The Epicurean Way

29 Mar

The art of living well and the art of dying well are one — Epicurus

As I dined Saturday evening, before one of the films of the Richmond French Film Festival, a waiter and I discussed the love of food and wine. “It’s following the Epicurean way,” he said. And I thought, yes. I do have a deep and abiding passion for tastes, but it goes beyond being a “foodie”. The sensuality of dining is one of my greatest pleasures, something I think most Americans do not practice nor understand well. If dinner isn’t served in less than twenty minutes at the local McRestaurant, they tap their proverbial toes. It’s devoured in half as much time and out they go, stuffed to the gills. Fine dining is Olive Garden? …seriously? Wine is sweet white or pink (ew…red) and mostly a feminine beverage. And the man drink, beer, is a watery pale which can be drunk by the half gallons. Over the years, it’s been amazing to me how little young adults know about food. I’ve had students who have never eaten a pear, nor a home made muffin, nor even seen a fresh fig. Most of them do not have families who cook or eat together. One poor soul did not know that pork was indeed a pig and these are academically bright, mostly affluent young people.

As a young person, I was lucky. A retired professor in my Italian class took an interest in me, recognizing a burgeoning love for culture. He took it upon himself to “train” my palate in both wine and food. I was learning to cook at the time, religiously watching episodes of Jeff Smith, the Frugal Gourmet. Through my professor friend and Jeff Smith, the basics of fine food, fine wine, and spirits as well as the beauty of dining were absorbed quite quickly. My first drink lesson was within a Manhattan, and I was probably the only college gal who regularly drank Cinzano on the rocks alongside a charcuterie board. From quiche to spanakopita, I cooked the old way, my oven producing fresh baguette and the pasta machine churning out fresh ribbons. My beau of those years was ever so happily fed. In a short decade, I could cook anything, most dishes sans recipe.

I won’t go further into my epicurean development, but needless to say, this past weekend’s visit to Carytown reminded me of just how much I enjoy all sorts of cuisine. In spite of an overwhelming number of choices, I leaned toward experiences which were most familiar to me in terms of fare or venue. Four meals present themselves as memorable, each one, reflecting a meaningful aspect of food and food culture for me.

Friday evening found me on Cary Street under the brightly striped awning of Ginger Thai Taste. The dining room inside is small, but the enormous deck will be a coveted space come summer. Seated at a beautiful eating counter facing the street, the energy of Carytown’s strip seemed far away from my peaceful tucked corner. Buddha and I sat together breathing in the sweet sharp vinegar, nuoc mam, and ginger scent. Along with an off dry Riesling, eating began with fresh shrimp spring rolls. Crisp lettuce, carrot, and basil bite stacked inside the tender wrapper, dunked into fresh peanut sauce. Lemongrass Tofu with fresh red and yellow pepper, broccoli, zucchini and button mushrooms came next in a medium spicy curry with Jasmine rice. What I adore about tofu is its ability to soak in other flavors. The sponge and barely tender vegetables tasted like a spinning pinwheel of color.

Saturday, I shopped post mid-day film and after a successful haul at Ashby’s Consignment, I crossed the street, shuffling down to Secco Wine Bar. On my walking tour of Carytown in January, this corner cafe was introduced to me. But now, filled with francophiles and among late afternoon knoshers, it felt like home. I ordered a glass of Foucher Chinon (2011), and then a quick menu browse and consultation with the bar mistress produced a slate of San Simon, Cashel Blue and bresaola with toasted baguette, dollops of grainy mustard and apple butter on the side. This type of meal is my absolute favorite. As a tiny tummied person, snacking is my main way of eating. Lingering over the flavors in sips and bites is my preferred dining experience; however, what increased my pleasure was the constancy of hearing the patrons in conversation around me. French is a most beautiful and romantic language and to be immersed in it while enjoying this type of fare is divine. C’était merveilleux.

Snow began in Carytown around mid-day Sunday, a wet icy shawl over the street which slowed the day’s pace. In the early afternoon, I stopped into Don’t Look Back, an upscale taco bar across from the Byrd Theater. I’m not a huge Mexican restaurant fan, as most are little better than a TexMex McDonald’s. However, I happened upon DLB’s first anniversary bash, including drink specials and free Dixie Donuts. Score. Local craft beers are a trend in fresh food establishments these days, and a Hardywood Chocolate Heat was my choice. A rich full bodied stout, it delivers a surprise hot pepper finish. A quick consultation with the bar man and fifteen minutes served up the most amazing fish tacos I have ever eaten. Traditionally prepared corn tortillas were filled with medium rare spicy seasoned cod cubes, pickled cabbage slaw, fresh lime, and sour cream. Two tacos were just right and only six bucks. Fresh food at its best, all the textures, colors, and flavors were in play together, even the tequila lime donut for dessert. This is bistro. . . Mexicano.

By far, this last meal was the most pleasurable, both for its sensory experience and for the company with whom it was enjoyed. A visit to Amour Wine Bistro had been the plan since meeting the owner Paul on my walking tour. What was most impressive to me about him was his excitement for the nuances of food and wine. He is like me in that respect. Each dish is like a poem for him, every word dense with meaning and connotation. In his choice of wine to serve with dishes, similar intuition and understandings of subtle flavor and character governs. He selects what best enhances both the food and the wine in balance. I could listen to him describe cuisine for hours, his delightful Bordeaux accent perfectly seasoning the description. I had no hesitation in allowing him to select the wine pairings with my menu choices. And when in an establishment focused on serving local seasonal food in authentic French style, the special of the day is the way to go. My three course dinner started with a savory mise en bouche, then an appetizer of grilled shitake. Paul chose Domaine Segiunot Bordot Chablis (2010) to accompany them. The lightly grilled mushrooms retained their firmness, nutty comte’ and sweet tart balsamic reduction rounded their earthy edges.

After another mise en bouche of watermelon and mint, fresh sautéed shad roe with lemon and capers served over sautéed brussels sprouts and golden smashed potatoes was my elaborate entrée. Having never eaten shad roe, I had no idea what to expect from what is often called the “foie gras of the sea”. I cannot describe its deliciousness, sea rich without fishiness, amazing mouth feel without heaviness. The slight bitterness of the capers balanced against the tart of the lemons all grounded on the potato base with a slight cabbage crunch. Paul chose a lovely fuller bodied Sancerre to accompany it. Délices célestes.

By the time dessert arrived, unbelievably, I was not overly full. That is the test to me of fine dining, to be satiated, yet still able to enjoy a tiny bit more of a loveliness. The films were running an hour or so behind, so I enjoyed the company of the waitstaff and Paul as well as fellow patrons. A warm salted caramel dark chocolate crème brulee was served with Made by G’s sparkling full berry Gamay. Raspberry cherry notes in a fully dry sparkling wine set off the smooth dark chocolate richness of the crème, salty caramel bits on the finish. The spoon was tiny for a reason, allowing me to really enjoy every bite.

So, you might ask. How in the world do you eat this sort food and still stay a proper weight? Well, I don’t eat it every day and I exercise… a lot. And I realize that to dine daily in such manner would be hedonistic at best. Like life, enjoyment in all pleasures should be held in balance, all the elements in harmony. One day, I won’t be able to revel in the world’s collage of sensory gifts and I must balance the “now” with the “then”. For that is the truest form of living . . the art in life and death.

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