Richmond

hair today

It's a cliché to claim that a barber is a counselor or an advisor, but it's a claim with merit. That a proper barber possesses skills in the cutting, trimming, and shaving of all things growing from a man's capital follicles goes without saying. But any barber worthy of his chair provides much more for the common man than a simple ear-lowering.

You see, a man makes himself vulnerable in a barbershop - trusting his own flesh and blood to the scissor- and razor-wielding hands of another. Such trust, cemented over time and trimmings, opens one up to his fellow man. Perhaps it starts (and indeed may stop) with talk of sports, fishing, food, or events around town. Eventually, however, a loyal customer may feel comfortable sharing the minor trials of life and work. Nothing shared in a barbershop ever passes from those walls. One leaves his stress and clippings behind as he steps out beside the candy-striped pole, refreshed.

True barbershops become more difficult to find every year as fewer men enter the trade and the old professionals retire or pass away. This is problematic for me because I have such finicky hair; it grows out rather than down, almost fro-like. Most unisex hair salons, consequently, ask little more than what guard size to use on my head. I see no point in paying for what I could do myself (and certainly no point in tipping for such lack of imagination). So I was excited, several years ago, to discover a younger barber working at the William Byrd Hotel Barber Shop here in Richmond, VA. Dave was only in his later 30's but possessed the demeanor and skill of the elder barbers of my youth. After a few months he needn't ask me how I wanted my hair cut; he simply told me to have a seat and got started. I left each month feeling like my hair had a style and shape heretofore unavailable to a Brillo-headed boy like me.

Dave was from Pennsylvania. So each month when I parked my tukhus in that chair we extolled the virtues of a real deli and a genuine pizzeria. We lamented the paucity of decent bagels in Richmond, talked about the real New Jersey Shore, and traded jabs over the Giants (my team) and the Jets (his). Dave wasn't perfect and he had his issues, but he was always affable and a welcome sight on a Friday afternoon when I walked in with a head full of fuzz. One time my wife and I even ran into him at the bar in Lemaire at the Jefferson Hotel and he bought us each a drink. Each month I tipped him well (I believe) and tipped much more in December before Christmas. And Dave called me Danny. You see, everybody generally calls me Dan or Daniel, except my family. Now Dave was hardly family, but he sounded like my family in his manner of speech, so there was something reminiscent of my Yankee childhood when he greeted me.

Today I stepped into the William Byrd Hotel Barber Shop just as I always do on the first Friday afternoon of the month. Dave's chair was empty, and when I asked the short Slavic woman where he was she informed me that he left.

"Day off?" I asked.

"No, he left. He's gone."

Gone? He'd left without notice, it seems. Too dumbstruck to simply walk out, and no back-up plan in my head, I sat down in her chair.

"What clipper size? Number two on side and three on top?" she asked. She proceeded to give me the most boring haircut I've had in years. She rushed those clippers over my head with all the style, grace, and craft of military in-procesing.

I don't think I'll be going back to the William Byrd Hotel Barber Shop anymore.

Sunday Supper Series: Louisiana Flair

crawfish boil

This past weekend was the second event in The Marinara's "Sunday Supper Series" - and this time it was on a Saturday night. I was on hand, once again, as the photographer. The venue was Louisiana Flair, and HOLY CRAP, was it ever a feast.

Chef Nate was a true entertainer if ever there was one, and he dutifully taught the crowd how to eat crawfish. The ensuing feeding frenzy around the spread in the picture above was a sight to behold as friends and strangers literally rubbed elbows in pursuit of perfectly cooked and seasoned mud bugs. Everybody eventually settled in around their tables sipping on the beverages they had brought and anticipating the next courses. And oh! the rest of the food was delicious. The gumbo threatened to steal the spotlight from the crawfish boil and, while I had never yet tasted the dish, I fear I may have been spoiled already. Any future gumbo will have big shoes to fill. There was also wonderfully crispy fried catfish (and some delicious, fiery hot sauce) and lake trout. Our dessert was king cake - a kaleidoscopically-colored confection that tasted like a cinnamon roll.

