Saturday, July 25, 2009

Poli kala

One of the supreme pleasures of life for me is experiencing a new, good restaurant with friends, a pleasure I have enjoyed all too rarely here in Maine. I got to do it twice on my trip to New York. The evening of my arrival my friends and I, with two other friends of theirs whom I was meeting for the first time, had dinner at Periyali, a popular and acclaimed Greek restaurant on W. 20th, in what is called the Flatiron district (after one of the many architectural gems of New York City, the Flatiron Building).

The restaurant is housed in a not unusual NYC location, the basement of its building. You walk down a few steps from the sidewalk to get to the entrance, and they have a table in the tiny paved "yard." They asked us if we wanted to eat outside, but Fae and I agreed it was a bit muggy for dining al fresco. Instead, we were led down the length of the casually elegant, low-ceilinged, white-painted main room to what I thought of as the sun room. It seemed to have been built on, as one might add a sun or garden room, and had a skylight through which, I announced to the people at the table about halfway through our meal, one would expect a body to come plummeting from the building above, in a good thriller movie.

The food and drink were excellent. We were fussing about what wine to order, the wine menu having been passed to Fae's husband Jim, the resident wine expert, but I said we were in a Greek restaurant so really should have a Greek wine (reminiscent of my determination to have a German beer at Richard's German restaurant...after all, when in Rome...), and Jim professed he knew nothing about Greek wine. The waiter encouraged us to have a Santorini wine, but having been to a wine tasting at one of Santorini's wineries years ago, and having dumped all but one of the samples into the bushes, I was skeptical. However, the waiter assured us we need only try the one he was recommending -- if we didn't like it, it would go out to the kitchen (and, as Jim said, become the by-the-glass wine for the evening). So we all tried a sip, and all liked it. My present frustration has to do with not being able to specify exactly which Santorini wine it was. All I know is that it was pleasantly dry, with decent body, and "Santorini" could be clearly seen, written in an arch around the top of the label.

I had the lamb chops (I was disappointed that the waiter, who looked Greek, didn't understand me when I tried brushing off my pronun-ciation on the Greek name of the dish, paidakia thedrolivano) which were delicious, though I could have stood another chop. We were all eating off the Restaurant Week menu -- prix fixe of $35 for an appetizer, entree and dessert -- which may have resulted in slightly smaller portions. Perhaps when you order from the regular menu ($31, just for the entree) you get three.

Others had the swordfish, the charcoal-grilled shishkabob of filet mignon, the salmon in a flaky crust with spinach, and the lamb shank, all pronounced excellent. My appetizer was a small slice of spanikopita (spinach pie) with salad greens. It was better than any of the spanikopita I had in Greece -- and I had it frequently, since it was a favorite "fast food" item. This wasn't the least bit heavy, or greasy; really perfection.

As was the evening, even with the typically mad cab ride uptown to the apartment where I was spending the night.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

New York, New York, It's a Wonderful Town

This past weekend I made a whirlwind trip to New York City, to attend the combination birthday/ anniversary party of a couple of old friends. I know Fae and Jim from when I lived in Boston, but they now live in California. Fae is from New York (ah, those mobile Americans), and goes back to visit nearly every year. This year they decided to throw this big party while there, and invited me. This girl does not turn down the chance to go to a party...or to visit the City.

I hadn't been in New York in many years, and found it as exciting and stimulating as ever. One thing that struck me was how many jillions of cabs there are on the streets, surely more than when I lived there (admittedly, a long time ago). It is absolutely great to be able to walk out to the curb, hold up your arm, and in less than a minute have a cab pull up.

However, riding in those cabs can be a truly hair-raising experience. These guys drive like maniacs on the lam from the asylum. Why there isn't an accident every three minutes is beyond me, the way they flit from lane to lane, squeaking in front of each other with maybe a quarter inch to spare. Lots of horn honking. And think of driving like that for hours on end, six days a week! I think the bravest people in New York are all the people riding around on bicycles -- in that mad traffic -- and the second bravest are the cabbies, who contribute heavily to the madness.

I love the variety to be found amongst these madmen of the streets. In a total of five cab rides (I felt like I was in a Woody Allen movie, always taking a taxi, whereas when I lived there I, like most people, went everywhere by subway), my drivers included a man from Pakistan, who had been driving a NYC cab for ten years and assured me the police were too hard on taxi drivers, a man I guessed to be Korean who was very ready to call it quits for the day ("I drop you off, I head for the [Queensborough] bridge."), a Caribbean islander with that distinctive accent, a black man of indeterminate background, and a skinny white kid in Goth dress with spiked hair.

I was surprised to learn that for the past few years there have been bicycle taxis, official name, pedicabs. My god, shades of southeast Asia. Guy peddling away, a passenger lolling in the little carriage in back. The woman who was telling me about them said she'd seen one in which the passengers were a grossly fat man and his wife, and I couldn't help thinking the fellow was either a sadist or incredibly thoughtless. On the other hand, another woman who was listening said, it was probably the sort of fare a sensible pedicab driver would pass on. I myself can't imagine asking another human to peddle me around.

