Thursday, August 27, 2009

Susie comes full circle and I live life in the fast lane

The weather here in the nation's smallest (and most foolish) state has been, in a word, atrocious. Heat, humidity, sun, heat and, did I say humidity? And all this after what seemed like the wettest summer in years. So for the pat couple of weekends we've been heading out to Colt State Park on Narragansett Bay to get away from the heat and humidity of the city and enjoy the zephyrs off the water.

But Thursday, dawned cool, sunny and low humidity -- a genuine summer day to be savored. The rest of the week promises to be as accommodating.

The past few days has been a week of challenge for me, but an ending and a beginning for Susie. Naturally it got off to a bang.

On Monday evening we drove north to the wilds of Douglas, MA for dinner at Dick and Dorothy's. Now we've eaten dinner there many times, often for special occasions, family reunions and the like. But this time was different. It turns out that several new graduates from the high school where Dick teaches (and Dorothy taught) have been serious foodies for some time. In fact, three of them have been to Gracie's twice -- and it was there they got to meet Dick's sister, Susie the Pastry Queen. So Dick and Dorothy set up a dinner meeting -- they provided the main course, the kids provided the apps and Susie the after dinner portion; a bevy of three tasty desserts that included: summer berry pudding, spiced plum streusel cake, chocolate cake with fudgesicle cube

A grand time was had by all and brought home to us the simple truth that these very good kids will make even better adults. In some ways they already are.

My work has taken a new dimension this week as I've been scrambling to put together a presentation on how to use Adobe Bridge in accessing and searching the new image library. It seems I've been moving way too fast for my normal pace but believe that I've got a pretty good handle on those key concepts that need to be grasped and how to best create a visual map of those ideas.

Summertime is slow in the restaurant trade, at least here in Providence. But for Susie this week has produced a watershed of sorts, a closing and opening, an ending and a beginning. (OK enough of the New Age stuff.)

As you may recall, a few weeks ago Susie got the opportunity to meet her pastry inspiration Emily Luchetti. She was spending some time in our part of New England and doing a book signing at the shop of a friend in South Dartmouth, MA. Susie and Emily are two stalwarts in the philosophical school that holds pastry should be simple, made with the best ingredients and taste really, really good. Anyway that’s my take on it.

At the time Emily said she planned to come to Gracie’s – she had to return to California (she’s the executive pastry chef at Farallon’s) but would be back within the month.

Well needless to say (so why am I saying it?), needless to say she did return to New England and showed up at Gracie’s with two friends the other evening. Actually she emailed Susie a day or so before so that the two of them might spend a bit of time together chatting.

And so it happened. Of course Susie put together a tasting plate of Gracie’s desserts: mango cream tart, brownie chunk chocolate milkshake tart, fudgesicle cubes, ricotta custard, chocolate ganache cake and plum almond streusel tartlet (a young tart)

Now some perspective.

It’s 1988, Ronald Reagan is still President, “Bull Durham” with Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins is showing in the theaters, Paul Simon’s “Graceland” is awarded the best record of the year and we have the great good fortune to be dining at Jeremiah Tower’s renowned Stars restaurant in San Francisco. The food is wonderful and the desserts knock Susie’s socks off.

Four years later we return to the Bay City and head right back to Stars. This time the pastry chef has a brand-new book out, “Stars Desserts” and after dinner Susie buys a signed copy. In the years to come that book, and Emily's three subsequent cookbooks gradually become Susie’s pastry and baking bibles. Susie would always turn to Emily Luchetti for inspiration, for ideas when looking for that special dessert.

How many others have bought Emily’s books, signed or otherwise and used them as guides to making just the right ending to a special dinner? How many others have turned to those books to discover new and fresh ways to turn a dish of ice cream or basket of fruit into a scrumptious dessert? A great many I would say.

But how many have used that same inspiration to turn their world around, to say “this is what I want to do with my life now.”

Susie did. Yes, Emily’s food is wonderful – her recipes are impeccably well-crafted, thoroughly tested and produce wonderful desserts again and again. It is all those things but to Susie that signed copy of “Four Stars Desserts” meant so much more.

As Susie sat in the booth next to Emily the other evening at Gracie’s, chatting with Richard and Anne about the wonders of food in general and pastries in particular, I couldn’t help but think to myself the significance of the moment. The door on her past life as a physician quietly, and perhaps irrevocably closed, while at the very same time Emily stood there holding another door open.

You really should have been there.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

It's a full life: 26 years together, old college comrades and Tony Bennett

It's been a curiously full week or so here at the head of Narragansett Bay.

A week ago this last Thursday Susie and I celebrated 26 years of marriage by going south toward the ocean but stopping short in Bristol.

We had an aperitif at the DeWolf Tavern overlooking the Bay and then dinner at Persimmon just up the street from the water.

Owned and operated by Chef Champe Speidel and his wife Lisa (she oversees the front of the house) we enjoyed an incredibly good meal and a glorious evening overall. We started out with a half bottle of Veuve Clicquot bubbly and for apps Susie had the crab salad and I opted for the risotto with fresh wild mushrooms. We both had the swordfish for the main course (plat), wahsed down with a Sancerre from the Loire Valley. For dessert Susie went for the banana cake and I had the cheese platter (one French and two American varieties). The service was on the same level of quality -- superb attention to detail, pleasant and welcoming all amidst a cozy environment made for a thoroughly enjoyable time.

Good value as well, with prices generally in the same range as one would find at the better Providence eateries.

