Saturday, May 31, 2014

And the Living is Easy

For the record, I will leave the city for a meal on a screened porch.

Although I don't often head to the counties to eat, that's exactly what I did when a friend suggested Charles City tavern for dinner tonight.

Out Route 5 we drove on this beautiful evening, the Kinks blaring while discussing the Post's recent series on LBJ, past Curles Neck Farm and Shirley Plantation, past manicured fields and through tunnels of trees that felt as enveloping as the farmlands felt wide open.

I wasn't surprised when we got to the tavern to roll into a full parking lot. We couldn't have been the only ones lured east by a road trip or west by a southern meal. For that matter, I couldn't be the only Gemini still managing to celebrate her birthday eight days after the fact.

Or am I?

The garden around the porches was ablaze with plump flowering bushes covered in red blooms and purple irises just a tad past their prime.

Walking up the porch steps, a fat, gray cat on the top step looked us over and gave us a nod of approval. In we went.

We waited just inside the door to be seated but both servers were hectically running around, so it took a few minutes before one smiled and told us to follow him.

Since our decision to eat there had been a last minute one, there were no tables free on the porch so we settled for a table by a window in the tavern side, leaving the dining room to a far more circumspect looking crowd.

I knew we'd made the right choice as I sat down and a woman at the next table smiled and said hello to me. It was a small room, so we might as well make friends.

The music was pure '70s- Pablo Cruise, Starland Vocal Band - not necessarily a bad thing given the crowd.

After listening to the specials, I chose one to start, an asparagus and wild mushroom soup with lumps of crab meat, to be followed by a crab cake with corn and ham ragout.

"Wow, it's a crab kind of night, isn't it?" our server grinned after hearing my order. When you grow up in Maryland, any night (or day) is good for crabs, my friend.

Asparagus essence imbued every mouthful of the creamy green soup full of nicely sized chunks of crab while my friend was bowled over with the sheer size of his fried oyster appetizer.

You know how men can be about size. Was your fish really that big?

The ragout of ham and corn played the sweet/salty game beautifully, winning out over the crab cakes, but I can be picky about them. In my family, they're not much more than lumps held together with the most minimal binder before enjoying a buttery saute and these were breaded and fried, not really my style.

My friend's shrimp and grits got major points for the Byrd's Mill grits, not just because they're local but because they're so good. Fried okra nuggets less so.

As we were chowing down, we got off on a history tangent when my friend said he'd decided he needed to read a good biography of George Washington.

Coincidentally, when I'd been at the John Marshall House, I'd learned that Marshall had written a five-volume bio of George that's still in print. A week ago, I wouldn't have known that, but tonight was a different story.

Come on, what could be better than a bio written by someone who knew the guy when he was alive?

Just as we were moving on to the topic of Thomas Jefferson's reversal of position on the importance of a U.S. Navy, our server came to talk to us about dessert.

I didn't want to consider dessert unless it was on the porch, and he was more than happy to clean off a recently vacated table so we could enjoy our last course almost al fresco.

It was dusk by then and our view was of shrubs and the field beyond, a lovely view with the road curving out of sight and into nothingness.

We settled back into our chairs under ceiling fans and listened to the dessert choices, inevitably choosing a Ghiradelli brownie sundae with espresso ice cream simply because it was chocolate, not the most creative dessert we would have hoped for, but elevated considerably by the setting.

It was there that we lingered as the sky went dramatically red-streaked while I heard about the bunnies that have taken up residence in his yard and how he's decided to rearrange his many bookshelves by putting similar topics together, a project I accomplished years ago.

There's just something about sitting on a screened porch at night that slows a person down to where even the most innocuous topics are fodder for lazy conversation.

We eventually left but only because they were close to closing. The fat cat on the front porch barely looked up as we stepped over him.

You'll be back, he seemed to shrug. I don't know why not, thought the city girl.

More Than a Woman

Being lazy for tonight. A seven hour belated birthday celebration with old friends gets seven paragraphs.

Art: A docent-led highlights tour at the VMFA begins with the golden hare but is most enjoyable when admiring Gaston Lachaise's "Standing Woman." There's something about an artistic young man doing everything he can to prove to a decade-older woman that he is worthy (including casting her in bronze). It only takes her 10 years and letting him depict her voluptuous body nude to convince her he's worth bothering with. Marriage and sculpture ensue.

Favorite story about this sculpture? Years ago I was at the museum's Jumpin' in July and a woman walked up to me and gestured at "Standing Woman," saying apropos of nothing, "You, me and her, the best bodies here." Ah, but someone immortalized hers, so she wins.

New restaurant: Main Street's newest, Brux'l Cafe, has every table but one reserved (we luckily get it) and a full bar. While I applaud (and order) the recent catch, lobster in garlic butter, the place is too busy for its own good, meaning the servers are more than a bit challenged at keeping up. Given all the great things I've heard about Belle Vie, their last place, I expect it's more that they've just opened this location and are undoubtedly still figuring things out.

Two large croquettes de fromages are stellar, oozing with flavor and textural contrast. Ordering Patron on the rocks costs an extra dollar for the ice? Unacceptable. Not a single bottle of sparkling on the wine list? Hello? Bila Haut Rose helps assuage the absence of bubbles. Music? Lost in the din. Giant screen? Annoying. Bright lights? No ambiance. I've never been to Brussels, but surely it's a lot more fun. My guess is they're still working things out and bumps will be smoothed out in time. A Belgian cafe is a terrific addition to the strip.

The stories: My friends are recently back from Newport and Boston and have scads of tales to tell. Hot dogs and a kite festival in Newport, the charm and dimness of the Isabella Stewart Gardener museum and the best clam chowder they've ever eaten. A colonial wedding and brass band on the beach. It all sounds fabulous.

Dessert: A line out the door and down the block at Shyndigz turns off my friends and we move on. We decide to improvise dessert instead.

House party: DB sparkling brut, dessert partially courtesy of the birthday girl who makes a colossal mess ("Oh, Karen...," the homeowner moans when he sees), Clapton's "Crossroads" for tonight's music history lesson and the big finale: the album that got the former disco babes dancing, albeit not in their platform shoes. Disco thrills some while others sit it out. Not me.

I should be dancing and am. Nobody gets too much heaven in one night. Or do they?

Friday, May 30, 2014

This Old House

Oh, the meandering tangents I can take.

After spending last evening at John Marshall's house, it seemed only fitting to visit his grave site this morning.

Besides, it had been weeks since I'd tended the graves of my charges, Henrietta and Daniel. Walking down Fourth Street to the cemeteries, I had a funeral procession to my right and banks of honeysuckle to the left. Both somehow seemed fitting.

At the Hebrew cemetery, I checked on Henrietta's small, pink painted stone to make sure last week's storm hadn't dislodged it. It was still tucked into the curve of her headstone, as faithful as she apparently was.

I became devoted to Henrietta when I saw that her stone referred to her as "consort," which I mistakenly assumed meant "other woman," but have since been informed by the Shockoe Hill Cemetery folks can mean wife.

Over at Shockoe, I found five of the six pebbles I'd placed on Daniel Norton's grave site still there but one was missing and nowhere in sight. I went to my pebble source corner and found a worthy replacement for the man who discovered Virginia's indigenous grape.

Tending duties completed, I went off to follow my tangent: finding John Marshall's burial place. It took a while because I'm directionally challenged (even after looking at the map twice) but there are worse ways to spend a morning than traipsing around a graveyard, so I didn't mind.

I somehow missed the enormous tree with a plaque on the side of it saying "John Marshall section" but finally found what I was looking for, fenced in with a small iron railing.

No surprise, there was his adored wife Polly's tomb right next to his, so I unlatched the little gate and went inside to pay my respects only hours after walking though the rooms of their house.

It appeared that no one has adopted the lovebirds because there were no pebbles of remembrance on either tomb. I headed right back to my pebble stash and found a fine, big stone that seemed suitable for the man who dominated the Supreme Court for over three decades and laid it on his tomb.

But I couldn't very well ignore the love of his life who fancied beautiful things, so I found a purple pansy for Polly's tomb, appropriate, I thought, for the uptown girl who'd won the heart of the rough and tumble Fauquier County boy.

I seemed to be the only person at the Marshalls' house last night who was paying their respects this morning.

Walking back a different way than I came, the vacant lots were abloom with blue cornflowers, white Queen Anne's Lace and purple clover, a color scheme chosen by nature and one of my favorites.

At the edge of one of the lots, I spotted a small green plaque I'd never noticed before, despite having walked this way dozens of times.

"Bray's gambrel-roofed cottage 1790, owned by Edgar Allen Poe's foster father," it read. A post-Revolutionary War house practically in my neighborhood? How had I missed that?

And here's where yet another tangent comes in. 1790 was the year John Marshall built his house. Overnight, I'm all about 224 year old houses.

Being the nerd that I am, I came right home and did my research, finding not only a history of the house ("very attractively located at the entrance to Shockoe Cemetery," preservationist Mary Wingfield Scott wrote) but an old picture of the wooden house with the familiar cemetery brick walls and enormous trees looking much like the ones still there behind it.

I read that the wooden house sold for $30 and the bricks for $76 in 1875 and the author had no clue if it had been rebuilt somewhere else.

Now it's just a lot covered in wildflowers a mere mile from the still-elegant Marshall house.

Next time someone asks me why I live where I do, I'm just going to take them on my 1790 house tour and let them see for themselves.

Guts on the Menu

So that was me sipping wine in the cellar of the most important man who was never President.

The John Marshall house was hosting their summer salon and while it hardly felt like summer today, I walk by that house at least once a week so I was intrigued with the idea of being inside.

The enormous magnolia tree in the front yard was in bloom as I checked in on the front porch and walked through the doorway of the longest-serving Chief Justice.

Guides in the rooms shared their wealth of knowledge with us, like the fact that the portrait hanging over the mantle in the front room showed Marshall at 78. Frankly, he didn't look a day over 60 in the painting.

