Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Lemming Parade - Part 2 - The Black Sheep

Finn survived his second day of school. Seems he did a slightly better job of listening and participating than the first day and the frustrated student teacher has finally realized he is 3 and just needs to be indoctrinated. M picked him up from school and dropped him off for the afternoon at the store where he read VERY quietly for the whole afternoon. Later that evening, though, we faced a dilemma - what to eat for dinner? Seemed we really didn't have anything to eat at the house and neither of us really felt like shopping for groceries.

After a bit of debate we decided to hit The Black Sheep - the newest and quite possibly most talked about restaurant in town(I can't possibly link to all the write ups so go here where they are all aggregated). The question would be - Is It Worth The Hype? We decided to take the scenic route there, turning the wrong way on Marshall (it's west of
Belvediere not east....) but finally arrived around 8. For a hot, humid and very muggy Tuesday in Richmond it was packed. Literally. Not a table was to be had. To top it off the ac had failed and it was nearly the same temperature inside as out. Since it's such a tiny place, there is no bar, we were basically left standing in the middle of the restaurant. This was complicated by Finn's condition from a long day...
It does bring up an interesting point. If your lingering over coffee (which I really couldn't understand drinking a hot beverage in that heat) do you cut your conversation short so that people waiting (4 parties) can sit and eat. I really tried not to stare at them but somehow kept on making eye contact with them. We did do what I thought was the right thing (after waiting ~25 minutes) and let the two two-tops have the vacated tables that were pushed together leaving us waiting for a couple of more minutes for a booth which was more appropriate for us.

Finally seated we looked over the menus. The wine list (they do not serve hard alcohol) is short but well thought out for the menu. In the heat of the dining room I couldn't handle a red and really wanted something more refreshing. I spotted the Original Sin Hard Cider
and ordered that. Turned out to be a nice and cool choice for the heat. During dinner I wanted something non-alcoholic and had noticed they had quite a variety of bottled sodas. Keeping with their down home theme of the menu they had sodas that you wouldn't find at Ukrop's but rather at a general store in the country. Nehi's and spicy giner ales. Bottled Coke. I selected something called a Sundrop. M said she used to drink it as a child when visiting her family down in Franklin. It was a bit like 7-Up with a bit of OJ and was actually made with real sugar as opposed to high fructose corn syrup. It was quite enjoyable but be careful. While the average soda is usually in the 120 calorie range this one packs a whopping 190!

The menu features sandwiches and comfort food favourites like stroganoff and chicken and dumplings. The entrees each come with a side. When we ordered we kept on coming up against things that they were out of. Just a suggestion... The servers knew they were out of things as we ordered. Tell people up front so you don't have to linger while they select something else. The place was packed and the waitresses were all very busy but they seemed to be spinning their wheels quite a bit and have been working more efficiently.

M selected a basic salad feeling it was too hot to order anything else. Large and green it was tossed in a green goddess type dressing. She liked it but it didn't really stand out except as very reasonably priced.

I ordered the Pork Cutlet. Pounded flat, breaded and served with VA ham and melted swiss over a bed of egg noodles with peas and sliced carrots. It was nearly to hot to enjoy but enjoy I did. The pork kept it's crispiness even with a little sauce on the plate. The ham added a little saltiness but not too much (I'm usually not a fan of the salt lick that is called Virginia Ham). The noodles light and delicate. My only complaint would be there were a couple of scorches on the edges of the cutlet giving me a couple of burnt bites. Not bad enough to send back but they may want to work on quality control a bit. With this dish I had a side of the broccoli salad. Served cold and tossed in a spicy oil. Nice contrast with the pork (really wanted to try their deviled eggs but it was not to be).

After the entrees we decided to stay for dessert. M wanted the peanut butter pie but once again they were out of an item. She opted for the upside down pinapple cake. Dripping with juices she made short order of that. I had the profiterole with almonds and honey. Not sure what I was expecting but it wasn't this. Think a puff pastry cut in half, stuffed with ice cream and topped with sliced almonds and swimming in honey. It was huge and I really needed a knife. It was good but a little too cloyingly sweet to finish. Recommend this one to share (and don't forget to get a knife...). Finn had the butterscotch haystack. These were very nice (pretzels and peanut candy coated in butterscotch) and Finn was very protective of his little take away bag.

We spoke with one of the owners as we were leaving. Seems they want to build a back deck for more tables once their 'cash flow improves'. I couldn't imagine there being a cash flow problem based on how busy they were but she said that while they were getting busier not every night was this packed. Here's to hoping the cash flow does improve. The food was good, the service friendly, and while there are still a couple of kinks I can't think of many places that I can feed us all that well for under $50 (including tip).

Think I'll have to try breakfast there sometime. RVA Foodie says the coffee is good!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Kinda, Sorta OK - Home Team Grill

Monday was a bit of a red letter day - Finn's first day of school. Yes, I know it's July, school shouldn't be starting quite yet. Actually it's just a summer school program but, to me, it's still school. Since Finn hasn't been in daycare or other structured setting the school had recommended that he take a couple of their summer programs to start the acclimation process. So, after reviewing the offerings, we signed him up for two programs. This week is Foods of the World - just what a budding foodie needs - cooking for 3-5 year-olds.

I picked him up at noon and everything seemed to have gone well (we found out later that he was more interested in doing his own thing rather than what the rest of the group and one of the student teachers may now be rethinking her career choice...) and decided to take him out for a treat. That left me in a bit of a dilemma. Where to go? Can-Can is his fav but they don't make gougeres at lunch and I really didn't want a fussy toddler on my hands. After a little thought I decided upon Home Team Grill - burger, fries, and possibly ice cream. So, off we went. There was a bit of a problem when we arrived....
I thought he might have woken up when we got inside but he climbed into the booth and...
I figured that he wouldn't sleep but too long so I ran out to my car, got my computer, and settled in for a little internet browsing (they have free wifi) and computer gaming with my bevvies and munchies while Finn slept.

