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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Bloody Good Bloody Mary Sunday

Open spaces, yet the nooks offer a hint of privacy.

Want just a tad of adventure with your Sunday brunch?  Some ocean views to pleasantly clutter your dreams? If you’re anywhere on the coast of South Carolina, I’ve got a scenic spot, filled with plank-docks, glorious yachts, and  a breathtaking view of the water.  Gulfstream Café, in Garden City Beach.  Name’s not familiar?  It’s just down the street from Murrells Inlet  Murrells rhymes with Girls.  Still confused?  Drive north along the coast from Charleston, about an hour and a half.

What’s so special?  Let’s start with fresh seafood.  Whatever you want.  Maybe you’d like the brunch buffet instead.  Plenty to choose from, including made-to-order omelets.   But for me, being a friend to all things fermented, the highlight is the do-it-yourself Bloody Mary table.

When the waiter offers you a drink, take it.  Say “Bloody Mary,” with manly confidence.  Don’t be surprised when he brings a glass of ice, with a healthy shot of gin or vodka, and a rim incrusted with salty flavors.  The rest is up to you.  Grip the glass firmly and saunter to the café’s well-equipped table.  Besides tomato juice options, there’s every condiment known to civilized, or savage man.  Jalapeños.  Pickled baby onions. Pickled okra. Diced eggs. Et-freaking-cetera.

The result of careful planning

No Sunday breakfast is complete without fluffy, buttermilk biscuits, churned butter, and cream gravy!

 Gulfstream Café

1536 South Waccamaw Drive, Garden City Beach, SC 29576

Bloody Marys are an old favorite.  My memory glides fondly to those made by my cousin, who was also our host for the Gulfstream Café bunch.  If you can’t get out and about for a Sunday brunch, try his recipe.  If the weather is wonderful, grab yourself a sunny spot.  If not, make a pitcher and snuggle up by the fireside.  Hey, I’m giving you the drink recipe and the setting….don’t expect me to do it all!  Which reminds me of the time, but that’s another story.

Bloody Mary

1 Cup Vodka
1 Jar Beefamato
2 Small cans spicy V-8
1 Lime squeezed and dropped into the pitcher.  Don’t you dare use anything but a fresh lime!
1 Tablespoon Worcestershire Sauce
1 Tablespoon  Tabasco Sauce

If you don’t know what to do from here, you’ll probably spill it all over yourself and blame your wife, you whimp.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The National Portrait Gallery London - More Than A Museum

Leicester (pronounced Lester) Square:  the heart of cultural London

The National Portrait Gallery just steps away from Leicester

                                                   The National Portrait Gallery – London

You might call Leicester Square the epicenter of cultural London.  Sure, there are bunches more museums scattered throughout the city, but even the world famous British Museum is within walking distance, although I’d probably take the tube.

Discount ticket offices are right in the square and theaters are scattered on every side. Even Covent Garden is almost as close from Leicester tube as it is from the Covent Garden tube.  Trafalgar Square is right down the street, as is the world famous church, St Martin-in-the-Fields.

Admiral Lord Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square - Just down the street from Leicester Square

But, let’s get back to museums:  The National Gallery, The National Portrait Gallery, The Transport Museum, The British Optical Association Museum, and even The Cartoon Museum.  The list goes on for pages

Sorry folks.  Ya just can’t do ‘em all in one afternoon, or one lifetime.  Gotta pick and choose.  This time I chose The National Portrait Gallery.  Why?  Never been there, but I knew I’d be impressed and inspired.  There’s so much more to a museum experience than just staring at pictures.

To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, when asked what he did for inspiration, the great writer said, ‘I go look at a few canvases.’ I know what he meant.  There’s a commonality in all forms of art.  Art connects us as humans, whether it’s ballet, pottery, or cake decorating.

So, off I trotted to The N.P.G. to reconnect.  What I found amazed me, as art museums often do.  Did you know that Bob Dylan does portraits?  I didn’t.  Impressive.  How about a high tech portrait that changes colors?

portrait of zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-born architect of the London 2012 Olympic Aquatics Centre, by Michael Craig-Martin

And how about the spacing, lighting, color, and display of art works?  Fascinating. Comes in handy when you decorate your home.  Clutter annoys us.  Space, indirect light, and temperate colors soothe.

Bob Dylan's black and white portraits.  Note the contrasting neutral walls and ceiling and the indirect lighting.

More space and shadows and indirect light.

Art is also a study in history and I don’t necessarily mean ‘art history.’  Portraits reflect, not only famous faces, but dress, hair styles, that offer a glimpse into the soul.  Stern and domineering, or friendly and approachable?  A portrait piques my curiosity.  Makes me want to know more about people, their lives, and times.  The labels beside the paintings offer tidbits of information.  Slowly, the pieces start to mean something.  I find myself pondering and grabbing books.

