On the Plaza Mayor

I met a girl once on the Plaza Mayor, where the cobblestones fit together just so, and the cafes serve paella on steaming iron skillets.  She was walking crossways over the plaza and gave me an inviting look.  I remember it well because pretty girls don’t often do so.  I walked straight to her and asked for her name.  She didn’t understand me at first, but we figured it out.  “Maryanne,” she said.  She spoke a lovely university Spanish and pronounced each word as though it were hard to remember.

I told Maryanne she was beautiful, and asked her where she was from.  She said she came from Illinois and was visiting Spain on holiday.  I told her about the time I visited New York and Miami with my parents, but she had never been to either.  I told her I loved America, and especially action movies and rock and roll.  She laughed and said that America made other kinds of movies too.  I even tried to speak to her in English, but her careful Spanish sounded better in my ears.  When I asked if she would come have a café with me, Maryanne blushed, and said “no thank you, I can’t stay.”

I loved the look of her cream canvas bag hanging over her shoulder.  The shoulder was pretty nice too, even if it sunk a little under the bag’s weight.  I reminded her that my name was Guillermo, and that seemed to put her at ease.  We walked together to the shaded side of the plaza, where the sun couldn’t quite reach.  Whatever she was planning that afternoon, it must not have been very important.  She sat down with me after very little coaxing.  At the cafe, I ordered for both of us.  I had seen that once in a movie, and thought it pretty sly.  She didn’t seem to mind.

When Maryanne crossed her bare legs and let the breeze rustle her hair it seemed that she was starting to understand Spain.  Her shirt was wrinkled from too much traveling, and too many museums, and maybe not enough café.  I told her I was a student also, not because it was true, but because two students meeting in a plaza felt more romantic.  I thought about telling her I was a bullfighter, or a legionnaire, or something else amazing, but it didn’t seem believable.  Maryanne was a smart girl.

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The Future of the Craft Cocktail

When I ask Derek Brown about the future of the craft cocktail, his answer is unequivocal, “it’s not a trend anymore.” In a town where bluster is an art form, Brown’s certainty is strangely convincing. Of course, it helps that he has a resume to back it up. Brown was a James Beard Award Semifinalist for Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional in 2010, and his Washington DC bar, The Columbia Room, was twice a semifinalist for Outstanding Bar Program (2012; 2014). And that’s in addition to his four other Downtown DC bars and restaurants, his writing, and his appearances in the media. Brown isn’t just a bartender, he’s a historian, an anthropologist, a cocktail evangelist, and most importantly, someone who enjoys a good drink. In short, he’s exactly the guy you want to talk to when a question comes up about the future of the cocktail.

For the drinkers among us, the rising popularity of cocktails isn’t exactly news. Cocktail culture has crept so thoroughly into the urban foodie scene, that its ascendance is no longer surprising. And yet, there are those who dismiss cocktails— and especially so-called “craft cocktails” — as a mere fad. Brown, and those of his ilk, are here to prove the naysayers wrong. For Brown, a good cocktail isn’t just about something that tastes good and gives you a bit of a buzz. It’s about ritual. It’s about bringing people together in a way that other things simply can not. “A conversation over kale, and a conversation over whiskey, are different conversations,” Brown notes, somewhat wryly. It would be easy to disregard a comment like that as glib, except that he’s right.

Somewhat problematically, cocktail enthusiasts often have difficulty explaining exactly why a good cocktail is so important to them. There’s an almost mystical quality to a good drink. A well- made cocktail isn’t something to be tossed down the throat before getting on the dance floor to grind on strangers. It has to be appreciated. It has to be mulled over. It begs for companionship. Throughout our conversation, Brown hints at the cocktail’s unique qualities, but ultimately, one has to leave a little mystery in the explanation in order to get it right. “Even though I love dive bars, and I love beer and shots, and I’ll never slag them,” Brown says, “there is something special about sitting down and having a well-made cocktail. Something far beyond the experience of drinking a light beer.”