Saturday turned out to be another day of discoveries -- actually a renewal of an old college friendship from the days at Charlottesville. It turns out that Nick Petrov, one of my graduate school colleagues and another former cold warrior, teaches at the University of Rhode Island in South Kingstown. We reconnected online a couple of weeks back and on Saturday afternoon Susie and I drove down to meet with him, his wife Ally and their two sons.

Nick had not changed one iota in more than 20 years (so it seemed to me) and his wife was proved to be generous, warm and friendly. But it was their two boys, one in college and the youngest getting ready to leave for UVa this month, that amazed both of us. Their politeness aside, it seems they have been taking care of their grandmother, Ally's mother who lives with the family now and is largely incapacitated. This capacity for compassion and understanding of the needs of a helpless family member coupled with their overall behavior and demeanor struck Susie and I as not only very European -- in fact the family has lived in Russia -- but as incredibly mature, intensely aware of what their priorities should be; qualities sadly lacking in much of our culture today we thought.

What had begun Thursday concluded with a bang on Sunday. Late in the morning Susie and I packed a few things in a backpack, hopped in the car and drive a half hour or so down to Jamestown where we caught the ferry in the direction of Newport but alighting in Fort Adams.

We were on our way to the Newport Jazz Festival -- and spent a glorious day under overcast skies -- but no rain -- listening to Dave Brubeck and finished off by Tony Bennett.

You can see a nifty slide show of images from that event right here:

Wish you had been there.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Emily Luchetti, Pastry Inspirations and a Birthday at the Beach

This last week in Providence has been rather entertaining, somewhat productive and for Susie incredibly wonderful.

First of all it was her birthday yesterday, Sunday. We had been invited, along with Dick and Dorothy, to spend the afternoon lounging on the beach near Point Judith. Barbara and her daughter Andrea -- Andrea is not only one of my colleagues at work but also a neighbor as well – well they have a house just on the edge of the bay overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, or more accurately, Rhode Island Sound. We were all together for the rooftop BBQ a week or so back and Barbara asked us all down for Susie's birthday dinner.

To kick the weekend festivities off Susie -- and here's a large chunk of the wonderful part -- Susie finally got to meet her all-time inspiration in the tasty world of serious pastry: Emily Luchetti.

Emily is the pastry chef at Farallon in San Francisco but when we came across her the first time she was working as the pastry chef for Jeremiah Tower 's Stars restaurant, also in San Francisco. That was our first trip west together in 1988 and we returned on a second trip to California in 1992 we were so impressed with the desserts at Stars that Susie actually got Emily's very first book, signed no less.

As she tackled one recipe after another, Susie quickly discovered that she shared a deep connection with Emily -- they both hold to the same theory about food: fresh ingredients well-prepared is really what great food is all about. Over the years that shared affinity has only broadened and deepened as Susie found new treasures in Emily's subsequent books on desserts. Whenever she was stumped for ideas or felt jammed up she would turn to Emily to show her a way out.

OK enough backstory.

Last Wednesday Joe Hafner at Gracie's just happened to mention to Susie that her "inspiration" was going to be at a book signing at a friend's shop in South Dartmouth, MA, on Friday -- would she be interested in going?

So on Friday -- a short day at JWU for me anyway -- we drove the 40 minutes or so in the direction of Cape Cod, turning due south just before New Bedford (of whaling fame). After skirting along the back-country roads of Massachusetts we soon found ourselves hopping from one marsh to another before landing ourselves in South Dartmouth, a tiny resort community perched not far from the ocean. We parked right in front of the shop, Flora, our objective, and walked inside. I soon found myself the only male in the room surrounded by a dozen or so women, most of who were immersed in copies of Emily's latest book.

Susie walked up to Emily and introduced herself. It was as if she had met a long-lost friend, and in a manner of speaking she had. They were indeed kindred spirits talking about pastry as if there was little else.

Time slipped away from us and eventually Susie and I found our way back to the car, the highway and Providence. It’s that word again, “providence.” How appropriate – and not a bad way to start off the weekend.

Saturday was a gorgeous but quiet day on Westminster Street. Susie put in time at work and I put in time working on Pere Lachaise; not the cemetery but my photos, which I hope will serve as some sort of inspiration to locking down a guidebook for Paris cemeteries. Someday.

Sunday was leisurely with odd weather patterns here in Rhode Island -- what else is new, eh? Overcast skies joined by rising humidity did nothing to dampen our determination to head to the ocean for a walk along the beach, a scrumptious dinner of fish, chilled sparkling wine and good conversation.

And so we did. Susie and I arrived at Barbara's about half past two, and Andrea was already there -- in fact she had taken the train down early in the weekend.

Anyway, we unloaded our gear -- having brought desserts naturally -- and headed out for a walk along Scarborough Beach.

After a leisurely stroll in the sand we returned and spent the afternoon chatting about one thing or another until about 4pm when Dick and Dorothy arrived. At a little after 5 we had exhausted the sparkling wines, opened a rosé and sat down to a delicious meal of oven-baked salmon with a tasty mustard coating, roasted potatoes with rosemary, mustard and garlic and asparagus tips with roasted red peppers.

As incredible as this all sounds it was finished off with a brace of desserts: a rustic nectarine, plum, blueberry tart and a hazelnut semi-freddo with chocolate sauce and candied hazelnuts.

You really should have been there.

Around 8pm we packed up our things. The food was all gone and so were the wines. So with full stomachs and heavy eyelids we said adieu to our lovely hostess, loaded the car with Andrea and her stuff -- she was heading back into the city with us since she only lives four blocks from us -- and waved our way out into traffic and back north to the urban jungle.