Tuesday, August 3, 2010

the idle idealogue's idyll, or, when something comes of nothing

We have all been there, to varying degrees.  We have visited that gray and plasmatic quagmire of the human mind where confusion and chaos swirl into recognizable patterns and then disperse back into the turbid muck.  We have gawked at these fleeting formations, consciously or not, and withdrawn with conclusions befitting either a college stoner session or a great philosophical treatise.  My observations may belong more on the stoner end of the spectrum, but I confess to feeling (in my rare moments of lucubration) on the cusp of a greater realization.  Naturally, just when I think I have the bird of truth in my grasp, a herd of rabid purple pachyderms stampedes their way into my brain, as though choreographed by Jim Henson to a Wagnerian soundtrack played by Jimi  Hendrix.  Of course, in the event that I ever have that bird in hand, I promise to share it with whatever patient blogreaders remain out there in the world of Comparitive Twitterature.  Which, by the way, will be a valid college major when my children are ready to declare.

So, my not-so-sane point is that this blog post is at once a Seinfeldian glimpse into the obvious, a Thelonius-esque tribute to nothingness, and an unapologetic abstract post expressionist ode to white space.  All of this without the talent, and I might add, without our friend brevity--therefore, simultaneously soulless and witless.  Still reading?  Shame on you.

Forsooth, it has been too many months, busy months at home and in the restaurant, since I sat down to write.  There have been birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, vacations, funerals, many of these happening simultaneously, the whirlwind of activity in our lives mirroring the aforementioned quagmire of ideation. [Valkyrie rides through Purple Haze.] Yet, as stressful and difficult to manage as these events have been, they have served as mile markers on the route to progress, and it feels good to be moving in that direction.  I don't believe many of us will look back wistfully on the turn of this decade, but we will doubtlessly have taken a few hard life lessons from it.

The Gulf of Mexico--now a man-made, rust-hued toxic salad dressing waiting to be shaken up by the hurricane season--reminds us that tampering with dinosaur remnants to power our modern conveniences is a dangerous and primitive idea in itself.  Somewhere deep inside, we all know that human sacrifice is the answer:  not the Mayan kind, as in humans being sacrificed, although that might help too; but the impossible kind, as in humans making sacrifices.  Such a radical concept, I don't think most people are even ready to discuss it, much less engage in it.

Which brings us to Facebook.  Recently, something good came of Facebook.  Really.  On our restaurant's page, a bold reader commented that our bluefin tuna special one night in early July was decidedly irresponsible (I'm paraphrasing).  According to the post, "taking a bluefin is not 'preventing it from going to waste,'...it is demonstrating a continued market." (I'm no longer paraphrasing.)  The opinion, a valid and hotly disputed point, was quickly snubbed by the Black Trumpet Defense Department, which consists of regular guests, friends and even employees who wanted to weigh in on the topic.  Anyone who cares about the future of wild fisheries, or the future of the earth in general, should read this amusing but thought-provoking stream of commentary.  It points to the disparate set of ideas and opinions that form a collective consumer subconscious.  [Insert Hendrix riff here.]  From the dark depths of our oceanic conundrum, economy and ecology once again engage in battle.  As a chef in a fishing community, I want to support local fisherpeople; but if a local boat going for another species brings in a bluefin, whose population is under scrutiny in the Western Atlantic, and I buy some of that fish, am I guilty of culinary malfeasance?

I recently attended an event in Cambridge, wherein a sustainable fisheries advocate from the New England Aquarium referred to chefs as "stewards of the sustainable food movement."  I agree that we can help bring about change.  In fact a group of us chef types from Portsmouth are currently working on the Michele Obama initiative called Chefs in Schools, with the ultimate goal of improving the quality of lunches in public schools around the country.  But if the onus rests on the shoulders of a few chefs who run small kitchens, what do we do about the chef from the TD Garden, who pleaded his cause at the meeting in Cambridge?  He goes through 14,000 pounds of frozen shrimp per annum, and there are thousands of places like his in our country, never mind the world.  This idea of feeding the world is already very tricky before any conservation conversation comes up.  As soon as you look at the grand scheme, what difference can we really make?  I don't think the earth's condition is terminal, as many people seem to think, and I'm no scientist, but I do think everyone needs to make an effort to understand, and act on, our most egregious excesses.  If we don't limit those excesses and eliminate some fringe luxuries, at the very least, I'll be hopping up on the soap box with the doomsayers.  Until then, I'll continue to be the best steward of sustainability I can be while doing my part to maintain a healthy fishing economy in our area.

