be closer than they appear."

And in a nod to most of the audience's ages, during a masked sword fight, someone yelled out "Turtle power!" which got a big laugh.

The movie would been groan-worthy funny by itself, but with the improvisational skills of the Film Roasters, it became an hysterical source of derision.

Next time I may have to break my no talking movie rule and do some making fun myself.

For what it's worth, I've been told I'm quite good at it in real life.

If You Build It, They Will Come

For everyone thrilled about the fall-like weather, don't look to me for reinforcement.

I'm frickin' cold.

Just to walk the four blocks to ADA Gallery tonight, I needed to put on a blazer.

Three nights ago, I wore a sundress to a wine tasting. I'm so not ready for this.

But walk I did to see the opening of "Our Yasu," a joint show by Rachel Hayes and Jiha Moon at ADA.

Hayes' large-scale installation "Chutes and Tears" was part paper, part fabric, part acrylic and lots of denim.

When it had originally been installed in NYC, it had been in a window, making it more of a caged presentation.

At the time, the Japanese tsunami had just happened and many viewers interpreted the piece as representing a make-shift shelter.

To many people, the strips of denim represented people, jean-clad people.

But tonight's installation, with the ability to walk through and around it, felt more like a glorious canopy, brightly colored and whimsical.

It's all about the moment in time.

In the next gallery, Moon's collage-like pieces hung as individual units on the wall.

Unlike Western art with traditional rectangular canvases, hers were irregularly shaped pastiches of fabric, paper, paint, vinyl, and, yes, lots of denim.

Moon said she liked denim for its ability to change from almost white to the deepest blue.

She saw the stonewashed pieces as evocative of the 70s and 80s, a time before she was born.

I loved how lyrical her pieces were with the most beautiful combinations of off-colors, delicate  painting, swatches and pockets of denim and calligraphy.

ADA Gallery was packed with art lovers eager to spend a Saturday evening seeing fresh work, including the Man-About-Town with whom I happily discussed "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" since he'd seen it, too.

Then he was off to a party and I to Selba to meet a friend.

I was charmed walking in to hear a guy playing piano, especially since the last time I'd been in the instrument had been no more than an empty glass receptacle.

The live music didn't mitigate the buzz-kill effect of the two TVs at the bar (nothing could) but I knew about them going in.

Unfortunately, the pianist stopped playing within moments of me walking in. Was it something I said?

There were only a few people at the long bar so I took a middle stool to wait for my friend with a glass of Vinho Verde.

Once she arrived, chiding me for always choosing poorly marked restaurants, we got down to the amuse bouche, a chilled melon soup with roasted cherry tomato.

She started with the wild mushroom tart (oyster, shitake and white mushies with puff pastry and sherry caramel), her only complaint being the scarcity of puff pastry.

I was more than satisfied with the richness of the mushroom saute.

I couldn't resist the Tri-tip steak, seared rare with red wine caper vinaigrette, Stilton cheese and chopped hard boiled egg over butter lettuce.

It turned out to be a generous amount of thinly sliced tri-tip, a cut you rarely see on restaurant menus.

Our server told us that many people see the word "tip" and expect beef tips, so he has to warn them of what they'll get to avoid surprise or disappointment.

I was neither and quite enjoyed the flavorful slices with the Stilton.

When the piano player stood up, I asked if he was going to play again, which he was.

Tonight was a new gig for him after losing one at Maggiano's. As he said, you take whatever jobs you can find.

We fell into conversation about eking out a living, whether by playing music or writing and then he was off to play.

Next my friend and I had the vegetarian spring rolls, which I remembered as the best thing I'd had on my first visit to Selba.

Mid-roll, we were unexpectedly joined by a man who walked up and said to me, "My son says you're the blogger."

As I explained to him, his article was all wrong. While I am a blogger, I am hardly the blogger.

He gave me enough of a running start for me to recall exactly when and where I'd met his son who, by some weird coincidence, was also having dinner at Selba tonight.

But not with his father.

At least he came over to say hello, expressing as much surprise that I remembered him as I had that he remembered me.

I was flattered to learn that they're both regular readers, a huge compliment since I'd only met the son once and the father never.

Turns out the father not only reads me, but takes dining suggestions from a stranger.

He's discovered Ettamae's because of my posts, which gave us an excuse to verbally drool about the corned beef hash and stellar ever-changing dinner menu.

He reads me well enough to ask, "Where exactly is the Camel? And why do you go there?"

And naturally he asked me why I blog.

And I answered truthfully, but I might well have asked him a question myself.

Why do you read me?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Now Playing, But Not for Long

As a film lover who rarely sees a mainstream movie, my blood ran cold when I read the latest online:

"Can't believe they are closing the West Hampton Theater. Richmond is now a city without an arthouse cinema. Apparently the sale was finalized in August. They are planning to turn it into shops and a restaurant. They have films booked through next month or so. Don't know when the last day is."

