Monday, December 31, 2012

Music to My Ears

If ever there was a testament to the motivational power of music, I saw it today.

Ostensibly, I went to the Science Museum to see the exhibit, "Guitar: The Instrument That Rocked the World."

After all, it's closing on Sunday and what kind of music lover would I be if it left before I saw it?


But they've been scheduling guitarists to play in conjunction with the show and I wanted to time my visit just right.

Meaning I wanted to hear George Dennehy play today, so I found a seat on the floor in front of the stage just before he started.

For the unprepared in the audience, his playing had to be a shock.

George was born without arms and plays the guitar with his feet.

I know, right? How awesome do you suppose that was to see?

He played with his brother on drums, observing that,"We haven't played together since school orchestra and that doesn't really count."

He had a great sense of humor ("Ever put on a capo with your feet?" he asked us rhetorically) in addition to the can-do attitude that had to have shaped his life as a musician.

Besides having a fine voice, he also wrote some of his own material (This is a song I wrote a few weeks ago. I'll go ahead and give it a try").

But we also heard covers - Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," Lifehouse's "You and Me" and Howie Day's "Collide," each pitch perfect.

But what you have to imagine is that while he's singing, he's also playing the guitar with his feet.

He admitted to being right-footed, but he did the picking with his right foot and the strumming with his left.

Watching him play was riveting, especially seeing his ability to lift individual toes to change chords.

He said he practiced an hour or two a day, but even so it was amazing to watch so much skill coming from a part of the body most of us have limited control over.

One highlight was an improvised piece the two brothers did together (saying, "We're going to play off each other") after George said he wanted to rest his voice for a minute.

By the time the set ended and he took questions, I was greatly surprised to hear that he'd only been performing out for four or five months.

But not quite as surprised as I was to learn that he also played cello and piano.

Clearly you can't keep a musical talent down.

And then there was the guitar exhibit itself.

As a non-musician (and die-hard music lover) of the highest order, the exhibit was like one huge music lesson for me.

The sixty guitars on display represented way more guitar history than I could possibly take in, hard as I tried.

So I just took in what I could Karen-style.

Like the ornately-decorated Baroque guitar from the 1600-1700s, a true thing of beauty.

Honestly, I'd been unprepared for the array of old instruments like lutes, balalaikas and even a harp guitar.

I could appreciate the duality of the Ovation Breadwinner, made between 1972 and '76 and used by both Robert Smith of the Cure and (wait for it) David Cassidy of the Partridge Family.

Now there's a guitar with range.

Of course there had to be an air guitar, which, as you might suppose, looked like nothing.

I got a kick out of the Silvertone amp in case, a Sears product that sold for $67.95 (and even $49.95 on sale!) and provided many musicians with their first guitar (and amp).

And by "many musicians," I mean people like Hendrix and Dylan.

Besides guitars, there were also large-format photographs of musicians playing, although I found the pictures a bit myopic.

The only female guitarist shown was Chrissie Hynde, a personal favorite, but certainly not the only woman worthy of being included in the show.

There were also screens showing key guitarists performing and I'd have to say seeing Django Reinhardt play circa 1939 was way cool.

That suave mustache, the two-finger technique, it was a revelation seeing him after years of only hearing his music.

But then the whole afternoon had been kind of a revelation.

As much as I go out for live music, as incessantly as I play recorded music at home and in the car, as much as I can talk music all day and night long, I have no real musical comprehension.

And I'm not saying I got any from the guitar exhibit, but I did get a whole lot of enjoyment on many levels.

But best of all, I got to see a talented musician demonstrate that if you want to make music badly enough, you can.

Way to rock my afternoon, George.

I Aim to Beat/Eat

It might have been the ideal night to try a new restaurant.

After all, what kind of people go out the night before the big night?

(raises hand)

Besides, Rappahannock was practically begging for it on Facebook.

"Beat the crowd and come in tonight!"

I always wanted to beat the crowd.

There were plenty of seats open at the bar, so I chose one right in front of the service bartender in case emergency conversation was needed.

He turned out to be a fun conversationalist while endlessly making drinks.

For me, all he had to do was go to the tap and let out some Montelusa Prosecco and I was set.

On walking in the music playing was CCR's "Who'll Stop the Rain," which forced me to inquire about the source of the music.

Multiple approved playlists were available for the bar staff to choose from, but there was a pecking order.

Old style country during the day. Classic rock and blues during dinner. A little punk once it got later.

He assured me it would get better and I politely asked, "Soon?"

Call me new school, but I just don't need to hear Creedence Clearwater Revival if I can avoid it.

My bi-valve-loving companion and I began with a dozen oysters, Rappahannocks, Witchducks and Olde Salts.

I slurped mine down, drinking the last bits of juice from the shell like my father had taught me to.

And while you'd think that a half dozen oysters would be plenty, I couldn't help eyeing every platter of oysters that went by, wishing more were coming my way.

Cost aside, it would have been so easy to do nothing but slurp.

But, no, I soldiered on to taste something else instead of becoming fixated.

Tuna crudo with preserved lemon, castelvetrano olives, radish slices and Calabrian chilies arrived looking pink and pretty.

One bite revealed a buttery texture and the most delicate flavor of the fish.

Wow, they were knocking it out of the park with the raw bar.

Time to try the kitchen.

I ordered rockfish and Barcat oyster bourride, a stew thickened with eggs, and garlic, fennel, and potatoes with a big old poached egg sitting atop a chunk of grilled bread.

Honestly, they had me at poached egg because I almost never order rockfish.

Not because I don't like it but because I was raised Catholic and we had rockfish or blue fish every Friday of my childhood.

The bourride was stellar, garlicky and with a big chunk of fish soaking in that broth.

The egg just added a decadence to the whole thing.

When I got down to nothing but broth, I told our bartender to advise the chef that the problem with the dish was that it needed more bread.

"You mean you want more bread?" he stated as fact.

I mean, if you're going to give people all this broth, shouldn't they have a sopping vehicle?

As the crowd continued to grow during our stay, the music retreated into the rafters, almost unintelligible.

At one point, one of the managers walked by, looked up and said to me, "All we have is bass."

It was true;  the only audible part of the music now was the bass line.

"Yea, it's one big blues song. The words are interchangeable since all blues songs have the same bass line," our bartender said, proving it by singing.

It makes me want to come back when punk is playing and hope I have a better chance of hearing the music.

We decided to finish with the cheese plate and Malbec.

It was supposed to come with three cheeses, but they were out of the  Rogue Creamery smokey bleu, so we got a double serving of 5 Spoke Tumbleweed, a long-aged cheddar-like cheese, and  Firefly Farms Merry Goat Round, a clever name but not as good as the South African Goats Do Rome wines.

Both cheeses were good but not anything close to mind-blowing, but the acoutrements were dynamite.

Brandied apricots were indulgent-tasting and the marcona almonds made a fan of me on the first one.

How have I never heard of these Spanish gems, everything the dry California almonds are not?

The bartender provided good stories, like the one about the customer who came in wanting Jack Daniels, a spirit they don't carry.

When he politely explained that to the customer (who wore a U.S.M.C. hat), the man replied, "What are you, a Communist?"

Now that's funny.

So besides great seafood, an affable server and keg bubbles, I got major laughs.

The only real miss was the music and that's a work in progress.

But I'll be honest; I already knew that Rappahnnock wasn't going to replace Merroir in my heart.

But I'm smart enough to realize that a restaurant by the same people 3/4 of a mile from my house is nothing to sneeze at.

And an uncrowded New Year's Eve eve was the perfect time to try the closer one out.


Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Walk with a View

I was ready for a different kind of walk today.

A friend has messaged me, inviting me to join her and her beloved to hike Early Mountain but I had no idea where that was.

But it solidified my desire to walk someplace more nature-filled than Grace Street today.

My first inspiration was to go to Pony Pasture but I hadn't allowed for the Huguenot Bridge construction and no apparent access to the pasture right now.

You can tell I don't get out of the city proper much.

Of course, my knowledge of the southside could fit on the head of a pin, so maybe I just missed it.

What it meant was that I settled for the Huguenot flatwater area near the old Westham bridge.

I say that like I'd known there was an old Westham bridge, but I hadn't.

So I dutifully read the sign about the narrow road and bridge that linked north and southside for a while before setting out.

And while the river is technically flat water, today's wind meant that it was roiled up at the surface and anything but flat.

First I walked the trails around the bridge and flatwater, but all paths eventually led to bridge construction, not the most breathtaking of routes.

But walking along the river just west of the Huguenot bridge made for a series of scenic tableaux.

An upturned green canoe. A duck crossing sign. A rustic gazebo. Small benches for river gazing. Trees with dramatically white bark. A purple martin apartment house.

The wind was fierce along the water so I was surprised to spot a red kayak with two brave souls on the river.

After a while the combination of river view, ducks splashing into the water from the air and trees bent with the stiff breeze made me feel like I was far away from home.

That was about the time I spotted a manhole labeled, "City water" and I was reminded how close to home I was.

Walking back put me directly into the wind, a more challenging (and chilly) walk, but satisfying for the view of the arc of the river.

Back where I had parked with a couple of other cars, I took one last walk through the woods before deciding to head back to my kind of civilization.

The kind, fortunately, that took me right past Dixie Donuts on my way to J-Ward.

The line was long, perhaps because they close at 3 on Sundays, and I watched as doughnuts I wanted were snatched up.

One girls asked, "Do you have any French toast doughnuts?" and was told, "Not today."

"Who ate them?" she demanded as the counter girl shrugged.

I wound up getting the last Samoa doughnut, a nod to the Girl Scout cookie, a yellow doughnut with caramel, toasted coconut and chocolate glaze.

It wouldn't have been my fist choice because I prefer chocolate cake doughnuts, but it was a combination of flavors I love, so it worked for me.

You can lead a city girl to water, but you can't keep her there indefinitely.

She'll miss her sidewalks. And doughnuts.

I'm Just Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail

Sometimes you need a mini-road trip.

Ashland Coffee and Tea was the ideal destination. We took a scenic drive up Route 301 under a low-hanging yellow moon, crossed the railroad tracks and joined the Saturday night revelers for some music and laughs.

