Monday, October 30, 2017

One Show Only

Of course I remember when our relationship began: exactly 7 years, 5 months and 20 days ago.

That would have been May 8, 2010, although if you want to get technical about it, a more accurate beginning might have been April 22. That's when I spent the better part of a day sewing curtains and delivering them to a new wine bar in Carytown: Secco.

That's when our relationship began.

And while my drapes became history once Secco left Carytown for the Fan, it's somehow already been a year since they decamped to Robinson Street. Tonight they were celebrating their FANiversary, an idea inspired by their current chef, Julie Heins, who suggested that the way to celebrate was to "get the band back together."

But only for one night.

Not only did they round up the three chefs who proceeded her, but they cleverly chose wines that corresponded with the year each chef began their tenure. Come on, that's nothing short of brilliant and as a long-time Secco regular, my butt was firmly planted in one of the seats for the celebration.

Because I was solo, I was guided to the "scintillating conversation table," which meant one person I knew (a former Secco server who now teaches Italian at UR) and four I didn't. I liked the odds.

Across from me sat a charming couple - a printmaker and a philosopher - although the latter defined himself as a "recovering academic and my recovery drug of choice is this" and held up the first wine of the evening, a  2010 Recaredo Cava Brut Nature Gran Reserva of which I was already growing inordinately fond.

At the far end of the table sat a guy who works at a hot yoga studio in the West End, causing me to make presumptions and inquire if that meant that he had to deal with all kinds of annoying, entitled West End women. He grimaced and acknowledged that yes, he did, and they always had a lot of complaints. Probably high maintenance haircuts, too.

This got our sixth member - an associate at the Virginia Bar who once worked retail in Short Pump - sharing horror stories about those same women and their monumental expectations of non-stop service and servitude while they were shopping.

"West End bitches" is apparently a cliche for a reason.

The first course had been created by Secco's inaugural chef, Tim Bereika (who, it seems, hasn't been cooking professionally for a year now) and was delightful: pan-roasted cauliflower with brown butter over Mejool date puree with pistachio gremolata, hitting contrasting notes of sweet and savory, smooth and crunchy, not to mention a stellar pairing with the Cava.

And just so you know, when we weren't eating and drinking, we were getting to know one another.

Talking about visiting her 84-year old mother in Croatia recently, the printmaker said that despite her age, she was doing quite well. "She'll outlive Keith Richards," she noted dismissively and her husband praised that as an especially good line.

Our next course was the work of Mike Braune and the Italian speaker next to me observed, "This is such a Mike dish," a reference to the pig and pickles. He'd slow roasted pork shoulder, pulled it apart and reformed it into little bricks, which he'd then seared and placed over raclette fondue with apples and almonds.

So Mike.

It was paired with the most unique wine of the night, a 2013 Montbourgeau l'Etoile Blanc, an oxidized wine from Jura that got raves from our table. A serious food wine that the staff had been geeking out over since its arrival. The epitome of a Secco wine.

The subject of Sicily came up when our next wine, the almost fuchsia-colored 2015 Calabretta Terre Siciliane Rosato, was poured, because the couple, who'd been to Italy, wanted to plan a trip to Sicily around her teaching schedule.

My seatmate shared that her Italian husband had never been to Sicily, reminding me of the horror a waiter south of Naples had expressed to me when I'd ordered a Sicilian wine ("But, but, it's Sicilian!" he'd gasped and promptly talked me into an Aglianico instead).

Turns out the reason for all this is campanilisma, a sense of pride in one's region that trumps nationalism for Italians. "In Venice, food from Naples was considered exotic," the printmaker marveled.

That lovely Rose was paired with John Ledbetter's Atlantic corvina over butternut squash with charred tomato and poblanos in guajillo broth with lashings of leek on top, a dish with a subtle heat and the most divine broth, although there was nothing to sop it up with, unless you were willing to ask for a spoon and clean your bowl that way. My seatmate was.

When John came out to talk about his dish, he was decidedly low-key, saying, "Y'all look so nice and I'm in a white t-shirt!" He could've been in a dress for all we cared considering how good the dish was.