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A Day in the Desert

Mehedi’s email is very clear. Ominous even. Buy your ticket inside the visitor center and don’t listen to the people outside the gate. “These people spend the whole day waiting to ‘catch’ tourists and they will lie with you quite happily and tell you they are me, or work for me!”

OK, message received. Ignore the people at the gate.

“My friend! My friend! Where are you from? Who are you looking for?” A man approaches our car as we park outside the visitor center. He wears traditional bedouin garb with a long brown tunic and a checkered red and white kafiyeh around his head. We’re an hour late and the sun is beginning to set behind the the sandstone cliffs looming overhead. I can’t help but wonder, did Mehedi send someone to pick us up? I look uncertainly at my brother, who has flown in from the States to join me on the trip, and we silently decide to ignore our eager new friend.

Wadi Rum sits in far southern Jordan, in the middle of the great desert that stretches across the Arabian Peninsula. Jordan designated Wadi Rum a protected area in 1998, but it has been a place of imagination and allure since long before Jordan was a country. For centuries, natural springs have brought Bedouin nomads to Wadi Rum, and provided respite for their families and their flocks. The Bedouin are still here, but the springs are no longer the main attraction. Today, it’s Wadi Rum’s towering cliffs, endless dunes, and star filled nights that attract travelers.

Our new friend follows behind us as we walk to the visitor center. There’s no threat in his gait, but he exudes an off-putting persistence. “Are you looking for Mehedi? I’m his cousin. I am here to take you to the village.”

Wait, how does he know Mehedi? Now I’m confused. “OK, thank you. We will buy our tickets and call Mehedi,” I respond weakly as we quicken our pace to the visitor center door.

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A Southern Experience

What follows is not a restaurant review, it’s an experience review, because that’s what dining at Husk is, an experience. Good dining is about more than just good food. It begins with the anticipation of a good meal, and ends with a satisfied afterglow. It’s the sum of all your sensory and emotional input over the course of a meal. The staff at Husk know this, and approaches the job accordingly. The entire aesthetic experience at Husk is, in a sense, curated. From the moment you approach the late 19th century Victorian house where Husk resides, to the time you pay your bill, you feel taken care of, like you’re part of the family. But this isn’t just any family. It’s a family where Chef Sean Brock is the patriarch, and no one ever goes hungry.

Before I go any further, I should clear something up. There are, perhaps lamentably, no photos to accompany this story. No food porn to excite your salivary glands. There’s a reason for this, and it’s a simple one. When you’re enjoying a meal with such gusto, there isn’t time to take photos. Moreover, to step back and snap a photo is to pull yourself out of an environment. It’s a distraction, and I wanted to experience every moment.  (If you want a quick idea of what Husk’s food looks like, run a quick Google image search. You won’t be disappointed.)

As my fiancee and I were planning a weekend getaway in Charleston, SC (lovely city that it is,) we knew one thing for sure: we had to go to Husk. I dined there for the first time in the summer of 2012, and had been dreaming of it ever since. Plus, we had just finished watching Brock host season two of PBS’ Mind of a Chef, and so, there was really no question about where we would go on Saturday night. We even accepted reservations for 9:45 at night, which is late as far as American dinner habits go, but also, entirely worth the wait.

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Fit for a Bull Moose

The next time you’re in a bar debating who the toughest of American presidents was (because this is DC, and yes, of course that question comes up), there can only be one right answer: Theodore Roosevelt. That’s right, Theodore “I once delivered a 90 minute speech while bleeding from a gunshot wound” Roosevelt. And if that bar happens to be Teddy & The Bully Bar on 19th St. NW then you had really better go with Teddy, lest his spirit descend through the ceiling and devour you whole.

Teddy & The Bully Bar is an experiment in American simplicity— much like the man himself. But don’t be fooled, “simple” does not mean “boring.” To the contrary, Executive Chef Demetrio Zavala and the rest of the team at Teddy & The Bully Bar have created an experience that focuses on taste rather than pomp. The menu of American small plates consists of straight-forward, locally-sourced food prepared in expert fashion. From the tomato and basil bruschetta, to the NY Strip, to the deliciously creamy mac and cheese, each dish tells a tale of classic American culinary heritage. As a man who appreciated tradition and craftsmanship, Roosevelt almost certainly would have approved.

