Friday, February 25, 2011

Walking around Five Points...

In desperate need of some mayonnaise, a crucial element in my kitchen, I decided to walk to the grocery store and make an afternoon of it, the weather being as nice as it was that day. My one errand complete, I walked through Five Points, turning randomly down random streets to chase the sun and to avoid the shade, observing the eclectic mix of housing and warehousing. Walking is one the the best things a human can do I think. It is a great way to get outside and enjoy the world as well as your thoughts. Also, I love Five Points almost as much as I love mayonnaise.

New Orleans, Soul Food.

It seems so distant now, but it wasn’t too long ago I found myself on a plane, surrounded by a large group of very chatty high school cheerleaders, because like them, my girlfriend still feels the allure of the back of the bus. We were on our way to New Orleans, my hometown, to visit family and friends and to enjoy life…

For many reasons though, the constant girlish chatter being one, I was uneasy about heading to the Big Easy. Mostly because earlier that week, I had quit my job for the first time as an adult and wasn’t sure what was next for me, and second mostly because it was going to be my girlfriend’s first time there, her first time seeing my past. She’s known me out west, which is to say, she knows me now as opposed to then, I was a different person back then. I left New Orleans five years ago, the storm having put some things in perspective, to pursue a new chapter in my life. I was jobless, young and full of newly formed ideals about life, love and beer. Still young and again jobless, and heading back for the first proper visit since, I felt like I had weathered a different type of storm, I felt like I was going home a man, a nervous one, but one none the less.

We arrived, and as we drove from the airport into the city, I felt waves of memories wash over all my senses, permeating them, like the humidity that surrounds you there, it was refreshing and I instantly felt better. I missed the humidity, I missed that town.

My old high school chum and best friend put us up for the week. He lives a block from Magazine St., a mile and a half from Audubon Park, half a mile from the cheese shop he manages and right across the street from Les Bon Temp Roule, an old building filled with loud music, smoke and debauchery, like most bars in New Orleans.

Once settled we walked up Magazine, beers from Bayou Teche (a new brewery out in Cajun Country) in hand, catching up on our way to Mahoney’s for po boys, the stresses of life already starting to dissipate, the weather beautiful. Once there, I ordered the fried chicken liver with Cajun slaw, my girlfriend and friend both ordered the root beer-glazed ham and cheese.  We sat outside, enjoying the unseasonably nice weather and the traditionally sloppy sandwiches and watched the people of Uptown. Uptown has an old money, new fashion collegiate slow pace to it, very different than the vibe Downtown or any other neighborhood in New Orleans, but like all of them, saturated with funk, poverty and pride.

We dined in the first night at my friend’s request. He happens to be one of the best home cooks I know, one that has taken that next step if you will, like a home brewer who’s left the comfort of extract behind to tackle the more engaging and flavorful all-grain process, its always been a pleasure to eat what he cooks. We feasted on eggplant salad, roasted veggies, pasta carbonara and plump grilled shrimp, prefaced by good cheese, good bread, jam and chocolate. Old and new friends came over to join us and we all drank and ate into the night. It was good introduction to the trip, easy and carefree.

The next day we had breakfast at St. James Cheese Shop on Prytania St., as we would for the duration of the trip, where my friend works. It is one of the best cheese shops I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to a few. They sell one of the world’s best cheese selections, serve up the best cheese plates and make some of the most eclectic sandwiches in town. Each morning we were served on wooden blocks a world wind of artisan foods…cheeses, charcuterie, fruits, mustards, jams, anchovies, house-smoked duck, pates and meat pie, always accompanied by plenty of good strong coffee and good crusty bread. A perfect way to start a day I think.

That afternoon, we biked down St. Charles past the mansions and colleges of New Orleans, to meet my mom, the birthday of whom I had accidently and luckily timed the trip around. I’m awful with birthdays, but surprisingly good with timing, a skill learned on the drumline of my high school marching band I think. We met for coffee at Rue de La Course, a local chain located throughout town, this one in an old bank. It was good to hear about my mother’s post empty nest adventures (a long time coming, there are six of us), it made her seem more like a person to me, less an authority figure, and good to see her as well, I had forgotten how pretty she is. We biked back lazily as the sun began to set and saw the ornateness of St. Charles in a different light, and listened to the nostalgic clanging of the trolley cars as they passed.