The menu was what one would expect of a sports bar. Lots of fried food, sandwiches, and salads that may have more calories and fat than you should consume in a day. Frankly, it wa what I had a hankering for. I spotted their much touted (on the menu anyway) potato
skins and ordered a plate to go with my G&T.

The drink arrived first and was a tad weak. Is that a bad thing? Not here. While we weren't there for happy hour the happy hour prices are rock bottom ($2 highballs 4-6/$3 7-9). If your planning a long drinking session or are there to watch a 3-hour game you don't want to be falling out of your chair too quickly.

While waiting for the app I looked over the space. Lot's of big screen TV's, brick, sports stuff and a really cool vaulted ceiling with exposed beams. The snob in me bemoaned the fact that this wasn't a more upscale restaurant in this space but not everyone can be Cafe
Rustica or Verbena and Home Team Grill probably does more business than the others combined. This place joins my list of restaurants with bad bathroom designs. Cafe Rustica has ceilings for midgets in theirs, Hard Shell has the poorly placed air dryers and HTG has an oddly placed urinal that leaves you horribly exposed if someone opens the door...

The skins arrived and.... Meh. Their uniform shape makes me think frozen. Too much potato left on the skin, fried to a complete dryness, green onions cut too big and from the root rather than the stalk. Each bite overpowered by the flavour of fried chicken. Tasted
like they needed to change the oil. The bacon, however, was quite good.

Finn started to wake up and was not a happy camper. With the taste of chicken flavoured potato skins still lingering I decided it was time to go. Finn, fussy as he was, would have none of it, he wanted his promised burger and fries. So we stayed. The waitress, very nice
and constantly trying very hard to upsell, was helpful in getting the TV above us changed to a cartoon channel for Finn. She must have hit the wrong button because she ended up changing about half the TV's in the place but as there really wasn't anyone there nobody minded. This did confuse me a bit later when I looked up and started to wonder why they were advertising for Valtrex on Nickelodeon but it turned out they had changed all the other TV's back.
To go with Finn's burger and fries I decided to order a sandwich, The Seattle Mariner. Kind of a hybrid of a Sailor and a Reuben. When the plate was put down in front of me I tried one of the fries first.... Ugh. Instead of crispy they were leathery. I realized they had two problems with the oil back there. Not only was it old and contaminated with too many lingering flavours the temperature was set too low. This meant the fries (and the skins) spent way too long in the oil trying to cook. One would think that if your going to specialize in fried foods you would have a good fry cook. Finn ate most of his fries (hey, he's 3) but not with his usual gusto.

The sandwich was... really good. The knockwurst, the corned beef, the swiss. Greasy in a very tasty way. I had asked for no saurkraut (just not a fan) and they don't put 1000 Island on it so it was missing a little something. I asked for some brown mustard. The waitress at first said they didn't have any but decided to go check. They did and the sandwich was complete. It wasn't as good as some other places, Boychick's comes to mind, but it was satisfying. Of course it could just be because I love brown mustard so much.... Still, it was good.

While the problems with the fried foods were a little disturbing for a sports bar they seem to be able to cook some things and I bet they would taste even better after a lot of alcohol consumption. The drinks are cheep and the waitresses are friendly (the managers need to be careful about the playful banter they engage in or they may be faced with a sexual harassment suit by a disgruntled employee...). If your looking for basic bar grub and a place to hang out with your friends (at someplace other than a national chain) this might be a good choice.


Addendum - Got some off-the-record info from current and former employees.... The theme of what I'm hearing is that there are some real consistency issues with the food. So much so that the same dish may not resemble the same dish from previous visits. I guess at the very least it is a place to get lots of cheap drinks.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Misleading Restaurant Names - Rowland Fine Dining

When a restaurant goes to the lengths to include the words 'Fine Dining' in their name one tends to approach with a few expectations. Lemaire, The Dining Room At The Berkley, or even the now-defunct Le Petite France comes to mind. With that in mind I was a bit surprised when the RVA Foodies invited us to join them for brunch at Rowlands. Mr Foodie typically eschews stuffiness (often present in 'fine dining') so I was intrigued.

In anticipation of the visit I decided to visit their website to find out what to expect. Turned out it didn't help. They trumpeted the fact that they were now open on Sundays but neglected to list their hours as well as any semblance of a brunch menu. Bother. The dinner menu gave a few clues but you never really know how they will translate their dinner vision to brunch.

We arrived at Foodies house and hoofed it across the foot bridge over the downtown expressway. Stepping into the restaurant we were a little dismayed to see the place empty even though it was already after 11. Did their lack of info on the website hurt or was their something everyone else knew that we didn't? After a bit of table jumping (due to pregnant belly and baby carrier) we settled in and looked at the menu.

The usual suspects were missing. No Eggs Benedict or variations there of. Actually only two egg dishes on the whole menu (Frittata Du Jour and a Egg & Proscuitto Sandwich). The bulk of the menu was pancakes, waffles, and the like with the addition of a number of savory items most likely inspired by their dinner menu. Additionally they had a couple of specials - while no one ordered it the chocolate crepes sounded really good. Other items, like the fish, sound a little like leftovers from the night before. The waiter said they had a couple of pieces of this and a couple of that and you could select one of several cooking methods. I am sure it was all fresh but left over fish leaves me a bit wary.

Once settled we ordered coffees and drinks. Our waiter was... well, distracted. Frankly I thought he might actually still be a little drunk from the night before. His service was fine, albeit at a very slow pace, but he mumbled a lot and his sentence structure could be described as meandering. Oddly, both M and RVA Foodie recognized him from the Village Cafe although they seemed to think he had lost a lot of weight.

