A Grunion Story

A few weeks ago I was at a suburban Philadelphia branch of the Weis supermarket chain. Nice store. Big, well-lit and damn fine when it comes to offering a sweet selection of beers. Beer shopping usually is my main reason for entering Weis’s doors. I’ve dropped a lot of dough there in that pursuit.

What I buy, being a beer snob, are brews other than Budweiser and Miller and their milquetoast cousins. Over the last 25 years I’ve developed a love affair with more flavorful brews: the bright and piquant in taste; the murky and dense; and the bitter as hell, to cite a few. And Weis is a mecca for such goods.

So there I was, eyeing Weis’s beer shelves with deep interest. I’m always on the hunt for beers I haven’t had before, and I came upon one that day. It was an example of a pale ale, which is a common species of bitter beer that breweries like to tweak and play around with. Its maker was Ballast Point Brewing Co., a San Diego-based enterprise I was slightly familiar with, and the name on the label was Grunion Pale Ale. Grunion? The word rang zero of my bells. What’s more, the label pictured two fish writhing on the sands. What the f*ck was that all about? I hadn’t a clue. I bought a bottle of it, natch, along with a bunch of other brews, and went on my merry way.

Not many days after that I brought the unopened, fish-labelled bottle with me when my wife Sandy and I joined two of our top friends, Liz and Rich, at a Thai restaurant in the Philadelphia burbs. The place is a BYOB. Rich asked me what beer I’d arrived with. I showed him the bottle.

“Ah yes, grunion,” he said. “They are tiny fish that crawl out of the ocean to mate on beaches in southern California. They are quite amazing.”

I stared at him in disbelief. “Are you kidding me?” I finally asked. “You actually know what grunion are? And you know about their sex lives? How is this possible? I doubt if you’ve ever been fishing in your life.”

“What can I say?” Rich coyly intoned. “Some of us are blessed with the gift of extensive knowledge.” Those weren’t his exact words, but they are close enough.

I looked at Sandy and at Liz. I asked them if they’d ever heard of grunion before. The answer was no. I then proceeded to begin drinking the beer. It was delicious. Bitter, slightly citrusy from the hops used in its creation, and not the slightest bit fish-flavored(and that’s because grunion are not used in the brewing process. They only are on the label!).

Twenty-four hours later Sandy and I were at dinner in downtown Philadelphia with two more of our top pals, Cindy and Gene. The conversation, profane and giddy, went all over the map. After a while I started recapping the previous evening’s beer story.

“Can you believe it?” I said to Cindy and Gene. “Rich actually heard of grunion. Have either of you?”

“Not me,” said Cindy. However, Gene, a polite and non-bragging sort, had this to say: “Oh, I know about grunion. They are tiny fish that crawl out of the ocean to mate on beaches in southern California.” Those weren’t his exact words, but they are close enough.

I stared at Gene in disbelief. “Man, you’re a city boy,” I said. “Why do you know about grunion? Seems to me that they’re as obscure as can be.”

“Well, when I was younger I used to read a lot about animals,” he said.

I guess he did!

I firmly believe that in the greater Philadelphia region, whose human population exceeds the 6,000,000 mark, you’d have to search far and wide to find people who could tell you what grunion are. Yet, on successive evenings I’d broken bread with two of them. Talk about infinitesimal odds. If only, after all these years of knowing Rich and Gene, dashes of their brain power had made their way over to me.

Anyway, since those two grunion-centric meals I’ve done a bit of research into grunion. Not much, because I’m not the scholarly type, but enough to get a feel for the subject. Grunion, it seems, come in two similar but somehow different varieties. Type One lives in the ocean waters off of southern California. Type Two inhabits the Gulf Of California in the Mexican region known as Baja California. And indeed both types do crawl out of the water to mate. They do this at night during certain months of the year. You can read about grunion by clicking here.

And you can witness grunion doing their slithery, entwining beach thing by clicking below. Thanks to this YouTube video we might learn some new sex positions from the grunion spectacle. Hey you!!! You’re blocking my view!!! Sit down!!!

Alas, it’s time for me to wrap up these proceedings. Before doing so, though, I’ll add that Ballast Point Brewing Co. was founded by a bunch of cool guys. They like to fish almost as much as they like churning out beers, which is why they name most of their products after fish and other occupants of the seas, and picture said creatures on many of their labels. I’m on the lookout for Ballast Point’s beers now that I’ve sampled Grunion Pale Ale. Supporting those who not only are talented but lean toward the offbeat side is a good idea, don’t you think?

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Amsterdam, When Lights Were Low

This time of year in suburban Philadelphia USA, where I reside, the Sun sets around 8:30 PM and the sky begins to grow meaningfully dark half an hour later. A few weeks ago, though, during my wife Sandy’s and my trip to Paris and Amsterdam, the lighting was different. (If you click right here and right here, the previous two articles about our trip will appear). There, sunset happened circa 10:00 PM and darkness started its descent about thirty minutes after that. It wasn’t till 10:45 or so that you’d say nighttime truly had arrived. These were phenomena that took Sandy and me a little by surprise. We sure weren’t used to them. But we liked them.

Now, Amsterdam is a beautiful place in daylight, as is Paris, natch. Those canals; those old, quaint brick houses; those cute houseboats parked here and there on the waters; those many streets no wider than alleys. Man, investigating and gawking at all of this in full light was the best. But — and I’m not exactly issuing a news flash here — things looked different when the effects of our friend the Sun started to fade. Different isn’t always better, yet often it is equally good. And that was the case with Amsterdam during late evening hours.

Maybe we were under the spell of the delayed darkness, I don’t know, but in Amsterdam we found ourselves starting the evening repasts much later than at home. Most evenings we didn’t begin to eat until 8:30 or later. By the time we concluded restaurant business and moseyed out onto the streets, sunlight was approaching the low end of its dial or was gone. And that’s when our evening entertainment, nighttime walks, began. It also was when the canals put on their more formal clothes.

