True Duck

I like duck, and if it’s on a restaurant menu I’ll often lean that way.  I’m rarely disappointed (fact is, I’m easy to please).  But it wasn’t until I had the duck at True that I realized how refined and far from the garden the duck in those other restaurants has become. 

As I ate it seemed that here was duck that someone from the household had shot that morning (in the spirit of Catching Fire making a zillion bucks over the weekend, I’ll say it was the 14 year old eldest daughter of the house, up just before dawn, crunching lightly across the frost).  Roasted and sliced over a bed of braised collards with a handful of baby heirloom carrots that her little brother pulled from the garden just before cooking.  A dollop of mashed butternut squash and a spoonful of cherry compote that had been put up the previous fall.  In the quiet of the softly appointed dining room it was easy to believe we were in that farmhouse at the big family table, rather than a chic restaurant in Montgomery.

When some of my favorite restaurant meals are impressing me with the way the flavors are balanced, I find myself thinking in awe, “How did they do that?  How did they know to mix those ingredients in exactly those proportions?”  I didn’t feel that way at True.  It seemed obvious.  Now my fantasy farm fades and I imagine Chef Wesley in the kitchen, the vegetables in front of him (that were, indeed, pulled from a garden that morning), and the duck laid out (which was, in fact, killed that morning not far from Montgomery), cooking and arranging almost without thinking about it.  Just paying attention to the food and what it was and where it came from.

If there is a New Southern Cooking in Alabama, following the path that Frank Stitt started on 30 years ago, a way of thinking about food that marries the most iconic ingredients of the rural south with a global sensibility and technique, then this is one of its finest exemplars.



What Is Mikey Fixing?

I haven't looked at the menu in a long time. 

When Mike Lee & his sister Melissa opened up Mikey's Grill a little over a year ago, less than a mile from our house, we started going once a week with Marian & Josie.  We've known Mikey & Melissa for a very long time from the days when they were at Fox Valley. 

It wasn't too many visits before I started asking our server, "Just ask Mikey to make me whatever he wants.  I know it'll be good."  It always is. 

Mikey likes it -- gives him a chance to try out some different things.  And he knows I'll give him an honest critique.

Sometimes he'll ask me what I'm sort of generally in the mood for -- beef, fish, pasta?  Most often, though, he just tells me.  I trust him.

When I got to the restaurant he stepped out of the kitchen to say hi and said, "I've got a cold soup for you."  Now I actually don't like cold soups as a rule, but I just said, "Sounds good!"  It didn't really, but like I said, I trust him.

It turned out to be a cantaloupe cream soup.  It was fantastic.  It was sweet, but not cloying, about the thickness of a smoothie, I suppose.  A beautiful pale orange color.  You could freeze it and serve it for dessert, but after a couple of 99 degree days, it was an exceptional first course.  I just about inhaled it.

He hadn't said anything about my entree.  I never ask.  But I'd been thinking earlier in the day.  We're in the middle of Restaurant Week here, so Lynn and I have been trying new restaurants.  So I'm eating more this week than I usually do and I thought maybe I should cut it back a bit at Mikey's.  Maybe just a sandwich?  He does fantastic po' boys.  Or maybe I should just go vegetarian for a change?  He's always got great fresh local vegetables.  On the other hand, I'm going to overeat this week anyway, and he does great burgers, so maybe I should go for that!

I now know that he actually can read my mind, because what came out was a beautiful, delicious, vegetable burger.   A soft poppy seeded roll with layers of grilled onions, eggplant, zucchini, peppers, mushrooms, and some cheese.  What always impresses me the most about Mikey's cooking is the balance -- texture, tastes, all seem to lock into each other just right so that the final dish is always more than the assemblage of ingredients.  So it was with the burger.

I'd order another one next week.  But, of course, he'll have thought of something else for me by then.



When Idie asked how many years we'd been married, I teased, "How old is your restaurant?"

"Um, fourteen, we think?"