Off the back passage was Marshall's butler Robin's base of operations and our guide told us Robin was responsible for sanding the rough, country boy edges off Marshall.

Seems on one of his trips to Raleigh to hear court, he arrived only to realize he'd forgotten to pack pants. The ones he'd worn on the ride down were too dirty and smelly to wear, he wrote to his beloved wife Polly in a letter, so he'd gone to court with just his judicial robe over his loins.

That's right, John Marshall went commando in court. They should teach fun facts like that in school and kids would be way more into history.

Many of the house's flourishes were done for the benefit of Polly, an upper crust girl Marshall fell hard for early. Meaning he was doodling his name and hers in the margins of his law books when he was at William & Mary.

I'm quite sure my name has never been doodled anywhere.

Downstairs in the cellar/gift shop, I looked at a notebook of old photographs of the house, including those from the period when John Marshall high school was built completely around Marshall's house, something I hadn't known.

The school was built within inches of the home on three sides, almost engulfing it, meaning they knocked down outbuildings like the kitchen and smokehouse, a real shame.

Down there were wine and appetizers and people mingling, but I was more interested in the dugout area that houses barrels (wine? ale?) as it must have in his day.

The garden out back was charming, a cottage mixture of flowers and herbs, and looking particularly lush on a misty evening. It wasn't hard to imagine Polly and John sitting out there at night enjoying the air together.

I was asked on the way out if I worked in the neighborhood and made sure they knew that I was a proud J-Ward resident, mere blocks away from all that history. I might have even mentioned living in an 1876 house, not that it compares to Mr. Marshall's 1790 gem.

My inner history nerd happy, my hired mouth and I hurriedly went to dinner so I could make a late movie date with Pru.

First we spent time at her place where she gave me a mini technology lesson and then we set out for Movieland in the mist.

Showing tonight was "Chef" and what food-loving restaurant regular wouldn't be curious about a film focusing on a larger than life chef who refuses to cede creative control to an owner who expects him to serve molten chocolate lava cake?

As any foodie can tell you, that's emasculation of the highest order.

What I liked about the movie was that it was part travelogue with postcard-worthy scenes set in Miami, New Orleans and Austin. Scenes of prep and cooking, shot from every angle, were food porn of the highest order.

Music was practically a character in the film, including a scene of Gary Clark, Jr. playing live and a sensational cover of (and singalong to) "Sexual Healing" by the Hot 8 Brass Band.

Being the Luddite that I am, I also got a major kick out of a chef who did not use Twitter until his kid taught him how.

There was even the realism of cleaning a kitchen, hardly sexy but oh-so realistic.

And perhaps most importantly of all, the chef, played by director Jon Favreau, looked like a chef, not like a chiseled, buff actor. Because let's face it, who trusts a skinny chef?

Granted there were some moments of pure movie ridiculousness. Am I really supposed to believe that an owner could be so obtuse as to insist on serving the exact same meal to a critic who had panned the same food the night before?

Or that a blogger turned food critic could sell his website and make enough money to finance a restaurant in Miami?

But those are quibbles and for the most part, the film was about regaining your passion for what you do.

And the moral was as obvious as the nose on my face, something I have been told by more than one chef over the years.

There is nothing quite like a good sandwich. Ask anyone who has his own knives.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

As You Like It

My evening was glaringly devoid of culture.

Sure, I could have gone to hear haiku, could have gone to see a silent movie or even an anniversary show. All those things were on my calendar as possibilities.

Instead, I got home from an afternoon of indulgence with a girlfriend to find an invitation for a dinner date and promptly said yes. So much for feeding my mind and soul tonight.

Even so, I'm not quite as hedonistic as a fellow Gemini who bragged, "I've been 44 for exactly 12 hours and 20 minutes and we've put down five bottles of wine and a pound of shrimp."

So it was with a clear conscience that my date and I headed out just as the pre-rain wind began kicking up, sending bits of paper in the recycling bins sailing through the air.

We landed at Bistro 27 before the first drop fell and joined a group of guys at the bar where we had a fine view of the street and any incoming precipitation. Summer weather makes such a good show.

A bottle of sparkling Vouvray helped assuage any lingering guilt about selling out culture for mere food while the trio next to us provided entertainment with endless chatter about their favorite movies.

One guy began describing the scariest movie he'd ever seen, only to have no idea what the title was. Finally, he gave up trying to use his brain and called his wife, keeping it short and simple. "Hey, what's that scary movie we just watched? Okay, thanks."

After abruptly hanging up on her, he turned to his buddies and announced, "'The Conjuring. Scary as hell."

Why waste time talking to your beloved when you could be discussing Alec Baldwin versus Harrison Ford in Tom Clancy movies?

For dinner, I started with one of tonight's specials, a lobster, corn, red onion, potato, Chorizo and crab soup with a burst of micro-greens on top, my second soup of the day and a beaut.

It may be hot outside, but when the soup's this good, I'll happily eat it and a bite of my date's lamb and pork house pate, full of olives and made even better with a swipe of preserved lemon thyme yogurt.

Announced by the flag outside suddenly flying horizontally, the rain finally arrived and people without umbrellas went scurrying by the window in search of shelter.

The guy next to me soon shifted into bender mode and began ordering his drinks with the cheapest bourbon they had and "as much as you're allowed to give me." Not a good sign.

Turns out he lived upstairs, so at least getting home wasn't a problem, and he described his very cool studio apartment as having 20' ceilings. I couldn't decide if that was an exaggeration.

For dinner, I chose crab salad with corn, pickled red onions, avocado, baby arugula and spinach in an avocado/buttermilk dressing. Yes, it shared a few ingredients with my soup and yes, it was perfectly delicious, light and fresh-tasting.

After four or five bourbons, bender boy asked the barkeep if they had any Malbec. Affirmative and he moved on to two glasses of that.

As he's sipping, he's telling his bud about the tiny Puerto Rican girl he's dating and how adorable she is because since he keeps his apartment at 65 degrees, she gets chilly and sits with a pillow on her lap to stay warm.

She was also adorable, he said, because she doesn't drink, which made me wonder how compatible they were given his ability to throw them back.

Mostly, though, they talked movies and drinker guy had a frame of reference for every movie he'd ever seen - where he saw it, what sport he was playing at the time, what grade he was in.

By the time we finished our meal, he was on to Calvados, assuring his friend that it was what men drank after they landed on the beaches of Normandy. As if he knew that.

His friend, an older guy who admitted that his life was dull, shared how he'd saved $9,000 toward a fund for his 14-year old daughter's first car, but admitted that he hadn't saved the first dime for her college education. Meanwhile, she'd been nagging him to borrow from the fund to finance thousand dollar concert tickets, something he couldn't understand but had acquiesced to anyway.

"No band is worth that," he told the friend. No parent should be foolish enough to give it to her, I wanted to say. Who's the adult here anyway?

By the time he said goodnight to go home to the wife and family, bourbon boy had moved on to beer and we were just waiting for him to fall off his bar stool or the rain to stop, whichever came first.

Our conversation- about early morning shopping, building things and the upcoming GWAR bar in Jackson Ward - paled in comparison to the hours of mindless guy talk beside us.

Perhaps it was my comeuppance for spending my evening with nothing more cultural than the yogurt on my date's plate.

Note to self: take a double serving of culture tomorrow night so as to feel better about my lapse.

Indulgence bender over.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Buoyant and Deep

Geminis just want to have fun.

My birthday may be officially over, but my friend's doesn't arrive until tomorrow, meaning today was celebration day for both of us.

When I picked her up at noon, I asked her husband when I needed to have her back. The last time I'd asked, he'd replied "sunrise." Much had happened since then, but I figured we had, at the very least, the shank of the afternoon to fete ourselves.

First stop: Amuse where we found seats at the bar in a dining room crowded with tables of people digging in and chatting. If you ever want to take the pulse of RVA's lunch scene, this is the place to do it.

Because it was a mutual birthday celebration, we began with Montand sparkling brut rose and a toast to our annual celebration, an afternoon of debauchery and discourse.

Our server, in the cutest black fringed skirt (which I may need to track down at H & M), assessed the situation and backed off since it was obvious we had lots to discuss before we could even look at the menu.

The stories! The pictures! The drunken videos! There was so much I needed to see and hear about.

First up was exchanging cards and gifts and while her gift to me blew me away (kicking and screaming into the 21st century), it is always words that mean the most to me.

You are still hands down the best conversationalist in the whole damn city.

So, yes, I would still marry her if she were a guy.

Eventually we got salads of local greens, candied pecans, radishes and fig vinaigrette, savoring how delicious and distinct the variety of lettuces were, tasting like Spring in every bite.

Why do some chefs drown their beautiful greens in dressing when the taste is so delightful on its own? Why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near?

Over white bean and sausage soup, mussels and sausage in white wine and garlic broth and fries (always fries), not to mention more pink bubbles, we covered it all. The Italian chef recently returned. People who don't respond to babies. Lazy people who claim to be ambitious. The new Shockoe Bottom. Why New Orleans is calling to us both. The third place.

I may not be the best damn conversationalist but I can talk ad infinitum and at some point we looked up and realized multiple hours had flown by without us even noticing.

It was time for dessert and more pink, but we needed a change of scenery.

While I may get to the museum with alarming regularity, my friend doesn't, so we walked the Art Nouveau and Art Deco galleries after lunch, she taking in the sculpture of a snake attacking a swan and both of us marveling at the fluidly designed furniture that would take up our entire bedrooms.

But at least there was some culture between the debauching.

From there we went to Can Can, easily sliding into a street parking space close to the nearly full patio. Don't these people have jobs?

I was pleasantly surprised to find the front windows wide open despite the 90+ degree heat as we installed ourselves at the bar.

Multiple bearded servers pounced on us, eager to slake our thirsts and try to tickle our fancy with dessert menus.