Talk inevitably turned to restaurants and the philosopher asked if anyone remembered The Track. I hadn't thought about that place in ages, but I assured him I did, having once had a memorable first date there. "I loved the quiet ambiance," he said. "It was so old school."

Yes, and Richmond abandoned old school years ago.

You can't very well have six intelligent people at a table in 2017 and not get around to politics, much less with wine flowing. The philosopher made a crack about our current state of affairs vis a vis Watergate, observing, "Not that any of you were around then."

Au contraire, I told him, spilling the beans about a high school assignment where I'd rewritten one of the Canterbury Tales to tell the story of Watergate and getting an A on the paper.

He topped that nine ways to Sunday with his own high school story circa 1958 of having to write a paper on the most significant person in the world. He chose Kruschev, given the era and the impact his politics were having on the Cold War, only to be ridiculed in front of the entire class for it. Seems the teacher thought he should have chosen Eisenhower for his moral authority.

She gave him an F-, a grade no one at the table had even heard of.

It got even better when the woman at the end of the table recalled being given a worksheet to draw a flag in elementary school. Every other kid drew an American flag, while she drew a red circle in the middle of a white page: Japan's flag.

"I don't know if I was into minimalism, or what, but I'd seen a book with all these flags and I really liked the Japanese flag," she said. She didn't get a failing grade since it was just a worksheet, but she felt shamed nonetheless.

At Secco, they promise scintillating conversation and that's what you get.

For our last savory course of seared rabbit loin with potato risotto, apple butter and honey-mustard zabaglione prepared by Chef Heins, we were poured 2016 Gorrondona Txakoli Tinto (an inspired pairing) and told a good story.

Seems that when the Secco owners were in Basque country last month, they tried to order some Txakoli Tinto, only to be told that it didn't exist. Except that they knew they had a case of it back in Virginia, so what the hell? Tonight, it was jokingly referred to as "the unicorn wine," and we were told the chef got one bottle for pairing purposes and we were drinking the other 11. Seems fair to me.

Coming back from the restroom, I found a bar sitter in my chair, deep in conversation with my tablemates, and rather than disturb her, I went and sat next to her husband at the bar.

Turns out he'd been responsible for installing the VMFA photography exhibit I'd just seen Friday, but where it got really interesting was when I brought up the rabbit we were about to eat.

He recalled his brother trapping rabbits with rabbit gums when they were growing up and while I'd never heard the term, I knew immediately he meant those boxes the rabbit enters for food and then the door shuts on them and death follows. Also, good eating.

Rabbit gums. So I'd learned two new terms tonight, one English, one Italian. Not only scintillating, but educational.

Returning to my rightful seat to eat, discussion eventually turned to how full everyone was, although as someone pointed out, it's possible for your dinner compartment to be full and your dessert compartment to be empty. Kids have tried for years to convince parents of this.

So, yes, I had plenty of room to polish off the final course of chocolate bombettes over an obscene butterscotch anglaise (ignoring the sound of my arteries hardening as I all but licked the plate) with gingersnap crumbs while sipping the rest of my unicorn wine.

And then the celebrating of Secco's first year in the Fan was all over, at least all but the future drinking.

"Do we need anything?" the philosopher asked the printmaker, holding up the wine order form. Six of each, she told him. "Six?" he asked, sounding slightly incredulous. "The holidays are coming!" she said with a smile. And even if they weren't?

Rx: Secco. Never underestimate the need for the recovery drug of choice.


  1. "The Track" - if a nice evening out, enjoying a good meal, quiet conversation in a cozy booth is old school then take me back. To me that is the essence of what is good in a dining experience.


  2. And yet in so many restaurants now, you can barely hear your dining companions speak from across the table!

  3. I hate it!! I don't need a soundtrack to dine by....conversation is better.


  4. Amen! Conversation trumps all for me.

  5. Printmaker and philosopher thank you for this lively account of eating, imbibing, and talking

  6. Thoroughly enjoyed your company! Thank you for delivering a scintillating evening, as promised.