Tag Archives: dining

At the Home Bar

7 May

May arrives and suddenly, the weekends strangely dissolve too quickly for the lack of activities. Places to explore and events to attend are making way for graduations, holidays and garden work. My wandering seems to be making a seasonal change, too. Saturday morning I awoke, shuffled down to the kitchen to fix coffee and really saw my house again along the way. A slight pet hair stuffiness and thin layer of dust signaled a long stillness. I live here, to be sure, but I haven’t “lived” in this space in a while. And while much needed coffee brewed in my little pot, the prodigal daughter returned to the refrigerator only to discover a few assorted jars of mismatched condiments, olives, a half empty carton of soy milk and a few stray shriveled beets lying about, long past loneliness and well into languished repose. Sigh…. Yep, it’s time to start balancing home time with the road.

First order of business? Go grocery shopping, which I haven’t done in a major way in many months. Preparing food and creativity in the kitchen is something that makes me enormously happy, but whipping up the type of bells and whistles meals that are at the heart of that joy isn’t something I have mastered for one person at all. It seems useless to concoct a gourmet meal just for me. From scratch  cooking means quantity and merriment, which is what I love about food just as much as the dining aspect of it. However, this  something I am in short supply of, along with the cupboard items. As events slowed a bit this weekend, it was the perfect time to go to Charlottesville to some grocers I used to frequent many years ago. Since the trips of those days, my town has acquired an organic butcher, a fishmonger, organic bakeries, and believe it or not, Big Lots has foreign brands that may offer a gourmet score or three. The local Kroger has become more diverse and Anderson’s, the Amish bulk grocer features spices and grains of all variety for a most modest price. However, the day taught me truly how narrow my cupboard had become in the face of in-home solo dining and a starving lack of diverse culture ans acceptance in my area.

List in hand, up the road I went to my first stop, Foods of All Nations for a new love, Cafe du Monde. However, the primary emotion upon entering was the uselessness of the idea of picking up just one orange can and moving on to the next store. Four varieties were lined up on the shelf and the sheer availability of other gourmet items as well as organic and non-typical Lynchburg ingredients, lured me into idea after gustatory idea. My new “enlightened” grocery list began to stack up in my head while wandering each aisle. Oh, how I had forgotten “real” food.

Meyer lemons, fresh arugula in piles, cipolline onions. Black Italian kale, oyster mushrooms in heaped bins, blood oranges. San Marzano tomatoes, baby red lettuce and escarole. Kerrygold butter, clotted cream, crumpets, naan, lavosh, rusk. Swiss muesli, Scottish oats, rose macaroons, fresh baked fig bars, Sharwood’s curry sauce, Thai glass noodles, black sticky rice, fresh gnocci. Finnochiona, bresaola, pistachio romano. Cashel blue, Emmentaler, gravlax, fresh shad roe, wild salmon, duck breast, rabbit, cerignola and castlevetrano in vats. Sushi trays, Fentiman’s Orange Jigger, torrone, Cadbury flake, Belgian and Mexican chocolate, Ginger Chews, Ille Espresso. Vin Cotes du Provence…and on and on and onh… green tea ice cream. I am a foodie. I rest my shame.

The list began to become an overwhelming chaotic load of “anything you could ever want”. Every ingredient yielded an idea of something delectable, every aisle reminiscent of the complexities of the type of dishes I love creating. But so many choices, so many possibilities began to appear that I actually had to exit the store to gain a sense of direction and then go back in. Only daily items that could not be had at all in my hometown followed me out of this tiny specialty grocery. When a box of my favorite Irish cereal, Alpen, costs $9, I can really pair down my cultural food lust.

Driving through Charlottesville, I intended to stop in at Sam’s Club for the jumbo bag of raw almonds and baby spinach. But I noticed a new shopping complex and red lettered sign, marking a new grocery heaven: Trader Joe’s.

The first reaction to finding most everything I ever wanted at a decent price? Love at first sight, baby.

TJ, where have you been all my life!?

I wandered in awe, aisle after aisle, to the point where one worker finally asked,

“Ma’am, is there something I can help you find?”

Several ideas came to mind…

A new house closer to this store? A higher paying job so I can shop in this town without floating a loan? More foodies in my life who have time and inclination to eat and drink with me?

“Um…no thanks”, I said. “Just browsing.”

That sounded weird, I’m sure.

Fishing out my original shopping list curtailed my urge to plunder the aisles, while the fistful of Kroger coupons kept me from carting away basic items. Red peppers, proper Greek yogurt, cinnamon raisin crumpets, frozen potstickers and TJ’s Raisin Rosemary Crisps did make their way into the bag, though. While holding cans of turkey chili with white beans and mulligatawny soup, thoughts about why I enjoy preparing meals came to me. Yearning to cook is not necessarily because I love eating. The connection with others it provides is what I enjoy most. From the preparation to the sharing of it, I derive just as much if not more enjoyment in feeding others as I do myself. My grandmother’s nurturing influence shows in me quite a bit, I suppose. Those early years of life were spent around her table in communion with my most beloved ones and that feeling of connectedness surrounding food is what I most crave when I am home eating alone.


My shopping excursion ended at the golden Mecca of all grocery stores: Whole Foods. Traveling down the beautifully decorated and colorful aisles, the idea occurred that if all markets had such food diversity and opportunity, the cultural environment of a community would explode. But then again, a market reflects the patrons who frequent it, a recursive dynamic that is the “Catch 22” of culture. The needs of the community drive the marketplace, but more diverse needs and desires can’t engender without knowledge or funds to pay for them. Whole Foods is expensive. I won’t deny it. Premium prices are paid to support the carefully constructed displays, barrels of specialty coffee beans, stacked bins of foreign as well as local dry goods, olive oils as fine as wine, cheeses that span the globe from every milk producing domestic animal, grass fed meats, ultra fresh seafood, savory to sweet bakery and ultimately a commitment to organics and environmentally friendly products. And the employees are happy, it seems. I found loads of food knowledgeable helpful grocers there, not the typical high school graduate or retiree clerk who knows basically where the items are rather than what comprises them or how they can be prepared and enjoyed.