Mary Queen of Scots by Nicholas Hilliard

William Shakespheare, attributed to John Taylor, circa 1600

Early English Kings

Sir Winston Churchill 1916, when he was 42 years old, by Sir William Newenham Montague Orpen

Even if you don’t particularly care for art in general, or portraits in particular, take a break from pubbing and the theater to give The National Portrait Gallery an hour of your time.  Hey, you’re in Leicester Square, the London home to all things cultural!

Room to sit, time to ponder and read.

But, enough is enough.  Time to pull another pint.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Queens Arms: Quintessential Gastro Pub

A Jewel of a Gastro Pub!

You’re asking yourself, what the hell is a Gastro Pub?  In the last ten years or so, a good number of London pubs added lively menus to their already excellent selection of beers.  Why bother?  You don’t come to a pub for the coq au vin!

As Lee Corso says, not so fast my friend.  The scene changes in front of our eyes.  We know that yesterday is not today, but we’re slow to grasp the subtleties.

There was a time, not so long ago, when pubs catered mostly to locals or special groups.  A pub in every neighborhood, in every district.  A working man’s pub, or a footballer’s pub, or an after work spot for the coat and tie crowd. They still exist, but they’re becoming more rare.  

Wanta know the ‘why’ of change?  Follow the money.  Take a gander at the London real estate market!

Now picture the pub owner who caters to a handful of regulars.  A new mall is planned, or the gentry upscale the area and the pub owner’s offered a couple of kegs of gold for his property.  Maybe, the pub keeper just gets too old to pull a hundred pints a day.  Too often, the pub just closes.

How do you tell a traditional, or local pub?  When you walk in, conversation stops and a couple of dozen eyeballs look you over like you’re a man who’s just come out of the ladies’ room. The menu seldom varies.  Sausages and mash. Shepard’s pie.  Steak and kidney pudding. Fish and chips.  Not bad, but predictable.

A younger crew takes over, less bound to tradition, more attuned to the Food Network.  Dreams soar!  Meat pies and chips (fries) get a facelift. Sauces, herbs, and other exotic flavors rule the kitchen.  Simple mash becomes buttery, garlic potatoes. Wine lists decorate every table.  A full selection of potables echoes from the mirror at the bar.

Better be good enough to compete with the restaurants.  Better be some place to take a wife or a date, and hip enough for the younger generation.  Some place bright and cheery, but still with that traditional pub feel and a fine selection of gravity ales.

Enter the ‘gastro pub.’  Brighter colors on the outside. Flowers outside and in.  More like a French bistro, yet still pubish.  Lots of dark wooden tables and bistro chairs. Brighter, indirect lighting, with a nod to atmosphere.

The food?  Definitely worth a second or third trip.  The Queens Arms did it for me.  Went there a couple of years ago and had a splendid assortment of finger food, along with some tasty ales.  Soon as I was in the area again, the QA sprang to mind.

Don't neglect the hard ciders.  Apple flavor without the sweetness.

It’s a tough place to find, tucked neatly away on a little street called Queens Gate Mews.  The complication comes in the name.  Nearby run Queens Gate Terrace and Queens Gate itself. Wait a sec, there are also TWO Queens Gate Mews!

It was raining.  Hard.  We ambled lost and forlorn.  With the hood on my rain jacket pulled up, my field of vision was a railway tunnel with blinders on.

In the rain streaked gloaming, I stopped in front of a big picture window, back from the street and about half a story off the ground.  I waved both my arms and got a young woman’s attention.  “Queens Gate Mews,” I mouthed.  She pointed to the right, then the left, then held up a finger for me to wait while she conferred with a colleague.   The two women pulled out a map.  Consulted a computer.  The rain poured.  They discussed the situation, again pointing left and right.  Back to the computer.

The woman pointed toward the door and motioned for me to meet her.  I was with my wife.  Opportunity lost.  I joined her under the front porch roof for an exchange of  finger pointing lessons on the map.  Success!  Cross Queens Gate Street, turn onto Queens Gate Terrace, walk on in the dark and stormy night, and turn into Queens Gate Mews.  There you will find The Queens Arms.

What is a Mews?  Simply put, a side street of former stables, now morphed into  classy apartments that only Bill Gates’ immediate family can afford. Mews comes from the roost for hunting falcons. When mews became stables, the name stayed.

This time, I needed something more substantial than tasty little morsels. I got it!  Chorizo and minced pork burger, laden with dark caramelized onions.  Light, herbed crab cakes.  The traditional fish and chips.  Also, one of the best selection of beers in the city.