Nobody delivers both better than the Hot Seats.

And while the food is not the point, it's perfectly serviceable, with sausage and shrimp jambalaya and chicken pot pie providing hearty warmth on a cold night. Walking in, we got our hands stamped and the door person said, "You've been here before, so you know the drill."

While both were true, I was still surprised to be remembered.

Two-tops are scarce at AC&T and those they have are directly in front of the stage, meaning we got front row seats by default. There was the usual P.A. announcement reminding us that this was a listening room environment (I did a silent cheer when I heard it) and that we didn't want to miss "a note or a lyric."

The Hot Seats, three beards, two faces, began with an old-timey tune (as they called it), "Sugar in the Gourd." The exuberant Josh Bearman wore a light blue suit coat and matching vest, making him the most dapper Seat tonight, despite soon shedding the coat.

With the Hot Seats, you're guaranteed funny lyrics, incredible musicianship and songs spanning the early 20th century to current. Songs like "Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young," a motto to live by if ever there was one.

During a stage discussion of the five members of the band, a comparison to Voltron (and cats coming together) was made. Ed Brogan wryly noted that if they were Voltron, "That would make me allergic to myself."

I'm with you, Ed, but I'd be allergic to the whole lot of you.

"The Ace" was introduced as "having lots of words and it's really funny." And few bands do stage banter like the Seats. There were colon jokes, grammar jokes and daughter jokes.

"Everyone fancies us a bluegrass band," Josh observed about the song "Fun in Town."

"This is a little bluegrass pop for you. It's even got minor chords!" I live for minor chords, just saying.

Of another song, Josh said, "This is one of our newer songs. It features double banjos, so it's a hit." What made it a hit for me was the lyric, "Are you looking for love or the semblance of?"

Apparently the band took song requests on Facebook before the show and one fan volunteered "On the Road Again." "That makes me wonder if they'd ever seen us at all," Josh noted.

Instead they closed the first set with John Prine's "Sam Stone" abut the hole in Daddy's arm where all the money goes.

We decided to spend the intermission trying desserts, namely the mocha cake with cappuccino frosting and the chocolate cake. Nothing like a sugar buzz when watching the Hot Seats.

The second set began with more dueling banjos and the lyric, "I ain't a bit drunk, drunk, drunk, I'm just from Alabam." It explains a lot, doesn't it?

The crowd roared when Josh said, "Now that we're all grown up and mature, it's hard to believe we were ever a roving bunch of scamps," before leading into their seminal classic, "Peaches" with Ben doing the vocals that took the song over the top. We saw Ed play bass onstage for the first time and from where I sat he seemed to do just fine.

As is usual with the Hot Seats, there was a jail set because apparently there are plenty of good songs about being locked up.

There was the song Josh described as his mother's favorite, a tad surprising given the lyric, "From her cooter to her pooter." Actually, it makes me want to meet Josh's Mom.

It was the kind of show where we were told by the band, "We would be remiss if we didn't sing a song about cheeseburgers." It got meaty suddenly before they closed with the "Maybelle Rag."

But the audience was having none of it and hooted and hollered until the boys came back out, closing with a Porter Wagoner classic, "Another Day, Another Dollar."

This is the second year in a row that I've seen the Hot Seats just before New Year's at AC&T and if it's a tradition-in-the-making, it's a fine one. I love a ringside seat for a bunch of guys talented enough to trade instruments all night long, sometimes even mid-song.

I like watching the quiet fiddle player Graham tear it up on the side while the others hog the limelight. I like watching Ben with his handsome David Bowie-like smile impress on banjo and sing so expressively. I like Ed's low-key joke-making, clever backing vocals and songwriting skills. I like Jake's ability to play washboard while drumming and giving the band "the look." I can stand some of Josh's corny jokes but mostly I like his energy and enthusiasm.

I especially like how even the band can't remember which of their songs are on which album. I guess I just like good music and laughing. And a nice road trip.

Hell, who wouldn't?

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Ridin' on a Blue Note

Sir Duke made the gray skies blue.

I know that because when I walked over to the library to hear the Richmond Youth Jazz Guild Orchestra play, it was a leaden sky above.

But once in the Gellman Room, with its enormous (what 15 foot) windows, I watched the clouds give way to blue the strains of Duke Ellington washed over me.

Walking in, I was greeted by Richmond Symphony pianist Russel Wilson with his ever-present camera.

"I was just thinking of you," he said kindly. "I always do when I drive by the Belvidere."

Now that's the way a person likes to be greeted.

A woman sitting near me noticed me all of a sudden and apologized for not having said hello when I arrived.

Clearly it was be-nice-to-Karen day.

The orchestra was missing a few members, not unexpected given the holidays, but I was plenty happy with drums, piano, upright bass, guitar, three saxophones, two trombones and three trumpets.

And the Gellman Room has those wonderfully high ceilings for the sound to move around in.

The program was all Ellington because the musicians are part of the Essentially Ellington competition and festival at Lincoln Center, dedicated to promoting the works of Sir Duke.

Not surprising since Wynton Marsalis is the director.

They began with "Sepia Panorama," a song that was Ellington's theme before "Take the A Train" won that role.

It was an exquisite experience sitting in that room with sunlight breaking through as dedicated young jazz musicians played.

From there, we heard "Echoes of Harlem," a song the director said was based on life experience.

"You'll hear it in the rhythms," he explained. 'There's the sound of the trains the band was always taking to gigs and you can hear it in the drums and horns."

And the train was there and I imagined it as the musicians tapped their feet or drummed their fingers, their faces intent and some not even needing to look at the music.

The jazz lesson continued as we learned that Ellington had been a talented painter who chose not to pursue that avenue because music's call was stronger.

"We're going to have a change in the program," we were told. "Looking around at the audience, I want to make sure we give everyone what they came for."

It required some music being handed out, but the band adjusted easily to the change.

"This piece is very picaresque," the director said. "He was painting with his music. It's a tough piece for the band to play."

If it was tough, I didn't hear the difficulty and the beauty of "Sunset and the Mockingbird" matched the now picture-perfect blue sky outside the library.

The band was introduced and we met Myra on trombone, who'd won a full scholarship to the prestigious Berklee School of Music.

Best hair went to trumpet player William, youngest props to trombonist Brandon (a mere twelve), and a mad skills nod to sax player Chris who writes the improv parts for the ensemble.

Oh, yes, and best dressed to guitarist Morgan for his stellar blue argyle cardigan.

But every single player was notable for their talent and intensity, especially given what their peers are likely doing musically.

The closer was "Ridin' on a Blue Note" and I closed my eyes to enjoy the last of the live Ellington I'd likely hear for a while.

I couldn't help but think about how lucky we are that there are kids willing to learn and practice this classic music so future generations can continue to be awed and inspired by it.

And I sure couldn't help appreciating what the swinging hour of music had done for my walk when I left the library.

Nothin' but bluer skies do I see.

From there, it was a hop (over Belvidere), skip (through Monroe Park) and a jump (onto a bar stool) to 821 Cafe for a late lunch.

The guy on the stool next to me recognized me and said hello, I passed on looking at a menu (don't need it) and within minutes was munching.

Besides music, Ellington was known for his prodigious eating and I was following in the footsteps of the master.

Sans any musical talent, of course.

Mid-bite I overheard a girl say, "I'm gonna start my own magazine called Modern Living dedicated to self-destructive behavior. I'm gonna spell "modern" different."

Now there's something to consider.

Maybe I can do a guest column and talk about the absolute pleasures of a free Ellington show that turned the sky blue one afternoon, followed by my favorite black bean nachos inhaled while punk music thrashes around me.

There's some modern living for you.

Nah, not nearly self-destructive enough.

Pleasures Remain

I wasn't the only one who needed it.

People and music, that is.

I have to assume that's why all those warm bodies were pressed into Balliceaux tonight after a week of enforced holiday/family events.

The surprising part was that the show had already begun when I arrived.

I was assured that Anousheh was only on her second song, but I hate to miss even one song when it's as good as her band's are.

My trip to Italy had precluded me attending her CD release show back in October, so I felt owed.

Because her set had begun, I could only muscle so far before hitting a wall of people and being in the way of moving barbacks.

That lasted through a couple of songs where people came in and stopped right in front of Anousheh singing and had long, loud conversations that blocked the view and sound of her.

Fine, it's a bar, so talk away, but do you have to do it two feet from the singer/keyboardist?

All I'm saying is that it made it very easy to move in front of people like that and enjoy the rest of the set from the front, unobstructed.

"You might know this," Anousheh said late in their set, "if you're old."

I turned to the guitarist next to me and said, "I'll know it."

It took the crowd a bit before they began to recognize Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence," but I was getting it from the start.

As good as she sounded, she looked just as good in little leather shorts, leggings and booties with a drape-y cream shirt swinging as she sang and danced.

What was interesting was watching her low-key husband (and musician) watch her become a pop goddess in front of a roomful of pretty people.

Well, not just pretty because fans like me and others were there, too.

Lots of bangs, lots of earnest looking metrosexuals.

Coats stuffed into the rafters for lack of anyplace else to put them

A favorite drummer tapped me on the shoulder, the photographer walked in with me, the physicist said hello, the French singer looking brooding, the cute couple, he with his winter look on.

The neighborhood musician who usually just nods his head slyly when he sees me, but tonight spoke.

"It's never a shock to see you out, Karen."But it's always a pleasure."

Blah, blah, blah.

During the break, the DJ played songs like Lionel Richie's "All Night Long" and "Oh, Sheila."

Then came White Laces and by then the room had to have been at capacity.

As is my habit, I'd moved to the back banquette for the best view and I heard a guy comment on how big the crowd was.

I'd attributed that to the bands' avid fan bases, meaning less overlap and more distinctive subgroups.

After a sound check where White Laces' singer Landis inquired of the audience if they sounded too loud, too quiet or okay, we did our best Goldilocks and reassured him that it was just right.

"Thanks to Anousheh for playing that Depeche Mode cover," he said. "Way to stoke my ..."

You get the idea.

I'm a fan of the band and, granted, I was way in the back, but I didn't see nearly the rapt attention I have at other White Laces shows.