"Our marriage is just six weeks older than your restaurant."

The Hot and Hot Fish Club would be one of our favorite restaurants even if we didn't almost share an anniversary date, but the coincidence of its opening just weeks after I moved here has always made us feel particularly affectionate toward it and Chris & Idie.  It's always near the top of our list for a place to take visitors, or if we want to do something special for ourselves.

A few years after they opened, they participated in a charity action at which most of the leading chefs in town offered something special -- dinner at your house for twelve of your closest friends, for example.  What Chris & Idie put up was four seasonal tasting dinners for two.   We were able to get it, and over the course of the next year, about every three months, I'd call Chris and we'd talk about what he was fixing that was particularly suited to that season, and then he'd put together a seven course menu for us, with paired wines.  Each meal was spectacular -- and the fact that it was all prepaid, so that we never had to look at a bill, made it even more fun.

At the last of the four, we were chatting with Chris and I was bemoaning the fact that we'd come to the end of it, and joking that I'd like to take out another year's subscription.  He shrugged and said, "I'd be happy to do it anytime.  Just give me a call."  And we did.  Many times.

Given our travel schedule in the fall, we're just as likely to be in some other city on our wedding anniversary as we are to be home, so when I realized that we'd be in Birmingham this year, and that it was a Saturday night,  a tasting menu at Hot and Hot seemed like the perfect thing to do.  And just to make it a little extra special, I booked a suite for us at the Hotel Highland so we could walk to the restaurant and not have to worry about driving home afterwards.

Bill, the sous chef, was in charge and after asking us if there was anything in particular we were interested in, and hearing that we wanted to leave it entirely up to him, he came up with this menu (bear in mind that each course is half or less than half the size of the normal portion):

  • Tomato Soup with Cream and Truffled Grilled Cheese
  • Hot and Hot Tomato Salad with Applewood Smoked Bacon, Fresh Peas, Corn, Fried Okra and Chive Aioli
  • Cauliflower and Chestnut Gratin with Herb Breadcrumbs and Truffle Oil
  • Grilled Mississippi Shrimp with Local Golden Kiwi and Shaved Fennel Salad
  • Garganelli Pasta and Homemade Guanciale with Wild Mushrooms, Parmesan Cheese and Truffle Oil
  • Charcuterie plate with Pickled Veal Tongue and Homemade Souse Meat
  • Hickory Grilled Beef Tournedos on Blue Cheese Potato Gratin, Chef's Garden Spinach and Wild Mushroom Jus
  • Cheese plate of Thomasville Tomme from Sweet Grass Dairy, with Persimmon & Toasted Walnuts
  • Trio of Sorbet with Homemade Cookies

John did a spectacular job of matching the wines to each course.  We sat at the chef's counter where we could watch the cooks put it all together.    It's an amazing show.

The new cookbook is just out, so we bought a copy, and Idie inscribed it for us.   When we finally waddled back to the hotel three hours after arriving at the restaurant, we sat on the couch and leafed through.   Wonderful pictures and stories, and the recipes of some of the dishes we'd eaten that very evening. 

It was a truly splendid anniversary.   May we, and the Hot and Hot Fish Club, have many, many more.

Les Soeurs des Montagnes

Arielle greets us at the door, face beaming, eyes bright under the frame of wiry gray hair.  "Hallo," she says, in her thick French accent, reaching out to take our hands in hers.   A few steps behind her, MariJo peeks out with what we mistake for shyness.  "Bon Soir!" she calls. 

"Bon soir," we say, amused and delighted by the effusiveness of the greeting, and I ask if we can book a table for about an hour from now.  

"But of course!" says Arielle, and writes my name in her book.  "Voila! We'll see you again about 7:00."

In doing my restaurant research before heading out to Breckenridge, I'd put Le Petit Paris at the top of my list.  The reviews were pretty good, and since a nice Parisian bistro is my favorite type of restaurant, I'm always on the lookout for another one to add to my collection.  Lynn and I had gone out for dinner with friends the night before, so on our last night in Breckenridge we were looking for something a little intimate, casual and romantic, and this seemed to fit the bill.