A paradigm shift will need to occur in this country as a whole before the joining of modern grocery needs and quality food products will happen, but I think it’s coming. Just last week I noticed that my town is building a Fresh Market, right around the corner. That’s promising. As I inconspicuously tried to shoot photos of the seafood department at Whole Foods, the lads there became curious, even when using the cell phone instead of the big girl camera. One asked, “Do you want to know about any of the items?” After a short chat about the salmon burgers they make there, he told me the feta, spinach one was best, and I trusted him. My dinner tonight will feature it alongside brown rice with an arugula, blood orange, pistachio, romano and oyster mushroom side salad with homemade balsamic vinaigrette. At my pop up counter in the kitchen, on a single place setting of 1920’s Japanese china I bought at an estate store, I’ll try to create a special place just for me. Dining at the home bar? I’m working on it.

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.

Every Other Sunday

27 Mar

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After long walks and longings over the homes and porches of Boulevard and Monument Ave in Richmond, Beloved gave me this.


Crossing the James this morning,
the light was just right.
The seeds of summer
in its edges,
grew thoughts of
late Sunday afternoons,
the shadows in
my southern soul.

I remember him
when May deepens on the steps
of my wide plank porch.
As always,
heavy magnolia breezes would sweep
their fingers through the embroidered edges
of dogwood blossomed muslin
draped like moss over
the table.

He’d sit
in cushioned willow reed,
white linen collar,
sleeves rolled in soft squares.
Resting chin in hand,
fingers spread across his lips
as always.

I’d begin.

He would recline,
right elbow
on the chair’s wide arm,
right leg crossed,
ankle on knee,
argyle sock like
a surprised cock’s crest
from his trouser’s
crisp cuff,
his toe pecked
in cordovan Oxford.

As always,
his eyes would hold
intent hazel bemusement
at my story,
perhaps some questionable character
had crossed my path
or I would deliver an account of
once too often
from a Saturday night
glass of gin.

Limoges lies
over the table.
As always,
he’d move the plates aside.
A julep would sweat the hour
in its cold silver cup
before a plate
of orange honeyed ham,
aside it
warm biscuits
and damson jam.

In the temperate air,
the phonograph would call. . .
Want another? I would rise,
hands smoothing down
blue rose aproned thighs.

As always, shugah. His prodigal sigh.
In passing, my palm
might press his suit shoulder;
one finger might linger.

Upon the dome
of my freckled
skin and bone
his wanton thumb,
might reply,
a proper pastor,
as always.

–for chp–

But Saturday, I Didn’t Care

13 Mar

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Some days are a perfect chain of events likecrystal beads on a long strand around my neck, having so many facets it’s hard to pick the sparkles. And in the speckles of light, all one can really do is sit back and watch the play, the starry arch of a day unfolding. Hours are lengthening now, warm light lingering around in the breeze. And in its wake, as Shakespeare says, come thronging soft and delicate desires.

This weekend was full of such wonderfulness that I don’t know where to begin or how to sort. Part of me thinks, “Why bother to craft this word- hoard, to tease out the connective tissues of the experience. Why not just say, Here’s what I did…here’s how it felt…here, let me show you that the world is so big sometimes you can’t get your arms around it all.” Perhaps I should just say, “I laughed. I drank. I ate. I sang. I danced”. And the only thing that could have made it better would have been arriving home to something I’m really not willing to discuss publicly, but let’s just say that the day’s events didn’t make it any better. It’s spring and its incipient wantoness is beginning to set me on’t. So gentle reader, I’m about to go down a path of no return. It might be personal; it may be titillating; it may lead you to wonder. I’ll just tell the story because Saturday, I just didn’t care.

It snowed heavily up in the valley this week, but the warm spring turning was melting it quickly. Water ran the road and the rocky mountainside on my way to Staunton, VA. I stopped the car so many times to snap a photo, hopped out in an outfit that is the epitome of my quirk: black jodphurs and ankle boots, black suede vest, double poet’s shirts with high ruffled necks and large billowy sleeves, strands of beads jingling about my neck. At one point, someone actually thought I was part of the American Shakespeare Theater, my main activity for the day. Since Ocracoke, I barely brush my hair anymore. It dries in wild crinkle- curled whisps and I dress in contrasting layers of color and era out of the Goodwill and consignment shops. Beads, vintage hats, fringe, feathers and scarves decorate me like some rag tag tousled gypsy. This wildness mixed with a mild hedonism has spread over me like a crazy quilt. My stitches, all come loose. But Saturday, I didn’t care, so I wore what expresses this wild beauty that has taken residence in my spirit.

The first event of the day was at Blackfriar’s Playhouse to see Wycherly’s The Country Wife, a naughty comedy of manners from the 17th century. I laughed at his farcical take on the sexual and romantic appetites of men and women. This hilarious romp was bawdy and bad and several times I laughed way too loud to have been seated on my gallant’s stool on stage in plain view. But Saturday, I didn’t care and so I laughed anyway, hooted and snickered and giggled at every dirty joke. I raised my eyebrow, put my hand over my mouth, didn’t stop to worry when the crowd missed the nuance of language. I was totally absorbed, the words so beautiful, so elaborate, so juicy that they made me squirm. Upon entering, the cast was already performing saucy songs of a more modern ilk, Prince’s Kiss being one of them, sung by a gentlemen clothed in one of the most alluring eras of men’s haberdashery. Yes, this lass is all about some frock coats, ruffled shirts, and button front breeches. First thought? Uh oh, I am so in trouble. Ces pantalons dangereuses. And for me the witticisms, quips, and rakish wordplay is just as provoking as the costume. The art of intellectual coyness has been lost in the modern age, much to my dismay. As much as Wycherly focuses in on the husband as cuckhold and the wife as baggage, he balances it with the pretty young wench as mistress and handsome rake as “china” to be plundered. Through all, one thought remained clear: both men and women have the same desires, and use whatever means necessary to meet them. It’s as much about power as it is about physical desire. As Lady Fidget says, “we women of quality never think we have china enough” ….Amen, sister.

I shopped after the play, first stopping at a chocolatier. Normally, I do not indulge, but Saturday, I didn’t care. I lusted over Bailey’s truffles, chocolate dipped candied ginger, white chocolate bark and gold dusted Gran Marnier bits of lusciousness. The Cocoa Mill was filled with the thick rich smell of it and resisting the tiny tidbits was nearly impossible. I refrained, until spying the chocolate dipped apricots lolling obscenely about on their crystal cake plate. They begged. I withdrew. But it was Saturday and I didn’t care, so I bought one and promptly devoured its sticky sweet fruitishness on the spot. Among the shops, I strolled. My first conquest a new journal, Celtic knot heart on the cover, declaring “Walk this World with Hearts on Fire”. It will hold the next few months of the road.

