Tag Archives: restaurant

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.

The Parting Glass

19 Mar

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The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms
In this last of meeting places. . . T.S. Eliot

Saturday’s long drive landed me in Norfolk, VA about mid-day and the afternoon’s walk around downtown in the warm spring air yielded a strange feeling. The sparsely populated city streets were not as I had anticipated, especially on a holiday weekend. Norfolk’s architecture was a curious blend of futuristic modern and historic past, a feel so different from any city I have ever visited. It was as if a fold in time excised a hundred years and only a book seam separated pages 1913 and 2013. Cable cars, now electric monorail, clicked and hummed along, bells pealing in electronic tones. I turned a corner to see the prow of a battleship at the end of the block next to a late winter Japanese garden, behind a set of McCondominiums. Visually shocking, this jumble of sea and land, shopping mall and street café, was criss-crossed by both cobblestone and asphalt street interlaced with electric cable rail. Colorful mermaid statues, their forms identical, yet each one decorated differently, appeared at random amid apartment buildings and Colonial, Victorian, and Edwardian era homes. These sirens were the only consistent visual marker against the puzzle of architecture. The collected city tumbled into a hollow valley of concrete ringed by wind and wave without many souls on shore.

After my strange “ghost walk” of sorts, I decided to go to dinner at Press 626, a local wine bistro in the Ghent area. Saturday evening was one of the first times I had not planned an activity other than dinner, but it gave me an evening like I haven’t had in many months. Press 626 operates from a gorgeous restored Italianate home on the corner of Olney and Colley Streets. For all the atmosphere and beauty upon entry, though, I felt it again, that distinct hollowness. The bartender was attentive, but crisp; two quite loud pretentious young men at the bar discussed education and the university system, awash in their own academic and philosophical prowess, and an older gentleman sat next to me, totally quiet, eyes straight forward, speaking only when spoken to.

This is an empty place, I thought, in more ways than one.

I decided early to move on, to go somewhere else for dinner after an appetizer and a smallish glass of Gruener Veltliner at a healthy nine dollar pricetag. I ordered antipasti which was good, but not spectacular. Fresh pressed bread accompanied it, which was lovely and warm, but not enough for all the other bits and bites on the plate. In the first hour, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t impressed.

But, in hoping for a better evening, I asked the young couple next to me where they would go in Ghent for fun on the night before St. Patrick’s Day.

Nowhere, they said. This is it. There is nothing going on around here tonight. Virginia Beach is where to go. . .the police here are pretty oppressive.

I was floored…nowhere? I began to ask more questions. The young man began to tell me about certain restaurants, which were good,which weren’t. That started a long evening for the three of us. And as I began to listen to their stories, our ensuing conversation became one of the most real, engaging and honest connections I’ve made in travel since Ocracoke. Diana and Peter, junior naval officers, told me their story of Norfolk and of their lives in service to our country.

After a while, I found myself asking more questions, as I once did on the island. I listened more, wanting to hear the stories, why they thought the town was the way I too had perceived it, sort of empty.They began to explain this feeling, as if Norfolk is a rentable city…beautifully decorated, cultural, artistic, but ever so crisp and clean, ready always for the next set of souls to move through. It’s like a perpetual best foot forward, but underneath something just isn’t quite right. They expressed how tough it is to be impermanent, to not have a place that has that feeling of home. In passing through every few years, this tone of Naval service shapes the town. The expectation of long term connection is lost. Press 626 is the closest place to a “home” pub for them. Seeing it in context of the local culture shaped it differently and changed my view. Literally, it’s a house and the bar is the main feature of the living room. In many ways, I was wrong in my first estimation. After spending the evening there, it’s the truest thing to a pub I’ve been in since Ireland.

As the wine and whiskey flowed, our conversations deepened and confidences were made. This is the magic of gathering, of the pub, I thought.

We talked about family.

About travel. . .

About love. . .

and loss. . .

There are no more heroes, Peter said finally, whiskey in hand.

It’s sad that the greatest generation, those that lived and died with honor are no more. I was a history major. I know the stories…there are no more of those stories…no more.

It touched me deeply, his elegiac tone, at such a young age.

I thought about Peter when touring the MacArthur Memorial Museum the following day. He had spoken of the dedication of those men who had fought for a world possessing a sense of moral elevation, of dignity and of glory. Now, he felt, much of the world was a corporation, only concerned with the task at hand and the ultimate result, financial gain. I told him about many of my students, who only see education as set of tasks to be completed rather than as part of their own becoming. He nodded.