IMG_1465IMG_1466One night, after a dinner in the western part of town that ended at 10:15, we wandered for ten minutes in search of the still-existing house (now the Rembrandt House Museum) where Rembrandt van Rijn lived during much of the 1600s. Eventually we found it. The famed artist lived near the Zwanenburgwaal, a handsome canal. I imagine that the area looks pretty much as it did in Rembrandt’s time. And, no question, it startles at night. There was a fair but quickly fading amount of light in the skies as we strolled around Zwanenbuegwaal and other nearby waterways. The canal waters glimmered, the electric lights from within houses glowed mightily. And we were amazed by a scene that was almost too good to be true, the Moon early in its rise above an assemblage of rooftops and gables. I don’t know if Rembrandt ever painted a waterscape like that, but if he didn’t he should have.

IMG_1478IMG_1480Another post-dinner trek, along a couple of canals not far from our hotel in central Amsterdam, also was gold. This time our walk started under skies that were fully dark. Not too many people were around. And it was quiet. These were conditions that collectively, in a major city, you don’t often run into. I tell you, the vistas were something else. Reflections from house lights in the canal waters looked like cascades of glitter. And the small bridges crossing the canals were lit along their sides like yuletide shrubbery. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Amsterdam is a place where I’d be happy and content as a clam to live.

 

IMG_1388IMG_1389

But it wasn’t only late night outdoors views in Amsterdam that nabbed my attention. Things sometimes got awfully atmospheric indoors too during advanced hours. Usually in restaurants. Our first night in the city, for instance, we had dinner in the middle of town at the cozy Corner House, which serves up some traditional Dutch fare. We had arrived in Amsterdam from Paris with our friends Martine and Alan, and they were at the eatery with us. We all settled in comfortably on that rainy night, soaking up Corner House’s low wattage vibes. The subdued lighting gave the place a charm and magnetism that probably it didn’t have at lunchtime. And after dinner we stepped outside into streets hundreds of years old where, electric lights illuminating the dimness only gingerly, mystery and intrigue cast bigtime spells.

IMG_0787And talking about vibes . . . they don’t come much better than those you get, as midnight approaches, within In De Wildeman. It’s a tavern in a semi-ancient building, and prides itself on its wide selection of beers. A craft beer geek, I went there several times to drink suds from Dutch breweries not named Heineken and Amstel. There are a decent number of them, though most Amsterdam establishments don’t carry them. More’s the pity. In any event, Sandy and I popped into evocatively-lit In De Wildeman, down the block from our hotel, very late on a Wednesday night. The next morning we would fly home, and I wanted to down one last Dutch microbrew before bidding the Netherlands adieu. I did. Sort of. It was a pale ale brewed exclusively for In De Wildeman by The Wild Beer Company. It was delicious. Turns out, though, that Wild Beer’s brewery is located in England, not the Netherlands. Oh well, close enough.

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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)

Caramel (Suzanne Vega, This Beer’s For You)

Leffe Brune
Leffe Brune

A few days ago, in a local supermarket’s beer section, I assembled and bought a “create your own six pack.” At dinnertime later that day I grabbed one of the six from the frig, and I’m glad I did. It was a thick, rich, mellow ale. Dark and handsome too, I might add. And delicious. Leffe Brune (brown), brewed in Belgium.

If it weren’t for this excellent beer I wouldn’t be typing this story right now. Instead I’d probably be cemented to the living room sofa, counting the number of dust balls scattered on the room’s hardwood floor, one of my typical pastimes. But I am typing this story right now, and here’s why:

Earlier in the aforementioned day, fishing around in my mind for something to write about for my blog, I thought about Caramel, a song by Suzanne Vega that I’ve always loved. But I wasn’t sure how I’d incorporate Caramel into a story. It’s a great song, not too well-known. For years I’ve thought it deserves to become a heavily covered tune, a standard if you will, as it is perfectly formed musically and lyrically. For 40 years I’ve thought almost as much of Tom Waits’s (Looking For) The Heart Of Saturday Night. “Maybe I’ll write about Caramel and (Looking For) The Heart of Saturday Night and one or two other songs that, in my ideal world, nearly everyone would know about,” I more or less said to myself. “That’ll be at least a  couple of weeks from now, though. It’s a tough story to work out.”

But a few hours later, scanning the label on my Leffe Brune, I shifted course. It read: “Savor the mystery of the ages. The authentic Belgian Abbey ale. Enjoy this delicious Leffe Brune with its sweet caramel yet bitter taste.”

Caramel! Whoa, no way this could be a coincidence. No question about it, the beer gods who hover invisibly above Planet Earth are fans of Suzanne Vega’s Caramel. That’s why they placed the Leffe Brune label before my eyes. Which means that they wanted me to devote a story solely to that song. “Screw Tom Waits,” they in effect were saying to me. I love and revere the beer gods. I pray to them before turning off the bedroom light each night. Therefore, I shall obey.

Suzanne Vega is one of those artists who has been around for a long time (in her case, for about 30 years), though not too obviously for much of the span. She hit her visibility peak in the mid 1980s through mid 90s, when a bunch of her songs received lots of airplay. Tunes such as Luka, Tom’s Diner, Marlene On The Wall and Blood Makes Noise. Things have quieted a lot since then in terms of Vega’s fame. She still tours a good bit, playing before plenty of fans, and releases albums fairly regularly. But, barring a fluke of some kind, she’s unlikely ever again to be a big media presence. She hardly is alone in that. The same might be said for Tracy Chapman, Joan Armatrading, Bruce Cockburn and near-zillions of others. The music biz, like life in general, is fickle.

Left to right: Beer; Caramel's lyrics; the CD on which Caramel appears.
Left to right: Leffe Brune; Caramel’s lyrics; the CD on which Caramel appears.

Despite that . . . if somehow Caramel were to come to the attention of many classic singers (calling Tony Bennett and Jane Monheit) and singer-songwriters, I’m of the belief that it would be recognized as awfully damn good and irresistible and eventually would find its way into the pop music canon. It came out in 1996 on Vega’s album Nine Objects Of Desire and had a now-forgotten shot of exposure that same year when it played during a scene in the movie The Truth About Cats And Dogs. But as far as I can tell, Caramel rarely has been covered by other musicians.

