Friday, March 24, 2006
We all say we hate memes, but we all go along with them anyway
The idea is to recount a one-line antecdote for every state visited. And since I've kinda backed myself into a thematic corner with this blog, most of my anecdotes have to do with food. Also, I've left out a few states I've driven through without stopping for anything other than gas.
Alabama: On the drive back to Dallas from Savannah, Amanda and I stop in Birmingham to eat sandwiches and watch a Duke basketball game.
Arizona: Lorien and I eat mediocre Mexican food in Sonoma, where we went just for the drive.
Arkansas: I have an image of looking down on Fayetville from a hill, and that's all I can remember, including why I would be in Fayetville.
California: Minutes after eating at French Laundry, considered by many to be the country’s best restaurant, I am having a beer at the local hole-in-the-wall down the street.
Connecticut: At Wes and Mary's wedding, I eat the best piece of wedding cake I've ever had (not including my own, for sentimental reasons).
Delaware: I don't remember her name anymore, but I still remember her sleeping on my shoulder on the bus ride from D.C. to New York.
Florida: After eating blackened dolphin fish (called Mahi Mahi these days) at Epcot Center, I get sick and swear off blackened fish for the rest of my life.
Georgia: Amanda and I look around the dining room at Elizabeth on 37th and think "yeah, maybe we could do this."
Louisiana: My freshman year of college, four of my school chums and I share a few pitchers of Abita Amber with a “voodoo practitioner” in New Orleans.
Maryland: I eat a burger and drink a beer across the street from the University of Maryland, where I have an appointment in 30 minutes.
Massachusetts: A young woman gets into Ashlee’s car and says “Hi, I’m Sharon. Let’s get drunk,” starting more than either of us bargained for.
Mississippi: I fail a field sobriety test at William Faulkner’s grave, but the officer takes no action except to insist that I not drive.
Missouri: I realize that it is my dad’s birthday, so I write him a happy birthday note from Elvis on a napkin from Presley’s cafeteria.
Nevada: after eating at one of Emeril Lagasse’s restaurants, I decide that I should rethink my low opinion of him.
New Jersey: I make a phone call to Jeremy and have to explain that I am not lost on Elizabeth Street, just a few blocks from his office, but in fact am lost in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in a different state.
New Mexico: Amanda and I have a perfect meal at The Compound and follow it up by going to meet friends at a horrid nightclub called Swill.
New York: Jeremy and I wait for Amanda at Fanelli and make wagers on how much money she has spent on shoes.
North Carolina: My father, my grandfather and I visit my great aunt at her 200-year-old house.
Tennessee: Despite its reputation, Nashville doesn’t offer me any good country music at any of the bars I try.
Texas: Laura and Jenny insist that they must call their friend Amanda in London to tell her that Bill Clinton has won the election, and I think that this Amanda girl seems worth knowing.
Virginia: I wait at a McDonald’s for Laura to come pick me up, because I am incredibly lost and can’t find her house.
Washington D.C.: The five of us who had the house special burger at Hamburger Hamlet form a line and take turns going to the hotel bathroom to face the consequences of the burgers.
West Virginia: I do not stop in West Virginia, just drive up the mountain and down the mountain, up the mountain and down the mountain….
Thursday, March 23, 2006
People often assume that we’re going to move out there now that Amanda works in The Woodlands; they’re wrong. We’ve no intention of moving outside the loop. But now there’s a reason to visit.
Dallas super-chef Kent Rathbun (sous chef at The Mansion, Executive Chef at The Landmark, chef-owner of Abacus) opened Jasper’s at the Woodland’s Town Center. His original Jasper’s, in Plano, was named one of Esquire’s best new restaurants when it opened in 2003. [Interesting note: Kent’s brother Kevin, who worked with Stephen Pyles at Baby Ruth’s, won the same award the next year for Rathbun's, in Atlanta.]
Jasper’s is the best look that Houstonians can get at expensive Dallas pretension—or “casual elegance,” as we like to call it—without going all the way up I-45. It’s got dark wood tables, earth-toned chairs and carpet, enormously high ceilings, a giant indoor fireplace, and an outdoor seating area big enough to be its own restaurant. The place is dark, with perfectly tuned spotlights on the tables, and the music is jazz right on the line between “acid” and “smooth.” The waiters wear all black and have expensive hair. The wine glasses are giant. Everything is perfectly in place, but there’s not an ounce of stuffiness to it.