That night we dined at Le Petite Grocery on Magazine. My friend told us it’s one of the best places in town, a bold statement to say in that town, but he knew the chef and knew him to be a truly good one. The place was warm and cozy, golden and white, as picturesque as a French restaurant in New Orleans can be. We sat at the bar and drank stiff cocktails while blue crab beignets, veal sweetbreads, beet salad with crawfish, shrimp and grits and hand-made saffron fettuccini (the standout dish in my opinion) were served forth and thoroughly enjoyed by all. Once we were all thoroughly stuffed and night capped, everyone but me agreed it was time to retire. I on the other hand, a full stomach of good food and good drink stubbornly felt Le Bon Temp across the street from where we were staying was the place to be, so I went there by myself, and danced to the live music until I don’t know when and felt a little like my old self…except that I behaved myself.

The next morning, after a quick jog through Audubon Park, it was time to shop Magazine Street, apparently a famous place to do so. The old me would have never spent an entire day wandering aimlessly from one boutique to the next ooing and awing at this or that, but the new me is in love and enjoys watching her have fun, beer in hand of course. I left her however at the halfway point to meet my boy for a beer at the Bulldog. We bought a pitcher of locally brewed NOLA Blonde Ale, kicked back on the patio and as the sun set, talked about why I quit what I was doing and why he was doing what he was doing, and about beer and food and as always, about women. My lady arrived and we set off to enjoy the evening.

We began at Bouligny Tavern for cocktails and a quick snack of fried truffle gnocchi. The gnocchi were delicious, the cocktails, some of the best I’ve had, the atmosphere, hip. After a few, we walked down the street to Baru, a fairly new Caribbean tapas place that’s getting rave reviews of late. We were promptly seated and promptly ordered cerviche with roasted corn, fried oysters and arepas which were quickly and expertly brought to us by a wonderful waitress, the name of whom I wish I could remember, the service was as great as the food. And as we dined, my little brother showed up to join us. He had driven, in his pick up truck down from Baton Rouge to hang out for the night. I hadn’t seen him in almost two years, which I now know is far too long, he is my one brother and first friend ever. After dinner, we made our way to Le Bon to meet friends for drinks. My brother and I talked basketball, my girlfriend got to know him and live music played in the background, through clouds of smoke and echoes of laughter. It was a night I hope to always remember.

The next day we left Uptown and headed Downtown, or more specifically the French Quarter, where my parents have lived the past two years in a one-bedroom apartment. I was very much puzzled when I heard they moved there after the last of their children left, my parents being as conservative as they are. I was curious to see their place though, to see them living as a couple downtown, like older versions of us. And so, that afternoon, three of my four sisters, and one of their boyfriends, my brother, my girlfriend and I were all to meet at my parents place, to celebrate my mother’s birthday. But first, we all needed a drink. So the seven of us met up at Bar Tonique, a cocktail and wine bar on Rampart Street that my sister swore made the best handcrafted cocktails in town. And after the first sip of one ordered for me by her, I was inclined to agree. We were the only patrons in the dimly lit bar that afternoon, which seemed right at the time. We enjoyed the strong drinks and each other’s company, some of us for the first time, others for the first time in a long time. Our glasses empty, we let out a collective sigh and started to walk up the street to my parents’ apartment, a parade of kin marching to pay homage to Queen and King.

My parents’ apartment is on the third floor of a very old building on Ursaline, between Royal and Bourbon, a block away from an even older catholic church. My dad greeted us with a grin, looking younger than I remembered, and led the way up the long flight of stairs to their pad, which was everything a couple in love could want living in the French Quarter. It had beautiful hardwood floors, a quaint perfect little kitchen and windows everywhere looking out onto to the rooftops of the Quarter, all accentuated at this point by the purple and gold light of the setting sun. We listened to my mom play the violin (she had gotten much better since the last I heard) and to family stories, and we sifted through the hundreds of family pictures my mom keeps haphazardly in a big plastic tub in the closet. It was a great time, and it meant a lot to me that my girlfriend fit in so well with such a large and somewhat strange group. Later, my siblings having left to drive back to Baton Rouge, we walked out into the rain with my parents to the church up the street to see a violinist my mom had heard was in town. The old church was packed and the violinist played Russian classical music accompanied by a piano. The music was as beautiful and powerful as the old world setting, and I couldn’t help but feel guilty for the beer in my hand…

