Road Rules

I thought, at first, that I'd just grab a burger somewhere along the drive.  It was ten-thirty, and I was expecting a five hour trip to Destin.  But once I turned onto Hwy 331 in Montgomery, I started to relax and enjoy the beautiful day.  It's been several years since I've been able to take one of my long driving trips, and I won't get another chance until the summer of '06.  And I remembered my driving rules -- avoid the interstate at all cost; never eat in a chain restaurant; and when you see a sign pointing in a different direction that looks interesting, go there.  That, plus the fact that I had a copy of the Oxford American's Southern Foods issue in the car with me made the thought of a fast food burger seem pretty sacriligeous.

There were a couple of interesting barbecue joints in Luverne, but since I was headed to the Gulf, I decided to hold out for seafood.   I ended up at Pompano Joe's, down the beach road from my hotel.  I know there was a time when a beachside seafood shack didn't have seating for 200, t-shirts for sale at the door, and half a dozen TVs in the bar, but those days are over.   At least, they are on the redneck riviera (oh, sorry -- they call it the "emerald coast" now).  But it was suitably rustic, and I had a little table right next to the brightly painted windows that looked out over the beach.    It was windy, but the sky was clear and brilliantly blue.  The sand looked almost silver and the water was ribbons of white and half a dozen hues of blue.

I was slightly disappointed to see that the oysters were Ameripure, but I'd been craving oysters for the last couple of hours so I went ahead.   This was the third or fourth time I've had them, and maybe it's my imagination, but they just don't taste quite as good as I'd expect oysters down here to taste.  Ever so slightly mushy, and a little too mild.  I think maybe I'll stay away from them in the future.   The fried shrimp sandwich, on the other hand, was quite good.  Small shrimp, breaded & fried and heaped on a soft hamburger bun.  Impossible to pick up and eat, so I went at it with knife and fork.

It's been a long time since Miss Lynn first introduced me to the joys of simple gulf food in a dive looking out over the water.   Pompano Joe's wasn't one of the great such experiences, but it'll do.


Bringing Up Baby

Josephine was squalling and fussing some when she was at the house while we were getting ready to go.  But she settled down on the drive and when Marian brought her into Fox Valley she was brightly awake and being adorable.  What a fuss everyone makes over her!

We were at a corner table and Marian set Josie, in her cradle, on the floor between the table and the wall, where she'd be out of the way.    It certainly seemed to suit her.    She seems to like it when there's a lot of commotion.  Maybe it's all the adoration cascading her way.

It was her second visit.  Lynn said, "You know, by her tenth birthday, we should be about celebrating her 100th meal here."   That's the plan.   Marian was eight when her Dad started bringing her to Fox Valley.  Josie made her first visit at six weeks.  The restaurant is the thread that will tie Josie to the grandfather that she won't get to know.   I think Ed brought Marian about once a week.  We're not going to be able to manage that -- but we are shooting for once a month.  Which, as we realized last night, makes the evening of Bruce's arrival in Birmingham in a few weeks the perfect time to come again.   

We most definitely do not do this for sentimental reasons.  When Mikey came by we asked him what he particularly liked this evening.  (Always a tough question for a chef -- his dishes are his babies -- how could he prefer one over another?!)  "But if it was me," he finally said. "If it was me, I'd probably have the pompano with the soft-shell crab -- only because we don't have it that often."  That was one of the items on my short list, so the decision was made.  And it was, of course, magnificent.


Southern Hospitality

There wasn't a parking place to be found on the narrow street leading up to Son's Place.  At the stop sign I looked in both directions, trying to decide which way to turn to see if there was something further down the block, and heard a horn honk.  I turned to see a guy in a beat up van parked just across the street from the restaurant.  He grinned and motioned that he was leaving.  I looked in my rearview mirror and saw an elderly woman crossing the street behind me.  He was waiting for her.  I turned around in the intersection and pulled into his spot as he pulled off, and we waved at each other and grinned again.  Welcome to Atlanta.

I think of him as the icon of the charmed weekend that we had.   The ice storm had shut Atlanta down more than we'd realized, as we discovered when we made our way gingerly across the ice to the Lenox Square mall.  Only about a third of the stores were open, and most of the restaurants (including the French place I'd been looking forward to) were closed.  But we ended up having a fine meal at the Zodiac inside Neiman Marcus.   Not likely a place we would have put near the top of our list, but a serendipitous find indeed.  My Szechuan shrimp was superb and Lynn couldn't get over how perfectly prepared her lamb chops were.  Our waiter was as polished and professional and gentle as could be, and came chasing after us into the store when we left, just to thank us for coming in.