After quite a pause the drinks started arriving. First my mojito. It was listed on the menu but I think the waiter (who was doubling as bartender) had not made one before thus causing the initial delay. It was actually pretty good, RVA Foodie was neutral thinking it too sweet. Much better than the pre-muddled mess with sweet and sour that Jack is mixing at his new gig at Havana 59 (not his fault, IVV and I declared them bad prior to his starting there). It did have an odd flavour that I couldn't quite place. Kind of like a hint of papaya or mango. Regardless, it was tasty.

As we were sipping our drinks and stirring coffees Virginia (one of the owners and resident baker/dessert maker) brought out a plate of mini muffins for the table. It was like having a plate of muffin tops! They were delicious. While not on the menu they really should be (ok, free is good but having a cup a coffee and a basket of those while reading the paper at one of their outdoor tables....). Finn probably could
have eaten the whole plate had we let him.

The menu doesn't have appetizers (bummer) but they do have a number of sides, a couple of which could pass as munchies for the table. On Foodies recommendation we ordered the potato latkes. A large potato pancake with green onion and sour cream seasoned with a heavy dose of black pepper. There was some debate at the table about the al dente nature of the shredded potato. It wasn't undercooked to the point of raw but did have a little crunch. The consensus was that we liked the added texture. Frankly, we liked it so much that one could make an argument of having a brunch based on the sides alone. Say the latke and a bratwurst.

Mr Foodie had the frittata du jour. Feta and spinach (if memory serves). He regaled the taste and the lack of potato filler that dominated the frittata at Bacchus. Mrs F
oodie had the Chicken. That dish was a bit of a surprise. It looked like it was half a fried chicken (in 3 pieces). She said it was ok but a little bland. The haricote verte passed muster and the squash casulette was declared excellent. Baby Jasper had milk.

My order came out a bit wrong. I had ordered the Egg Sandwich which was supposed to come on multi-grain, instead it came on a baguette. Didn't really notice until I was halfway through. It was a very nice simple meal. Egg, bread, proscuitto. The bread, as were all the in-house baked goods, was excellent. My only real complaint came at this point in the meal. My dish came with pomme frites. If your going to call a fry a frite it better be good. These were frozen from a bag. 'Nuff said.

Finn had the Belgian Waffle. Crispy exterior, moist interior, fresh berries. Finn was happy even if he was taking pictures like he was Earl Hickey.

M had the real winner of the day. French Toast with Pan-Seared Bananas and Pecan. Baking meets desert meets breakfast. If you were going to create the perfect French Toast this would be it. Enough egg to give it weight and keep it from getting soggy, the bananas seared to heat and caramelize but not so much they get mushy. The crunch of the pecans. A real winner.

To end we all shared the espresso creme brule (how they made it espresso without an espresso machine?...). It may have been a left over from the night before judging by the uneven temperature throughout and was a tad runny but the flavour was good. I was just hoping it didn't have too much caffeine as Finn wolfed a good part of it down.

The words in the name, Fine Dining, may make you think this a stuffy place. It isn't. It's much more relaxed and serves inventive food that we enjoyed. If your looking for a comparison think Dogwood Grille not Lemaire. I think we'll have to give dinner a whirl, perhaps when it's cool enough to sit outside.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Fox's Feral Feline Fiasco - Or Why Sinclair Broadcasting Sucks

corporation (noun) - An ingenious device to create individual wealth without individual responsibility. Ambrose Bierce

Some companies care about the communities that they operate in. They support programs for the poor and hungry. Unused land gets set aside as wetlands or as parks for the communities. Others just don't give a damn. Sinclair Broadcast Group is a company that doesn't care and doesn't care if you know about it.

Now I'll admit Sinclair hasn't given me warm fuzzies for years. Their attempt to influence the 2004 election with propoganda posing as a 'documentary' was contemptable (note - I don't think either side should be allowed free time like that unless the station, using the public airways, allows an equal response). Their censorship of Ted Koppel's tribute to fallen troops in Iraq shows they care more about ideology than the truth (a very bad sign for a company that transmits the news) and honouring those who gave their lives is an even lower priority. Earlier this year they started playing a shell game with a corporate holding company to skirt the law against having two TV stations in the same market(Fox 35 and CBS 6). And, now, they are killing cats.

Over the years their employees have been leaving food out for a colony of feral cats living on Fox's property. To me that makes them morally obligated to the care of the colony not to mention that the colony has been there for over 30 years, predating Fox itself. Last month Fox started taking steps to exterminate the colony. The Richmond SPCA sprung into action and tried to take steps to stop the killing of the cats. Fox, well, they really didn't care.

Their solution to this little PR kerfuffle was to trap the cats. Did they contact experts in animal welfare or one of the local humane groups? No, they called an animal control company who trapped the cats, took them home, then killed them. Charges are pending. The next steps makes you question their claims that they didn't know the trapper was going to kill the cats. They sent in the bulldozers.

The SPCA moved fast and got video crews from the other TV stations onto the scene. It was then Fox showed they do care about something, their bottom line. Bulldozing cats leading the evening news might make advertisers a bit squeamish. The bulldozers stopped. Finally they came out to say they cared about the colony and would try to do the right thing and work with local humane groups for a solution. Small problem with that statement. A month later and none of the local humane groups have been contacted. Sounds a little like in 2000 when George Bush said he was a uniter and would work across the aisle to bring everyone together.... Whatever happened with that?...

The SPCA and a few other groups have been trying to trap some of the cats. While some of the cats are able to be adopted out many aren't and it is very difficult to relocate feral cats. It also doesn't help that Fox isn't following through on their promise to cooperate with the humane groups and is actually hampering their efforts by putting up No Trespassing sings on the property with the colony.

