Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Birthday Blog

I recovered from my funk just in time to celebrate my birthday (does this distance me from you, Dear Reader?  This habit of picking up where I left off, arrogantly assuming you’re reading my blog, hanging on my every word, waiting with baited breath for my next epistle?  To help anyone new catch up: on Monday I was sad and angry and a little stressed out.  Kind of like my mother was once.  From 1985-1993.)

Anyway: YAY! Birthday!

Actually, I’m well past the “Yay” birthdays.  I’m closer to the Gray birthdays, the Go Away birthdays, and the Oy Vey Birthdays.  Nonetheless, a birthday still promises three things I love: cake, liquor, and being the center of attention.

Neil actually planned a three-day bonanza for my birthday, which is kind of awesome, and proof of how important it is to marry someone who actually likes you.  These are the moments you remind yourself about when he’s sitting on the couch yelling at a magazine or surfing to three different weather forecasts in less than 2 minutes or making curmudgeonly comments to get your attention and then – when you finally start paying attention – somehow you’re the villain.  My father once said marriage was about compromise – and he’s right – but he also seriously understated the situation.

First we had Brette over for dinner, the next night we went to Blue Hill for a romantic dinner, and last night we went to John’s on 12th St. out with a bunch of friends. So this post is chock full of recipes and restaurant reviews.

For dinner, Neil made one of our favorite dinners.  An easy meal we actually eat quite often: it can be made quickly, requires little prep and little clean up, and is really delicious.  We can’t decide if they’re closer to fajitas or burritos or tacos, so let’s just call them:

(Pronounced: Bur-hee-koh.  Whatever, it’s my word, I can pronounce it however I damn well please.  It’s my birthday.)

1 pound ground turkey.  (I like the 99% fat free; Neil prefers the 94/6.  The decision is usually made by whomever does the shopping.  We prefer to passive-aggressively keep this issue alive, rather than resolve it like adults.  More fun that way.)

1½ tsp Walkers Wood Jerk Seasoning (this should be in the ethnic aisle of your market – where Mexican, Caribbean or Latin foods/seasonings are shelved.  If you don’t have a market with such a section, try the frickin’ internet – you’re on a computer, aren’t you? – it’s 2009.)

Olive oil

One onion, sliced

One Green Bell Pepper, seeded and sliced.

American cheese (optional.  But recommended).

Heat a big iron skillet or large pan.  Add the turkey.  When it’s almost done, add the cheese.  Sautee the onion and pepper slices, either in the same pan, or in a separate one.

Serve with warm flour or corn tortillas.  Garnish with sliced avocado, diced tomato, and/or diced onion.


Boil a bunch of rice.  Enough to serve however many you’re serving.  We like brown rice.  Blend olive oil, cilantro and salt in a blender.  You can also add jalapeno and scallion if you like.  Add mixture to rice.  Blend in the zest of one orange or the juice of ½ lime.  Mix and serve.


Open a can of black beans. 

Put the beans in a pot.

Heat them up.

Serve.  (Wasn’t that simple.)

This may sound fairly pedestrian, but it’s a really delicious dinner.  Throw in a nice salad and a glass or 4 of wine, and you’re good.

We sat around eating the Burjicos and watching Melrose Place, which was when the weirdness of my birthday kinds of hit me.  First, sitting around my apartment, eating an inexpensive but calorie-conscious homemade dinner, watching Melrose Place – it could have been 1995 instead of 2009.  Even Laura Leighton – through the magic of television, the miracle of science or the tenacity of some sort of mental illness cleverly hidden from the press – has managed to look exactly the same, if not better, than she did fourteen years ago. 

That makes one of us.

I’ve got my funny, arty, female confidant next to me, who slid effortlessly into the Sancho Panza role.  Seriously – if it weren’t for the ring on my finger, the man across the room, and the image that stares back from the mirror (which scares me now, but would have been truly terrifying at 23) – I’d believe in time travel.  I might as well be amusing her with stories of one-night stands with identical twins or the the guy who would only fool around in his car, while she talks about the guy who broke her heart and set her loose on an unsuspecting series of mediocre actors, frustrated writers, and accomplished cater-waiters.  Actually, we are having this conversation, but at least we’re using the past tense.  Ahhh, progress.

Anyway, my point is that I tend to treat birthdays (along with the unholy mess of a week that spans Christmas and New Year’s) like a break in the action at the Jerry Lewis Telethon: “Let’s Take a Look at the Scoreboard, Folks!” 