With the exception of going to the Bowtie for a Movies and Mimosas classic feature, I see all my films at the Wetshampton.

It's where I first saw "Gone With the Wind" when I came to Richmond. And where I saw "Fahrenheit 911" on opening day.

It's where I've seen every Woody Allen and Pedro Almodovar movie since 1993.

Where else could I reliably see foreign language films and documentaries and other non-Hollywood films?

A West End friend had told me back in June that he'd heard a rumor that it was being sold, but neither of us could believe that it might really happen.

Apparently now it has and I couldn't be sadder about it.

So I did what any arthouse-loving person would do and told another film-goer and we immediately headed to the Westhampton, as we have countless other weekend afternoons.

"The Guard" has an incredibly smart script, the dialog is witty as hell, the music is by Calexico and the Irish accents are thick as molasses in January (and forget understanding the Gaelic speakers; they had subtitles for them).

It wasn't hard for me to see why it had been such a crowd-pleaser at Sundance.

As the credits came up and John Beaver's cover of "Leaving on a Jet Plane" began, I couldn't help but savor the experience of a Westhampton movie experience.

When we'd sat through five trailers before the movie, I found myself wondering if I'd ever get to see the films being previewed.

The South African film "Life, Above All" about women's issues and AIDS doesn't seem a likely candidate for the multiplex.

Likewise, will "Anonymous" about the controversy of whether or not Shakespeare was a fraud play in RVA? I don't know.

Afterwards, I asked a couple of theater employees if the rumors were true. They claimed not to know and suggested I contact corporate headquarters.

In other words, yes.

I understand what demographic they're trying to attract with "The Avenues," but I can't comprehend how a few more shops and eateries will be worth sacrificing a landmark movie palace like the Westhampton.

Richmond has a vibrant film scene and surely a non-profit theater would have been a better use for that theater over more boutiques and panini joints.

All I can do is keep seeing movies at the Westhampton until they lock the doors and take away the projector.

We tried to ease the sense of impending loss at Pearl's afterwards but even my favorite cupcake, the Pearl Gone Cocoa (chocolate cake with white icing and a mound of coconut), couldn't make me feel better today.

Richmond, don't we know better than to let the irreplaceable go?

Debutante Dinner

Mac's leaving Garnett's and I went to send him off.

After nearly two years producing the awesomeness that is Garnett's, Mac's low-key humor and kitchen wizardry will be no more there.

I love Mac so I joined  a friend for drinks to celebrate the guy who always greeted me with a sly grin and  "S'up, Ka-ren?" when I was working coffee shop.

Mac is one of those guys who can smoke a Vidalia onion or play video games with equal aplomb and for this he is my hero.

After a glass of Prieure Saint-Hippolyte Languedoc Rose and a toast to Mac, Friend and I took ourselves up to the Roosevelt to see what kind of madness was going on there.

My favorite bumper sticker along the way: "I Can't. I have Rehearsal."

If I could make it apply to me in any way, I'd have one on my car tomorrow.

We arrived at the perfect moment to grab two stools, center front.

The bar staff was all about the new beer they'd just tapped, Stillwater Artisanal Ales and Baltimore's Brewer's Art collaboration beer, the Debutante.

And while I'm not a beer drinker or a debutante, I was fascinated by the story of gypsy brew master Brian Strumke, who goes from brewery to brewery making creative artisanal beers.

Did it make a beer convert out  of me? No. Was it interesting? Very much so.

Boxwood Rose was more my speed as was one of tonight's specials, which seemed appropriate for the sudden change in weather.

House-made pasta was covered in Cheerwine-braised short rib ragout with vegetables and while my friend finds short ribs boring, I like them.

Especially when served with Brussels Sprouts and carrots.

He got the creamed local mushrooms with a sunny side up egg and grilled bread, which had  a nice array of mushroom types and a savory sauce for dipping.

As we sat there eating, we watched the bow-tied widower next to us charm the two heavily tattooed girls next to him.

We heard the noisy guy at the table near us talk so loudly that the entire restaurant could hear him.

Friend told me about the interesting-sounding man of the cloth who cooks whom he'd recently met and how I must make his acquaintance.

I defended my long-time absence of a love life.

For our main course, we shared the  fried chicken thighs with sausage gravy and cheese grits, a dish made for two people.

The crispy coating and moist interior were finger-licking good, as cliched as that sounds.

They also eliminated any possibility of dessert, sad as that is.

As soon as my friend left to cross the river and go home, I was adopted by a beer-loving couple who had been hovering nearby.