In short, I love it. And so do a lot of other people. The first time Amanda and I tried to go, the wait was two hours. Instead, we went to the crappy sandwich place down the street. Last week, on a Tuesday at 6:30, we were able to walk right in.
Jasper’s features something it calls “gourmet backyard cooking.” This means, for the most part, grilled meats with fancy flourishes. Amanda had almond-crusted trout. I’ve had quite a few blank-crusted trout fillets in my time, and Jasper’s is the most balanced I’ve had. It wasn’t overcooked, nor was it limp and liquidy. Two artfully arranged fillets sat firm and confident on a serving of black pepper grits with a taste of sweet pepper butter. I’m no fan of grits, but Amanda seemed to like them.
I ordered my hickory-grilled flat iron steak medium, but it came out pretty rare. Amanda’s had lunch at Jasper’s a couple of times, and she says the undercooking is common. I usually have mine rare, so I took it as a sign that I don’t need to stray, but if you’re picky about such things, you may want to order it up a notch (but forget about describing to the waiter exactly how pink you want it, or exactly what temperature you want it. The touch-screen ordering systems most restaurants now use don’t have an input for descriptions like that, and you’re well-crafted narrative will only be translated into the usual categories). The steak came with sautéed spinach and mushrooms.
We also ordered a side of mac and cheese, “adult macaroni and cheese” our waitress called it. The pasta is so small that you can hardly see it amid the creamy gouda, strips of ham, tiny streaks of basil, and chunks of roasted garlic. Although it was a little salty, I could still eat this shit every day…until my arteries clog and I die of a massive heart attack. I figure it would only take about a week.
In addition to the fat content of the macaroni, the price will also keep me from eating at Jasper’s every day. Main courses range from $17 (trout) to $37 (black angus bone-in ribeye). The prices aren’t out of line with the quality of the food or the service. And you expect to pay a little extra for ridiculously high ceilings.
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
Am I the only who's noticed that all the Enron executives are conspicuously carrying Starbucks cups into court? Aren't they supposed to hide their faces from the cameras in shame?
Perhaps Starbucks has found a way to get their product on the front page of all the newspapers?
Friday, March 17, 2006
Ben Holloway Doesn't Eat
I had two reasons for fasting at Lent. The first has to do with the fasting, which I'm doing solely out of curiosity. All the major religions do it, so I figured there must be something to gain. But what? Why did Jesus fast for forty days before beginning his ministry? Why do Muslims fast for a month every year? Why do Buddhist monks and Hindu ascetics fast pretty much all the time? I don't know, but I figured reading a book wasn't going to be enough, so I decided to give it a try.
The second has to do with Lent. Since some form of fasting is quite common during Lent, I figured I could just fit in. It's not my preparation for Easter so much as it just seems a convenient time to fast without raising too many eyebrows. In fact, the rules of engagement I've chosen are much closer to Ramadan fasting than Lent fasting. I simply don't eat from sunup to sundown. I drink water, coffee, sometimes a Coke, but no food. I chose this method because it's simple and easy to remember. I do eat on Sundays, because the forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter don't include Sundays, but there's been no sanctioned cheating for St. Patrick's Day.
Actually, I've cheated a few times already. When Amanda and I went to Dallas to see some friends and celebrate our anniversary, I ate lunch when we were with people at lunch time. When I went back to Dallas to see my mother post-surgery (she's doing fine), I ate lunch with the family. While I have let being polite and social be a reason to break the fast, I haven't just said fuck it and eaten because I was hungry. Nor have I increased my breakfast to get me through the day. On weekdays, when I eat around 5:45, I have some toast, graham crackers, or cereal. Since I usually don't wake up before sunup on Saturday, I just don't eat until dinner.
But so far, no insight. I haven't overcome my earthly attachments to body or pleasure. I haven't felt more empathy with the poor. I haven't become a model of self-control and modesty. I haven't even lost much weight. But there are still several weeks to go, so I'll keep you posted. If I achieve enlightenment, I promise you'll be the first to know.
Thursday, March 02, 2006
Weekend in New York: Il Mulino
The restaurant is small, dark, severely crowded, and moderately ugly. I have little doubt that the wood paneling and cream-with-a-grape-leaf-pattern wallpaper are the same stuff that went up when the restaurant first opened in 1981. Thomas warned us beforehand: “The food is great, but the ambience is…nothing.” But when the lights are down that low, and you’re that close to the table next to you, who cares about the walls anyway? Reviewers aren’t joking about how crammed it is. If I so much as leaned back a little in my chair, I hit the bread plate of the table next to me. I did this five or six times.
