Category Archives: Out of Alphabetical Order

C is for Cool. Really F#_@ing Cool.

Lillet blonde, on the rocks with a twist of orange at Cafe Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. It’s my new favorite cocktail and I love it dearly.

Dinner was good — and the prices at the cafe were reasonable for the birthplace of California cuisine — and the service was great. I showed up well after 8 pm and they parked me at the bar for less than the promised 45 minutes with the wholly distracting Lillet. When I was seated, I said thanks for squeezing me in. The bespectacled, betweeded hostess said, “It’s a pleasure to have you.” I was a late-coming one-top, the type of table that is often on the recieving end of a world-class stink-eye. I’ve never been to a place as famous as CP before and was so happy to find that the staff knows how a small meal can be a big deal to someone like me.

The appetizer (tomato soup) and entree (grilled polenta) were nice, but the alpha and omega of the meal were the aforementioned apperatif and the dessert, hazelnut creampuffs with dark chocolate and caramel sauce. The puffs arrived with coffee as dark and deep as a well. I usually take cream but not tonight. Even I know not to mess with a good thing.

Well that’s just ducky

Marylanders celebrate high holy days with crab feasts. You get a basket of some of the most beautiful, blue-tinted and darkly speckled creatures from the sea and boil them alive with a firey shower of Old Bay. Then you disembowel the now-rosy animals by hand, stuffing yourself to overfull and commenting how there’s no better way to spend a summer day. Such things tend to inure you against the horrors of butchery.

I am not sentimental about animals. I didn’t grow up with any pets, aside from short-lived goldfish, which are notoriously bad at cuddling and doing tricks and all those other anthropomorphic things. I love food so much that I instinctively recoil from anything that limits culinary possibilities. But I also like to think of myself as a Good Person, as most of us do, which is why I enjoyed the evenhanded exploration of the ethics of foie gras in Mark Caro’s book The Foie Gras Wars: How a 5,000 Year Old Delicacy Inspired the World’s Fiercest Food Fight.

Caro is a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times who was drawn into the fold of foie due to a professional slap flight between two noted Windy City restauranteurs, Charlie Trotter and Rick Tram0nto. Trotter removed foie from his menu for ethical reasons, a move that eventually culminated in a city-wide ban on selling the fatty duck livers, produced by force-feeding the birds to the point of obesity. Gourmets balked at the idea of having a treasured item removed from their menus. Animal activists balked that anyone would argue a delicious tidbit was worth the torture of innocent animals. Conservatives balked that such a specific law should be imposed upon restauranteurs and consumers when everyone could just let the market decide that engorged duck livers weren’t worth the ethical or financial trouble of eating or producing them. So Caro went on a journey from Chicago to New York, California and France to see what the fuss is about. Surprising, it’s about quite a lot — ethics, culture and commerce, to name just a few.

Caro explores how and why other places have banned foie gras. Surprisingly, Israel is at the top of the list. Foie has roots in Europe’s Jewish communities — it’s basically a high-end version of schmaltz, the beloved Kosher poultry fat schmeared on bread by bubbes the world over. It was one of Israel’s first export industries. (The book mentions that Maryland briefly considered a ban, but it ultimately didn’t go anywhere. Still, the incident made producers nervous that a state “without much of a culinary scene” (!) would likely enter the foie fray on the side of the animals and their cohorts.)

Besides the halls of the Israeli Supreme Court, Caro explores duck farms in the U.S. and in France, talks with animal activists and participates in the process himself, sending the readers interest in foie — as well as his own cholesterol score — through the roof. The activists and chefs and farmers make for better reading than the aldermen; Caro does his darndest to make the Chicago city council’s parlimentary procedures seem dramatic but it is a thankless task.

The Foie Gras Wars is not for the faint of heart, since even the mildest description of the most humane abbatoir may leave you reaching for a veggie burrito afterwards. But it’s worth plowing through the icky (if well-written) parts to explore the ethics of fatty duck and goose livers. Caro gets contradicting stories about the amount of suffering the birds experience during force feeding — advocates say they don’t mind, detractors say it’s torture — because there’s basically no one who investigates such matters that doesn’t have a stake in the outcome. People who turn their nose up at the cruelty of foie happily power down Purdue oven stuffer roasters, even though said chickens are treated much worse than the average foie bird. Don’t eat veal because you don’t want to support the industry? Veal is a side business for the dairy industry, so you’re going to have cut out cheese and cream and milk as well to make that stand.

