Friday, February 22, 2019

Heart On My Sleeve

It's an aspirational thing. I do it for Julia Child.

After all, a woman who proclaims, "People who love to eat are always the best people" is essentially setting the bar for self-improvement. Of course I want to be the best possible person, so I love to eat. And if that requires lunch with one friend and dinner with others, I'll be the one to fall on that sword.

My lunch invitation came from a friend I hadn't seen (except in passing) in nearly two years. Even given how stupidly busy my life's been during that time, I knew we were overdue.

His suggestion was Saltbox at Willow Lawn and once I discovered they had eight oyster varieties on the menu, I was all in. The challenge was in choosing, but we eventually settled on Katama Bays (described as salt bombs, sweet-as-candy finish) from Martha's Vineyard after our server assured me they tasted like "a mouth full of ocean." Coming in second were Bayford Virginia's Shooting Stars, which were touted as salty, sweet, clean finish.

My only comment about oyster service concerns accouterments. Some of us believe that raw oysters should always be served with lemon wedges, even if I do mostly eat mine naked. The abundance of  offerings that rode shotgun were, to a one, the sort to mask the tantalizing taste of oysters, meaning they left me cold.

Sorry, if you're putting cocktail sauce,  basil-thyme mignonette, chimichurri or vinegar-heavy horseradish on your bivalves, you're dousing the flavor of the water that birthed them.

And this from a place with a sign humble-bragging, "We've served 26,000 oysters in our first 90 days!" And not a one with a lemon wedge?

Our table was set against a wall of windows that included a garage door that could be rolled up in good weather, although why anyone would want a view of the Willow Lawn parking lot is beyond me. I told my friend that a wise owner would add large pots of greenery to screen the car parade and bring the outdoors in a bit.

But, alas, we can't solve all the restaurants' problems, so we moved on to more important topics like local gossip and how crazy the restaurant scene here has gotten since we first met. Point in fact: if you'd told me ten years ago I'd be eating oysters at Willow Lawn, I'd have spit Muscadet in your face.

And then apologized, of course.

My choice for lunch was an avocado and shrimp salad starring jalapeno-ginger shrimp over watercress, avocados and radishes in a balsamic-mint vinaigrette, while Friend went safe with a crabcake sandwich and the requisite (at least to me) cole slaw. Favorite things about the lunch menu: how heavily pescatarian it was (only 4 of 14 items weren't from the water) and that their burger uses Monrovia Farms beef (as in, the same cows that made Lucy's a beef destination).

Unexpected dessert points went to an eclair cake that friend insisted we needed to share. Not really a cake, but layers of vanilla bean pudding, graham cracker crumbs and whipped cream were alternated with dark chocolate ganache and vanilla bean sea salt, a surprisingly winning combination given that it's a riff on a classic dessert that could have gone horribly wrong.

Although we did remarkably well at catching each other up on our lives since 2017, we both needed to get back to work, so we couldn't linger once the cake was history. I know I needed to get back to earning my keep for a few hours before heading out for dinner with friends.

After a busy afternoon that was supposed to be about writing but also included accepting nine new assignments, it was time to saddle up and go meet Holmes and Beloved for dinner at Amuse. It had been my suggestion since I couldn't recall the last time I'd eaten at the restaurant with the best art in town.

We arrived via the sculpture garden, strolling past the Chihuly red reeds and into the atrium where things were lively. A band was playing in Best Cafe and the African-American Read-in was going on, so people were milling about everywhere. Holmes and Beloved made a beeline for the elevator while I ascended the stairs, netting a compliment about my tights from a stranger on the way up.

Pays to get the exercise, kids.

I was just greeting the hostess, a native Californian and long-time acquaintance, when the elevator crew arrived. Recognizing Holmes, she quipped, "Oh, no, you're not with Karen's party, are you?" Holmes' reputation is legendary.

She led us to a table near the bar, a table so large that it was hard to hear each other, so we moved our chairs closer, leaving half the table unoccupied. That position afforded Beloved and I the reflection in the glass of the lighted back bar, putting both of us in mind of Manet's "Bar at Folies Bergere," minus the wasp-waisted bartender.

The Dynamic Duo starts every meal at Amuse with curry fried oysters with pickled vegetables and cucumber mint raita - our server said they'd changed up the recipe once and the regulars balked -  and who am I to buck tradition, but this one also began with one of tonight's specials: three glasses of Sublime Rose Grand Cru to set the mood pre-dinner.

An aptly-named wine, that's all I'm saying.

A bottle of J. Mourat Collection Rose accompanied my mussels and house bacon in a sauce described as white wine and butter (but which skewed heavily to the latter), Holmes' crabcakes over dirty rice and collards and Beloved's special of falling-off-the-bone short ribs.

The big news is that her broken elbow has healed enough that she can finally get a fork to her mouth with her right hand, but only if it's a long fork. Still, it's progress.

Holmes got off on a basketball tangent because his UR Spiders aren't doing well and he'd seen a  billboard that read, "Fire Coach Mooney!" Ignorant of such things, I asked if he agreed with that sentiment. "He needs to go," Holmes affirmed. "He has no magic to work."

I don't know that I've ever heard a finer explanation for getting rid of a man. No magic = gone.

I've long been a big fan of the vibe at Amuse because of the diversity of museum patrons who decide to spend time there. From the clutch of millennials in the low-slung green chairs to the dressed-up older couples who looked like donors to our unlikely posse, everyone seemed to belong, like figures passing through in a Seraut painting.

Once the dining room began clearing out, we moseyed back through the sculpture garden to Holmes' man-cave for dessert of radio bars, a delicacy I'd never heard of until moving to Richmond. After polishing that off, we spent the night listening to Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music albums while I ogled his handsome face and stylish clothes on the album covers.

The man was as stylish and timeless as Bowie.

Fittingly, we started with 1982's iconic "Avalon" and worked our way back to 1976's "Let's Stick Together," which included a stellar cover of Lennon and McCartney's "It's Only Love" done in that mellow cabaret style that he does so well. And don't get me started on the seductively poetic "To Turn You On."

Because unlike some men I could mention, Bryan Ferry will always have magic to work.

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