Gemini birthday celebrations almost demand pink, so we chose Guilhem Rose, a pale salmon color and tasting fresh as a summer day.

We narrowed our dessert choice to three ice creams - orange caramel, chocolate and vanilla- over shortbread crumbs for textural contrast, a fine choice on a sticky, hot day.

To commemorate the occasion, Friend took a photograph of us, immediately proclaiming that she looked drunk in the picture.

I didn't see it, honestly, but as soon as she posted it to Instagram, her husband commented, "Getting drunk?" so perhaps my wine goggles were already on.

But why shouldn't they be? This is the friend who essentially taught me to drink, with whom I have spent many an evening sipping and discussing our lives and loves.

She is convinced that we are responsible for keeping Broadbent Vinho Verde in business and based on many past summers, she's probably not far off.

Geminis may be many things - open minded, enthusiastic, witty - but you've got no chance getting close to one of us unless you love to talk.

Together, we happily plumb everything that comes into our heads. Sometimes there are pictures to prove it.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Photographs That Haven't Happened

Let me tell you two things that'll get people out on a Tuesday evening: poetry and piano.

I know this because when I got to the Library of Virginia for tonight's installment of Poetic Principles, the room was buzzing with people there for the reading and it's not even poetry month.

Interestingly enough, one of the three readers, Paula Champa, was a fiction writer who shared two sections of her new novel, "The Afterlife of Emerson Tang," the story of four strangers trying to reunite a car's body and engine.

She was humorous, noting that generally writers are not advised to kill off main characters but doing it anyway.

"Our stories collided so forcefully they could not be separated," she read referring to the narrator and Emerson and using the kind of language that had many of the writers in the room nodding in approval of her phrasing.

Emilia Phillips read next and immediately apologized for reading off her laptop, explaining that she had a lot of new work but is in the process of moving back to Richmond, so the easiest way to access the work was digitally.

I have to admit, it doesn't have the same charm as reading from a dog-eared copy of a book or rifling through sheaves of paper, but the important thing was that we got to hear new stuff from her upcoming book, "Ground Speed," comprised, she said of essays and poems or some hybrid of both.

Promising that we might recognize some Richmond landmarks in the numbered essay,"No Man's Land," it was only moments before the intersection of North Lombardy and Brook Road was mentioned.

That's a particularly recognizable landmark for me because it's the Budget Inn there that is the turnaround point for one of my regular walks, although she referenced "bodies wheeled out of the Budget Inn" and I can't say I've ever seen that.

"A quarter plinks into the jukebox of my heart." she read in one especially well-turned phrase.

She told of being a child of four and a Baptist minister asking if she were to die today, would she go to heaven or hell. "My Mom doesn't let me go places like that by myself," she read.

Favorite line: "We're always leaving language, our most transient dwelling."

I've heard Emilia read before and I'll undoubtedly hear her again because of her pithy observations about the world and her place in it.

Our final reader was Joshua Poteat and right off the bat, he admitted he was not good at preparing, so he liked to bring a lot of poetry and a stopwatch and "hope I stop at the right moment."

But you can't sop till you start and he began with "Nostalgia of the Finite," a poem he'd written in graduate school back in the dark ages of the '90s. Wasn't that right after Guttenberg invented the printing press?

He read from an eBay copy of one of his books which he'd bought used from the Daniel Boone Library and entreated us not to support the Daniel Boone Library.

Admitting that he'd intended to read some happy poems until he realized he really didn't have any, instead he read "Death of the Death of Youth," with the beautiful line, "The noise of time is not sad."

For a long time, he said he'd avoided telling the truth in his poetry but now that it felt to him that his neighborhood of Church Hill was losing its authentic feeling - "Instead of hearing gunshots, you see chicken wings from the Roosevelt," he lamented- he was more inclined to be brutally honest.

That had led to "Department of Aerial Photography," also known as "Death Map," an interactive project that showed a map of the area where he grew up and when you clicked on a location, his words came up.

"Every photograph is a disaster that's already happened," he read. So true.

"Letter to Gabriel Written in the Margins of Murder Ballads" was a very long piece that paid tribute to Gabriel Prosser, the woman in his neighborhood who lived in her Oldsmobile on Leigh Street and Woo Woo, the neighborhood prostitute, in a a winding, storytelling manner.

Best line: "When the highways came, the houses didn't know enough to be afraid."

His stopwatch must have told him it was the right moment because all at once, he announced, "That's all!" and the reading ended. How beautifully poetic is that?

Next up was the sundown concert series so I made my way to a favorite pocket park for music in the grass. The series began last year and I'd enjoyed many summer evenings listening to music while the sun set.

See, that's key. The shows always begin 15 minutes before sundown, meaning a different start time every week and way different in May than September.

With a few scattered raindrops falling, I arrived to find the poet lounging with some friends, so after giving her a proper hard time for not attending the reading I'd just come from, we moved over to the enclosed grassy park.

I found a bench with a good vantage point and she joined some friends on a blanket. That was the preferred mode of concert watching tonight - stretched out on colorful blankets around the park- and I saw lots of familiar faces playing park blanket bingo with pizza, wine and other delectables.

At the front of the park sat the unlikeliest of sights, an upright piano under a tree. Before long, I noticed organizer Patrick lighting a candle to put on top of the piano.

Now the mood was set.

Chrijs Dowjhan, tonight's pianist, is a multi-talented man. He's a baker and cook, a teacher and hiker, fluent in Italian and seasoned with summers working at Italian vineyards. Plus he's an all around nice guy.

"I'm not really prepared tonight. I love Patrick," he said of the man who'd asked him to play. "Patrick is reliably unreliable, so when he asked me to play, I said sure, when you get a piano in the park, I'll play. I never really thought he would."

Then Chrijs sat down under the tree, in front of the piano, to play original music and adaptations he'd been working on the past few years.

I'd seen Chrijs play at the Listening Room last March and that had been my first clue what he could do with the ivories.

As he began playing, a gentle breeze picked up and before long, the enormous wind chimes hanging nearby began adding their distinct sound to Chrijs' dynamic one.

As he played, the crowd sat rapt and newcomers continued to arrive and find a place just outside the grassy area or among the other yard sitters. No one was talking, just listening.

"I'm not that prolific," he said after huge applause. "So I only have a few more songs. This next song I love to close my eyes and go some place else."

If the composer can, why not the audience, so I closed my eyes and allowed his playing to take me to another place.

When the audience began clapping enthusiastically, a neighborhood dog joined in, barking along with the applause.

The last piece of the night came with a story about how it came to be. Chrijs was in Italy, waiting for the farmer to come back and killing time with a Russian also staying there.

The Russian began writing poetry, Chrijs the music and while copious amounts of estate wine were consumed every night, they brought forth an exquisite composition we got to hear under a darkening sky tonight.

Interestingly enough, he stopped at one point, unsure of the music, before restarting. "What's up with you guys? You're making me nervous," he said, uncharacteristically flustered.

He had to be over-thinking it. So he let his mind go and his fingers took over the thinking and the piece was finished to hollers and a long round of applause.

He took a bow and Patrick sent us on our way with a mission.

"This isn't about me, it's about you guys, it's about all of us! Tell your friends about this series," Patrick called out. "Be ambassadors for what we're doing here. It's every Tuesday night until it's too cold to be out here anymore."

There's so much summer ahead of us. It's enough to make you want to just close your eyes and listen to the poetry and the music until it's the right moment to stop.

No over-thinking allowed in the meantime.

Raise the Flag

Memorial Day to-do list.

Accept an invitation to the country for a day of doing nothing.

Take a walk through the woods and down to the stream, enjoying the coolness of the shade the further in we go.

Set the day's tone with screened porch music blasting serious soul: first Pandora set to Marvin Gay and then, six hours later, updated to Luther Vandross. R & B is meant for a hot afternoon.

Begin the holiday celebration with a bottle of Laurent Perrier Brut and a toast to more Memorial days. Follow with hours of music discussion, research and wonderment. The band America was formed in London? Get the hell out!

Eat like you're an American: burgers grilled over charcoal with fries cooked outside. Even the one who says he's not a ketchup person dips these fries in it. Maybe it's how well they pair with the Russian River Valley Pinot Noir we're drinking.

Set up a croquet court, toss the coin and play two games of a lawn sport I haven't played since junior high. While I won both coin tosses, I lost both games. Don't tell my father, but I am no better now than I was then.

Retire to the porch to wait out the remaining daylight in anticipation of the massive firefly display that begins just after dusk this time of year.

Watch for hours as hundreds of fireflies sparkle and dance mid-air brightly against the backdrop of a row of darkened trees that encircle the property. I have never seen so many concentrated in one place at one time. It's like nature's fireworks sans noise.

Take advantage of the '80s R & B playing with occasional slow dancing before returning to the cocoons of the chairs.

Indulge in the unique pleasures of an old favorite experienced in a new way. Musical evening closer: Neil Finn's lush brand new album, "Dizzy Heights." Pop psychedelia grandeur and goodnight.

Nailed this holiday.

Farewell and Congrats

Sunday was party day and I'm not talking birthday.

The first was a surprise party for my food editor who has decided to chuck the cut throat world of food writing and focus on enjoying herself splitting her time between the east and west coasts.

Needless to say, I am pea green with envy while at the same time thrilled for her (she so deserves it) and her adventure.

A host of food writers, editors, restaurateurs, wine reps and food-related types gathered at the Roosevelt, food and wine in hand, for a potluck with the early evening sun streaming through the big front windows.

Once her husband and friends had connived to deliver her at the appointed time, the party could begin. Like a radiant, just-wed bride, her first obligation was making the rounds of the room to greet everyone, a receiving lines of sorts.

That allowed everyone else to dig into the feast spread down the middle of the room, equal parts homemade and purchased from restaurants and stores because, when it comes down to it, the last thing some restaurant people want to do on their day off is cook.

Then there are lazy writers who just bring deviled eggs with bacon stuck on top and call it a day.