As evening fell, and we became more aware of how much of the city was shut down, we decided to throw ourselves on the mercy of the hotel concierge to find us an open restaurant.   We had a short list of places that looked interesting, but weren't sure that any of them would be open.  I mentioned Joel.  He called, and sure enough, they were open.   We went out to the front, got a cab after just a few minutes, and were on our way.

The decor was marvelous, and the food was superb.  We ordered the tasting menu with paired wines and every dish was exquisite.  I'd told the sommelier that Lynn preferred reds, and so he came up with a perfect match of reds for her, rather than the whites that he started me with.  It began with chilled shrimp arranged around a light potato salad (shrimp perfectly done) -- one of those exceptional matches of flavors that comes as a surprise when you first see it and seems so obviously right by the time you're done.  On to scallops, and a john dory, and lamb tenderloins -- each dish perfectly proportioned, no extravagant flourishes needed, the chef obviously confident that the food needed nothing fancy to call attention to itself, beyond the brilliance of its preparation.  For dessert the pavlova for me, while Lynn substituted the coffee tart with whiskey ice cream.   We've had tasting menus in many places, including Trotter's and Emeril's and the French Laundry, and this sequence was as finely balanced as any of them.   If the chef had wandered out at that point, we would have applauded.

But what will always give that evening a special spot in memory is not the meal, but what happened after.  As we got our check, I asked that a cab be called.  Shortly after, one of the hosts came over, smiling, but I could see he was slightly worried.  He said he'd called the company and they were only running three cabs at that point, but "the company knows us well, so I'm sure that one will be along shortly."  We were in no hurry, so I wasn't concerned.  We went out to sit at the end of the bar so we could see the street while we waited.

And waited.  There were only two tables still seated after us, and as they finished and headed out (having sensibly arranged their transportation ahead of time), and the staff started into the closing routines, the host became more concerned.  The staff consulted with each other.  They called other cab companies.  The host gave us drinks on the house.  One of the bartenders, who was going through the flower arrangements pulling out those just past their prime, made up a bouquet for Lynn.  The other bartender chatted pleasantly, and commiserated with us over the absence of cabs.  And after an hour and a half, when it became clear that a cab was not coming (they even tried calling our hotel to see if the hotel could send a car), they arranged for one of the waiters to give us a ride to our hotel.   Every person in the place seemed quite determined to be sure that this didn't spoil our evening -- they were going to make sure that we got home okay.   When they apologized, we'd shake our heads and laugh, "It's not your fault!"  But we were in their restaurant, and I guess that made us their responsibility.

It was well after midnight when we finally got back to the hotel, after driving through long stretches of streets where all the power was out.  It was no surprise that many of the cab drivers had decided to just give up.   It was a very tough day for much of Atlanta, but when we look back on that evening, it won't be the storm we'll remember so much as it will be each and every one of the marvelous people at Joel.


Snow In Atlanta

When the birthday girl paused in her dancing to place her tiara on the head of the slender southeast Asian-looking man sitting next to us with his boyfriend, Lynn leaned over to me and said, "Someone from New York would never understand how normal this is here."  We're in Georgia.  We start 'em out with tiaras.

We were at Eclipse di Luna in Atlanta, a trendy tapas restaurant, tucked way back in a cul-de-sac in Buckhead.  The place was jammed.  We were sitting side-by-side at a low table, facing the bandstand, where the Latin jazz groove was keeping more than birthday girl moving to the rhythms.  We took our  time, Lynn ordering one dish whenever we'd finished the last -- a little cheese plate, some ribs braised in balsamic vinegar, roasted asparagus with shaved machengo, lamb meatballs, spicy potatos, a dish of ginger ice cream at the end.  From time to time Lynn would look at her cocktail glass in wonder, "This is best mojito I've ever had!"