My afternoon amble through the town ended at Ox Eye Vineyards tasting room. That is when the next temptation arrived and it wasn’t just the wine. A quite handsome gentleman tended the tasting flights; engaging him in conversation was required. Yes!


There’s that moment, you know that moment, before talking to someone you are so physically attracted to you find it hard to form a thought. That pre-conversation mind racing where you breathe slowly and pray, “Please God, don’t let me sound like an idiot. Because I’m melting already and may just end up saying something like: Hi, I’m a rutabaga and its nice to meet you too…or Oh.my.god, you are the most gorgeous thing I’ve seen in months and I’d really like to see your…. china.” I’ll stop right there; you get the picture. But Saturday, I didn’t care, so I smiled charmingly while sipping and thought about …things…. and enjoyed the view …. and then the wine…a lot. Sigh. Okay, enough.

Dinner came at sunset, a beautiful orange spreading over the blue mountains like silk on fire. Zynodoa, a locavore’s paradise, was my dining destination. Sitting in my usual bar spot, I enjoyed more Ox Eye Riesling along with two small plates, a salad of butter lettuces, black eye peas, fried onions and pancetta with buttermilk dressing and a flash fried flounder on papardelle over pureed cauliflower with sautéed wild mushrooms on the side. I won’t tempt you with the description of the flavors, but needless to say the sinful savory and sweet, softness and bite had my eyes rolling back in my head. Zynodoa’s food is ah-mazing, the atmosphere close, dim, intimate and inviting. I’ll be back, often.

Debating whether to go to Byers Street Bistro for music, I checked in with Clarence in the back seat. Mr. Sleepy yawned, “Go ahead Mom. It’s Saturday. . . I don’t care.” So I drove down three blocks and popped into a raucous college bar to hear 3/5 of Maybe Tomorrow play some acoustic sets, late 80’s through aughties pop and dance tunes. Even though it didn’t seem to be my sort of venue at first, I slowly began to blend after the music started. I swear if you call out anything these guys know it, and play it well. When they hit “Love is What I Got”, “Save Tonight” and “Two Princes”, up onto the tiny dance floor I went and then the stairs. After set one, I was feeling so fine and the crowd was as well by observing the dance floor. Despite the time change and long drive home, this Cinderella stayed well past midnight. So. I know you’re wondering…did I drop my slipper?

I laughed. I drank. I ate. I sang. I danced.

But I kept my shoes on.

Cause it was Saturday and I didn’t care.

That’s What You Do

7 Mar

You never know who you’re going to meet seated up at the bar…or who will want to meet you. It’s been interesting, the people with whom I have crossed paths and their response to me. And to be perfectly frank, men seem to be the most affected by my solo seating in a variety of ways. For the large part, I don’t have issues. Most are respectful, friendly and/or interested in what I am doing so they ask questions. Other times, though, it seems I’m impeding on their private world by sitting there all on my own, pen in hand, not requiring assistance or soliciting company. I’m not antisocial by any means, nor unapproachable. I’ll talk to anyone if not deep in writing or my internal GPS warning doesn’t fire up. I try my best to add to intelligent conversation when engaged; the pub is like United Nations of the common man. I try to blend, adding as much as the next diplomat.

Sunday night, I stopped at Blue Mountain Barrel House after my day in Charlottesville. Post Wine Expo, I was in need of a little beverage change and Blue Mountain crafts it’s own range of beers. The bar area, toward the back of the restaurant, is definitely not the main feature, though. The outside Tiki Bar and patio are. In the summer, I will definitely be there socializing. The wide landscaped patio has an amazing view of the Blue Ridge and when it’s not 40 degrees, I can imagine an evening there is one of the best parties in Nelson County.

I could easily tell the bar area was a “man zone” upon approach. Basketball on TV? Check. Pretty plain and angular in décor? Check. Mostly men seated there? Check. A lot of pubs are like this, but it doesn’t really phase me much. Blue Mountain’s atmosphere was lively, but not obnoxious. Comfortably seated between two gentlemen, I pull out my gear: smartphone, notebook, pen. Trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, the big girl camera often stays in the car if there’s the sense it may be crowded. Three young men in ball caps and jeans were next to me huddled in story and confidence, enjoying each other and a few pints. Ah, the lads, I thought. Good places always have a group of regular lads, they add character.

The bar mistress brought me a Dark Hollow first, a bourbon barrel stout. Sweet, smooth, and chocolaty at a whopping 10%, it arrived in a ladylike goblet. We chatted briefly about pizza, one of the main features of the menu. She recommended the local sausage, but it’s large and there’s only me. I do like leftover pizza for lunch, but not for seven days running, so eventually I ordered chicken wings. Blue Mountain’s menu has the pub spirit, offering burgers, hotdogs, and sandwiches as well as gourmet pizza. And when in Rome, eat as the gladiators.

After some time, I drifted into sporadic conversation with the lad next to me while scribbling notes, but when the bar mistress arrived to say they had run out of wings, “Lad” went into action. He was actually one of the chefs, enjoying his day off, but began a quest to find more wings for me. I was content to order something different, but a lad on a quest is not to be denied. Wings were found and sent to the main kitchen, but as all frozen items prepared quickly in anticipation of pleasing a customer, they were underdone. I understand the mechanics of cooking, and it wasn’t an issue, but what I appreciated most was the commitment to serve what I wanted. I reordered differently, though, and the staff began to make up for the experience …something not necessary, but greatly appreciated. The manager paid for my beer that night, and I enjoyed another of their brews, a Local Species, fruity and oaky, it was lighter but just as full- bodied and balanced as the previous stout.

When I finally dove into my dinner, (Caesar with Crab Cake) Lad queried me to make sure the food was to my liking. It was apparent that the kitchen should reflect his level of commitment and we chatted about last summer, the outside crowds and bar action. He reminisced about the derecho of 2012, how they worked in nearly 100 degree heat, but all the while having a grand time together. Our conversation was light, as he traded lines back and forth with his friends and the bar mistress, patting me on the shoulder at times in friendly banter. One of the cooks in the back, clad in an Angry Birds hat characterized the jovial spirit there. Lad commented upon his never taking it off and went to retrieve him later for a picture at my request. Anything I asked for that night was gladly provided and the service was genuine and wonderfully friendly. They even sent me home with a half of a local sausage pizza on the house, just to make sure I had tried it. The pizza was delicious. Whole wheat thin crispy crust with Double H farm spicy sausage, thinly slivered red and green peppers, and mozzarella bubbling on top. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of pizza, but for pizza and beer in Nelson…there’s only one place I’ll go now.