It was a great success, I thought, and I met a number of new folks including RVAFoodie. I will, tragically, be out of town for the next event. But I'm told the next Sunday Supper will be May 22nd at The Empress. Keep a sharp eye on The Marinara's site for details in the intervening weeks.

vcu advances to the final four

Quick update: VCU gave me a scare on Friday night beating Florida State by 1 point in overtime, and University of Richmond fell hard to Kansas. But my VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH UNIVERSITY Rams soundly defeated Kansas this afternoon 71-61 to advance to the Final Four.

Looks like I'm watching more basketball next weekend!

river city sweet sixteen

I earned my bachelor's degree from Virginia Commonwealth University. I'm working on my business degree from the University of Richmond right now. Each of these schools face challenging opponents tonight in the Sweet Sixteen round of play in the NCAA Men's basketball tournament. It's the first time both schools have been in the Sweet Sixteen together, and VCU's first time making it this far at all. Here's hoping for victory for both of my schools so they can face each other in the Elite Eight on Sunday!

Here's to watching nearly 5 hours of basketball this evening...

wistful grill

The website for McCormack's Whisky Grill heralds its own eventual arrival with a nonchalant "Coming Soon." That's funny because, while the Whisky Grill has been operating for months now, it feels like a restaurant that shouldn't be open yet. I was in the mood for trying out a couple of whiskies while I met up with some friends for a chat, and having not yet eaten, I figured I'd try the food as well. That was a mistake.

First problem: the menu. The variety was impressive, for a minute. Short of splitting whiskey (or whisky, as the case may be) in to Scotch, North American, and Irish, there was little to indicate what you were getting into if you were a newbie. I'm not, but I'm no expert, either. Which of the North American offerings were bourbon? Rye? Scotch-style single malt? Maybe this is to encourage interaction with the staff to ask for help? I'm not really sure (though the bar tender seemed knowledgable).

The menu was a bit overwhelming in general. The whole thing was something like 11x14 inches (or bigger?) and contained multifarious laminated pages held together in one corner by a little chain like you'd use for dog tags. There was a tiny page of beers (decent selection, all in bottles/cans), a half-sheet of wines ("exclusively Italian" said the waitress, but without further explanation), two double-sided full sheets of booze, and one double-sided full sheet of food ranging from humble to $20+ entrées. I saw a brisket sandwich, and after confirming with the waitress that they smoke it in-house, I decided on that for my dinner with a side of fries. Nothing fancy - just simple, stick-to-your-ribs neighborhood bar kinda food. Right?

I wish. The fries should have been cooked longer. The roll used for my sandwich had all the flavor and character of the bread served at Outback Steakhouse (looked like it, too). And the brisket? They wasted the use of their smoker. The meat wasn't tender - almost chewy in fact - had no smoke flavor, and bore no visible evidence of having been smoked (like a smoke ring). Maybe I would have tasted the smoke if it wasn't for their overpowering sauce. It's not that the brisket was swimming in sauce, but it tasted and smelled despairingly like a sloppy joe sandwich. The lack of tenderness in the meat would also have been less of a factor had they not cut the brisket into 1/2-inch thick slabs. Taking a bite felt like mandibular gymnastics as I tried simultaneously to cut through the meat with my teeth and not pull the contents out from the bread. I finished neither the fries nor the sandwich.

My two friends and I thought it might be fun to share an order of the funnel cake on the dessert menu, but no dice. The waitress explained that it's been on the menu for something like six months without ever having been available. Six months! What else are they pretending to serve at this restaurant? So instead I opted for their homemade vanilla ice cream. This was truly unfortunate, because it was almost right, but ultimately came up short. The flavor was great; complex real vanilla flavor with nutmeg and sweet creaminess. A pleasant companion to some George Dickel #12 bourbon. But the texture of the ice cream was way off. Tough, almost crumbly. It didn't taste freezer-burned, so maybe they just stored it too cold? I haven't made enough ice cream myself to know what could lead to this, but it improved as it melted down.