Back to the narrative quagmire, these are a few notes without a blog heading of their own:

In May, two great friends of Black Trumpet got married in Exeter and had their reception in our restaurant.  Their ceremony was worthy of a long, dedicated and heartfelt blog, but I missed the window to pay them a dual homage.  Indeed, the happy couple is comprised of two men, and in retrospect, I couldn't be more thrilled for them that they live in two states (New Hampshire and marital bliss) that will recognize and celebrate the bonds of their love.

Flash to the next wedding, in June, on a little tugboat a few steps from Black Trumpet.  Two other good friends of the restaurant, this time a he and a she, locking their destinies together after years of obstacles.  Love conquers all, you two!  Denise and I were honored and thrilled to be a part it.

Lastly, but not leastly, we just recently hosted the wedding of one of our own, bartender/server/manager/goddess Jody, and her mate Bjorn.  The ceremony in the park, the dinner at Black Trumpet, and the Red Door after-party were beautiful and intimate, leaving nary a dry eye in the house.  The images in our heads, fortunately, will outlast the multi-day hangover.  Whole-hearted congratulations to you good friends!

In conclusion, we at Black Trumpet try really hard to make people happy.  It consumes our every-day existence in ways that are disputably unhealthy.  When someone has a beef with our beef, or our service, or--as in one recent instance--table placement, we do what we can to make it better.  One exhortation to guests: constructive criticism at the time of the dining experience (when we can actually do something about it) is far better than a posthumous raking over the Interweb coals.

In summation of my conclusion, after the flood zones are permanently flooded, the great gulves are all gummed with gloppity-glopp, and all the yummiest fish have been fished, and after our land has been pocked by bombs and scraped free of animal, vegetable and mineral for the greater consumption of  megalomonocrops, and after castles made of sand have slipped into the sea, we the people will still have love.  And we at Black Trumpet love love. 


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Providence Indeed

Providence, the city name, is said to have been dubbed by none other than north-of-the-border carpetbagger Roger Williams himself.  Even if he was the first arrogant Masshole and an opportunist of the highest order, Governor Williams was onto something with that name.  Providence.  We use it today to mean good fortune on the horizon, or divine guidance, but it should adhere more to its true Latin roots, which it shares with the verb "provide" and its nominal cognate, "provision".  "To prepare for the future" might be the best definition;  e.g., "Investors' providence will be rewarded."  Not only is it a cool name for a city, but it's also apropos in today's amped-up, televised gastronomic world.  Providence the city--based on my recent thirty-six hour junket with Denise, sous chef Mike and his sweetheart Rebecca--appears to be paving the way for the future of how Americans will eat, and it appears we will eat well.  Yes, that is a confusing and loaded statement, but relax, because I'm telling a story here.  This means, if history be the judge, that I need a tangent right about now...

Easter Sunday of 2010, Denise and I closed the restaurant, thrilled to give our staff a rest after a wonderfully busy Restaurant Week.  We were supposed to rest, too, but that wish changed when the sacrificial spring lamb of our Christian holiday (perhaps angry for being superimposed on the pagan rite of vernal equinox) went up in literal flames just a few inches from our noses.  Totally unexaggerated truth here.  Stay with me.  More on that in a New England minute.

Easter is a good holiday.  I still believe that.  I believe that because (A) Easter is the Christian word for Spring, and (B) I like to eat lamb.  For many years, wherever I was living in the universe, I traveled to Sherborn, MA (my hometown, if I have one) on Easter Eve, spent the night at my Mom's, and woke up an hour before dawn to watch the sun come up on Easter as part of an annual ritual affiliated with the church of my youth.  I did this more than a few times in my teens, twenties, even into my thirties.  This is such an obscenely unthinkable feat to me now, I marvel at whatever impetus (neither Judeo nor Catholic) drove me to perform this strange pilgrimage all those years.

While living in Mexico, we would often have to stop on a desert highway in our station wagon to let several hundred people--many of them barefoot--cross the road to get to their religious destination, which was often several hundred miles away.  Peregrinacion, it was called, and occasionally the ladies who worked in the kitchen would ask me for three or four days off to participate in such a thoroughly exhausting devotion.  Awed by their strength and commitment, I always said yes for fear that the bloodied, horrific Mexican version of Jesus would bring a little wrath my way.

