June 30, 2010

it's a Mad(ras) World

Madhatters Tea House and Café, San Antonio - Against my better judgment, and with all historical evidence indicating otherwise, I ended up working through most of last Friday afternoon. But not behind the desk; seeking an escape (and caffeine), I temporarily abandoned my electronical gadgetry and sought refuge from the stifling summer heat at Madhatters, a great coffee/tea/sandwich shop in King William . Nothing like knocking out the Journal Op-Eds and sucking down a steaming cup of coffee before getting back into a 130-degree car.

From a corner table I was able to focus for a couple of hours on the task at hand, which in addition to the above, and w/o Interweb distraction, quickly turned into the age-old sport of hipster gazing. After a short while though even the excessive tattoos and multiple facial piercings become ho-humI had just counted my 772nd pair of thick-rimmed glasses when four men emerged suddenly from the back room, each (comparatively) standing out in his own unique way, decked out in some amalgam of seersucker, white bucks, linen, poplin, penny-loafer, gingham, tortoise shell, etc. It was a refreshing scene amidst the background noise of Chuck Taylors and skinny jeans. And my hat goes off to them... because in spite of the mild look of disdain from the fellow behind the bar, judgingly serving up three-dollar cups of Fair Trade coffee, these trads illustrated the great diversity of the neighborhood: White People... dressing differently.

from an Unabashedly Prep profile on Sid Mashburn, Atlanta

Shortly afterwards two cinematic coming-of-age tunes, in succession, wrapped up the week for me in fine fashion: first) "Mandy" - Barry Manilow; second) "Summer Breeze" - Seals and Crofts. They were as comforting as the madras sport coat that had just strolled out the door... 

320 Beauregard Street
San Antonio 78204

June 22, 2010

the Horizontal Salute

The Hay-Adams, Washington (two years ago) - On our last night in Washington, mid-May 2008, the Z and I were at the Off the Record bar - itself an institution, and the closest (geographically and figuratively) power bar to the White House that you'll find - having a final libation before turning in for the night and closing the D.C. chapter of our lives. We were chatting up the patrons and generally reflecting on the previous eight years when a fully intoxicated man saddled up next to us and informed the barman that he was making the switch to his "summer drink." 

The impetus behind this pre-Labor Day decision was that he'd just left a reception at the Russian Embassy where all he could rummage up were vodka drinks. So really the premature changeover was force-fed. But it was fortuitous, b/c his comment got me thinking about a glaring oversight in my own drinking habits. I was, for all intents and purposes, a whiskey, beer, and wine-man, and had essentially relegated clear spirits to the memory of when my dad used to pick me up from baseball practice, and in my haste to quench a thirst I would instinctively grab his "water" glass only to take a giant gulp of a gin/vodka tonic. I hated it b/c a) I was twelve, and b) didn't know any better; he hated it b/c whatever I'd just imbibed ended up regurgitated all over the dashboard... looking back, it was an entirely understandable irritation.

So over the ensuing two months, prior to starting a new job, I base-camped in New Orleans and began the process of adding my own official summer drink to the repertoire. Slowly but surely an appreciation began to take hold, and I credit entirely the Absinthe House for countless "educational' gin gimlets and vodka tonics. Toward the end of my stay I was taking lessons with the Negroni and the iconic Martini. Then football season arrived, and like a moth to a flame I was drawn instinctively back to the brown liquor. But each summer since I've attempted to broaden my reach into the cabinet, and while my failsafe whiskey and soda still finds its way into my tumbler, I do my best between Memorial and Labor Day to keep it light and refreshing. Usually straight up... with a twist. 

June 21, 2010

Bonjour, summer

Medina, TX - Lots of sunlight hitting our hemisphere today, courtesy of the onset of the most relaxing of seasons and the glorious summer solstice. With San Antonio lacking any adequate celebration to mark the occasion (more than likely because all we have to look forward to is another 75 days of the mercury touching 100+), we escaped over the weekend to the Texas Hill Country, pristine and rugged and always transforming for the time you're able to enjoy it.   

June 10, 2010

Dispatch... San Francisco

There are but a select few commonalities shared by us all, one of which is that when entering a hotel room for the very first time, a person will instinctively go directly toward the window to see what kind of viewing hand he’s been dealt by the hospitality-Gods. So it only seems appropriate to share this revelatory moment while on travel...

This shot, from my brother (who can take credit for most of the pictures on here… my in-house “phoblographer” as he says), was taken 23-floors above the streets of San Francisco - where he and his wife are celebrating his twenty-ninth birthday - overlooking Union Square and the Huntington Hotel.  

Happy Birthday J-bo!

June 9, 2010

it's like Mad Men... for Ugly People

"Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut." - Ernest Hemingway

Downtown San Antonio - Sage wisdom from a man whose name inspires as many different cocktails as there are bars in the world. It was in fact this quip that landed me at the Emily Morgan hotel at 1p last Friday afternoon, accompanied by my Minister of Gourmand and soon-to-be-gastro-pub-empresario, in order to take advantage of the hotel's end-of-week $1 martini lunches.

Here's how it transpired: the Saturday prior, after a late meal at the Sandbar, our little crew went for post-dinner drinks at the Havana Hotel . We ran into the aforementioned gastronome and, it being a blurry hour and all, I started into my desire to try out this Emily Morgan situation with no real sense that anything would come of it. The night ended without event, and we all retired to get on with our lives. 

The next morning, having little to no recollection of the discussion, I was a little shaken with my friend's email, insisting that we put the invitation to the test... that week... Joe vs. the Martini-style. It's no secret how I feel about working on Fridays, but this was kicking it up a notch. Then Papa's words rang in my ears... 