Like every other beer drinker, they insisted that there is a beer out there for me if I just keep trying.

And, let's face it, life is all about trying.

Like today on my walk down Grace Street, I heard a girl tell a friend, "I consider myself a work in progress."

"What does that even mean?" the friend asked with no real interest.

"I think it means you're supposed to keep working on yourself your whole life," the wise one explained.

I'm working on a lot of things, and now they're telling me that I need to add beer to the list?

I'll do what I can, friends, but I'm afraid some things are going to have to take priority.

Not likely beer will be one of them, if you know what I'm saying.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Yes, Sir, No, Suh

The Southern gentleman next to me wanted to talk about public nudity.

At tonight's opening performance of Firehouse Theater's "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," I had the pleasure of a man with a delightful drawl sitting next to me.

The first thing he explained to me after introducing himself was that he was not in his usual seat.

Not that it was any of my business.

He and his partner, who was tonight seated directly in front of him, had been asked to move.

So the happy couple didn't get to sit next to each other, but I had unexpectedly charming company.

We talked about the upcoming play, which actors we'd seen before and how tickled he was to see his partner drinking a PBR can.

He even shared with me what he'd made for a pre-theater supper ("Salad with everything in it, even chicken. And ham biscuits!").

And then chuckling, he said he'd just learned about San Francisco's nudity laws and did I know about them.

Why no, but I'm always eager to learn.

"You know you have to put a towel down when you sit in a public place," he told me. Made sense to me.

"And if you get an erection, you have to leave!" he shared, as if it was a punch line.

And on that note, Tennessee Williams' play about repressed homosexuality and dysfunctional families began.

It wasn't my first time seeing COAHTF produced and the last time had been with an all-black cast, so I was eager to see it in its pure form.

Although the cat of the title is Maggie, the play was most alive when Big Daddy, played by Alan Sader, was on stage.

Last seen in Richmond Shakespeare's "King Lear," he was just as magnificent here as he'd been in that.

The play is long, two and a half hours with two ten-minute intermissions (we joked that the Brick character needed two bathroom breaks because of all the "whiskey" he was drinking onstage), but it moves along with so much dramatic dialog that the audience never loses interest.

One comment that I heard from several people during intermissions was about some of the actors' Southern accents.

Sader handled his admirably, but the accents of a few others left some of the Southerners in the audience cold.

"It's like they're trying too hard to sound Southern," the guy behind me said. He also said he was from Southside.

My very Southern seatmate agreed in his effortless Southern accent, but, like me, was thoroughly enjoying the drama and insightful wit of the story.

Because it was opening night, there was a party afterwards; since it had been catered by Sticky Rice, there were many people eating with their fingers rather than attempting chopstick usage standing up.

And because it was Sticky Rice, there was a big bowl of Tater Tots, amazing some of the attendees not familiar with the sushi place's trademark dish.

Brave (foolish?) soul that I am, I balanced a paper plate and used chopsticks as I chatted with strangers about the play.

Even the Southern-accented agreed that it had been an enjoyable night of theater.

What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?
Just stayin' on it, I guess, long as she can.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

West Virginians: Smart Cookies

Hunter Lesser is to West Virginia what I am to Jackson Ward.

He lives there, he loves it, he sings its praises. And today he was putting some historical perspective on it at the Library of Virginia.

"Virginia Divided: The Forgotten First campaign" centered on how Western Virginia was a proving ground for statesmen and soldiers in the early years of the Civil War.

And despite West Virginia jokes to the contrary, Lesser was a smart man.

Greeting attendees was a slide that said "Cookies for the front row."

But since the front row can only hold so many people he began his talk by passing around a package of Chips Ahoy for all to enjoy.

Already it was my kind of lecture.

Talking about how Western Virginia was divided by geography (Wheeling was a long way from Richmond), culturally (not many mountain folk had slaves) and economically (that area had far more ties to Ohio and Pennsylvania than the South), Lesser made a case for that part of the state's eventual secession from Virginia.

He spoke of how McClellan became an immediate star in those early battles in West Virginia mainly because of 19th century Twitter.

That is, because McClellan set up the first telegraph on a battlefield he was able to send out his own glowing press releases to the War Department.

It worked and he went from leading the Army of Western Virginia to heading up the Army of the Potomac.

Sometimes it pays to be self-aggrandizing.

Lee, however, got off to a slow start out there and became known as "The Great Evacuator," which sounds totally disgusting to me and "Granny Lee" before learning a few lessons and applying them to the rest of the war effort.

Not surprisingly, the Civil War literally pitted family members against each other in Western Virginia since 60% of the area favored the Union and 40% the Confederacy.

Many towns had both a Federal sheriff and a Confederate sheriff.

Stonewall Jackson and his sister, long close because of being orphaned at a young age, were two such people.