Not nearly enough applause from the distracted crowd.

After their set, the DJ chilled out with Washed Out and other more current music, getting a mini dance party going while others made beer runs and pit stops.

Wisely, I stayed put to keep my seat and a guy came up and asked if he could sit next to me.

I must have looked like the keeper of the banquette.

Alright, so I deigned to let him.

The Trillions were last and if anyone had any doubt who they were, they had to have been deaf.

Singer Charlie mentioned it several times in a row and between almost every song.

It was as if he sensed that the crowd wasn't paying attention or (horrors!) was a little too inebriated at this point to remember.

Naturally the four tallest men in the room congregated directly in front of me as I tried to see one of the shortest bands in town.

Meanwhile, the band hit us with their poppy rock assault and midway through the set they had a good-sized crowd of people dancing in the center of the room.

I'd already done my grooving during the first couple sets, but some people were just getting started.

People and music, that's all we needed tonight.

You might have known that if you were old.

Friday, December 28, 2012

To Zig or to Zag

My inner film geek kicked up her heels at the FB news.

The new Criterion Cinemas at Movieland was opening tonight and why would I not want to be there? A theater complex devoted to art and independent film? Yes, please.

And I'm sorry, Westhampton, but I need more options. Forgive me my infidelity.

Once I heard they were open, it was time to decide which film to go see. Interestingly enough, I'd already seen one of the four offerings, "The Comedy" by local Rick Alverson.

That left me with a social documentary, a Danish historical drama and a film by a comedian I'd once seen in Short Pump, here. Mike Birbiglia's "Sleepwalk with Me" won out.

Arriving at the new theater located in Movieland's parking lot, I found a familiar face behind the box office. She'd been as surprised as I'd been to learn that the new arthouse was opening tonight.

"I got a call saying I needed a white shirt so I went straight to the boys' department at Walmart and got one," she grinned. "I'm a boys' size 18."

Walking into the 70-seat theater, I was overcome with the "new car smell" it exuded. That and the pleasure of being the first person in there. Settling into the rocking stadium seats in the center of the theater, I felt like I'd died and gone to movie geek heaven. Only four other people joined us, but I've no doubt that the word of their opening just isn't on the streets yet.

The sweet movie told the story of a budding comedian, his inability to commit to his terrific girlfriend of eight years and the sleep condition he had that caused him to act out his dreams in the real world instead of just in his head.

You know, the old "man-child can't get his act together" story. Where 30-something men still think things like, "Love is a mountain of pizza-flavored ice cream. And delusion."

But Birbiglia is an endearing type (despite having to remind us at one point that we were rooting for him), so you end up caring about his dilemma as he starts getting comedy gigs that take him on the road while not being quite able to be straight with his girlfriend about how he feels about their relationship.

I got a double blast from the past seeing Carol Kane as his mother (Simka, anyone?) and Loudon Wainright as a musical uncle. His parents, married for 40 years and constantly yelling at each other, provided little motivation for the comedian to want to get his relationship on.

Or as he said in narration, "In the future, marriage will be the new divorce." Hard to imagine, isn't it?

The film was fascinating for its depiction of REM sleep behavior disorder, a condition where repressed feelings cause anxieties to manifest themselves in unsafe nighttime behaviors. Like jumping through a hotel window.

His father, impatient with his son's arrested development, tries to give him advice about commitment, saying, "At a certain point, you gotta zig or zag."

And as we all know, when it comes to relationships, ain't it the truth? Because love is so much more than a bowl of pizza-flavored ice cream.

It's delusion, pure and simple.

And god knows, it makes for great comedy.

You! Out of the Gene Pool!

'Tis the season for out-of-town friends to call.

So when one did today at nearly 5:00, all my plans went out the window.

The "where" was easy because there would be five of us and we wanted a cozy spot to catch up.

Voila Amour.

While there were several tables with happy-looking diners up front when we arrived, the bar was wide open and inviting so incrementally we began taking it over.

Our starting point was a given; we were celebrating old friends getting together and there's only one way I choose to begin drinking at Amour.

Lucien Albrecht Cremant d'Alsace works for me every time.

Once our quintet was fully assembled, the real fun began.

These friends are funny and anything but shy.

Before long we were discussing the kind of people who should not be parents when Holmes bragged, "That's why I took myself out of the gene pool."

I'm quite sure our laughter was heard in Cary  Court when we reacted to that statement about his efforts to save mankind.

Tonight's soup was a scallop and pumpkin bisque, an exquisitely rich combination with the brine of the scallops reminding us of the sea.

The visitor was telling us about her recent trip to Aspen and the $2,000 suite with butler in which she and her paramour had stayed.

She went on to describe her upcoming New Year's Eve dinner a deux, a meatfest consisting of prime rib and ham for two.

She revealed that she'd heard of a $1200 Spanish ham that she was curious about.

Holmes, ever the bean counter, lost it at that point.

Grabbing her cheeks, he warned her, "Don't make me bitch slap you on both cheeks! You are not buying a $1200 ham."

Since she'd just bought three pairs of $500 glasses she didn't need, his exhortations were probably in vain.

Our next course was veal sweetbreads in a sherried cream sauce in puff pastry.

One bite and I felt quite certain that this is what heaven tastes like.

A tiny glass of Madeira only elevated the dish to sublime territory.

You can be repulsed at eating thymus glands all day long, but the way I see it, that just leaves more for me.

Because sherried glands weren't rich enough, we moved on to meat cooked in its own fat, namely pork and duck rilletes.

The ramekins of shredded duck/pig were outstanding with the hot mustard to cut the richness.

Meanwhile, the conversation just got funnier and more over the top.

When Holmes mentioned a spring vacation, our visitor stepped in as his travel adviser, telling him what he did and didn't want to do and where he wanted to do it.

Holmes was not particularly interested in an action-packed trip, preferring sloth and gluttony to sports and rigorous activity, but the planner planned on.

It was a little like a comedy routine with each oblivious to what the other was saying.

In the meantime, I tasted my friend's poulet Bourguignon, with savory Polyface chicken cooked in a red wine sauce.

The thigh I had was the essence of a cool-weather French dish, all herbs and belly-filling warmth.

She's the pickiest eater on earth (a fact she'll readily admit) but even she seemed to be enjoying the lovely Virginia meets Burgundy combination.

Appropriately, the music was its usual French self, all accordions and breathy female vocalists and just what you'd want to hear while eating and drinking this way.

It was a marked contrast from my annual trip to Can Can last weekend, where the Rolling Stones blasted as I sipped my hot chocolate and I wondered if I was in a chain restaurant.

Throughout all of this, owner Paul maintained his best game face, refilling glasses, making suggestions and adding to the absurd conversation when it suited him.

At one point, a couple came in and because they are Amour regulars, Holmes and I recognized them.

They were just coming in to say hello to Paul, but soon were sucked into the verbal mayhem swirling around.

Luckily for us, they ordered wine and joined the conversation.

Before long the husband was telling us a Pope joke with accented Italian and we were all rolling in laughter at the corny punchline.

Honestly, it felt a lot like an intimate holiday party, just in a restaurant instead of someone's home.

When dessert time came, it was twofold: the irresistible chocolate caramel sea salt creme brulee and housemade clementine sorbet.

Despite how many times I've had that creme brulee, I'd be the first to admit I don't want to live without it, but after tasting the beautiful flavors of the sorbet, I wouldn't want to miss out on that, either.

A discussion of clementines ensued, and as one who eats two or three every day when they're in season (like now), I couldn't help but appreciate that unique flavor in a new form.

We were having so much fun that all at once the visitor realized that the last thing she wanted to do was drive three hours home, so Holmes invited her to stay over and plans were adjusted accordingly.

A couch three blocks away is infinitely more appealing than a nice bed in another state, especially when you're dreaming of a $1200 ham.

I only hope Holmes didn't have to bitch slap her before the night was over.

But even if he does, it'll make a great story for the next time we all get together.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Eat, Talk, Eat

What kind of friend calls at 10 fricking a.m.?

The kind who claims he's trying to "catch me between dates" but wakes me up nonetheless.

Some three hours later we convene at Pasture, a place he's never been and one I've never tried for lunch.

Given his eagerness to lunch, I arrive early.

He, having fallen back to sleep and had trouble finding a parking space among the Grace Street construction, is fifteen minutes late.

As I wait for him, I send empathetic vibes to the young man sitting two tables away with his parents.

Both are intent texting on their phones and he sits there looking lost.

Perhaps conversation is a lost art in their family.

I cam this close to inviting him over to chat while they thumbed and I waited.

Finally my friend arrives, wearing a handsome Candela gallery t-shirt and immediately takes charge.

Glancing at my untouched glass of water, he tells the server, "She needs a straw."

True that, but I'd been willing to wait so the guy didn't have to make a trip solely for a straw.

My friend had originally suggested we go to Rappahannock for lunch, but that's a meal they don't serve.

He was rewarded nonetheless when he saw an oyster sandwich on the menu and inquired about the source of the bi-valves.

Score. Rappahannock River Oyster Company.

AKA the same oysters we'd have eaten there.

I chose seafood too, in the form of a shrimp salad over mixed greens with grapefruit and avocado and a citrus dressing.

My friend, ever the comedian, jumped on the "locally sourced" bandwagon, playfully asking our server if the oysters were allowed to roam free and if they'd come from happy bi-valve families.

They had.

He must have been happy with them because the sandwich disappeared post haste and I was still savoring my grilled shrimp and ball o' avocado.

Since it had been a while, he filled me in on his dating life (a work in progress), his trip to see his family (and the endless waiting that involved) and a few tales from his restaurant job.

Before we knew it, our server brought us our check in a basket that read "eat, pray, eat" at the bottom.

The only problem was he was thinking of dessert. And I'm not much of a prayer.

He deemed the "candy bar" (dark chocolate over peanut butter) with a peanut sauce and crushed peanuts something he wanted to eat every single night before he goes to bed.

Inviting me to take a bite, I forked a piece of chocolate, a maneuver duly noted by him.

"You just want the chocolate," he accused with a grin.

Yes, I did.

Unlike the rest of the population, chocolate and peanut butter do not float my boat.

