Thursday, January 15, 2015

Cold as Ice

This kind of winter weather is good for two things I've been told. Good books and bad boys.

With half of that in mind, before I even left to go out tonight, I sat down with my latest book, "Sophie's Choice," and read 80 pages. Only then did I layer up to face the wrath of January and find some dinner.

While the roads were mostly dry, sidewalks were still icy and I just knew that it was going to be the kind of evening where restaurants were slow and bars busy. But it's also cassoulet week, so a French restaurant was in order. Walking into Amour, I saw one occupied table and a full bar. Bingo.

Taking a seat at the far end appropriately near the "Je suis Charlie" sign, I found myself next to a charming couple who teach during the school year and summer in the Loire Valley. At the far end were the restaurant owner and the local Fire Chief, busy discussing an upcoming February fundraiser for the fire department. It'll be a one year-ish anniversary thank you to the department that saved Amour.

While sipping a glass of Willm Cremant d'Alsace, the teachers and I chatted about their exalted status at Amour. It had been his duck that had been in the oven when Amour's kitchen caught fire last January. Some would worry about tempting fate, but he'd ordered duck again tonight. Daredevil.

As I was tucking into a bowl of exquisite shiitake mushroom bisque - the ideal warmer-upper on a night like this - a couple of familiar faces came through the front door and I heard, "Is that Karen?" Somehow, a favorite couple had also chosen Amour on this unlikely winter evening.

It was Holmes and Beloved, recently returned from a trip to Fort Lauderdale and full of stories (they'd met a man who claimed to only drink Missouri wine) and show and tell (menu, postcard). Since they were at one end of the bar and I another, we chose to include the teachers in our conversation rather than just talk over them.

Using his lifelong knowledge of Richmond and its inhabitants, Holmes was soon interrogating them on mutual acquaintances, of which they had several. I managed to slide in my usual question (his first concert was the Commodores in 1979, she couldn't recall having one), only to have Holmes demand to know whether I knew his first.

Strangely, I didn't. He informed me that it had been Strawberry Alarm Clock, Buffalo Springfield and the Beach Boys at the Arena, which meant nothing to me. Apparently it was a venue where the Sportbackers stadium now sits. More importantly, now I knew.

As I nibbled a small plate of decadent butter-poached lobster, the entire bar discussed the best seasons to visit the Loire Valley (fall and spring) and why the blues festival there had finally been discontinued (gotten too big for the town). Holmes inquired if the couple rented out their house (yes, but not during summer because they're there) and suggested they invite him and his beloved because they're fun people.

Braised rabbit over Byrd Mill polenta was my final small plate, a comforting dish on a cold evening, but by then I was approaching full and only managed half of it before sharing with Holmes.

Not long after, the teachers had to head home - it was a school night after all - so I moved closer to my friends to share desserts of swoon-worthy raspberry sorbet (made in house, natch) and Amour's classic chocolate caramel sea salt creme brulee. I love my chocolate, but that sorbet was the kind of thing you dream about long after finishing.

Because it wouldn't be an evening with Holmes if he didn't lecture me, I was given a stern talking to about missing important information (because I don't watch TV) and about the folly of walking on ice (which I'd done today). Some friends just have to give you a hard time about who you are. On the plus side, he didn't say a word about my bangs for a change.

But we all walked out together with hugs all around as they headed home and I made tracks for Balliceaux to see New Orleans band The Naughty Professor.

Walking in, the door guy was busy checking IDs but he waved me in, more than familiar by now with me. But when I glanced at the couple in front of me, I realized it was my photographer friend and the love of his life. Here again was unexpected couple company.

Sort of anyway. They only got back together a month ago, so they're still pretty busy making goo-goo eyes at each other all the time (not that there's anything wrong with that). I admired her adorable bag, a small, hard black purse with gold studs and brass knuckles (with rings) for the handle. You know, just in case.

Tonight's entertainment, the Naughty Professor, turned out to be incredibly young-looking guys: a guitarist, bassist, drummer and three horns playing all instrumental New Orleans funk/jazz. The horns would step off the short stage whenever it was time for the others to shine (the drummer gave me "Whiplash" flashbacks) before ambling back up for the horn parts.

The band was surprisingly good for being so young and it didn't take long for some people to start dancing. The challenge was how often the band changed up the rhythm and tempo, but even so, it soon felt like a good time in the back room.

A guy standing in front of me knocked into me twice before apologizing and then saying, "Wanna dance? If you decide you do, just let me know and I'll twirl and dip you and we'll clear out the floor." That's not an offer I get every day.

I ran into a bartender friend who's doing a one-night gig in Seattle, saw the long tall drink of water bassist wearing a hat his mother made him (complete with yarn braid), chatted with Mr. Can't Stop, Won't Stop about this weather and got a bear hug from the DJ who told me he had just discovered go-go. He was there because he'd been told that this was going to be the show of the week.

As the music unfolded, I had to agree that he'd been given good information. Although not stereotypically New Orleans (it was as much jazz as funk), the horn section was tight and the rhythm section clearly knew each other well. Songs took tangents but always came back around and the band members' energy never flagged during an hour and a half long set.

Even when the room filled up, I could see my lovebird friends over on the side dancing and rubbing up against each other. The band finished with the epic song "Chef's Special" and a cold Wednesday night closed out on a high note.

Bad boys will have to wait till another cold night.