What I noticed most was the easy going nature and cameraderie of the people who worked there. They were attentive but not overly so, even in their attempt to make my experience the best. And Lad and his friends at the bar didn’t seem to mind me drifting in and out of conversation while eating and scribbling. These experiences make it easy to dine while traveling solo. However, this is in huge contrast to an experience I had during the writing of this post. Last night, seated at my home bar, iPad out and posting a few pics to Instagram on my phone, a gentleman on my left interrupted.

“You need to get a third now, huh…”

He was referring to my two mobile devices in use, but I could tell by his inflection that he was slightly annoyed for some reason.

“No, I use the iPad to write, and the phone for Internet…there’s no wifi here”, I say directly looking him in the eye, flat voice that said I minded the interruption.

“Yes, there is. My wife has wifi here. Hey! there’s wifi here right?” He shouts to my bartender.

His wife tells him quietly that a password is needed.

“Hey!” he shouts. “What’s the password?” And one of the waitresses standing at the bar begins to recite the password to me whether I want it or not.

“Yeah”, he says, “there’s the password”, as he motions for me to type it into my iPad.

The password doesn’t work because the signal is weak. He begins to talk loudly to the couple on my right.

He stops. “Hey! Did it work?”,  he interrupts as I am trying to go back to my writing.

“No.” I say, not looking up.

“Did you put it in right?” He repeats the password to me, insisting I stop writing to put in the code. As I begrudgingly do this, he begins to lean way into my left to engage the couple on my right again in a lively conversation over top of me as if I am not sitting there.

I sit straight up in my chair,in the exact middle of their conversational view.

“Excuse me.” I say, sincerely. “Would you all like to sit together? I mean, then you can talk. I’ll move down. I don’t mind.”

“OH”, he pipes up immediately “EXCUSE ME, I didn’t mean to BOTHER you with our TALKING…I mean it’s a bar… that’s what you DO…”


Maybe that’s what YOU do asshole, but I was here first writing, minding my own business until you commandeered my iPad to help me without thinking first that maybe I didn’t need and / or want the help.

I immediately stand up and move to another chair.

He calls after me. “Oh SORRY. I didn’t know you wanted to be QUIET”, he remarks sarcastically.

I go back, moving very close to him and say in my teacher voice,

“No, I’m not really here to be quiet. I’m here to write.”

I pick up my iPad, post half written on the screen.

“Its what I come here to DO.”

Times like these generally only happen with men my age or older for some reason and its happened more than once. I haven’t figured out why. Perhaps they have preconceived notions about why a woman would be by herself at a bar. Perhaps it’s some misdirected sense of chivalry. At one function, a kind older gentleman with whom I chatted admitted later in our conversation that he thought my picture taking was only an attempt to be comfortable in the room without a date. In essence, I was hiding behind my camera. Of course, after I stopped taking pictures and began to converse and dance, he changed his assumption.

Maybe its generational, but the most of the younger generation don’t see it that way. And while they offer to help or simply have a conversation, they generally don’t make gender role assumptions and then push on. In the United Nations of the bar, I suppose roles shift and change, but we meet there and it’s important. The pub is the community living room. The relationships there affect our experiences either positively or negatively. Hopefully, we’ll all get along enough to connect and enjoy ourselves….or simply just allow each other to be.

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A Plateful of Memory

18 Feb

In the front seat of my grandpa’s Impala
I guess it was late summer in ’63
he said, I’m gonna get you a big old burger with a small town’s worth of flavor
you know it’s the finest place in our little town to eat. . .

. . .So give us this day our daily bread
and remember the truth is gonna set us free
and she said what are you doing here alone on another Saturday night
and I said ah I’m just a being me
besides it’s the finest place in our little town to eat

Neon lights, all night diner
Anita’s right on time with my coffee and extra cream

— Brian Hall, Anita Pours Coffee

Last week was a bit rough. A new earlier morning regimen had me a tad sleep deprived and with a mid week jaunt to DC to Ash Wednesday service at the National Shrine, a slight pestilence was trying to gain a foothold in my throat. So when Cupid’s Day rolled around, I was achy and a bit homesick. But I decided to take myself out to dinner for the day of love anyway in memory of one of my favorite dinner companions…my grandaddy. If there was anyone I’d love to spend a nice Valentine’s dinner with, it would be him. Granny always tells the story that when I was little, he took my high chair down to the basement and sawed the bottoms of the legs off so it would sit up to the table evenly right beside him. My feet never hit the ground for the first three years of my life, according to her. I was a permanent fixture in his arms. Naturally a diner, something with a bit of the south and of nostalgia seemed the place to go to remember him and to feel well…more like dinner felt back then.

Market at Main was my destination, and for a single diner, it’s perfect with a long marble counter, friendly waitstaff, and a full view of the kitchen. I had eaten there before a few times, but always for brunch, never for dinner. So with a photo of Grandaddy on my phone, I went downtown for homestyle southern diner fare.

The atmosphere of Market at Main has all the right features of a nostalgic forties diner, but with a lot more space. The ceilings are high which opens up the atmosphere without making a counter diner seem exposed or cold. That aspect I like quite a bit, and there is something to be said about barstools at just the right height. Many bars have seats too low to rest one’s arms properly on the counter, or too high to cross one’s legs properly underneath. I felt quite comfortable in my swivel seat almost immediately. The only aspect of the restaurant I don’t enjoy is that the open kitchen, while fascinating to watch, emits a normal cooking smoke and the smell permeates my hair and clothes. When I leave, I know I have been there. They have large ceiling fans, but it’s the down home cooking, real cooking that resonates in the air. Whenever I cook bacon at home the same thing happens. I suppose it’s like finding a tiny bit of manure in the mushroom carton, it lets a person know that the food is real. That’s more important, to me anyway.

Two of the waitstaff greeted me quickly and I was tended to with great care. For the holiday evening, a special menu was available and it was really hard for me to choose. One aspect I did not anticipate was the availability of beer and wine, something not typically diner-esque, but a nice touch. I ordered a Raywood Merlot that was soft and slightly tannic. My first course of fried green tomatoes balanced with it nicely. They were tart and savory, paired with a spicy mustard remoulade sauce that had good peppery heat. Even though they were a tiny bit soft for my tastes, everyone has his or her own recipe. These were more tender, thicker cut, so the coating was less crispy than I had enjoyed at breakfast previously. Again, real food has variation…probably from cook to cook as well. It might even be the season, too. Green tomatoes in winter aren’t typical seasonal fare.