Yo, tell me that I’m wrong. Here is the first half of Caramel’s lyrics. They are concise and they pop. Poignantly. If they didn’t come attached to music they’d read as a cool poem. Coming from me, not exactly a huge poetry fan, that’s a major compliment.

It won’t do
to dream of caramel,
to think of cinnamon
and long for you.

It won’t do
to stir a deep desire,
to fan a hidden fire
that can never burn true.

I know your name,
I know your skin,
I know the way
these things begin;

But I don’t know
how I would live with myself,
what I’d forgive of myself
if you don’t go.

The lyrics above take up 16 (short) lines. And they comprise a mere four sentences. Four additional sentences, which you can read by clicking here, complete the lyrics. Me, I’m totally taken by Caramel’s simplicity. There are no head feints or foot shuffles. Wham, Suzanne Vega gets to the essence of a sexual attraction that must not be pursued, a love affair that must not be allowed to flower. It ain’t easy to write like that.

But Caramel isn’t a poem. It’s a song. And its music makes me want to head south. To Brazil, home of the samba, of which Caramel is an example. What a melody, so sweet and wistful. Such melancholy chords upon which the melody hangs. Ah me. In Rio I’ll set up a hammock on Ipanema Beach. I’ll watch the girls go by and sip on a long cool one (yeah, it’ll be a Leffe Brune). And as the Sun dips below the horizon I’ll listen to Caramel on iTunes. Or maybe on YouTube, which you too may do by clicking right here.

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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

A Philadelphia Saturday Night

Our plans for a recent Saturday evening came together quickly. Flipping through a newspaper we (my wife Sandy and I) saw a review of a play titled Spine. The play sounded good. Its theater was in Philadelphia’s central section, easy for us to reach from our home in the burbs. OK, Spine it would be. Deciding to have pre-show dinner near the theater, we looked for an eatery where we’d never been before. We clicked here and there on OpenTable and settled on Franky Bradley’s, a place we knew little about. A handful of hours later we arrived at FB’s at the appointed time, 6:15 PM, and the night began.

Some Philadelphians will recall Franky Bradley’s when it was a steakhouse and celebrity hangout and its first name was spelled Frankie. That was decades ago. In its most recent incarnation the place was a gay bar. Last year a new owner turned the property into a restaurant/bar/dance club, resurrecting the name (save for the spelling change) but nothing much else from the original FB’s. Only one steak is on the menu and I doubt if Franky’s is a celebrity hang.

Inside Franky Bradley's.
Inside Franky Bradley’s.

It’s a two-story establishment. A  music room cum bar occupies floor number two. That’s where late night DJ and dancing action takes place. Sandy and I took up a little bit of space on the ground level. There, dark wood tables and booths fill up the square footage not occupied by a large bar, and the walls are covered with wood carvings, a potpourri of signs and with moody, sensual oil paintings. We sat at a peripheral table. It gave us a good view of much of the room. The lights were low, the noise level high, the waitstaff young and friendly. Recorded music from the 1970s (David Bowie, disco tunes) swirled through the air. The place was mobbed, mostly with an under-40 crowd. Tucked away on narrow way-off-the-beaten-path Chancellor Street (1320 is the address), Franky Bradley’s seemed to be a hit, a destination. From my perspective here’s the deal: Sandy and I loved our meal there. And the vibes were a gas, you dig?

Bradley’s keeps the number of beverage and food selections on the modest side, which seems like a good idea to me. Man, this world is cluttered enough as it is. You could do a lot worse than ordering what we had. Liquid-wise, a toasty beer for me, Ellie’s Brown Ale from the Avery Brewing Company. And, for Sandy, a semi-dry and citrusy Spanish white wine that rocked, an Albarino (2013) from Ramon Bilbao vineyards.

Bottom plate: Arctic char with warm lentil salad and orange slices. Top plate: Ditto.
Bottom plate: Arctic char with warm lentil salad and orange slices. Top plate: Ditto.

Solid-wise, we shared a house salad built from powerful purple onions, three or four types of greens and a Banyuls vinaigrette dressing. “Banyuls?” you ask? Right, I hadn’t a clue either. But it was damn tasty. A minute ago I peered at a foodie’s website and learned that Banyuls vinegar is made from fancy grapes. I shoulda known. For entrées we each ordered pan-seared Arctic char, a thin fish that came out moist, just-right salty and just-right charred. The fish shared plate space with warm lentil salad and orange slices. I’m a sucker for a good lentil salad. In this case, cubed beets and diced carrots and peppers said hello to one another and to the lentils just the way I was hoping they would. Wouldn’t have minded staying at Franky Bradley’s for a couple more hours, testing the desserts, knocking back another Ellie’s or two. But Spine awaited.

A few moments before Spine began.
Ten minutes before Spine began.

Spine (running through March 6) is a 70 minute monologue first performed in 2014 in Scotland at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Its British author, Clara Brennan, probably is a rising star. Philadelphia’s Inis Nua Theatre Company has staged Spine’s first American production in the smaller (about 75 seats) of two new theaters created within the Drake apartment building (1512 Spruce Street) earlier this year. There’s no intermission, so visiting the loo pre-show ain’t a bad idea.

If I’m sure about anything, it’s that Spine is a whirlwind of words, a rant at times, a collection of colorful tales all recited by Amy, a London teenager struggling to find her way. Amy is not in the education pipeline, can’t hold jobs, has messy relationships with family and friends and recently has become a petty criminal. But she’s no dummy and lacks not for energy. One day this wrong-side-of-the-tracks girl, looking for a room to rent, knocks on the door of a home, in a good part of London, owned by very elderly Glenda. Glenda, an advocate for social justice, takes a liking to Amy and over time gives her barrelsful of counsel.

What’s Spine about? It’s about a lot of things, maybe too many. Brennan takes aim at what she sees as damaging policies by Britain’s Cameron-led government, bemoaning social welfare program cutbacks and the closing of libraries. She believes that young folks like Amy institutionally are ignored and rendered powerless. She feels that the Amys of the world are being deprived of knowledge, but that they yet might come to understand their plights and change them for the better.