Separately, yes. Together, too much.

But he was all about it even if it couldn't be his permanent bedtime snack.

And speaking of bedtimes, maybe I should call him some morning at the ass crack of dawn after a night he's closed at the restaurant.

Paybacks are hell.

But isn't that what friends are for?

Slow Boat to Hell

Maybe it's just me, but between the holiday and today's rain, I had a serious case of cabin fever.

So, chomping at the bit, I considered my options knowing that I wanted something good.

I was counting on a slow night anywhere I went, but some ambiance was required.

Enter Secco.

There were just three couples in the place when I arrived and the music ran the gamut of the 20th century before the night was over.

The first order of the day was to ask the chef if I could admire his new pasta machine, the one attained through a kickstarter campaign that promised more pasta on the menu.

We saw not only the machine, but three recent pastas created with it.

That's what I'm talking about, Kickstarter.

Back out at the bar, it was wine time (perhaps it had been for longer than I realized) and I chose 2008 Cantine Cipressi Molise Rosso "Mecken," billed as a Southern Italian, ripe and bacony.

Who could resist a wine or man described that way?

Given the overwhelming humidity and chill today, and despite having had soup for lunch, my first food choice was lentil and ham hock soup with lime creme fraiche, a hearty bowl of lentils that delivered pig taste in every bite.

Only after the bowl was empty could I begin to think clearly.

For the next course, I allowed my kitchen visit to influence me.

Lumeche, a toasted snail-shaped pasta I'd never even heard of, much less eaten, came with (what else) snails, garlic, parsley and Meyer lemon.

The little shells held pools of the lemon and garlic sauce and after the first bite, the Italian nearby noted, "I'm right back in Naples."

With the distinctive Meyer lemon flavor, it was a simple yet beautifully executed flavor profile.

I'd have licked the plate if I could have done it without appearing unseemly.

The music made a distinct turn from jazz of the 20s, 30s, and 40s early on to a decided Reagan years bent with Simple Minds, New Order and the Cure.

Bobbing his head, my companion observed that he was hearing one of his all-time favorite dance songs.

It all worked for me.

After the beauty of Chef Tim's housemade pasta, it was time for some state of grace seafood.

Octopus "in Purgatory" was served with farinata, a chickpea cake, in spicy tomato sauce.

And while most farinata is more like a thin pancake, these were more like a variation on petit choux dough, thick and pan-seared for a nice brown crust.

Tender octopus has long been a Secco staple, but it was the farinata that was the perfect vehicle to get that heat-filled sauce to my mouth.

Served in a narrow and long boat-shaped dish, the presentation was clever, maybe a nod to the transportation that takes a person to the place of temporary punishment for those not destined to go to hell.

I'm guessing I won't be making a stop in Purgatory, if you know what I mean.

For my next glass, I chose Benotto Monferrato Rosso Nebieul, made with Nebbiolo grapes and aromatic and full of fruit like its pricier Southern relatives.

Let's just say it had enough finesse to accompany the chocolate budino with rosemary cream.

You know, budino, kind of a pudding, kind of an undercooked cake with a gooey center. All good.

Where do I start with a dessert this other-worldy?

With the warm, almost pudding like center of dark chocolate or the cream that tasted of richness but delivered  a woody nose of rosemary on the finish?

Together, the kind of dessert people like me dream of.

By this time, other tables had come in, but the restaurant was still incredibly civilized and low key, especially for a Wednesday evening, usually a bustling night.

I figured that's why every occupant seemed to be a couple.

If you're going to be out on the night after Christmas, apparently it's not going to be in pursuit of a swinging singles scene.

So much of tonight's meal reminded me of my trip to Italy this Fall - the stellar homemade pasta, the fresh tasting octopus- that I found myself craving one of the best wines we'd had while in Rome.

It was the Occhipinti SP 68 Rosso, described on the menu as part of the "new wave" of Sicilian winemaking and also as "not your grandmother's red."

Well, one of my very funniest memories from Italy was when I tried to order a Sicilian wine just south of Naples and the seasoned waiter had recoiled in horror, saying, "But it's Sicilian," as if I'd ordered wine from Florida.

But it's Floridian!

Then I'd backed down and succumbed to yet another Tuscan, but tonight I wanted my Sicilian.

When our server poured it, I inquired how she felt about it.

She was honest, saying it didn't taste like anything else she'd ever tasted, but she thought it was interesting.

I got it, immediately recognizing its elegant finesse and evoking that last night and the superior meal that ended our trip abroad.

To further the trip down Memory Lane, I ordered the blu di bufula, a stinky bleu cheese from Lombardy that recalled an afternoon-long lunch at Il Bufalito in Sorrento.

I could just imagine our bespectacled server that day, so earnest and efficient.

With a finish that fine, there was nowhere to go but back into the misty night to look for a way to top a meal that would have been right at home in Italy.

Or even to look for the kind of trouble that's going to ensure I never qualify for Purgatory.

Easy enough.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

No Need to Gift Wrap

I gave myself art for Christmas.

As in, once the bacon-laden breakfast was eaten and gifts unwrapped, it was time for a trip to the VMFA.

Hey, if the state wants to keep the museum open 365 days a year, I want to make sure enough people show up to justify it.

Just doing my part.

So I gathered a small group and walked down Grove Avenue to see what needed to be seen this afternoon.

Besides the Christmas joggers and dog walkers en route.

We arrived to find the museum hopping with holiday guests.

Lots of folks were clearly there to see the Chihuly exhibit but since I've seen it twice and I've got a few more months to see it again, I veered upstairs.

I hadn't seen the new Asian galleries since I'd interviewed the curator last summer before they opened to the public.

I had a feeling they looked a lot better with art in them than when I'd seen them under construction.

Was I ever right.

With the mind-blowing 9th-11th century B.C. pieces in the ancient Chinese galleries, I tried to wrap my head around these elaborate bronze cooking vessels and pieces that surely represented the state of the art worldwide at the time.

I'd be the first to admit that my knowledge of eastern art is lacking, but even so I couldn't help but be amazed at the breadth of art-making in Korea, China and Japan.

And speaking of Japan, I learned about the tea ceremonies and the incense rituals I'd had only a cursory knowledge of previously.

True, I don't drink tea, but it was time to find out.

Or say you go to an incense party. Charcoal is lit and a piece of wood put over it and each guest guesses what the wood is.

He who guesses correctly wins.

With my inferior nose, I'd lose every time.

But I'm quite sure I'd enjoy the exercise.

As lovely as the delicate Japanese scrolls were, my mind was blown when I went into the Japanese temple gallery.

The room, trimmed in a handsome dark wood had three large figures mounted on a striking wood platform.

I'm hardly a religious person, but I almost wished there was a bench there for meditation.

The simple grandeur of the figures almost demanded it.

And, let's face it, how often do you find yourself in a position to meditate, on this day especially?

I'm telling you, it's a natural when you give yourself art for Christmas.

Cheap, too.

Every Time a Bell Rings

Christmas Eve is always the same and always different.

I always have people to dinner and go to the Byrd to see "It's a Wonderful Life."

That's the same part.

The variables are in how it shakes down.

Like how I'd just gotten a package from my BFF from college containing two wines she knew I'd relish.

Crios de Susana Balbo Rose of Malbec, a big-bodied rose with flavors (and the color) of strawberries, was the ideal wine for the rich chicken dish I'd made.

Even the hoppiest beer lover in the group was wowed by it.

Just as wonderful was the Tasmanian devil she'd sent, Jansz Cuvee Brut Sparkling.

The fine bubbles and crisp lemony finish had everyone talking about why we haven't tasted more Tasmanian wines before.

So there's a new goal for the new year.

After a meal that left everyone in a food coma, we went our separate ways, with just me and a first timer going to Carytown for Capra's now-classic film.

Arriving an hour before showtime, we found the line already back to Mongrel and within a short time, around the block and past the alley on Shepperd.

It was clear that many in line were also first-timers because they were taking pictures of themselves in line.

Once inside, we found center seats in a middle row, easily the best seats I've had since I began coming on Christmas Eve 1995.

And, miracle of Christmas eve miracles, not a soul took the two seats directly in front of us.

That's certainly never happened, either.

I heard a guy behind me say to his buddies, "We've been coming to this for what, three, four years now?"

Son, get back with me when you're on your eighteenth year in those butt-numbing seats on Christmas eve.

As usual, we were told of the presence of the gentleman who had first visited the Byrd the week it opened in 1928.

It's an impressive thing to see him there every Christmas eve, but it'll be a sad day when he's no longer there to be introduced.

Then came the big news.

Organist Bob Gulledge had thrown out his back, so there was to be no Christmas singalong tonight.

Holiday horrors!

I mean, I felt bad for Bob, at home stretched out on his living room floor, but after eighteen years, I kind of look forward to that corny singalong with the lyrics on the screen and Bob pumping enthusiastically on the Mighty Wurlitzer.

But we all have our crosses to bear.

I was just sorry that the first-timer with me had to miss out on this seminal Byrd tradition.

But then the credits rolled and I was lost in Bedford Falls and the loose-limbed, expressive-faced George Bailey and his simple little life.

No matter how many times I see the movie, I always appreciate the gorgeous black and white tones of it, the period details and the story of how each of us touches so many others.

And lines like, "Boys and girls and music. Why do they need gin?"

And while my companion had seen bits and pieces of it over the years on TV, he'd never seen it as Capra intended it to be seen.

So afterwards, I asked what had struck him most about the sweet little story.

It was the scene after the run on the bank, when George and Mary use their honeymoon money to save the Building and Loan.

When George returns to his "house," he finds that Mary has created a cozy, welcoming "home" with travel posters in the windows, music playing and chickens roasting on a rotisserie powered by a wooden spool on the phonograph.

"Welcome home, Mr. Bailey," she says sweetly of the wedding night scenario she has wrought for her new husband.

And while it is a charming scene, I'd never seen it quite the way it had struck him.

If ever a woman secured her place in a man's heart, it had to be with giving him that warm, stable and loving welcome after an afternoon from hell.

Talk about the perfect gift.

And an ideal reminder of why it really is a wonderful life.

Boys and girls and music, it's that simple.

