Thursday, September 29, 2011

Fiiiiiiiiiiine Dining

Apt as I am to be cynical of certain fine dining establishments and their massively inflated prices (read: egos), there's a reason why some restaurants are simply better than run-of-the-mill. While atmosphere has something to do with it, many restaurants try to get away with fixing huge prices on tiny portions, drizzling an infused sauce of some kind, and slapping it on the very best china served to you by staff who seem to think they are tipped on their ability to make you feel unworthy as a human being. I'd rather pay exorbitantly to eat exquisite food off of the floor than sub-par food off of a Royal Copenhagen plate.

I'd felt an aversion to The Charleston for this very reason. It's in a neighborhood I frequent, it's advertised in in-flight magazines as THE restaurant to hit while in Baltimore, and if you Google "Best Restaurants in Baltimore", it pops up BEFORE favorites of mine like The Black Olive and Cinghiale. Still, the pedigree isn't a guarantee. Pazo also appears but, quite frankly, the last time I went there I ordered what I thought was an array of different tastes and wound up with four plates of fried things with different sauces accompanying them. I can go to TGI Friday's for that.

(No, but seriously, I really dislike Pazo. I thought I would love it. I mean, the prime decor feature of the entryway are those fabulous couches where one can sip wine. Because sometimes all that's missing from the restaurant experience is feeling l
ike I'm at home on my couch drinking wine. No lie. But I hated Pazo. The food, that is. I've never been offered such a dizzying array of fried goods, and in my mind I have nicknamed Pazo "State Fair.")

But when a bunch of your friends decide to hit up a restaurant you've been avoiding, it seems rather silly to not tag along. Even if you're only going just to prove to yourself that your instincts were on par.

Mine were not.

I was dead wrong.

I had taken two sips of a pre-dinner Ketel One martini when I was presented with a bowl of truffle oil potato chips and a creme fraiche dipping sauce. Truffle oil is, quite possibly, one of my Most Favorite Things; right up there with boutique vodka, certain Oregon pinot noirs, and Ricky Gervais. If I were to somehow find myself floating gently in a sea of truffle oil, sipping organic botanical vodka with the good Brit entertaining me, this would not be a bad day.

And this, mind you, is Charleston's take on that free petri dish of salted nuts that takes up bar top real estate. I'm already ever-so-slightly on board.

Charleston's menu is prix fixe, which I actually like. It seems to me that most restaurants are really capitalizing on their chef's ability to prepare lots of little dishes (which usually means a handful of really great basic products, like seafood and beef, prepared a multitude of ways) as opposed to the Olden Days when you went to a restaurant and ordered an appetizer to share, an entree, and maybe some dessert. This type of formulaic menu seems so limiting now, in the era of tapas and prix fixe, and best reserved for steakhouses and other places that specialize in certain entree items.

I chose the 3-course option ($76; 4 courses are $88, 5 are $100, and 6 are $111), and selected these gems:
1st: grilled romaine and warm goat cheese salad with chive and basil vinaigrette
2nd: sauteed Hudson Valley foie gras with local quail's egg in brioche toas
3rd: grilled lamb tenderloin with eggplant "caviar"

The grilled romaine and the lamb tenderloin were positively succulent, beautifully presented, and decent-sized portions. The server had informed us as we were seated to be prepared for "tasting portions." I'm not surprised at this fine print. I imagine many of their patrons arrive, look at the prices, and are expected to be served their food in a trough. But; surprise, surprise; sometimes the more expensive the food, the smaller the portion. These however, were perfectly sized for one such female as myself who can pack away a decent amount of food when hungry enough.

And...the foie gras. Oh. My. God:

Look. I know what
foie gras is. I do. I swear. And, believe me, I am not so much on board with this practice and I completely understand why it's inhumane and horrific and torturous.

But...but it's so delicious...

It's incomparable. It's delicate, it's succulent, it's meaty and yet beautifully absorbs the flavor of whatever sauce it's wearing. It's the little black dress of meat products. And paired with brioche toast and the quail was rich and yet somehow light. Perfectly grilled, melted in the mouth.

I fricking love foie gras.

I didn't want to like The Charleston.

And I didn't.

I loved it.

