Thursday, February 20, 2003

RANDOM TREND OBSERVATION (move over, Faith Popcorn): "We," in the USA Today sense, don't seem to be turning up our noses at vinyl car interiors anymore. I remember how, starting in the '70s, velvet or velour or just plain cloth seats were seen as a big step up from the stick-to-your-legs vinyl that came standard on most cars. Leather, fine and Corinthian or otherwise, has always been king, but for the middle class, cloth was it.

I'm not sure how long this has been the case, but now we're in the era of upscale vinyl. The idea of standard vinyl seats being called "Mercedes leather" was funny in Albert Brooks's "Lost in America" (1985), but now "leatherette" is being offered without irony. When I ordered my Mini Cooper recently, cloth was an option, but it wasn't easy to find; "leatherette" and leather are the main choices. I decided to spring for leather, having never owned a car with leather seats before, but in reading the Mini message boards I see a lot of enthusiasm for the leatherette.

This isn't just a fashion thing. The quality of the vinyl is getting better, and the quality of the cloth is getting worse. The beige velour-y seats on my 1995 Saturn SL2 are beautiful. The cloth seats I've seen more recently are butt-ugly -- often a neither-here-nor-there dark gray with incongruous colored threads that would be at home on a Harrah's carpet.

My Mini, by the way, is now sailing across the Atlantic from Southampton. Wanna buy a Saturn? (It should be out of the snow by next week.)

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

"BUZZZZ HOONNNNNK SCREEEEECH. This is the Emergency Broadcast System. . . ."

Uh-oh. Chemical attack? Biological? Suitcase nuke? Oh no oh no oh no . . .

The big news: A 2-month-old Baltimore girl is missing. This on a Washington radio station, when a "high risk" terrorism alert is in effect. The Amber Alert is a good thing, and kidnapping is a bad thing, but maybe we need to rethink our news-judgment priorities in this kind of climate.

MORE ADVENTURES IN DINING. This time it's not puttin' on the old-school Ritz in Vegas; it's simply trying to grab a bite after a sporting event.

The plan Sunday was to go to the hockey game (my hometown Washington Capitals vs. my childhood idols, the Montreal Canadiens) and then try R.F.D., the palace of beer and beer-based cuisine that the Brickskeller people recently opened in the former Coco Loco space down the street from MCI Center. It was an early game, 6 p.m., so we had daylight as we decided to walk the mile and a half or so from our Capitol Hill home to the arena.

The Caps tend to win when I’m present, but they lost this time. But the new restaurant was sure to cheer us up, my wife and I -- if we could beat the crowd, that is. We had only an approximate memory of where Coco Loco was, but the awning boasting of x number of beers and x number of taps made R.F.D.’s presence known from a block away. We did beat the crowd! At the bar sat half a dozen Jaromir Jagrs, but we were surprised to find an empty dining room. An empty dining room in a brand-new place right after a Caps game and not too many hours after a Chinese New Year parade, and on a day when the place was prominently featured on the home page of Washingtonpost.com (uh-oh). Not the most hospitable dining room either; imagine the complimentary-breakfast-buffet space of a midscale hotel, or maybe the makeshift sort-of-outdoor space that might be tacked on the front of an otherwise nicer establishment. Some leftover Coco Loco decor injected an odd ethnic flavor.

Speaking of which, R.F.D. stands for "Regional Food and Drink," and looking at the extensive menu I had to ask, "What region?" Belgium would be a good first guess, but there were some Chesapeake notes as well, and then there’s the Brickskeller’s time-tested "everything from everywhere" motif, at least in the "drink" department. I guess every place is in some region, right? Still, it’s an odd concept to embrace if it’s going to be meaningless in the end.

Jacqueline and I were far from deciding on either a beer or an entree when the server, a pretty young thing barely old enough to drink, appeared. First difficulty: We were struggling to determine what was on draft, a distinction noted only parenthetically on the main beer list. Here’s the problem I’ve always had with the Brickskeller, which the last time I checked was a bottles-and-cans-only place: The idea of having hundreds of obscure beers in stock is fine, until you consider the fact that beer is perishable. The whole point of going to the place is to order something interesting and obscure, which almost by definition means not a whole lot of people order it from day to day. Do the Brickskeller people dump their stock into the Potomac every three months? I doubt it, and my (admittedly few) visits there have confirmed that the obscure stuff tends to be less than fresh. (Would you patronize a bakery that offered 1,000 different lord-knows-how-many-days-old breads from around the world but didn’t do any baking on the premises?)

