Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Eggnog Chronicles

Where does a heathen even begin to find comfort and joy this time of year?

Eating and drinking, of course.

I'm not going to pretend that my many deadlines haven't made this holiday season a tad more frenetic than usual, but once the holiday known as Official U.S. Work Stoppage Days begins - as it did Monday for me and probably the previous Thursday or Friday for many people - I took full advantage.

Slept in. No writing allowed. Read Sunday's paper with Mr. Wright while regretting not having pre-ordered Nate's bagels for Christmas Eve afternoon munching. Only after a walk over there left me staring at a "SOLD OUT!!! Happy holidays!" sign did I begin regretting my lack of foresight.

But the real celebrating began with a 3:00 reservation at Can Can that carried us right through until it was time to get in line at the Byrd Theater for my annual screening of "It's a Wonderful Life."

And just for the record, in the quarter century I've been going to watch Jimmy Stewart regain his hope, this year was the very first time I only had to wait in one line. The master planner in my life had procured online tickets (granted, they weren't always available), allowing us to go directly to the "have tickets" line, bypassing the even longer box office line and resulting in far less shivering on Cary Street waiting time for me.

In what could only be called a Christmas Coincidence, upon arrival at Can Can the hostess led us directly to the same discreet table where we'd had our first date. Later in the meal, our server referred to the table by saying, "If you don't want to rush, this is the table for you," a fact we'd discerned on that marathon first date.

There couldn't be enough La Galope Rose to celebrate such an unlikely happenstance, though we enjoyed ourselves hugely trying, pairing it with butternut squash soup with maple creme fraiche - a marriage made in heaven, by the way - bacon and chives. A baguette as long as my forearm loaded with smoked salmon, Boursin, capers, spinach and red onion, along with a generous plate of dressed greens kept me happy while Mr. Wright tucked into Thai shrimp salad and we marveled at our holiday luck.

After two hours eating and sipping, our affable server (who was working  a 15-hour shift at the Jefferson on Christmas day) explained that we'd have to either move or leave because they had a six-top coming in. The Rose had made me bold enough to pipe up and tell him that we'd move, but we weren't leaving.

When Mr. Wright stated that we'd like to stay at that particular table, I clarified that we'd had our first date at that table.

"Oh, please stay," he said, putting one hand against his heart, grinning sweetly and scurrying off to set up the six-top to the right of us. He was still beaming at us when he returned to explain that he was getting off, but wishing us all the best.

With more La Galope awaiting us in the chilling bucket, I ordered the dessert special he'd recommended, an eggnog sorbet sprinkled with grated nutmeg and the most Christmasy dessert imaginable (sorry, buche de Noel).

Let's just say that I wasn't the only one who regretted that I'd only gotten one scoop instead of two.

Just as we finished the last of the Rose, our replacement server breezed by and we explained our predicament: we needed more pink to finish our celebration. He returned with half a bottle of La Galope and a smirk. "Another table ordered this and didn't finish it, so it's all yours."

Thanking him for the gratis wine, I shared why it made our return visit to this table even better. "Ohhh!" he said, also putting his hand over his heart.

We were unintentionally charming millennials left and right with our first date saga. It only occurred to us later that they probably thought we'd been together much longer than is actually the case.

Other than the online ticket masterstroke, the only other surprise at the Byrd was that organist Bob Gulledge was injured and out of action. Ever vigilant, manager Todd insisted we all join in for a collective get well video he shot, before substitute John DeMajo saved the day by playing the mighty Wurlitzer for the Byrd's annual Christmas singalong.

Although Todd had announced that all 1200 seats were occupied, I happen to know that the one in front of me and two beside me weren't, but still it was a near full house, meaning the balcony was opened. Turns out that's where Mac and her Mom landed, not that we knew that until after Jimmy Stewart had had his epiphany and she called my name as we exited the theater.

Start to finish, that was a Christmas eve.

Christmas day was almost as unambitious - minus the attempt at Nate's bagels and Frank Capra classic - but the real fun began when we got to Peter Chang's shortly after 4:00. The media had been clear that Chang's had been booked solid for both Eve and Day, but a phone call told us the real story: slide in between meals and you'll have no problem.

Done and done.

Can Mr. Wright and I take up residence on bar stools mid-afternoon and wile away Christmas Day with no regrets? Yes, we can.

With a Portuguese Rose stashed behind the bar, we proceeded to settle in for a leisurely meal with an ever-changing array of people on either side of us. While we nibbled on steamed vegetable dumplings (easily the most flavorful vegetable filling a dumpling has ever delivered to my mouth), we had two sets of stool mates, but by the time our entrees showed up, it was completely different people on either side.

My side even changed a third time. It's like people were stopping at a filling station, not out to savor a holiday meal.

Oddly enough, several of them wanted to order off the lunch menu, further complicating things for the bartenders, who had their hands full making libations for all the people stuck with family obligations and toddlers jumping on the banquette at their tables.

Midway through my Kung Pao chicken, mercifully downgraded from two pepper spicy to one pepper spicy after our thoughtful barkeep asked if I was really wanting it that hot (uh, no), I realized that our scallion bubble pancake hadn't yet arrived. You see, it's not just the sublime pleasure of having bread with Chinese food that I was missing, but the essential means of cooling my mouth when multiple bites of Kung Pao sauce left lingering heat there.

Our bartender looked abashed when I asked about it and returned from the kitchen assuring us it was in progress. Ten minutes later when I asked again, it was still nowhere to be found. The irony was that once it did, a second pancake arrived shortly after and I was foolhardy enough to send it away.

What did you learn this Christmas, Karen? Never pass up a chance to enjoy a bonus scallion bubble pancake when it arrives unbidden.

The only problem with Peter Chang's is that there are no dessert offerings, but the moment I overheard the bartender mention eggnog to the couple to Mr. Wright's left, my dessert radar went on high alert. When he got a second, we asked about it and his face got a devilish grin.

"Oh, it's good," he assured us, ticking off the whiskey, rum and liqueurs battling for dominance in a glass of cream and nutmeg, all in the name of holiday overindulgence. Mr. Wright immediately ordered two and Christmas got a little brighter in Scott's Addition.

It was around then that I spotted a curator/fellow music lover and his wife seated at a high table behind us and called out a greeting, leading to a quick catch-up session hindered by the hordes of wannabe diners lining the space behind the bar stools. Finally, he suggested I email him soon instead.

By then it was after 7 and every available inch of space in the restaurant was taken over by people foolish enough to show up at prime eating time at one of the mere ten restaurants open on Christmas Day. Not to sound Scrooge-like, but we had zero empathy for them.

As I sucked the final swallow of creamy eggnog up the straw, I commented to Mr. Wright what a sad sound it was to hear. As he quickly pointed out, that was an easily solved problem. No one looked more surprised than the barkeep when we asked for two more.

C'mon, everyone knows that one counts as dessert and one counts as an after-dinner drink. And on a day that mattered not one little bit to a heathen and one of the Chosen People, we were only too happy to extend our stay for the sake of more nog.

But we're also not animals, so after the second round, we decided to abdicate our stools to a latecomer who seemed willing to trade his right arm for a place to sit and eat. When we told him that we'd arrived at 4 to score the prime real estate we were now ceding to him, he realized he was in the presence of pros and thanked us appropriately.

There may be a more perfect way to observe the official U.S. Work Stoppage Days, but if it doesn't involve first date redux, an abundance of Rose and obscene amounts of eggnog, I don't see how it could have suited us better.

You don't have to ask us to please stay twice.

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