Welcome to The Epic! I am launching this blog as a manifesto for and a guide to living well. The title and motto of the blog are taken from the Epicureans, at least some of whom believed in the notion that not one minute of the future was guaranteed to them and that as a result they had the duty to live life to its fullest every moment.
I believe in discovering fun and pleasurable things wherever I find myself each day and I am told I have a knack for unearthing them. My hope is that by sharing in my pleasures and some of my ways of finding them you will begin to collect all the riches that lie in the moments of your life. They are there. Take them! All our lives should be.....Epic.
Listening to Sirius and "I Cover The Waterfront" came on. I had heard it before. A long time ago. When stress wasn't running out of my gills on a regular basis. And it stopped me in my tracks. As always. The smoothest of the smooth. So I left what I was doing and started rummaging through my music collection [yes, some on vintage vinyl] because I knew I had a copy. But, to my surprise, I did not. Maybe I never owned the album and the music was in my head all the time. His sound is like that with men of a certain age. So I ordered the album immediately which due to the miraculous time we live in was on my Kindle in about four seconds. I decided to put away work things for the day and play the album while I had a martini and cooked dinner.
Somewhere in the middle of "Stardust", my son the Future Rock Star emerged from his room, 17 now, disdainful of most music, headed for the refrigerator. He too stopped in his tracks, milk carton in hand.
Located next to what was then a store selling fancy military uniforms, it occupied the smallest business space I had ever seen. The area shown by three windows of the enclosed porch of the bar in the photo above. Nobody really knew how long it had been there or when it opened for business. It just seemed to be there one day. It didn't have a name on the door. Or anywhere else that I recall. It didn't have menus. Only a small chalk board hanging on the outside with the lunch special written on it. No hostess. No waiters. You could easily walk right by without noticing there was a business of any kind located there. As I did, many times. Despite the fact that it was right there on the main street of my town. Until the bright Spring day I was strolling by, looking for a place to have lunch, and someone opened the door right in front of me. And I could smell the food cooking inside. The result was an epicurean epiphany.
Chef Michel had photos all over the walls of himself, taken with famous people for whom he had cooked in the past. In vastly grander places. Yachts. Ball rooms. Huge kitchens. I never spoke to him much other than to ask about the dish of the day so I never found out how someone with his abilities wound up running a one-man bistro in a place where authentic French cooking was virtually unknown. I never spoke to him because he didn't have the time. Because at Michel's it was Michel who did everything himself. From greeting you when you walked in to seating you at one of about ten small tables to telling you of the special and perhaps one other dish offered that day, to taking your order and then plating it and bringing it to you. Oh, he also took the payments [cash only please] and cleared the tables after you were finished. No wonder he was only open for lunch. He wasn't a young man and even his obvious energy wasn't boundless. He stayed open for a couple of hours a day, until what he had made that morning was gone. Then he closed the door. Every seat was always occupied.
I guess it was kismet. I had just finished reading A.J. Liebling's Between Meals for the first time and I was dreaming of Paris and of French cuisine. A city I had never visited. A cuisine that I had never tasted. Until I went through the door into Chef Michel's tiny dining room and had Coq Au Vin for the first time. After that, I dined there several times a week. Coq Au Vin. Home made pate, and if you were really lucky, a terrine de lapin. Boeuf Bourguignon. Oh......and the grand Bouillabaisse. I have never had Bouillabaisse to equal it. All classics, classically turned out by an expert and loving hand. I could have eaten there every day for the rest of my life.
But. "All good things..." and all that. One day there was no chalk board on the door. And the most glorious chapter in my town's dining history to date was over. I never heard why Chef Michel moved on or what happened to him afterward. In all the great passions of life there has to be a lighting of the torch. My Epic adventures in dining began in that tiny dining room. Every so often I will walk past where Chef Michel performed magic every day and I miss that food so badly I get a catch in my throat.
Wherever you are Chef, I wish you well and I hope and pray that you are still making those marvelous dishes for people as ready to be set off on a life journey of dining pleasure as I was all those years ago. I have been to Paris. And I have dined well. Merci beaucoups et meilleurs voeux mon amie.
As the return reader will know, I have been very lucky in dining. I have had a lot of great meals in a lot of great places. So it is a rare thing when a particular meal towers above all the rest in its category. Such as the beef category for example.