Gin optional. Rose and Brut, not so much.

Party Talk

A party is only as good as the conversation I get out of it.

So while I'd been at a party the other night with hundreds of people, I got very little in the way of quality chat.

Not so for the Christmas Eve eve party I got invited to Sunday night.

The guest list was small, only eight people.

But it wasn't a dinner party; it was a bona fide cocktail party.

Like the song says, mix and a-mingle in the jingle bell feet.

Oh, we mixed and mingled all right.

As in lots of libations, lots of heavy hors d'eouvres and interesting discussion at every turn.

My hosts had recently moved into a new house on northside and had had it redecorated from top to bottom.

From the lipstick-red settee to the elephant parade on the bedroom drapes, the place was stunning.

My favorite thing was a striking abstract portrait of my friend hanging in the living room.

When I inquired about its provenance, I learned it was done twenty years ago and the only stipulation he'd given the artist was "no pink."

Of course, there were several large splotches of pink across the fabulously fractured face.

Most interesting to me was that his beloved had had no idea that the portrait was of him (it was that obtuse).

So all of us learned something about the house tonight, including the owner.

Over endless glasses of wine and plates of food, the talk rambled from the halcyon days of life as a 20-something in Washington, D.C. (me and one of the hosts) to protocol when a restaurant keeps you waiting 30 minutes when you have a reservation (two restaurant types).

Two of us discovered that we'd frequented the same clubs at the same time.

Not that we'd known each other then, but it presents some compelling what-ifs.

I was a tad surprised to have to tell a Church Hill resident what the new restaurants in her 'hood were, but obliged.

One guest went on a rant that surprised the rest of us and effectively shut down conversation for a few minutes.

We heard about one couple's plans for a Christmas eve day trip, although they hadn't yet chosen mountains or Williamsburg as a destination.

I can appreciate the idea of a non-traditional holiday celebration, even if it is only the eve of the big day.

In fact, the conversation was so colorful, the laughter so frequent, that by the time I looked up, I realized that five and a half hours had passed since walking in the door.

Now, that's a good cocktail party.

Even if it did come with one wee regret.

I wish I'd had the sense to have my portrait painted twenty years ago. With or without pink.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Bag It

Oh, jeez, I have to do it again.

If I'm shopping in Carytown, it must be almost Christmas.

Because I dislike shopping so much (food and wine being the exceptions), I avoid it all year long.

I know it makes me a poor excuse for a woman, but I'm good with that.

But with the holiday imminent, I had no choice. It was time to spend my money locally.

Rostov's Coffee and Tea was the first stop, a baby step toward the mass of humanity that awaited in C-town.

Which is not to say that Rostov's wasn't busy because it was.

Apparently unlike me, there are plenty of people out there who would appreciate a gift of coffee or tea.

In fact, I was shopping for one of them.

Who are these people and how did I end up on the same planet with them?

With gifts in bag, the next stop was the strip.

One good thing about shopping late is that parking spaces open up as early bird shoppers leave just as I arrive.

I began at the Bizarre Market upstairs at Chop Suey, wanting to look for homemade options.


From there, it was up Cary past a well-appointed busker with a microphone stand and music stand.

What happened to sitting on the sidewalk with your hat next to you?

I ran into the Man-About-Town and his face told me that the Firehouse brouhaha was weighing heavily on him.

I asked, he expounded and I heard more of the disappointing details of the ouster of the artistic director who had been instrumental in not only founding Firehouse Theater Project, but in steering it to where it is nineteen years later.

Sadly, I heard that he had resigned from the board of directors and since he was a founding member too, it was sad news indeed.

If there's any way this mess can be corrected, I hope for the sake of the theater-loving crowd in Richmond that it is.

For a pick-me-up and as part of my annual Christmas shopping tradition, the next stop was Can Can.

The bartender presumed that brunch menus were in order, but all that was required was a cup of their fabulous hot chocolate.

Not cocoa, but real French-style hot chocolate, more of a dessert than a beverage and mounded with whipped cream.

I drained my cup in a most unlady-like manner.

But then, it's that good.

Properly fortified, the last stop was For the Love of Chocolate, which was a madhouse.

Customers crammed every inch of the place and running into a familiar face (and this is a small town, so it happened a lot) inevitably caused a traffic jam.

Let's just say I got what I needed, was introduced to an artist/DJ and got the hell out of Dodge.

And as I walked out of the store, it was as if the clouds had cleared and the birds were chirping.

I was finished shopping.

Sure, I still had cooking and wrapping to do, but the stores no longer had any hold over me.

And that definitely means it's practically Christmas.

On the bright side, I don't have to shop for another year.

Will Return for Fudge

What a difference a day makes.

Last night, I'd had a party in the Bottom. Tomorrow I have a party in northside.

But tonight all I wanted was dinner out before the onslaught of holiday meals at home.

Rappahannock was still too busy to try.

But I'd been wanting to get back to 2113 since they'd changed chefs, so the good news was that while they had a private party going on in the back, the front was open to strays like me and my companion.

The new bartender not only introduced himself but asked our names and used them the rest of the night.

Pleased to meet you.

Tonight's vino was Honoro Vera Monastrelle with a sweet, smoky nose and good value for the money.

One of my favorite things about 2113 had been the music but it was toned down tonight, perhaps in consideration of the staid-looking party in the back.

It was lounge-y, but more downbeat than the last few times I'd been in and frankly, I'd have liked something a little more upbeat.

It is the start of the holiday week, after all.

But at least it wasn't Top 40 or classic rock, so I can only complain so much.

A glance at the menu showed that the focus had changed since I was last in.

Tonight's menu was very safe and not especially creative, although my guess was that it had to do with the party in the back.

Chances were that the menu reflected what was being made for the party goers, so I'll be curious to see the menu post-holidays.

Don't disappoint me, guys.

Tonight's dinner began with a spinach salad with candied walnuts (one of my favorite things), apples and dried cranberries, although the red dressing seemed to be more of a testament to them than any actual berries.

Truth is, all I was focused on was those lovely nuts.

Next came Italian mussels, recommended by our friendly bartender and while, yes, mussels are everywhere, these were especially tasty.

The mussels themselves were a combination of two varieties and the larger ones were so sweet and meaty I may have swooned.

Add to that a bowlful of white wine and butter sauce and we were happily sopping for quite some time.

After finishing the three pieces of bread that came with the dish, the manager stopped by to inquire if more bread was required.

It was.

I think if you're going to serve broth that good, you have to match it with sufficient bread.

As we ate, party stragglers continued to arrive, as did other strays like us, so while the place never got mobbed, we did have company.

Last up was pork tenderloin with tri-pepper wine sauce, asparagus and Brussels sprouts.

See what I mean about safe?

It was not a dish that I would have chosen, but then I hadn't.

We were enjoying our wine, laughing and lingering so long that eventually the chef wandered out and chatted with us.

Or maybe his intent was just to move us along.

The product of a chef father and pastry chef mother, his roots were Italian and he told us about his 86 year old grandmother still making her traditional hard candy every Christmas.

He'd just gotten his annual five pounds, something he and his siblings got every year.

Even better, he scooted back to the kitchen and brought us an array of the candies, each in a distinctive shape (Santa's face, a bell, a wreath) and flavor.

They were exquisite, with flavors of rum or almond and with no cloying sweetness like commercial hard candies.

But a piece of candy does a dessert make, at least to some people, so we ordered the lemon cake with lemon butter cream frosting, drizzled in honey and nuts.

Now we saw the chef's pastry chef mom's influence in the dense, moist cake and delicately lemon frosting.

I found the honey and nuts to push the dessert into cloying territory, but the Italian present begged to differ, proclaiming it a classic Italian sweet.

Before we left, the chef encouraged us to come back in January when his new menu debuts.

He also said he'd have some of his grandmother's homemade fudge to share then.

Now there's an incentive to come back soon.

Emerging on Main Street, it was like a ghost town.

Clearly everyone was at parties or has already left town.

Or the end of the world had finally happened and we'd missed it while sucking on homemade Italian hard candies.

I suppose there are worse ways to go.

And better. Like eating fudge.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Lit for the Holidays

Seasonal invitations abound this time of year.

Like the one Colt and Mike got.

Colt and Mike got a green invitation that read, "Colt & Mike - We'd love to see you at our liquor potluck! Dec 16th, our house-bring a friend & a bottle and come get lit for the holidays."

No signature, no return address on the envelope.

I found it face down on Grace Street a few days before the party date, probably discarded by either Colt or Mike.

Although how they'd forgo an offer like that, I can't imagine.

My invitation came via e-mail this morning and said, "I miss you! Whatcha doing early this evening? Any time for a festive kickoff to the holiday?"

It will be a sad day indeed when I no longer have time for a festive kickoff with a favorite friend.

So we met up at Amuse a little after the sun set on the shortest day of the year.

Since festivities were in order, she went with a sparkling red hibiscus champagne cocktail while I allowed the green fairy to wave her wand over me with an absinthe drip.

As we watched the pink, blue and gunmetal gray sky fade to black over the roof of the Confederate chapel, we talked about things like the best way to go once it's time to die.

For an 86-year old she knew, that was only after going out to lunch.

We discussed the beauty of bacon-laced cheeseburgers for Christmas dinner.

We had much to say about relationships that are "monogomish."

In fact, we talked right through imperious mothers (albeit with style), another round, megalomaniac bosses (let's not think this through, shall we?) and right into a cheese course (two cow, one sheep).

It was the best kind of festivities - intimate and slightly loopy in seasonal surroundings.

And this is the point in the song where the record scratches.

For my second act, I was going to a party for which I did get a seasonal invitation.

Over a picture of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed it says, "Let's get dressed up, and dance by the light of the moon! Oh, darling, we received our invitation to: "It's a Wonderful Life Christmas Party! Main Street Station."

Unlike the party to which Colt & Mike (it's like they're a unit and you can't say one without the other, like Hall & Oates) were invited, this one did not require a bottle of liquor.

But from what I heard from the former bartender friend who'd invited me, there was an open bar so there would be plenty of getting lit going on.

When I got down to Main Street Station, it was to find the Bottom in all but a police state.