We left my parents in a daze to go to a dinner party in Midtown at a friend of my friend’s house. Our hostess happened to be a local chef who had cut her chops in notable restaurants like Stella’s, Gautreau’s and Patois and we were honored by her invitation. When we arrived, she was a mirror image of our first meeting her, which is to say in the kitchen, hurried and stressed. As she dashed around the well-equipped, purposefully cluttered space, covered in flour and sweat, she divvied out duties to the guests. Mine, unfortunately was to set the table, I wanted to help in the kitchen, as I always do, but I know very well not to argue with the chef. She shared the place with the son of an artist who was apparently an avid collector. There were pieces large and small hanging, leaning and lying everywhere and while the chaos in the kitchen ensued we discreetly poked around the miniature museum. It wasn’t long before dinner was ready and we all sat down to a wonderful beet salad followed by an even more wonderful plate of pork schnitzel, pickled cabbage and spatzel. The wine flowed readily, the food was hearty and good and both helped nourish our somewhat spent souls. The rain in the background helped as well. Southern rain has a certain sound I think, large drops of soft water gently drumming against dense foliage, it’s a very soothing noise.

After dinner, we were invited to a wedding reception for a friend of our hostess’ at some bar I can’t recall in the French Quarter. Despite fatigue, we immediately accepted. The newly weds must have rented the place because it seemed everyone in the small dingy bar was part of the celebration and we were quick to follow suit. We danced and drank and by the end of the night, the groom and I were embracing and wishing each other well in life, despite the fact that neither of us knew the other’s name. The rain had stopped by then and we walked back to the car through the thick heavy mist from the Mississippi River, creeping its way through the Quarter.

The next day was our last and it was gorgeous. We went back to the Quarter one last time to grab some gifts for all of our friends who took care of us and to grab a muffaletta from Frank’s, an old school Italian place specializing in hot versions of the old school sandwich, across the street from Café du Monde. Our errands complete and hunger quenched, we walked around the French Quarter soaking in the sun and the scene. Its hard to describe the Quarter, you have to see it to know it, a must see in fact. It’s dirty and smelly, beautiful and old, ripe with both native pride and tourism, all accentuated by booze, music and debauchery. I don’t think there’s any other place like it in the country and probably the world.

We headed back Uptown to St. James, to say farewell to my best friend. He was busy working, so our goodbye was short and as always between us, very sad. Our cab to the airport arrived and we left in what seemed like too much of a rush.

Sitting in the cab, watching the scenes of New Orleans go by, thinking of my childhood there, my family and friends, I couldn’t hold back tears. While my ambitions have led me elsewhere, my heart will always be there. It took me a while to snap back into the reality of an unknown future and my newfound happy life in Denver, but once I did, I was glad to chat with our cab driver. He was, as I was, on the drumline in High School and was currently moonlighting as a drum instructor for kids in the lower Ninth Ward. I was quick to forget my own small troubles in hearing something so noble. Music is part of that city as much as anything and to teach young underprivileged children its appreciation is something that would make Louis Armstrong himself proud, he too was from a bad part of town and he too proudly marched in its parades. The driver and I talked about marching in the Mardi Gras parades and of drum battles with other schools (my favorite part) and how we both felt musical knowledge inevitably leads to carnal experience. And when we shook hands at the airport he made sure to remind me to keep practicing…