What the hell... you only live once.

So there we were, on an unusually mild early-summer afternoon, drinking gin & vodka and looking at an uninspired menu when it dawned on us, three deep, that lunch at the Palm was an absolute must...

... nine dollars and 36-cents + tip later, that is exactly where we found ourselves, enjoying the business lunch and a few more drinks that would set in motion a great Friday evening at the newly re-opened Liberty Bar and my first Pimms Cup of the season; summer is here. 

I'd include my shot of the Palms' clams casino and oreganata, but the poor quality (of the photograph) really wouldn't do their taste justice. That, and I'm certain the Palm and our man Abel would take exception.

Side note: one little ancillary benefit of having alarmingly inexpensive drinks at a place that doesn't really know how to make bad drinks is that it will try to mitigate its losses as best it can, especially when a couple of quasi-alcoholics walk in the door jonesing for gin and truly with nothing better to do for the next five hours. As such, we were served, what some may consider, less than that which typically comes in a traditional cocktail. But in this act of self-preservation, the bartender actually gave us the proper amount. You see, unlike wine, cocktails do nothing with age except get warm. 

June 5, 2010

Eat Austin, pt. 2

East Austin - Like so many places around the country and certainly here in Texas, Austin suffers from the curse of space; for decades the vast openness of the city's surrounding areas beckoned residents away from the urban core with its siren song of larger homes, better schools, greener grass, and all the other hallmarks of sprawl. So it has been interesting to watch its reversal over the past ten to fifteen years as the Bourgeois Bohême began to revitalize (or gentrify, depending on your take) some of Austin's older, more ethnically diverse neighborhoods.  

Both of my parents grew up on the east side of Austin - my father in Govalle and my mother off E First on Canterbury Street - in what are now predominantly Hispanic, working-class neighborhoods. Even though my brother and I weren't raised nearby, that part of town naturally has a some unique meaning... if for no other reason than every time we would come home from the airport my mother would want to drive us past the old Allen Junior High School, from which she still has her cheerleading megaphone. We've got history there, so when change started coming to the neighborhood, as it ultimately does to all neighborhoods, I maintained a certain detached curiosity. 

The question is: can East Austin "progress" while holding onto its inherent character and flavor?

Enter: Justine's. The impossibly hip brasserie started by owners Pierre Pelegrin and Justine Gilcrease who, and I'm paraphrasing the Chronicle review, wanted to start a bar/restaurant that was reminiscent of their living room. They did a pretty darn good job, fixing up an old 1937 cottage home on far East Fifth St. and turning the "yard" into an adult playscape where diners can linger over drinks and fromage while waiting for a table. 

Ours was a group of twelve - ranging in age from early twenties to late sixties - and we overtook a great old farm table outdoors for the entirety of our dinner. It was a forgiving May evening, weather-wise, and placing bets on bocce ball games was good clean fun. 

What to expect: the Bobo culture starts at the top, as we learned when Justine dropped by the table and told us that she and her husband and the kiddo live in an Airstream behind the restaurant (of course they do), the Thelonius Monk reverberating through the dining room is off of vinyl (what else?), and the cocktail renaissance has found its way as well, serving up the classic French 75 (which always sends me fondly here). 

Succinct and Classic are two words that describe the menu best. Just enough to satiate your craving for casual French fare, w/ the requisite frites, escargot, steak, duck, and plenty of cheese, which is what we started with. Three of them. And bread...

Then came the sizzling plate of mollusks swimming in butter, garlic, thyme and parsley. And bread...

Pâté and foie gras... 

And at last... the entrees: two of which were a well-prepped and seasoned Steak Tartare adorned w/ quail egg and an alternating skewer of pork and poultry. 

The atmosphere, the menu, and the fact that doing it right doesn't ever have to be more than doing it simply... this is the flavor that Justine's brings to the table, and the neighborhood is better because of it.  

4710 E. Fifth
Austin 78702
Wednesday-Monday, 6pm-2am

June 2, 2010

Now, boys, don't get caught watchin' the paint dry

Dennis Hopper, 1934-2010 - most men of a certain age will recognize the title line as spoken by the late Dennis Hopper, who passed away on Saturday, playing Wilbur 'Shooter' Flatch, at one of the more seminal moments in cinematic history. I was flicking channels tonight and found Hoosiers playing on Turner Classic Movies. The scene on which I landed was when Coach Dale comes into Shooter's home for the first time: "(Shooter) Snort?" "(Coach) No thanks." "(Shooter) Don't mind if I do." Me neither. 

So my life for the next two hours was spent watching the boys of Hickory systematically dismantle teams en route to the 1951 Indiana High School State Basketball Championship. And it still gets me, even on this 3,757th viewing. That's the beauty of any timeless, aesthetically perfect piece of cinema. Like the Sister Christian scene in Boogie Nights, or ALL of Almost Famous... it's just something to be remembered and carried with you. Not to belittle Giant, or Rebel Without a Cause, or Easy Rider, or that one episode of Entourage, or ANY of the other 198 credits he has to his name, but Hoosiers will forever be the role for which I remember Dennis Hopper.

And since we're on the topic of the movie, here's a little joyful imitation I've been trying (unsuccessfully) to work into my life since I first read the Sports Guy's 'Hoosier Daddy?' recap like seven years ago:

"... after you pay for the check, quietly grab the slip, stand up, rip the bill in half, pause for a second, then say, 'Coach stays.' Everyone will enjoy it. And no, I'm not drunk again." Maybe I ought to start paying more tabs.

NPR's Fresh Air actually re-ran a couple of In Remembrance interviews from 1990 & 1996 that make for excellent listening.