The interior of the Whisky Grill is pretty nice - for my tastes at least - and the four level shelving behind the bar is an impressive sight for lovers of fine spirits. But the food here makes me never want to return. Maybe it was just a case of the Mondays, but I felt like so little care was put into my dinner that I wouldn't want to try anything else on the menu. Huge list of whiskeys? Sure, but staggering variety doesn't automatically mean a good dining/drinking experience (or we'd all be eating at The Cheesecake Factory...). Give me a well-curated list and it'll be good whether there are 5 or 50 choices.

Skip this place. If you want passable bar food and some quality adult beverages on Robinson, you'd do far better at Commercial Taphouse.

Sunday Supper

dinner

This past Monday evening I was fortunate enough to participate in a practice run for the upcoming Sunday Supper series, organized by The Marinara himself, Matt Sadler. I was on hand to take promotional photographs, but my wife and I were also sharing in the event and the delicious food that came with it. This practice session, and the first official event in the series, focus on chef Carlos Silva of Bistro 27 in downtown Richmond. Matt is selling tickets for the meal on March 27th at 7 PM.

Now I'm biased because I was working for/with Matt on this practice run, but I did still eat the food, and it was delicious. The experience of sharing a meal with the chef in this intimate setting was fantastic, and the conversation built up by the end of the evening added to the convivial nature of the event.

So go ahead! Get a ticket or two while you still can. Let's make this first event a smash hit so Matt can organize more of them in the future.

Creatives, Subject 4: The Hand Crafter

phil

Phil Barbato makes fantastical plush creatures, prints, paintings, cartoons, and whatever else his mind impels his hands to create.

Having studied fine art at Virginia Commonwealth University, Phil had spent a number of years working as a web designer here in Richmond before deciding to make hand crafting his vocation. Whether it's drawing a bear a day for a year on his iPhone, a wall of small paintings, or hundreds of hand-sewn monsters, bears, robots and sea creatures, Phil's work is unified by a playful aesthetic, reminding me that even serious art can be silly and light-hearted.

Oh, and buy his stuff, 'cuz it's pretty awesome.

Portra 160NC
Graflex Speed Graphic

P.S. I promise I didn't ask the last three subjects in a row to dress with any formality. Purely their choice, but I like how it worked out. I think I'll go for more casual shots on the next few, though.

Creatives, Subject 3: The Web Slinger

ross

Ross Catrow is a web designer/developer and co-owner of PharrOut, a Richmond-based design shop.

There was no major for web design at Virginia Tech while Ross attended, so he chose math in an effort to keep himself interested. It also afforded him more time to watch his beloved Hokies football. Tired of working for other people after college, Ross and his friend, Scott Pharr, started their business so they could be their own bosses. Out of this environment, Ross created RVANews - a publication of broad scope that covers news, events, and editorial content in and around the Richmond area. Ross maintains the website in addition to contributing a portion of its written content.

jaks bagels

Look, I wanted to like Jaks Bagels. So Badly. The prospect of bagels in Carytown was wonderful. I like Cupertino's well enough (though they're no Bagel Oven up in Jersey), but they're all the way out near Innsbrook and I live downtown. Having a shop about ten minutes from home would be great. Sadly, it is not (yet) to be.

Now let me get this straight - I don't want any of this to come across as mean, because I understand that these folks are new. Not just new to a Carytown storefront, but new to bagel baking as well. But I'm not going to sugar-coat my review for the sake of politeness either. This is a business, and they want people to spend money on their wares.

I went in on Saturday morning with my wife. She had one bagel with cream cheese, and I had two different bagels, each with butter. Rather than a long, draw-out narrative, here are a few long, drawn-out points:

1. Service was terribly slow and inefficient from the start, with the people ahead of us already having ordered. The woman who took my wife's order was having some serious issues cutting the bagel with the knife and nearly mangled it in the process. There should be a better bread knife, or a drop-in slicer, I think. If a knife, I'm hoping a week of customers has been enough practice to speed that up.