But just because it’s hard to avoid cruelly treated animals doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t. And surely just because we can’t attain the ideal of veganism doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do our best to minimizing suffering in the world. Right?

The foie gras debate can seem like a twee Rich People Problem, but its implications are larger. The idea of suffering, and the argument that ends can justify means, is not wholly divorced from other issues, like President Obama’s decision to withhold pictures of tortured detainees.

Does the end justify the means when the end is sustenence? What about pleasure? What about tremendous pleasure that can’t be achieved in any other way? What about the hypocrisy of being sentimental about one animal or one food and not another?

What about when the end is national security? What if short-term gains are ultimately more damaging to America’s interests? Are images of suffering unnecessarily inflamatory, or necessary to make informed decisions about how we live our lives and enjoy our freedoms? (That last one applies to both detainees and ducks.)

Philosophers, presidents, chefs and citizens struggle with these questions every day. They stare back at us from the television screen, from a plate of seared foie served with quince and toast points, and from our paper box of Chicken Nuggets with Sweet and Sour Sauce. Freedom of choice can be a terrible, magnificent burden.

11 Diet Sodas

As a testament to how thorough my last Lenten Promise failed, I give a rundown of one week’s sodas:

Diet Soda # 1 – Purchased at Bella Roma, the superior, but further away, take-out spot. Had to dodge Robert Poole kids having snowball fights at the bus stop to make to Bella Roma. (What’s with all the mean “Goddamn punk kids” looks, Hampden residents? Could kids possibly do something MORE wholesome than have a snowball fight?) Counter Guy immediately asks if I want a Greek salad. I quite often want a Greek salad but not today. Feel immense pleasure at having attained regular status at local eatery.

Diet Soda # 2 – Guzzled down at desk as displacement activity for editing item about a teenager who died in a car accident.

Diet Soda #3 – Sipping customary afternoon combo of soda and Lay’s Cheddar and Sour Cream Ruffled Potato Chips. Have convinced myself that the texture of the sweet bubbles and the salty ridges of the chips are Pavlovian catalyst for my creative process. It’s like a really, really low-rent version of sparkling dessert wine and a fine English cheddar.

Diet Soda #4 – Once a month I crash through the door of Angelo’s (inferior but closer take-out spot) screaming, “GIVE ME A LARGE DIET SODA, CHEESEBURGER AND FRIES AND NO ONE GETS HURT.” They throw a styrofoam bucket of soda at me (My favorite way to drink soda – fountain soda in an Earth-killing cup with lots of ice) which I cling to and suck like an angry baby. A counter lady drops the fries at my table and I slather them with cheap, thin ketchup. By the time the burger itself arrives, I have begun to calm down, like the Hulk coming out of a rage.

Diet Soda #5 – Motherfucking phone company.

Diet Soda #6 – Drunk whilst watching Wife Swap in bathrobe and socks.

Diet Soda #7 – Drunk whilst housecleaning and eating bacon.

Diet Soda #8 – To stave off depression of forthcoming $320 physical therapy bill for ankle sprained during improv performance. (Fell off the stage; am gifted physical comedienne.)

Diet Soda #9 – Very exciting: first soda purchased from new machine in office break room. The soda is brash and young, much like a fine French vin de primeur with hints of oak and corn syrup.

Diet Soda #10 – In mall food court, panicking over possibility of having committed fraud at upscale retailer. I bought a coat on an online final sale for $99 but it was too big. When I returned it to the store, dissembling that I had no receipt, I was refunded the full price, $325. Thrilled at first-ever profitable mall visit; terrified of judgment of God and man. $225 would nearly offset my physical therapy bill, but Sister Catherine would be so disappointed in me.

Diet Soda #11 – Purchased to make it seem like I was not coming into the Royal Farms solely for the purpose of purchasing deodorant at 1pm. I was just thirsty, and stopped in for a drink, and then happened to notice that deodorant was for sale and casually asked the clerk to retrieve the item for me from the shelf behind the counter. If you’ve never noticed it, convenience stores keep the deodorant behind the counter along with cigarettes and meth-ingredient cold pills because it’s a commonly shoplifted item. Because even the homeless don’t like spending half a day with B.O., although I apparently can live with it.

C is for Clipper City

If you’re looking to entertain out-of-towners, the Saturday tours at Clipper City are a deal at $5. Drink, learn how beer is made, drink more. Support local businesses. Generate neutral topics of conversation for your visiting in-laws. Drink.

Clipper City official site

Note: Clipper City doesn’t count towards the official total, because I visited in 2008.