Back in the Denver, it was one degree outside and snowing, the whipping wind constantly reminding us of where we were, like a hungry crying child, as we hiked to the car, conveniently parked (my bad) in the farthest corner of the economy lot. The ice on the windshield was so thick I could barely manage to make a small window in it, which I navigated out of until the car warmed up enough to break the rest off further up the road. Its been snowing ever since. I find that snow slows life down here much like humidity does during the summer months down south, but unlike the ever-present sticky thick air, it melts quickly in the Colorado sun. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with my friend one night on our trip. We had both moved to Boulder after the storm, but after a couple of years he went back to be near his family and to fall in love. Now having been back for 3 years, he told me that while the city is a place like no other in the world, it’s a stagnant one, much like the climate. He’s right, the good ol boys lurk in every corner of life down there, and they make damn sure things stay the same. Denver on the other hand embraces forward thinking and change I find, it’s an idealistic place that idealistic people migrate to and no matter how much snow falls here, one can be certain it will melt soon and nourish life under the close sun. Weather aside though, it’d be nice to get some good seafood out here.

Vegas...A Strange Place

I always said, with smug conviction, that I would never find myself in Las Vegas unless I found myself married. A rebellion to both acts really because I planned indefinitely to do neither. Some of my friends knew of my opinion on the matter of Vegas and cared enough to plead the city’s case, usually using the fact that I love food to argue their point, they knew debauchery would not appeal to me. But I always answered that while its true Vegas is a food town, it’s also true that most of the world famous chefs who open restaurants there, open world famous restaurants in other way cooler towns. Why not go to New York or San Fran or Europe instead?

Honestly, I think of Vegas as a massive and wasteful tourist trap out in the middle of an area of the country no one cares to be otherwise. It represents all that I dislike about human sprawl and wealth. And this is exactly what I was thinking almost three years ago while listening to a beautiful girl I had just met go on and on about her recent trip there and what a fabulous time she had and that I just had to go. It was the first of many conversations to come, but because it was the first, I held my tongue in hopes of seeing her again. I did and was very happy with my silence. We got to know each other, got to date each other and now we’re stuck with each other. And when we signed the paperwork to be on the same phone plan a few months ago, I considered us married to one another. She didn’t think that was funny, but she didn’t disagree.

My wife, like many do, cares deeply about birthdays and it so happened on her 31st she was to be in Las Vegas for a work conference. When I learned this, after months of racking my brain for a gift idea for one of the best gift givers I’ve ever met, I thought the karma was far too strong for me to ignore. I resolved then to go to Vegas, to meet the woman I loved there, it was my gift to her and only her. There was some protest, first in my head and then from her, but once we both became comfortable with the idea that I would to do something I so openly never cared to do, she looked at me and knowingly asked, “What are you going to do there?” She knows me, my likes and dislikes, it was a good question.

I set out to do some research, queue previously mentioned friends, and learned that Vegas is a town of vices. Its why everyone I talked to about my going there told me I’d have a blast, but wouldn’t be able to stay long, an overnight kind of place if you will. That said I have many vices, but only one that I care to indulge these days. It surprises me sometimes and others all the time, but I recently developed an addiction to sports, and it just so happened that Vegas is the most ideal place to be if that’s the fix you need. I then realized I actually wanted to go to Vegas, for sports and for the first time in my life gamble on sports. And I wanted to be well fed, as I always do. I want I want to go to Vegas.

So the time came for me to do so, and after I three times completed the list-of-things-to-do list my girlfriend had conveniently duck tapped to the door, I jumped in a cab, a married man heading to Vegas. The cab driver was a cool dude and the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations played in the background, which made me very happy. I started to feel a strangeness by the time I got to the airport though…for a long time, I’ve been traveling with someone very dear to me and now I was doing it alone, it comforted me greatly that it was to meet with her. The flight there was un-memorable besides meeting a pampered beast in the security line, dogs should be allowed to do everything we do in my opinion…

I arrived in Vegas and was efficiently ushered into a cab. A resounding theme I later learned, if Vegas is anything, it’s certainly an efficient town. I told some uniformed staffer I was heading to the Bellagio and seconds later was. I walked into the hotel lobby and was, as I usually am, drawn to the bar and the live music, where I waited to meet my girl. I ordered a beer and immediately learned I shouldn’t do so in that town, based on both selection and price. My lady arrived, we embraced as the piano played, caught up under the soft lights of the surprisingly intimate space, watched people and proceeded to embark on our adventure into this strange world.