They were also using a 4-slot consumer toaster. This is less than ideal for more uniform, commercially-produced bagels, but for Jaks, it was worse. These bagels were more amorphous and, having been cut unevenly, had to be shoved into the toaster slots. After the slow toasting time I watched as another server had to dislodge half of a bagel with the slicing knife.

Also curious was the storage of the butter and the cream cheese. The servers used individually packed condiment cups even for our eat-in bagels. I can understand keeping those around for take-out, but pulling little cups out of the bottom of the fridge case meant extra firm, barely-spreadable condiments that added more time to the order as our sever struggled to coat the surface of the bagels (the second of my two bagels was missing butter entirely).

I'm going to cut a lot of slack on these service issues - I understand they only opened on 2/2 and I visited on 2/5. I wish they had better prepared for customers, but these problems can be ironed out.

2. The bagels. Oy. Where to start? The outside, of course. I had a salt bagel and an asiago cheese bagel. The mention of salt bagels on their website had me excited about the place prior to their opening. It was a sign that, perhaps, the owners were familiar with proper bagels from Up North. But this salt bagel seemed to have only a light dusting of...kosher salt? Yeah, I think it was kosher salt flakes. The outer skin of the bagel was rough and uneven, as if it had been stretched but not rolled afterward. There was no faintly crisp skin, no shine to its surface. The asiago, on the other hand, was just so covered in the cheese that the skin/crust/whatever was less of a factor.

Taking a bite out of the bagel highlighted the real problems, though. The dough was too dense, so instead of the expected slight, tender chewiness it felt more like the bagel simply tore apart. The density wasn't uniform, though, so each bite varied slightly, and you could see some darker spots inside on my wife's bagel and mine where it seemed too much moisture had prevented part of the bagel from cooking all the way through. It wasn't un-cooked or doughy, but perhaps not as cooked as it could have been.

The flavor really wasn't there, either. I'm no baker myself, but It seemed to me that the floury taste hadn't fully cooked out of the bagels. But there may have been something else, too; if they par-boil their bagels - as any proper shop should - perhaps they are using baking soda in the water (some shops do this instead of honey or malt)? If so, maybe they're being a bit heavy handed with it? Not sure. I only ate the top half of each of my bagels.

I give a lot less slack for the food than I do for the service. I feel like something as simple in concept (though certainly not simple in execution) as a bagel should be all set before you open to the public. This reminds me of Pie in The Fan, a restaurant where the branding appeared more fully-formed than the dough recipe when they opened. People have strong opinions about pizza and bagels, so it's risky to serve something that isn't ready for prime time.

So.

I want Jaks to succeed for selfish reasons. I want good bagels closer to my house. But I cannot tell my friends to go eat bagels that I don't like just to keep a restaurant alive. I may not have to, though. Plenty of people might love Jaks. They may very well survive on the palates of Richmonders, and that's fine, I suppose. Most folks in my fair city did not, after all, grow up in the Tri-state Area, so they have different tastes and that's okay. But if other people feel the same way I do, it could be a rough road for the new shop. One of the most important parts of a brand is what you're actually selling, and no website or clever slogans can hide that.

For the time being, I can only hope the new Cupertino's location (now open on Main between 12th and 13th) is open on weekends so I can get a serviceable bagel without having to drive out to the West End. If anybody DOES repeatedly eat at Jaks Bagels, however, and notices improvement over time (and consistency is established), I'd love to give it a second try. But I'm not going to pay to be a test subject.

Creatives, Subject 2: The Graphic Artist

ansel olson

Ansel Olson makes environmental graphics through Ansel Olson Design and puts his camera to work for Ansel Olson Photography.

Photography has been a thread running through Olson's life and career. While he holds degrees in Interior Design (BFA) and Graphic Design (MFA), he has created an additional business for his work behind the camera that highlights not only the output of skilled architects, but Ansel's own love of the created space. His primary line of work, through Ansel Olson Design, involves a broad range of signage, wayfinding, and brand/identity work projects around Richmond and far beyond.