Among a few delicious sounding choices, I chose the Tango Pork: pork loin medallions with a citrus balsamic glaze and fried plantains, collards on the side along with grilled zucchini. I almost bent to the macaroni and cheese, but held off. I didn’t think it would quite mesh with a citrusy glaze. The only aspect of the special menu selection that I didn’t like was that the entrees didn’t seemed to be paired well to available sides. They were most definitely southern classics, but I began to think that perhaps the specials should stick to classic southern rather than “fancy fare”, one of the reasons I didn’t choose the Pink Chicken, with its raspberry, white wine cream sauce. My dinner was delicious, nonetheless, the glaze on the pork not overly fruity nor sweet. Both the collards and zucchini were ultra fresh and not over cooked, which is usually the case in most restaurants that serve greens. I could have ordered just collards and the macaroni and cheese, that would have definitely reminded me of being at Granny’s, maybe next time.

The plantains, however, weren’t cut to fry well and I honestly thought they were bananas, really not to my liking. Overall though, the food was solid and real, but I think trying to be something it wasn’t. No matter what, the menu should stick close to cafe southern, even on a holiday. That’s the whole appeal of the place, and pretty much the only place I know of to get home cooking that isn’t like a cafeteria or haute Lowcountry. Is there a category for Gourmet Virginian? There are plenty of fancy Valentine’s Day dinners out there in beautifully decorated candlelit spaces. Southern diner though is quaint, loving and warm and it should just be that, even with the food. Simple food made by nurturing hands. That is the soul of southern cooking to me.

Market at Main does have that quality and that that extends to the people there as well. I don’t think I’ve been some place where so many people smiled at me or wanted to tend to me. It was like Granny’s, the “what can I get you”, “how you doing baby” sort of feeling. I like that, especially on a Valentine’s Day when I was tired and a tiny bit homesick for family loving. That was soon remedied, though. One of the cooks, who had previously come by to ask me how my dinner was, came out of the kitchen again to talk to one of the patrons. As he did, he pulled a tiny frame out of his pocket and began to talk about his grandfather. My ear perked up immediately. Then, he went to show another coworker and then another waitress. I asked if he’d show me. What a genuinely nice young man. He came over, proud as punch and showed me the tiny black and white framed photograph of his grandfather, Irvin Lloyd Hoyt.

“He was in the Coast Guard”,  he said smiling. “Doctors gave him five years to live back in ‘72 cause he had black lung from being a coal miner.”

He told me he had passed away only a few weeks ago at 89. But that picture told me how this young man saw his grandad, as a hero and he was so proud. And I thought, he was carrying his loved one with him on Valentine’s Day, just like I’m carrying my granddady with me. That picture means the world to him, one small way he can express his love for a great man in his life.

We shook hands and formally met.

“Hi, I’m Jeremy.”

It was a genuinely good moment, one that reminded me of seeing a cousin again after a long time, family connecting two virtual strangers. I didn’t show him the photo of Grandaddy on my phone, but I did tell him how much of a grandaddy’s girl I am. I could tell in the smile we shared that he understood.

I’ve been thinking of family this Valentine’s Day, and how important it is to remember and be remembered. I like to think we take our family with us everywhere we go, in our smiles, in our handshakes and hugs, sometimes literally in our pockets. Simple love extends to all sorts of endeavors and at times, the best food is made and enjoyed with family in our hearts and minds.

A Tale of Two Su-sees

11 Feb

Several years ago I went through a Japanese “phase”. From art to literature, food to costume, gardens to architecture, I dove into learning as much as I could. Back then, the concrete courtyard of my tiny carriage house in downtown was a tribute to Japanese style with Zen gardens, a bath house, and whiskey barrel pond with fish and fountain. Summer was spent with my own version of a far Eastern paradise right outside the door. I learned to make sushi and probably elevated my mercury levels way beyond proportion in the process, but I fell in love with Japanese culture and food.

When Ten announced that it would participate in Charlottesville’s restaurant week, my sushi excitement level rolled up a notch. Even though last Saturday was bitterly cold and snow showers set in as Clarence and I zoomed up the road, I began to anticipate not only sampling authentic sushi, but trying sake again. It seemed a milder form of rubbing alcohol in my first experience of it and recently the only sushi I had been diving into was the Kroger variety spicy tuna roll; any port in a Pacific storm, I suppose. So I was eager to experience a “real” Japanese restaurant.

Briskly clicking down the bricks of Charlottesville’s downtown mall, I found the door to Ten and climbed the stairs, grateful for the warm ambiance that greeted me. The peaceful spa-like atmosphere comes mainly from lighting, glass globes like tiny bubbles floating upward to the water’s surface, hung from the mirrored ceiling. Marbled candlelight glows about the room; clear glass sculptures echo the light in celadon green and dark brown. The narrow length of the restaurant and its up-the-stairs location create a sense of a diminutive isolated inlet. Perched on my bar stool with low back and comfortable cushion, I gazed at the strip of sunset style lighting behind the bottles on the bar. The entire experience at Ten spoke of precision and reflection, reminding me of the traditional tea ceremony I attended during my Japanese summer. My place at the bar was set with all the necessary accouterments of Japanese eating, little plates, hashi, and tiny vessel of tamari placed in precise order. Efficient but professionally warm, described my bartender as he suggested I try a flight of sake to match my selections from the prix fixe menu. And so a feast of tiny ocean tidbits rolled out by an electric sunset. The first course of seared hamachi adorned by tiny micro greens was paired with a dry sake, Tamari Hikari “Brilliant Jade”. Slightly jasmine scented, the sake changed in interaction with the food, the slightly salty smoky grilled tuna turning the sake sweet. I lingered over the first course, for it was so tiny that in American style, it could be consumed in less than a minute. But I thought about the tea ceremony, and the invitation to reflect while in practice, tasting fully each bite and putting the hashi down, each time.