Whew, that’s a lot for a play to bite off. And a lot for politically and sociologically semi-conscious characters like me to digest. But let me say this: My attention didn’t waver watching Spine. Emily R. Johnson commanded the minimally-furnished set, bringing Amy fully to life and, by extension, Glenda. When the play ended I shook my head in disbelief. I mean, how does anyone do what Johnson did, spewing a non-stop avalanche of words without a stumble? How can anyone remember all those words? I have trouble remembering the name of the street I live on. Impressed? You bet your sweet bippy I was and am.

But sometimes there’s a but, and I have one. Johnson, a non-Brit, adopted a deep deep Cockney accent. I didn’t understand half the words she spoke. “Huhhh, what?” I said to myself so often I almost started babbling. Sandy had the same problem, even worse. If you didn’t grow up in a workingclass London neighborhood I’m guessing you’d decipher the language not much better than we did. I think that Spine’s director should have decided to soften the blows for Philadelphia’s audiences by toning down the accent. As usual, though, nobody asked for my advice.

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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

Out And About In Fishtown

On a recent Friday night my wife Sandy and I went to dinner with our great pals, Liz and Rich. We dined in Al Dar, an atmospheric Mediterranean-cuisine bistro in Philadelphia’s western suburbs. As the four of us wolfed down lots of good stuff, Liz asked Sandy and me what we had on the agenda for the following day. Because the Philadelphia area was in the middle of an amazing December warm weather streak, any upcoming rain-free day would be a great one for outdoor exploration. “Maybe we’ll go to Fishtown,” Sandy said. And that’s what we did.

Fishtown is a Philadelphia neighborhood fairly near the city’s downtown sections. It is a maze of narrow streets, with a few big avenues running through, and for most of its existence has held a blue-collar reputation. Until a handful of years ago, Fishtown wasn’t somewhere you’d have had any particular reason to go to, unless you lived there. But times change, and sometimes for the better. Fishtown’s rowhouses and small single homes have found favor with millenials, hipsters, musicians. And with those fine folk have come cool bars and eateries and music venues. Fishtown now is on the map, though its goodly number of empty storefronts and how-do-they-stay-in-business businesses show that there’s plenty of climbing yet to do.

The 1300 block of East Eyre Street.
The 1300 block of East Eyre Street.
The 500 block of East Thompson Street.
The 500 block of East Thompson Street.

I like wandering on cute blocks, especially when they have nifty or unusual names. And Fishtown is full of those: Crease Street, Eyre Street, Shackamaxon Street. Yeah, Shackamaxon. I’d never heard of half the streets that Sandy and I stepped upon, which was just the way I like it. Gave me a sense of exploring the unknown. I saw that Fishtown’s byways are crammed with housing and commercial properties that, to my marginally-trained eye, looked to have been erected mostly between the mid 1800s and early 1900s. As with much of Philadelphia, the buildings usually rise no farther than three stories above ground level. And how about those bricks, a construction material that numbers in the gawd-knows-how-many trillions of units in Philadelphia. Fishtown’s share of that bounty must be at least twenty billion.

Fishtown's public library.
Fishtown’s public library.
Girard Avenue as seen from Eyre Street.
Girard Avenue as seen from Eyre Street.

It would take hours to see all of Fishtown, hours that Sandy and I didn’t have at hand. But we strolled around and I think got a halfway decent sense of what the neighborhood is all about. I was glad to see that Fishtown is kind of a small town unto itself. That’s been the case for at least 150 years, from what I’ve subsequently read. Look! A library. A police station. A rec center with a hockey rink. A wonderfully-domed Presbyterian church that has been in place since 1859. A bunch of pocket parks. Sharp, indeed! But the small town feel disappears when you venture off the residential blocks. On Girard Avenue, a major artery that bisects the area, the almost endless lengths of overhead wires are a gritty spider’s web and a quaint-yet-quintessential urban sight. And the traffic on Girard Avenue and Frankford Avenue at times is relentless.

Let’s move on to food and drink. Fishtown has become a player in Philadelphia’s emergence as a destination for foodies and/or craft beer aficionados. Kraftwork, East Girard Gastropub, Frankford Hall, Fette Sau, Interstate Draft House, Pizzeria Beddia (a take-out-only joint with no phone and a policy of baking only 40 pies per day. It gained instant fame when bon appétit magazine, incredibly, crowned its offerings earlier this year as the best pizza in the USA). Hey, if filling the gut and loosening the inhibitions are on your agenda, Fishtown’s as good a choice as any to do that in.

I peeked inside some of the above-named places, and others, on Girard Avenue. They looked great, but it wasn’t even 5:00 PM yet and I wasn’t ready for alcohol or food. Sandy and I earlier had decided that we needed to patronize, or at least ogle, what probably are Fishtown’s two most well-known spots, just to say that we’d been there. And thus we headed north on Frankford Avenue till we reached La Colombe Fishtown (1335 Frankford Avenue), the crown jewel of the La Colombe coffee empire.

Exterior of La Colombe Fishtown.
Exterior of La Colombe Fishtown.
Interior of La Colombe Fishtown.
Interior of La Colombe Fishtown.

LCF opened last year and it’s a thing of beauty, a Starbucks-on-steroids enterprise that was created out of a former warehouse. It’s comfortable and fashioned in the rustic chic mode. Dark wood floors go on forever. Exposed air system ductwork looms overhead. At the tables, customers nurse coffees, wines, beers, pastries and sandwiches for a long long time as they stare into their electronic devices or into each others’ eyes. And in the rear of the cavernous space is something I’d have been unable to anticipate in a million years. A rum distillery. Don’t ask me why, but the brains behind La Colombe had a jones for rum that had to be satisfied. The rum is for sale.

Sandy and I, though, kept things simple. We ordered ice coffees. Yes, we’re big spenders. They were strong and delicious. We stared into our devices and into each others’ eyes for awhile, and then hit the streets once again. It now was time for food and alcohol. Next stop was Fishtown’s biggest claim to fame.