I ate plenty of Olli and way more than my share of Fritos and guacamole, along with caramelized onion bread pudding, barbecue and Mekong's crispy spring rolls.

It's always a blast being around food people away from their work because they're just happy to be around so many of their kind. Conversation ranged from last week's mega-storm to children to the definition of Asian food, with a whole lot of drunken blather throughout.

The guest of honor gave a heartfelt speech about how Richmond's food scene has changed over the years she's been a part of it, but the fact is, she's been the class act in food writing in this town since before some people knew what head cheese was. I, for one, will miss her guidance and input terribly.

Desserts were abundant with a beautiful gluten free cake from WPA Bakery and a couple of ridiculously tall Shyndigz cakes, including my childhood birthday cake, chocolate cake with white icing, meaning I could pretend it had been chosen especially for me.

I would have liked to have stayed at the party all night - there's nothing like talking to tipsy foodies- but I also had an anniversary party to make in Carytown.

Amour Wine Bistro was celebrating its fourth anniversary and I walked in to find a drapery blocking the dining room from the front door, always a good sign.

A bit further in, I saw a favorite server sitting in a chair, steering wheel in hand, in front of a screen pretending to be some kind of race car driver and clearly having a blast.

I kept going towards the music where I found a karaoke session in progress, multiple people with microphones in hand.

The standout was one of the kitchen guys who not only had a good voice but no shame about playing to the crowd, even losing his glasses once as he slid to a dramatic stance on his knees at his girlfriend's feet.

It took only moments to see where I fit into this equation. I got a glass of Valcombe Rose, a slice of pepperoni pizza and took the karaoke song listing in hand so I could request the kind of songs that would turn this to-do into a raucous singalong.

The Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love" got things off to a fine start, despite the fact that almost no one singing was alive during the Supremes' reign. That was followed by Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour" and Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive." Oldies but goodies.

One of the high points came when owner Paul sang "Comme d'Habitude," also known as "My Way" in French.

Did I mention there was a smoke machine that would occasionally envelop us in mood-enhancing atmospherics when the crowd really got singing?

Welcome to Carytown's only French disco, now officially four years old and Richmond the better off for its charming take on the pairing of supping and sipping.

As birthday weekend closers go, a going away party and anniversary party were petty stellar ways to keep the fun going, even if had nothing to do with me.

Fact is, if there's pig, cake and Rose, it has everything to do with me.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Here We Go

I hate when marriage gets in the way of music.

Arriving at Balliceaux for the Oumar Konate show, eager show goers such as me were delayed by a wedding party still occupying the back room.

Once it became clear they were camping out, they let us back there to mingle until the band started. The only downside to that was that they were an annoying and shrill bunch drunk enough to repeatedly knock into the growing crowd of music lovers.

I saw a few familiar faces - the pony-tailed jazz guitarist, the world music DJ and his artist wife, the scientist, the feminist, the Turkish singer and her date - among the crowd.

The photography gallery owner was there and said he'd recently seen me out and spoken, but I hadn't responded to his hello. Turns out it wasn't me, so I felt much better about ignoring him.

The show had been advertised as a band from Mali playing jazz, funk and rock but I heard from a guy who'd seen them sound-check and he said they were mostly funky, with some amazing acoustic guitar and killer drums that required special mic'ing.

Oumar Konate took the stage alone around 10:45, with only his electric guitar and began playing intricate and dynamic music that immediately stopped half the people in the room from talking.

After a bit, he was joined onstage by the other two musicians, one of whom played a five string bass and the other drums.

But what a drum he began with! It appeared to be a gourd set on a blanket resting in a crate and he proceeded to hold shaker balls in his hand and fist the gourd like a drum to elicit rhythmic sounds.

Oumar spoke in French and a little English and sang in what I'm guessing was the native language of Mali pre-French, which only made the songs better since we couldn't understand them, instead focusing on the intricate music.

Once they'd shown us how impressive they were like that, they switched it up and the drummer moved to a full drum kit and Oumar switched to an electric guitar.

Half way through the first song, I turned to the guitarist friend who'd unexpectedly shown up and said that it sounded like 1968.

"It's like what Hendrix would have sounded like if he'd grown up on a remote island," he said, noting the pentatonic scale.

Whatever. To me, they now sounded like a late '60s British band aping American bluesmen, with intricate and ridiculously fast guitar parts and lyrics I couldn't understand.

By the end of the first high-powered song, the drummer had shed his shirt and was glistening with sweat.

Part of what made them so compelling was Oumar's infectious energy and that all three of them smiled for almost all the time they were playing, as if tickled to be doing this for us.

Before the next song, Oumar looked out at the crowd and instructed, "Danser!" Mostly, people swayed or bopped in place while some of the annoying wedding people continued to shout at each other in the back.

I loved the way the bassist and Oumar eventually got into a lock step, Motown-like, dancing in place themselves.

Late in the set, the drummer took off on a solo that was knocking everyone's socks off and people began throwing wadded up money at him as he wailed on the drums.

When he began to slow down, Oumar looked at us and said, "Il ne pas fini!" and the drummer grabbed a small, African drum, slung it over his shoulder and began hitting it with a mallet.

But it was when he came out from behind the kit and played that little drum on the floor in front of the stage that people went nuts.

It was then that the artist came up and said, "I want to suggest your next article, if you're taking suggestions. How do African musicians feel when we start throwing wadded up money at them? I bet they think we're crazy." I'm inclined to think she was right.

After song after screaming rock songs evoking the blues, the bassist and drummer left the stage and Oumar went back to just his acoustic for a bit before the three of them closed out the set together.

"They're straight up killing it!" Reggie of No BS Brass band said to me as they kept taking the crowd higher and then providing release.

Translation: sure, it would have been great to have been away for Memorial Day weekend, but we would have missed a hell of a show.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Doc Comes Alive

I got my passport stamped in the east end for the fourth time in three days.

Admittedly my day got off to a late start - noon - given that Pru and I had closed down Cullen's Cove last night.

But after a hearty breakfast, a walk and a workout, I was ready for some holiday weekend action. Since a solo cookout seemed pathetic, I decided to make tracks for the Lilly Pad at Osborne boat landing.

It was the ideal distance for a mini road trip with Matt Kearney's "City of Black and White" blasting and the seductive scent of masses of honeysuckle rushing in the open car windows. I passed two little girls with a lemonade stand set up in the median, along with lots of people cutting grass and doing yard work.

The boat landing was buzzing with cars, trailers and boats so I swung around all that and parked by the Lilly Pad where both the double-sided glider tables were in use (no surprise, who would sit at an ordinary table and chairs if a glider table was free?), although one had a sole occupant on it.

Debating whether to ask to join a stranger, I didn't and ordered a barbecued shrimp with bacon and Ranch pita pocket and found a shady table to wait for it.

The river was a popular place today with every kind of boat and lots of jet skis fighting for water space. The piers were lined with fishermen, children being taught the basics and even one guy throwing out nets.

I was pulled out of my water reverie when the guy sitting alone at the glider got up and went inside the cafe. Was he abandoning the glider? Could I snake him while he was inside? What was the etiquette here?

Before I could make my move, a woman came out of the cafe and, beer and cigarette in hand, made a bee line for the glider.

Now look who had been snaked.

Unable to resist, I called out to her that I was just going to grab that glider and she shouted back, "Come on over then."

I sat down across from her and instinctively, we both pushed off at the same moment so the glider began its rhythmic rocking. "Everyone needs one of these in their yard," she pronounced with no argument from me.

And that's how I met Doc, nee Deidre (the name came from the other woman in her mother's hospital room who'd planned to name her baby Deidre until she'd had a boy) and tired of the over-popular at the time nickname DeeDee.

Doc was deeply tanned, skinny and taut because she does construction and gardening work for a living and lives in Carytown with a country house in Dinwiddie.

The first thing she explained to me was that she'd be turning 50 in August and was having her celebration at the Lilly Pad with two bands playing: Nitro and Rough Stuff.

"This is going to be my seat for the party," she said, patting the glider on which she sat. "I'll have my Jello shots right here next to me and the waitress can bring me my beers."

You have to admire a woman with a plan and Doc certainly had one.

I told her my birthday had been yesterday and she cheerfully wished me a happy one. She explained that she liked to stretch her birthdays out for a month, meaning we are kindred souls when it comes to birthdays.

Five minutes later, one of the guys at a nearby table coming back from the cafe with a beer called out happy birthday to me. The Lilly Pad is nothing if not a communal space.

My sandwich arrived with a paltry amount of chips on the plate and the server apologized, saying she'd spilled the plate on the way out but that she'd bring me more chips (a bag was shortly delivered), essential for the proper sandwich to chip ratio. Good girl.

On the plate were two wooden skewers, each with seven barbecued shrimp and two pita halves stuffed with bacon, lettuce, tomato and ranch dressing. I wasted no time in removing the shrimp form the skewers ("They could have taken the tails off," Doc sniffed, but I didn't mind) and stuffing them into the pita halves.

When I mentioned that I hadn't expected bacon, Doc said that it was the smell of cooking bacon that had caused the glider's former occupant to come into the cafe and order a BLT.

I was more brilliant than I knew. My order had not only resulted in a fat and tasty lunch, but delivered the seat I'd been coveting.

As I ate, a couple of boats came up into the boat slip area next to where we were sitting. One was a tiny john boat with a father and young son, a very sweet sight and probably a memory in the making for the toddler and the other was even better.

A canoe had been painted to look like a shark, then outfitted with two flotation devices painted to look like jumping sharks and powered by three colorful sails and a small trolling motor. Someone was not only creative but had a sense of humor.

Before long, Doc headed into the cafe for beer, returning with a yellow, plastic beach bucket filled with ice and Budweisers.

I'd already heard the six top next to us go inside for the same, one guy inquiring of the table first, "We want Bud Heavies, right?"

Doc and I got to blathering and all of a sudden, she commented on the lack of music. I agreed that the music playing inside should have been piped outside, but wasn't.