His sister sided with the Union and became a nurse, claiming she could nurse the wounded as fast as Stonewall could shoot them.

But my favorite takeaway was that West Virginia was the only state to form by seceding from a Confederate state and during the Civil War, too.

And that funky panhandle that juts along the Pennsylvania border?

That was kept there solely to keep the B & O Railroad out of Confederate hands.

Lesser closed the lecture by suggesting we visit historic West Virginia, his birthplace and home, and a place of great beauty in his opinion.

I'm sure it's no Jackson Ward, but I have to appreciate the guy's passion for his place.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Not Yet, But I Will

This is my week to go Greek.

Only tonight that included a road trip to Williamsburg for a Greek wine tasting and seminar at the Blue Talon Bistro.

I love that drive down Route 5 to the 'burg although today's trip was an up-close look at all the tree damage from the recent storms.

Everywhere trees were down, uprooted or already cut up and sitting near the road's edge.

Twice I got stopped by road crews who had taken the road down to one lane and were directing traffic.

But I didn't mind because it gave me a chance to sit on Route 5, a rarity since there are no lights, and just smell the woods on either side of me.

As pleasant as that was, I was the last one to arrive at the tasting so everyone was already seated at their tables when I walked in.

I didn't feel too bad because I'm betting I had the longest commute. Well, except for the wine guy who'd come from Charlotte.

It's not like every town has a Greek wine pusher apparently.

Taking a seat at a table with six others, I soon learned the answer to the perennial song, "One of these things is not like the other..."

One couple had met and married in Greece 48 years ago when he was working at the embassy.

She, the Greek, was still stunning with thick white hair and a classic profile.

One couple had been to Greece seven times in their 38 years of marriage. "We like to get lost there," he bragged.

Next to me sat a woman who was skipping church choir practice to come with her husband, who was of Greek heritage.

She looked very demure and is no doubt a valuable member of her church and choir, but she cracked me up when she said, "I don't bother with white wines. They're boring. Give me a great big red and I'm happy."

They ordered two and a half cases of wine before leaving. Just saying.

The tables had been laid with platters of cheese, meats and compressed watermelon.

One of the men asked me if I'd been to Greece and I said no.

"Not yet," he corrected me.

We jumped right into the first of three whites with  Petros Honas Dry Muscat "Phelonoe," with a big floral nose but dry as a  bone.

Give me a warm day and a porch and that would be a wine that would go down like water.

Next up was Nikiforou Cellars Moschofilero and since I'd had a Moschofilero just last night, I was one of the very few who could raise their hand when asked who'd had the grape before.

From one noble grape to another, our next pour was a 2007 Hatzidakis Santorini "Barrel Fermented," by far the most complex of the whites and no longer being made to boot.

The island of Santorini turned out to be a favorite place of everyone at the table (although not me yet), but no one knew there were ten wineries there.

Most interestingly, our guide said that the vines of this grape are trained in basket shapes and the grapes grown inside them.

I think I'd make a point to see that if  when I get to Santorini.

Finally it was time to make my seatmate happy with the reds and there were five of them.

There were three from Konstantinos Vineyards: a blend of Cab and Greek Temperanillo and two Cabernet Sauvignons.

It was the last Cab, a 2000 "Anny's Animus" that, because it was priced at $56 a bottle, we all expected to blow us away.

It was nicely tannic and well balanced and tastier than the "Ftelia" at $39, but didn't rock anyone's world, at least at my table.

He of Greek heritage, whose parents had been in the restaurant business, said that his Greek relatives would mock (or backhand) him if he told them he'd paid $56 for a bottle of Greek wine.

Jeez, where's the national pride, people?

My favorite red was the 2005 Mitravelas Estate "Agiorgitiko," a true Mediterranean-style wine that tasted of blueberries, so I couldn't help but love it.

We finished with the Dalamara Xinomavro "Paliokalias" which, had I not already gotten my Wine Century Club certification, would have been a great one to add; it's made with the obscure Xinomavro grape.

By the time we finished tasting the leftovers from my phantom date's pourings, my new friends were assuring me that I'd have no problem finding a husband if I'd just spend a month in Greece.

It does sound like there's something in the wine that makes for long-lasting relationships.

Just in case, I'm drinking up.

Did I Say That Out Loud?

The world's gone mad when I can arrive at the Camel at 8:45 and have missed the first band.

Part of the problem may have been making a stop at Stella's to meet a girlfriend for a quickie.

In a truly odd moment, as I was walking toward the front door, an SUV pulled up to turn around and the driver looked at me and said, "Karen!"

I have no earthly idea who he was and he proceeded to backed up and drove away.

Why does anything still surprise me?

It was a good thing we wanted to sit at the bar because every table was in use or reserved. Yes, every single one.