You can fill yourself up at Il Mulino without even ordering anything. Before menus came, we were given giant hunks of sweet, nutty, salty parmesan cut right from an even more giant block at the table. We had a bread basket that included bread sticks that are the most garlic-y bread I’ve ever eaten. A few minutes later we were given garlic toast that made the sticks seem mild. We got bruschetta. We got salami. We got zucchini sautéed in garlic. We got full.
Luckily, Brian and Thomas eat even more that Amanda and I do, so full was no setback. Brian ordered a bottle of Sangiovese, but I never saw what it was. It was delicious. Despite drinking Amanda’s share of the bottle as well as mine, I still ended up ordering a glass of cab before the meal was over.
We had a plate of hot antipasti and a plate of cold. Altogether we ate sautéed scallops, prosciutto and other cold cuts, fried shrimp, a cheese-filed pasta I simply wrote down as “cheesy stuff” in my notebook (which Amanda tells me was supposed to be eggplant involtini), roasted red bell peppers, mozzarella with tomato and basil, hearts of palm, clams casino, and clams with bacon.
Entrees: I had ravioli filled with porcini mushrooms, served with a champagne cream sauce and black truffles. Amanda had langoustines in an herbed wine sauce with a mushroom and pea risotto. Brian had a double veal chop. Thomas had veal pounded super-thin (literally the size of the plate) and served Milanese—fried and topped with tomatoes. None of us ate more than half of the main course (except for Thomas, who almost finished his). It was just so rich, and we were just so full.
Well, not too full. Amanda had lemon sorbetto for dessert, and the rest of us shared a homemade tiramisu. They also served us grappa, ladled from a large copper bucket, which had little grappa-soaked grapes in it. Amanda said she wasn’t going to drink hers. “Oh, come on. You have to try it! You have to drink the grappa!” said our neighbors at the next table, about six inches away. Amanda protested, but they insisted. It seemed like they would be personally insulted if she didn’t at least have a teeny-weeny sip. They took the same tone when she told them she’s expecting. “What? You can’t have any grappa. No way!”
Going to Il Mulino is like going to an amusement park. It’s a destination unto itself, not someplace you stop along the way to someplace else. It’s best if you go with friends or family. And even though you’re expecting it to be expensive, you’re still shocked when you see the bill. All that free stuff at the beginning of the meal ain’t free—not when the ravioli costs $50. And the warnings didn’t come true: I didn’t reek of garlic the next morning. At least Brian, Thomas, and Amanda didn’t say anything.
Wednesday, March 01, 2006
Weekend in New York: Fanelli
But I’m a creature of habit. So once we got into the city and dropped our bags off at Brian and Thomas’s place, we went straight to Fanelli’s for lunch.
Like a lot of places in New York, Fanelli’s is very old. It claims to be the second oldest continuous bar on the same site in New York, which would be impressive if it weren’t such a long and qualified title. It was bought, and renamed, by Michael Fanelli in 1922, when it was a speakeasy.
This was the first time I’ve been to the back room. It’s just as charming as the main room, but it doesn’t have the bar and all the old photographs of boxers.
No surprise—I ate what I always eat. The grilled chicken club sandwich has gouda cheese and a tarragon mayonnaise. The French fries are perfectly crisp and gold on the outside, warm and mushy on the inside. Amanda had a “croque monsieur,” which was in fact nothing but a grilled ham and cheese sandwich. I thought she’d be upset it didn’t have the jelly and other extra stuff a monsieur is supposed to have. “I knew it would be like this,” she said. “This is exactly what I wanted.” I had a couple bottles of Pilsner Urquell, and she had sparkling lemonade (fancy, huh?).
Our waitress was in a pretty bitchy mood. She and a customer who was in a hurry had several rounds of making ugly faces at each other and blaming each other for not listening. I thought the customer was in the wrong, but I later changed my mind when I heard this exchange:
“Do you mind if we take one of those tables in the corner?’
“Yes. Yes I mind. If you want one of those tables, you’re going to have to go back up to the front and wait. Those tables are dirty and I don’t have a minute to clean them right now.”
That’s how great Fanelli’s is. You can have service like that and still love being there. There may be no better way to start a weekend in New York than Fanelli’s (unless it’s a little early. The Blind Tiger has free pastries and bagels for the morning drinkers, but the bread runs out by noon).