I suppose it would be one thing if dealing with the colony in a humane way would cost them an inordinate amount of money or effort but it doesn't. Sinclair Broadcast Group simply doesn't care. The public airways are there for the benefit of the people. They use it for an agenda. The FCC restricts media ownership in single markets to ensure balance in information. They use shell corporations to skirt the law. They stifle opposing views. They kill cats.

To save a colony and keep it healthy is not that hard. Once a month I set out a few traps with a little bit of mackerel. Whatever cats I trap go to the vet the next morning. Next we go out to brunch with RVA Foodie and family (we actually don't plan it that way it just seems to happen) and that afternoon we pick up the cats from the vet. Spayed or neutered, vaccinated, wounds treated, de-wormed and even a dose of Frontline. The result has been healthier cats, less kittens and with a higher survival rate, and much less fighting amongst the Tom's plus I don't have to explain to Finn why he can't pet the mauled and dying kitten twitching on our front steps.

Did have some good news at our colony. Last month one of the cats I caught did not come out of the anesthesia. What made that worse was the cat was lactating. We looked for the kittens but couldn't find them. Over the past couple of weeks a cat and kittens took up residence on our back porch. The kittens were less than 8 weeks and oddly the mother was one that we had had fixed 3 months ago. Our guess is she adopted the orphaned kittens. Made us feel a bit better.

This weekend we only caught one cat. An orange tom. He came through with flying colours and was released back into the 'hood yesterday.

The score if your keeping track -

4 female/3 males - Trapped Fixed and Released
1 male - Not Healthy or Injured - Euthanized
1 female - Didn't Learn Lesson & Trapped Again
1 female - Didn't Survive Procedure

See you next month for round #5

Monday, July 21, 2008

Hitting A Wall Of Crab - The Hard Shell

I love raw bar. Set before me plates of bivalves and crustaceans and I am a happy person. The first restaurant I worked at in the United States, Bart's Wharf in Portland, OR, was a master of raw bar. Huge platters of raw and steamed seafood, most fresh from the Oregon coast, flowed freely. I was never a real fan of bay shrimp but the chef would make me a sandwich for dinner made with fresh bay shrimp. The taste was amazing. Sadly, I've never been able to recreate that simple sandwich. It was a shame the restaurant didn't survive. Run by Bart's kids it became stuck in a timewarp with teal vinyl booths and some of the original waitresses still there from the opening in the early 1950's. They should have been there for the renaissance of the upscale lobster-steakhouse in the 1990's but didn't make it.

True raw bar has gone out of style to an extent and the number of places to find it has dwindled. In RVA the choices are limited. There's some offerings at Bookbinder's but I know way to much about the inner workings of that place to ever eat there again. If I want chicken instead of turtle in my overpriced Snapper Soup I'll order chicken soup.... (maybe, someday, I'll write a bit about my experiences there). There's Morton's and a couple of other upscale eateries but there it is more of an afterthought and not true raw bar where you order plate after plate.

Nope, in Richmond there are only two real choices (I am sure after writing this I will get a few more suggestions....). First would be Can-Can. Bathtub full of ice, shucked and prepared in view of the customer with the added bonus of much better sauces than your standard cocktail sauce. Best eaten at the bar with a martini but don't forget to fill your pockets with pebbles to get a bartenders attention....

The other place would be The Hard Shell, the restaurant that took the wind out of the sails of Awful Arthur's in the Bottom. I've been going to The Hard Shell since it opened. When it first opened it had great food, good drinks, and really good raw bar. For years it was my go-to place, showing up at least once a month. Now, not so much. With all the great new places that have opened up in the past 7 or 8 years we might make it once or twice a year and rarely is it mentioned when we're talking about where we want to eat tonight. Sunday night we needed a place to celebrate a bit. M had become a newly minted Privacy Expert and had the certification to prove it. With gas poking a hole in our dining budget we decided to hit The Hard Shell and indulge in their All You Can Eat crab-fest.

We had hit their Sunday special in the past but I usually didn't do the All You Can Eat special. I'm a fan of Snow Crab (especially when it's 1/2 price) but the crab on the All You Can Eat was some sort of crab (sorry I've forgotten the exact type) that had paper thin skin and unsatisfying meat. Basically the little old lady of crabs. At some point, however, it seems they changed it to my favoured Snow Crab. So, off we went.

It was very packed when we arrived so we sat at the bar to wait for a table. A few observations... The bar was dirty. The staff all looked like they were thinking 'I can't believe I couldn't dump this shift'. I actually saw a customer raise her hand and snap for a server. I think I could hear the snapped at server's eyes rolling... It was a collision of fine dining meets cheapskate hell. We got lucky, they decided to open the banquet room and we got a table in fully air conditioned bliss away from the hoi poloi.

To start we had a few apps. M ordered the Lobster Dip. A ramican of soupy dip surrounded by chips with a presentation by TGI-Fridays. The level of peppers in the watery dip rendered the addition of the lobster moot.

I ordered a dozen steamed clams and a half pound of crawfish. Presentation was again less than inspired and while the little necks were acceptable the crawfish was sub-standard. Maybe I ordered out of season but many had recently molted and the shells were mushy while on others the meat was dark not light and sweet. I didn't finish them.

For an entree M had the Steak & Lobster. Petite filet and a smallish lobster tail. Due to her current condition she had to order the steak medium (she still eats it MR at home when we know the source - Belmont Butchery - and are sure of proper storage and preparation). At that temp the steak was small and disappointing. She declared no more steaks in restaurants until after the baby arrives. The small tail seemed fine, although M said it was a bit gritty like it hadn't been rinsed well, until I got the bill. The dish is listed at 'market price' (I know, we should have asked) and I really think that for $40 the tail should have been a little more substantial.