As we walked back out onto the street, we were both grinning.  "I have a good feeling about this," I said.

We did a bit more strolling along Main Street, the sun out now after the earlier snow showers, lighting up the last bits of day.  We stopped at the Crown Tavern for a whisky, sitting in comfy chairs by the fireplace, talking about how fine and fun the conference had been.   Great speakers, superb location, wonderful friends.  We'd had a fine time the night before singing and playing until late.

Back at Le Petit Paris, Arielle led us to a comfortable corner table and we embarked on one of the most delightful dining experiences we've ever had.  The food & wine were superb, the place itself wonderfully cozy and completely Parisian, but les soeurs themselves were what lifted it into another plane.

Arielle is the elder -- sixty next year, as she told us several times -- the owner of the place, three years now in Colorado, having gone through hope, betrayal, misery, wonder and redemption to get to the place she is now.   MariJo (which we choose to believe is diminutive for Marie Josephine), of the long blond ponytail, slender in blue jeans and her crisp white waiter's shirt, is a fountain of smiles and gentle laughter, emphasizing that we have all of the time in the world.

Over the course of the next couple of hours we have a remarkable meal and gentle, funny, serious, deep conversation with each of the sisters, conversation that never seems intrusive, never gets in the way of the romantic intimacy of the evening that Lynn and I are having, but that tugs us gently into their world.  MariJo helps me with my french, particularly the tricky tongue action necessary to get "grenouilles" just right.  We hear from Arielle about the circumstances that led to the restaurant being shuttered for three months last year, and how it was the community that rallied round her to fix things and get her back up and running when she thought all was lost.  " I do this now for the people of Breckenridge."

We discover that MariJo, for all of her astonishing beauty, is quite the natural comedienne, and when she falls into an imitation of a Colorado redneck or a Parisian FN, putting her hands on her hips and puffing out her cheeks in indignation we're ready to fall out of our chairs with laughter.  She's telling us that, having lived all of her life in Paris, she was a little nervous about coming out to small town Colorado.  "As soon as I open my mouth," she tells us, confidentially, "they can tell I'm not from around here."  But everyone has been fabulous.  Yes, there are those small-minded people, but you find them everywhere and there aren't enough of them to let it worry you.  She takes her doggies out for walks in the mountains and thinks she's moved to someplace very much like heaven.

We talk with Arielle about wine, and find that, like Lynn, she doesn't care for white wines, believes that you can find the right red wines to go with anything, and that she spends a lot of time picking out just the right wines for her restaurant.  "I'm no sommelier," she says several times (she says everything several times), "But I pay attention to wine."

MariJo does the desserts and is rhapsodic when describing them.  Often, I skip dessert, but I knew that in this place I didn't dare -- her disappointment would've been heartbreaking.  When we ask her to help us select, she asks us many, many questions before she chooses for us.  There is no shyness about her when she brings them out.  She knows they're fabulous.

Eventually, after coffee and cognac, we've about run out of reasons to stay, although we would if we could.  They come with us to the door, and we kiss on both cheeks and can't quite let the conversation go.  It is inconceivable to me that we won't see them again.

Finally, we're on the street, strolling back to the lodge.    Did we just have dinner in a restaurant?  No, Arielle and MariJo just took us in for a few hours.

Matters of Taste

It's always a dilemma when I come to DC -- where do I want to eat on that first evening?  I've been coming here a couple of times a year since I moved away back in '87, so I have lots of favorites that I like to go back to, but it's also become such a restaurant town that there's always new places that sound extremely inviting.  So what to do?