For years, it was easy.  The job was killing my soul, the frequent travel made me feel lonely and distanced and unable to create any semblance of a real life at home, and my sense of responsibility toward my customers, my family and my husband sometimes made me feel as if I was responsible for addressing everyone’s happiness except my own.  It got better in recent years, because of Neil, but I still kept score by looking at the house, the bank account, and the things we owned, as if money or comfort could somehow balance the misery of feeling like I was aging but not growing; that I was always moving but never getting anywhere.  I spent years convinced I was put on this earth to do something creative – something special – and yet all I seemed to do was get older, wealthier, and angrier.

So you’d think that, after making a huge career change to pursue all these things, I might have seen some movement on that scoreboard.  But what I found, instead, was that I no longer knew how to keep score at all.  The income is now client-driven, and not as stable, the creative pursuits are just getting started and generate a lot of work but no revenue, and each day is an emotional roller coaster where moments of excitement and self-confidence can transform into frustration, fear and self-doubt without notice.  It’s like living in a Soap Opera, but without the hot shirtless men and crazy evil twin.

Anyway – I find that, until I’m ready to deal with these feelings, it’s best to use the three Ds – drinking, denial, and defense mechanisms.  Like changing the subject.

Wednesday we went to Blue Hill.  It’s an incredibly unbelievable experience; you have to go.  Call now. You might get a reservation for mid-October.

Blue Hill is the Manhattan outpost of a restaurant with the same name that was opened on the site of the Stone Barns Agricultural Center in Pocantico Hills (Westchester County, New York).  Stone Barns is a working farm with roots in the organic and local food movements.  I actually hesitate to call them “movements” because that makes it sound all affected and cult-like and weird, when really it is just about not destroying the planet with chemicals or pollutants in order to eat chicken and a salad. 

The chef, executive and restaurateur who created Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns is Dan Barber, considered one of the greatest chefs in New York and a driving force in what has become known as “haute greenmarket.” (Translation: really expensive vegetables.)

Eating at Blue Hill is a fabulous experience.  It’s one of very few restaurants in New York that remains difficult to get a reservation at, years into it’s operation.  This place is booked because it’s good, not because it’s new, and because a relentless amount of work has been done to keep its profile high and its message in the public consciousness, without becoming overexposed or preachy.

We enter down a small flight of stairs on Washington Place, just off Washington Square Park.  The fountain is bubbling and the arch is bathed in light and the construction is done so you can see the streetlamps.  You’d almost think you were in Paris if the people were a little less rude and spoke French.  Or better English.

The restaurant is small, but not tiny – there’s a rectangular bar area against the wall to our left, and seating runs along three of its sides (the fourth, obviously, is a wall), providing plenty of space to have a drink while waiting for a table.  The hostess approaches us for our name, then invites us to enjoy a complimentary glass of champagne in celebration of my birthday while we wait.  (Nice touch.)

The dining room is simple, but looks elegant – a smattering of plants with tropical fronds, exposed brick, colors of deep red and ivory and espresso.  Other than the low ceilings, which increase the intimacy but still give a slight claustrophobia, the décor does its part to create a lavish experience.

The menu is produced daily, based upon what the farm produces.  Everything is local, seasonal and fresh.  As we order, a small dish of fresh cherry tomatoes and some warm bread arrive at out table.

Neil orders the quinoa and emmer, served with Berkshire pork shoulder and jowl.  The grains are cooked to effect a gravy, blanketing the entire surface of the plate, while the pork is plated almost effecting the appearance of a clock-face, long strips of jowl at 12, 3, 6 and 9, dotted with chunks of smoky shoulder.  It’s a high-degree of difficulty dish, and it succeeds on every level.

My chicken is cooked sous vide (actually, everything at Blue Hill begins in a sous vide – a warm water bath of 120-130 degrees where food cooks slowly, often over many hours – even though many dishes finish in a pan or an oven.  It’s a technique I don’t have much patience or appreciation for, prior to tonight, as it strikes me as kind of weird and creepy and too much trouble.  Now, of course, I’m forced to admit that it works quite well, but since it has also been executed by master chefs anywhere else will pale by comparison.  This is the best of circumstances for me: I can wax eloquent on something trendy and turn my nose up at it at the same time.  Happy Birthday to me!)

The chicken is moist and flavorful, but still retains its heft and chew – sous vide doesn’t break down proteins as severely as higher heat – and is remarkably seasoned.  It is served atop a warm curried salad of late summer squash and almonds.  The flavors are clean and full, and the whole dish is delicious.