As they used to say in '40s movies, the place was lousy with cops.

But I found a pay lot, paid a machine and headed up the wide steps of the station.

Only to find a line out the door and waiting in the 37-degree December air which, given the brisk wind, felt like 28 degrees.

You know, for some people it doesn't feel like Christmas until they've heard Bing sing, or seen"The Nutcracker."

But I submit that it doesn't feel like Christmas until you've put on a little cocktail dress, barely-there lace tights and shoes that consist of straps the size of a piece of string and shivered your way to a holiday party.

I heard some guy behind me tell others that they were probably limiting people because of past parties.

"This thing started out small and grew to where it was just one big throwdown."

A black tie throwdown? My first, for sure.

I waited close to twenty minutes with a good-sized crowd (many of whom began to bail and head to a warm, cozy restaurant instead) as the Fire Marshall let in one person for every one who came out.

By the time I made it into the building, my legs had no feeling in them.

Over at the coat rack, I found other women just as badly off.

"This better be good," one woman grumbled. "My feet are frozen. I am not in a good mood right now."

I moved away slowly.

Like her, though, I was glad to be indoors, albeit trapped on the bottom floor with a guard at the staircase up to where the music was.

On the plus side, there was a bar and all the food on this floor.

After two visits from the absinthe fairy earlier, I decided to play voyeur, so I grabbed a glass of water and set out to scope out the room.

The party invitation had stipulated "black tie" so there were plenty of floor-length dresses, but more cocktail length than anything.

One thing was clear; the colors of the evening were black, brown and red.

I was part of the problem, not the solution, in a beaded black dress (notable for its aural quality -  twice a tiny bead fell to the floor and I'd hear the most delicate tinkle).

There might have been two blue dresses, but not much variety in dress colors.

And while I feel sure many of those dresses had been bought for the occasion, I had on the dress I'd bought for the very first Library of Virginia literary awards party back in '97 and not worn since.

Clearly I hadn't taken this party invitation as seriously as some of these people.

But then, I'm not sure I was one of these well-maintained-looking people.

Let's just say I saw a lot of fake tans, a lot of bling and a surprising number of furs.

But also a lot of women with their high heels in their hands.

Since we weren't allowed upstairs and I wasn't willing to wait in line for the privilege to go upstairs, I wandered over to the buffet.

A guy approached from the other side, discarding his empty plate and taking another while he was still chewing.

I made a joke about it (it's a party, we're supposed to mingle, right?) and he got defensive.

"Get it while you can," he informed me.

Eventually a woman near me, still in her coat, spoke to me.

"Can you believe this? I've been coming to this party every year since the first year, for twenty years and it's never been like this."

She was mortified when she heard it was my first time. "Oh, I'm so sorry you had to experience this!" she said fervently, perhaps taking pity on me.

She said she'd already wasted an hour and a half just to get in the door and was deciding whether she should bag it or not.

Suddenly, a man near us dared to push the button for the elevator and scrambled in when the door opened.

That's when it got very commando raid-like.

"Hurry, if you're coming, come on!" he stage-whispered to anyone and everyone mingling anywhere near the elevator.

All at once, the nearest eight people dove for the lift.

The woman I'd been talking to grabbed my wrist and said, "Let's do it!"

Next thing I know, the door closes and we're headed upstairs while a line of patient party goers still stands at the foot of the stairs.

The guy who'd commandeered the elevator stayed in charge as we ascended.

"Okay, when the door opens, just go. Don't look around, just move fast!"

I guess he got our adrenaline going because every one of us bolted off that elevator and into the pulsating music.

So at least there was music upstairs, along with a bar, a seating area and no lines in sight.

I guess I'd reached the holy grail.

And you know, I wasn't much impressed.

There were maybe two dozen people dancing and a much larger crowd watching.

The girlfriend I'd met earlier had been to this party before and had warned me that the fun was not in dancing but in watching.

Roger that.

As I wandered among the rooms, I saw only two people I knew: a bartender and a politician.

Which is not to say that they were the only people I spoke with.

No, I listened to a guy rant about the lines to get in even as his bourbon dripped out of his glass to form a puddle at our feet.

He never even noticed.

I heard a guy tell a friend that at last year's party, he'd come home without one article of clothing. He seemed very proud of that.

A saw a pretty redhead in a red dress try to walk forward twice and both times went backwards.

Her eyes looked like those googly eyes on cheap stuffed animals.

A woman walked up to me and started chit-chatting, only to stop, tell me her age and ask mine.

A guy told me I was part of the eye candy in the room "with those legs!"

I saw more Botox and plastic surgery than I'd ever seen in real life.

And I couldn't even count the number of men I saw ogling women when their own mates stopped to talk to someone.

Ugh. Lightbulb.

Ohhhhh, I get it now.

And I didn't need a guardian angel to show me the way.

I just needed the green fairy to show me that I was at an "It's a Wonderful Life Christmas Party!" to remind me what a great life I have.

I mean, not as great as Cody & Mike's, but pretty darn swell.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Double Dutch Yum

'Tis the season to be indulgent.

To that end, the not-yet-open new restaurant Dutch and Co. in Church Hill was offering to-go lunches today.

While they're putting the finishing touches on the restaurant, they decided to tease Richmond with their to-go lunch program.

As a long-time fan of Acacia's very occasional to-go lunch program, I was all about it.

And while I don't usually get up much before lunchtime and Dutch & Co. was only serving from 11:30 to 1:00, it seemed worth making an adjustment for.

So while I didn't get up up until 11, all I had to do was skip my morning oatmeal and fruit to be in Church Hill by 11:40 to collect a brown box.

They were serving right out of the kitchen door onto 27th Street, making for a mix of clandestine and casual.

The guy in line behind me peered around me at the kitchen, saying, "Wow, that's a great ceiling!"

The pressed tin beauty was handsome and, as I said to him, no doubt the dining room will be even more so.

On the menu today was a triumvirate of Church Hill talent.

Meat master Chef Caleb had made sandwiches of housemade country pork pate with Brie, mustard and pickled fennel.

And get this: it was served on Sub Rosa bread, made by the talented baker Evrim a few blocks away.

With the sandwich came a savory salad of mixed greens, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts taking up half the box with its generous portion.

Dessert came courtesy of WPA Bakery, caddy-cornered from Dutch & Co., and encased in a wax-paper envelope.

It was a canele, a small French pastry with a soft center and a nice thick crust.

Yea, so for my first meal of the day, I was happily chowing down on an incredibly rich sandwich along with a mound of seasoned greens less than an hour after I woke up.

And you know what? Neither my stomach nor my body clock objected to country pate before noon.

As a matter of fact, they kind of reveled in it.

Sometimes you just need to start the day as indulgently as possible.

Once I finished, I did my usual walk through the cold, windy air, but with a feeling that the long holiday weekend had officially begun.

Once home, the phone rang and a friend who lives in Church Hill called to give me the inside scoop on a new restaurant in his neighborhood.

Picking pate out my teeth, I told him I was well aware of Dutch & Company.

He was sorry to have missed the tease of a boxed lunch.

I'm only sorry I have to wait to be indulged again by the new kids on the block.

Way to go, Church Hill.

In Case It's the Last

Drink fast. It's all gonna end tomorrow.

Or so said tonight's cocktail menu at Jackson Ward's newest restaurant, Saison.

It was an end of the world agave party to quench the oncoming fire cause the end is nigh.

Irresistible, right?

So I found a companion and we slid into the two bar stools directly under the (always unnecessary) TV screen.

While I wasn't feeling my imminent demise enough to actually order a mixed drink, I did happily try Espolon tequila, recommended to me by the barkeep as "the Patron killer."

Since I refuse to subsidize Patron's massive and endless ad campaigns, I was happy to find a tequila that tasted as good at a fraction of the price.

Naturally it came with one of those large, slow-melting cubes but also in a thrift store glass.

In fact, I was told that all the glassware, even the vintage decanters that poured my water (you know, the fake cut glass kind you see in movies from the 40s), were purchased from thrift stores.

My inner hippie approved of such recycling.

The small Latin-influenced southern food menu had lots of gluten-free and began options, but since when do I need either?

So it was that we started with lavender black bean cassoulet with pork shoulder.

The bowl of perfectly seasoned pork and loads of beans delivered a nice nose of lavender on some bites while the hominy cake provided a textural contrast.

A guy came in and took a seat near us at the bar and when it came time to order he put the menu book down sheepishly.

"I wanted to order something different than the burger," he told the bartender. "But that burger is just too good."

Considering that Saison has only been open a week today, I was a little surprised that they were already having repeat customers.

Good sign, very good sign.

The music was classic R & B and when I inquired its source was told, "It's Spotify set to Sam Cooke. Hard to f*ck up."

I know, right?

Two songs later, Paul Simon's "Graceland" interrupted Aretha, or maybe it was Bill Withers and I had to question Spotify's ability to stay on track.

But after that one glitch, all went well musically, to the point that a nearby diner was dancing in her seat.

For our next course, we had a big bowl of pozole rojo, a savory combination of pork, hominy, chilies, shredded cabbage, corn, cilantro and lime.

Squeezing the lime over it brought out the depth of the flavors and by the time we finished, the bowl was licked clean.

And speaking of clean enough to eat off of, Saison's bathroom was positively charming.

A green toilet and pink sink (surely both circa the 60s or 70s) sat atop the best-looking floor in Richmond, hands down.

A collage of paintings, most looking to be 19th century European covered the floor under a thick coat of polyurethane.

It was almost too pretty to walk on.

Although, I suppose, not if the world really is going to end tomorrow.

In that case, we'll do what we have to do.

Leaving there with umbrellas aloft, it was time to have some last-night-on-the-planet music at the Camel.

You know, just in case.

The show began with a set so awesome I am still reeling from it.

Josh Hryciak, whose band Mermaid Skeletons still holds a place in my heart for one of the most atmopsheric shows ever (Poe Museum garden on a hot summer night), was the opener.

And here's where it gets amazing.

I know Josh as a mild-mannered singer/songwriter (with impressive chops in both regards) who plays acoustic guitar and harmonizes like an angel.

Tonight things were a little different.