Stella, are you putting crack in the spanikopita or what?

Someone had drunk up all the rose, so I got the 2009 Boutari Moschoflero after inhaling its lovely floral nose and tasting its full bodied intensity.

I'm on a mission to build my Greek grape vocabulary, both literally and figuratively speaking.

It was so busy in there that my friend inadvertently gave two different food orders to two different servers while waiting for me to make up my mind.

It didn't matter.

As one server said, "Somebody else will want what you didn't and we'll just give it to them."

No doubt there are restaurants that would kill for that kind of crazy busy-ness.

I ordered a heartier-sounding meze, namely the lamb frites. Hearty doesn't begin to describe it.

A pile of thick-cut steak fries was smothered in sliced leg of lamb, tons of onion (both white and green), Feta and Manouri cheese.

It arrived in all its glory, looking like a $10 heart attack on a plate.

I'm not going to claim I ate it all but I will say there was no lamb or onions at all left when I pushed it away.

My friend insisted we get the chocolate hazelnut baklava for which I had limited capacity given my disdain for honey, which I find cloying. Two bites sufficed.

I'd warned my friend that I had limited time and a show to see and I was out of there in what I thought was plenty of time to drive the short distance.


I arrived to find that the three-band bill had expanded to four and that the first band, Snowy Owls, had already played.

Color me surprised...and disappointed.

Fortunately Marionette was up next and although their set was too short (chop, chop, four bands!), they played a new song and a strong set.

I've been a fan for years now and I appreciate the evolution of their sound from a six-piece to a four-piece with more emphasis on the band's impeccable instrumentation.

Lots of friends were there and there's still plenty of Wye Oak talk going around with attendees still savoring and non-attendees still kicking themselves.

I savored.

Next up was Brother William from Mechanicsville.

The big draw was Hotel Lights, a quintet fronted by the former drummer for Ben Folds Five, Darren Jessee,a fact that may have attracted some people.

I found myself attracted to their sound which never strayed far from something achingly sad yet beautiful, even when upbeat and rocking.

Let's just say haunting.

How can I rave about their sound? Let me count the ways.

The layers of synths, the post-punk electric guitar, the minimalist drumming, the rhythmic bass and always Darren's gentle voice.

"This song began at Patrick Henry's and moved on to Poe's," he told us, reminding the crowd of their Richmond connection.

By the time they'd finished creating an atmosphere that washed over the room, their set was over, but the crowd was having none of it.

Calling for one more, the band obliged with two and we were treated to a little more exquisite sadness that was all the more moving for knowing it was about to end.

As all Tuesday nights must end.

It's only those twenty five minutes I'll never get back.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Audio Voyeurism

I love a good story; hearing someone else's secrets is a guilty pleasure.

Which is why I never miss a Secretly Y'All, Tell Me a Story night at Balliceaux.

Tonight's theme was music stories, so all the storytellers were musicians and each played a song after spilling their guts.

And by "spilling their guts," I mean all manner of things.

Herschel Stratego talked about girls he lusted after and how he didn't have the body type to be romantic; his song was about tall, handsome men who won the girls.

Best of all, he named names.

Chris Milk showed off his recent bike accident injuries before singing, specifically mentioning his bruised, ahem, private parts.

Lest he be doubted, he said he had cell phone pictures of the black and blue injured parts should anyone be interested. Um, no thanks.

Charlottesville's Browning Porter did an amazing rap to "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," forcing me to find the one literary geek I knew in the room and lock eyes.

That's not a pleasure a reader gets every day and I had to share it with someone.

Probably the most fascinating story came from Lydia Ooghe before she sang "Topsy," a song about a  dead elephant.

The saga involved Nicholas Tesla, an arrogant Thomas Edison, A/C and D/C current and an Asian elephant that killed three men after being fed a lit cigarette.

What I learned was that an electrocuted elephant causes a lot of smoke; I found the mental picture most unsettling.

It was a lively crowd that came to hear music stories tonight, so I got to hear about RVA Music Fest from a DJ, the new school year from a recently-shorn teacher's perspective and how popular tonight's topic was from an organizer.

You just can't imagine how satisfying it is to listen to the stories of strangers and friends in a public setting until you do it.

After story time hour(s), I left to meet a new friend at Lemaire to have my brain picked.

He's working on a project and needed input from someone he considers "in the know" since he's a recent transplant.

Let me assure you, I did not claim to be in the know.

Upon walking in, I heard my name called and not by he who had invited me.

It was some of the usual suspects: bartender and wife, restaurant owner, man-about-town. I hugged, I kissed, I said hello.

My new friend was enjoying a Sazerac, so I jumped in to join him and listen to the details of his project.

