Thursday, September 6, 2018

Since You've Asked

Go out for a while and you can't help but notice "new restaurant smell."

Oh, to be sure, it involves far more than the olfactory sensors. It's partly the fresh paint job not yet marred by scuffs and handprints. It's partly the pending ABC license (never mind, we have booze-free cocktails!) that makes everyone feel accidentally virtuous. But it's also the early evening sun showing just how badly smeared the front floor-to-ceiling windows are because no one has yet realized the inevitability of shades at sunset.

It's all the glorious newness of a recently-opened place to eat. It's a living learning curve.

Lady G and I made the trek to Alewife in Church Hill via a route new to her, giving her a chance to admire the city's oldest residential architecture as well as the leafy canopy of the established neighborhood. Curious about where we were headed, she was on board from the moment I said it was a new place with a focus on mid-Atlantic seafood, influenced by the Bay and Virginia's bounty.

We took seats at the bar, just barely out of range of the sun beating down through the glass. Casing the joint, she was smitten with the sea green tile, while I admired the porthole-like mirrors over a row of tables.

With six weeks flown by since our last hook-up, a lot had happened, especially for her. Absent wine to loosen lips, we worked our way through the mocktail menu, drinking watermelon sangrita (with a salty/spicy rim), blue pea lemonade (its tea made Lady G a fan), tepache (Jamaica flower, pineapple, allspice) and another whose name escapes me, but came with a pineapple leaf in it. Metal straws all around.

While talking about her disastrous trip to the beach, we began eating through the starters. Broiled oysters with buttermilk soubise had us wanting to lick the shells clean (we abstained). A pancake (so thick and yet light it raised questions of recipe) played raft to bits of cauliflower, smoked bluefish, herbs and trout roe, a symphony of contrasting textures. Fried basil topped Stracchino, the soft Italian cow's milk cheese, and gorgeous September tomatoes we're all going to soon be missing.

By far, the most indulgent dish was Mississippi rice with lumps of Maryland crabmeat, sea urchin, roe dust and onions cooked so long they'd taken on a new identity ("All day," was G's guess). I told her I could have happily eaten a bowl of nothing but those onions.

Another sure sign of "new restaurant smell" is the high percentage of neighbors. I don't even live in Church Hill and I knew that more than a few people had walked only a block or a few to try the new spot. Twice, the front door opened and local residents stuck their heads in to say hello or have a look around, like new neighbors (but without bringing cookies). A couple I've known for years had come from two blocks away with their 7-month old for a dinner date, giddy to have a good place so nearby.

The beauty of a two decade-plus friendship like mine with G is the range of conversational topics: hippie looks, ocean currents, White House occupants, garden judgers, architecture, eyesight, the upcoming theater season and travel, among other things. Seems we'll both be across the pond at the same time next month, albeit 1300 miles apart.

After four dishes and four libations not sullied by alcohol, we could have called it quits, but what's that new restaurant smell without a sweet ending? Especially after our bartender told us that the soft serve frozen custard on the menu was the closest thing to Carl's Frozen Custard in Fredericksburg he'd ever experienced and he should know because he grew up there.

I've only had it once, but it's a very good memory.

The vanilla/chocolate swirls had fresh whipped cream, crumbles and brandied cherries, but it was the frozen custard that felt like a throwback to the stuff of our youth. It's a completely different animal than ice cream, with an old school charm you have to remember to appreciate. Unlike the bivalve shells, we licked the bowl clean.

Rather than end our conversation, we moved it back to my balcony, where a lone moonflower greeted us and G mentioned how she loved the sound of cicadas in summer. When we'd made our plans originally, she'd said that sharing the highlights of her recent run of bad luck with me on my tiny balcony would be the best antidote ever for what was ailing her.

Filled to the brim with true confessions, Bay seafood and "new restaurant smell," I'd say the patient is well on her way to recovery (and looking fabulous doing it hippie-style).

No regrets, as the Tom Rush song goes. We know what lucky girls we are.

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