I see it, he said. No one speaks proper English anymore or writes well.

It’s as if the realness has gone, I said.

When I toured the MacArthur Museum, I was reminded of my grandmother’s generation, of the sacrifices they made for each other and for the world. They did what my granny would call “making due”. But in their work, there was attentiveness to detail and to longevity. When one set out to do a task, it was the best effort. When one made something, it was crafted. People cared about their creative self expressions. I told both Diana and Peter about what I have seen in other young people, though, in my traveling, a reviving interest in the arts, music, and theater and even areas as simple as food, wine and beer.

It brings me hope, I said. To hear you miss this sense of substance in the world.

That they miss it means there is hope that the world will change. That is the essence of leadership, and of honor. We are the in-between generation, no less heroic than those of the last World War. Our battle will be to recreate a world that has lost touch with its own soul. There is glory in that battle, I think.

And so Saturday night, I had pub hours in a wine bar in Ghent. Three gypsy ramblers found seats together, longing for a sense of realness and permanency that seems somehow erased from the modern world. Having found each other, we shared stories around the heart.

. . .What I have is yours, my friend, if only for tonight. . .

We sipped and shared drinks, ate amazing pressed cheese sandwiches, laughed and teared up at times. We touched shoulders and hugged. And for moments, we were part of a family of our own making. Our connection traveled the evening as all good connections do, and then we said farewell. A song came to mind as I was leaving, an Irish traditional tune. I had been in my Irishness all night and the words came easily as I wandered toward my bed.

Of all the money that e’er I spent
I’ve spent it in good company
And all the harm that ever I did
Alas it was to none but me
And all I’ve done for want of wit
To memory now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be with you all

Oh, all the comrades that e’er I had
They’re sorry for my going away
And all the sweethearts that e’er I had
They’d wish me one more day to stay
But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I’ll gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be with you all

Perhaps in the seams of this town, small threads link like minds together…for a glass, and a moment upon the page.

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!

No.

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.

What Cannot End

5 Mar

Love is patient and kind;
love is not jealous or boastful;
it is not arrogant or rude.
Love does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. . .

— I Corinthians 4 -8

Nearly every weekend I go and allow. In learning to look for small things, the gift of a story comes to me. In return, I get an experience, an adventure.

Sometimes, small moments converge into a message, a lesson like a perfect tiny shell in plain view upon the sand as the moments on Ocracoke.

But this story isn’t just about a cafe au lait,
or a restaurant,
or a walk and a drive,
or a film.

It is about Love.

And how we may look into its face and know ourselves.

My never ending quest to find a café au lait as good as Ryan’s leads me to the Lamplighter Roasting Co., a small cafe tucked into a Carytown neighborhood in Richmond. This tiny place, reminds me of the boats on Silver Lake, flags flying from the mast on the roof. A heavy woody caramel smoke smell of ground espresso hits me like a door upon walking in and I order my usual…a red eye cafe au lait. The barista’s call rings out a few minutes later and I look down to see a perfectly formed heart in the froth of my coffee.

Sweetness in the Froth

Mornings on the road
spent  in burlap and sips of bitter black,
coffee air and steamer squeals,
poster windowed cafes,
I scribble notes in the spaces between the sips
from a paper cup.
I pause on a perfect heart.
Crowding in from the night into a worn book,
thoughts accumulate like stacked napkins

Post coffee, I walk to Selba, a lovely restaurant on Cary Street for brunch. The room opens into partitioned spaces of sleek modern blended into Edwardian conservatory, like a deck on a great ship liner. Soon, I am wonderfully tended by David, one of the bar men. He brings me a fresh hot plate of Crab Benedict, the sea scent of it drifting upward as I gaze down upon tiny micro greens adorning the tops of perfectly poached eggs, their leaflets bowed out in little green hearts.
20130224_104108

Perched atop my bar stool

like a spring jay among bare dogwood budded branches,

the piano player’s hands puts keys to motion

‘Sunday morning rain is falling. . .’

and I lay hand to lined paper, thoughts

on tiny heart sprouted eggs rich and hot…

I pause,

tilt my hand before

winging concrete streets,

past bright crayon colored doors. . .