I am going to have to get four more jobs and run ten marathons so that I can eat there at least twice a week, afford it, and not get fat.

I think it's worth the effort.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Cayo Hueso

What You Do In Your Own Time....

I was out for drinks last week with Lee and his fiance, Hot Curry.

(Perhaps I should sometimes flip ownership and the relationship and say I was out with Hot Curry and her fiance, Lee. Because, to be honest, Lee invited me out, but I was hemming and hawing about going until he texted me that Hot Curry was coming. She confided in me that she'd only come along because she'd known I would be there. This is not because I do not want to hang out with Lee. It's because Lee had chosen my least favorite bar in the city, and I didn't want to hurt his feelings by telling him so. I'd rather flake out at the last minute and write it about it publicly later, where he will most assuredly read it. And send me vexing emails. But, it's true, I'll stand by it: I hate that bar. You know which bar. That bar. It's dark and smells like cough drops. But Hot Curry was gonna be there, so I decided to go. Sorry, Lee. Had you picked; oh, you know, this bar or this bar, I'd be there in a second! But that bar? Ugh.)

I digress.

I was out for drinks with Hot Curry and her fiancee, Lee, and we were discussing the coming months in which they will, for the first time, combine lives and cohabitate. It's a big move for any relationship, even one for which you've already promised yourself for all eternity.

"There are things that you do when you have your own space that no one else needs to witness!" we all agreed. (Yes, Hot Curry and I are both Sex and the City fans.)

Like what?

Well, for instance, SOME PEOPLE like to eat scrambled eggs for dinner, followed by some wine sipped in bed while watching episode after episode of My So-Called Life.

And SOME PEOPLE like to take a slice of pepperoni, place it on a cracker, schmear some marinara on it, sprinkle a little cheese, and call a stack of those and a beer "dinner". SOME PEOPLE.

And CERTAINLY NONE OF US drinks alone. NOT A SINGLE ONE. That's like, indicative of a problem or something. Drinking alone? Ha! No one ever does that!

(I am sipping a divine Louis Latour Pinot Noir.)

These are the things that you do that make your life cozy. Habits started in college, maybe, that have grown into rituals, soothing out the rough edges of transition into adulthood. Maybe it's watching reruns of Full House while eating graham crackers and wearing those yoga toes things. Perhaps it's drinking hot toddies and looking up apartments in foreign countries on Craigslist. (Seriously, do it.) Or it's as simple as wanting to wear that one T-shirt that is absolutely horrific, stretched out, completely NOTfashion, with a pair of pants you know, for a fact, went out of style in 1996. What you do in your own time in your own space is sacred. Maybe only to you, but scared nonetheless.

AND YES, I SOMETIMES EAT SCRAMBLED EGGS FOR DINNER. While painting my toenails at my desk in my room and watching The Office on Wednesday night ritual. Comes right before I write a few rounds of trivia, call Princess and/or New Kid and/or Snickers, and cap off the night with a glass of something delicious and some My So-Called Life or a Marian Keyes. (God, how I love Marian Keyes.)

We all have our things.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Welcome Back!

It's pretty natural that after five days of lounging, eating, drinking, napping, reading, biking, swimming, tanning, and exploring in Key West, real life is gonna walk right up and smack you in the face.

I tried to cushion it, though. I took a couple of extra days off of work after the return. We got in after midnight, I slept late the next day. And the next day. I used to not be able to sleep past 7:30. Somehow, in the past ten days, my internal alarm clock reverted back to the days when I couldn't wake up before ten. How quickly it forgets!

A number of things foiled my plan for Ultimate Relaxation, however.

First, I left hot, breezy, humid Key West and stumbled off the plane at BWI (it was almost one o'clock in the morning; what do you expect from me?!) into...fall? Did I not leave Baltimore just a few days after Labor Day only to skip an entire season? You know, that weird in-between-summer-and-fall season where CVS bombards you with Halloween but it's 90 degrees and sticky as hell outside? What happened to that? I woke up to discover that cold dampness had somehow settled in the northeast. It pained my soul, which had gotten quite used to lush greenery and turquoise water. (Two things that I actually really miss about living in Florida.)