After the business portion of the meeting we moved on to more colorful topics like Le Tigre, catfish at Comfort and the pleasures of working for oneself.

As a Brooklyn transplant, he can't get over how gosh darn friendly folks are in these parts. Or how good Virginia smoked peanuts are.

In keeping with the evening's theme, I told him a radio story (he accused me of being part of a "Morning Zoo" team) and he told me a metal-working story (from what I've seen of him, it was hard to imagine him doing such).

We performed no music after our stories were finished, but we had no audience either.

In-the-knows know never to spill your guts on a full moon.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Don't You Forget About Me

My regular Monday lunch buddy forgot all about me last Monday.

Fair enough; it was Labor Day and, according to him, felt like a Sunday. So today he wasn't allowed to screw up.

We were both starving when he came to get me.

He was in the mood for Chinese, trying to talk me into Joy Garden ("Come on, let's have some Americanized Chinese!") before driving to Full Kee ("Come on, let's have some...").

Walking in we saw all the flyers written in Chinese on the front window and he stopped to read them.

I don't think they're meant for us, I informed him.

Ogling the whole roasted ducks and chickens complete with their roasted beaks in the front case is a great way to whet your appetite before eating.

The barbecued pork that hangs with the poultry, striped with fat, is positively mouth-watering.

We needed no enticement.

He had two weeks of relationship stories to unload while eating his scallops in brown sauce and I was working on my chopstick skills with my spicy Peking chicken.

The funniest moment came when he asked me, of all people, "How do you communicate what you need to say to your partner and not just want you want to say?"

How do they get ship models in those tiny bottle openings?

Dessert was ordered in the shape of Jin Dui, those sesame balls with red bean paste that are so irresistible, but by the time they arrived, we were too full.

Fortune cookies were all we could manage and mine seemed particularly applicable.

You are going on well with your business.

That just might be true, although it has absolutely nothing to do with earning a living.

Life Is Not a Movie in the Hot Tub

Richmond has reached a new level of music awesomeness when we can have an all-day music festival and still have an outstanding show at the National the same night.

Although barely promoted, the Wye Oak/Okkervil River bill was one that would have caught the eye and ear of any indie music fan worth his salt.

If, that is, Best Coast and Girl  Talk hadn't played Richmond today.

But they did, launching a music festival that hopefully will become an annual tradition, so when I walked into the National tonight, it was to a crowd of maybe a hundred people.

Usually there are more people than that hanging around outside the venue before the show, much less inside.

But I immediately ran into two musician friends, so I had good company and couldn't worry about the turnout, which increased somewhat, but not enough.

Because of all the buzz around Wye Oak, I'd been eager to see them for a while. This was their first show in Richmond, as they acknowledged somewhat sheepishly.

"I don't know why. You're right down the road," singer Jenn said.

The Baltimore duo mixes quieter folk-sounding elements with full on noisy dream pop.

Screaming guitar, meet Jenn's girly vocal.

Andy, the drummer, was amazing to watch, playing drums with his right hand and keyboard with his left.

Jenn said they were impressed with the venue and that she'd wanted to use the hot tub.

Until, she said, someone warned her, "I wouldn't get in there if I were you." She was pondering what questionable bands might have been in that hot tub and left their cooties.

A look at recent shows past might answer that question easily enough.

Wye Oak's music was a study in contrasts, quiet followed by loud, slow preceded by fast. It was a lot of sound coming from two people.

Despite the less-than-full room, their big sound had plenty of room to open up and resonate without being deadened by the usual oversold collection of sweaty bodies.

And by the end of their set, we were all totally satisfied. Or, as my friend put it then, "I'm good now."

Jenn had opened their set cryptically by saying, "We're from Baltimore, so we're having a good day."

We figured it was probably a sports reference, but it could have been about their performance.

For the audience, it was better than a good day. It was downright excellent.

Austin's Okkervil River played next and I'd seen them a few years back opening for the New Pornographers.

The six-piece had all the components- horn, lap steel, violin, banjo. keyboards, mandolin -for some beautifully dense sound fronted by lead singer Will's heartfelt and dramatic voice.

A girl yelled out that she had seen the band ten years ago, but Will, in his wool sports coat with elbow patches, challenged her on that.

"I'm not that old!" he laughed. "Maybe seven years ago?" She countered with nine, but he didn't buy that either.

Fans love Okkervil River's intelligent lyrics, but a cover of "Sloop John B" got almost as big a response from the crowd as "Lost Coastlines" and "Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe."

And that despite a good part of the audience not having been born when the Beach Boys redid the song.

Will thanked the audience profusely at the beginning and end of their set for having come out to the show on a day when so much other music was available to Richmonders.