I was in Beverly Hills, California about two months ago, a venue which I particularly enjoy. Although I am rather luke warm about L.A., Beverly Hills is my kind of place. And every time I visit, I want to have dinner at Lawry's. But I never did until this year. I was very sorry it took me this long.
I am a dedicated carnivore. And I love prime rib most of all. The problem is that it is very, very difficult to find good prime rib. I am not sure why this is. I had read somewhere that Lawry's had the finest prime rib around, so I was in a state of high anticipation when I left my car with the valet and ventured through the heavy wooden doors.
This is obviously a place that has been in business at this location a long time. The bar, for example, had the patina of years of happy use. There are huge murals on the walls of the dining room. One doesn't see that sort of decor all that much any more. The martini I had while waiting to be called for my reservation was perfect; icy, strong and in the proper glass. When the hostess showed me to a banquette [my favorite sort of table] she introduced me to my server. Here, all the servers wear old fashioned uniforms with little caps. And they are addressed as "Mrs.", "Miss" or "Mr.". I liked all of this a LOT.
After scanning the leather bound menu and wine list, I was surprised to find that the prices are very reasonable. All of the Prime Rib entrees come with salad and Yorkshire Pudding. And the wine prices were also very reasonable, verging on downright low for some of the selections. In fact, the price of a bottle of my beloved Chateneuf Du Pape was so reasonable that I ordered it...
For the meal, I decided to start with a traditional shrimp cocktail...
...and as you can see, Lawry's had heavy linen table cloths and heavy silver as well...
...very luxurious. The salad was wheeled table side on a cart in a huge bowl set into another huge bowl filled with ice. After Mrs. Frei gave the greens a toss with tongs, she set the bowl to spinning and drizzled the salad with a very fine balsamic dressing. The salad was delicious. But the main thing at Lawry's is of course Prime Rib. I decided to order the second-largest cut, the Diamond Jim Brady, medium rare. A silver leviathan approached the table...
an amazing Edwardian serving cart which contained the beef and all the accompaniments. Everything hand carved at table side. The cart opened next to me, emitting the most amazing aroma imaginable...
...the chef carved my portion and then added mashed potatoes, gravy and English peas...
...along with creamed horseradish, simply the finest meal of beef I have ever had. Bar none. Did I mention that this is the SECOND largest portion? The largest portion is what they serve to the football players for the Rose Bowl. Oh? And did I also mention that they also include Yorkshire Pudding in the feast? This was a light and savory dish which was a delight all of itself...the Lawry's web site has a photo depicting the pudding in its un-attacked condition which is what it looked like when it was delivered to my table...
I could not contain my enthusiasm long enough to take a photo until after I had lopped out a large portion for my plate and deflated the pudding....
...as I sipped the great Rhone wine and set to this marvelous meal, I looked around the room and thought only one word. "Baronial". This fine repast was nothing less than that. When I was finished, I really had no room for dessert. The dessert menu, however, contained one of my absolute favorites. Sticky Toffee Pudding...the perfect end to this perfect meal...
I admit that even a trencherman such me could not finish the Sticky Pudding. But what I had of it was delicious. All that could have been added was a small bit of Stilton Cheese and a fine Port to round out this meal. They have many nice Ports at Lawry's and I would bet that had I asked for Stilton they could have produced some for me. But I was in too great a dining induced state of bliss to make any further requests. This was the sort of meal that you remember fondly in the middle of a business day months or even years later. I cannot wait to return to Lawry's for another round.
P.S. Lawry's only has four locations in the United States. Beverly Hills, Chicago, Dallas and Las Vegas.
It has by now been established without argument that the modern day is primarily one of instant gratification. The insidious effect of this phenomenon has even pierced the sanctuary of the tavern, causing me to ruminate today on the topic of "shots".
To say that I am ambivalent on the subject of "shots" is an understatement. Classically, an imbiber's reference to a "shot" is the drink defined by Webster as "a small measure or serving (as one ounce) of undiluted liquor or other beverage" and by the The American Heritage Dictionary as "a drink of liquor, especially a jigger" which has long been a part of cocktail culture. I am even willing, on occasion, to stretch Webster's definition of a
"shot" from "undiluted" to "substantially undiluted" when a drop of
water or an ice cube or two is needed to release some flavor locked
within a whiskey. In any event, the adult drinker's right to an honest pour of a finger or two in either a rocks glass or in a proper shot glass is a right predating all recorded law.