Staying at the Bellagio made me feel like Frank Sinatra, it’s a cool place to be. A well-known place and for good reason, you are treated very well there. Instead of the bustle of the strip, our room faced the hustle of the highway and the starkness of the mountains, a better view I think. We tried to venture out, but the time wasn’t right, I’m not sure if it ever is in that town…We stayed in and ordered room service. And as I ordered some soup and some such pasta, I thought it would be good to test the kitchen of such an expensive place to stay. The food didn’t blow me away, but I have to admit, it was by far the best I’ve had delivered to me in a hotel room, it impressed me. However, it wasn’t until the next morning until I found the most impressive feature at the Bellagio, the drip-only-express-lane in the coffee shop. I’ve always hated waiting in line while people ordered non-coffee drinks at a coffee shop, not that there’s anything wrong with that, and I always thought a separate line for coffee drinkers would be awesome and it was. I told the barista as much and was told no one ever notices the sign, I looked at the other line and it was around the corner…it gave me a strange feeling. In an effort to save some money, we left the Bellagio to stay at the Venetian, but I know now we shouldn’t have.

Our suite at the Venetian required a map to find, every corner looked the same, and Italian and dark. It was divided into three parts, a lounging one, a bedding one and a bathing one, all of which were equipped with flat screen TV’s. And after we finally figured out that the curtains moved by motor instead of by hand, we saw that it looked out onto half of the mountains and half of the bleak backside of the industrious hotel, a far less appealing view than before. We left it to venture out for the first time together in Vegas, but I stupidly and stubbornly wanted to eat first. We lunched at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon, which was, as many things are, conveniently located in the hotel. Despite the somewhat rude and very spacey staff’s best efforts, we ordered tuna salad topped with boiled eggs and thinly sliced radishes, on a bed of lettuce and crusty buttered bread, sprinkled with chopped herbs and dabbed with olives next to a pile of salt and vinegar chips. It was simple and good and good for us, this place was starting to get to us. We shared it and a bottle of cheap wine I had bought up the hallway at a hotel convenient store, which was also good.

Our hunger satisfied, we made our way to the mall to shop, and learned that if you want to walk somewhere in that town, it’s a bit challenging and a bit fun at the same time. People there walk with no real purpose or direction, they slowly drift around, like large lost ghosts. The challenging part is that there are so many of them, the fun part is trying to pass them up. Once at the mall I left my girl, I shouldn’t have, to head to Emeril Lagasse’s sportsbook determined to make money betting on sports and if I didn’t, at least eat some good grub. I needed a drink though, but definitely did not want to pay for one, and then I remembered the convenience of the store in the hotel and subsequently learned of the best feature at the Venetian. In the lobby, at some store I can’t recall, they sell bottles of wine rejected from Bouchon at wholesale prices. I bought a normally $70 bottle for $20, opened it in my room, poured a glass and walked out the door bottle in hand. I’m not sure why they rejected it, but aside from some effort in getting the cork out, it tasted good enough to me.

On my way to the sports book I started to notice literally hundreds of signs telling me how to get there, and once I started reading them, found it quite easy to get around in Vegas, in fact, everything’s easy in that town and that’s the way they want it to be. If you get lost, look up, if that doesn’t help, ask one of the seemingly millions of helpful staffers, a manager of whom I spoke to along the way and told of my observations. She promptly and nicely replied “Of course its easy! But you read the signs, you’re special”. I remembered the sad little sign in the coffee shop that no one read but me and felt special. Vegas makes you feel special, which is kind of a strange feeling.

I made it to the sports book and went straight to the bookie to place my bets, one on a basketball game that was just about to start, one on a football game the next afternoon that I could watch while shopping (there are bars everywhere there) and one two afternoons from then that I could watch in the comfort of my own home, all of $20 value. I picked a spot with a big leather chair, leaned back and enjoyed thinking of nothing but the human game of chess massively displayed before me and drank my bottle of rejected wine. I later learned I wasn’t supposed to be there without reservations and wasn’t supposed to bring my own drink, but I didn’t mind paying a corkage fee and I’m not a troublemaker so they let me stay. By the second half, my lady was done shopping and on her way to meet me. I knew she’d be hungry cause I was, so I ordered a side dish of the cheesy bacon fries cause I know what Emeril does best. She showed up looking like a super model in a brand new pair of knee high, seriously hot leather boots, curled up next to me in the chair and we ate the cheesy starchy goodness. And as I watched the game, she feel asleep next me, I felt high on life, so high in fact, she had to remind me as we left to collect my winnings.