While she ate I gorged on the All You Can Eat Snow Crab. Nearly 4 pounds of the tasty things. The last plate they brought out had a distinctly overpowering brine smell that brought my gluttony to a screeching halt. The support service for my feast was lacking. Not enough lemons, forgetting butter, no extra napkins. I actually had to ask for a shell cracker since he hadn't brought one out and when he did it had rust marks on it.

The service was mediocre but I have a hard time really blaming the waiter. It is very hard to switch gears from fine dining to turn and burn especially when a lot of people who hit 'All You Can Eat's' are terrible tippers. The kitchen was also collapsing and you could hear servers arguing over ownership of plates in the window. His service wasn't the best but I still tipped at 20%, albeit pre-tax for a change.

They made what I can only describe as an akward and not well thought out change in the bathrooms. Paper towels have been removed to be replaced with air dryers. The placement was bad unless they intended it to be triggered and blow on your back while your washing your hands and while the lack of towels makes it hard to clean a toddler they seem to have forgotten what they serve. A lot of their dishes are steamed sea food and involve dipping said seafood in butter. Add alcohol to the mix and you've got messes. In my case a well buttered goatee. After washing the butter out I really don't want to stick my face in a hot air dryer, a towel will do just fine.

I think The Hard Shell is due for an overhaul. The raw bar at Can-Can seems much more fresh and exciting. Their menu looks the same as it did in 90's, quality is down, presentation perfunctory, and service is slip-shod. I think it may be time to look for a new place for my snow crab fix.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Stealin' My Stuff - Blog Hijackers

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from Mr Hammond. He was cluing me in to a strange link that had appeared on one of posts on my blog. I followed it and.... someone had scraped and copied my blog onto their site. WTF?! Why would someone want to copy my mundane ramblings and claim it as their own? I have a small but respectable following of readers but c'mon... The vast majority are local and come for the restaurant reviews and while I do have a growing number of national readers who come for the infrared grilling stuff (not that I'm an authority, just an early adopter so there isn't a whole lot of competition) it's rarely more than 100 a day. Still, what are they trying to accomplish?

The site was odd. A vaguely Middle-Eastern woman with no top and rather revealing panties adorned the background of the site and was always present as you scrolled through. Had I been hijacked by a purveyor of porn? No, other than the 'lady' there was nothing else overtly sexual, although as most of the text was in Arabic I could be wrong. Were they using my text (and pictures of Finn!) to sell something? Well, there were movie posters for current movies like Wall-e (with Arabic script underneath) but no active links or offers of sales. The site was a mass of conflicting information. Arabic, English, German, Dutch. I actually wondered if it was some sort of 'terrorist' site hiding secret messages underneath the mess of data (Great, next time I fly I'll find out I'm on some terrorist watch list....) but that seemed a bit far fetched.

The only conclusion I could come to was that it was some sort of trap. Trying to access it ultimately locked up my browser or left residual images as I tried to go to other sites. Shut down, scrub, run virus and spyware programs. Since that seems the most reasonable explanation I am not providing a link to my doppelganger. Google must not care for the site either as you can find it on some searches of my content but it's very buried.

I went through my blog and broke all the links. Seems they had also created some links to this site on some other blogs. RVA Foodie had one or two, I checked some other friends that I link to but didn't see any other offending linkages.

Lesson for the day? Watch your blog. Check who's linking to you every now and then and do Google and other searches based on specific (the more obscure the better) sentences from your content to find any unauthorized copies. Break any links that are suspect on your site so your friends and family don't end up someplace they really don't want to go. You can purchase programs that will monitor it for you for 4 or 5 bucks a month. That's nice but all they do it tell you your being copied. When it comes down to it there really isn't a whole lot you can do.

Of course, once I had thought I had cleaned everything up... I get another email from a different friend last night. Someone else has copied my site! This one seems pretty harmless though, go, look, you be the judge....

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Day In The Life Of A Used Bookstore

Back in the day, at the credit card company that shall not be named, I was a slave to Outlook. This program told me where I needed to be, whom I needed to speak to, what deliverables I needed to deliver. The only bright side of this was Blackberry's were only for the most senior people at that point so I had to actually find my way to my cube to be told what to do rather than have my minder with me 24/7. Life is a little slower now. With the exception of government forms most things can be done tomorrow afternoon, or not.

A typical day starts with Finn and rolling out of bed around 7:30. M has already left for the day and Finn has magically transported himself from his bed into ours. We used to start out watching CNBC but the business channel has lost my rapt interest as I have divested myself from the markets. MSNBC is our morning wake up choice. Although if something really big is happening I turn to Fox to see how if they are ignoring or distorting. (My fav was the morning Scooter Libbie was found guilty. Fox didn't mention the verdict except in the bottom scroll and their lead was that Osama Bin Laden's capture was imminent...... Reminded me of all the terror alerts Bush trotted out in 2004). After that and a bit of breakfast it's off to the store.

We open at 10 but I usually arrive up to 45 minutes before. Finn spends the early morning trying to figure out where he left his toys the day before while I get the accounting programs up to date with the latest data. The early morning can be a bit busy. People dropping off books for trade, UPS & Fed Ex deliveries, and lots of phone calls. More than a few telemarketers but an increasing number of people looking to sell books. We can always tell when the economy is getting bad and people start getting desperate. Sadly, buying books doesn't work with most used-bookstore business models. Trades, yes. Cash, no. Skyrocketing rents and capital cost overrule that. Only two places in town buy books, Black Swan & Chop Suey, and only under very specific circumstances. If all you've got is current pulp fiction they send you to me and we only do trade credits.

After the lunch rush things get a little quiet and Finn and I try to grab a bit of lunch. The new store has a little kitchenette so our choices are a bit better than in the old space. Murphy is always at work though and the moment I sit down someone comes in with a big box of books from 'grandma's' attic that they don't understand why I am not interested in. Perhaps it is the yellowed crumbling pages or it could be the baby roaches crawling out. Regardless, if you wouldn't buy it why do you think my customers would?