His professional and personal work have been an inspiration to this photographer.

Ektar 100
Graflex Speed Graphic

Creatives, Subject 1: The Chef

tim

I've started a personal photo project celebrating people whose daily work revolves around their own creative output. All of them will involve my Speed Graphic large format camera. Here's the first shot, taken with Kodak Ektar 100.

Tim Bereika is the executive chef at Secco Wine Bar.

Once a graphic designer for a national advertising agency, Tim has turned a mixture of classes (both domestic and abroad) and a variety of commercial kitchen experiences into an extensive culinary toolbox. Blending his skills as a designer and cook, he produces some of the most creative food in Richmond, VA.

tough gristle

A friend of mine informed me that Belmont Butchery's Tanya Cauthen is suing Sausage Craft, the nascent wholesale sausage company started by former employees Chris Mattera and Brad Hemp. While the Style Weekly article and Mattera suggest this is about the sausage itself, Cauthen intimated that the wholesale sausage business was the cause for concern. I don't know the main parties here on a personal level, and I don't think I could expect Tanya to discuss this during business hours with a semi-regular customer like myself, but I do have some lingering questions about the whole situation, because this whole thing leaves a bitter taste in my Richmond-food-scene-loving mouth...

1. What IS the suit really about? Is it the recipes? The wholesale sausage concept/business model?
2. Did Mattera and Hemp actually plan and start executing on this idea while Cauthen was away?
3. Is Sausage Craft actually an idea stolen from Cauthen? That is, was it a firm plan in motion (about which at least Mattera or Hemp was aware) that Sausage Craft preempted? Did Mattera and Hemp work with Cauthen on the idea under false pretenses?
4. Most important, I think...Was there any kind of non-compete contract?

Without a contract I don't think there's much support for this suit because, regardless of the ethics behind the formation of Sausage Craft, this is a lot closer to a carpenter saying he's going to start building cabinetry, and his partner parts ways to start a cabinet business first. Making and selling sausage is trade craft, not trade secrets, and the concept of wholesale commerce is older than the city of Richmond. If Mattera and Hemp did anything sneaky (and I don't know enough to say whether they did or not) than it sure dues suck, but I just don't see grounds for legal action.

Now I like Chris and Brad and Tanya, and I like their work a lot. I always liked chatting with the guys when they were still at Belmont, and I still like chatting with Tanya when I go in there. I've always felt like, for a layman like myself, they were able to assist and inform me when I needed help or suggestions. I don't really want to take sides here, but I'm honestly kind of miffed that this lawsuit even exists.

Why not simply try to compete instead? Belmont Butchery is already well-established. Wouldn't they, then, have an advantage over Sausage Craft if they wanted to move into the wholesale business? They have an existing reputation on which to trade and existing facilities to get started. That, at least, could have been a head start over Sausage Craft. But Sausage Craft is making deliveries today and Belmont, to my knowledge, doesn't yet have a wholesale operation. I say just let the market and consumers decide this one. I buy sausage from both outfits, and I buy plenty of other products from Belmont Butchery that Sausage Craft never intends to sell. Perhaps we'll find that Richmond has plenty of room for both companies.

experimenting with front rise 1: carriage house

carriage house at Maymont

The "front standard" - or the flat plate with the lens on it on my Speed Graphic - can shift upward by about 1.5 inches. It's how you get pictures of buildings without converging lines. That's one of the movements available on tilt/shift lenses. In this case, I used a level to make sure the camera was pointed straight ahead. At first, the top of the building was cut off. By shifting the front standard upward, I was able to include the top of the building without affecting the perspective. Most of the vertical lines are parallel in this shot (where the building is plumb, of course), but the effect is less pronounced with a lens like mine that isn't really wide angle. For a better non-Photoshopped examples of this effect, check this awesome shot from Ansel Olson on Flickr.