We'd driven over from Atlanta that morning, so that Lynn could bring her red Jag to the dealer that she'd bought it from for its 10,000 mile service.  We'd decided to take advantage of that need to do an Atlanta weekend, which we've been talking about ever since I moved to Birmingham nine years ago.  We arrived around 1:00, and went straight to Son's place for lunch -- a classic southern meat-n-three that John T. Edge claims might have the best fried chicken in Atlanta.  John T. is the finest food writer of his generation, and his judgment is impeccable.  Son's grandson, toddling around the place (they said he'd been walking just two weeks), took a shine to me, and started to wail when I left.  Lynn was highly amused.

The sleet started up as we left Eclipse di Luna, and when I looked out the window this morning the streets and sidewalks and lawns were lightly covered with snow!  The forecast claims there'll be more freezing rain through most of the day.  Suits us just fine.  We took care of the car yesterday afternoon and have no responsibilities today at all.  We have a lovely room in the Grand Hyatt, with a great view towards downtown.  We bought a couple of interesting whiskys at Tower liquor on our way into town.  There's a little french brasserie down the street that's run by the same folks who do Le Bernadin in New York.  It'll do nicely for lunch.


An Evening at Fox Valley

Aunt Mona is sitting across the table from me shaking her head.  She's trying to express the frustration that she feels that her younger brother, Ed, couldn't manage to make his second marriage work, when his wife was such a smart and wonderful and sophisticated woman, who was just perfect for him. 

"The whole family loved her," she says, with 22 years worth of bewilderment in her voice.  "I just don't understand how he could let her get away..." 

I try to explain it from my perspective...  "Look, Ed was great at a lot of things... marriage just wasn't one of them.  He still turned out to be a great father to their daughter..."

Mona nods, and acknowledges that's true.  Still, I know that she's thinking of Ismael, the husband she was madly in love with for the 35 years before his sudden death eleven years ago, and she's sad that her brother didn't know that kind of love.

The fact that I've been married to Ed's ex-wife for the last decade, and that we are having this conversation midway through a family dinner on the day after we've buried Ed might, I suppose, raise an eyebrow of the casual observer, but it seems quite natural to me.   This is the way this family is.

We're at the Fox Valley Restaurant in Helena.  It's been Ed's favorite spot for over fifteen years, ever since the place opened.  From the time that Marian was about eight, until she was in her late teens, she and her dad had dinner here at least once a week.   He was here on his own for dinner three times a week or more beyond that, until his health started to hold him back in the fall. 

Every year on Marian's birthday, the four of us -- Marian, her mom, Ed and me -- came here to celebrate.  Those were wonderful evenings, and I looked forward to them with great anticipation.  My favorite, I suppose, was Marian's 21st.  Her Mom and Dad were so proud of her, and they each had, perhaps, one more glass of wine than they might normally have had, and got, perhaps, somewhat sloppily sentimental about what a splendid job they had done raising their daughter.  Marian was a little embarassed, on my behalf, but I thought it was wonderful.  What they had done was remarkable, and they were right to be proud.

Ed was as close to Sue, the owner of the place, as he was to anyone.  (Mona has some thoughts about that relationship as well, which she will be happy to share).  In his last decade, he was certainly as at home at Fox Valley, and as comfortable sitting at the bar talking with Sue, as he was anywhere or with anyone.  Restaurants build their personalities around their regulars; that's what gives them life and character, defines their spirit and lifts them beyond being just a room where anonymous strangers come to get a meal.  Ed and Fox Valley had shaped each other and become inseparable.  At the visitation, Sue had looked wistfully toward the coffin and half-whispered, "I can't imagine a world without Ed Earnest in it."

So she invited the family to come and have dinner.   And what a dinner it was.  There were close to twenty of us -- his four sisters, one of his brothers (one had had to get back to California), two brothers-in-law, a sister-in-law, one ex-wife, one pregnant daughter, and several nieces, nephews... and at that point I lose track of exactly who is related to who and in what way...  not that it matters much to this group.  Oh, yes, and there's the husband of the ex-wife; the stepdad of the daughter.

In its quiet way, Fox Valley has become one of the premiere fine dining restaurants in the Birmingham region.  All those years ago, Sue bought a traditional southern steam table restaurant, and, almost surreptitiously, turned it into one of the finest restaurants in the south.  As it says on their website "come casually dressed or dressed to the nines and feel equally at home."   I've often wondered if some of the good ol' boys who used to go there before Sue took it over ever realized that after awhile they were eating haute cuisine.  (Best not to tell them.)