A second course followed, a spicy tuna maki (maguro, avocado, kyri, and togarashi). The sauce was tomato based and with a dark rich spicy sweet cayenne burst that paired well with the next sake, Kabota Senju “A Thousand Dreams” . This sake had a mellowed, more round edge to it that balanced the spicy richness of the maki. During my second course, I noticed one of the waiters had come around to the back of the bar, and was focused on crafting a sunset style drink. Another waitress teased him slightly, “You’re like a scientist!” He chuckled, “I just want to make it right”. And he did take a full two minutes to get the grenadine to set exactly. That attentiveness to detail and to method permeated Ten. From first to last course, the perfection and structure of the food and dining room walked a very thin line between elegance and pretension. In my mind, that’s what happens when the fear of being “only” just as good as everyone else comes to the point of “overdoing”…..i.e. perfectionism. Even though my final course, a chef’s choice of temari sushi topped with varying fish roe and served with semi dry Dasai 50 “Otter’s Fest” was delicious and delicate, a slight nagging vacuity never left my mind.

This past Friday upon visiting a second Japanese cafe close to my home, Suzaku, I figured out my feelings. I drive by the place all the time and really never gave it much credit. Another Americanized Asian greasy spoon was what I had assumed. They serve sushi, and sushi crepes.

Yes, sushi crepes. That’s like bbq chicken pasta in my book.

I can be pretentious myself about food, however, so I decided in light of my Ten experience to pick up some sushi take-out. How do I describe the ambiance of Suzaku? Chinese food take-out meets Japanese Disneyland, with a huge dose of American standard strip mall. But it’s extremely clean, it’s warm, and it’s real. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles played on the flat screen TV, amid candy colored painted furniture and brightly colored Asian themed decorative items, jade frog included. The clerk who greeted me was so friendly and sweet when I asked her about ordering to go. She explained the menu to me, struggling through her heavy accent. As she went back to making crepes in the open kitchen (for me, a sign of excellence in food) I perused the menu. Nearly everything I had ordered at Ten was listed, perhaps named differently, but still the same sushi (or su-see) as she pronounced it, nonetheless. Su-see is su-see no matter where, as long as its made properly. I tried the Green Bay crepe, filled with seaweed salad, shrimp tempura, avocado, cucumber and fish roe with a side order of Maguro Nigiri. Even though I took the food home and didn’t have the perfectly paired sake, it was just as good, maybe even better. I watched the chef at Suzaku prepare my nigiri, rice fresh from the cooker, fresh fish sliced thin and fine. The clerk made my crepe, which surprisingly, was pretty awesome and I discovered something about myself. While I revel in fine food and spirits, I’ve been mesmerized by slight affectation in venue. My bill at Ten was a cool $80, just for me. At Suzaku? Eleven bucks.

Maybe this attentiveness to perfection includes me, too. I’ve stressed about my writing and I should just let go sometimes. Perhaps Disneyland and su-see are what I need to lighten me. It seems the only time I’m able to write about something funny is when the plan goes horribly awry. Seeing the lighter side just might give me a different way of looking at traveling this road. Light, unassuming, and simple, sometimes the best places and people don’t take themselves so seriously.

Chicken Fried and Unsanctified

1 Feb

Sunday morning in Roanoke, I ventured downtown in search of a coffee shop. We have Starbucks in Lynchburg, but I somehow feel it doesn’t qualify. Not that I dislike my local Starbucks. I visit it daily. Coffee is sacred to me. I’m a night person who has risen pre-dawn against her will for the last quarter century, ten months out of the year. They know me well.

Venti Bold

Monday through Wednesday, red eye

For the rest of the blurred week, black eye.

At my mom’s house its raspberry decaf? Right.


That morning was also about trying to find a little peacefulness once again. My mom cannot connect with me without verbal communication. It’s impossible for her to just be in the same room with me in silence. It drives me insane. I can’t think. And as a non morning person for ALL of my life, I wonder what kind of “eye” four shots of espresso to a cup is.

So, I trekked down to Mill Mountain Coffee as early as I could manage. Once again, I couldn’t find a “Ryan cafe au lait”. He is the king of the baristas and no one can touch him. If I want a proper cafe au lait, I’ll have to drive nine hours to Ocraocoke to get it. Believe me, I’ve contemplated the drive.

Ending up at Mill Mountain with high expectations was a mistake; the morning went south from there. While I am able to excuse the poor cafe au lait making, I really can’t tolerate abrasively loud screeching laughter among late teen-aged baristas. It was early,on a Sunday, and they were waaaaay too happy and loud. She had one of those laughs that just crawls down into a person’s ear like those creatures from the Wrath of Khan, the ones that drove the crew of the Enterprise into automatonic murderous rages. I stayed for an hour and then I just couldn’t take it any longer. I even threw away the poor excuse for a red eye cafe au lait without finishing it. Mistake one. Bad coffee is better than no coffee, in the grand scheme of things.

So I searched for a new coffee place and drove around downtown Roanoke for literally 45 minutes. Nothing. Not any sort of a comfortable spot with wifi and a decent cuppa joe. On the fly then, I decided to just go eat breakfast. I had seen Thelma’s Chicken and Waffles the night before with my mom and had attempted to look up the brunch menu on the Internet. When I found an empty page, that should have been my first clue to turn back…but I didn’t.


What occurred at Thelma’s has to be the most hilariously pathetic excuse for a brunch I have ever encountered. I almost don’t want to write about it, but because I care about my possible readership’s palates, pocketbooks, and their health I will venture on into the abyss that is Thelma’s.

Let me preface this soapbox review by saying I know that what modern Americans regularly ingest as “food” is in direct opposition to my definition of edible substance. But I grew up with a granny that could cook and I know what home style food is. Freshly made southern home cooking and that is definitely NOT what Thelma’s serves.

I entered the bar area and ordered “the largest coffee you can muster”. I’m sorry.When a customer says that to you, you find the largest cup the kitchen has even if it’s a bowl. He brings me a diner mug, ignoring the twice as large Irish glass coffee mug hanging behind him and nothing else. I had asked for cream and artificial sweetener. He plunks down two plastic cuplets of creamer and a sugar shaker.

Okay… Strike one.

I ask him for a menu. This brilliant lad responds with, “You wanna eat here?” Even though he probably questioned whether I truly wanted to eat at the bar, I should have taken him seriously.

“Um…yeah”, I say. “That’s why I’m here at a bar at 10:30 on a Sunday morning.”

So I gaze at the menu and everything includes waffles on the side. I just want waffles, maybe with some eggs but just waffles. What kind of a restaurant that has waffles in the name does not serve waffles unless it’s a side? They serve pancakes solo. Why not (eureka moment) waffles?

I had to order the country ham platter with waffle on the side. Apples, not hash browns came next and no toast nor a biscuit, just a waffle.