I'd thank two excellent bands who were willing to finish off a stellar musical weekend...and didn't even require a cootie-free hot tub to do it.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Little Miss Predictable

You can smell the tobacco from two galleries away.

Approaching "Xu Bing: Tobacco Project" at the VMFA, the overwhelming scent of tobacco, not burning cigarettes, but cured leaf, greets visitors.

But what do you expect from 500,000 cigarettes assembled to look like a room-filling tiger-striped rug?

I was unprepared for how the "rug" looks completely different depending on the vantage point from which you view it.

As a guard told me, "I like it from the back corner because it's all brown and white."

And it is much browner when viewed from that place, but it's mesmerizing from any direction.

There's just something about seeing a half million cigarettes stood on end that draws the eye.

Surrounding galleries hold the rest of the project, including a video about Bing's inspiration and trips to tobacco country, a pipe with seven stems, boxes of uncut cigarettes joined at the filter and cigs with poetry and quotations on them, to mention only a few.

There's a bale of tobacco, a tobacco plant, a book made of tobacco leaves and a partially burnt long cigarette defacing a reproduction of "Traveling Down the River," an ancient painting considered to be China's "Mona Lisa."

The exhibit explores the complicated role tobacco plays with humans, who both revile and crave it, as both subject and material.

I'd have stayed longer, but my companion is allergic to cigarettes and started to sneeze and tear up.

Our second stop was Chop Suey for a reading.

Sandra Beasley, a poet turned memoirist, was reading from her memoir, "Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales From an Allergic Life" about her many allergies and how they've shaped her life.

And lest you think the title is overly dramatic, at her own birthday parties (where she ate something completely different than what her guests ate), kissing or hugging her could result in hives if they'd eaten something she was allergic to.

Her book is a combination of the cultural history of allergies and her own experiences as someone known in college as "cod girl" because she couldn't eat beef, chicken, cheese or any other dining hall protein staple.

The best the dining hall could come up with for her was unseasoned cod day after day.

Kill me now.

Her memoir was laced with much humor and her reading did justice to the inanity of trying to exist in a food world that wants to poison her at every turn.

Hearing about the hives she got after eating an uncle's fries off his plate (he'd also had a burger) made me appreciate how lucky I am to have no food allergy other than peaches.

Naturally that made me want to go eat whatever I wanted as soon as the reading was over.

Since it's Sunday, 821 Cafe seemed a logical choice since parking wouldn't be the usual weekday nightmare.

We slid right into a booth behind a real loud talker and his female companion.

They were having drinks and waiting for their food to come while he was explaining why he now likes cole slaw, a food he used to avoid but had just ordered.

"When I was in lockup," he told her, "I found out you never know when your next food is coming, so you better eat what they give you or you're gonna end up f**king hungry!"

He followed up that emphatic statement with an order for "Another round of bourbon and Cokes, miss!"

Sounds like he must have regretted sending back that cole slaw.

One of the other servers came up to me to say hello and ask why I hadn't been in lately.

I didn't have a good reason and as I was stammering out a non-answer, she looked at me accusingly, but with a smile.

"Are you getting nachos?" she asked rhetorically as our server set black bean nachos down on the table and we dove in.

Hey, I'm not allergic to them and I doubt I could get them in lockup. Why the hell not?

I Will If You Will

My timing was impeccable tonight.

A friend had suggested we have dinner at Six Burner and since I had no definitive plans, I agreed.

Food? Yes, sir!

We're fairly well matched in terms of our food taste, so it's usually a good time when we dine together.

With the raucous Tech fans screaming across the street at Home Team Grill, I found an oasis of calm when I walked into Six Burner.

My friend soon arrived, commented on my parking job and suggested libations. I started with Broadbent Vinho Verde and he had a vodka martini (sorry, purists).

Chef Philip had several interesting offerings (hello braised honeycomb tripe) so we ordered deviled eggs with ham to tide us over while we perused the menu.

Friend is a deviled egg fanatic and I probably haven't had one in five years, so we came at these eggs from wildly different perspectives.

We both loved them with a capital "L"; their peppery sass with just the right amount of thin-sliced ham elevated them to so much more than a picnic side dish.

Next up was house smoked eel with local muscadine grape unagi-style sauce, wasabi peas and sesame powder over local lettuces.

Our libations long gone, we got a bottle of 2002 Domaine du Viking Vouvray Cuvee Aurelie, a rich and slightly sweet golden-colored wine with an incredibly long finish.

It met its match in the foie gras-stuffed pig's foot with roasted red pepper and roasted eggplant sauce that followed.

Sadly, I couldn't talk him into the tripe (but then he doesn't like lentils, either, so he's far from perfect) so we had the Rappahannock oysters.

The selection of Old Salts, Stingrays and Witch Ducks came with a blueberry mignonette but my friend insisted on also getting a more traditional tarragon mignonette, only to prefer the blueberry.