It didn't matter because Doc pulled her iPhone out of its waistband holster, holding it up and crying, "I've got three Pandora stations!"

Sam Cooke, Joe Bonamassa and classic blues guitarists were the options. In another situation, there were many things I might have said, but I held my tongue. She played one Sam Cooke song and then moved right into Clapton.

That was my signal to ask about her first concert and her story was a doozy.

"Did you ever see Streisand's 'A Star is Born'?" she asked as prelude. Of course I had. "My first concert was Peter Frampton and it was the show they filmed for the scene in 'A Star is Born' where Kris Kristofferson drives his motorcycle off the stage. First we got to see Frampton and then they told us if we stayed, we'd be the extras in a movie so we all stayed."

Naturally, that led to a discussion of how handsome, smart and talented Kristofferson is/was, at least to women of a certain age.

Considering we were strangers, the conversation was far-reaching as she puffed through her pack of Marlboro Golds and downed Buds.

Doc showed me pictures of her one-acre garden in Dinwiddie from last summer, a lush bed of corn, squash, tomatoes, peppers and god knows what else. I saw a shot of the magnificent salt water pool they put in the backyard, agreeing with her disdain for the chemical usage required for fresh water pools.

When the subject of duct tape came up, she referred to it as "love tape." That was one conversational tangent I did not take with Doc.

But over the next few hours we covered such things as the use of credit cards, feminism, sisters (I trumped her two with my five but she has a twin, so she ultimately beat me) and her spirited 74 year old mother who had double knee replacement at the same time and was back doing yoga in a month.

But her favorite story about her Mom involved a trip to Italy where Mom and her sister planned to take a Vespa sightseeing tour. Only problem was you had to take a class and test first. Sis passed no problem, being a motorcycle owner.

Mom, however, didn't. Doc was suspicious because that left Mom to ride on the back of the Vespa of the young, handsome Italian tour guide. "I think she was brilliant!" Doc laughed, cigarette in hand.

We even exchanged work around tips. When she'd pulled out her phone for music, she'd lamented not having her blue tooth speaker and I'd told her how to use a metal bowl for amplification when nothing else was available. "Like my mixing bowl!" she'd squealed with glee.

She shared that she often gets sun spots from so much working outside and her dermatologist had recommended the dandruff shampoo Selsun Blue to remove them. "You just rub it in every day for a few weeks and they blend right in," she said. "Look!" and showed me her nut brown shoulder with no visible sun spots.

Eventually her man and their dog (whom they both referred to as each other's daughter) arrived and joined us, sharing stories about boating parties, helping to build the Lilly Pad and their biker friends, one of whom had introduced them to Blue Ray.

As if on cue, one of those biker friends showed up and joined us on the glider as we all chatted about Nick's Seafood in Yorktown and the antics of VCU students in their neighborhood (a tree limb covered sofa placed in the middle of the street at 5 a.m.) and mine (parties that start at 1 and end at 6 a.m.) until I realized that I probably needed to get going.

"Already?" Doc asked despite the nearly three hours we'd been gliding and chatting. "Keep on enjoying your birthday month!"

Even without Jello shots at my side, Doc, that's a pretty safe bet.

Ain't Nothin' But a Good Time

I had no plans for my birthday. Nada, zip, nothing.

No lunch plans, no dinner plans, no plans at all. It's one of those unfortunate years when my birthday gets rolled into the Memorial Day weekend and most everyone who cares about me is out of town.

Luckily, there was one exception and she graciously agreed to be my date for an evening of birthday revelry. Or, as she put it, "I'm in for the duration, of course. It's your birthday! I will need a catnap beforehand."

While she was napping, I was thrifting, scoring a dress worthy of Laugh In's JoAnne Worley with its vibrant colors and decolletage and talking to my parents, who are now semi-homeless after a massive sycamore tree crashed into their house during yesterday's storm.

But then I put myself together so I looked appropriately birthday-like and collected the sleepy-eyed one.

We began at Secco for traditional reasons. Growing up, birthdays meant you got to choose the dinner for the whole family and my choice was always cheeseburgers, much to the chagrin of my five sisters.

So, honoring that long standing tradition, I wanted my evening to begin with a cheeseburger.

As it turned out, it began with my friend gifting me with two Roses: Miraval and Beau Vignac, along with a box of sea salt caramel chocolate truffles from For the Love of Chocolate, as perfect a gift as could be had.

Once we got to Secco, I started with Muri Gries Lagrien Rose, recommended to me as a hearty enough Rose for a burger.

Then we dove into the menu, choosing delicately textured chicken liver mousse followed by Billy bread under a perfectly soft-cooked egg with white anchovies, not that either detracted from our ability to enjoy the grass-fed beef burger with cheddar, bacon and housemade pickles that comprised our final plate.

Some people will never understand a burger for your birthday dinner, but it's always worked for me. To hell with my sisters.

A couple of the servers asked about my birthday plans and when they heard we intended to finish in the east end to hear an '80s cover band, were obviously in awe.

In my family, birthdays meant you got to decide everything about the day and I wanted an experience.

Our next stop was Amour, almost completely full when we arrived, where we kept to the pink theme with a bottle of Chateua de Valcombe Rose that had my name on it while New Orleans music kept things lively.

When our server asked what our plans were for the evening, I explained we were headed eastward ho for the sake of the '80s, with shock and amazement ensuing on his part. My friend expressed reservations for the first time.

"We're not gonna do a 'Thelma and Louise,' are we?" my friend wondered aloud. That certainly wasn't the plan, but it was far too early to rule anything out.

The eating at Amour was terrific as always, with the onion and bacon tart (owner paul's Asaltian mother's recipe) and a stellar cold vegetable terrine, both fine pairings for the Valcombe.

I was trying to keep my eye on the time because I wanted to get to the east end and catch most of the band's first set, but we were having such fun talking and eating, all of a sudden it was time for dessert.

My friend had arranged for my sea salt caramel chocolate creme brulee to arrive with a candle in it and I was happy to be serenaded with "Joyeux Anniversaire" after an offer to have "Happy Bithday" sung to me in the style of Marilyn Monroe was rescinded.

From there,  I let out a slow breath and made a wish. Now if only it will come true.

My creme brulee came with a divine grapefruit sorbet that provided a pithy complement to the richness of the chocolate while my friend got a trio of sorbets and ended up deep in discussion with some nearby young women about vinegar and how to clean stains off couch cushions.

Not to be judgmental, but who wants to spend their birthday dinner listening to how to get god-knows-what kind of stain out of a cushion? Besides, we had places to go, cover bands to hear.

I instructed her to finish up her wine and dessert because this train was pulling out and she, like the good friend she is, swallowed accordingly.

Then it was off to what Style Weekly's reader poll dubbed the best bar in the east end, Cullen's Cove, on Mechanicsville Turnpike.

On arrival, we sashayed past the bikers and smoking contingent out front into the bar, making a pit stop at the ladies' room, where I overheard a woman say, "This is the only bar I've ever come to that has hot water." Tragic and yet so telling.

The band was on break when we walked in, so the dance floor was full of line dancers moving in synchronicity to bad music. I marveled at one woman doing it in pumps with 5" heels, but then she fell off the shoes and ended up splayed on the floor while the dancing went on around her.

Who wears 5" heels to a bar in Mechanicsville?

We found bar stools and ordered drinks, in my case 1800. It was the kind of place where, despite asking for it on the rocks, I was handed a lime and shaker of salt as if I was going to do a body shot with it.

A group of girls - feathered hair, studded belts, acid washed jeans-  next to us decided to pose for a group picture and every time they did, the bartender photo-bombed the shot, standing behind the group and pulling up his shirt to expose his fish belly white stomach for the camera.

As if that wasn't enough to set the tone for the evening, Sweet Justice soon took the stage and their first song was Journey's "Don't Stop Believin."

Holy crap, this was going to be a good night.

Now, understand, this was not my first time seeing a Sweet Justice show. Oh, no, I'd stumbled into them last September at the Sportsman's restaurant and lounge (also in the east end) and been mesmerized by the note for note replication of vintage '80s rock and hair metal songs by musicians who had actually played in bands back in the '80s.

What I'd promised my girlfriend tonight was not only that music but fans onstage blowing the band members' hair back as if they were in a perpetual cheesy '80s video.

Oh, she was impressed. More than once, we were asked what city girls like us were doing at the Cove.

The bass player was wearing a shirt that read, "White Trash," his thinning blond hair cascading over the shoulders of the shirt. It was even better than I had told her it would be.

The guy next to us at the bar wore a "Take Me Home" t-shirt, but he had an honest face, the bluest eyes and was soon chatting up my friend.

As it turned out, the erudite Calvin became our protector for the evening, warding off guys we didn't want talking to us (see: Neal and Javier). Like us, he was enraptured with how good the people watching was here.

Interesting as he was, he had a tough time distracting her once the band started playing Guns 'n Roses' "Sweet Child o' Mine" and she reminded me that while the '80s wasn't her favorite decade of music, she had been there and did know every word to the decade.

It wasn't long after that I felt a hand on my elbow and a guy was asking me to dance. He looked a little too interested for my comfort, so I declined despite wanting to dance.

And in the "you think you know somebody" category, when Sweet Justice began singing "Pour Some Sugar On Me," my friend began singing along, in fine voice, telling me how many times she'd danced to this sexy song. "What, you didn't know I was a Def Leopard fan?" she asked nonsensically.

I won't lie, much as I enjoy a cheesy '80s cover band, I never need to hear ZZ Top's "La Grange" or "Hotel California" or any Styx ever again despite still being able to get behind a female singer covering Boston's "Peace of Mind."

It was all so much fun and I knew my friend was having just as good a time by the twinkle in her eye when she'd look at me after a particularly reminiscent song or comment from one of the guys talking to us.