This morning I see that a previous occupant of my hotel room has helpfully checked a number of establishments off in the Official Visitor's Guide -- Hooter's in Chinatown, Haagen-Dazs downtown, Brickskeller Down Home Saloon, Gifford's Ice Cream & Candy Co., Haagen-Dazs again (in Penn Quarter, this time), and Ben's Chili Bowl.  Somehow, I don't foresee myself crossing paths with him (the first choice inclines me to believe that it's a "he").

Of course, I could have gone into any of the billion sites that now enable people to comment on their experiences at local restaurants.  Zagat's, for example, would have told me that Al Tiramisu has "great food and atmosphere" with "attentive service", while simultaneously being "overrated" with "food that is completely bland" and a menu that is "average".  From "yelp" I would've found out that Bistrot du Coin (another of my favorites, and the place I finally ended up) has "mediocre food," "very good French country cooking," "top-notch mussels," "colorful and fun waitstaff," and "incredibly rude waiters."  Sigh.  The wisdom of the crowds, I guess.

All of those opinions are valid, I hasten to add.  They're just not particularly useful, because everybody is going to a restaurant for different reasons, everyone's experiences and expectations are different, and without knowing more of that background, I have no way of knowing how their experiences might inform my own.  What an experienced professional restaurant critic does is attempt to provide context and background and consistency in their opinions.  You may not agree with them all the time, but they'll give you a baseline against which you can measure your own tastes and interests.

I'm here in DC to participate in a Library Advisory panel for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this afternoon.  There are ten people in the group -- nine librarians and a consultant -- from quite a variety of settings.  In preparation for the meeting, we've received a series of questions gathered under four topical headings:  Trends in Use and Accessibility of Scholarly Content, Transitioning from Print Subscriptions to Online Site Licenses, Copyright Ownership and Open Access, and Usage-Based Pricing/Collaborative Consortia Based Pricing.  The questions are the kind that you'd expect to hear from a reasonably progressive scholarly publisher and accurately reflect the kinds of struggles publishers are engaged in these days as they try to plot their future.

It's not likely, of course, that we'll be able to give them consensus opinions, any more than the diners at any local restaurant are going to agree on the menu's hits and misses.  But the conversation will no doubt be lively and I am as eager to hear the differing views of my colleagues as I presume that the PNAS folks are.  I do hope, though, that we can provide enough context and background for our opinions for them to be useful.

Solitude in the City

I'm typically quite eager to get on the plane headed to wherever.  Even in these days when the papers are full of complaints about overcrowded skies and delayed flights I'm happy to be traveling.  So I was a little surprised yesterday to be feeling so blue as I drove out to the airport for my flight to Chicago -- particularly since Chicago is one of my very favorite cities.

It's largely because this time Lynn isn't going to come up to join me.  Back when she was on the MLA Board, I would come to Chicago following the February & September board meetings.  We'd stay until Sunday and go to museums & galleries, out to a show, try out new restaurants.  When I was elected to the Board, we set up the same pattern, and so she was initially planning to join me tomorrow.   But then, with all of the chaos surrounding the opening of Gymboree, she thought better of that plan and decided to skip this one.  I don't disagree with her decision at all, but it just doesn't feel right to be up here without her.

My reaction is particularly unexpected because generally I relish solitary travel.  I like being able to explore cities, to get lost in them, to find my way into unexpected places, on my own schedule, without having to deal with the long list of compromises that are usually part of the experience of traveling with someone.  But then, compatibility in traveling is one of the hallmarks of my relationship with Lynn.  I remember, very early on, during one of the first trips we took together, we were walking along having such a good time, and I blurted out, "Being with you is almost as good as being alone!"  As soon as the words were out of my mouth I was aghast, because it sounded horrible, but she just laughed and knew exactly what I meant. 

So I should have been glad for the chance to have an extra day on my own in Chicago, but the fact is that I identify this city so much with her now.  It's where our romance began, although neither of us knew it at the time.

I felt better once we landed and I was in the cab heading to the hotel.   The weather was ugly -- drizzly and hot and very humid, but weather never makes a huge difference to me.    It's the energy of the city, that particular informal, brash confidence that Chicago has no matter what the weather, that I admire.  This is a place where people are used to coping with months of those icy winds blowing in off Lake Michigan -- they're not about to be slowed down by a little late summer heat & rain.