I’m also wary of “real” beer when it’s not on draft. Even lagers of the Sam Adams variety (at least those without Sam’s admirable freshness dating) are too often served well past their prime. So are light-light lagers (at least those without Anheuser-Busch’s admirable freshness dating), of course, but even a fresh bottle of Guinness or Newcastle Brown or other amber-or-darker brew tends to have an unpleasant bite in the bottle that it doesn’t have on tap. I have this theory that a lot of people end up acquiring an acquired taste for spoiled and otherwise bad “real” beer because it’s so much cooler to order than a nice, freshness-dated Bud.

I’ve also taken under advisement the possibility that I’m just a big fat wuss.

Anyway, at least the new place has some taps, and R.F.D.’s PYT produced a "What’s on Tap" menu that our hostess had never bothered to give us. Now, that made things easier. She then mentioned what was out of stock and stood by while we chose. Jacqueline, a light-lager girl, wanted Harp; of course, they were out. I suggested Stella Artois or Pilsner Urquell, and she went for a Stella. I also managed to choose something (an Irish stout) that was out of stock, and in a flustered state I pointed to the Belgian lambics. Framboise -- no, make that peche!

We got back to studying the extensive menu. Carbonnade, Belgian beef-and-beer stew, looked promising. Or would venison-and-wild-boar stew with juniper berries be more tasty? Then again, the carbonnade comes with Belgian fries. But look at the appetizer menu: Welsh rabbit! (Well, they say rarebit -- a common mistake.) Scallops on the half shell! Jacqueline, not all that hungry after our hockey-game pretzels and Heinekens, is thinking of an order of wings. And maybe splitting that “rarebit.”

PYT returned to bring us our beer and take our order. As we began to read our selections from the extensive menu we had been studying for the past 20 minutes, she produced a different menu that our hostess had never bothered to give us and said, “We’d like you to go f*ck yourselves.”

Actually she said, “We’re serving only from our ‘sandwich menu’ right now.”

No, wait, that sounds even worse. My attorneys advise me to go back to the “f*ck yourselves” version.

There was also a footnote about how if there was something we REALLY wanted she might be able to talk the “chef” into preparing it if he was “capable” of doing so under the current austerity measures.

Thanks, Missy, but we aren’t going to beg. It’s like 9 p.m. and we’re getting the late-night-kitchen’s-almost-closed treatment. Jesus Christ.

Um, well, OK, um, I guess we need more time then.

We actually didn’t need more time, because we instantly knew we would be paying for our beers and leaving. Good beers, though. That Belgium is one heck of a region. The peach lambic was sunshine in a glass, and the Stella was Stella. Jacqueline liked it better than Harp. “Yes. It’s kind of like Moosehead,” I said, and we amused ourselves with talk of how you never hear about Moosehead anymore while we awaited PYT’s return.

She returned and we asked for our check and we readied good old-fashioned paper money for a quick exit. The singles that turned the $11 tab into $13 tried to scurry back into my pocket as PYT got rather defensive about her employer’s policies. I can’t blame her for being defensive, really, as we were being a tad accusatory and confrontational. The “sandwich menu only” nonsense is a Sunday thang, as I understand it. Even when there’s an event at MCI Center. Even when there’s a Chinese New Year parade. The parade crowd “loved” the f*ck-yourselves menu, we were told. I guess I should call it the never-never-on-a-Sunday-a-Sunday menu. I’ve been to a lot of restaurants in a lot of “regions,” but this is the first time I’ve ever encountered a day of the week when the menu is just for my reading pleasure. Maybe the sammiches were good. I don’t plan to find out.

We returned to the cold and to familiar territory: the death march. Let’s see: Hooters (new, right across from R.F.D.)? Legal Sea Foods? Something Chinese? I suggested Jaleo, which hasn’t impressed us in the past, because so many people like it so much. Jacqueline expressed trust in our memories.

