Fine Dining   Leave a comment

Dinner with Edward is Isabel Vincent’s poignant tribute to an unlikely friendship that evolved for several years over elegantly-prepared meals.

Edward is the 93-year-old father of one of Vincent’s friends; his wife of 69 years has recently died. Vincent is in the midst of a rocky marriage. She is initially reluctant to meet Edward, after all he’s of another generation and she isn’t interested in taking on the role of caretaker. However, once they meet she comes to learn as much about herself as she does about cooking, dining, relationships and manners of a bygone era.

They begin to meet weekly at Edward’s apartment where he always has a martini glass waiting for her in the freezer and a gourmet meal to serve. Their conversations touch on recipes, Edward’s sweet memories of his deceased wife, Vincent’s job as an investigative reporter for The New York Post, her husband and daughter – among many other subjects.

Such a memoir has the potential to be sappy, but Vincent avoids this pitfall through the honest, albeit terse, descriptions of her own emotions and the imagery she creates based on the memories Edward shares with her. This is not a romance in the physical sense, but in an emotional one.

Each chapter begins with a menu Edward prepared. It always includes a dessert and the wine served. It isn’t a good idea to read this on an empty stomach.

More than anything, Vincent shows that the sustenance food provides goes well beyond what’s on a plate.

Dinner With Edward
Four Bookmarks
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hills, 2016
213 pages

Cluck Cluck   2 comments

The idea of gourmet fried chicken may seem to be an oxymoron. It isn’t. It’s simply a great rendition of this comfort food. I’ve previously written about Bouchon which several years ago began offering the crispy fare, using its sister restaurant Ad Hoc’s recipe, on Monday nights. This is why I was pleased that my recent visit to Los Angeles included the first day of the work week. My enthusiasm was quickly dispelled when a private event closed Bouchon abandoning us to seek different dinner plans.

Beast sign

Fortunately, there’s more than one hen house in Southern California. Monday also happens to be fried chicken night at Little Beast in the Eagle Rock area.

Beast chicken

Little Beast fills the space of a comfortable, craftsman style house. The menu features small plates and seasonal dishes. Happy hour includes drink specials and half-price appetizers. We ordered the charred peaches with burrata. Grilled halved peaches are smoky and summer sweet. The soft, creamy cheese provides a nice balance, while croutons add texture. Slices of prosciutto help send this over the top.

Back to the raison d’etre. Fried to a golden caramel color, four pieces of chicken share the plate with cole slaw and two thin, but surprisingly, flakey biscuits. The crunchy coating is peppery and the meat is juicy. The slaw is made with a vinegar-based dressing featuring sliced almonds. The biscuits can be slathered with the accompanying whipped butter and amber honey.

The servings are large, which makes Tuesdays the day for leftover fried chicken.

 Little Beast

Four-and-a-half Plates

1496 Colorado Blvd.

Los Angeles

Taco Tour   1 comment

Back-to-back taco tastings at two Los Angeles taquerias may not constitute a true test, but it did provide a fun opportunity for comparison – plus alliteration. Both Mexicali Taco & Co. and Yuca’s have garnered a lot of ink in The Los Angeles Times, mainly thanks to critic Jonathan Gold; all of it well deserved.

I first heard of Mexicali Taco several years ago in a Gold review. What I recall is that the owners travel to Baja a few times a week for the tortillas. While I think there are plenty of good tortillerias in East L.A., I appreciate Mexicali’s efforts. They are worth it. We ordered carne asada tacos. The meat comes almost naked on a plate, wrapped only in a soft tortilla. A grilled scallion is added for can only be color. It was the carne we were after, but a small salsa bar features a few different heat levels, pickled onions, radishes, slaw, cucumbers and lime. The charred diced meat is surprisingly tender.

However, Yuca’s carne asada is a bit more flavorful. These feature grilled pieces of meat with fresh onion, tomatoes and cilantro. They don’t need anything else except two corn tortillas, which don’t hold up well. Yuca’s offers a few outdoor tables, otherwise plan to eat in your car – if you can’t wait to get home.

The best of the taco world, where these two are concerned, would be Mexicali’s tortillas because they hold up well and have a distinct corn taste, and Yuca’s melt-in-your-mouth carne asada.

Mexicali’s Taco & Co. 
Four Plates
702 N. Figueroa St.
Los Angeles

Yuca’s
Four Plates
2056 Hillhurst Ave.
Los Angeles

Family Ties   Leave a comment

Flournoy-mechanical-HI-NBA-ONLINE-FRONT.jpg

One house, 13 siblings, ghosts and the city of Detroit provide the foundation for The Turner House by Angela Flournoy. Thank goodness she provides a family tree to keep track of Francis and Viola Turner’s offspring. It helps that much of the present-day story focuses on Cha Cha, the eldest of the Turner children, and Lelah, the youngest. They’re separated by 23 years; their issues are familiar but not quite cliches.

