Saturday, March 31, 2012

Songs in the Key of Food

In a single week, near the beginning of the month just passed,
I had two of the most amazing dining experiences of my life.

But I'm going to mention the first one only in this paragraph, by way of a tip-o-the-hat to artist Jeff Scott and the Austin Chronicle's food editor Virginia Wood and the fine folks at Foreign & Domestic who feted our fortunate table with one of almost everything from that night's diverse menu.

But I'll return to Scott and F&D in these pages again, to be sure.

I'm also hoping to return to whatever next thing the tastemaking music-and-food impresarios of San Francisco's Noise Pop and graffEats projects do locally.

Because that's the other dining experience that recently dazzled my sensorium.
To the point where I actually write things like "dazzled my sensorium" with a straight face.

Listen: Noise Pop has this series they've been doing for years in California's Bay Area. It's called "Covers," and it's where graffEats chef Blair Warsham composes a multi-course meal based on the signature dishes of acclaimed chefs from around the nation.

Like covering a song, see?

Like how the Dum Dum Girls covered Morrissey's "There Is a Light that Never Goes Out," kind of, except that of course it's the tastes and textures, the whole culinary gestalt, of food that's being covered here.

Sound good?

Well, what sounds even better ~ literally ~ is that the whole glorious meal is accompanied by musical covers chosen to complement each course. Not just obvious choices based on wordplay ~ not somebody covering Chubby Checker's "Peppermint Twist" if there's a peppermint twist, say ~ although your hosts might be that endearingly goofy every now & again ~ but more subtle pairings of eclectic sonic goodness with what you're eating.

Yeah, it does sound good, doesn't it?

And to that, add this: Wine pairings provided by Wente Vineyards
for each course, too, if you're so inclined.

Perhaps, at this point, you're considering salivating?
Perhaps, at this point, you're already considering attending the next "Covers" iteration?

Let's take a closer look at this most recent one, first;
this one that Noise Pop brought to Austin in time for SXSW
and which they unveiled at the Swoop House.

Yes: That's the place near East Seventh that's run by Stephen Shallcross
and the savants of 2 Dine 4 Catering.

Yes: That's the place that hosts those incredible Supper Friends dinners.

The sound designer and Foley artist Buzz Moran accompanied me on this gustatory adventure, because we're both into food, as the saying goes, and because we never really have a chance to sit down & just chat although we're often involved in the same or overlapping projects. Also, the man looks good in a suit. Tall, thin, well-groomed. Dapper, like. You want some snazzy arm candy that's male, you call for Buzz Moran.

                                                                           OH, THAT BUZZ MORAN!

You call for Buzz Moran and you drive over to the Eastside and park at the curb bordering the small, tidy lawn that fronts the clean and modern lines of Swoop House, a building that sits as pretty as a tilt-shift photo there on Gonzales Street where the blocks of houses continue to struggle against relatively water-rich Austin's version of foliage and forest. You walk up to the front porch, pause to decide between the choice of a vodka-based or tequila-based cocktail to start things off, to delight your palate and moisten your epiglottis and lubricate the ensuing conversation. Tequila, of course: This is Texas, goddamnit, and your residence here (in what is arguably the only worthwhile big city in the entire state) was hardwon, and you'll be damned if you don't choose a drink that derives its potency from something like a cactus.

Never mind that the agave isn't even related to a cactus. The facts can go fuck themselves, because agave looks like a cactus, and there's a couple of agave plants right down the street you just drove on, and, anyway, Christ, this cocktail feels as good as it tastes, going down all cool and smooth, ice clinking against the glass as you enter the Swoop House and are greeted by Noise Pop's Dawson Ludwig, who kindly invited you to this fancy shindig in the first place.

Ludwig's tall and bearded and charming. The interior of the house is as crisp and clean as its outside, with enough natural wood and simple-yet-elegant appointments that it'd make your ligneophile wife swoon. There are three separate dining rooms to this Swoop structure, each room centered with a white-cloth-covered table, place settings casting a silver gleam along the edges of each table and surrounding the rustic metal lanterns glowing along the table's midsection.

Gotta win that Lotto thing, you tell yourself for what won't be the last time this night.

You wander outside now, you and Buzz, sipping your drinks, roaming the grounds around Swoop House, taking in the scenery, the bits of garden still extant and the wide flat areas covered with tarp and being prepared, you assume, for the next season's array of homegrown vegetables. You linger while passing a vintage, subtly finned and turquoise-colored station wagon, then stand at the far edge of the back yard, near a patch of what might be broccoli or might be kale but in any case is enormous and looks like it'd be delicious all stir-fried and served up with a little roasted garlic and balsamic vinegar.