Let's be real, though, not one woman in the room spoke to us all night, it was only men who bothered with the two women who stuck out like sore thumbs in the room full of east end boys and a couple of west end girls.

At one point we were deep in conversation with Calvin about alpha males and how he was assuming a stance that would discourage unwanted men from approaching us when I looked up and Sweet Justice's lead singer, Beth, was standing next to me, mic in hand, singing every word into my eyes.

It was a birthday present for the ages. I considered blowing on her to replicate her onstage fan but was too star struck to do anything but grin like an idiot and stare into her heavily-made up eyes.

The evening moved so quickly, one minute we were hearing Whitesnake and next thing I knew it was Pat Benatar's "Promises in the Dark" while Neal, the electrician, told me about his science fiction library.

But the crowning glory of it all was Poison to close out the evening before the lights came up and we were sent out into the night.

Don't need nothin' but a good time
How can I resist?
Ain't lookin' for nothin' but a good time
and it don't get better than this

No, it don't. Happy birthday to me. I'll never stop believin.

Friday, May 23, 2014

So Bohemian Like You

There's something about Geminis.

I'm one (and a pretty classic one at that) and many of the people closest to me are as well. That means that for the next little while, I'll be celebrating with them while they celebrate with me.

Tonight's quartet was 3/4 Gemini with one non, meaning we had seven personalities at the table. It can be a lot when you put so many multiple personalities together.

Our dinner party got started at Amuse just after that hailstorm that surely caught everyone off guard, littering the streets with so many leaves that in places they looked solid green.

But things were calm and collected at the museum as we were led to a table overlooking the reflecting pool and sculpture garden.

Celebratory drinks were in order - mine was Montand sparkling brut Rose- as we toasted the birthday boys and girls in the now sunny dining room. To each his own, but nothing says "I'm special" to me like bubbles.

The storm was the topic of the moment with one in our group having already lost power due to a fallen tree in his backyard. I was teased because my lack of a cell phone meant I hadn't received the dire "Take shelter" text that the three of them had to warn them of impending doom.

No, I figured it out the old-school way, by closing the windows and staying inside once hail began pinging off my tin roof and the wind became louder than the music I was playing.

Call me old fashioned.

I started my meal with a salad of local greens, pickled radish, goat cheese, spicy candied pecans and fig vinaigrette as we watched the sun give way to clouds and another bout of torrential rain begin.

At first we thought the hail was back but it turned out to be nothing more than gigantic raindrops, almost causing waves in the reflecting pool.

There was lots to catch up on - a possible new love that had been keeping the writer from working on his book, the theater in one Gemini's background that her mate didn't know about, the non-Gemini who'd blown his mates' minds by introducing them to spring mix instead of iceberg lettuce- and before long, we were the loudest table at Amuse.

A dubious honor, at best. YOLO- you only live once- became the rallying cry of the night.

Things settled down a bit as I ate mussels for the second day in a row, these with Surry sausage and Pecorino, and noticed all the familiar faces in the dining room.

With the film director I'd met at Bistro Bobette, the curator I'd interviewed about pop art, the yoga master recently returned from Mexico, the multi-media artist whose new show I'd just seen last night, the dining room was quickly filling up.

Our server offered us dessert, but we had plans elsewhere for that (if there's one thing Geminis require on their birthday, it's sweets), so we decided instead on after dinner drinks and before long, the absinthe drip was brought to our table so I could have a birthday eve visit from the green fairy.

The gentleman at the next table looked on curiously, eventually compelled to ask what it was and I was only too happy to explain about the drip's arrival back when the museum was lousy with Picassos and we were celebrating all things bohemian.

Not sure I made a convert of him, but I at least got him thinking about absinthe for the first time in his life.

Once everyone else had their post-meal bevvies of choice, we toasted each other as the adaptable, enthusiastic and eloquent people Geminis are known to be, ignoring what a pain our dual natures can be.

Next stop: Shyndigz for birthday cake.

We only had to wait a few minutes before being led to a booth but the place was already crazy busy for a Thursday evening.

When our gregarious server (a Gemini maybe?) told us about one of the cakes of the day, a black raspberry chocolate cake with whipped cream filling and chocolate icing, I knew I'd found my slice of heaven.

Others chose the s'mores pie for its warm, ooey-gooey goodness recalling Girl Scout camping trips of our youth and pushing me right over the edge after one bite.

Stick a fork in me, I was done.

Well, finished eating and drinking, but certainly not done for the evening, so I bade farewell to the Gemini contingent after birthday cards were exchanged and left to meet a friend for a movie.

We'd been trying for the better part of a week and a half to see the new John Turturro/Woody Allen movie, "Fading Gigolo" at the Criterion.

Coincidentally, the last time I'd been at Shyndigz, I'd run into a friend who'd heard a segment on NPR about the fabulous soundtrack to the movie and been so impressed with what she'd heard that she rushed out to order the CD.

One more reason I didn't want this movie to leave town without me seeing it first.

My friend was waiting for me in the lobby and with her popcorn in hand, we became the second and third people in the theater. Clearly not a big night for gigolos.

But my girlfriend and I are both Turturro fans and I've been a Woody Allen devotee since high school, so we already knew there was plenty for us in a script written by Turturro and finessed by Allen.

And the score! From the opening scenes set to jazz, the music was as fabulous (and often foreign) as my friend had told me.

But mostly it was the charm of seeing Woody Allen play pimp in his low-key comedic way to Turturro's middle-aged florist turned reluctant gigolo that captured me and made for such a charming story.

"A man needs to be funny," a woman tells her girlfriend, a fact any woman could affirm.

"A woman is meant to be looked at, else she'll just fade away," another tells the gigolo as she poses fetchingly for him.

Like an Allen film, the story is a postcard to NYC, in this case Brooklyn, and to jazz music, apparently also a favorite of Turturro's as well as Allen's.

There are probably women who can't imagine one as unconventional looking as Turturro as a for-hire gigolo, but I had no problem at all seeing why women wanted to sleep with him and pay for the privilege. Plus he brings them artistically arranged flowers, always a bonus.

What Gemini wouldn't savor a sweet, little movie about the nuances of love and intimacy to round out her evening?

YOLO, no matter how many personalities you have.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Sweet as May

They say timing is everything.

Two things that reliably happen around the same time every year are strawberry season and my birthday.

With that in mind, I figured today was a good afternoon to head over to Gallmeyer Farms to pick strawberries. I could have called first, but why? It must be strawberry season by my birthday eve, right?

Eschewing the highway for the back roads of the east end, I followed Darbytown Road to the strawberry farm that long ago won my devotion over the mega operations in Ashland and Chesterfield.

Except as I drove up the winding, dirt road, there was a suspicious lack of people in the fields and cars parked by the old barn.

Uh oh.

Approaching the table, straw hat in hand, where a woman sat,  I tentatively asked if there were berries to pick.

"We had 500 people come through this morning," she said in an apologetic way. She corrected the number to 486, but even so, it didn't bode well for there being much left for me. "It depends on how many you wanted to pick. Enough to eat or for jam or something?"

For many years, the purpose of my picking was to make strawberry jam, an activity that would take up the entire afternoon after returning from the fields. It was worth it, though, for the taste of hours-old berries captured in jam providing a reminder of summer in cold, winter months.

But not anymore. Now I pick solely for eating and today I was also picking for a gift for another Gemini.

When the woman heard that, she reassured me they had plenty of berries for me to pick. They were located in the weeds, she explained, a 14-year old section of small, early season berries.

I've picked that type before and while it's more work because the berries are small, they are so much sweeter than the golf ball sized varieties most farmers grow.

"We were going to burn that section this year and replant, but then we saw we had so many berries coming in, we let 'em go," she said. This year's crazy weather had wreaked havoc with everyone's strawberry crops (Chesterfield Berry farm hadn't even opened, she said), it seemed, so they were grateful when the unexpected berries came up.

And I was grateful to have them to pick.

So I headed out to the weeds, the sole occupant of the entire fields, to pick berries. She was right about the weeds, wildflowers and clover, crowding the little berries in their no longer neat rows.

Didn't matter to me. I zig-zagged all over, bending over every time I spotted red on the ground. It was a tad more challenging than usual because sometimes the little gems were almost hidden from view by the weeds, but I kept at it.

I don't mind bending over for a single berry. In fact, walking the beach one summer with my youngest sister, I began picking up sea shells, no matter how tiny, but only if they were a certain color.

"Boy, you'll bend over for anything," she'd observed, laughing, unwilling to do the same.

So, yes, even if a plant held only one ripe berry, I bent down to snag it and before long I had a basket full of beautifully ripe strawberries.

When I got back to the table, the woman scanned the contents of my basket and picked up one berry. "That's going to be the sweetest one right there," she pronounced.

Because it was the tiniest? Because of its atypical shape? "Because it's got the most beautiful color," she said.

486 people had missed that little beauty, leaving it for me to discover and pop into my mouth. Sweet as May.

Timed it just right after all.

How Am I Gonna be an Optimist About This?

I have lots of birthday traditions and one is the birthday show.

It's almost always a band I've never seen before, maybe a guilty pleasure, just a night of fun music as part of the birthday week revelry.

This year the show was going to be Bastille, an English synthpop band that had blown up since I'd first gotten their album.

But you can't go to a sold-out show at the National without fortification first, so a friend took me to Cafe Rustica for dinner, mentioning that when he'd driven by the National earlier, there had been a line around the block of teenagers.

Not what I had expected, but it's a free country. Maybe they were all having birthdays, too.

Rustica was full of mostly women when we arrived and took stools at the bar for dinner but soon several couples arrived to mix it up a bit.

It had been ages since I'd eaten there but a bowl of plump mussels in white wine and garlic were as good as when I'd had them there years ago.

We followed that with a seasonal special of watermelon Caprese drizzled in balsamic, a nod to the fact that watermelon is better than tomatoes at the moment.