Today we had a nice surprise. Sketchy came by with gifts. A very pretty cake box with cupcakes for Finn and I. Two dark, rich chocolate cupcakes filled with a bittersweet ganache and topped with a salted caramel icing (I probably got the description wrong but that's what I tasted). We were told to allow them to come to room temperature before eating so, against Finn's protestations, they were set aside for a while. When they were consumed later they were wonderful. Just feel sorry for my poor assistant who has to sweep up tomorrow.... (Actually, I cleaned up most of Finn's mess but I am sure I missed a few crumbs about the store).

Late afternoon and into the evening can be a crapshoot. Fewer books come in but more browsers. The music changes from classical to contemporary as the customers get younger. Most of our CD and Tape Audios get sold in this time as people swing by before a big roadtrip. It's also when M arrives from work to take Finn home. It's also around the time that I sometimes indulge in a glass of wine. Chatty owner = more book recommendations = more sales. I thought that was not to be today as I had neglected to grab a bottle of wine from home and had only beer in stock at the store. Not being a big beer drinker this made me sad. It especially made me sad after a particularly strange exchange with a customer, or I guess a non-customer. To my delight someone heard my pain - or at least my 'whine'. Ms In Vino Veritas arrived bearing gifts. A very nice bottle of Layer Cake Primitivo (Zinfandel) - Why, yes, I do have glasses in the back....

Cupcakes and wine in the same day! Being stuck in a bookstore all day, with your kid, reading, eating, drinking.... Days like this (even though sales were really bad...) are the ones you must remember. When the dark gloom takes you it's nice to know you have friends and to recall that you have a life you enjoy.

The day is now winding down. I'll close in an hour, go home and have dinner with the family. Tomorrow I'll get up and repeat.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

A Marginally Weird Evening At The National - Weird Al Yankovic

Too often music venues are run by amateurs. Music lovers with no business experience or people who think it's an easy way to make a quick buck. The National is an example of what happens when professionals get involved. A well trained staff. Clean floors. Very clean bathrooms - that actually work! Honestly, the only complaint (other than being gouged by Ticketmaster) would be that they need to run a phone line out to the T-shirt vendors table so you can charge that $25 dollar t-shirt or $20 mug. If you haven't been go to their site and I bet you can find a show you want to see.

Last night found us at The National to see Weird Al Yankovic. We were running a bit late for the show and when we saw the line for will-call M dropped me off so we wouldn't miss the beginning of the show. Yes, I know. I could've printed the tickets off of the Ticketmaster site rather than having them held at will-call. It just doesn't feel right. I prefer the old-fashioned ticket. As far as missing the beginning of the show - there was no need to rush. A friend had warned us the Weird Al never started on time and he was true to form last night. About 45 minutes late.

The crowd was a little younger than I expected. A lot of teens, tweens, and pre-teens. OK, not an overwhelming number, just more than I expected. Perhaps that was a good thing as the lines at the bar were shorter than other shows we've been to their.

Weird Al started the show with a mash parody of hits over the last few years while playing his accordion. Weezer figured prominantly in this mash. I had heard that Weird Al was a bit of a perfectionist. This was obvious in how well timed the show on staged synched with the video playing above the stage. This began to bother me after a bit. They synched too well. I really began to wonder if they were actually playing or lipsynching. Is it live or is it Memorex? Couldn't really tell.

After the mash he launched into his hits. Every song was completely choreographed, synched with video, and followed by long breaks for costume changes. Actually, if you took out the video filled breaks the hour and a half show probably only had less than 45 minutes of music. Over produced and lacking spontaneity it lacked the joy I had seen in videos of his earlier performances. It was much more Brittany Spears than Dr Demento.

Of course I could just be a bit bitter. We decided to leave a couple of minutes before the end to beat the crowd out the door and missed my favourite song - 'White & Nerdy'....

Monday, July 7, 2008

Food That Doesn't Suck!

Over the course of this long holiday weekend we managed a number of tasty tidbits. The first was to get the nasty taste of 'gourmet' cookies out of our mouths. To this end M made a batch of real homemade cookies. She searched high and low for macadamia nuts but couldn't find any at Ukrops (perhaps the supply is being diverted for ethanol...). We settled for white and dark chocolate chips. A kind of black and white. Very tasty and welcome after the earlier fiasco.

Saturday night found us the proud owners of a couple of flat irons from Belmont Butchery. Salt and pepper, a quick trip to the grill, a rest, then thinly sliced. Quickly becoming my favourite meal. To avoid taste bud burnout on an oft-repeated meal I decided I wanted add something new to the mix. A recipe from pjpink from River City Cellars for onion rings that she had lifted from Emeril had caught my eye. It's pretty simple and I did it without making Emeril's essence or cheating and buying it:

Onion Rings -
2 Large Yellow Onions - Sliced into 1/8-1/4 inch rings
2 cups Spiced Flour - To taste add salt, pepper, cayenne, thyme, garlic powder, and lots of paprika
2+ cups Buttermilk - Add to this hot sauce, paprika, cayenne

Slice the onions and cover with the buttermilk. Return to fridge and allow to soak for at least an hour. Add one inch of peanut oil to a heavy pan. Heat to 350. Remove onions from buttermilk and dredge in flour. Shake off excess and place in hot oil. Working in batches fry until golden brown on both sides (2-3 minutes per side). Drain. Can be kept in oven to keep warm as long as it is not a gas oven (gas ovens produce moisture and will make the rings soggy).

I had thought about putting some kind of sauce on the table for the rings but it turned out it
wasn't necessary. Very tasty! Thanks pj!

