Tuesday, October 12, 2004

I'll Eat Philadelphia

Philadelphia is the city of restaurants.

Which is a wonderful thing. I'm something of a foodie, and since I gutted my kitchen and realized that I preferred the open space to a clutter of appliances I didn't really use anyway, am completely unable to feed myself. Each fall, some of the nation's most acclaimed restaurant openings happen in this city. I look forward to trying each as it debuts, even though my art drone's salary isn't up to sustaining the habit. There's always Visa. Restaurant impresario and megalomaniac Stephen Starr has opened the doors of three places this season: Continental Midtown, Washington Square, and the Barclay Prime steak house. He must hope that they will equal two previous successes, Buddakan, and Morimoto(the iron chef guy). His places are all"high concept". The staff of Buddakan runs around with trays of Chinese inspired dishes, wearing what looks like linen pajamas, under the serene gaze of the giant gilded namesake Buddha. Morimoto serves up exquisitely plated sashimi and miniature shellfish ornamented with seaweed and exotic Japanese fruits and berries, along with extensive sake selections. Philippe Stark designed the first Morimoto, with white deeply sculpted undulating plaster walls, and slab like glass partitions which glow in a cycle of morphing hues. It's all theater of food, and the high production values set the stages that keep pulling customers in.

I've been keeping company with a highly placed Starr Organization Lieutenant, a handsome, bald fellow of Prussian bearing, feared by food industry laborers citywide, and his heavy lidded South American doctor boyfriend. We've been hanging out for a couple of months, drinking, flirting, and groping. They're all kinds of fun, and come with the additional benefits of a shared love of wine, food, and an inclination to pay my way. After a particularly delicious recent binge at their expansive triplex, we all fell into bed, me snuggled between them. In the morning I emerged from the high-thread-count-and-down with my virtue uncharacteristically intact. Mostly. While we'd been really,really drunk, and it was really,really late by the time we turned in, there's another reason for my unusual reserve. I'm conflicted. The Lieutenant is charming, very sweet and affectionate, and has hit on the combination of believable flattery and gentle teasing which usually wins me over. Boyfriend is playfully impish and definitely sexy(acutely aware of it, too) however, he's pushy as HELL. He's always sticking his tongue in my mouth, his hand down my pants, and telling me how much I want him to fuck me. The whole Latin Lover schtick aside, there's no bigger turn off for THIS little white guy than being dieseled by someone who's got forty pounds on me. Minimal though they are, i try hard to maintain my standards. I don't want to reward what I see as bad behavior. They're a couple, so whichever way it goes, it's a package deal.

I was hanging out at Milennium coffee shop, which functions as the homeroom/cafeteria in the homo 'hood, with the Lieutenant. Boyfriend was at a late conference. We both needed to eat, and the Lieutenant suggested Striped Bass, the ultra swanky seafood place in the middle of Walnut Street's blocks long valet parking zone. I told him I had money for a burrito in my pocket, but I'd go for a drink. He responded, "On me." Steven Starr very publicly wrested Striped Bass from it's inventor, indicted/bankrupt/coke addicted/former top dog Neil Stein, thus securing his position as King of Food (at least until he gets knocked off that precarious throne by the next guy). Under Stein the place was consistently voted one of the best in the USA, and The Starr Organization has worked hard to add polish to the new jewel in the crown. They succeeded. The food is seasonal and fresh, carefully and imaginatively considered and meticulously presented. Tasty too. The revamped room is gorgeous. It's a former bank lobby, 1920's Byzantine-ish, executed in swirling dull orange and cream marble, with a 30 foot high or better ceiling of carved, coffered,and gilt walnut. The cast bronze casements are draped in dove grey silk velvet, banquets wrapped in buttery milk chocolate colored calfskin, and arm chairs covered in graphite mohair, shaved with vertical furrows. In bays formed by the faceted columns hangs a sextet of hot tub sized crystal chandeliers, perfect broad cylinders hung with thousands of rectangular prisms. Along the back wall, a killer whale scaled welded metal bass fish leaps over waving stainless steel sea anemonies above the open kitchen, the brightly lit stage where the culinary magic happens. The kitchen lights reflected onto an expensively dressed mid-week crowd; fusty middle aged couples, the sceney bridge and tunnel crowd in every shade of sleek black, CEO types in custom made navy blue and grey chalk stripes, with French cuffs revealing 18 karat flashes of watches and links, and modishly dressed young women scattered about, adding their own sparkle in bright gauzy dresses, high heeled sandals, and capelets(the fall 2004 vestment of fashion victimhood). Less well turned out, we sat at the bar (which gave us the best view)and started off with perfect 1920's style martinis; half vodka/half vermouth. The bartender who guided us through the menu was warm, but not overly familiar, knowledgeable, but never pedantic, and on very best behavior under the Lieutenant's scrutiny. Between the perfectly paced courses, the Maitre'd, Wine Steward and Chef presented themselves to my host, and were each introduced to me in turn. They smiled beaming white teeth smiles and shook my hand with practiced welcoming enthusiasm, as though I actually belonged there. The Lieutenant lives well. I could get used to this.

