Portland, Maine: Pearl of the East or East Village by the Sea?

I didn’t know that Portland, Maine was utterly pleasant, delightful, hip, and rich in culinary joy.  Somehow I was stuck in the remote past of my college years when it was stiff, Yankee, and aloof.  No, no, no.  Now what you find, in addition to the beautiful brick buildings and sloping, cobblestone streets, are crowds of folks of all colors and genders lining up to hear music or have a few beers or eat delicious food.

The Portland Harbor Hotel was the H.Q.  Dead center, within walking distance of everything.

LFK: Open less than a year.  Great cocktails, a sweet vibe, prices that are about half of Boston and about 25% less than NYC.  Everyone was friendly.

Fore Street: Easily one of my ten favorite restaurants in the country; think Zuni in SF or Esca in NYC in terms of the atmosphere.  A huge, fiery brick oven for breads and many menu items.  Mussels, raw oysters, sweetbreads, Rohan duck, good Duckhorn S.B., and, again, prices easily half of Boston and about the same as NYC.  Lively.  Happy.

And no trip is complete without breakfast at Becky’s.  Turkey club heaven.

Love this town!

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Back of the House: March Madness!

I’m sure you’re all as giddy as I am with the spectacular win over Kansas by Michigan: Is Trey Burke the man?  Will the Wolverines continue their road to The Final Four tomorrow?  Of course they will!

Meanwhile, in matters more personal, perhaps, there is this:

http://www.salon.com/topic/scott_haas/

That’s right, SALON gave a review of BACK OF THE HOUSE yesterday with this subtitle:

“Scott Haas’ book gets closer to how restaurants really work than any reality TV or Food Network show.”

Yeah, now we’re talking.

The Meaning of Easter

I’m gearing up for Easter!  Why, who isn’t?  And don’t go dragging other religions into it, please.  I think we can all agree that resurrection is worth celebrating, whether it’s true or not, no matter if it was preceded by the torture of a crucifixion and a blood libel that is now in its twenty-first century.  Gee, why do have to be serious all the time?

Think Easter bunnies and Easter egg hunts.  Marshmallow chicks dyed yellow.  Hollow shell milk chocolate bunnies.

I had cousins, back in Poland, who ran chocolate factories and after a couple of them reached NYC–the rest had encountered the anonymous, serious people alluded to above who took issue with their relationship to the origin of this joyous holiday–they made little chocolate Easter eggs, wrapped in colorful foil, which we were given bags of every Easter.

Nowadays, the plastic bags are empty and we are finding new ways to celebrate.

Of course, we won’t go without the traditional boiled lobster!  No way!  I’m picking up two of these tomorrow and then on Sunday will boil heavily salted water, toss them in, and serve them up.  It’s in honor of Luke 9: 16: “Taking the five loaves and the two lobsters and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke them. Then he gave them to the disciples to distribute to the people.”

And then we’ll add a little something of our own.  I’m talking about morels, of course!  They arrived today in a little, brown cardboard box with holes in it, from Oregon Mushrooms.  These blonds are a-ma-zing!  I’ll serve a few on the side on Easter, and then on Monday put them into some Niigata rice, and on Tuesday?  Melted Gruyere and morels.

After all, it’s like the old saying goes: Easter comes but once a year!

 

 

 

And Now There’s A Song In My Heart

I’ve begun work on the book about the race wars of the 1930s, after a hiatus related to Back of the House, and it seems possible that, to paraphrase Klee, a way out has been discovered, namely the identification of jazz as a solace for the century and, more specifically, both for the reader and the characters in the book.  This may prove to be wrong, but for now it allows a fluidity that was absent.

Then, last night, watched the Michel Bras movie, translated as, “Step Up to the Plate,” which was more interesting for what it left out than what it included.  The father-son, chef to chef, three star Michelin legacy was presented as sort of a saga of silences and long, pensive walks, and while undoubtedly that was all true, what was utterly unclear were what other choices were possible in either man’s life, how they resolved conflicts, and what constitutes a palate.

Meanwhile, locally, stoner cuisine is having its day.  High fat, heavily salted, preferably fried, and with lots of organ meat?  Played with cocktails and IPAs, and they’ll be lined up around the block.

On the other hand: Morels are in season.

And on the other, other hand?  At the peak of the race wars, in 1938, Duke Ellington had a hit with this song:

I let a song go out of my heart
It was the sweetest melody
I know I lost heaven
‘Cause you were the song

Since you and I had drifted apart
Life doesn’t mean a thing to me
Please come back sweet music
I know I was wrong

Am I too late
To make amends
You know that we were meant to be
More than just friends, just friends

I let a song go out of my heart
Believe me darling when I say
I won’t know sweet music
Until you return someday

BAM!

I was listening to a routine by Lisa Landry this morning, in my car returning home from Hi-Rise Bakery, and heard her say that her husband has no interest in sex. Instead, she noted, he has “a stash” of food-oriented magazines that he keeps the way most men hold onto porn.  She went on to say that during sex he shouted out, like Emeril, “Bam!” as he reached climax.

It was a funny routine, and insightful as well, and had me thinking, again, about why so many people in this country have developed a basic obsession with food.  Lately, too.  It’s a question I’m asked often during interviews I do for, “Back of the House,” even more specifically regarding chefs and restaurants.