The second - and much more distressing thing - is that finally some things came to fruition with my housing situation that I have been trying to ignore for awhile. Primarily that my landlord neglected to pay the mortgage for awhile, it seems. A...rather long while. You know, from those rent checks my roommates and I were sending him every month. And, apparently, the bank got upset (as mortgage holders are wont to do), and the whole thing boiled down to a pretty little letter that came through the mail slot addressed TO OCCUPANT and declaring that we no longer had a landlord.

This is not, as you might think, a good thing.

And so, it seems that a mere six months after moving, I must move again. Like...soon.

Moving is regarded as one of the most highly stressful things to occur in a person's life.

For me, this is double. Quadruple.

I do not handle moving well.

At all.

I wanted to throw up, curl up into the fetal position, throw up again, and cry until I passed out.

I am not being dramatic; that is actually what I wanted to do.

And so, with my tan already fading from the Best Vacation Ever, I am collecting boxes again and about to hit up all of my friends and family, begging them to help me move my 12 boxes of books and Uhaul of used furniture. Again. Six months later.

PS: I have got to give mad props to my boyfriend. Six months ago, he graciously helped me move right after a swim meet earlier that morning, and not only did he entirely prevent me from FTFO ("flipping out"), he can lift heavy things and take things apart and put them back together and make me laugh. You know, manly things. And he has, for whatever reason, gallantly volunteered to assist again. I am not, as it seems, "easygoing" or "flexible" or even "adaptable" to things like moving. I am also not the most pleasant of creatures when I am under duress. Shocking, I know. He deserves a medal. Or some Valium. Or maybe give me the Valium. He can still have a medal.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Jump In

Key West, Day Three

We had been out on the Gulf for a couple of hours. We'd shown up at the dock that morning, promptly at 10:50am (after some confusion regarding which dock in the busy marina), and were greeted by the drunkest man I'd ever seen before noon o'clock. (This is saying a lot, given the years I've spent working the brunch shift in Fed Hill.)

My boyfriend and I were both, justifiably, a bit skeptical about this individual captaining a boat that would take us out to sea for kayaking and snorkeling. The man was nearly falling off the pier, clutching his stool in one hand and a half-lit cigarette in the other as he explained his dual careers of charter host and stand-up comic since his emigration from Boston eight years prior. He pointed us in the direction of the vessel and encouraged us to climb aboard.

We were both visibly relieved to see two fairly competent-looking, and NOT intoxicated men bustling around the boat, readying for the charter. Drunky would not be steering us out onto the Gulf. He was merely the salesman, money collector, and recruiter. "Bad for business," the captain agreed sheepishly, "but the guy before him couldn't stop falling off the pier, he was so drunk."

We headed out, accompanied by a retired Tampa policeman and his wife, a young married couple, and two loud girls who talked the entire time. Even a couple of miles out, the water was clear to the bottom and impossibly turquoise. It seemed fake, especially with the backdrop of lush palms, expensive sailboats, and pristine blue sky.

Our first stop was a crop of mangroves in bafflingly shallow water several miles out from Key West in the Gulf. Here, we boarded our kayaks with the clear bottoms. We skirted over water ranging from a few inches to a few feet deep, and glided under mangrove branches that scraped the tops of our foreheads in an aquatic limbo. My boyfriend towers nearly a foot over me, and sitting behind me in a double-seater kayak turned out to be a bit more adventurous for him as we skirted through arboreous tunnels. We saw pelicans, herons, barracudas, and tiny little silvery fish. Far off to the south, cumulus clouds climbed high and let off lazy, rolling thunder.

The kayaking was only step one of the charter. After an hour or so of paddling around mangroves (during which time a couple of tiny minnows leaped suicidally into the kayak shared by the chatterboxes who shrieked and frightened off the more legit wildlife we'd all paid to see), we re-boarded the larger boat, kayaks lashed to the back and top, and headed further out to sea.

And anchored. There, in the middle of nothing but water. Rubber tubs of fins and masks came out. Snorkeling time. Here. Not safely tucked away in some tidepools or off of a little, benign island. Here, in the middle of the Gulf. Strap on your fins and mask and jump off into the abyss.

I watch too much Shark Week for this.