He says, “No substitutions …I’ll have to charge you extra for the waffle.”

“Okay”, I say. I start a slow boil as I think, just bring me a damn waffle.

After three cups of watery coffee, for which I had to ask for cream three times, I finally get a platter.

Eggs, check.

Why is there a biscuit? strike two.

Why are there hash browns instead of apples? ball one.

And what the heck is this, I think in horror as I spy something that looks like onion rings.

“Excuse me”, I ask. “What is this?”

“That’s ham”, he says like I’m an idiot. “That’s good ham.”

“What? “I say incredulously, “It’s breaded. Why is my country ham … breaded?”

From the look of irritation on his face, I could tell that my question was a completely foreign concept to his mind. Why wouldn’t country ham be chicken fried? Jeez, lady aren’t you from the south? That’s what his look said to me as he turned around and walked away.

Strike Three. I’m outta here.

I began to laugh because I wanted to cry. I have spent my entire life in Virginia. I know cuisine better than 95 % of most Americans and I can cook it as well and you are trying to tell me that Smithfield country ham is meant to be chicken fried like a Walmart tater?

Riiiiiiighhht…Okay mon garçon.

I sent the hash browns back for the apples I ordered.

“Here”, he says. “Just keep them; it was the kitchen’s mistake.”

“No, you don’t understand”, I say. “I’m not going to eat them. I didn’t order them so that means I don’t want to eat them.”

He glares at me. “Eh, suit yourself”, he says.

I left the pre-frozen Pillsbury/ Sam’s Club biscuit on my plate, too. The eggs were real, I think, and the waffle I did eat with the margarine on top. It was the same kind of waffle you’d make yourself at the Hampton Inn when the continental breakfast is included with the 60 dollar a night room. But then, I tried the chicken fried ham… shudder. I’ll not regale you with details.

I paid eleven dollars for a meal I didn’t eat and then asked to use the restroom. All that coffee. Another nightmare awaited me because someone had become sick the night before and it had not been dealt with. The other stall had no locking mechanism; it swung open freely. As I exited with full bladder, I greeted the girl coming in behind me.

“Good luck.”

The only thing that could save the day was walking, a lot of it. And trying not to lose my cool that I had spent money in a place that wasn’t worthy to call itself anything beyond a glorified Waffle House, which shockingly serves waffles as a main course. I mean, Cracker Barrel even does that though crackers aren’t on the menu. But, I walked downtown Roanoke and took plenty of pictures, and went into the newly renovated market building. Next time I will go to Firefly Fare. Locally sourced, freshly made, hot and real, it was where I ought to have gone all along.

So you may say, Well, home cooking is like that Cyndi. What did you expect?

I’ll tell you what I expected. I expected something like my granny’s gently fried country ham with red eye gravy nestled beside two scrambled eggs cooked in the same pan as the ham. Then, a Belgian waffle (made with egg whites whipped until stiff, but not dry and folded into the batter) lightly laced with syrup and cinnamon. It doesn’t have to be real maple but the kind that doesn’t have high fructose corn syrup as the main ingredient. I even may have expected an angel biscuit like Granny’s with damson or cherry preserves, that little bit of summer in a jar. Alongside it should be a coffee; even the kind Granny used a percolator to make would have done fine. Strong, clear and brisk with cream. That is what I expected. And although the morning did not give me the gift of a great coffee and stunning brunch, it did give me a memory of my granny’s hands, her blue rose apron, her warm kitchen and comforting table, and a memory of what home cooking ought to be. Maybe next time, I’ll just go to Granny’s and make her coffee and breakfast instead.

An Old Fashioned Snow

28 Jan

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Elizabethan black suede heels were entirely inappropriate, and as I stood outside on my mother’s carport surveying the inch or so of freshly fallen snow in 20 degree weather, I thought to myself, You knew it was going to snow, seriously Cyndi. What were you thinking? Ready to venture down to First and Sixth at the Patrick Henry Hotel for dinner, I tied my ankle bows tight, took it slow out of the neighborhood’s unscraped roads, and prayed for clear side walks. The drive was pretty uneventful at a mere five minutes; seemingly everyone else had heeded media warnings to stay in unless one really needed to venture out.

Almost empty streets glistened in the muted grey twilight as I began to make my way from the car down the sidewalk toward a classic Roanoke hotel now turned apartment building on South Jefferson downtown. The snow crunched under the tips of my black suede toes and I stuffed my leather gloved hands farther into my pockets. It was bitter cold and the warm light of the hotel lobby spilled out onto the sidewalk only a block away. I expected to see a doorman, his breath a white cloud into the fast dying light. Not here any longer, only a nostalgic notion linked to stories of a downtown from my grandmother’s era. One filled with shops that packaged one’s purchases in boxes with tissue, and ladies in hats and gloves passing the tipped fedora or two upon approach to this grand hotel.

I grew up in Roanoke, but left for college at the time when I would be of an exploratory age. Downtown went through a tremendous urban renewal during those years and after my schooling, I never spent much time here to really become a part of the scene. As a visitor now, I see downtown Roanoke from a different light. The streets are easy enough to navigate and the city revival has mellowed into what I might call a second age. New restaurants, cafes and shops have sprung up between old favorites that were trendy just a decade or two back. It reminds me of a mini Richmond in its peppering of restaurants and off shoot hip-urban neighborhoods. On this night though, the snow quieted the streets quite absent of Friday evening traffic.

I entered the Patrick Henry through the main lobby, a classic marble and chandelier lit space including the quiet and formal, Penn Y Deux lounge to the right side. I quickly saw an entry to First and Sixth down a dark wood paneled side staircase. Making my way through a small modern dining room decorated in beautiful warm gold and chocolate brown, I reached the short intimate bar at the front. The bartender Corinne greeted me and directed the hostess to take my coat and check it. Ah, yes…old school. This was the beginning of some of the best service and ultimately one of the best experiences in dining solo I have had yet.

Usually, I order a glass of wine, but tonight’s chill and the mood of the place pushed me to order retro: an Old Fashioned. I’m not a big cocktail person. I have probably ordered three mixed drinks in the last fifteen years, but this place spoke of tradition: Martinis and Manhattans, Gin Rickeys and Cosmopolitans. While Sinatra and Benny Goodman floated out across the bar and candlelit dining space, I watched the snowy city street from a comfortable bar chair, Old Fashioned in hand, its slightly woody sweet orange edge yielded to a tiny touch of flame. Funny thing about bourbon, from the second sip, a warmth tends to begin to radiate from the core outward, like a little internal fireplace. I began to feel quite comfortable and only twenty minutes into my experience I decided, this would definitely be a regular spot for me if I lived in Roanoke, a home bar, one in which I could write.