Johnny Brenda’s (1201 Frankford Avenue) used to be an insular neighborhood bar. New owners took over in 2003. They installed good beers and good food, made nice with their Fishtown neighbors, and set in motion their visions of expanding JB’s audience. Johnny Brenda’s is widely credited as the catalyst for Fishtown’s renaissance. Things really began cooking in 2006, the year that JB’s brought live rock and roll to its upstairs quarters. Brenda’s has become a favorite place for local and touring rock bands. Sandy and I have yet to catch music at JB’s, but we’ve frequently talked with friends about doing that. One day soon we will.

Exterior of Johnny Brenda's.
Exterior of Johnny Brenda’s.
Interior of Johnny Brenda's
Interior of Johnny Brenda’s

JB’s is a friendly place. It has a pool table, local beers on tap, a nice selection of pub grub. And plenty of customers. Sandy and I grabbed a booth in the dining room. We ordered. Sandy’s Italian white wine was delicious. So was my Sly Fox porter. So were our burgers, hers made from beef, mine from vegetables. But before too long it was time to leave, as a movie, in another Philadelphia neighborhood, was on our evening’s schedule. We settled up and stepped outside. Daylight had disappeared 90 minutes earlier.  The air was cooling down. Groups of 20-somethings and 30-somethings were everywhere. We crossed the street, heading westward on Girard Avenue. But Sandy then suggested that we walk back to where we had just been so that we could get another good look at a resplendent neon palace: Joe’s Steaks + Soda Shop. Sandy took its picture. And we left Fishtown on a high note.

JoesSteaks IMG_0076
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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

Van Gogh, Scorsese And I: A Tale Of Mispronunciations

So, there the three of us were, sitting around a table inside a cozy tavern, chatting amiably about nothing in particular and knocking back a round of beers. Vincent van Gogh, Martin Scorsese and I. Respectively, a powerful and visionary visual artist, a commanding director of moving images, and a plebeian with, by definition, an awfully light résumé.  What the heck was I doing at that table, you ask? And where, by the way, were the table and tavern?

In my dreams. That’s the answer to question number two. As for the first query, I was seated with greats solely because we all had something in common: A lot of people did not know how to pronounce our surnames.

Martin Scorsese (Photo by Jeff Vespa; copyright WireImage.com)
Martin Scorsese
There are several purported photographs of Vincent van Gogh. None are totally authenticated. This is believed to be from about 1886.
A purported photograph of Vincent van Gogh believed to be from about 1886.

We’d made more than enough small talk. Turning onto a substantive route, I said to the gent on my left: “Marty, it must drive you nuts that almost everyone thinks your last name is Score-Say-Zee. I wonder how in the world that messed-up notion ever caught on.”

“Neil,” Marty said to me, “I’ve gotten used to it. But it sure would be nice if they’d get things straight. I mean, we’re talking about my name, for crying out loud.” I nodded understandingly.

“Vincent,” I next said, rotating my head slightly to my right, “How do you deal with this? People call you Van-Go, or maybe Van-Gokh. Doesn’t anyone ever do better than that?”

“I gave up on this a long time ago, Neil. My family and my fellow Dutchmen, they know how to say my name. Just about everyone else, fuhgeddaboudit.”

“Guys,” I said. “I hear ya’. I’m not as hung up on the name thing as I used to be. But it still churns me when people say Shee-Nin or Shy-Nin or Shee-In-In. C’mon, I know the spelling is a guarantee to throw almost anyone off, but still . . . ”

A plebeian.
A plebeian.

Scheinin. That’s my last name. A confusing array of letters. But with a simple two-syllable pronunciation: Shay-nin. To make things easy, maybe I’ll legally change the spelling to exactly that, hyphen and all.

I looked leftward once again. “Marty, the only reason that I know how to say your name properly is because years ago I heard you pronounce it on the Charlie Rose interview show. ‘Score-Seh-See’, you said. And ever since then I’ve been careful to say it that way whenever I gab about your movies.”

“Thanks, Neil,” Marty said. “Finally someone pronounced it right.” And I speedily hoisted my right hand to catch the high-five that he threw at me.

“Vincent,” I then said, gazing in the master colorist’s direction. “Yours is very very tricky. And no doubt I’m not gonna be able to duplicate the from-the-back-of-the-throat nuances of the Dutch language. But, good sir, I’m going to give it my best shot. Vun-Khuhkh. Am I right? Am I in the ballpark?”

“Neil, that’s darn well close enough,” he replied, clapping his hands. “That’s the nearest anyone outside of Holland has come in decades.” He smiled broadly as his eyes examined all the planes of my face. Was he toying with the idea of painting my portrait?

The name situation settled, Vincent, Marty and I began to talk of deeper matters. The meaning of art, for instance, and its value to the human spirit. But almost immediately Vun-Khuhkh and Score-Seh-See left me in their wake. Little could I add to their understandings and suppositions. I was more than happy, though, to listen and hopefully to learn, and to toss in a lame comment now and then.

I eventually shouted over Vincent’s and Marty’s lively conversation. “Waitress, three more Guinnesses please.” A few minutes later the dark brews arrived. We downed them greedily.

The hour was advancing, as it always does. “Gentlemen,” I finally said, gesturing to the waitress to bring the bill. “It’s almost time for me to wake up. It’s been a pleasure. And the beers are on me.”

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(Photo of Martin Scorsese by Jeff Vespa; copyright WireImage.com)

(Photo of a plebeian by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin)

We Said “Cheese Please” At Iron Abbey

I’ve grumbled before on these pages about the paucity of loveliness in the townships that surround my suburban Philadelphia home base. Stuck in the middle of a large section of this haphazard overdevelopment is a place that I think is a-ok. Iron Abbey is its name, and beer and good food is its game. It is a gastropub. Location: Horsham, Pennsylvania. My wife Sandy and I ate dinner there recently. One part of the meal, a cheese plate of all things, particularly opened our minds and eyes.

Part of the scene at Iron Abbey.
Part of the scene at Iron Abbey.