So we had superb food and wonderful wine and fabulous conversation.  There were a few tears, there were stories told, there was a lot of laughter.  There was a new baby to pass around, and a little three year old who proclaimed herself, "the most beautiful girl in the world," and made everyone fall in love with her.  I cannot imagine a finer way of honoring the man.

Marian and Lynn and I lingered until last, and hung out by the bar talking with Sue, and with Mikey the cook, and with some of the other folks.  They'd ordered a nameplate for Ed's chair, a simple brass plate with his name on it, affixed to the back of the bar stool that he'd usually sit at when he came in at the end of a long day of figuring out how to rescue another couple of troubled kids, to have a drink before dinner.  Sue told us that they'd put the plaque on that afternoon and then, "right about a quarter to five, which is when he'd come in, the sunset was just over the ridge and the light came through and reflected off the plate and it was blinding.  I had to move the chair."  She grinned, and we hugged her, and went out to our cars.


Al Tiramisu

The readers' reviews on the Washington Post site annoy the fool out of me. But criticisms of Al Tiramisu piss me off. For years now, I've been getting there once a year or so and I have never had anything less than a brilliant experience. Last night was the same. Even though it was a Saturday, I gambled that I could at least get a seat at the bar -- which I did. And they were gracious and friendly and the food was magnificent. Yes, it's expensive. If that's a problem for you, DON'T GO! But I cannot fathom people who complain about the service. From my very first visit there, where the waiter gave me a table with a little more light because he saw that I'd be reading and writing, to last night, when the hostess joked with me that I'd had those same sardines on my previous visit (which I had -- but that's a year ago!) and Luigi came over to visit for a bit, I have never felt anything less than being in a place that was a pretty good substitute for being at home.


Bistrot du Coin

Frequently, my first night in DC, I'll have dinner at Bistrot du Coin. This trip, I'm staying at Topaz, so it's an easy walk across the circle. The weather is perfect. After the mugginess of the Gulf Coast in Biloxi, this refreshing coolness, just below seventy degrees, is a delight.

On a Tuesday night, the place is buzzing, but not jammed. It feels comfortable and homey. I know what's on the menu and I know what I'll have -- the hanger steak with shallot sauce (which includes a large roasted shallot), and perfect pommes frites. I order a bottle of Gigondas from a waiter who has served me many times before. I write a letter to Lynn and he stops by to admire my fountain pen and bemoan the fact that no one writes letters anymore. But I do. She could make a separate collection of letters from this restaurant.

I eat slowly, I read some of Rilke's Letters on Cezanne, I watch the crowds, mostly young and out on dates, a few singles reading, like me. A cheese plate for dessert, of course, and then back across the circle to my comfy room and game 3 of the World Series.


Sage

After the intense daylong NEJM meeting at Countway, I needed some time to myself, so I bowed out of dinner with Mark, Tom & Cheryl. I stopped for an hour at the Museum of Fine Arts, and then strolled back to Nine Zero, breasting the crowds heading for Fenway Park and what turned out to be the astonishing game 5 of the league championship series. A little email in my hotel room and I was ready to head out to find a restaurant. I walked into the North End, sure that I could find something!

I remember that marvelous afternoon a year ago, when Mark, Philly, Lynn and I set off into the North End to have lunch. Mark had a couple of places in mind, but they both turned out to be closed for lunch and we ended up at Café Assagio (a perfectly wonderful choice – we had a great meal and really bonded telling couples stories). I wondered if I might be able to retrace our steps and find one of those restaurants.

And I did -- a beautiful little place called Sage. I recognized it by location as much as anything else, although the name sounded right. When I saw the menu and the wine list, though, I knew that even if it wasn’t the place Mark had wanted to take us, it’s the kind of place he would like.

It’s tiny – I counted 28 seats – and was about half full. Finding that I didn’t have a reservation, the waiter interrogated the reservations list, and then said brusquely, “Sit there,” pointing at a two-top along the wall. He brought me the menu & wine list and poured some bottled water. He told me, “There’s no specials, the menu changes every couple of weeks. You can have any of the pasta entrees as a half order appetizer, or you can have a pasta sampler, which is a little taste of the risotto, the gnocchi and the lasagna.” How could I resist that?