"It's a circle," says Buzz, pointing at what lies between you and the house.
"The lawn's a goddam circle."

Yes: The back yard's single expanse of lawn is a perfectly circular expanse, held in check by a thin band of iron; you're halfway around the wide dirt path that surrounds this grassy circle; everything's all horticultured and lovely, the whole area outside the Swoop House is making you have those lottery thoughts again. Also, that station wagon in the gravelly drive. Is it turquoise, precisely, you wonder, finishing your cocktail … or is it the pale and liquid blue that's at the heart of every agave plant?

You munch a bit from the tiny foil bag of barbecue-flavored popcorn you were handed before you left the building. The spices on the popcorn are complex and intriguing. But the popcorn itself …

"This popcorn," says Buzz, chewing. "It's not really the freshest popcorn I've ever had. But the spices ~ oh, man. That's," he says, smiling, chewing, "that's some good stuff."

Yes: Doesn't the popcorn seem slightly … stale?
An amuse-bouche that's not so … amusing?

Mark that, make a note of it: You'll need to remember this mild disappointment: It will provide the only low point, the sole negative contrast, in an evening of wonders.

Which wonders await as you walk back past the agave-heart-blue Chevy wagon and navigate through the gathering celebrants to re-enter the Swoop House and find ~

Ah, but let's pause here for a moment; this blogpost is already so much longer than it's supposed to be.

Let's break it into two pieces, shall we? The way a pair of friends ~ a writer and a reader, say ~ might break a warm baguette into two shorter pieces for ease of sharing.

Maybe even pour yourself a glass of wine before clicking here to continue …


Inside the Swoop House, the elegant tables are filled with excited diners. There are local people, folks in from beyond Texas to attend SXSW, all manner of foodies and media types.

We're sitting, we're waiting, we can smell a delicious aroma in the air.

(This post, this event, had a prelude.
We'll still be waiting, if you missed it & want to get the backstory first.)

Dawson Ludwig, standing nearby, calls for our attention, tells us what we can expect this night. Tells us about the history of the "Covers" events from Noise Pop and graffEats, about the musical covers chosen to complement this night's gourmet offerings, about the wines from Wente Vineyards that will be accompanying all of it. He smiles, raises a glass.

The diners raise theirs in response.
Huzzah! Slainte! Cheers! Prosit!

And so it begins.

Remember that each course will be a cover: GraffEats chef Blair Warsham recreating signature dishes from the country's top chefs.

Know that it starts local, with inspiration from the ATX's sushi wunderkind: The appetizer is from Uchi: Tyson Cole's Uchiveche Salmon (with striped bass, tomato, bell pepper, garlic, and cilantro). Perfectly presented, cold, sharp, melt-in-your-lucky-mouth bits of fish sending your tastebuds directly to paradise without the need for jihad or a life of deprivation. The accompanying music is "an interplay between Japanese and American culture." Yes, it is: Takeshi Terauchi covering the Beach Boys' "Surfer Girl;" the's doing the Ikettes' "I'm Blue;" The Knack's "My Sharona" covered by Saijo Hideki.

You're chewing, you're tasting, you're listening, you're looking at your date for the evening – Buzz Moran, seated next to you near the head of the main table – and he's smiling as big as you must be smiling. Hell, everyone's smiling ~ smiling and eating. The room is lousy with grins and the sounds of happy mastication.

Next up is what you're going to recall as the single best part of this superlative parade of food: Hot Potato/Cold Potato, a dish by Grant Achatz of Chicago's Alinea. It's a hot, like, potato kebab ~ like some kind of elongated indie Tater Tot on a wooden skewer. Damned tasty, with just enough crunch to the outside, and warm spicy goodness inside. But. What it's sitting in? The cold potato soup? What is this? How does a fucking tuber come out of the ground and wind up conjuring such sensual glory in a human mouth? Smooth, creamy, yadda yadda, those words mean nothing, those words are inadequate to describe … Oh, sweet gibbering Brillat-Savarin, what a dish!

You try to steady yourself in the present, grab hold of something concrete so you don't evaporate away to a gourmand's Nirvana. You try to remember the staleness of the evening's pre-prandial popcorn snack, but you can't do it. Nothing exists except the soup, this soup, this soup, oh my god.