One of the couples who came in told their server that they were there to do their eating and drinking before going to see Bastille and another couple said the same. Apparently we'd found the place for the post-teen set to pre-game before the show.

Since Rustica is a good place to indulge a taste for the German, I got schweineschnitzel with spaetzle and blaukraut while my friend went with two massive brats smothered in Welsh rarebit.

Eventually, I had to stop eating so I'd be able to move at the show.

The National was already mobbed when we got there, but we found places near the sound booth in the back for Wolf Gang, the English opener.

A five-piece, they all looked young and pretty with pompadours and shirt sleeves rolled up to display tender biceps, so it felt a little like watching an English boy band.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Fortunately, they could all play their instruments well and the songs, pulling from '80s influences and maybe even a little '70s symphonic rock, were catchy as hell, enough to get even the non-teen members of the audience dancing in place.

During the break, we moved upstairs to the VIP section because we had the wristbands to do so and the bartender friend who'd handed me my Cazadores suggested it.

It is easier for a short person to see up there.

The show began with a blast of lights (another thing the bartender had warned us about), the "Twin Peaks" theme and the band bounding onstage to do "Bad Blood," the title song off the album that 80% of the room knew by heart.

Two women sitting at a table in front of us screamed every word of every song as they danced in place in their chairs hanging over the railing in rapture.

The two parents in front of us danced and sang while their kid sat in his chair and watched nearby.

Leader of the band Dan soon shed his hoodie, no doubt burning up as he danced non-stop while singing and occasionally playing keyboards or a drum.

The young female contingent let out ear-splitting screams at the start of every song as if every one were their fave.

And speaking of faves and dreamy, my friend said it felt like being at a show with the 17 Magazine crowd and yet there were more than a few middle-aged people anywhere we looked.

And like this one, many were dancing or bopping in place to the music. No judging here.

After telling us he was a terrible dancer (something we already knew), Dan asked the crowd to squat down and pop up at his command for the song "Of the Night" and sure enough, even the oldsters were springing up and down like a hyperactive toddler on command.

"Things We Lost in the Fire" and "Laura Palmer" made the audience go crazy but that was nothing compared to when he put his hoodie back on during "Flaws" and left the stage, weaving through the boxes and into the VIP section where he passed a foot away from where we stood watching his security guard try to both give him room to interact and keep him from the crazies.

A girl near me reached out to him and he took her hand and stared into her eyes for a second as he sang before moving on to incite others.

And while you might think she'd swoon a bit and then go back to watching Dan sing, no, indeed, she pulled out her phone and proceeded to spend the rest of the show texting on it, no doubt sharing her moment of glory.

Except for her, the show ended then because she couldn't be bothered paying attention anymore. It was more important to ensure that the virtual world knew of her moment than to enjoy the rest of it.

I feel certain she won't be going to birthday shows when she's my age. Pity.

Of course the place exploded for "Pompeii," the earworm of a song everyone's heard whether they know it or not and the entire room sang along to close out the show.

It doesn't have to be timeless music to qualify for my birthday show - although I have to admire a band whose biggest hit focuses on two dead people after a volcanic eruption- but it has to be a good time.

One more birthday tradition upheld.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Make the Most of Our Time

Once upon a time, when my life was very different and so was the Richmond music scene, a new concept took hold.

It was November 2009 when the Listening Room opened up the basement doors of the Michaux house and welcomed in anyone and everyone willing to shut up and listen while the music played, here.

Back then, it was so refreshing to be able to go to a show where you knew you'd be able to hear every note, every harmony. And the string of twinkle lights would reliably fall from the low basement ceiling every time.

Like death and taxes, some things are certainties.

Tonight marked the end of that remarkable string of shows with the final installment of the Listening Room at the Firehouse Theater.

One thing about tonight was non-negotiable: I was going to sit in my usual seat come hell or high water.

So I arrived early enough to stake my territory and hang out with the LR crew whom I've gotten to know over the years. Emcee Chris saw me and said, "I'd have been devastated if you hadn't come."

As if.

When I finally took my seat I was joined by my favorite Jackson Ward couple, also long-time LR regulars.

A few minutes later, photographer Rob, part of the original crew, came over to bring the three of us glasses of bubbly to celebrate our nearly half a decade allegiance to the Listening Room.

One of the LR rules is that shows start on time but tonight's was a tad tardy with emcee Chris taking the stage to acknowledge as much.

He shared that the very first night of the series, Apropos Roasters brought coffee but forgot to bring a grinder. Now, almost five years later, they have an actual coffee shop. Time marches forward.

Appropriately, tonight's first act was Dogs on Main Street, also known as Mac, a fine singer and musician I first saw at the Listening Room back in February 2011 when he was the first one to inaugurate the move from the Michaux House to the Firehouse.

I've seen him many times since  and he only continues to sound less raw and more poignant, although the one thing that hasn't changed is his stellar self-deprecating sense of humor, in full flower tonight.

After his first heartfelt song, he explained that over the next few songs he was going to take us low and then lower and then back up and even higher. "So don't leave," he warned. "I'm not responsible for what happens if you do."

Anyone who had left (no one did) would have missed his second song ending abruptly when a string on his guitar snapped.

He'd come down from NYC on a Greyhound bus and so hadn't brought his usual second guitar. "I'm crashing and burning," he joked.

Mark of second band Vandaveer stepped out of the shadows and offered him a pack of guitar strings, asking, "What do you need?"

A guitar, Mac said and used Mark's to continue while Mark graciously took Mac's guitar backstage to restring it in the meantime.

Singer songwriter and LR originator Jonathan Vassar was called onstage and brought his wife's maternity accordion to join Mac for a song, an obvious mutual admiration society.

"You know what you get for trying to be different?" Mac asked us rhetorically. "A broken string!"

He chose to skip the song called "Gallows" even after he got his guitar returned and restrung, cracking wise saying, "I have download cards, postcards and an overdue credit card."

My favorite lines was, "I'm just an alley cat yearning for something more than this," at least until he played a new song and I heard him sing, "I guess my sins are at an even keel."

Saying that he was still going to be beating himself up about the broken string when he went to bed, Mac shared that at his release show at the Camel, he'd kicked his own cord out. "So what you saw tonight is pretty regular. Come talk to me after the show if I don't seem too unbearable."

Talented, yes. Hysterical for sure. Unbearable, not even a little. Dogs on Main Street is the epitome of what the Listening Room is about.

Talented musician with excellent songwriting chops and distinctive voice is introduced to music-loving masses and becomes part of local scene.

Tonight's crowd was understandably big and I felt a little sorry for those whose first LR was tonight. Imagine experiencing this and knowing it will be no more.

Once the second act began, the LR crew took the stage for a sort of mass farewell. Jonathan entreated us to keep listening. Antonia explained that there were people here tonight who'd been at that first Firehouse show seeing Mac and asked that those of us who'd been at the very first Michaux House show raise our hands.

We were a small group, but undoubtedly with some of the fondest memories in the room.

As he always does, Chris reminded us that the audience was 50% of the LR's success formula and even said, "Karen's been to more Listening Rooms than I have." The man didn't lie.

Next up was Vandaveer, a band I consider my May band. I first saw them in May 2011 and then again in May 2012, meaning I was overdue for my May Vandaveer fix.

They've been on a living room tour since April 1, covering over 13,000 miles with 3,000 left to go before the end of the month.

Leader Mark explained that he lived in Arlington, Virginia, singer Rose in Massachusetts and pedal steel player Tom was from Pennsylvania.

"For those of you keeping score, we play commonwealth music," he cracked. Literate humor, I like that. And if you ask me, it's better described as poetic music.

And I don't just like his voice, I adore his voice, which, as the girlfriend sitting next to me observed, "I even like his speaking voice." Uh huh.

Their sound is sort of alt-folk with his acoustic guitar bumped up with just enough reverb to tread near rock territory but Tom's pedal steel and Rose's exquisite voice on harmony and sometimes lead anchoring things firmly in LR territory.

When Mark mentioned that Tom was a Civil War buff who had spent some hours looking at Richmond's historic sites like Cold Harbor, he called us the birthplace of entrenchments.

"We used to make out there," my friend said leaning in as he husband sat oblivious on the other side of her.

The buoyant "However Many Takes It Takes," a song about perseverance, a subject I know well, won my vote for the line, "I'll be in the kingdom of your dreams."

"Sometimes it requires all arms and legs be on the ground to solve technical difficulties," Mark said at one point, pulling stuff out of the power strip in front of him and then flinging them over his shoulder. "None of that was necessary but it was for dramatic effect."

Dramatic aptly described his voice and Rose's over Tom's pedal steel or slide guitar and each song shimmered with the talent of the three. We couldn't have asked for a finer band to finish out the Listening Room.

For a soulful song about the coming apocalypse, Mark said, "There's nothing you can do except snap and sing along," which is about what I plan to do when the apocalypse finally does arrive.

Off their album of murder ballads from last year ("We sold dozens and dozens of that album"), they did "Pretty Polly" as Mark put it, "Modernized for your contemporary ears." That meant instead of guitar, he sang and stamped on the wooden floor.

We got another from that album when Rose sang "The Drunkard's Doom" and about brought the house down with her exquisite voice, sort of Emmylou Harris-like.

Then there was more literary humor when Mark told of writing a song because of Beverly Cleary and I wondered how many people in the crowd knew who she or Ramona Quimby had been.

Saying he couldn't call it "Ramona" because of Dylan's "To Ramona," he'd titled it "Beverly Cleary's 115th Dream," although he admitted that he didn't know that it was really her 115th.

Peace and love and harmony
and all the things that lovers need
Like hope and health and clarity and time
Oh, precious, precious time

And, just like that, the final Listening Room wound down. Mark called up the entire LR crew - Antonia, Jonathan, Chris, Rob, Nate- and Mac for the big singalong finale, Tom Waits' "Come On Up to the House."

I've no doubt that some of that crew got a bit misty up there singing because I know the long-time regulars in the room felt that way.