A few more hours spent in Carytown yields doughnuts and cupcakes, and thoughts of those with whom to share them. Walking. I’m always walking; it strikes me that I have become the journey.

After an hour or two of shop wandering, the part I dislike the most arrives, the drive home. I’ll be back inside the concrete walls, locked doors and bells of my normal world of school and home, familiar all too soon. Leaving Richmond, I drive a different way, through Byrd Park toward a single bridge. Over the water and then down the street, winding to the left I see it, a sign in front of Westover Baptist.

Love Endures All

A third heart proclaims…love
bears, believes, hopes and endures all.
I stop the car . . .take the picture
like the random dreamsicle sunrise while
driving to school.
When I pause to see
the exact moment of dawn,
a small line moving me through the day
in quiet philosophy.

Bright sunshine made the air more crisp, more clear this Sunday on the downtown mall in Charlottesville. I click along the brick and stone courtyard toward the Paramount Theater, the last sweet dregs of a velvety headed cafe con leche in a paper cup. And even though the air bites my cheeks and fingertips, I throw my heart to the sun and let my hair blow into tangles in the playful wind. Black letters on the marquee read…The Princess Bride. Inside, at the Paramount, I move along the plush carpet, past gold gilt walls, among the couples and small children giggling, holding hands festooned in wool mittens and clutching popcorn buckets. Seated in velvet, the crystal and gold chandeliers dim, brushing light from the walls like the closing of a child’s eyelashes.

Twu Wuv

For the thousandth time,
familiar lines piece together
the worn scraps of love in my crazy quilted heart.
‘I will always come for you.
This is true love…do you think this happens everyday?”
My eyes dwell on

their nodding heads in the sunset,
a perfect heart.

“As you wish…”
the grandfather’s eyes squeeze my throat.
This story is about a gift,
about felt kindness,
about what is mirrored in the heart.

You cannot lock in the heart.
It will grow like the dawn until
it no longer fits
inside your chest…
and then you must walk inside it,
an arc rung around the sun
reflecting life inside out
outside in.

In me see you
…beloved…

Love
that cannot
end.

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.

A Little Dream

7 Feb

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At least one night per week I go to one of my “home” restaurants to write. As I have said before, I’ll not review either of them, for they’re my safe havens, my creative spaces. These places allow me the right atmosphere to create, to dream, and to explore the world of words. Just being there and being attended helps me when I am lonely. So many of us feel separated, lonely by ourselves….lonely in a crowded room. Disconnection is at its heart, the sense of isolation that comes from the lack of communication, nurturing. Even simple touch. It drives our search for meaning as well as underpinning our addictions. Humans are social creatures. We weren’t meant to be in perpetual solitude.

As I was writing Tuesday evening, dining on roasted vegetables and enjoying a glass of Orvieto, I heard a piano begin in the left corner of the room. In the softened candlelight reflecting from an antique buffet mirror, I saw an elderly gentleman at the piano, playing a dramatic tango. Suddenly my imagination was transported backward one hundred years to a small cafe in Paris, well trodden floors gleaming in anticipation for the dance. His notes were staccato, sharp and brisk….brilliant. His hands were the only animation on his body. But as I continued to observe, I saw a thin line of saliva drop from his mouth onto his lapel. Then, in a few minutes, another. He was quite old and I wondered instantly how to attend to him. The bartender could see the concern on my face, I’m sure. He told me that the piano player was an 87 year old Romanian. He had played cabaret all over Europe professionally, and now lives with his daughter here in Lynchburg. He speaks no English, so to ease his sense of isolation and loneliness, his daughter brings him to the restaurant every Tuesday. He plays song after song, all from memory for nearly three hours. They pay him $30 and feed him dinner.

I turned back to watch him and to listen. To say that I was moved would be an understatement. My heart was captured in connection and in empathy. If it wouldn’t have disturbed him while playing, I would have sat next to him on the bench, simply to give him sheer physical closeness. How dear he was. How express and trenchant the notes fluttered about the room. Songs moved in circular rhythms from tango, to jazz, to classical. All seamless, all from an arrangement entirely in his mind.

And I wondered.

Does he dream while in the notes? Is he somewhere in Prague, in Berlin, in Paris playing for a small group gathered in a similar softly lit bistro, worn mirrors on the walls?

Does the scent of food and wine hanging in waves throughout the room transport him to another set of ivory keys while seated upon another bench decades ago?