Before I left home, I'd picked out the restaurant that I wanted to go to for dinner.   I've been to Bistro Zinc several times and only taken Lynn there once, but I've written letters to her there, written in my journal about her there, so I associate her with it even so.  It's the perfect type of a French bistro that I seek out in whatever city I find myself.

I get a table by the window and look out over the bustle of State Street.  I write for a bit, sip my wine, and feel myself relax.  I've brought along MFK Fisher's The Gastronomical Me to read while I eat -- what can be better than reading superb prose about great food while I'm sitting in a favorite restaurant having an excellent meal of my own!  It's almost as good as being with Lynn.

I call home as I walk back to the hotel.  "Did I have a good time?" Lynn laughs.  Oh yes, I say, and tell her what we had to eat.  I'm feeling much better now.  I'll read for a bit more before sleep, and in the morning I'll work for a few hours.  The magic of modern travel is that I can get just about as much done from my hotel room as I can from my office.  Then in the afternoon the board meeting starts and for the next two days I'll be too busy and occupied to miss her too much.    Come Saturday afternoon, when the meeting is done, I'll seek out a restaurant for lunch that I think she'd like.  I'll take out fountain pen and stationery to write her a letter.  Years from now, when I remember the afternoon, I'm sure I'll see her sitting right across from me.

Making The Best Of A Bad Day

"So when was it that you realized you were going to be having a really bad day today?" I asked Tony the maitre d' when he stopped at our table at Gibson's.

"Oh, probably about an hour and a half or so ago.  We'd done all of the prep work and had everything ready to go, but then..."  He gave a smile of weary resignation, but didn't go into the details of the "technical difficulties" that had caused RL to close their dining room for the day and start calling people who had reservations to offer them alternatives.

This was at about 1:30, and we had met Tony half an hour before.  What was remarkable about the conversation is that Tony doesn't work at Gibson's, and we hadn't been expecting to be eating there -- he's the maitre d' at RL, where we'd had a reservation for lunch.

The staff at RL had begun calling their customers as soon as they realized they had a disaster on their hands, but I'd missed the call, which apparently came into my cell at about the time I was sliding out of the cab at the Duke of Perth to retrieve the moleskine that I'd left there the night before (another superb service story, by the way).  So we had gone ahead on schedule checking out of the hotel, storing our luggage and walking up the street to the restaurant.  This is our general pattern when we have a weekend in Chicago -- book a late afternoon flight so that we can take our time and have a good lunch before heading home.  Evelyn has had positive things to say about RL, and since she's never steered us wrong on a restaurant recommendation we decided to give it a try and booked a 1:00 reservation.

When we walked in, there were people sitting in the bar and lounge areas, but the dining room itself appeared to be empty, the tables all set and pristine.  This seemed odd at what should have been the peak of the brunch rush.  I gave my name to the hostess and suddenly Tony appeared, calm and smiling, looking completely unrushed and unhurried, but deeply apologetic. 

"I'm afraid we've had a technical malfunction in our kitchen and we've had to close our dining room for the day," he said, and rolled his eyes up with a "these things happen" shrug.  "What I'd like to suggest is that you try either Gibson's or Lux Bar -- they have tables just waiting for you, and then I'd like to buy you lunch here at RL the next time you come in."

Of course, we were a bit startled and taken aback, trying to take this information in.  We probed a bit about the choices -- Tony described the places and we thought that Gibson's would probably do.  "Yes, Gibson's is what I would recommend.  John Coletti is there just waiting for you.  I can get you a cab or, if you'd prefer to walk, it's just a few blocks up Rush...   Now let me give you this gift certificate for the next time you come in and here's my card, with my cell phone number -- please call me directly for the reservation and I'll be sure to take care of you personally."

