Sunday, April 24, 2011

Let the good deeds go unpunished

This guy was talking just today about how damn lucky he feels in this life: He's travelled the world, plays in a band he loves, and has a great house in a neighborhood where both guitar repair and streetside cheese tamales are just a few paces away. He wondered out loud when his luck might run out, saying he was really in no position to complain if it did.

Sometime within the next hour, he lost his Blackberry.

Since that put a bit of a damper on the afternoon, I thought I'd note for the record that my good luck is simply in knowing him. (If you know him too, you surely feel the same). This week alone he took our dog to surgery, helped her up and down the steps at least 15 times, put antiobiotics and pain pills down her throat, stuck her haunches with a needle, lost sleep as she whimpered through the night, and still had enough will and stamina left to repair the trellis that broke in half during February's blizzard.

He gives money to drifters, mows the neighbor's lawn, tips his servers at least 25%, and installed a ramp for the dog next door when she became too arthritic to take the back stairs.

I've been known to complain about dirty dishes and unhung coats left about the house, but that's a ridiculously small tariff for a guy with power tools and an unspeakably generous spirit. He could lose a thousand Blackberries and a thousand hours looking for them, but he'll never lose the thing that makes him always just a little bit better than he needs to be.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

When Things are Pretty for a Day

Yesterday we woke to gloomy rain the very day we were scheduled for our block group's annual Clean & Green, in which we roll out of our houses in grubby clothes and together clear the debris that's taken up residence on our blocks. This is no easy task. For those of you who have visited, you know the litter has become something of a character in the drama of our lives here in the neighborhood, and not a very nice one at that.

By the 10am start of the clean-up, the skies had cleared a bit, and household by household, people started emerging to lend a hand. Not every household, mind you -- and some of the worst offenders were unsurprisingly not to be found -- but it was great to see kids, new neighbors, and people I've never met before pitching in to make this a place that looks like it's cared for rather than an urban dumping ground. It's really something to look down the expanse of our blocks and see one green front yard after the next, unpolluted by fast-food bags and discarded beer bottles -- just spring perennials in bloom, trees coming back to life, and lawn decorations of every stripe.

Part II of yesterday, after a hot shower and hearty lunch, found John and I taking a three-block walk to the festivities of Record Store Day. This is a national annual event, and we were happy to see our local record shop, despite being a scrappy newcomer to the scene, participating with zeal. John was there when the doors opened at 9am, and he was hardly the first in line. He bought a bunch of special releases, and we spent the afternoon watching seven different bands playing for free. We haven't seen the store as packed with devoted customers since their grand opening a year or so back.

We put the day to rest over a pot of homemade ginger lentil soup, the perfect thing since the cold rain had returned by early evening.

So here's the thing: Today is a windy day, and we know that within an hour or so, litter will be blown from Fullerton Avenue right down our blocks and into our yards. But we also know that people may be more likely to pick up that random detritus, at least for a little while. And we also know that our little corner garden, which now has native perennials transplanted from five different households, is blooming again -- those flowers resilient despite a brutal winter and all the exhaust and smog of the city. And that's one of the more hopeful signs I can think of for what may lie ahead.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Someone's in the Kitchen with Nitrous

Calling all nonprofits or charitable organizations: Invite me to your silent auction! I admit it. I have a sickness. I've never met an auction I didn't like, and I've never stepped away without bidding on something. Sometimes it's very small: a gift certificate for a frame shop, or a bottle of wine. Sometimes it's quite large: 10 days of seaside lodging in Croatia, for example, or more recently, Chef for a Day at Moto restaurant.

If you don't know Moto, it's one part traditional kitchen, one part mad-scientists' lab. Their food is a mash-up of normal old grocery-store staples and unpredictable techniques employing food dehydrators, liquid nitrogen, nitrous oxide, edible paper, and machines invented expressly to unfoodify (yes, I've just made this up) the dishes. You get 10 or 20 small courses, depending on your level of extravagance and purchasing power. The result is at times extraordinary (a signature box that heats consommé so it steams a piece of fish inside, or a faux Cuban cigar wrapped in collard greens) and at times disappointing (edible packing peanuts seem to mock rather than play with their consumers). But it's always original. And I can say now from experience, the kitchen crew is having a blast preparing your meal.

I spent four hours in their stunning basement kitchen yesterday, listening to a soundtrack of 70s classics as I peeled carrots or sliced shallots through a laughably unstable mandoline, marveling at how these culinary experiments start with the most banal ingredients. This struck me as either a lighthearted extension of the restaurant's sense of humor, or a comforting sense that everything, and I mean everything, begins with the basics.

Ben, the pastry chef, who has gained fame through his appearances on Future Food, and also happens to live in my neighborhood (see how I did that? brought it back to the neighborhood? because otherwise, you're right, this doesn't fit the parameters I've set out for this blog at all. thank you, Ben), took me under his wing. He insisted that I taste everything, including his amazing housemade ice creams: Earl grey and sassafrass. He's enjoying sassafrass lately and also made it the esssence of his homemade marshmallow fluff. I tasted pineapple infused with vanilla, densely macerated banana puree, and a rich dark chocolate truffle into which is inserted a small marshmallow wick that is set on fire like a tiny bomb. When the flame goes out, you put the entire truffle in your mouth and it explodes with the taste of a campfire s'more. At one point, Ben put a pastry bag of his banana puree into an industrial vaccuum sealer.

"What's that doing?" I asked.

"Running the restaurant." He was smiling, but he wasn't kidding.

I joined the crew for "family meal" around 2:30, when everything breaks for some needed staff sustenance and revelry with the front-of-house folks. One of the chefs made a decidedly un-Moto like chicken marsala with truffled mashed potatoes and homemade pasta. I could've eaten that marsala for days.
I also got a window into their service strategies during the 4:15 staff meeting. They reviewed the reservations -- so many dietary restrictions! -- and decided on the fly how to substitute dishes to keep Table 4 gluten-free, make sure Table 11 had no dairy other than cheese, or avoid refined sugars for Table 8.

All in all, it was an unforgettable day. So different from being in my grandmother's restaurant as a kid, when my sister and I would flee to the walk-in when the French chefs would start screaming at each other. In fairness, they couldn't've been overjoyed to have two sticky rugrats in their kitchen stealing melba toasts from dry storage.

There's something kinetic about a restaurant kitchen. Especially so when you're sucking all the moisture out of a mushroom to turn it into a crunchy garnish for beef, or pouring a vat of liquid nitrogen into a bowl of who knows what, filling the room with smoke. Ultimately, though, it all comes down to that banana puree, and how they remind you of the ones your father used to mash for you as a toddler, when you weren't old enough to remember much, but this was one of the things that mattered.