Back at the hotel, we were tired, and even though we tried, couldn’t think of leaving it. So once again room service was in order and once again very impressive, only this time we ordered every side option to our main dish in an effort to put the service to a better test. We awoke to a ghost town, by this time everything started to seem odd and strange and very annoying, the people the place. I noticed time was hard to tell in Vegas, especially at the Venetian for its lack of windows. At one point, in anticipation of a game I had bet on, I had to ask someone what time zone we were in, neither of us was surprised by my question, nor its lack of answer, neither of us knew…

We left the town of Venetian and headed back to the town of Bellagio, a brighter and livelier one, to try the pastries at Jean Phillipe’s, supposedly the best in town. Once past the wall of people posing for photos in front of a massive chocolate fountain, we saw they were certainly the best looking, delicately designed miniature scenes of sugar and dough. Its hard to eat, or should I say destroy something so beautiful, but necessary because you paid for it. We did our damage to them as best we could in front of the fountains of Bellagio and while we debated our next step, the star spangled banner burst surprisingly and loud from strategically placed speakers and the fountains burst impressively into a huge and beautiful dance with them. We knew about the fountain show from movies but had never seen it nor cared to up until then and I can truly say it is the best show in town, and free and frequent. To see bursts and streams of water behave that way, so choreographed and flawless is a sight to see for sure.

We decided to stay put and set up camp for the next show. We slumped down on the pavement, lazy from the sensory overload of being there and watched people go by. We bathed in the sun, feeling comfortably like rejects, like the rich cynical hipster kids sitting next to us, like the bottle of wine I drank, and waited for each new and immensely entertaining show to happen. And when it did, we felt the spray from it cool our sun burnt skin, while the water danced to beautiful music, the best part of the whole trippy trip I’d say…

It was almost time to leave and we were definitely ready to, but not before a quick shop, a quick bite and a quick peek at the game. We shopped a bit and had a late lunch at Holsteins’, a burger joint in the vicinity. The burger was almost as badass as the lobster truffle mac and cheese, as was the service, but by the fourth quarter the game was over…

The cab driver to the airport told us to buckle up as we got in and he meant it. He was my kind of driver, aggressive and laid back. We were thankful he hurried us away from such a strange place, and I was very thankful to learn he was way into sports. Once he realized that was cool with me, he changed the station on the radio from pop to espn, and we listened to it for the duration of the trip, loud when on air, soft during commercials. Like I said, my kind of driver.

We sluggishly made our way back to Denver and the real world and came home to a house with no dog. We knew she was safe and comfy at her grandparents’ house, waiting to be picked up the next day, but her absence still felt strange. We had made it back from Las Vegas though, unharmed and wiser. We learned a lot, mostly that we’ve changed a lot since we first met, because of each other and for the better. We’ll go back one day and for only one day, when she needs to shop and I need sports and when we need to get away from reality. Being a gambling man though, I bet it won’t be for a while…oh, and I won $20.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

On Fine Dining...

A few months away from officialities, I’d consider myself 30 years old. And while that may not be many years to speak of in the grand scheme, I’d consider it enough to speak of dining. I’ve dined at many places in my life (…sadly, too few abroad), from backyards to back of the house seating (I’ve never been great with reservations, I prefer just showing up) at some of the world’s renowned, and many of them bring a smile to my face, which is to say they brought satisfaction to my palate. As for the ones classified as fine dining, my only issue is terminology. In my opinion, there’s nothing finer than dining with and on food prepared by family and or friends, in a laid back environment, free from pomp and circumstance if you will.