But what about that spirit we fretted over earlier? (The one threatening to devour all the Teddy doubters out there.) Rest assured, Teddy & The Bully Bar lives up to its namesake. The dining room is appointed in a tastefully rustic style, reminiscent of the Rough Rider legacy but with a modern touch. The walls are adorned with early 20th century fixtures and art, flanked by faux-taxidermic trophies. Something about dining under the watchful eye of a sculpted rhinoceros head speaks well to Roosevelt’s adventurous charm.

Roosevelt was known for his love of food, but perhaps more importantly, he is said to have used the dinner table to spur conversation. Roosevelt was an expert orator and well understood the power of words. In that vein, dining at Teddy & The Bully Bar is an experience that promotes conversation. The small plates are designed to be shared and the delightful decor keeps diners talking. Though populated by simple, homey dishes, the menu is extensive enough to choose your favorites and share them with your friends. The experience is communal and satisfying, and recognizes that a good meal has to be about more than just the food.

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The hallway outside my door often creaked with the fall of light footsteps upon aging floors.  They fell stubbornly and without apology.  I had never met their owner, though I suspected the source to be whomever lived across the way.  The building was aging, and beyond it’s years of pride.  Each floor had only two apartments, though I could only speak to the floor plan of my own.  The center of the building was hardly any busier.  Through it rose cracked concrete steps circling quietly around an untrustworthy elevator.  A window on the landing looked to the street below and several small potted flowers sat on the sill.  The building had once no doubt been a symbol of power and influence, though never of ostentatious wealth.  Luxury was not a thing to be flaunted in the heavy days of not so long ago.  Whenever I looked out my window at the white trimmed apartments stretching across the skyline, I couldn’t help but imagine the streets below filled with men in drab gray suits and women in modest skirts and cream blouses.  But today it was Adidas wind-breakers and ruffled black mini skirts.  Even I could feel the injustice there.

The steps beyond my door were different from the others I heard around town.  Long before the sun had hung itself in the morning sky, those proud footsteps would begin to creak on the other side of my bedroom wall.  So constant and timely they were that I began to imagine them as part of the morning’s waking song.  They did not click in staccato notes like the pointed heels of the pretty young girls on the midnight streets.  Nor did they shuffle as did the rubber sandals of the teenage boys who loitered in the courtyard four floors below.  There was something soft and noble about these footsteps.  So precise, so careful, and yet so light as to be almost invisible behind the rumble of tires on the cobblestone streets.  But I could hear them none the less, and even grew to expect them as I lay in bed contemplating the coming day.

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Barreled Refinement

Dear reader, if you’re a cocktail aficionado, as I am, no doubt you are familiar with the recent trend of barrel-aging libations. I trust that you have taken it upon yourself to try your hand at this mystical art. If however, you have been remiss in this regard, then I hope you will find inspiration in the description to follow. And for you rookies in the cocktail game, this is your chance. Start your journey with a barrel, and you won’t be disappointed in where it takes you.

Barrels have been around since at least the 4th century BC, when the Celts are believed to have developed the wooden barrel through adaptation of ship-building techniques. Sturdy, water tight, and easy to transport, the barrel didn’t take long to spread across the ancient world. Soon, the Romans were buying wine from Gaul that was stored in barrels, believing the taste to be superior to that of wine stored in their own ceramic amphora vessels. In time, the barrel became king of containers— reigning supreme from the British isles to the Black Sea coast and beyond. Expedience was surely the main factor in barrel usage, but discerning drinkers no doubt appreciated the more refined and mellowed taste of wine stored in barrels.

But what magic occurred in those oaken vessels? What led winemakers and distillers to begin aging their products in barrels? Today, barrel aging is considered such a vital part of alcohol production that it is mandated by law in some cases. In the United States, bourbon must be aged for a full year in an oak barrel before it can be called bourbon. The same is true for various other whiskeys, as well as brandies and wine. The reason for such regulations is consistency— if a product carries a storied label, consumers expect a certain level of quality. And with barrel aging, so comes that quality.

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