My boyfriend, college swimming athlete and adventure enthusiast, leaped off the boat eagerly and motioned me to follow. In open water.

A mainly benign fear of mine is open water. How often do you find yourself in genuinely open water? It's like being afraid of bald eagles. You're not often faced with bald eagles, so it's a dormant fear.

It's not that I'm not a good swimmer. Summers of lessons, ten years of neighborhood swim team, countless beach and lake vacations; I'm more than ok in the water. That's not what freaks me out. What freaks me out is the idea of being surrounded by miles upon miles of water, with no shore in any direction, the bottom far from my feet. The idea that you cannot see behind or around you, leaving you ultimately vulnerable to sea life and powerful currents. That movie where the couple finds themselves stranded in open water, with nothing but the sharks below for company? NNNOOOOOOOOPE. NOOOOO THANK YOU.

Everyone was just....jumping in. Like it was a pool. Off the side of the boat, some more daintily than others (it's hard to be dainty jumping feet-first wearing flippers, FYI). And, without giving it too much thought, because if I stood there and had a deep inner process with myself then I was going absolutely nowhere, I just jumped. Into the Gulf.

The first thing I felt was small. Like, small, small. Tiny. When my head broke the water, I could barely make out the others, bobbing about, and I was right next to the boat, which suddenly seemed gargantuan. I was treading water, buoyed by the salt concentration and my flippers, and was just debating whether or not to completely and totally freak out when I realized I had the mask only halfway on my head. I didn't know what else to do, and it seemed like a good idea to investigate the area immediately around me for giant jelly fish and/or sharks and/or any other manner of potentially life-threatening and/or really scary marine life. So I pulled the mask down, positioned the mouthpiece, and stuck my face in the water. Somehow, with my primary focus of the world now limited to a masked view, I felt safer. I couldn't scan the entire Gulf for danger, but I could survey the narrow viewpoint I now had. This must be what dogs feel when they are calmer while crated.

The first thing I realized was that we were only in about ten to fifteen feet of water, and that it was incredibly clear. And, as I looked down below my feet, I saw it: the reef. Clear mounds of coral I'd only ever seen on TV or dried out in peoples' beach house decor. Coral like giant mushrooms, like brains, colored from mustard yellow to bright white. And the fish...hundreds of tiny little fish. Some plain and silvery, others splashed with neon yellow, the brightest blue. Swimming in weird, perfect synch with one another.

I stuck annoyingly close to my boyfriend, reasoning that as he is larger he could better fend off a shark attack. The others in the tour bobbed about in the gentle rolls of the Gulf, the braver ones diving down for a closer look.

The shark was the first thing that happened. Everyone was gathering and pointing. I broke the surface long enough to shake the water out of my ears and hear "nurse shark." Terrified, I plunged my face back into the water and saw it, an eight foot shark snuggled down in amongst the coral. It looked as though it had hidden its head in a bunch of coral like an ostrich in the sand, and somehow this seemed like a safe shark. A sheepish one perhaps. Used to tourists gawking and pointing.

I might have been more terrified had the thing been moving around, but it just hung out there. Somewhere in my bank of memories from shark week, I associated the word benign with nurse sharks and, indeed, they are fairly dormant and known to be sluggish. When we surfaced, our guide explained that their mouths are on the bottom, and their primary diet consists of bottom-dwelling fish like flounder and skates. I was just beginning to feel almost safe around this eight-foot shark when the guide impishly dove down, reached out a hand, and stroked the back fin of the shark.

WHY, WHY ARE YOU TOUCHING THE SHARK? THIS IS INSTANT DEATH! I felt panicked, I reached out to make sure my boyfriend was there (so he could fight off impending doom), and I watched as the guide expertly recoiled and the shark, looking annoyed (if that's possible) slunk off to find a spot where tourists couldn't molest him. (Her?)

Having survived my first shark encounter, I was starting to feel pretty damn confident. Here I was, swimming around in the Gulf. I even bravely began to attempt some dives, pushing myself against the buoyancy down to examine the droves of fish closer. I could nearly touch them. I was hovering along down there when I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned to see my boyfriend gesticulating wildly towards a crop of coral a few yards down. I turned my head to see what he was looking at. And then nearly threw up.