It was a really good run and the Listening Room set new standards for shows in this town. Oh, and the bands I discovered through being at almost every Listening Room. All the people I met there.

But it's not the end of the world, It's just a closing of the circle. It's run its course and now we'll have Listening Room Presents shows on an occasional basis.

What matters most is what Jonathan said. Keep on listening.

You better believe I will.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Island Time and WIne

Birthday week celebration kicked off with a field trip.

I got invited to Gwynn's Island and with a weather forecast of blues skies and 75 degrees, immediately said hell, yes.

And while I've heard of Gwynn's Island, I didn't know a single thing about it. With the music set to Pandora's Replacements station (traveling music, don't you think?), I can tell you we passed a lot of honeysuckle on the way down, thrilling me because that's a favorite summer smell.

If I'd had the sense to think about it, I'd have anticipated that there would be a bridge because, duh, it's an island, but I hadn't, meaning I was pleasantly surprised when we reached the light that would give us access to the bridge, which I assumed was a small drawbridge.

Once on the island, we met a boat builder who'd decided to build a B & B on the island and let him be our tour guide.

He began with how the island got named, one of those stories they don't teach you in 4th grade social studies.

Seems Pocahontas was swimming in the river and started to drown and a local man, Hugh Gwynn, saved her. Chief Powhatan was so grateful Hugh got the island as reward for his effort.

I was even more surprised to hear that it had been an important strategic point for the battle of Yorktown and even saw some action during the Civil War.

Out of nowhere came a honking noise to warn us that a boat was coming under the bridge and the second oldest swing bridge in the state began slowly swinging to the side to open and let the boat through.

Can't say I'd seen a swing bridge in action before.

Nor can I say I know any boat builders until yesterday, but this guy was a pro, as evidenced by the sleek lines of the polished wood kayak he'd made and had sitting on the grass in the late morning sunshine.

And he doesn't just make them, he hosts classes where people come down and he helps them make themselves a boat in just under a week.

Besides kayaks, he makes cocktail class runabout boats, 8' plywood boats originally designed in the '30s that look a little like the shape of a rowboat cut in half (but use an engine) and are enjoying a renaissance.

What I'd like to know is how they got their name. Cocktails and boats aren't supposed to mix, right?

He pointed out the far end of the island, far being a relative term since it's only 3 1/2 miles away, bragging a little that when standing over there, you could see the Eastern Shore.

Then he suggested a walk over to the marina, made all the more pleasant by the sweet smells of the mock orange in bloom.

Showing us his boat, he shared how he'd ridden out Hurricane Sandy there despite warnings that the water might rise so high his boat roof would crash into the marina ceiling. Another time, he started out with his boat and it stalled but kept going forward and, fearful it would crash into another boat, decided the wisest thing to do was put his body between the two boats to prevent that.

He was a colorful character all right.

When we left him to his adventures, it was to drive around the flat, little island to see the far reaches of it.

It was obvious that at some point, houses had been allowed to be built on any and all irregularly shaped tracts of land a person could find. A plot map of the island would have resembled a jigsaw puzzle.

When we got to the end of Old Ferry Road, presumably no longer needed because of that fabulous swing bridge, we found three houses facing the water and a sandy, white beach with small waves licking at the shore.

"Want to get your feet wet?" I was asked rhetorically. The river wasn't nearly as cold as I'd expected and we stood there in it looking across the expanse of the bay to, yep, the Eastern Shore.

Our guide had raved about the sunrises and moonrises from the island and it was easy to imagine how splendid they'd be from here.

Driving back out past the colorful little houses and weekend shacks, I could feel that my body had already shifted to what our guide had called "island time."

Nothing's important and there's seldom a need to rush...for anything.

When we left Gwynn's Island, it was with plans to come back this summer for a boat ride at the very least.

From there, we meandered around to Merroir for lunch, arriving around 2:00 to find six other tables full of laughing, lunching, drinking people sitting outside facing the water.

Not a soul was on the porch.

Our server asked if we wanted a sunny or shady table and I said yes, so she placed us at one under the tree so I'd have sun on my back but not my face.

Obviously everyone there was on the same sort of Monday schedule as we were. Lunch was a nod to the Commonwealth with a bottle of Barboursville Sauvignon Blanc and a dozen and a half oysters - Old Saltes, natch - ans we settled back to watch boats like a trimaran coming back to the marina.

It was such a beautiful afternoon and since the rest of our day's plans had yet to be determined, we took our time. I couldn't resist a softshell over crab and bacon slaw, a dish so perfect it should be its own food group.

On my way to the loo, I ran into Chef Pete and told him that that we had nothing as impressive as that slaw back in Richmond. Enfolding me in his bear arms, he called me a beautiful woman and told me that was great because it ensured I'd have to keep coming back there.

As if that wasn't going to happen.

Over our last glasses of wine, we considered our options for the rest of the afternoon. I was hoping for a ferry ride but the ferry doesn't run on Sunday and Monday. So we headed back through Irvington to the Dog and Oyster Vineyard and took up residence on their magnificent screened porch.

With the winemaker's four young sons doing their homework at a nearby table, we tasted through Oyster White (a Chardonel), Pearl (Vidal Blanc), Rosie (a Merlot and Vidal Blanc Rose), Shelter Dog Red (Chambourcin) and Merlot while hearing about the winery dogs and the Dog and Oyster's relationship with Good Luck Cellars, a winery I'd visited just last month.

It was hard to get motivated to leave the screened in porch, a place with a long, old wooden table adorned with fresh wildflowers and able to seat fourteen and that was in addition to the table where the boys were doing their homework.

Well, all except the 13-year old who'd found a lizard with a leg injury and proceeded to cauterize the wound and then test out the lizard's agility post-op for us.

Boys will be boys and all that.

With such fine entertainment, we couldn't summon a good reason to leave so we had a glass of the Rosie, a pretty pink wine with notes of strawberries and lime and chatted up a couple from Lynchburg who had also been at Merroir now sitting at the far end of the table from us.

Out in the vineyards, the adopted hounds happily romped up and down the rows of grapes. We purchased a couple bottles of Rosie for future summer afternoons and hit the road again, Pandora now set to the Marvin Gay station.

This time, our meandering led us back to the 1884-built Kilmarnock Inn, a charming-looking place with a delightful patio out back facing a courtyard of guest cottages and lush garden beds.

We were the only ones eating out there, although why, I can't imagine. It was a beautiful night to be eating outdoors under a pergola with flowers all around. Those people inside needed a good talking to, if you ask me.

Beginning with Crab Louis salad, a long-time favorite of mine, I was happy to see plenty of meaty lumps of blue crabmeat, as it should be. Since our original plan had been to find a crab house, this was my compensation for there being no places to pick tonight.

Because it was the start of my birthday week, I went for filet mignon and loaded down the accompanying baked potato with enough butter to close my arteries by my actual birthday. If not now, when?

Our server brought the check before we asked for it, so after paying, we went inside to scope out the inn and wound up meeting the chef.

Once he got to talking to us, it seemed silly not to order dessert, so I asked what they had and the girl got no further than "chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and chocolate filling" before I waved away whatever else she had to say and ordered that.

The chef wanted me to drink the right spirit with my dessert, bringing out Terra d'Oro Zinfandel Port, a lush fortified wine tasting of raisins and the soul mate of chocolate.

Here was a man who'd just met me and he was already anticipating my needs. Superbly.

So here I am, only a day into my birthday week celebration and already feeling terribly lucky to have spent the entire, glorious day eating, sipping, dipping my feet in the river and watching bridges open. Blathering the whole live long day.

Best line of the day, despite the absence of fries: "I could eat my french fries without ketchup, but why would I do that?"

This looks to be an excellent week for the birthday girl.

Angels' Songs, Wild Imaginings

The place: A popular bakery in Church Hill, Sub Rosa, subbing for Istanbul in the '60s.

The cast: Friends and fans of Yeni Nostalji, a band devoted to performing new interpretations of Turkish pop classics along with some original compositions at their inaugural performance.

The stars: Christina, she of the haunting vocals and Low Branches fame, Evrim, baker extraordinaire and handsome Turkish guitarist/vocalist and Jeff, husband of a Turkish woman, playing all other parts.

The scene: Some people have arrived early enough to occupy the few chairs set up for the audience, but people continue to arrive until every inch of the bakery floor is supporting someone. People are not only standing behind the counter, they're standing outside on the sidewalk to listen through the open door on this beautiful Sunday night.

The libations: Turkish all the way. The choices are Efes beer or raki, an anise flavored liqueur that is considered the national alcoholic beverage of Turkey. Mixed with a little water, it becomes cloudy and the source of a mildly dream-like buzz (think absinthe) and is naturally my choice.

The friends: Not surprisingly, I run into lots of people I know. The baker/teacher, the poet (date-less for a change), the dance party enthusiast, the musician and jewelry maker happy couple, even the young duo who used to live in my building and whom I haven't seen in a couple of years.

The Hair: Christina and Evrim have been styled by a Church Hill salon, Seven Hills, and while Evrim's is dapperly arranged to complement his mustache, Christina looks like a vision from 1966 with part of her long hair arranged on top of her head and the rest hanging down as a backdrop for her big earrings.

The music: Turkish songs of love, loss and happiness, or at least that's what I hear in the inflections of a language I do not know. Each song is more beautiful than the last and as the evening sky's deep blue gives way to navy blue, it is easy to forget we are in Church Hill.

Evrim says, "I want to thank Christina for re-introducing me to these songs." They do "Love Story (Where Do I Begin?)" and while I can hear the English words in my head, the Turkish ones are infinitely more beautiful.

The review: It's hard to conceive that this is their first time playing out. The trio is so comfortable with each other, their music so much a part of them and the vibe they create that surely they must have been playing these songs at a dim, smoky Turkish bar in another life.

Sipping raki listening to Turkish pop music in a bakery in Church Hill. Could there be a lovelier Sunday evening?