Boyfriend called during desert. "Meet me for drinks." So we skipped coffee and the port I was eyeing, left the splendor of Striped Bass, and headed for the squalor of my favorite seedy shithole and erstwhile leather bar, The Bike Stop. Boyfriend ordered Yuenglings, and bought the rounds. The conversation moved from handicapping the assembled talent to the menu at the effusively lauded Barclay Prime. Boyfriend pulled my back against his chest and hooked his thumb over my belt. Typical. I set my green lager bottle on the bar. His breath was warm on my neck and his soft beard lightly brushed my ear as he spoke;

"We should try it out, it sounds fantastic?"

I shifted back aginst him, and cupped one hand over his.

"You'll join us of course, won't you Eddie?"

I thought about my standards. I thought about my principles. Then I thought about how well a truffle seasoned veal wrapped fillet and a bottle of grand cru French burgundy goes down on a crisp fall evening.


I slid my free hand under my buckle, and unfastened the top button of my jeans.


"Yes I will."

Monday, October 04, 2004

Old Dog

I went to the White Dog Cafe with my boy Willie. He's my junior by several years.

In Philadelphia, there aren't a lot of places to sit out doors and enjoy reasonably priced, well prepared food and enjoy the sort of snob beers I favor. White Dog is an institution, started in the turbulent 60's in a narrow row house smack in the middle of the U of Penn campus. The owner's successful defiance of university plans to raise the block gave her a notoriety she expanded as a local lefty agitator. An early success in Philly's Restaurant Renaissance in the 70's she is a now a comfortable contributor to many bleeding heart enterprises. She also serves a great burger 'till 1 A.M.

The distracted waitress brought the first round of beers, and eventually remembered to take our orders, soon producing Willie's chicken wings(Atkins), my steamed broccoli(low fat, low carbs). Our identical medium rare burgers, side salad, no buns(ditto). Another round of beers(alcoholism)arrived shortly after.

Willie considered me for a long moment. He teases, and scrutiny is a good sign that something's comming.

"Can't find your razor?"

He removed a celery stick he'd missed from his plate of wings. Willie has a strong distaste for celery ever since an adolescent incident involving a chubby counter girl in Wildwood New Jersey.

"Huh? No, I just haven't shaved in a couple of days. Why? You used to like Scruffy Ed "

Willie and I had dated awhile back. One night before going out we'd started play wrestling, which had gotten rougher, and then hotter. Afterwards, he lounged on the bed. Sex, food, and a mutual fascination for each's total alien otherness were really all that we'd had in common. Now the first had made us late for the second, we were starving, and had to pull ourselves together. I needed a shave, but didn't want to take the time for one.

"You're the one who has to look at me, which do you want, Clean Cut Ed, or Scruffy Ed?"

"Don't shave, I like Scruffy Ed. It's cute."

Cute. That was the best I ever got from Will, never made it to sexy. We jumped in the shower.

The plate now safely cleared of offending cruddite', Willie grinned, training his bright blue eyes on me. He reached over and rubbed my chin, his red eyebrows raised.

"It's not cute. If its grey."

"Uhhngh! You bitch!" I yelped, snapped up a celery stick and flipped it at his head. He dodged, it fell to the brick terrace, and we started to laugh. The waitress appeared.

"Can I get you guys anything else?"

"Yeah, two more beers, I replied, "and bring the check for youngster here, he's paying."
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