Pork and chorizo burger. Dazzling! 

Feather light crab cakes with oven roasted, garlic potatoes.

Light, flaky pastry covers a chicken pot pie! 

This is not a place you want to dash into and dash back out.  Especially if it’s raining.  The QA is a freehouse, meaning they don’t belong to a brewery and can serve any ale they want.  There’s a photo of the ‘pulls’ on offer when I was there, but the ale menu changes often. The barman told me they had another dozen new kegs in the cellar. 

Make no mistake, the QA means eating and drinking on a semi-lavish scale, with a nod to both tradition and economy.

Enough blather.  Time to order another pint.  The night’s young.  The ales are perfect.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Frankfurt Airport - Enjoy the Flight!

Dazzling view from the second deck.

Know anybody who yearns to go to the airport?  Hungers for airport food?

Let me be the first.  Frankfurt Airport.  Frankfurt, Germany.  Ok, yearn may be overdoing it.  Seldom does a trip to FRA mean a quick flight, with hugs and wet kisses on the other end.  More likely it’s eight or nine hours of skull-numbing boredom and a snarly question:  “Ya want chicken or beef?”  How ‘bout we go to the galley and I show you a dance called chicken-do-da-colonoscopy?

Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself.  After you check your bags, what’s your next step?  Grab a cup of coffee? I don’t recommend that if you’re at the Frankfurt Airport. 

Listen carefully.

Your next step is to head to Terminal 2, ride the escalators to the second deck, and stroll into the Flyaway Bar for breakfast, or lunch.  Pretty sure they serve breakfast all day long, but between jet-lag and a wide range of departure times, how the hell would I remember?  But, I do remember the food.

The choices are English Breakfast, French Breakfast, German Breakfast, European Breakfast, waffles, or any of a dozen lunch choices.  A quick question?  What are the differences between all those Breakfasts?  A quick answer:  Not much.  English is scrambled eggs, grilled tomato, baked beans, grilled mushrooms, bacon, toast, and sausage.

With the French Breakfast, keep the eggs, scratch the rest, and add fresh orange juice, cold-cuts, including smoked salmon, plus a baguette, chocolate croissant, and a bunch of toppings for the baguette.

European Breakfast is much the same as the French. German Breakfast leans heavily on cold-cuts, toast, and toppings. 

Oh yeah!  Jaeger Schnitzel!

No German meal is complete without beer!

But, I say, you’re only young and beautiful once. Ah, how I remember those lusty years! Scrap the breakfasts and go for the gold:  Jaeger schnitzel, with greens, a heaping of golden fries, and a tankard of good German beer!  Jaeger schnitzel means hunter-schnitzel, and there’s a heathy ladling of creamy bacon-mushroom sauce over the top.  Hey, it’s a public place; even your wife won’t make a scene when you suck down beer for breakfast.  Use your leverage, order another!  Call attention to yourself!  Stand up and make loud toasts!  Sway with your tankard held high and sing drinking songs at the top of your lungs.

Maybe just a coffee and baguette...

With tomatoes and mozzarella!

The full plan for an early flight.  Stay up late the night before.  Give yourself time for the Flyaway Bar.  Order the schnitzel and beer and beer.  Get on the plane and sleep like an anesthetized infant for the full eight hours.  It’s like a time machine and you’re comatose when they come around with that stupid question: “Ya want chicken or beef?”

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Paris Architect - Don't Settle for a Good Book, Read a Great One!

Whada ya like to read?  Me, I’m easy.  All it takes is a strong, relentless plot, riveting characters, chair-tipping-suspense, spine-chilling bloodshed, stout hero or heroine, and unrepentant villains, proudly wearing their black hearts on their sleeves.  Gotta engage me from guts to heart, and be well written.  See, I’m easy to please.

Just finished a book that has it all.  The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure.  The setting is Paris, circa 1940.  The German Army owns Paris, and runs it like a combination whore house and shooting gallery.  Life is so difficult that people stand in line for stale bread and watered wine. Those are the normal folks. Jews have it far worse. They’re rounded up daily by the Gestapo, men, women, and children, never to be seen again.

The French can be difficult and Parisians worse. Not known as comforters of the weak, or downtrodden, as Americans who walk into their restaurant and try to speak French with a Texas accent will attest.  The author was nice enough not to include any Americans.

What he did include is Lucien, an architect with the soul of an artist and a one track mind.  Make that three tracks.  His work.  His mistress.  Saving his own skin.  Lucien’s moral compass, while not rusted shut, is a little out of whack.  He sees what’s going on, but brushes it off.  Not all Germans are bad.  Some soldiers give up their tram seats to little old ladies.