Both vessels can and should be used for a reflective tipple of favorite Scotch, Bourbon or other alcoholic beverage on an appropriate occasion. The former is also used to contain great cocktails such as the Old Fashioned which has provided the correct name for the glass. The latter is also customary equipment for the business end of the venerable Boilermaker. Or for drinking rot-gut whiskey in a western bar after a hard day's ride. Or Tequila in a cinder block joint in Panama City, Florida while you are eating the best Carne Asada steak you can imagine. Without question then the "shot" holds an ancient spot in the history of drinking.
But when the modern need for instant gratification intersects with classical boozing, an ugly back edge to the "shot" is soon exposed consisting of the seemingly unending string of complicated alcoholic concoctions being offered to the patrons of many bars, usually in small plastic cups. We have all seen them on drink menus by now. A "Napoleon's Horse's Sweat". A "Ferrari Oil Pan Droplet". With not only names but descriptions which range from the madly complex to the downright nasty. Especially the ones containing Red Bull. The neo-shot is intended to be downed in one gulp, presumably to effect an immediate alcohol buzz while simultaneously preventing the consumer from actually tasting the contents of the plastic cup. The tavern equivalent of hitting yourself in the head with a rock.
On the other hand, the modern shot is probably doing at least something to keep the art of mixology moving forward with new vitality. If some thought is given to the recipe and good ingredients are used, there is no reason why a small cocktail should be placed lower in the hierarchy than a traditional drink. The problem (other than the immediate consumption issue) is that most neo-shots seem designed with the one purpose of justifying a snarky name that the patron will get a laugh from when ordering. As for the abominable plastic cups, they deserve no more of a raised eyebrow than the use of stemless martini glasses in so many places these days. Both "innovations" are motivated by the scrabble for profit with fractionally low purchase price and disposability on the plastic side and low breakage and ease of cleaning on the stemless side. The Eco-conscious tippler would no doubt weigh in on the side of even stemless glassware due to its reusable nature and lack of petrochemical content. Similarly, the trade-unionist imbiber would support a washable product in the hope of boosting employment among bar workers. Some of us who are rather notably lacking in sub-plots merely want a martini glass that functions like a martini glass is supposed to function, with a stem that keeps the heat of your hand away from the drink. These days, we "no subplot" folk are probably a vanishing breed.
A difficult social situation can be presented by the neo-shot. In some situations, a fellow patron may offer to buy you one in return for some bon mot or another. Or due to the success of a favorite sports team. In such circumstances it helps to know your bartender very well. On one such occasion, as I no doubt blanched at the notion of downing a "Ballentine Buzz Saw" or a "Purple Passion Panic" or some such thing without a team of paramedics or a stomach pump at my side, the wonderful bartender immediately intervened and said "he doesn't like shots......how would it be if you buy him another round instead?" That is a good bartender, I can tell you.
One particularly suspect sub-category of the neo-shot is the jello shot. There is no evidence from which the fault for the jello shot can be laid at the doorstep of the Jell-O company which has occupied a respectable place in American desserts since its primary product was invented by Peter Cooper in 1845. Does Mr. Cooper look to you like a person who would pour a lot of discount brand vodka or grain alcohol into a vat of gelatin for the purpose of making American youth drunk during spring break?
I hardly think so. But the true depths to which North American drinking has descended is proven by the product I saw for sale in my local grocery store yesterday and which is depicted in the opening photo of this post. Disposable, plastic, "gelatin shot cups". In packs of forty, no less. Despite the labeling in French and Spanish, someone please tell me that the contagion has been confined to my continent. Please. Until I receive confirmation of this issue, I will remain at the corner of some bar in some semi-dark establishment. Drinking a drink, not a neo-shot. Out of a glass vessel suitable for the dignity of the occasion. You may join me if you like.
In my mid 50s, husband, father and itinerant storyteller. I am a putative jazz singer, poet and novelist, dedicated to mining every minute of life for the veins of pleasure they contain. My motto is "Dum Vivimus, Vivamus"..."While we Live--LET US LIVE".