Not to say I don’t enjoy eating in a more formal environment by any means. Dining at Bayona in New Orleans stands out to me, but not as much as Chez Panisse in Berkeley, as some of the most regimented and best feats I’ve ever had. The service, décor and atmosphere were impeccable, the food, just as much and more. There’s something to formalities whilst eating I think. That you’re treated with such importance as a diplomat is obviously a pretty cool feeling (makes me feel like James Bond), the fresh, hurried neatness of the whole experience is constantly entertaining and when it comes to the food, the old axiom about getting what you pay for most assuredly reigns true.

It’s describing the experience as fine that I don’t get. When I think of fine, I think of my girlfriend…and I think she’s her finest in the morning, when she’s stripped of all the done-upness (and clothing) that makes her so striking the rest of the day. It’s in that moment, when she gets out of bed and starts pacing around yelling at me to do the same, that I think to myself, damn, this chick is fine. And I should say that, to a certain extent, I think of a fine meal in much the same way I think of a fine woman. Besides sharing beauty, they share that impactual embodiment of fine-ness I so thoroughly enjoy. I crave those times in life, when you sit back, satisfied in so many ways and in momentary awe of it, and think that despite the sometime overwhelming awfulness that occurs in the modern world, I am totally fine with my place in it. Lewdness aside, the moment is in the stripping of things I think.

A meal stripped of elements like locale, décor, fresh linen and shinny flatware, military-like service and a price tag consists simply of food, drink and company. I’m lucky to have had the pleasure of experiencing the remaining three elements well done and am better for it I think. The Denver based underground supper gang Noble Swine comes to mind, as do crawfish boils not surprisingly down south and pleasantly surprisingly up north, neighborhood potlucks and poker games and in too-many-to-recall establishments run by cool and good people. In each setting I had that moment, that feeling of contentment with what life has dealt to me, and I couldn’t say it better than to say I was feeling fine. When it comes to describing such things though, no one, in my opinion, describes them more perfectly, simply and romantically than my girl Mary Franklin Kennedy Fisher (a fine woman by the by). In her foodie bible The Art of Eating, she muses of raw dough shoveled by bread bakers, into open ovens late night in France…”It was naked, like a firm-hipped woman, without benefit of metal girdlings.”

I can see the shapely dough she referred to, clearly, and can certainly see why she made such a feminine comparison, luckily. I think that underneath it all, (wink) what she was truly referring to was the raw, strikingly primal beauty of sustenance. The enjoy-ability of which is no coincidence, as the more appealing food is to eat, the more life sustained. It’s nothing short of our nature to want to eat well, or I should say, feel fine to dine. I recently felt as much…

It was a few months ago, when the nights were as pleasant as the days have been lately here in good old Denver. My neighbor came banging on my door one Sunday afternoon, covered in blood. It was the blood of an antelope he’d slain a mere eight hours earlier and he needed help getting rid of the evidence.  I remember thinking, as we (gangster-style) lugged the cooler containing the carcass, that it was way heavier than I imagined of such a small beast. We brought it in and he showed me, one by one, the various cuts of fresh flesh, killed and cut by his truly. It was a beautiful sight as well as one I’d never seen. It may sound strange, but the smell of blood and raw flesh was absolutely intoxicating. He pulled out the precious filet, the daintiest cut of an animal, seasoned it liberally with salt and pepper and fired up the grill. It was dark by then, and our fellow neighbors had come out to join the commotion. We all feasted on the rarely cooked meat with our bare hands, without benefit of metal utensils, watched the bats of Five Points take flight to do the same, drank many locally brewed beers well into the night and shared life. It was most certainly a fine time.

That said, the next time I dine in good company, well fed, my thirst well quenched, contented to be human, I will say that it is fine dining. The next time I dine and find myself fantasizing that I’m double O (insert man crush on Daniel Craig) seven, I will say that it is re-fined dining. I don’t disagree with refinement though, I just think it’s enjoyable in a different way…I love to dress up and behave formally, refine myself so to speak. It makes me feel like a gentleman about town, which in my opinion is one of the finest feelings to have. And as any gentleman should, I also love taking my girl out to a nice and pricey dinner, its part of making her happy, which is part of a gentleman’s job. In fact, if life itself is a job, and food is its fuel, than to dine on it in any way, whether it be fine, refined or in any other circumstance, is to be doing it well, because if you’re not eating, you’re not living.