Like most Easters, this one started out fine enough, our two children joined by cousins visiting from the Carolinas, the lot of them canvasing our tick-strewn woods for strategically placed neon plastic eggs filled with little capsules of corn syrup, artificial color and chocolate.  (The Easter Bunny, I thought, has never been clued in to the childhood obesity epidemic in this country).  By noon, the air temperature clocked in at a preposterous seventy degrees in the shade.  Undiscovered chocolate eggs all over New England were now muddy puddles of their former selves.  By two o'clock, my assiduously rubbed leg of American lamb, impaled on a new rotisserie my dad picked up for the grill, took on a little too much heat, dropped a little too much fat, and burst into Hollywood-caliber flames.  I noticed this while looking lazily out the bathroom window during a moment of micturative meditation.  I think my fly was still down while I tried desperately to remove the carbon-crusted lamb from the wall of flame that had engulfed it.  The new rotisserie was sticking and a quick release of the skewer proved impossible, so I wrestled with the black sheep and the flames as Denise arrived on the scene to point out that the deck railing behind the grill was now also on fire.  I finally freed the crisp meat from its bonds and Denise doused the flaming deck.  Our family devoured that leg of lamb, a few hours later, after some strategic carbon removal and a conciliatory oven treatment.  Safe to say it tasted better knowing it almost burned our house down in the process.  We were almost, in effect, the lamb's own sacrificial lambs.

OK, so Providence is the theme, and you, the reader, are still trapped in Maine.  What gives? you ask.  Just rambling, as usual.  So, as radioman Paul Harvey used to say, here's the rest of the story...

A few months ago, Michael Honig--acclaimed Napa winemaker and sustainability spokesman whose vinous juice is synonymous with greatness--was asked to present his wines at Gracie's, an equally acclaimed restaurant in Providence, RI.  He suggested to the Gracie's organizers, among them Anter (the charming and lovably persuasive GM), that I come down for a guest chef dinner, pairing five courses with Honig's five wonderful wines.  I have done this before, over a year ago, at my own restaurant, so my answer was easy.  Of course, I would love to come down to Providence to cook a few dishes for a wine dinner featuring Honig wines at someone else's restaurant.

Gracie's is the kind of restaurant diners travel for.  It is truly a destination around which one should craft a vacation.  A growing minority of us in the US do this kind of thing nowadays; the food comes first, and the rest will follow.   That's our mindset for travel  planning.  If you put Providence on your map, Gracie's has to be part of the experience.  Here's why:

Gracie's is owned by a woman whose own grace makes us mortals feel clumsy.  She holds herself in such a way, with such finesse and elan (only French words can describe this kind of person), that you might wonder if her surname is a pseudonym.  Ellen Gracyalny has managed to raise a family while also running a star-studded restaurant in a city whose culinary identity has soared in recent years, in large part due to the presence of one of the country's foremost culinary schools, Johnson & Wales.  Ellen, who answers to "Miss Ellen" among her staff, is the consummate host, the kind of person who pampers you and makes you feel special.

Matt Varga, the recently named Executive Chef of Gracie's, has been in the kitchen of the Providence institution for a few years now, having inherited the esteemed role from Joe Hafner only in recent months, and he has the heart and passion--coupled with the respect of his seemingly endless culinary crew--to keep the Gracie's formula going for many years to come.

Matt and I decided to collaborate on a menu (rather than alternating courses), which I enjoyed because it  put my ideas in the brain of another chef with another perspective, and vice versa.  It takes an ego-free chemistry to make this process work, and Matt and I managed to pull off the menu-writing phase of the project in a two-hour phone call, each of us bearing our incoherently scribbled plate map as a guide.

Mike and Rebecca went to Providence on Sunday, when Mike joined Chef Matt and the Gracie's team for an evening of prep, followed by dinner and cocktails.  Denise and I caught the tail end of the cocktails, perfect concoctions at Cafe Noir.  The next day was dedicated to cooking, although most of my attempts to perform any actual culinary tasks were taken from me by the incredibly eager support staff at Gracie's.  At one point, we had a team of nine cooks and a dishwasher plating food for the event.

The timing of the event could have been better, the Monday after Easter not being a night most folks think about going out for a multi-course meal, but other than that, it was unforgettably flawless--a learning experience that didn't come with any hard life lessons.

Rather than walk through each course, I can sum up the evening by saying that technology (something I try to keep out of my kitchen) does have its place.  So many things I have only dreamed of are possible, and are easily executed in a kitchen like that of Gracie's, that I have to envy the regular clientele that gets to play guinea pig to such coolness.