Flournoy also takes the reader back to 1944 when Francis leaves Viola and young son in his rural Arkansas hometown to seek a better life in Detroit. Francis plans to send for his family once he’s settled. He stays away for more than a year, leaving Viola to consider other options.

This backdrop is interspersed with how the family has coped through the years. Francis is dead, Cha Cha has grandchildren of his own; even Lelah is a grandmother. Few have intact marriages or relationships, yet the family is close-knit. The house, the one in which all 13 Turners grew up, is empty and fallen into disrepair. Viola is no longer well enough to live on her own; she lives with Cha Cha and his wife in the suburbs.

The house, vividly described with Pepto Bismo pink bedroom walls, narrow stairs and large porch reflects the rise and fall of Detroit. Once alive with the large family’s comings and goings, its monetary worth is practically non-existent. The brothers and sisters, though, are mixed in their assessment of its sentimental value.

The Turner House
Four Bookmarks
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015
338 pages

An Artful Mystery   Leave a comment

338691

A friend has talked about Louise Penny whodunits for years. I finally decided to check out the appeal for myself. The real mystery is what took me so long?

Using humor, a strong sense of place and an exceptionally-likeable main character in the form of Inspector Armand Gamache, Penny has a formula for success. In Still Life, her first foray into the genre, Gamache is brought in from Montreal to investigate the murder of a well-liked member of the small community of Three Pines.

There is an abundance of rcharacters for such a small town, which is actually more of a village. The only one I found extraneous was Agent Yvette Nichol, who is part of Garmache’s team. She’s new to investigation and it’s clear the inspector hopes to serve as her mentor. Through a series of misunderstandings and her own stubborn nature, Nichol falls short of everyone’s expectations – including her own.

The murder and subsequent efforts to solve it are intriguing. The victim, Jane Neal, is offed early (as in the first few sentences), yet Penny imbues a strong sense of amiability in her. Neal is later seen through the eyes of her friends, so even though she is not a “living” character, she remains a prominent one throughout the novel.

The pool of possible suspects is large with plenty of nuance and depth. Of course, it’s Gamache whose intelligence, sensitivity and humor are enough to make me want to read more about him and the investigations he leads.

Still Life
Four Bookmarks
Louise Penny
St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 2005
293 pages

Grief,Growth and Love   Leave a comment

The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing

Assimilation, family expectations and grief are at the heart of Mira Jacob’s The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, which is both humorous and poignant, albeit long.

Although Amina Eapen was born in the United States, her parents’ roots remain tied to their native India. Amina is a single, 20-something, professional photographer. Her mother, Kamala, convinces her to return to Albuquerque on the pretext that Amina’s father is not well.

The story alternates between present day and Amina’s youth. Her parents’ marriage is problematic while her relationship with her brother, Akhil, is more consistent. One of Jacob’s threads leads to a family visit to India when the children are young. Largely, though, the focus is on the siblings in high school and Amina’s struggle to see her mother as more than a manipulator and her father as someone with physical ailments.

The settings Jacob presents include India, a small town near Albuquerque and Seattle. None would seem to have much in common with the other, yet they all contribute to the characters’ personalities and the life paths Amina and her family follow. Interestingly, the Eapens create a tight-knit community with other Indian nationals. They are so close as to be like a large, surrogate family, which Amina finds both tiresome and comforting.

The sounds and smells of India are vibrant in the Eapen kitchen, where food is something that Kamala uses as both bribery and solace. These serve their purpose as the family comes to grip with loss they have long kept buried — literally.

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing
Three-and-three-quarter Bookmarks
Random House Trade Paperback, 2015
498 pages

Posted May 18, 2016 by bluepagespecial in Uncategorized

From Russia With Art   1 comment

23995336

Anthony Marra is the master of foreshadowing. At times he’s subtle, then he’s as obvious as an agitated teenager reeking of cigarettes claiming he doesn’t smoke. This was true of his first novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and follows suit in his most recent: The Tsar of Love and Techno.

Marra has chosen a similar setting in Russia with another interesting cast of characters; however, he spans more time, beginning in 1937 continuing to present day. He expands the setting from Siberia to Leningrad/St. Petersburg to Chechnya: landscape is a crucial element.

The narrative begins with an artist in the propaganda department whose job is to erase enemies of the state whose images appear in paintings and photographs. He does this by blotting out faces with ink or by painting something new, which is often his dead brother’s face. It appears in a myriad of scenes representing various phases of his life: child, teenager, middle age and old age.

With each chapter comes a new narrator, in a different setting providing a singular element to the overall novel. The stories are a progression. It’s no spoiler alert to note that the pieces do eventually fit together (very well). Even if they didn’t, Marra’s writing is full of wit and pathos. The images of the pollution-wreaked mining community in Siberia are stark and frigid; just as a Chechnyan hillside is pastoral and warm. The men and women introduced by the author are so human their breath practically turns the pages.

The Tzar of Love and Techno
Four bookmarks
Hogarth, 2015
365 pages

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 617 other followers