To end the weekend we ended up at a cookout hosted by T of Belmont Butchery. While the cookout had been planned in advance the menu wasn't. Seems one of T's customers had ordered a whole pig for their 4th of July festivities. Said customer 'forgot' to pick it up. Personally, I'm not buying it. Since the pig would have to be the centerpiece of your party you don't 'forget' - You chicken out. How this customer shows his/her face at Belmont Butchery again is beyond me and if they ever try to pre-order something T should make them pay in advance. Not more than a few cracks were made about delivering the pig's head to the customer's house and leaving it on a spike in the yard.... People weren't that drunk when I left but you never know how a night progresses. Regardless, the pig didn't go to waste and after a night of smoking was tender and juicy. Wish I had the nerve to try cooking something that big.

On a fun note Bill Foster, of Zed's, was there. I managed not so say anything (never got that drunk at the party) but we did have a whole circle of people having a general bitch session about the poor customer treatment at Zed's. As a number of the people in the discussion were either current or former restaurant people so we got pretty vicious. Good fun but Zed's really needs to work on their reputation if they are to succeed. No one had a single complaint about the food, it was all about the front of house.

All in all a good weekend and a shift out on my belt notch....

Food That Sucks!

Unless your a hermit, or terminally snarky, you've run into one of these people. You know who I'm taking about. They've got the kid in band raising money for new uniforms. An underfunded library program in need of books or an art class that has no supplies. Perhaps it's for an animal rescue program. A church program to feed the poor or a multi-million dollar mega-church's need to be grander than the other multi-million dollar mega church.

Regardless, they take advantage of your friendship, or the proximity of your desk, to sell you something that 9 times out of 10 you would never otherwise buy. The items are varied. Popcorn. Candybars. Cookies. Sometimes brand name goods but usually no-name products stamped with buzz words like 'gourmet' or 'premium'. Organized corporate 'charity' campaigns that make you feel like your giving when in fact most of the money goes to the company providing the food products.

Where M works, the credit card company that shall not be named, she gets hit up on nearly a monthly basis to buy something for one fund raiser or another. Occasionally the stuff gets eaten, often it gets forgotten and tossed when the expiration is noted to be over a year ago. A while back one of those items, a tub of white chocolate macadamia nut cookie dough, found it's way into our freezer. There it may very well have sat until this weekend when a craving for cookies hit our household.

Out of the freezer and into the fridge. Once thawed (ok, according to M - once it had gone from brick to semi-hardened plaster) onto a cookie sheet and into the oven. Finn and I sat in the kitchen, waiting something sweet and tasty. The wait on the cooling rack was too much to bear and Finn and I dug into the piping hot cookies. Fully cooked but soft and gooey these tasted.... strange. Finn and I started a second cookie. I finished - he didn't. The aftertaste was nearly chemical in nature. Not what you expect when eating cookies. A few minutes of pondering and the cookie nearly came back up on me. Finn crawled into my lap and held on tight.

'Sick', he said.

'Are you feeling sick?', I asked.

'No. Sick cookie', he replied.

It was time for an inspection of this tub of 'cookie' dough and it's ingredients. Some really nasty oils - palm and cottonseed - and.... nothing that you would find in a normal persons kitchen, all chemicals. Reading the label it informed me that you could leave this dough out at room temperature for 21 days. WTF!? What cookie dough is shelf stable for 21 days? And what horrible things might happen on the 22nd? Beyond that it was good in the fridge for 6 months and up to a year in the freezer. A nice aside told me that it could also be thawed and refrozen. Your basic 'night of the living cookie dough'.... Ugh, the 'gourmet' cookie dough went into the trash and the remaining cookies fed the poor birds in the yard.

Sick cookie indeed.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Overlooked Restaurants - Enoteca Sogno

Wednesday Evening Part #2.

When most of us in RVA get the craving for pasta or seafood cooked in the simple Italian style we think of Mama 'Zu or her sister restaurant, Edo Squid. I've heard the complaints about the style off service, the resistance to reservations, the basic need to move lingering tables out the door. People need to get over that. Those two eateries are quite possibly the closest we get to a top rate restaurant that would be able to compete in NYC or DC. Food that people are willing to line up for day after day, year after year. Transplant those places to a big city and people would understand the need to keep people moving and the goal to please 'all' rather than the 'squeaky wheel'.

We went to Enoteca Sogno with only a vague idea what to expect. The only thing I was sure of was that most of the entrees were under $20. If this went bad then I wasn't out too much. The restaurant is sandwiched in between Cabo's,
RVA Foodie's favourite restaurant, and Fieldin's, RVA's premier location for gay male strippers. OK, so it's someplace we all drive by but either don't pay attention or are picking up Lee's Fried Chicken across the street. The dining room is unremarkable, standard Fan brick walls and tables. Even if you've never been here you've been...

My first impression was not good. Sometimes you can judge a place by it's clientele. Here we had a mix of people who might be in search of an 'early bird' special and young'uns who may be making their first dining experience outside of Applebee's. Looking closer I realized I might be jumping to conclusions when I noticed a gentleman named Bob at the bar. Normally, 'Bob', is found coordinating wine service at Can-Can. When you find a place where someone with 'good taste' goes you tend to pay attention.

The menu at Enoteca is simple. A couple of veal dishes, pastas with a choice of seafood or sauces and gnocchi. Specials include meats and such. We were pushing Finn's limits, after being out at Havana earlier, so we ordered gnocchi with marinara for him right off to get him occupied. A salad for M and seared scallops for me got us all started.

The seared scallops, 6 of them, were not the huge ones that are popular right now and they didn't have the crispy crust that is the trend. Didn't matter. They were tasty, not fishy, with an excellent texture. Where many places drown the scallops with a balsamic reduction their version excentuated the flavour of the scallops without overpowering them. Add the $22 bottle of Italian Langhe Arneis (crisp without the acidity of a Pinot Gris) and I was very happy.