Music: The xx, covering Aaliyah's "Hot Like Fire;" Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" interpreted by Hot Chip; White Hinterland having a go at Justin Timberlake's "My Love."

Then there's a course of Fuji Apple Salad Kimchi (with smoked jowl and maple labne) from David Chang's Momofuku, and the combo of sweet and savory, of tart and smoky, almost has your teeth jockeying for position closest to the action. Munch, munch, munch. Yes, yes, yes.

Music: Amy Milan covering Death Cab For Cutie's "I Will Follow You Into the Dark;" Grizzly Bear's version of "He Hit Me" by The Crystals; and The Zombies' "Tell her No" modernized by Tennis.

[I should mention here that, all the while, our glasses are being filled with those Wente wines. Chardonnay, pinot noir, all that sort of thing, constantly being refreshed during and between courses, the waiters and hosts as attentive and generous as flight attendants in the first-class section of a British Airways flight to Saudi Arabia. I'm not a wine drinker, but Buzz (who is) seems pleased, and all around our table and in the other two rooms I see people sipping or swigging from that bounty of the grape, telling each other "Mmmm, hey" and "Oh yes, this will do" about what's in their hands.]

Which brings us to the Roasted Cauliflower (with grapes and almonds and curry) a la Daniel Humm of NYC's Eleven Madison Park. Why, it's like a weird mirror-image of that Fuji Apple plate and downright scrumptious, a fine herald to what (we see it on the little menus that have been provided each diner) comes next: The main course of meat.

Which, as the three different interpretations of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" ~ by Broken Social Scene and Nouvelle Vague and Calexico(!) ~ fade away, arrives:

Berber Spice Roasted Lamb Haunch, as interpreted in San Francisco's Aziza by Mourad Lahlou, with carrot marmalade, brown butter couscous, and harissa emulsion. Serge Jorge covering David Bowie's "Rebel Rebel" begins to play as we tuck into the lamb. Gotan Project's remix of "Whatever Lola Wants" (Nina Simone) segues in as we explore the plate further. By now the conversation in the room has reached a level where it's nearly drowning out the music, but you can still hear sounds of gustatory satisfaction rising from the (by now slightly tipsy) diners. The lamb, so tender and sharply spiced, its accompaniments, so righteously complementary … You look over at Buzz. He's chewing, he's raising his glass of wine in salutation; behind the lenses of his black horn-rims, his eyes are rolling back in his head with the pleasure of it all.

Amadou & Mariam's cover of "Hope" by Fat Freddy's Drop competes for attention above the diners' motley oratorio.

And now we're on to the dessert.

Everybody's gabbing at top volume. The sound system in the Swoop's coveted interior plays the White Stripes doing Dolly Parton's "Jolene," Nirvana reprising Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World," and Jose Gonzales doing his thing with The Knife's "Heartbeats."

The dessert plates descend on polite hands. It's from Boris Portnoy's Meadowood venture in California. It's a Caramelized Brioche (with vanilla, citrus marmalade, tarragon, and crème fraîche). It's like a cross between French Toast and Crème Brûlée, is what it is. It's delicate and crunchy and … wow, you know? It's wow.

"Hey, uh," says Buzz to our affable chef who's walking around & checking to make sure all is as it should be. "Hey," says Buzz, "this … crème fraîche? There's ~ what is that? Is there salt right in it? I'm getting a salty taste – it's delicious, yeah! – but how … ?"

And Warsham describes the original recipe and his particular methods as we continue munching, as the last sweet bites vanish down our gullets, as glasses are drained and three tables of very satisfied guests prepare to call it a night.

A night of eclectic culinary and musical curation, of a gourmet anthology
from the talented professionals of Noise Pop and graffEats and Swoop House.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

On the Death of the Novel

                                                                               THE AUTHOR HERSELF

It is good that I did not leave my home to learn about writing novels during wagon-train times. News of the novel's death would not have reached me until after I'd packed my few earthly belongings into my wagon and traveled to Michigan, knowing I would never see my friends back in Texas ever again. Upon my arrival, I would be told that the novel was dead, and after I was done weeping and cursing my very existence, I'd have to choose between prostitution or marrying the widowed butcher, who was looking for a strong-backed woman to take care of his bratty, bereaved children. He'd smell like raw meat when he'd lay me on the bed to do his business and I'd have to take up religion just so I could pray that he would kindly not beat me. Nowadays, at least I can fly home for the weekend for a visit, and if the novel is dead, we have the Internet to lament its demise. Or we can revive the novel. Blessed be the future!
                                                              ~ Monique Daviau