Does he dream of a beautiful woman, cocktail in hand and pressed waves in her hair? Does the smile upon her carmine lips as she glances toward him, let him know the music connects to her passion?

Does he play with thought of loss? Of a country and time now gone, of the departure of friends and family and the slow dimming of memories of both war and love, pain and joy?

After an hour or so, I walked over and sat down beside him. I kissed my finger tips and opened them in a gesture of perfection.

“Brava”, I said. “Your music is so beautiful”.  And I smiled.

He had no English, but made motion for me to perhaps write? And so in motion, we communicated.

Would I like a song?

Yes, I nodded. I sang….

Stars shining bright above you
Night breezes seem to whisper, “I love you”
Birds singing in the sycamore tree
Dream a little dream of me….

No…he smiled and shook his head. He did not know it.

Chopin? he said.

I nodded, smiling. Yes, please.

For the next hour, I was witness to my own private concerto.

Before leaving, I needed to say thank you,to let him know how grateful I am for his gift of music and of connection. I wrote him a note, translated into Romanian, one of the pluses of Google technology.

Vă mulțumesc pentru seara asta muzica frumoasa. Am fost onorat să-l audă.

Thank you for the beautiful music tonight. I was honored to hear it.

For tonight, music created a connection and I wasn’t lonely….and I dare say, neither was he.

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.

Sigh.

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.

Sigh.

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

Raising the Bar

7 Jan

Where do you write best?, Donna said. 

Up at the bar or in the coffee shop, I said.

She tilted her head to the side. What about at home?

No…not so much there, I sighed. Only when it’s warm, outside in the back room.

I need to be alone, in public.

Her eyes narrowed a bit above a slight smile, which meant I needed to explain. Only I couldn’t. The only thought that came to mind was that wherever I was writing, I needed to have someone take care of my needs while I dove into the images in my head surrounding an experience, either real or remembered. When I swim in words, like a channel glider, I need to be only a writer, only a writer and nothing else.

So reader, I have decided to invite you into my world of traveling for one. This blog, filled with my peculiar style of half review half non-fiction essay was born of two parents. One, a lengthy list of experiences I wanted to accomplish in my life, a “bucket list”. Living with intention, I call it. And second, the absence of anyone to really take with me.  As a single woman at my age, most of my friends are married with children and as much as I might like to find a companion for many of my experiences, there seems to be a singular lack of them.

Because I did not want to wait to live, I decided I should just do whatever I wanted now. My travel to Richmond in July 2012 was really the beginning of this mindset. But after December on the island, where I needed to retreat for healing and soul searching, I discovered I actually enjoy being with myself. Traveling alone or with Clarence in tow, it doesn’t much matter. I am able to see the world with greater clarity, fully immersing myself in whatever I am doing and learn how to balance savoring and saving, being present and yet keeping it for future contemplation.

I don’t prefer my own company to the company of like-minded people, but I do prefer it to settling for a companion whose presence seems needed solely to provide me social permission to be out of the house. I see so many women doing that. They feel they need the security of others to validate somehow pursuing their desires. They need not do that. Men don’t. When I go eat up at the bar, or attend an event alone, I am generally the only woman among a crowd of men who do not think twice about enjoying their own company in a fine place.

When one lives with intention, one adopts the mindset that the only person responsible for one’s own happiness is oneself. A marvelous time  or a miserable time, just as any companion might provide, can result. It’s one in the same. And for me this said, Why wait? Safety? There are ways to ensure that as much as possible. Comfort? Hopefully that’s where recommendations  come in. Some dining places and events seem to be more conducive to solo  enjoyment than others.

My hope is that in following my travels, you might either enjoy these same spots or find new ideas about ones to enjoy on your own, both my feminine readers and masculine alike. The focus of my writing is changing more toward  review now, but with a personal twist. It will take me a few posts to get the right balance, but I aim to share the experience first and then find the lesson in it if I can.

I don’t pretend to be the world’s best writer or photographer. So the writing is imperfect and I am okay with that. Its human. And my camera and eye has its limitations. If  you  comment please do so in kindness. I want to share all this with you, hoping that you will find something to carry along in your own journey.

That’s really what all this is about: a journey. Joe Campbell would say we all walk the same journey; we are just on different points of it at particular times. The joy is already knowing how it will turn out, because we all do. We return home, master of two worlds and then, we share our wisdom with those we love. That is my intention.

 

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