For the main, I couldn't decide between the "Duet of Braised Pork Shoulder & Crisp Pork Belly with Truffled Cabbage" or the cassoulet. I asked the waiter for help and he rolled his eyes and groaned and twisted his shoulders back, looking up at the ceiling as if he'd rather mediate an argument between his wife and mother-in-law than offer a choice between those two dishes. But he came down on the side of the cassoulet. I ordered a 1998 Brunello di Montalcino and we were off.

The tables are arranged on either side of the aisle that leads back to the kitchen. The walls are that pumpkin/peach color that seems to be so popular in restaurants these days. On one wall there was a nice arrangement of twelve small oil paintings of Mediterranean urban scenes, done in the bright colors and tight focus that a contemporary art photographer might use. On the wall next to me were a series of larger abstract paintings, squares with raised squares standing out from their centers, cool colors contrasting nicely with the warmth of the walls. I wrote a bit in my journal and sipped my wine and waited for the pasta course.

The risotto is made with asparagus and is a pale delicate green, with a dollop of goat cheese fondue on top. In the last couple of years I've become pretty adept at risotto, and frequently when Lynn orders it in a restaurant (I almost never do) she'll say, "Not quite as good as yours." She wouldn't've said it about this. The handmade gnocchi incorporate cherry tomatoes, olives and basil and melt in your mouth. But it was the rabbit lasagna with chanterelle mushrooms that was the standout. A perfect blend of rich flavors -- I took the tiniest bites I could, to make it last as long as possible.

The cassoulet was beautifully done, one large sausage and several big pieces of duck, sitting on top of the several kinds of beans and broth. It was perfectly matched with the wine, and I ate as slowly as I could. This was a meal I didn't want to end.

But of course it does. My waiter cleared the plates and asked if I wanted to see the dessert menu. "Only if it includes cheese," I said. And he grabbed one and presented it to me and the list of cheeses was longer than the list of chocolate desserts. One could select three or six, and I was sensible and chose just three, and they were presented in as lovely a fashion as any cheese dessert I've ever had -- laid out on an oblong, handled wooden platter, each cheese matched with a sweet -- the french young cow's milk cheese next to chopped dates, the italian semisoft cheese sitting next to a little pool of honey, and the hard, astringent Spanish cheese next to a beautfully flavorful ripe fig drenched in its own jam.

It was exquisite. Not a single false note in the presentation, flavor, arrangement, scents and service. On a scale of ten, it is an easy ten.

I stopped in the restroom before I left. Did I mention that it's a tiny place? To get to the restroom you actually have to go up into the kitchen, and the chef has to step aside so you can get at it. The chef & sous chef stand next to each other cooking. There's no room for anything else.

That makes it easy to thank them on your way out.


Lunch at Bottega

I need a new hat. The Stetson that I'm wearing now I bought years ago at Meyer's in New Orleans, and it's getting a little shabby looking. Time to get something sharper. I woke up this morning deciding to go out to Massey's Corral for a new one.

To my surprise, Lynn said she'd like to come along. It was a pretty morning, the kind of crisp cool Alabama fall day that we don't often get to enjoy because we're always doing so much travelling this time of year. I told her if she could get herself ready in an hour, I'd take her to lunch. Of course, it took her an hour and a half.

No luck at Massey's, but we went from there to Bottega Cafe. It was the perfect day for it. Temperature just shy of 70, beautiful blue sky with light clouds skittering across. We sat outside and ordered a bottle of Gigondas, and the antipasto for two.

Lynn picked up a half of a tomato and held it on her fork. "The thing about Frank," she said, "is that when you're at one of his restaurants, you know it's not going to be just a tomato, it's going to be a little ruby jewel." Quite right.

Another perfect lunch in one of my favorite settings on the planet -- olives and sausage and mozzarella, italian flat bread and a bunch of arugula. Then Lynn followed with a seared carpaccio piled high with more argula, and I had shrimp & calamari, warm, with a little chili sauce.

I couldn't count the number of meals I've had at Bottega over the last decade. Until Frank opened Fon-Fon, it was my number one favorite place for a late lunch alone -- to have a glass of wine, and some marvelous food, and write a letter to Lynn or trail around in my journal or read a great essay or short story. Now I'll go to Fon-Fon more often -- but on a day like today, when you have the chance to sit out in the beautiful Alabama autumn sun, Bottega is the place to be.

So I still need a new hat. Maybe that was just an excuse to have lunch.