Corinne and I began to chat a bit about the snow, recalling the big storms of 2010. Working at another restaurant at the time, she and a coworker were the only employees able to make it in during one of the big snows since they lived close by. We talked of how people seem to change during snowfall, gathering closer. Their shared world becomes a bright place against the soft cold outside. As the evening darkened more folks began to arrive in coats and hats. I began to think of snowy streets in New York, traffic lights blinking against the silvery white sky, no sound except for the muffled fall of flakes. Only the occasional rush of voices, piano music, and golden light spill from restaurant doors breaking the quiet as people brave the streets to walk  arm in arm in the pause of a great white blanket.

Soon though, Corinne eased through my thoughts to bring me a first course, a salad of thinly sliced roast beets and goat cheese with balsamic dressing which balanced against the sweet smokey orange of the Old Fashioned. The warm goat cheese croquette, crusted with panko, perched atop wild baby greens and julienne carrots. As an entree, I enjoyed another small plate, crawfish pie. Fresh baked puff pastry was filled with a hot crawfish newberg which wasn’t overly cream laden or rich, but savory with a lobster like sweetness that shrimp just doesn’t provide. As I ate and gazed out of the window, I thought about how snowfall creates a peacefulness that stops time, a moment of stillness. This is what a great place does; it suspends time so that we can connect or reflect, as if we need a reason to pause our lives for such necessities. But they are necessities, perhaps that’s why we love a good snow. It gives us permission to stop and enjoy the world in the moment as we used to decades ago. A great restaurant or bar provides the closest place to inner stillness many people can get in a fast world that tends to neglect the small details of the past, like a hat and gloves, a fur muff, a cigarette holder, a topcoat, a doorman’s greeting, a coat check girl, a well made cocktail from a barkeep who knows you by name. And a pure tenor voice in the quiet of a snowy night.

The snow is snowing
The wind is blowing
But I can weather the storm
Why do I care how much it may storm
I’ve got my love to keep me warm

All that Glitters

23 Dec

Sometimes, something can seem so marvelous …so perfectly exciting. People can be like that. Places can be like that. Experiences can be like that. But tonight, I went to Sax Restaurant and Lounge. Hours before going, I had a nagging feeling about the experience, something that overshadowed my long held anticipation and excitement.  Verdict: It was an expensive lesson in not worth it.

I’ve been wanting to experience the place for a long while, the main draw for me being burlesque and modern dance. First, let me say that the burlesque I have come to enjoy is about NOT revealing rather than revealing. I’m not a fan of pole dancing nor stripping. Twelve inch clear plastic platforms and lap dances are not in the least artistic expressions, in my opinion, nor appealing to me. However, after having watched With a Wink and Smile last year, falling in love with it, and then subsequent reading and research on vintage style burlesque, I found out that this is one of the few places in my area which features anything similar. The shows here are of the highest class, resembling acts from Cirque du Soleil and modern ballet rather than a gentleman’s club. The interior is rich, a literal explosion of bordello red velvet….and I mean 19th century New Orleans style, Moulin Rouge, lavish French baroque golden splendor.

To be sure, the champagne was amazing. After two glasses of Jean Baptiste Adam Rose (Cremant d’Alsace ) I was feeling rather fancy. The manager, Franco, came to my table to greet me and chat, offering a glass of Spanish Cava on the house. Its mossy earthy nose and mineral finish was amazing. You can’t come to a place like this without drinking stars.

To be sure, the food was to die for, small bits and bites in tiny plates, one after the next.  I nibbled and sipped at my table for one all evening. First, an arugula salad with strawberries, goat cheese and pistachio vinaigrette arrived, then some gorgonzola fondue, tiny bites of beef and bread to dip in a small pot just for one. Afterward, as the evening rolled on, three prawns in carrot ginger butter were followed by fried oyster sliders presented on tiny pristine white plates. It sounds like an amazing array of food I’m sure, but truly each small dish was two to three bites and although delicious and artfully presented, not really worth the cost.

To be sure, the service was impeccable. My waitress was so charming, and also so surprised that I was completely there by myself that her first reaction was to exclaim, “Oh…oh my god, you are my new hero.” She attended to me like a loyal waiting gentlewoman and truly made me feel more comfortable. The hovering of the other wait staff, though those to clear away dishes or glasses was oppressive. The pressure of what seemed to me to be constant supervision, or inherent curiosity at my single seating caused me to flinch more than once. There was one moment where one of the other waitresses looked at me, her gaze mixed with sadness and empathy. My instant thought was, “Oh child, don’t look so sadly at me. I’m not lonely.” And to tell the truth I wasn’t. The shows were what I truly went for but there again, the spin and the actual turn part ways.

Each absolutely fabulous, artfully choreographed, and beautifully lighted show was three minutes of pure bliss for me, separated by twenty minutes of blank dark stage. I am still disappointed… a lot. All I can really think about was how much of a better time I had spending twenty bucks dancing to the Rockers last Saturday night at the Topless Oyster community Christmas potluck in Ocracoke, dogs trotting across the dance floor. It was more real, more genuine. When this place turned into a true dance club at 11pm, I paid my check and took a cab home. No one spoke to me all evening; no one but staff acknowledged my presence. I was a ghost seated at the edge of a red velvet dance floor, entirely invisible.

The opulence of this place hides the feeling I could never shake the minute I walked in the door….beautiful…but no heart. And heart and soul are the ingredients to me that make a good dining/ lounge experience as a woman. Its not about the icing. Its about the cake. The elements have to be there, but what makes a woman feel alluring and adventurous and drawn into a sensual conversation with herself isn’t red velvet perfection…its genuine connection. And you can get that in a space like that, but it takes an emphasis on the personal aspect at the core. There is a taste for love, for bravery, for the sheer joy of decadence, but it comes with the expectation that not all diners will be providing their own companions to achieve the perfect mix.

It’s like some people. They create this wonderful exterior that just draws others in and then, when experienced, you can’t really figure out exactly why, but you feel let down. They have all of what seems like the perfect combination of characteristics, but when you really sit down to the table, they can’t provide any depth of heart.

Tonight is the last time I will place myself and my aspirations into fancy and empty rather than real and warm. Sometimes, I do already know better.

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