Iron Abbey is a large establishment. Its dining areas and bar are on ground level where the look is woody and stoney rustic. Kind of like, who’d have guessed, an abbey. Upstairs are an espresso café and rooms filled with beers for takeout purchase. The beer rooms are wondrous, packed with microbrews, many obscure, from the corners of the globe. For this article, let’s stay on the ground floor, where the beer selections are no less mind-blowing.

Sandy doesn’t like beer. She is a wine lady. Unfortunately for her, Iron Abbey does not cater to wine-by-the-glass ladies or gents. Those selections are slim. The two Sauvignon Blanc choices were overpriced at $10.50, so Sandy, a white wine devotee, instead sipped an eight dollar glass of Cielo Pinot Grigio, direct from Italy. Sandy says she has had better. I took a sample and approved of its dryness but quickly decided its flavor could be richer.

Enough about wines. The Philadelphia region has become a haven for beer geeks, and Iron Abbey is a top example why. I spent five minutes poring over the beer menu. The choices were nearly endless, around 40 on tap and 250 in bottles and cans. The pressure was on. Twice I told our waitress that I needed more time to decide. On her third visit to the table I was too embarrassed to ask for another extension. Firestone Walker Easy Jack IPA I said, pointing it out on the menu’s draft beer section. With craft beers, one usually can’t go too wrong, so skilled have the world’s brewers become. My selection, birthed in sunny California, was proof. Bitter and hopped-up it was, as all good IPAs should be. One of the hops varieties in the recipe imparted a husky tinge of grapefruit flavor to the brew. I liked that a lot.

The best segment of the meal came next. Sandy and I were all set to bypass any starters and simply place our main course orders when I absentmindedly began to pay some attention to the menu section titled “The Board.” There, one may select from various cheeses and meats, all of which are accompanied by an eclectic mix of nibbly stuffs. Why not, we decided. When the waitress reappeared we picked two cheeses and sat back with our drinks. We’re not naïfs, but neither of us had ever before ordered a cheese plate at a restaurant.

The cheese board that we loved.
The cheese plate that we loved.

The cheese plate arrived and we couldn’t have had a better time. It came with salty olives, crunchy excellent French bread, fig and apricot jams, roasted Macadamia nuts,  pickled red onion slivers and membrillo. Yes, I hadn’t a clue either as to what membrillo is. Turns out that it is a firm soft paste made from quince pulp, sugar and water. Some post-Iron Abbey research told me it’s commonly found in Portugal, Spain and Italy. I caught what I thought were flavors from the apple and pear family. Quince, as additional research told me a little while ago, is indeed related to those fruits. Bottom line, the membrillo was delicious. The other accompaniments were too. As for the cheeses, we had selected  Ubriaco Classico from Italy and Ossau Iraty from France. As with membrillo, I’d never heard of either of those cheeses before. For the most part I’m a Kraft swiss and Cracker Barrel cheddar kind of guy. But I know there’s a world of cheeses out there to be explored. The Ubriaco was semisoft and hinted of wine and citrus. The Ossau Iraty was dense and dry and pungent. Sandy and I swooned over both of them and the bread and the nibbly stuffs. This was the most exciting platter of food we’d had in quite a while.

Crab cake entrée (top). Chicken burger (bottom).
Crab cake entrée (top). Chicken burger (bottom).

After the cheese extravaganza we’d have been happy to pay up and leave. We knew that it would overshadow the next course. Which it did. My grilled ground chicken burger, though, was awfully tasty, a comfort dish covered with melted Monterey Jack cheese and sautéed bits of red peppers and onion. The side salad I opted for in lieu of fries was fine too. Sandy’s crab cake entrée was done nicely. The grilled crab cake was charred outside, soft inside and good. Some extra doses of spices and flavorings wouldn’t have been a bad idea, though. It sat atop dreamy mashed potatoes, mushroom slices blended through. Blanched then sautéed itsy bitsy asparagus and carrot pieces, very flavorful, surrounded the mountain.

We had no room for dessert. We paid our bill and thanked our waitress, then squeezed past the crowds to the front door. Iron Abbey is a popular spot. Though it is by no means perfect, there are good reasons why it’s bustling.

(Photographs by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)

Beer Here!

I’m not much of a shopper these days. I don’t spend a lot of time in most stores. A huge indoor mall is near my home, but I rarely go. My visit there recently, a fruitless search for a pair of humble bedroom slippers, was my first in several months. Supermarkets, though, are another story. They are where I head to  indulge what’s left of my urge to buy. I look forward to visiting them, not only to purchase the items that my wife and I inscribe on our refrigerator notepad, but also to check out the remarkable amounts and varieties of just about anything you can name that Americans are able to choose from. There are two supermarkets not far from my house that I especially like to visit, though not to buy food. I go to these stores, Wegman’s and Weis, to ogle (and buy) beers.

In my pre-beer days as a kid in Brooklyn and then Long Island years ago, I wasn’t too big on shopping either. But I did like to spend plenty of time in candy stores. Candy stores were modest establishments that sold a wide variety of items, and usually included a soda fountain and lunch counter. Adults might pop in for cigarettes or greeting cards or a grilled cheese sandwich. The younger set primarily was interested in candy bars and other important stuff like comic books and yo-yos. At candy stores I used to gaze at the colorful rows and rows of teeth-destroyers before making a pick. PayDay, Mr. Goodbar, Chunky, Milky Way, Chuckles and on and on. What a choice. What a decision. What a pleasure. Candy stores linger fondly in my memory bank, but probably all are long gone. I haven’t seen any in decades.

For the last three or so years great pleasure has been mine at Wegman’s and Weis, whose beer aisles are my adult candy store. Wegman’s and Weis are among the few supermarkets in my area near Philadelphia that sell beer. I guess I’m lucky to have them, because it’s not easy for Pennsylvania supermarkets to sell suds. Only a few years ago, Pennsylvania’s State Liquor Control Board, the alcohol overlord, opened the door a crack to supermarkets willing to jump through hoops to obtain a license. So far not many supermarkets have chosen to deal with the process. Pennsylvania has gained fame for its archaic and labyrinthine rules governing the sale of alcohol. Possibly a Talmudic scholar would be able to understand them.