An eel, long and shimmying with bright green accents on its fins, shivered out from one piece of coral and into another. It had to have been at least six feet long, and I could see its ugly, horrifying pointed face. Had I not known what it was, I might have almost thought the body of it beautiful, the way it moved through the water, sunlight glinting off of it. But it was an eel. An eel. Delicious unagi, ugly, ugly creature. I can't stand eels. That scene in Princess Bride? No, thank you.

The eel was gone before I had the chance to swim away. It, too, was probably used to being examined and wanted to seek out quieter hunting grounds.

At this point, we surfaced and saw that the clouds that had been building were now further along in development and giving off onerous rumbles of thunder. Another great fear of mine: lightening strikes. So here I was, in the Gulf with sharks and eels, and a thunder storm building over head. Had you thrown in land-dwelling jelly fish, a tornado, and a part where all of my teeth fall out, it would have been a fairly good summation of every recurring nightmare I've ever had in my life.

Back on the boat, back to the shore. Celebratory mojitos and conch fritters. A bike ride back to the resort, and then a nap on the deck. It wasn't until the nap that I began to really process this adventure. Clear kayaking in a mangrove, snorkeling with a shark and an eel in a reef miles from shore.

To say that any part of my vacation was better than another would be difficult, because the entire thing was a dream vacation come true. We did everything we wanted to do, and then some, ate everything, drank everything, read books, napped in the sun, rode bikes, took pictures, and, you know, snorkeled with some potentially dangerous wildlife. But the best part of all of it was the company. To spend five solid days with someone and never tire of their company says a lot.

And I'm pretty sure he would have beaten up a shark for me. You know, if it came down to it.

Friday, September 9, 2011


After a limo ride, two flights (accompanied by two mojitos, a screw driver, and a bloody mary), and a cab ride, finally arrived in Key West.

Activities so far: the best ropa vieja and some delicious fried bread at a hole in the wall Cuban place, rum tasting at the Speakeasy Inn, and randomly lucked into a drag show. Watched the boyfriend get utterly molested by a pack of drag queens who declared him "adorable." (I have photos. I threatened Facebook tagging.)

Today: waiting for rented bikes to be delivered, then napping by the pool.

Drag queens and Cuban food. Ahhhh, vacation.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Rampant Thoughts

I'm standing there, with my middle-class guilt and my cart full of canned cat food and hair products, as the woman makes her way up the aisle. Her cart is full. Frozen pizzas, gummy snacks, plastic buckets of juice the color of markers, all manner of foods shaped to look like the real thing but imitating it all the way to the molecular level.

The woman is red-faced and sweating, and she is huffing as she pushes the cart. Two little girls trail along after her with sticky, wondering fingers. They want to touch everything. Their mother was against this tactile learning in the Wal-Mart. A skinny, limp-haired boy lopes casually behind them, occasionally trying to corral one of the girls with one hand while holding onto two liters of soda in his arms. He looks dazed.

I squeeze myself against the rows of vitamins and protein bars. I'm looking for Gu; that addictive sports substance that tastes of something vaguely medicinal but is nonetheless a crucial part of running long distances (or a very well-marketed placebo effect); and she is looking to move past me with her overflowing cart and parade of children and bewildered man behind her. She is white-knuckling the cart, and as hers crashes into mine, she lets loose a pent-up AAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH that sounds like it's been building for years. Her little girls choose this moment to get in a fight with one another, and their father, with his cut-off jean shorts that come mid-way down his calves and his white tank top, gets a panicked look in his otherwise vacant face.


"I know, I know," he's muttering. He again tries to herd the girls into something of a line.

This woman is angry. I can see it in her face, I can hear it in her voice. She is muttering a mile a minute as she passes me, forcing her cart past mine. I am looking at the rows of supplements and avoiding eye contact. She is probably five years younger than I am, with two kids and a man who looks equal parts terrified and checked out. I am the girl with the B-complex bottle in my hand, studying the ingredients for purity. Over-educated, underpaid nonprofit worker, saving the city one memo at a time before heading out to happy hour. It's moments like these that I am blatantly, embarrassingly, aware that my problems are vastly contextual. But, then again, depending on the viewpoint, so are hers.