As an ex once told me, it's not just a woman's prerogative to change her mind.

We closed out the meal with chocolate mousse although I was tempted by the house-made waffles with roasted peaches.

The problem was that I'd had a peach earlier today and my allergy probably wasn't going to allow for two in one day without my tongue blowing up like an eggplant.

I wasn't going to push it because I now had plans after dinner.

The girlfriend with the visiting boyfriend had called just before I left and invited me to join them for an after-dinner drink at Amour.

"Call first to make sure we're still there," she'd foolishly suggested. Call? As if.

How about I come by and if you guys are already gone, I'll just enjoy myself at Amour without you?

But there they were in the front window enjoying the last of their dessert and cheese plate, so I pulled up a chair.

Magically a glass of Lucien Albrecht Brut Rose, a personal favorite, arrived and my friend offered me a bite of her dark chocolate creme brulee (to-die-for good).

They told me about their day exploring Richmond, stopping at the Jefferson and Maymont, as they biked around the city.

I heard tales from the VMFA Richard Branson party the night before and raves about their meal and pairings at Amour that night.

Next on their agenda was Stella's because it was on their way home and they tried to convince me to join them there.


All I could think of was that if my out-of-town boyfriend was finally visiting RVA, I wouldn't want to share him with my talkative friend all evening.

I begged off and they went on their way just as a girlfriend walked through the door of Amour.

This was turning into a seamless sort of an evening.

She was coming in for a glass of wine, so I decided to stay for some girl talk and perhaps more wine.

We moved to the bar in the back, out of the glare of the bustle of Carytown on a Saturday night.

Sometimes you want to see, sometimes to be seen and sometimes neither.

As if Brut Rose and an unexpected friend weren't treats enough, owner Paul brought over a plate of little multi-colored macarons for our sampling pleasure.

They were from Petites Bouchees, a local company that's giving Richmonders a taste of a classic French cookie one small bite at a time.

I tasted chocolate with espresso butter cream, hazelnut with slated butter caramel, pistachio with bittersweet chocolate, and almond with passion fruit milk chocolate as we chatted.

We moved on to Lucien Albrecht Blanc de Blancs Brut to accompany our macaron fest

Every now and then, I'd stop and ask myself if I really needed to eat another bite and usually the Brut convinced me that I did.

The later it got, the more we kept on talking, both of us savoring the unexpected pleasure of meeting up.

I knew my dinner companion was long asleep and hopefully the lovebirds were reveling in each other's company, so I'd totally lucked out in running into a friend with her late evening free.

Recently a friend complimented me on my busy-ness and I'd made the comment to her that "Anyone could do what I do." She'd insisted that most people didn't have my stamina.

Hell, I'm thinking stamina feeds on things like Alsatian bubbles, macarons and unexpected friends.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Desire to Cemetery and Ride Six Blocks

Allow me to be a complete literary geek for a  moment.

Richmond is having a Tennessee Williams Centennial Celebration until October 22! Right here in River City!

Over a month devoted to one of our greatest playwrights with a schedule of plays, movies and staged readings will provide a host of field trips to complement my recent completion of  "Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams" about the early life shaping events of this seminal Southerner.

Today's treat was a screening of "A Streetcar Named Desire" at the Byrd Theater, but presented by Firehouse.

New Orleans in 1951 didn't much resemble New Orleans in 2006 (the last time I visited), at least as portrayed by Hollywood.

Besides the obvious, like the streetcars being gone and air conditioning replacing fans and open windows, it was the scenes of the offbeat street life that stood out.

I got a kick from the hot dog man, pushing his wooden cart down the narrow streets and yelling "Red hots!"

Likewise the street vendor selling flowers for the dead (in French) by knocking on doors and offering them up.

One constant was booze, which isn't too surprising given Willimas' weakness for it.

Blanche DuBois perhaps put it best, "A shot never did a Coke any harm."

And then there was the language of wooing, always a soft spot for me.

"I like you exactly the way you are, because in all my experience, I have never known anyone like you," Mitch tells Blanche on a starry night.

What female wouldn't want to hear that?

"Believe me, honey, I feel more than I tell you."  True that.

Like all of Williams' work, there are references to homosexuality, characters with mental illness and always a longing for a better world.

"An hour isn't an hour but a little piece of eternity dropped in our hands."


Between those kind of lines and a ridiculously young Marlon Brando in a sweaty form-fitting t-shirt, I couldn't think of a better kick-off to the Tennessee Williams Celebration.

As Blanche said, "I don't want realism, I want magic."

I want to live in a city that celebrates the intersection of reality and magic.

Oh, wait. I already do.

Lucky me, lucky Richmond.