A beer rack at my local Weis supermarket. What's not to love?
A beer rack at my local Weis supermarket. What’s not to love?

In any case, my eyes widen and my heart flutters when I enter the beer section at my local Wegman’s or Weis. Loyal supporters of the microbrew revolution, these stores specialize in the types of beers that I swoon over. Hoppy ones and dark ones and spicy ones, for example. I love nearly all of them, as long as they are loaded with flavor. To me, the craft beer explosion in our fair country is one of the greatest and most positive developments of the past 20 years.

The thrills that rock me in the beer aisles are not very different from my younger self’s thrills in candy stores. Basically, eagerness to ingest the products and giddiness from staring at terrific looking packaging. Yes, not only do most microbrews taste really good, as with candy bars they also are well-dressed. In fact, beer labels are way cooler than candy wrappers ever were.

The six beers that I brought home from Weis.
The six beers that I brought home from Weis.

My aim during my visit to Weis last week was to assemble a create-your-own six pack mostly of beers that I hadn’t had before, and I know that in a few instances my right hand was stealthily guided towards bottles whose labels were too pretty or funky to ignore. I headed home with winners, taste-wise and label-wise, such as Victory Brewing’s Summer Ale and  Left Hand Brewing’s Sawtooth Ale. The photo to the left shows all six purchases (click on the photo to get a bigger image). Dig those crazy labels (excepting the one on Flying Fish’s offering).

More about beer as this blog progresses. Till then, drink in moderation and drive safely.

Dinner Was Better Than The Movie

When my wife Sandy and I go to movie theaters, which is often, we usually go to a restaurant for dinner too. Movie times dictate when we eat. Seems to me that when we both were gainfully employed we’d dine around 7 pm and catch a flick about two hours later. That meant we’d arrive back home at 11:30 or so. I can’t recall exactly why or when that pattern changed a bit, but getting home late at night, and to bed even later, must have set us thinking about schedule alternatives. A sign of aging? Nah, not a chance. In any event, these days we seem to watch maybe one third of our movies in late afternoon, which allows us to dine at a pleasant hour and arrive back at the ranch before 9 pm.

The Ambler Theater, cornerstone of beautiful downtown Ambler PA
The Ambler Theater, cornerstone of beautiful downtown Ambler PA

Such was the case this past Friday at the Ambler Theater in downtown Ambler, Pennsylvania. There we settled into our seats for the 4 pm showing of Far From The Madding Crowd, the fourth film adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s apparently still-beloved novel, first published in 1874. As far as I can recall, I never read the book nor saw the previous cinematic versions. I’m not a completist, so after watching the latest incarnation of Far I have no plans to visit any of the previous efforts.

Far From The Madding Crowd is by no means a bad movie. I’ll hand it, generously, two out of four stars. But it certainly didn’t floor me. It’s kind of slow, which didn’t put me off. It is also a soap opera, which didn’t rub me too wrong either. Soap operas can be fun. What I think I mainly didn’t enjoy were the lines of dialog that seemed to fall flat, or were poorly captured by the boom operator so that I couldn’t make them out (this English-speaking movie cried out for subtitles now and then). And the transition from scene to scene sometimes needed oiling. Other than that . . .

Set in rural England in the early 1870s, Far From The Madding Crowd concerns one Bathsheba Everdene, a young lady aged 18 or so whose innate charms knock men off their feet. Smart and independent, she is not seeking a husband, however. She does not wish to be stifled by the opposite sex. Politely rejecting two decent suitors, she eventually falls for and ends up marrying nogoodnik Frank Troy, an army sergeant who looks so fine in his uniform that Bathsheba’s latent sexual yearnings are forced to the surface. The movie has many plot twists from start to finish. Wait, this is a spoiler alert: Suffice it to say that in the end all is well, or mostly. Frank Troy exits, and steady and sturdy Gabriel Oak, a shepherd and Bathsheba’s first pursuer, finally captures her heart.

One moment at the very beginning of the film didn’t compute, and I’m still wondering how it got past the screenwriter. In voiceover, Bathsheba says that her parents died when she was young and, as there was no one thereafter to ask, she never knew why they gifted her with her uncommon given name. No one? How about asking her aunt, on whose farm Bathsheba is working as the movie opens. Or how about asking the relative from whom, several scenes later, she inherits a farm.

Oh well, that’s a mere quibble. Let me say that I enjoyed the acting of three of the four leads. That trio is Carey Mulligan (Bathsheba), Matthias Schoenaerts (Gabriel), and Michael Sheen (Mr. Boldwood, a rejected suitor). I didn’t clap for Tom Sturridge’s portrayal of Frank Troy, though. Tom’s pencil-thin mustache and darting eyes brought back images of too many silent movie era villains.

The beer I fell in love with at the Broad Axe Tavern.
The beer I fell in love with at the Broad Axe Tavern.

Time to eat. I’ll give three stars to the meal that followed Far, and much of that because of the lovely beer that I discovered. The repast took place in Ambler’s outer limits at the Broad Axe Tavern, where Sandy and I have dined at least 20 times. It’s a gastropub, meaning the food choices extend beyond hamburgers and hot roast beef sandwiches. And, like so many establishments in the Philadelphia region, it carries an incredible number of beers from around the world. That, more than anything, is the draw for me. After studying the beer menu for five minutes, at last I opted for one I’d never before tasted, Franziskaner Weissbier. It is a wheat beer from a German brewery that claims to trace its roots to a Franciscan monastery in 1363. Two thumbs up. Smooth, multi-spicy (pepper, coriander, who knows what else), a tad citrusy. And dig that satisfied monk on the label. Gotta love it.

Crab cake sandwich on left. To its right is grilled chicken panini.
Crab cake sandwich on left. To its right is grilled chicken panini.