Enter Monsieur Monet.  As wealthy as an emperor’s only child.  A well connected aristocratic industrialist.  He has a little job for the architect, Lucien. Maybe two.  In this time of hand-to-mouth living, a couple of jobs is a path to your family’s next meal.

But, every deal has its price.  Balancing a wife and mistress is already as stressful as an amiable chat with the Gestapo’s boys in black. Let’s tack on complications.  Severe complications.

Want to climb into that dark hole of a plot and wiggle around with characters that fill your dreams of best friend, best lover, worst enemy?  Welcome to Lucien’s world.  Welcome to The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure.

Go ahead.  Pick it up.  Now try to put it back down.

Friday, November 15, 2013

McCrady's in Charleston: Come for a Drink. Stay for a while.

Charleston, South Carolina, home to historic Ft Sumter, The Citadel (Military College of South Carolina), The College of Charleston, The Medical University of South Carolina, and the world-renowned Spoleto Festival, is many things to many people. Tourists flock for the history and the food and the festive atmosphere.  Yachts, large and small bob in neat rows at a myriad of sun-bleached docks. 

Charleston reeks of history.  If you think that’s an exaggeration, just follow those tourist-filled, horse-drawn carriages as they prowl the cobblestones. 

Go ahead.  Jump into one of the most special places in North America.  Bask at the beaches.  Bargain at the old, brick vegetable market, or suck down some oysters at a hundred and one places. Stay at a fashionable downtown hotel, or just amble along the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers and stare at the narrow streets lined with stately antebellum homes.

Ah, but in the evening, when a gentleman and his lady, or his friends, or people he barely knows get thirsty, they have choices.  Slosh down a pint of suds over fried seafood, or winnow through the old section of town and find something worthy of a slow touch and a carefully drawn out evening.

I have often mellowed in Charleston.  Swilled a toddy or two here and there.  Not saying any of the watering holes were bad.  Matter of fact, I’ve darkened a few doorways more than once.

When they say 'alley,' they mean it!

But, this time, I found a special haunt.  McCrady’s Restaurant, tucked away in an historic building at 2 Unity Alley.  No trouble to find.  March along East Bay until you see the sign. Don’t let the word ‘restaurant’ put you off.  The bar is right out of the 1930s.  Carey Grant and Humphrey Bogart style.

Dating from 1788, McCrady’s owns a piece of history.  The building, originally a four story public house, was erected by Edward McCrady and although the inside has been altered, the new owners showed due reverence for a building that is on the National Registry For Historic Places and Landmarks.

My friends and I didn’t go for the food, which I understand is locally gathered and prepared by a noted chef. We went for social drinks, to practice the declining art of relishing each sip, and sharing good conversation. If you want to be surrounded by dark wood paneling, and served by barkeeps who know their libations and didn’t graduate from high school just last week, McCrady’s is the spot.  

When I chat with someone about wine, it grates to hear, “It’s like a really, really fruity Merlot? You know, I like really, really love it with caramel crunch Hagen Daaz?”  Being a person of temperate mood, I usually walk away, rather than empty a full clip and reload. But, I’m always tempted.

Ryan, at your service.

No riffraff behind the bar at McCrady’s, where they proudly call their drink recipes ‘pre-prohibition.’  Ryan, a young, bearded barman, knows his stuff, with just a touch of attitude that lets you know, he ain’t messin’ around.  He really does know his stuff.  My friend, a connoisseur of the Spanish grape, mentioned a notable region and Ryan’s eyes lit up.  He knew the region and pointed out several wines from the award winning wine list.  Ryan also called our attention to a French vintage.  “Small winery, and special.  We seldom score more than a case or two.”  My friend’s eyes rolled back at the first sip.  I gave it a sniff and a smaller sip.  Smooth.  Full nose and full flavor, but easy on the tannin.  Notes of berries and leather.  In short, a 2004 Rhone that made you wish you’d paid more attention in French class.

Lots of other things about McCrady’s are special. Small hand-labelled bottles stand on the bar. Mute testimony to house-made bitters, ready to spice any Manhattan, and even greater testimony to "this is a serious drinking establishment."

For me, it was a beer night.  I went for a dark, almost black, house stout.  Our other two drinkers followed up with a bourbon and a full bodied ale.  Nobody complained.  And nobody said a word for the first few sips.

McCrady’s is like that.  You feel a strong need to linger, to relish the moment.  Shadows fall across the long Mohogany bar.  Look up and you’ll glimpse the second story, where a glass wall protects row after row of wine. Behind you, corner booths offer a nod to privacy.