Then, duh, Fado’s right there! Fado would be fine.

Fado would be crowded. Nobody even attempted to seat us, and the place had the atmosphere of a party to which we were not invited. Actually, most places seem that way to me, but this time Jacqueline seconded my paranoia.

Hooters? Legal Sea Foods? Something Chinese? Oh, how about the District Chop House?

We made our way through the construction on Seventh and walked in. The place was busy enough, but we were seated right away.

I’ve never been as sure about the Chop House as Jacqueline is. The place seems neither here nor there: an elegant, nicely rendered supper-club atmosphere and $30 steaks -- served to people wearing sports jerseys and sneakers. Well, to be fair, there are also plenty of bar munchies on the menu, so I suppose one could argue that the place is both here AND there.

Getting back to the “I’m a big fat wuss” theme, I often order the lightest offering on the beer menu at a brewpub. The freshness of the aftertaste and the golden crispness tend to be Just Plain Good. But for some reason on this night I was still in “real beer” mode, and so against my better judgment I ordered something called a velvet ale. Jacqueline tried the light offering.

The velvet ale, advertised as sporting a head produced by nitrogen rather than carbon dioxide, was very nice. Like a British bitter, but with a head worthy of Guinness. The house-produced light beer was too watery even for my light-light-lager girl. It had a hint of that aftertaste I like, but it was discernibly watered down, like a caffe Americano or something.

The cornbread would be ready in six minutes, we were told.

I vacillated between here and there as I looked at the richly upholstered one-page menu (after several attempts to open the thing). I didn’t really want a steak but I didn’t really want bar munchies, and so I chose the rack of lamb. I like lamb, but I don’t have it very often. Jacqueline was interested mainly in the onion-rings-on-a-spike, the white-cheddar mashed potatoes and the complimentary cornbread. She got a plate of chicken tenders to satisfy the financial conventions of the social contract we entered by accepting our table. (Note d’histoire: Jean-Jacques Rousseau LOVED chicken tenders.)

The white-cheddar mash came with the lamb, as did a salad, so the steakhouse prices start to look a little less steep. I didn’t really want the salad, but I was offered parmesan slivers or bleu-cheese crumble -- nice touch -- and I finished about half of the parmesan-topped, overly oiled greens.

The cornbread still wasn’t ready.

The lamb was fabulous. I didn’t get to go to Hooters, but nice rack. (Ba-dum!)

Not to mention generous: The rack consisted of eight chops -- not huge chops, but decent-sized ones. Certainly not the things they call “lambsicles.” The meat was covered with a sweet-hot goop (peach-chipotle chutney, the menu says) that was messy but tasty.

I liked the beer-and-cheese-battered onion rings, though I had only one. Jacqueline thought they looked better than they tasted. The white-cheddar mashed potatoes were fine, but not as great as they sound.



Guess it’ll be dessert.

It was more pudding than bread, but, boy, was it good. We took most of it home, along with my three or four remaining lamb chops.

A cab was waiting outside as a kind homeless man held the door for us. Perfect.

Saturday, February 01, 2003

WE WENT TO LAS VEGAS AGAIN last week. Some highlights:

-- I hit my first royal flushes in many, many years of playing video poker. The first was on a penny machine where you play 100 hands at a time, so it doesn't really count, but the second one was on a regular old machine. Nickels, though, so the payoff was only $200-something. Next time maybe I'll be playing quarters or dollars for a real payoff.

-- Speaking of real payoffs, Jacqueline hit four aces on a "double bonus" machine, which pays a bonus for four-of-a-kinds, especially with aces. Eight hundred dollars!

-- We had dinner and played some craps with Matt and Stinky of Cheapo Vegas fame. I think we're finally comfortable enough with craps to add it to our regular repertoire, and I did pretty well this time, finishing slightly ahead with Matt and Stinky and winning $200 or so in another session.

Of course, all those wins were just enough to help us break even. It's easy to forget the $20 here and $40 there that you feed into the poker machines or drop on the blackjack tables to no avail.

On my Las Vegas page, you'll find "Loafers in the Burgundy Room," a full report on our trip to one of downtown Las Vegas's old-school "gourmet rooms." (The evening started off on the wrong foot with an odd police presence.)

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