C is NOT for Carlyle Club, Charlotte’s, Coburn’s

According to Dining@Large, the Carlyle Club on University Parkway and its sister restaurant Spices in The Colonnade have been shuttered. (Both are supposed to reopen — Spices under a different name — but in the Economic End Times, I’ll believe it when I see it.) I’m sad because both these places figured prominently in my birthday 2007. My dad’s birthday is just a few days away from mine, so we usually do a big family dinner out. At Spices, my mom had a very strong drink, I had two very strong drinks and my dad had very strong three drinks. My dad was pleasantly and hilariously buzzed throughout the meal at Carlyle Club while my mom acted like a put-upon sitcom wife the whole time. They were pissed and pissy, respectively. It was like having dinner with Karen Walker and Deborah Barone.

According to Midnight Sun, Charlotte’s in Federal Hill is a) defunct and b) changing hands. Way behind on that one — how can all these wine bars in Fed Hill go haywire? The Vine, Junior’s, Charlotte’s? Yuppies love them some wine on weeknights! It allows them to believe they are more removed from college than they actually are. And some of the deals were phenomenal.

According to my friend Polly who lives in Canton, Coburn’s on the Square has closed. The greatest thing that ever happened to me there is that once I was seating in the picture window in the front and a bar fight (well, bar-adjacent fight) occurred on the sidewalk immediately in front of me. It was sort of like this. And then on the way out, a guy I knew walked into a parking sign. So I will miss Coburn’s not for its beer or its horrible crowding, but for the slapsticky sidewalk hijinks.

B is for Bartenders

Today was a gorgeous day, sunny and warm in a way that February in Baltimore has no right to be. I’m used to this lion-and-lamb stuff in March, but in early February it’s premature and inappropriate. For example, it briefly seemed counterintuitive to huddle in a dark wood bar and drink dark beers at Bartenders.

I considered rearranging my plans in favor of something sunnier, but that was an exercise in futility. B was a star-crossed letter. The highly flexible rules of the AHH are that the bar must fit into alphabetical order (duh) and ideally be a place I have not been before. These criteria eliminate crowd favorites such as Brewer’s Art, Bertha’s, Birds of a Feather and the Brass Elephant because I’ve been there many a time.

On the flip side, there’s an unlikely preponderance of crappy bars beginning with b in Baltimore — Bay Cafe, Blarney Stone, Bert’s, Bar, Bad Decisions, and Babalu Grill — that I was perfectly fine with never having visited. So with the help of the fine people at the chow.com boards, I zeroed in on Bartenders in Canton. It was a perfect fit. Dark and quiet on a Monday night and staffed with knowing bartenders, it was the perfect place to fill up on beer and pizza with two friends and gossip incessantly about the other two who did not show up. For the rare lulls in conversation, there was Big East basketball on the TV. Perfect.

Bartenders features $6 pizzas on Monday night, a steal any day of the week, especially if you’re pinching pennies during the Economic End Times. My cohorts and I chowed down on a Garden Pie (regularly $11) and were satisfied. If we’d been feeling greedy, another one might have been in order, but we chose to guzzle our calories rather than gobble them. To this end, we quizzed the bartender about the impressive and ever-rotating selection of microbrews on tap and settled on Unibroue Maudite. This Canadian concoction tasted faintly of cloves and Christmas without any cloying richness. As the sun slipped down over the water and a chill slid into the evening air, it was the perfect choice for a winter evening.

Lest Bartenders appear too fancy-pants for your liking, fear not. When I queried the bartender about the management’s process of selecting the impressive range of beers on tap, he responded: “Whatever the fuckin’ drunks keep drinking, we keep ordering.”

So noted, good sir. See you next Monday, or possibly Tuesday, when Bartenders has a taco special. Or on Sunday for the shrimp special. But sometime soon, I’m sure.

B is NOT for Boardwalk Fries

I was at Towsontowne Mall food court (I know, this blog is so about the hot, trendy spots about town) this evening on the later side and I noticed that the Boardwalk Fries stall was completely dark. I asked the Villa Pizza checker if it just closed early or if it was closed for good. He said it was closed for good since business around the food court had been slow. Just about everything in the whole mall was on sale, so I guess everyone is desperate for business.

Being a good reporter, I double-sourced the story with a food court cleaning lady who confirmed it. Surely the economy has gotten bad when there aren’t enough sullen Towson teenagers with the disposable income to get to the mall, order fries and talk about how when they are 18, they are so out of here, man. Not that I ever did that.