He took the stage, opened his laptop and proceeded to put on what can only be called performance art.

And stellar performance art at that.

Wearing a poncho, he posed as his laptop introduced him ("He smells as good as he looks!") and his opening act - Jimmy Durante.

Josh proceeded to sing "The Christmas Waltz" a la Durante.

It was so well done it was hysterical before segueing into an electronic beat-based number he danced to (while admonishing us to "stay there!"  since no one was moving) that was barely recognizable as the sound I once knew Josh to have.

But then that morphed into pure Josh doing what I think was dance pop but with his voice became something far more transcendent.

Partway through he removed the poncho, looped it on his finger and draped it down his back, Sinatra-style.

The next couple of songs were just as impressive with electronica under Josh's songs.

He even ran up and down between the tables, perhaps hoping to get others to move. "Usually people are dancing by now," he cracked.

But even if we weren't dancing, we were definitely loving his songs and the hushed room proved that.

"My name is Josh Hryciak and this is not my day job," he said before his all-too-soon last song. "Feel free to sit for this."

And some people finally did dance but most of us were just too wowed to move.

I know I was.

The Kindling Kind, a quartet, played next and they began with "Silent Night," first with their own lyrics and then with the traditional ones sung a capella by the lead singer.

With electric and an acoustic guitar, bass, drums, keys and the occasional mandolin or banjo, they had a haunting Appalachian-sounding singer and a drummer who wore sunglasses throughout their set.

In his defense, he was half of a killer rhythm section.

Headlining was Zac Hryciak and the Junglebeat, everyone's favorite RVA chamber pop group and they claimed to be mostly sick.

If that was true, you'd never have known it from their tight-sounding set, which included three Christmas songs.

There was the "Hawaiian Christmas Song," "White Christmas," and a surprising version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

I say surprising because they used some of the original lyrics, the ones Judy Garland refused to sing in "Meet Me In St. Louis," from which the song comes.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last
Next year, we may all be living in the past

See, even in 1944, they were allowing for the end of the world arriving any moment.

All I can say is, I'm glad I got out to try a new restaurant and new tequila before it was too late.

And I will be forever grateful that I was in the room tonight when Josh Hryciak arose from the ashes of Mermaid Skeletons to shower my ears with beautifully sung dance pop.

If the Mayans were right, I can say I certainly went out on a high note.

Bury me with some Espolon and a mix tape of the Hryciaks, won't you?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Feeling It

If you pour, they will come.

And they were pouring at Bistro 27 for a holiday wine tasting, so I went.

You know it's going to be a fun time when you walk in and the hostess drops her jaw, saying, "Your tights are hawt!"

I wasn't sure I'd know anyone at the tasting besides the two wine reps pouring, but I ran into a wine-loving couple I've known for years and a bartender/gardener and his beloved, so there were a few familiar faces on hand.

But the wine was the thing so I tasted a few of them, although never got close to tasting the entire dozen.

Judging by the increasing decibel level and ever-widening smiles, though, plenty of people did the full twelve.

A man came up to me and said he recognized me from an art and poetry event at VMFA and asked why I'd been there.

It seemed like an odd line but it turned out he was a poet, so he was thrilled to hear I was a poetry lover.

By the time I woke up this morning, he'd already e-mailed me, promising to send along some of his poetry.

Chef Carlos and I were particularly taken with the 2009 Vega Tinto Douro, a plummy and complex wine for fans of Portuguese style.

When I was poured the 2009 Gaspirini Venegazzu Cabernet, I was reminded of what I like about Italian wines.

The guy next to me took a sip of the same and observed, "It's just beautiful and not overly tannic. I hate those."

The kind that smack you in the head the next morning, I asked, guessing why he felt that way.

"Exactly!" he said. "Although I'm a man, so sometimes I need a smack upside the head."

I told him he was one of the evolved ones if he realized that he occasionally needs a smack upside the head, whether literally or figuratively speaking.

"I am one of the evolved ones," he said, his red face smiling broadly.

I ran into my favorite multiple beagle owner and heard tales of her dog leaning his paws on her shoulders as she sat on the couch working on her computer.

The mental image was adorable.

A short, older man walked up to me at one point and shyly said, "I love your nylons."

What is this, 1945?

It should give you some idea of his age that he even used the term "nylons."

"Not many women could pull them off," he said, winking.

I took my taste of Coltibuono "Cetamura" Chianti and eased over to the other side of the room.

Wine sips makes for loose lips, I guess.

For me, it turned out to be a wine tasting with far more conversation than tasting, but sometimes that's exactly what I want.

From there, I went to pick up a fellow balletomane to go see "The Nutcracker" at Center Stage.

So there we were, surrounded by little girls in party dresses and giant hair bows, amongst what appeared to be a sold out crowd watching Richmond Ballet's perennial cash cow.

I've been a ballet-goer for so long that I remember some of the company members when they were apprentices or trainees.

But as we know, youth is a gift of nature and age is a work of art.

Witness the wonder of Susan Massey, a long-time teacher at Richmond Ballet, and still limber, expressve and impressive as Dr. Silberhaus' mother, despite being no spring chicken.

And it is a beautiful production of the holiday chestnut with jewel-colored costumes, monumental sets and dancing of all levels and kinds.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the cast was by far the most diverse I've ever seen in Richmond,

At the party that starts the ballet, families were mixes of black and white, with even little Clara played by an African American, something I never thought I'd see in Richmond.

Bravo, Richmond Ballet, for finally stepping into the 21st century where everyone is not white.

During intermission, I ran into my favorite dulcitar player in the lobby and my favorite bass clarinet player in the orchestra pit.

As intermissions go, seeing the two of them made it way better than a mere bathroom break.

The second act is such fun, with its snake charmer, dancing bear with his incredibly sharp dancing moves despite the bulky costume and the elaborate Chinese dragon, eye candy all.

By the time that act ended, the little girl next to us was sound asleep in her mother's lap and the tween-age boy on the other side was busily drawing robotic monsters in his sketchbook.

So maybe they were a little young for ballet, even one that had us out on the street by 9:10.

As a wine tasting, polka-dancing friend had told me earlier at 27, "It doesn't feel like Christmas to me until I see "The Nutcracker."

I may not have drunk much wine and I certainly can't polka, but walking out afterwards under the twinkling CenterStage marquee, I had to agree with her.

And, who knows, maybe I'll get some hawt nylons from Santa.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Psycho Move, Qu'est-ce Que C'est?

The company was better than the movie.

My fellow Hitchcock fan joined me for a jaunt to the near west end to catch "Hitchcock" at the Westhampton.

She's the ideal film buddy because of our innate screen compatibility.

No movie I suggest is too outre for her, no foreign film too obscure.

We were made for each other cinematically-speaking, with one notable exception.

Inexplicably, she doesn't like butter on her popcorn.

She's perfectly normal otherwise.

So we compromised with less butter than I wanted and more than she cared for and proceeded to watch a 2012 take on a 60-year old director making his seminal film "Psycho" in 1960.

Which brings up my first complaint with the movie.

If you've ever watched a film from way back then, you know people looked differently than they do now.

Hairstyles, make-up, jewelry, even colors worn were different.

A crowd scene during the premiere of "Psycho" screamed "21st century people," the girls with coral lipstick and the boys with parts in their hair being the only concessions to mid-century looks.

Surely we can do better than that, film people.

But Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren are top notch actors, so at least there was that.

Mirren, especially, shone as Alma, Hitchcock's wife of many decades and a screenwriter and film editor in her own right before she married the master of suspense.

One thing the film did make clear was how much Hitch depended on her judgement and eye whenever he made a film, because both were unerring.

And, let's face it, we all know that behind every great man, there's a magnificent woman.

In this case, the woman was trying to lessen his corpulent frame by hiding the foie gras and serving him raw vegetables instead.

That is, when she wasn't putting up with his obsession with blonds.

And speaking of blonds, let's talk about casting.

James D'Arcy as Anthony Perkins not only convincingly looked the part, but conveyed the sense of a closeted actor uncomfortable in his own skin.

It was Perkins to a "T."

But Scarlett Johansson (as Janet Leigh) and Jessica Biel (as Vera  Miles) were never even partially believable in their roles.

Not for a second could you forget who they were in the real world and it detracted from their performances.

I'd say in a case like this of a bio-pic, far better to choose a lesser-known actor (or even unknown) and let the character portrayed shine through rather than watching someone play someone else.

Unfortunately, director Sacha Gervasi didn't seek out my opinion before casting.

Once the film ended, my friend and I sat through the credits and beyond, discussing the film's shortcomings (the unnecessary Ed Gein character on which the book Psycho had been based showing up to advise Hitch) and strengths (Mirren and to a lesser degree, Hopkins).

Acting aside, I'd have to say one of my favorite parts was the idyllic beach house rental where typewriters and wine awaited Alma and her writer pal on a deck almost touching the ocean while they worked on a screenplay.

I say if you can't find your muse with wine, sunshine and crashing surf, it's time to head back down the Pacific Coast Highway, honey.

And back to a man who can appreciate buttered popcorn.

Sometimes it's the best part of a movie.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Beams Sing and My Music Shine*

Who would have expected Balliceaux to deliver the merriest of Christmas evenings?

To start, Secretly Y'All, Tell Me a Story mixed things up this month. Instead of the usual array of storytellers, we got a reader in front of a video fireplace.

Writer Mark Mobley did an anti-war poem, Allen Ginsberg's "Wichita Vortex Sutra," and surely I wasn't the only one thrilled to be hearing the Beat's poetry read aloud. The thrill didn't stop there because he also did some John Donne and Ben Johnson before I was introduced to George Herbert* via his poem, "Christmas."

Be still my heart.

Mobley continued with some original material, including "Refresher Course," inspired by a friend who told him he hadn't cried in twenty years and "I, Claus" about his time as a Santa at Greenbriar Mall.

But he set the tone for the rest of the evening reading "A Visit from St. Nicholas," including the 1912 edition introduction. Just as I thought it couldn't get any better, he pulled out one of my favorite Christmas poems. And for possibly the first time in my life, "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" was read aloud to me.

I can't begin to describe what a singular pleasure it was to hear words that I had only read before.