I saw one of these throwbacks to another time and place, unencumbered by any sort of passenger, on my drive uptown to the apartment of Fae's brother, who was kindly providing me with lodging for the weekend. This was on 8th Avenue, on the edge of the theatre district. The pedicabs are most prevalent, I was informed, up around Central Park -- like the traditional horse-drawn cabs -- which was the very area we were approaching. When I had boarded my own cab, down in the West Village where Fae & Jim were staying in a tiny, borrowed apartment, and told the fellow where I wanted to go on the Upper East Side he'd asked me, "Which way you want to go?"

"The fastest way," I'd said, and he'd laughed, and whisked me up 8th Avenue, then across the middle of Central Park along the green, green, stone-walled Transverse Street. thus transporting me effortlessly from the West Side to the East (the street was thick with taxis utilizing this traffic-light-free shortcut).

Tomorrow I'll tell you about the restaurants.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Adopt a Greyhound

A few months ago my library had a program that was almost enough to turn me into a dog owner. A woman from the Augusta area Greyhound Placement Service came to talk about their Adopt a Greyhound program, and about greyhounds in general. She brought her own two dogs, who were beautiful, and beautifully behaved. They let us pet them to our hearts' content, which Beverly said is typical of them, and which is also very soothing. I can see why one of the people who posted an entry on the organization's web site talked about taking his greyhound with him when he went to work at a summer camp. The dog serves as dog therapy for homesick kids.

Since it was a cold January evening, Beverly's two serene beauties arrived wearing their winter coats. I used to think people were foolish, putting clothes on dogs, but now I understand that for some dogs it is a real kindness, since they have very thin natural coats. And greyhounds really are to a large extent "skin and bone," with very little protective fat.

The dogs to be found at the Placement Service, as at similar organ-izations throughout the country, are racetrack retirees, looking for a good home in which to grow old. They are thus not frisky puppies, but calm senior citizens.

On the other hand, one of the interesting – and daunting – things Beverly mentioned is that when you contract to take one of their dogs, you have to sign an agreement to keep it on a leash whenever you take it out. She used a term I'd never heard before – sighthound – to describe the greyhound's nature, which means if it sees something it identifies as "prey", i.e., something moving fast, it's going to take off after it. At the kind of speeds that make it so impressive on the race course. I'm sitting there thinking, 'And little old me holding onto a leash is going to keep it from taking off like that?' I had a cartoon-like mental image of a fat, balding man flying through the air at the end of a leash behind a fang-baring greyhound, in pursuit of a kitty cat.

My brother and sister-in-law in Texas had a greyhound for years, and I always thought having such a large dog gallumping around the house would be a drag. Well, certainly in my tiny house it would be, but apparently a normal-sized house is quite enough room for most greyhounds who are, after all, accustomed to spending much of their time, when not racing, inside kennels. I had also been rather ap-palled by the large "cage" (my word – I think crate or kennel is what they're usually called) the dog was consigned to when Steven and Loretta left the house, and at night. But, again thanks to Beverly, I have learned that these are not cruel doggy prisons, but places where the animals feel safe, and which they know they must not "dirty."

Actually, the issue of "going" was one of the more amusing that came up. Beverly said you often have to encourage greyhounds to go out to do their thing, because they don't necessarily let you know when they need to. Do not scratch the door, bat your leg or whine, etc., like other dogs.

As I've mentioned before, I'm not really a dog person, at least not in terms of owning one myself. But if I were to change my mind -- and if I had the necessary $175 "donation" -- I think it would be for one of these graceful, gentle, doe-eyed creatures – that almost never bark! (Barking being one of the things I don't like about dogs.)

Sunday, July 5, 2009


A couple of weekends ago I drove down to Windham to visit a friend of mine. Talline has health problems and doesn't get out much, so I thought I'd take her to lunch at a restaurant I'd been hearing about on my favorite radio station, WBAC. Located on Main Street in the town of Brunswick, the restaurant, called Richard's, features German food. Since Talline is about all things German the way I am about things French, I thought she would get a kick out it.

It's a pleasant, attractive place, rather dim inside, with the regulation beer steins all around the wall, some of them so large you can't believe people ever actually drank beer from them. I can't get terribly excited about all the wursts German food tends to emphasize (bratwurst, knockwurst, bauernwurst), so I had the Rheinischer Sauerbraten (German pot roast), which was quite good, although the accompanying small, German dumplings were a bit disappointing. They were flavorful, but a little dry, really cried out for a sauce, gravy or soup.