He pointed us in the right direction, apologized again, shook my hand, and by this time we felt like we were all in this together and were on an adventure, rather than being inconvenienced.

Sure enough, when we walked into Gibson's and said, tentatively, to the maitre d' there, "Tony just sent us up from RL...," he grinned and replied, "Oh yes, we were expecting you.  I'm John..."   We commiserated about what a lousy day Tony was having.  Our coats were whisked away and we were led to our booth.

"Let me see that gift certificate," I said to Lynn once we were settled in.  She handed it to me and I opened it up.  More than enough to cover lunch for two the next time we were in.  Impressive.  And as we were sitting there marveling at how they had so smoothly moved us from feeling disappointed that our plans had been knocked askew into feeling that we were being treated extra-special, Tony appeared at our table.  "I just had to walk up the street to see how my customers were doing.  Is everything okay?  Are they treating you right?"

We assured him that we were having a fine time, and were looking forward to coming back to his restaurant the next time we were in town.  He shook my hand again, and moved off to the next table of displaced diners.

"Now, that was over the top," we agreed.   Hard to calculate the financial hit that RL took that day -- an empty dining room that would usually be packed, all that food that had been prepped and would have to be given away to the food banks, and the gift certificates to the people holding reservations.  Many thousands of dollars to be sure.  But there was Tony, five blocks away from his own restaurant, as if there was nothing more important in his world than making sure that we were having a fine Sunday lunch.

We, in libraryland, talk a lot about customer service.  Oh, that we could be half this good!

Rilke Would Have Loved It

I woke Saturday morning wanting most of all to see some Whistlers.  I'd ended Friday night the same way I'd ended  the night before -- up the block from my hotel, sitting at Al Tiramisu's bar sipping grappa with Luigi, under Adriana's watchful eye.  A little grappa goes a very long way, and I was cautious, but Luigi loves the stuff as I do, and he's always got something new to try.  So when I rose to consciousness, and called down for my pot of coffee, I still had a bit of a pleasant buzz around the ears.  And I knew the best thing for me was to spend an hour with Jimmy Whistler.

Friday had been a very long, and quite wonderful day, and frankly, I wasn't sure what my energy level for the rest of Saturday would be.  I'd come to DC strictly on holiday, for the express purpose of seeing the completed expansion of the Phillips Collection, and the newly (and finally!) reopened Smithsonian American Art Museum.  I'd taken a late flight on Thursday, so that I could put in a full work day, and it was after 10:00 when I got to the hotel and considerably later when I got back from Al Tiramisu.   But I'd gotten up eager to get into my day and cleared my head with a long, brisk walk through Georgetown, and then a light lunch of mussels and frites at Bistrot du Coin.  I'd spent hours at the Phillips, thrilled with what they'd done, making repeated stops in the renovated Rothko Room.  Then I'd walked down to American Art for a brief overview before heading back into Georgetown for supper at Bistro Francais, and then ending up for that grappa nightcap with Luigi.  Like I said, a long and wonderful day.

I had a ticket for the Saturday evening performance of Richard III, and I knew I wanted to spend some hours at American Art, and I really wanted to try to pace myself -- but I needed to see some Whistlers.  Ever since that revelatory retrospective back in the late eighties (one of the few art exhibitions that I can truly say changed my life), he's been among my pantheon of painters (the others being Goya, Daumier, and Rothko), and I knew exactly where to go.  For several years now, the Freer has devoted their long lower gallery to rotating exhibits of small Whistler works.  I wasn't sure what was currently up, but I knew I'd love it and that it would fill me with that sense of astonishment and wonder and delight that Whistler always gives me.