Part of the answer is that most of us spend our days and nights taking care of others, in one form or another, and chefs in restaurants are among the few places where our needs are taken of.  It’s pleasant to walk into an establishment feeling grumpy and leave sated.

But what about the underlying mechanisms that would lead Landry into recognizing that sexual desire has been replaced in her spouse by hunger for food?  Could it be that eating demands less of us psychologically and emotionally?  That it is not a demanding, active, or complex relationship, like love or sex, but rather one in which self satisfaction is key?

I’m thinking that food has become preeminent for some due to its ability to distract us from even more pressing needs and desires.  That is the appeal, but, of course, its limitation.

It’s like the joke: A guy asks his girlfriend her favorite sexual fantasy, and she tells him it’s a dinner in a fancy French restaurant.

Bam!

It’s All About Context

Leaving Dudley Square last night, after the monthly meeting of Project Hip Hop, bleary eyed from about 12 hours of wearing hard, gas permeable contact lenses, which at that point felt like Frisbees, I wound my way through Harvard Square and tried to see it as if for the first time.  It looked pretty good.

There was Tasty Burger!  Park, a new restaurant, with $12 Martinis made with Raj gin (A retail bottle costs $49), and Pinocchio pizza!  I found a parking space!  Homeless men, one in Flip-Flops, gathered below the street level in front of an entrance to a shelter run by a church.  Passing by them, it was: Two slices of fresh from the oven pepperoni slices, corners, please, and then a drive past the spanking new Toscano on a corner where once a very square women’s clothing shop–Clothware–provided Christmas gifts of Hanro underwear for well over a decade.

Home, finally, and a Martini and “A Day at the Races” and the slices noted.

 

 

Eight Months of Light

It’s true: March begins a long break from the darkness of winter months when all that stands between me and bleakness are roaring fires every night and two big, black dogs whose sensory experiences I find inspiring as we troop through snow, over ice, and into the cold.

This means, too, the arrival of morels from Oregon, a shipment of Peter Michael whites, a long stretch of school consultations, mud, shoots, and a slew of small writing projects.

Add Roy Haynes, McCoy Tyner, and Christian McBride LIVE on three separate gigs at Scullers and, you know what, it’s OK, it’s all OK.

 

The Broad Superficiality of Everyday Life

Some days the broad superficiality of everyday life gets to me.  Other days, it feels just right, fine, or even peachy keen.  Today, I’m undecided.  It’s such a chore to start days looking for meaning.  Unencumbered by religion, involvement in local whatever, cut off from institutions, unhindered by a catechism, afloat like Pi with a Bengal tiger, I just weather the storm and look for safe harbor on an island that is not carnivorous.

The thing is: I’m between projects, by design and intention, and with my mind and spirit free, it’s a long rope lassoing the air, no object in sight to fasten onto or stay put.

The things artists must do.

I completed my first piece on the Tuskegee Airmen.  It may run soon.  It should be worth exploring as a book.

The contract for my book on Non Resident Indians?  In the mail?  On its way?  Anyhow, that project will start soon and appear as a book, I’m told, in 2014 in India.

Staggered by the ferocity of the book on the race wars, I read Nicholas Lander on restaurants instead, and think of ways to pan sear hirame.  Thanks to Dave Pasternack, I understand fish better than ever.

So is the fish a way towards meaning or is meaning a path towards fish?  Is Paris in France or is France in Paris?

Isolation

Do you ever find yourself hearing the John Lennon song, “Isolation,” in your head?  Well, I do.

It starts off like this:
“People say we got it made don’t they know we’re so afraid
we’re afraid to be alone, everbody got to have a home
Isolation”

I wouldn’t say I’m afraid, but rather appreciative of the engineered isolation needed to think and observe and read and write with clarity.  With Sirius in the car, I listen to jazz, old and new, and this week got turned onto Terri Lynn Carrington’s fascinating and lovely, “Money Jungle,” which is her tribute to the classic Ellington recording with the same name.  It’s a bit like Robert Glasper’s work in that it is old school and yet very new in its lyricism and overt politics.

No local radio, no national radio, just beautiful music.

And having stopped the local paper nearly two years ago, the news comes via The NYT, BBC, Bay State Banner, and The Guardian.

Playoffs?  Yes, I’ll pick up the local paper.  Fine.

But more broadly, the isolation leads to a place where sights and sounds are intensified: The European starlings nesting beneath the gutters, the long and arching tree branches almost architectural in purpose, the precise language of a good book, the good effort to add something.

 

 

 

Back of the House Party

We’re only a few weeks away from the big party being held by a famous, fancy-pants chef on the Upper West Side, and I’m delighted to see a guest list of a number of people of whom I am in awe.  These are focused individuals with long histories of achievement, good observers, and some are good cooks.

Until that time, I’m reading Tanizaki and Lander’s book on restaurants and making my way through back issues of the LRB, TLS, and NYRB.  My goodness, so many books.  But then: What else is there?  A good book is like a good onion ring.  Crispy, salty, and satisfying.

And cooking.  Lots of cooking going on: Nantucket bay scallops, raw New Brunswick oysters, seared fatty tuna, hiramasa with Thai basil, etc.

It’s all about stress and relieving stress, the adumbration and the solid space.