Through Chefs Collaborative and the RAFT Grow Out program last year, I heard a lot of comparisons between the Providence restaurant scene and that of Portsmouth, in the sense that each community boasted a high number of chefs working directly with farmers.  Indeed, even a nightclub we passed in Providence had proudly displayed the names of farmers they bought from on the window by the door, but I have to admit that my most blissful gustatory experience came on the heels of cooking for a lot of people, when Chef Matt and some of his crew met Denise, Mike and me at an Irish Pub with a late night menu that included one of the most incredible grilled reubens I have ever tasted.

The morning we left Providence, Denise and I swung by a small storefront on Federal Hill where we picked out a live chicken from an assortment of caged fowl and took home the dressed bird fifteen minutes later, feet and all.  Our children proclaimed it the best chicken they had ever tasted.

From Gracie's to Murphy's (home of the perfect reuben) to the anonymous chicken store, Providence left me with a sense of hope for the future of American cuisine.  I am proud of what we have been able to achieve in Portsmouth, too, and I look forward to the day when such communities are not so unusual.

Thank you, Gracie's, Honig and Providence.  We had a glorious time.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Revelation 2:25

At 1:30 last Friday morning, as I lay down on the hard, wooden bench at the back of Black Trumpet’s dining room, head propped at an unnatural angle against a pile of kitchen towels, and attempted to sleep, my thoughts bounced almost audibly from Nostradamus to the Mayan calendar to the Book of Revelation.  One reason for this was the upside-down waterfall that had been surging through the front door of my restaurant, mirrored by the torrent of water cascading over the ancient eaves above the front window.  Behind the wall of water, I could barely discern occasional windborne UFO’s, some as large as chubby schnauzers, flying past like cows in “Twister.” At one point, I half-expected to witness Revelation 13 unfold before my eyes on the Piscataqua: “I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads,” etc. It was that dramatic, believe me.  And I’m not a Bible-quoting kind of guy.

To calm my nerves, I had popped a short shot of Herradura tequila at around midnight, perhaps explaining the ten-horned, seven-headed beast of Revelation.  Gilligan’s Island also came to mind when I peered out the window at the harbor boat across the street.  The hull of said harbor boat, labeled “PILOT,” is only visible when a perfect storm—Biblical winds, Great Bay snowmelt and swollen tides--converge on the scene.  We have only seen weather of such magnitude once before in this lifetime: Mother’s Day, 2008.  You may recall the cats-and-dogs onslaught.

Earlier that night, around the time attendees of our highly successful Spanish wine dinner had begun to file out the door into the deluge, I had laughed aloud at the storm’s severity: the almost comically contorted poses people with umbrellas assumed as they braced against the 70 MPH winds and walked to their cars.  Perhaps my laughter elicited an immediate karmic coda, because soon I was racing down the street to recover our planter and trash can, which were racing away in some clumsy dance, like a drunk Laurel and Hardy skit.

To grasp the true nature of portent that seized me in my postpartum wine dinner depression, we must also consider the two earthquakes that shook and shocked the world this February, bringing unthinkable tragedy to us at a vulnerable moment in world history.  And, of course, there’s the general state of the economy, the environment and the world at large.  Blecchhh.  Yet, as we sandbag ourselves from the horror, we must also embrace the gift that is beauty, and find happiness in the little things we so often take for granted.  I look at my kids when I need that boost.  Or I think about the heaps of praise I hear from people dining in my restaurant for the first time.  Or I think about the fact that Denise and I have just allowed our third anniversary as restaurant owners to pass quietly by.  The morning sun reflects off the puddles left in the wake of the storm.  That’s kind of where it feels like we are with our restaurant.  Whether or not the worst of the storm is behind us, there is between Denise and me a new zen understanding of the ebbs and flows of the business.  To find peace in chaos is a milestone, I think.  If not, then it’s a sign that we have both finally plummeted over the edge of our own waterfall, into the blissful abyss of insanity.  I prefer to go with the former, though.

Later Friday morning, when I awoke from a surprisingly sound sleep with two numb legs and a linen hemline on my cheek, I stumbled through the dining room, past the mirror reflecting a monstrous specter, to the front window, where Revelation 22 came to life: “Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the lamb through the middle of the street of the city.”

Indeed, water had breached the banks and receded while I slept, and at 6:00, dawn’s bright sun reflected off every surface of the city.  The detritus-strewn aftermath, illuminated for all to see and marvel at, was kind of beautiful in its own way.  The dirty linen bags and flattened cardboard boxes I had used to mop the floor had absorbed most of the flood, and the steady window waterfall had been reduced to a drip.