It turned out to be a series of his small oils, most of them from the 1880s.  These are remarkable pictures, mostly seascapes, punctuated by some wonderful urban scenes.  I've been looking closely at Whistler paintings for most of my adult life, and even the ones that I know well leave me breathless, thinking, "How does he do that?  How, in such tiny spaces, with just a handful of confident, seemingly careless, brushstrokes, does he evoke whole worlds and the deep and complicated hearts of the people who live in them?"  As usual, the placards emphasize that Whistler was all about art for art's sake and was only concerned with composition and color and line.  I suppose it's true to a point, but it's also an excessively academic way of looking at the work.  He is among the most deeply human painters I know, and to claim that in a painting like the little red glove, for example, all he cares about is composition, is to willfully ignore the life that he has put into that young girl's eyes.  Sometimes art historians annoy me to tears.

After filling myself up for awhile with those paintings, I was ready for some lunch before continuing on to the major event of the afternoon (I had another french bistro in mind, of course), but wanted to take a quick stroll through the rest of the Freer first, and that's when I came across the most unexpected revelation of the entire trip --  Gwyn Hanssen Pigott's  Parades.   I'd never heard of Pigott, but she turns out to be a well known Australian ceramicist, who, in her own work, arranges her pieces in very precise still lifes, so that the relationships of one to another creates a whole that is much more than the individual pieces.  She was invited into the Freer's ceramic storerooms to see what she might do out of their collection.  I find the results absolutely astonishing.  Because she was looking at the pieces from the standpoint of an artist, looking to create a new work from what she found, she wasn't interested in provenance or history or type of piece (all of that stuff that the art historians dote on), but on how the forms could relate to each other.  The beauty of what she has accomplished brought me to tears.  (The online exhibition is useful, by the way, but it doesn't give a hint of how powerful the arrangements are in real life).

I walked out of the Freer about noon and headed across the mall, feeling, quite literally, as if my feet were barely touching the ground.  That hour or so would've been worth the trip to DC all by itself, and my Saturday was barely underway.  As it turned out, it wouldn't end until some fifteen hours later, when I'd walked back to my hotel from the Dubliner,  after a long talk with the bartender Joel and the guitar player Conor Malone, but that, as they say, is another story...


Fried Corn

San_antonio_trip_001_1I didn't even know there was such a thing as deep-fried corn on the cob!  What a great idea -- you'd think you'd see it all over the place.    We were driving across Mississippi, having left the interstate just past Meridian.  It was just after noon, and I wanted to angle up a bit and catch the Natchez Trace  north of Jackson.  We were driving  along  US Hwy 80, passing throughSan_antonio_trip_002 little towns like Chunky and Newton and  Hickory and Forest and Lake.  I thought for sure we'd pass some local little diner or barbecue joint.  But nothing. 

I was beginning to fear that I'd have to break one of the road rules (#2: Never eat in a chain restaurant).  We hadn't had breakfast and the Sonics and Hardees and Burger Kings that we were passing were starting to look pretty good.  Then Bruce and I both saw the sign at the same time -- "BJ's Cajun Cooker.  Chicken On A Stick $3.99".   I scanned the parking lot -- a couple of pickups and three or four cars.  Somebody was having lunch.  So we turned in.

Inside the door there was a high counter.  The menu selections were listed above the order windows.  Catfish po' boys, (and shrimp and oyster and clam po' boys too), grilled fish, fish & shrimp, etc., etc...  A tall, thin, slightly pinched looking woman swayed up to the window and looked down at us just a little sceptically. 

"Hello!" I said brightly.  She gave a nod.  "What do you think we should have?  My friend here is from England." 

A pause.  "Don't know what he wants," she drawled, making me feel like I'd breached some local protocol. 

Bruce gulped & grinned, "There's so many choices...!" 

She allowed a slight smile and said, "Some say the catfish is pretty good."  Another long pause.  "The plates come with two sides..."

So I ordered the grilled catfish plate with coleslaw and corn.  Bruce picked the fish and shrimp, with the same sides (I haven't asked him about this, but it was clear he was looking at the list of sides and thinking I have no idea what these things are.  Better to be safe and pick what Scott has...)