Maybe it's just a bad day. Maybe she's usually a happy person. Maybe Wal-Mart on a busy afternoon is just too much for her. Maybe something else occurred. She looks weary to me, totally exhausted and ready to give up, but what the hell do I know? Maybe her girls are her world, maybe her man steps up at home and makes her dinner. Maybe she is happy.

I judge her because of her food choices, her accent, her vocabulary. I decide she is a miserable woman who got pregnant young, and then got pregnant again without catching a breath. I decide she is undereducated and poor, and that her boyfriend (and I've already decided he can't possibly be her husband) contributes little. I decide these things, and then I feel terrible for deciding. Who the hell am I?

Maybe she's judging me. Maybe she doesn't know how my heart breaks, how I see the injustice, how I feel guilt for things like worrying if I need to buy whitening toothpaste or cut back on caffeine. Maybe she thinks I don't give a shit. I do. I do give a shit. I just don't know what to do about it.

I never know, in these situations, what to do with these rampant thoughts. Or if anyone else thinks them. If I am alone in my weird analysis of the world; the "world" being Wal-mart on a rainy afternoon.

Monday, September 5, 2011

C'est le Prix

(Happy, Ramzi? French articles are, surprisingly, not in my vast collection of talents.)

I don't even really like cars.

Or maybe I do.

I've always preferred manuals, and though my car now is an automatic, I'm endlessly thrilled that it also has the sport shift option. I use it mostly in traffic when I'm angry, or to merge onto highways. I have a teensy little control issue, and a manual shift is clutch. (See what I did there?)

The Grand Prix caused Baltimore residents a pretty headache in the year or so it took to create. Major roads blocked off for repaving caused agonizing gridlock. And let's not even talk about GRIDACALYPSE THURSDAY last week when pre-race road closures caused the worst traffic Baltimore city has ever seen. I left work two hours early and drove home on the verrrrry west side of the Catonsville. And then snuck up 95 to come into Federal Hill the back way. A good thirty miles out of my way just to avoid downtown.

And cabs anywhere this weekend? Forget about it. I think I walked a total of ten miles to get to various places in the city.

But, I'll admit - along with the rest of the race-goers - it was pretty fantastic.

I made it down on Friday, and was glad I did. Friday was general admission to all areas of the race, which meant that I could go and sit with all the rich people in the VIP areas to watch the practice races. Disappointingly, there was only one crash that day, and I didn't even see it.


COME ON. I go to hockey games to watch the fights, and car races to see the crashes! I AM A SENSATIONALIST. I make no excuses.)

There were some pretty sick crashes on other days (thanks, YouTube). And the best part? You could enter and exit various points of the race with open containers. It was as though all of downtown Baltimore were some giant stadium. I am a huge fan of Events With Beer, and therefore I was a huge fan of the Grand Prix.

I didn't go near it Saturday or Sunday, however. Saturday, I was lucky enough to escape the mayhem for a beautiful wedding down in Annapolis of one of my college roommates. Sunday, I stayed far away from downtown until early evening and, even then, the carnage of drunkards and tourists was extreme.

Still. Way to pull it off, SRB. You were in the hot seat there for a while, but it seems you done good in the end. And, somehow, Baltimore came off looking sparkling clean in all of that IndyCar footage. The cameras didn't really pan about five blocks in any direction to showcase the rows and rows of empty rowhouses and rampant poverty, but hey, that's not what the world wants to see, right? Grand Prix sure as hell wasn't about poverty. Millions of dollars whirring by at 120 miles per hour is a sharp juxtaposition to homelessness.

I'm going off on a tangent here, so I'll pull the focus back to this: I want to ride in a race car. The noise, the speed, the flying-low-to-the-ground...I might need to add this to the bucket list. I always thought I wanted to drive a really expensive car (don't ask me for details, because I have none regarding automobiles) on the Autobahn. But maybe this race car ride might push that one down a few on the bucket list.

Anyhoodle. Labor Day, summer is drawing to a close, but I am packing my suitcase and getting ready to head off to Key West on Thursday for the first real vacation of the year. Because I don't count Vegas as a restful, restorative vacation.