Four of my seven kitchen employees, including sous chef/linchpin Mike, were away on vacation or on medical leave, and last-minute changes in childcare had caused a scramble that Thursday.  Fortunately, kitchen workhorses Carrie, Gabe and Sam—along with talented guest chef Gregg Sessler from Cava—pulled together a difficult menu for Thursday’s wine dinner.   The event was spectacular.  The restaurant remained intact, despite natural forces way beyond reckoning.  And I was not a Herald headline, “Restaurant Captain Goes Down with Ship,” or “Restaurant Owner Found in Yummy Rubble.”  All in all, just another day in the restaurant business, I suppose.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

2010: A Spice Odyssey

Editor's Note: Think of this brief blog as one of those tall, fancy Lucite peppermills stuffed with multicolored grains of piper nigrum, and think of your brain as the dish that will receive a muted distillation of all these different individual piques.  But don't think of the following thoughts as anything spice related.  So, my apologies for the misleading title. I just wanted to be the first to come up with the obvious culinary headline we'll be seeing in newsprint for the rest of the year....

Indeed, a new year is upon us, and optimism is on the rise.  You can see it in the faces of our nightly guests at Black Trumpet, and--in turn--on the faces of our staff.  You can sense it in the tone of dialogue, the gestures of strangers.  And, of course, you can see it on our nightly wine sales reports.  Granted, this last may be one of the least appreciated of our country's economic indicators.  So, if Ben Bernanke is browsing the web and comes across this blog, I hope he'll rethink the metrics and formulae used to gauge the depth of the nation's debt-induced doo-doo by looking at what people are drinking.  Denise and I have performed a rudimentary autopsy of high-end wine consumption in the last year, and the results are fascinating.

The cause of death of the pricey wine bottle is obvious, and admittedly there have been sporadic signs of life amid the mourning, but for the most part, value has been the key to wine sales in 2009.  What is most interesting to note is that the void in wine sales has been filled by stronger medicine.  It seems that, in the second half of 2009, our 80-proof offerings provided significantly more comfort to guests than in previous second halves, although wine still accounts for double the sales of beer and liquor combined.  So, while liquor has increased, and wine has ebbed slightly, recent months have shown a noteworthy reversal, leading us to believe that household discretionary income tides are turning. 

Perhaps the best indicator of all is a new slot on our by-the-glass list.  Since early December, we have featured a truly spectacular wine, available for $24 a glass.  First, it was Freemark Abbey, a renowned Napa cabernet from the winemaker's favorite vintage.  Now it is Wellington Vineyard's Victory, a stellar Bordeaux blend.  This latter is fairly small production, so we'll be moving on in February to another big boy.  We introduced higher end glass wines that folks might balk at by the bottle to give everyone of every means a chance to experience some great wines.  With that, let me raise an imaginary glass and issue a hearty "welcome back," to high-end wines and the people who (are able to) enjoy them.

If BT liquor has surged over the holidays, it might have something to do with our crack team of mixologists.  I feel strongly that our current list of specialty cocktails--which our mixmistress Jody concocted (I can only be credited, or scorned, for naming them)--is without a doubt the best line-up we've had at Black Trumpet.  The Lava Lamp is a virtually interactive champagne cocktail that is so mesmerizing to watch one might forget to drink it.  The Anti-Occident is my personal favorite, with green tea ginger ale and citrus muddled with gin.  And there's the Quincy Alexander, Denise's fave, with quince-infused brandy and cream.  Yum!

Two weeks ago, we closed the restaurant for two days so our staff could convene for our annual Holiday Getaway.  Dexter's Inn in Sunapee played host for one long, wild night flanked by two days of winter recreation at Mt. Sunapee.  Meals were prepared, memories were constructed (and, in some cases, erased), and a good time was had by all.  Thank you to the cherished regular customer who sent us on our way to Sunapee with a colossal jug of Patron Silver! 

Our restaurant, our staff and our family appear to have weathered what we're now calling the Great Recession, and the world's economic bleeding may well have been staunched by the ligatures of time more than any reactionary policy measures.  These things are cyclical--however gratuitous, unnecessary and greed-induced this last deep valley may appear in retrospect--and we are all prone to the natural binging and purging of elements we do not fully understand.  One thing, though, that pervades our community organelle in the greater organism of human experience, is the need we have for each other.  I hope that, with the evolution of palm-held technology and social media and voice-activated everything, we will retain the obsolescent social medium called conversation.  Our wine bar is the kind of venue where conversation still reigns, where ideas exchange, revolutions begin, and friends and lovers forge their bonds.

Stay tuned....more meandering musings to come...