Mobley, a fine reader, got squeaky and high for Cindy Lou Who and deep and menacing for the grinch. Once the grinch (he, himself) had carved the roast beast, it was music time.

Chairs were brought in, musicians arrived and the RVA Big Band began their usual Monday night gig, but this time devoted to the holidays.

"Let It Snow!" came out swinging before vocalist Terra Allen came out in a seasonal green dress, impossibly high heels and belted out "Santa Baby" like nobody's business. The keyboard player got props on a jazzy "Jingle Bells" when the bandleader told us he'd only gotten the music two days ago.

Terra came back to do B.B. King's classic "Merry Christmas, Baby," which had the cocktail dress set behind us dancing in their banquette. It also found dimunitive Terra bent over, challenging the drummer, "Come on!"

"Blue Christmas" gave us some nice solo work on the horns. But it was when she took on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" that time stood still.

I have been to Balliceaux for many shows and heard many kinds of music, but I have never felt a moment as magical as during that song. The multi-colored light-strewn branch that always hangs over the stage had never twinkled so brightly. The lighting had never been so softly dim. The crowd had never been so raptly silent.

And, oh, the band was note-perfect. And certainly no one since 1944-era Judy Garland had ever bent the notes quite so expressively.

I only wish the song could have gone on 'till Christmas.

Instead, they wrapped up the set with "O Tannenbaum," which began by sounding very traditional and morphed into something absolutely swinging. The good-sized crowd gave the band the applause they deserved after such a set that both defined and redefined an evening of Christmas music.

But it was B.B.'s lyrics that best summed up how I felt as I clapped.

I haven't had a drink this evening, baby
But I'm all lit up like a Christmas tree

Many thanks, Balliceaux, for a positively perfect Christmas present.

Consider this my thank you note.

Monday, December 17, 2012

O Come, All Ye Ham and Cheesers

I come when called.

So when the Ghost Light Afterparty summoned the masses with "O, Come, All Ye GLAPful," I was there in my shortest pink skirt, my sassiest lace tights and enough holiday cheer to choke a reindeer.

Hell, somebody's gotta be the audience for a room full of hams.

As the night wore on, there was also plenty of Christmas cheese.

Like a DMX-wannabe doing "Rudolph." Afterwards, Maggie noted, "That's a holiday treat I bet you weren't expecting."


Georgia doing "All I Want for Christmas" in s high, squeaky voice with her two front teeth blacked out.

Inexplicably, someone had brought a holiday songbook like no other, with Christmas songs about Star Wars characters.

So, yes, we were treated to "What Can You Get a Wookie for Christmas?" and the classic "R2D2, We Wish You a Merry Christmas."

As someone observed, most of the people in the room weren't born when these songs were created.

I hope they all realize how fortunate that makes them.

But there were sublime holiday moments, too.

Joy and Duron dueted on a poignant "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

Ben playing piano and singing "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" magnificently, like he was singing for a date.

The cast of "A Child's Christmas in Wales" doing "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" with cello, guitar and two beautiful harmonizing female voices.

An exquisite "Silent Night" with only cello and piano.

Chris doing "The Christmas Song" a capella. Take that, Nat.

And, as always because it's the GLAP, serious comedy.

Like the interpretive dance break during "Let it Snow!"

Matt observing after sight-reading the wookie song, "I almost soiled myself when I sang, "Give him love and understanding."

Maggie's stellar rendition of Mel Blanc's "My Sombrero is Too Big."

And only at GLAP do you have a quartet not only looking up lyrics on their phones, but half the group doing the movie version and half doing the Broadway version, a fact they didn't realize until midway through the song.

But lest you get the impression that GLAP is just for drinking, raffle prizes and over-the-top performances, allow me to set you straight.

I pick up all kinds of salient information during my monthly five-hour stint at GLAP.

High praise from a friend who'd just seen "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe" and is already planning to see it a second time.

Details of the renovated NU nightclub, complete with details of male and female go-go dancers, looped music and Wet Wednesdays.

A porn discussion with the praise, "All show, no grow and eight inches!"

Honestly, you can't glean this kind of information just anywhere. Or at least I can't.

And where else can I hear both Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You" done by Gray without her trench coat and k.d. lang's "Love is Like a Cigarette" done by Starlet Night in fur-trimmed ankle boots?

It almost makes me want to lasso Santa, like Maggie sang. Or at the very least, choke him.

But I won't. Like a wookie, even Santa deserves love and understanding.

And probably a bourbon on the rocks to make him GLAP-ful.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Late Morning Adoration/Lunch

When you don't get your act together until almost 4:00, you have to hit it hard.

Art and lunch made up the game plan.

I'd been eager to see the VMFA's "Domestic, Wild, Divine: Artists Look at Animals," so I grabbed a fellow art lover and made it to the museum exactly one hour before close.

Tucked away in a gallery back behind the marble hall, the show turned out to be a fascinating look at practically every collection in the museum.

Everything was from the museum's collections, but the sources were myriad: African, Asian, American, European, contemporary, ancient and everything in between.

I'll tell you what. If a visitor had only a short time to spend at the VMFA, this show would provide a splendid overview of the breadth of the collection.

And while every piece had some tie to the animal kingdom, some grabbed me for other reasons.

Like the page from an Indian text, "Todi Ragini," of a young woman with deer surrounding her.

The page represented a melody which expressed a delightful adoration meant to be performed in the late morning.

Maybe I was so taken with it because I like nothing better than to be delightfully adored in the late morning.

A ceramic tiger pillow, apparently a popular luxury item in 12th century China, caught my eye because I learned that tigers are a symbol of yin which is associated with darkness and rest.

Had I known this about yin? I had not.

I wish I'd seen Don Nice's huge "American Totem/Cornucopia" back in 1981 when it was first created because it must have seemed radical at the time with its Della Robbia like ring of pop art vegetables.

There was the mid-15th century Tibetan piece with the Lord of Death embracing Diamond Zombie.

It wouldn't have looked out of place on the cover of a metal album.

Fred Tomaselli's large-scale "Woodpecker" from 2005 was engagingly psychedelic (or is that just my past showing?) with its elaborate patterns and the pecker's bill made entirely of collaged beak images.

The show was hung wonderfully, with works of any given animal hung together for comparison's sake.

The only change I'd have made was with Joseph Raffael's fish painting, a view of fish in a pond from above (or even below).

The large painting belonged on the ceiling or the floor (perhaps under glass), the better to view it from the angle intended.

It's a stellar show and since it's up until next summer, I'll be the nag telling all my friends to check it out for an easy and insightful look at the VMFA's collections.

If they don't listen to me, the loss is theirs.

Afterwards, we made for the exit as guards warned us they'd be closing in five minutes.

Ignoring them, we stopped to check out the mini show of six Hogarth prints in the series "Marriage a la Mode," about the pitfalls of marrying for anything but love.

The detailed prints were Hogarth at his best with dozens of small details in each scene to further carry the story of the philandering husband, bored wife and flirtatious lawyer.

By the last one, the wife had taken poison, her child was kissing her goodbye and the venereal disease-ridden husband was acting like the offended party.

Have we learned our lesson here, people?

From bad marriages to the Boulevard, we walked up the street to Fat Dragon, hoping to slide in before the masses did.

And we did, but just barely.

Arriving just after 5:00, we scored two bar stools just before the crush of incoming humanity arrived.

The couple who slid in next to us, taking the last two seats, said it was their second time there.

Good indicator.

What did I like? The upside down woks as hanging lights. That happy hour went until 7 p.m. on a Saturday. The sexy bathroom with its wooden basin.

The music, which began as innocuous club-style music and eventually settled into something more indie.

What didn't I like? The massive screen killing the vibe at the bar (and set to the news on a Saturday evening? Please!).

The emphasis on beer (a much bigger beer list than wine, a bigger savings on beer during happy hour than wine, flights of beer but not wine) with an array of taps almost as long as I am tall.

So it's a beer place and I'm not a beer type. That's fine.

The menu did claim, "Sex is always on tap at the Fat Dragon" so I had to ask.

So I had to sample Sex Brut Rose from Michigan (!), which the barkeep said was wildly popular, but its soft fruitiness wasn't really my style.

On to the food.

Chili dumplings of shrimp and pork came in a pool of Szechuan pepper sauce that challenged my chopsticks but had nice heat.

When the Chinese BBQ baby back ribs arrived stacked atop one another, one of the bartenders spotted them and smiled broadly at us.

"Nice choice!" he said, giving us a verbal thumbs up for our selection.

The ribs came in the chef's housemade barbecue sauce, smoky and with a sweetness my companion read as almost chocolate-like.

Meanwhile, the crush of people arriving was mind-boggling. By 6:10 there was an hour wait.

Lots of beer lovers, I had to guess.

Next we tried shrimp and bacon lo mein, a concession to my fellow eater since I'm not really a pasta type.

Fresh tasting, the surprise here was twofold: way more shrimp than we'd expected and almost no bacon.

Correction: two bits of bacon in the entire dish.

Since the appeal of the dish had been the bacon (shrimp lo mein being fairly common), that was a bit disappointing.

Still, we inhaled it all, so clearly we got over the missing pig.

By that time, the throngs behind us were breathing down our necks anticipating us vacating our bar stools, so we gave the people what they wanted.

Walking back down Boulevard, we marveled at Fat Dragon's rabid Saturday evening (because it was barely even night yet) business (and busy-ness), trying to decide when we'd be back.

And I know exactly when it'll be: late.

I love that they're doing a late night menu until 12 during the week and 1 on the weekend.

Many's the time I have lamented the lack of late night kitchens still open, especially for after a play or early music show.

Thanks, Fat Dragon, for helping Richmond inch that much closer to a real city where you don't have to eat by 10 or even 11:00.

With our savory needs more than met, the last stop on our evening lunch tour was Shyndigz, which was surprisingly mobbed considering how early it was (7ish).

Spotted cow cake (chocolate with cream cheese frosting) got the nod and while it's not going to displace their signature chocolate caramel sea salt cake any time soon, it was a tasty (and enormous) hunk of sweetness to finish off our palates.

Now, properly cultured and fed, let's have a Saturday night, shall we?