Broad Axe’s food is good. I went with the crab cake sandwich and my wife ordered the grilled chicken panini. The former was light on filler, heavy on excellent meat, and pan-sautéed. The latter was large and flavorful, its thick slices of rustic Italian bread delicious. Like countless places these days, Broad Axe, not giving a hoot about contributing to America’s collective expanding waistline, accompanies its burgers and sandwiches with fries. But we weren’t in a fries mood, so for an extra two dollars we each substituted a side salad. On the surface there was nothing unusual about this salad, but it was strikingly fresh and crisp, which is not always the case. The bouncy red wine vinaigrette dressing was an ideal host for romaine lettuce, cucumber, red cabbage and feta cheese. Simple ingredients, top-notch outcome.

We had no room for dessert, though. Around 8 pm, our Ambler evening concluded, home we headed.

A Winning Dinner And A Fashionable Movie

Figuring out last minute Saturday night plans at home in the burbs recently, my wife and I were surprised to find dinnertime slots available on OpenTable for Capofitto, a hot newish Italian restaurant in Philadelphia’s wonderful Old City section. This is a place we’d read about when it opened last autumn. It sounded good and also intriguing, as it contains a ten ton pizza oven that was built by three Italian masons on site from bricks and other materials boated over from Italy. Clearly this is an establishment that takes its pizza seriously, which makes me smile. Quickly we made an OpenTable reservation, shot off to a suburban train station, and rode the rails into Philadelphia. After dinner we planned to catch a movie, Dior And I, at the Ritz Bourse art house cinema, one block from Capofitto. We silently congratulated ourselves for developing such an efficient plan for the evening.

Capofitto's dining room.
Capofitto’s dining room.

Capofitto (233 Chestnut Street) is a good looking place, fairly wide and very long, comfortable but not too fancy. Housed in a building about 115 years old, its modern décor somehow gives off the vibes of a traditionally-decorated Italian eatery. The restaurant is owned by Stephanie and John Reitano, who have placed a geletaria in the front room. This is understandable, as the Reitanos blessed Philadelphia earlier this century with a scattering of mucho popular gelato cafés. Capofitto expands the culinary parameters of the Reitano empire.

Icelandic White Ale
Icelandic White Ale

The first important question is: What beer did I order?  An Italian one would have been appropriate, but for the fact that Capofitto’s beer menu listed a brand I’d never heard of before, from a country I’d never given any thought to as a beer producer. Iceland of all places. Next time at this sweet restaurant I’ll drink Italian, but this night it had to be Einstök brewery’s Icelandic White Ale. This is a wheat beer whose label implies that the brewers toss orange peels and coriander into the vat. I noticed those flavors, but unexpectedly I also found a substantial hint of celery wafting up to my nostrils. Must have been the hops, weird dudes that can impart all manner of tastes and aromas to beer. Regardless, the ale had bite and was refreshingly bubbly and I liked it a lot.

Capofitto's pinoli salad and focaccia bread.
Capofitto’s pinoli salad and focaccia bread.

What then did we have for dinner? Pizza of course, preceded by a pinoli salad. Pinoli? That’s pine nuts to you and me. My wife and I shared both the salad and pizza. The salad was misnamed, being composed largely of shredded fennel and orange slices, and brought to life with a fine milky dressing and ricotta cheese. And with some toasted pinoli too. We thought much of the salad, though a lot more pinoli wouldn’t have hurt. With the salad came focaccia bread, very good indeed.

Our gorgeous pizza.
Our gorgeous pizza.

Our pie, a margherita to which we added salty black olives, was fabulous. The pie crust’s body was thin and crisp, its puffy rim chewy in a satisfying way. The entire crust was heat darkened and blistered here and there, the good quality wheat’s earthy flavor shining through. It’s not every pizza whose wheat catches your attention. My wife and I sighed contentedly as we munched away. This was one of the best pizzas I’ve had in recent years.

Capofitto's oak-burning pizza oven.
Capofitto’s oak-burning pizza oven.

The pizza oven, by the way, is a beauty. I looked it over for a few minutes. Capofitto feeds it wood, oak to be more precise, and it reaches very high temperatures, 900 degrees Fahreinheit or higher. Miraculously it bakes a pie in about 90 seconds.

Now, Capofitto has a large menu. Pizzas, salads, cold meats, cheeses, a few pasta dishes. I’d be surprised if most everything on it isn’t good to excellent. But after the pizza we were stuffed enough and didn’t eat anything more, not even the gelatos that brought the Reitanos their initial fame. We will return to Capofitto, at which time we’ll explore sections of the menu we didn’t get to. For now, on to the movie.

The poster for Dior And I outside the Ritz Bourse.
The poster for Dior And I outside the Ritz Bourse.

No one, most notably my wife, would describe me as a fashionisto. I am aware of trend-setting looks and high fashion, but the road sort of ends there. But like most anything, the world of high fashion, if explained and presented properly, will jump to life even for the mildly interested. At the Ritz Bourse my wife and I, as planned, watched Dior And I. Well-paced and well-developed, it is a documentary about the cloistered world of haute couture. It is very good, worth seeking out. Three out of four stars, I’d say.

Dior And I, directed by up and comer Frédéric Tcheng, follows the travails and successes of Raf Simons during the initial phase of his new job in 2012. For in April of that year, Simons, who had made his name in men’s fashion design, was hired by Paris’s world famous House of Dior as creative director for its women’s lines. Lucky Raf’s first big project began immediately. He had all of eight weeks to design and present Dior’s 2012 fall-winter haute couture collection. A snap, right?

The documentary begins with Raf’s first day at work, when he is introduced to the seamstresses and other staff now under his direction. Throughout the film Simons appears shy, which makes me wonder how he managed to rise to so high a creative and managerial position. Turns out that the House’s founder, Christian Dior, possessed traits similar to Simons’s. The private Dior was a reticent man, uncomfortable with the public demands of his occupation. Simons is aware of the founder’s bearings. On camera he says that he once began reading Dior’s memoir, only to put it down forever after a short while because he recognized too much of himself in Dior’s personality.

Wait, this is a spoiler alert: At the end Simons triumphs, a survivor of the strained nerves and pained expressions that accompanied him during his test by fire. The haute couture show, held on July 2, 2012 in a majestically flowered Parisian mansion, is a hit. There the movie ends. Today, almost three years later, Simons is still on the job. He undoubtedly has grown more comfortable in it.