Dessert arrives, as a birthday gift from the manager, a chocolate bread pudding with vanilla bean ice cream that reinvents the horrid molten chocolate cake that has now been so done to death you can buy a kit from Williams-Sonoma and make it at home with your mildly retarded six year-old.  Here, however, it achieves a certain distinction.  It is still a rather pedestrian dish, and clearly designed for universal appeal, but it has subtlety – not cloying in its sweetness.  I wouldn’t call it a home run, but in not temporarily transporting us to Bennigan’s, it’s a solid double.

The check arrives with some petit fours – toasted coconut marshmallows (note to Blue Hill: bring more.  Yum! Slurp!) and cocoa dusted almonds.  I didn’t really enjoy the almonds – but I don’t understand the point of chocolate that isn’t at least mildly sweet.  It’s like when, in porn, they have all the sex but someone doesn’t have an orgasm.  Seems like so much work for so little pay off.

The next night took us to John’s of 12th St, in the East Village, and a totally different experience.

John’s is one of those classic Neapolitan Italian restaurants (Neil calls it “Red Sauce Italian.”)  It’s sort of dark, they’ve got the checked tablecloths (or, if they don’t, in my memory they do because that’s the vibe), and you half expect a bottle of Chianti swathed in wicker on every table.  You’re not quite sure if it’s mafia, and you don’t really care because everything is heavy and rich and delicious.

We chose this place because it easily accommodates a group of eight, and our friends Bart and Billy wanted to come – changing us from 6 to 8 and forcing us to change our location.  We were actually supposed to go to Blue Hill tonight, with this group, but they couldn’t accommodate eight people.  Fortunately, Blue Hill turned out to be better as a romantic venue for two, since – at the last minute – Bart informs us that he and Billy aren’t coming.  Still, I can't deny my feelings were hurt - you don't want your friends blowing off your birthday.

We settle into our modified table for six: me, Neil, our friends, Alec, Robert, Brian and Antoinette.  The boys are in our beach house – Alec and Robert being two of our closest friends.  Antoinette (The Fabulous Miss Toni Banks) is a friend from law school who’s hung with this bunch before, and goes through men with such alacrity that we’ve made her an honorary gay.

Stuffed mushrooms, baked clams and garlic bread arrive.  The flavors are a bit muddy – everything a little too bready and garlicky and salty – but it achieves a certain effect some diners might be looking for, that of an Italian restaurant that might as well have sprung from a Billy Joel song.

As for entrees, Neil works his way through an eggplant parmigiana that could be a little less mushy.  Brian inhales a plate of ravioli in butter sauce that must have been good because it seemingly disappeared seconds after hitting the table.  Robert ordered one of the specials, a pappardelle with Bolognese which he says was very good but which preceded a day’s worth of garlic farts (no mincing words here, folks.)  Alec’s meat lasagna was hearty and delicious – achieving the right balance of pasta, sauce, meat and cheese.  The Fabulous Miss Toni Banks and I both ordered the chicken arreganata, dredged chicken sautéed in a light tomato sauce with garlic.  I loved it – not too heavy but all the flavors I was looking for. 

And that, my friends, was my birthday.  I’m a year older (which always strikes me as a stupid thing to say, because the day before I was 364 days older – it’s not like one day magically aged me a whole year.)  I’m now a middle-aged man who completely turned his life upside down to pursue a vague notion of what he was meant to do with his life.  If I don’t succeed, I hope it seems like I’m doing something brave and original because right now I’m worried that I sound like a self-indulgent upper middle-class dickweed going through a midlife crisis. 

At least I managed to skip the Porsche and the hookers.


DO THIS, New York:

Make our Turkey Burjitos with Cilantro Rice.  It’s like a taste of Mexico, without that annoying subway ride to the Bronx.

Go to Blue Hill.

Have a Happy Birthday.

DON’T DO THIS, New York:

You can probably skip John’s.  I used to really like it, but the food isn’t what I remember it being; for better southern Italian try Grano Trattoria on Greenwich Ave and W 10th St (Marcelo and his brother are the nicest guys in the West Village).  We also actually like Carmine’s – the one on the Upper West Side not the horrible tourist trap in Times Square – and Dean’s on W85th.

Don’t be a dickweed.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a GREAT birthday! Although, I wasn't ENTIRELY convinced you're over your funk!

    I think blogging is funny. If it's arrogant of you to assume we pick up where you left off, then you must also allow your reader the arrogance of feeling closer to you - even though she hasn't actually SEEN you in 4 years - after reading your blog. It's sort of like a friend you had in elementary school who became a big celebrity, and you feel like you still know him/her because you see her in every day, but in actuality, you're just distant friends from the past.

    I'm rambling. Nice post, my man.