Feel like a little nosh?  The specials change daily.  Read them off the blackboard at the end of the bar.  We had bite-sized chunks of tender lamb, skewered, grilled, and served in a wooden bowl, with a delicate mint yogurt condiment. 

I already mentioned I’d been to a few other drinking establishments in Charleston.  For the life of me, I can’t remember the names.  Once you’ve found McCrady’s, the rest fade.  It’s a hideaway that makes any evening special.  Take only your closest friends.  You’ll be there awhile.  Cheers!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Pearlz - Slurp Down Those Oysters in Charleston South Carolina

Pearlz Oyster Bar, Charleston, South Carolina...but wait a sec, let’s take a moment to suck in some historic salty air and remember the past...

Charleston’s cobblestone streets have carried the weight of leather soles and horses’ hooves for hundreds of years. The vast port and shoreline has sheltered merchant ships and seen the Pirate’s Jolly Roger. English soldiers and sailors, Confederates, Union soldiers and sailors, and a host of others left their mark. Charleston started as the heart of an English colony and grew to become a center of culture and agriculture in the newly founded United States.  History.  Culture. Food on a grand scale.  What the hell more do you want?

Most people know Charleston as the starting place for the Civil War, or the War of Northern Aggression, as Charlestonians choose to call it. 

Here’s something from an earlier conflict that you may not know.  Although most of the Revolutionary War battles we learn about in history class took place in New England, in sheer numbers, more Revolutionary War battles were fought in South Carolina than in any other state.   It was a long war, 1775 to 1783 and Charleston was smack in the center.

Enough digression.  What’s really important?  Seafood in general, and oysters in particular!  Lots of places to dine on fresh mollusks.  Every corner, every road has a restaurant serving fresh seafood, and the historic downtown area is crammed with ‘em.  Deciding is a challenge.  Fortunately for you, I have faced that challenge victoriously!  

Pearlz is the correct answer.  There are three locations: downtown, West Ashley, and two hours north in the state capital, Columbia.  I wandered into Pearlz on West Ashley and never bothered to try the other two.

An oyster bar is supposed to be dimly lit, with shadows on the walls, fresher than fresh seafood, a New Orleans smell and feel, and lots of style.  I don’t mean style as in Vogue and GQ.  I’m talking about muted colors, tile floors, and people wearing anything from jeans and worn t-shirts to coats and ties. At Pearlz feel free to discuss your glass of remarkable Chardonnay with the stranger on the stool next to you.  Its one of those American melting pots where everyone is welcome and nobody feels out of place.

Cold beer?  You bet.  Lots of it, including several Pearlz labeled brews on tap.  I usually choose the amber variety.  You want good taste, but not too strong a flavor when you’ve sliding oysters down your throat.  Not feeling the beer urge?  Huge wine selection.  Fab martinis.

Let’s move on to the basics.  So, for the first timers, do you chew raw oysters or just let ‘em slide down your throat?  Chew ‘em, for goodness sakes!  What the hell are you, a barbarian?

Sauce or no sauce?  The real aficionados go the naked route, but I prefer a squeeze of lemon and just a tad bit of red sauce, spiced with horseradish.

Pearlz offers a wide selection of oysters, coming all the way from Canada and the Gulf.    All are fresh, plump and delicious, with just a bare bite of the briny. Is there a difference in flavor?  Yes, there is, but prices vary widely.  I go for the cheapest because they’re wonderful and affordable.  Can’t be because I’m just cheap. Nah...

Even if you’re not in the mood for raw oysters (I offer condolences and hope you feel better) there are dozens of ways to enjoy both oysters and seafood and steak and hamburgers at Pearlz.  The fried shrimp tacos simply amaze! The shrimp are fired in a light batter and served over seasoned lettuce in a flour tortilla. The blackened mahi is divine.  Crusty outside.  Juicy within.

Pearlz also makes it’s own potato chips, so wonderfully crisp and tasty they should grace every table.  No exceptions, especially if you’re ‘lack-of-taste’ intolerant, as I am.

When it comes to restaurants, Charleston rivals New Orleans and is catching up fast.  And, at the end of a trying day of plodding the cobblestones, clopping around on a carriage ride, and gaping at historic Charleston’s churches, plantations, and such, you need a place to cast off the travelers’ blues and unwind.  

You’ve found it! Park your ride.  Slip into dark, air-conditioned comfort. Grab a table, booth, or jump on a bar stool.  You’re primed and ready.  “Barkeep, how about a frosty lager and a dozen on the half shell?” Relax. Dig into fresh seafood. 

Hey, this is Pearlz on West Ashley!  Cheers!