My friend ordered Wiener Schnitzel, but whether because the waitress didn't hear correctly, or because the other dish was slightly more expensive and she thought we wouldn't notice, she wrote Jager Schnitzel on her pad, and that's what Talline got. Apparently the only real difference is the mushroom and wine sauce that comes with the latter dish. At any rate, my friend found what was on her plate delicious, and it wasn't until I got hold of a menu, after receiving the bill and thinking that what we had been charged for Talline's dish was too much, that she realized it wasn't what she'd ordered! Both Weiner Schnitzel and Jager Schnitzel are traditionally made from veal, but are sometimes made with pork loin, which was the case here, which Talline also hadn't realized. I didn't make a stink about the wrong item having been written down and served up, since Talline had enjoyed what she got, and had not reared back at her first bite and exclaimed, hey, this isn't what I wanted!

Although I most often drink water with meals taken out, unless it's dinner, and I'm with friends, in which case I might have a glass of wine, I felt that since I was in a German restaurant, I really should have a German beer. Richard's has quite a selection, but everything on draft and most of the bottled beers were my idea of expensive – especially since I'm not really a big beer drinker – so I finally settled on a relatively cheap bottle of St. Pauli Girl dark (with beer I have found I generally prefer dark to light). It proved to be quite good, so now I know what I can safely, happily order, any time ordering beer is in order.

The bar is tucked away in the back off the main dining room, and you pass by it on your way down the little corridor to the restrooms. As I was making my way to the latter, I heard a familiar voice, the very voice that had encouraged me to come to "Richard's Restaurant" so many times on the radio. All those times I'd heard those ads I'd thought the fellow reading the copy sounded like a movie Nazi ("You vill eat your Veener Sneezle!"), and was sure he was not for real. But apparently he was! I poked my head around the partition and said, "Excuse me for interrupting, but you must be Richard." He smiled and nodded. "You sound just like you do on the radio," I said, "And you're the reason we're here today." Never hurts to let them know when their advertising is working. Richard seemed pleased.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The annual ordeal

Well, I knew it was that time again. Time to put the air conditioners in. Last year I did it on June 8th and was very glad I did because the hot, sticky weather hit the following day. This year I was spared the necessity of performing this onerous task until this past weekend, due to the unusually cool weather (highs only in the 60s), with seemingly endless rain, that we've had for the past few weeks (this soggy weather is, by the way, really getting us Mainers down. Enough already.) But on Thursday, the 25th, the temperature soared into the 70s and very high humidity (the true killer) struck; it was even warmer on Friday. Since my little box of a house, with its poor insulation and no shade trees, quickly becomes a sweat box in hot, humid weather, I knew there could be no more procrastinating.

The first problem is getting the two units up from the basement. They are so heavy I'm doing good to wrestle them out of their boxes and up onto a counter (the one that goes in the kitchen window) or onto a trunk (the one that goes in the study window), where I will attach their little accordion side panels; forget carrying them out the basement door, around to and up the back stairs and through the back door to their appointed resting places. In case you are wonder-ing, it is not possible to bring them directly up the interior basement stair because that is too narrow for anything bigger than a bread box.

Last year my landlord's teenaged son carried the boxes up for me, but this year I decided to see if I could take advantage of the accumulation of young manhood living next door to me. The young man who answered the door, and offered his services, is the same one who regularly clears away all the snow on that side of the parking area that goes with that house – even though four to five cars park there, he seems to be the official shoveler – and who has occasionally cleared the snow from behind my car, as well.

After the affable Arlen lugs the a.c.s up for me – impressing upon me, yet again, the dramatic difference in physical strength between even the most whimpy-looking male, and your average female – and after the aforementioned wrestling on my part to get the units de-boxed and up on a surface where I could work on them, the real fun began. Screwing on the side panels. Which had me swearing mightily last year, but seemed to go much more easily this year, at least on the first panel. But then when I'm on screw number two of panel number two it suddenly strikes me that the panel is backwards. Oh, damn! I've put them on the wrong sides!

So I get to unscrew the two screws I'd just screwed, as well as the four screws on the first side panel, and start again. But now I'm struggling and swearing just as I did last year, because I'm fighting the interference of the panel itself, in trying to get the screws in the holes, and get them sufficiently screwed. I keep muttering, 'This makes no sense; it shouldn't be this hard; this makes no sense!'

In exasperation I go looking for the instruction booklet, which I haven't seen in years. Not in my Important Papers folder, or my Helpful Information folder (which includes such things as how to spell shih tzu, which I can never remember, instructions on how to tie a tie, and a sari, and yes, owner's manuals for various items, one of which I no longer even have...but not for the air conditioners). I look and look at the panels, trying to determine which way they really should be facing, bemoaning my utter lack of visualization skills (this is the hole where the screw that attaches to the window frame goes, but will it work better if this side of the hole is against the wood, or that side?)

I finally decide to go with my instincts – it really should not be that difficult to attach the side panels – and I undo the first side panel yet again; put the original one back on, attach the second panel, and throw the damn thing out the window. Well, you know what I mean.