Miz Lean gave me the order ticket.  "Sit wherever you like.  I'll call out the last three numbers."  She gave me another stern look as if she wasn't quite sure I was following her about the last three numbers. 

"This is the real thing," said Bruce as we sat down at our little table, looking out the window at the pond in the back.  It took a while (she'd warned me that "it'll take a bit for him to grill that catfish") and then she leaned out the window, looked straight at us, and called out the last three numbers of our ticket.  I leapt up and went to get the paper plates, cups for our soda fountain drinks, plastic forks & paper napkins.  She softened a bit (I guess because I did the number thing right) and asked if we'd like tartar sauce or lemon juice.  Yes, to both, we said, and took everything back to the table.

It was no surprise that the food was superb.  This is the kind of place that John T. Edge would love.  But I was baffled when I got my plate and saw the golden brown cylinder that I at first took to be some kind of biscuit or corn fritter.  And then realized that nowhere on the plate was the mound of cooked corn that I'd been expecting.   What was before me was a half-ear of corn that had been very lightly battered and dropped into the frying oil.   The crust was paper thin, just enough to protect the kernels from the oil, so that they cooked up wonderfully juicy and full of flavor.   The fish was delicious, but the standout was that corn!

The Natchez Trace was beautiful, and we stopped off to see an Indian burial mound, and we wound our way down through the middle of Louisiana, listening to music and watching the life of the little towns, until we finally made it to our motel on the edge of Lake Charles.  It was a great driving day and we saw many wonderful things.  But I'll remember best the deep fried corn on the cob.


A Grappa Celebration

Wasn't it at that little wine store in the North End, where Mark took us to buy some grappa, that we first heard about the Jacopo Poli miele?  It's a honey-flavored grappa, and the owner had just come back from Italy where he'd tasted some for the first time.  He'd ordered a case but it hadn't arrived yet.  Mark said he'd try to get a bottle before his next visit to Birmingham, but that didn't work out.   Good things have their own way of coming around, however, and when we finished our splendid dinner at Al Tiramisu Tuesday evening and went up to the bar to tell Chef Luigi that it was time for grappa, his eyes twinkled at Lynn (as they always do) as he said, "Ahh, Senora!  What I have for you!  Miele, from Poli!"  It was every bit as delicious as we'd imagined that it would be.

We really do have to come here with Mark some time.  For the true grappa afficianado this is a heavenly spot.  I don't think I've ever actually selected a grappa here -- I just ask Luigi what he'd like to pour for me and it is always something wonderful.

We were in a celebratory mood after taking in the show of small Whistler paintings at the Freer,  strolling through Montmartre with Lautrec at the National Gallery, paying homage to Julia Child in her kitchen at the National Museum of American History and finishing the afternoon with oysters and whiskey at the Old Ebbitt Grill.    In the morning I'd done my talk for the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors -- the culmination of a series of conversations I've had with Sheldon over the years since the notorious Human Immunology incident.  NLM was the host site for this year's meeting of the committee, and Sheldon had asked me some months ago to come speak to the group.  Ostensibly, my purpose was simply to highlight a number of areas where electronic publishing presents us with new challenges that they might want to address in the Uniform Requirements for Submission of Manuscripts to Biomedical Journals.  What I was hoping for is that they would amend the section dealing with retractions and corrections to include a statement that it is never permissible to remove an article from the electronic database once it has been published.  And by the end of the discussion, that is exactly the point they reached.

They still need to agree on the specific language, and sometimes things can get gummed up in the transition from what seems like a clear concept to the actual words in which the idea takes form, but I am hopeful that they will be able to come to consensus on the phrasing over the next several weeks.   The URM isn't enforceable, even among those journals that agree to comply with it, so it can't prevent nervous lawyers from persuading the publishers they work for to continue to expunge articles in certain dicey situations, but it is a very signficant step to have this distinguished international body go on record with the principle, and it will give editors something with which to push back at the lawyers.

It was a day when I felt that I had really accomplished something worthwhile.   Definitely worth a grappa.