While we were enjoying our starters Finn got his gnocchi. Heavy dense pieces of pasta tossed in a fresh tomato marinara. I was a little thrown by the gnocchi. The pieces were almost too uniform to be house made. A little questioning found that they were not made in house but rather by a pasta maker in town. They could have lied, they didn't. I want to find this pasta maker to supply my own household.

M had the Veal Piccata. Light on the breading, tender veal, perfectly balanced. Too often Veal Piccata means way too much lemon. Not here. Happy, happy. Joy, joy.

I opted for one of the specials. Soft Shell Crab. I did this with a bit of trepidation but, after several hours of alcohol consumption, was willing to take a couple of risks. Over the years I have worked in too many restaurants and seen 'soft shell crabs'. Frozen and flat, the chefs actually need to inject liquid to avoid serving a piece of dessicated seafood. These arrived at the table and were twice the thickness of most soft-shells that I have seen. The crabs were crispy on the outside, the insides juicy and tasty, even had a bit of the green stuff squirt out on one slice. I couldn't have been happier.

Dessert came next. We selected the cannoli. For some odd reason they sent out the tiramisu. The waiter, who had been attentive all evening, corrected this. Can't say enough about the service. Two waiters, the bartender, and the hostess all worked together to take care of each other and all the customers. Nice change from 'that's not my station' or 'not my job'. Key to this was my espresso. Ever wonder why your espresso is cold in a restaurant? It's because they didn't pre-heat the cup. Here they did and I was able to enjoy a HOT cup of espresso. If only every restaurant paid this much attention.

If you've not been, are scared of the service at Mama 'Zu, the wait at Edo Squid - then this is the place you need to go - NOW.

Jack & Vino Go Down The Hill To Get A Large Mojito - Havana 59

Wednesday Evening Part #1 -

Another Wednesday, another swim lesson with Finn and a follow up of bevvies and food. Through a bit of creative scheduling Mrs In Vino Veritas and Jack joined us for an early happy hour at Havana 59.

Back in the day (last century...) Havana-59 was a constant hang out for myself and my co-workers from a certain local credit card company. Smoking of over-priced cigars, swilling of single malts (because you know you can taste the difference after your taste buds have been overwhelmed by some Haitian piece of tobacco-weed), and general debauchery. Countless weekends as the 'brunch destination' during recruitment weekends. Yes, this was the jumping off point for several thousand Capital One employees and their status in the dating pool for the more senior staff. With all the company money spent there you really have to wonder how they got into the trouble they did. Why bring the attention of the IRS to a profitable business? Pay the damn taxes and keep printing the money! Greed, the downfall of everyone from Studio 54 to the local bar of the moment.

So, it was with a bit of surprise that I heard a little bit of buzz about H-59 over the last couple of weeks. Did I really want to go back there? Did I really want to spend my own money there (no longer in servitude to Cap-1)? Back in the day it was expensive, inconsistent food, middling service. Not someplace you go on your own dime. What the hell... Let's give it try....

The crowd I was meeting seemed more interesting than the place. Mrs In Vino Veritas and Jack. Add Finn to the mix and it looked to be an interesting get-together. We arrived with Jack already at the scene and the bartenders started the martini's flowing. First impression was bar-keeps interested in keeping the drinks full and the customers happy - a change from the recent experiences at Can-Can. Mrs Vino arrived and we kicked it up another notch.

Drink recap -

Martini's - whether gin or vodka they were done well and had the brands you want.

Mixed Drinks - we had a few - good strong mixes served in glasses without lipstick - always a good sign to me....

Mojitos - disappointment of the evening. They muddled the mint into simple syrup in advance (why?) and let it sit. The addition of a shot of sweet and sour mix killed it completely. In need of a major overhaul, this was inexcusable.

The orginal plan had been to enjoy their upstairs balcony. Relaxing, airy, and a different menu from the main room. Seems they only open it on Friday and Saturday. Kinda sad for those of us who prefer to avoid the amateur drinkers on the weekends. They say that they will start opening the balcony on Thursdays soon... seems a bit late in the RVA balcony season to do that.... should have been open in March.

While I was drinking Finn needed some food. Sadly, the menu that IVV had the other night upstairs was not available and it was a bit difficult to find something for Finn. The first app I chose for him, and me to taste, was the Cuban Spring Roll. The plate came out and Finn dug into the shoe-string fries that came with this. I managed to grab a couple and they were nice, crispy and salty - not greasy. The rolls were impressive. I can't recall many upscale Asian restaurants who could do a roll so crispy with no greasiness. Too bad the stuffing was so sad. Basically a bland pulled pork. Oddly, Finn loved the mustard sauce that came with it. It tasted a bit like mustard infused with gherkins. He spent the next 20 minutes dipping his fingers into it and licking off the sauce.

As the evening progressed Finn got increasingly restless. First he used my cell-phone to take pictures, then IVV's Blackberry for gratuitous button pushing, and then he got hold of Jack's cell... Somehow Finn managed to call, repeatedly, an ex of Jacks. The poor girl, obviously not listening to the 3-year-old babble left on the voicemail (or was that the kind of message Jack leaves?), called back a while later and.....

Jack was an actual gentleman. From what I could hear from his cell she was a bit pissed. He never let on and tried to explain. Not his fault she thought he was looking for a hook-up when my 3-year-old was 'toddler'-dialing.

As Finn finished his Cuban spring rolls I ordered a bit of pizza for him. Sadly this took a little too long and he hit his expiration. The staff at H-59 did a very nice job of humouring him and allowing him to run rampant around a portion of the restaurant. As an odd aside Jack took a lot of joy playing and distracting him. Perhaps there is a whole new population, single moms, that Jack can debauch. :)

Oh, the pizza. Crust like crispy naan bread, cheese, onions, duck bacon. Very tasty.

I think we'll go back.... just not for the mojitos....