Sunday, December 30, 2012

Christmas 2013: White Elephants and Fifty Shades of Chicken

I seemed determinedly anxious as we approached Christmas this year.  I was anticipating seeing the kids in an almost obsessive way and I think it was due to the Newtown tragedy.  The niece and nephew weren't within eyesight after that tragic  (as they live a couple of hundred miles away) and once we did arrive in Jeff City on these holidays, I was bordering on clingy with those poor young'uns.  I know their folks, K's sister and brother-in-law, take excellent care of them but part of me almost wished I could watch over them all the time.  Alas, it doesn't work that way, though, does it?

I eventually relaxed my grip on them (and regained a tenuous grip on my sanity) and settled into the welcome, familiar groove of the family holidays.  We gathered 'round the table (after gathering "round to admire the cherry 'Vette in the garage K's dad is working on) for the traditional Christmas Eve repast of oyster soup, clam chowder, country ham and some wonderful homemade rye and wheat bread that Dave had made.  Dessert was a rich, decadent chocolate cake from a Barefoot Contessa recipe (found here) that we enjoyed while the kids tore through their Christmas stockings. This year's Christmas Eve was decidedly more melancholy as the first without Grandpa Winge, but that's not to say we couldn't find humor when we needed it.  K's sis Kim got a charge from the Fifty Shades of Chicken cookbook (a parody based on the naughty bestseller) we got her as a gag gift.  Mustard-spanked chicken, anyone? 

The next morning, we joined up at Kim and Dave's for Christmas morning madness that centered around the usual flurry of paper and camera flashes with a couple of added solo piano pieces performed by the kids on the family's recently acquired baby grand.  Among the kid's gifts were a fortune cookie maker for Sierra who had a ball creating different varieties...with icing and sprinkles to boot.  The real meal would later involve Dave's delicious pork roast with bleu cheese, cranberries and pears, with homemade stuffing, broccoli-rice casserole and our fresh roasted green beans with fresh Parmesan. The piece de resistance of this meal would be Dave's dessert of a homemade French apple pie warm with vanilla ice cream and vanilla brandy sauce.  So, so good.

Later that evening would be the annual Winge Christmas party that this year took place at Aunt Diane's stunning home.  I've visited this beautiful abode once before and continue to remain gobsmacked at the endlessly intricate detail in every corner.  When I wasn't strolling around once again taking it all in, we were munching on baked potato soup and our friend Deb's homemade pecan pie.  We ended the evening with a  "white elephant" gift exchange.  Among the gifts drawing big guffaws in the room were a plastic dancing flower pot, a bag of charcoal and an empty Budweiser case containing one empty Bud can.  What an ice breaker! 

The ho-ho holidays were a hit again.  Now if only I had time to rest up from them.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

To Old Friends and New Hangs: A Night At The Hotel Philips and the Kill Devil Club

So I’m watching a few minutes of Risky Business, one of my fave high school flicks, the other day and saw a once-upon-a-cooler Cruise don his Ray-Bans and once again say “Sometimes you just gotta say what the……” well, you know .  Some of my work colleagues and I were feelin’ a bit stressed and wretchedly busy and decided to say just that and eke out a night for a makeshift holiday outing and head to points south for some downtown flavor.

We met at the Hotel Philips, that historic hotspot where my old buddy John was now a manager.  It was so good to see John once again….I still treasure those bygone days when we worked together and I assisted him with some very popular Sunday night wine tastings.  He is definitely in the center of it all now and yet remains as endearingly laid-back as ever.  We caught up over a Tank 7 at 21 Baltimore, the clubby bar area as the evening’s jazz musicians were setting up.  I was thrilled to not only find out John was engaged but he proposed on the hotel roof where the view of the downtown skyline is breathtaking.    My current hotel cohorts met up with me and we continued on with cocktails and appetizers.  I tried out a refreshing lemongrass mojito and they paired quite nicely with the killer grub we ordered.  The “12B” spinach-artichoke dip was certainly tasty, but the true kudos goes to both the Handmade Truffled Tater Tots and the Calamari.  Both made me want to inelegantly lap from the plates….the Boulevard mustard sauce with the tots and the Beurre Blanc (butter sauce), tomato relish and capers with the calamari were equally divine accompaniments. .  We had meant to tour the Philips before we left, but alas, ran out of time, but still got to take in that gorgeous 1931 Art Deco lobby.   Thanks to our old buddy John for a terrific evening.  

We strolled on through the chilly, sparkling downtown streets to the Power and Light district where we settled in at the Kill Devil Club, the latest venture by restaurateur and cocktail impresario Ryan Maybee.  It’s a sexy little joint with cozy banquettes; all deep reds and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the district.  The cocktail servers rock their flapper wear and the barkeeps sport a jaunty vintage look. Gotta love a menu that's toplined by a pic of Hunter S. Thompson in his young Rum Diary days. The libations were suitably impressive: our table sipped on the Man’s Ruin (an eye-opening blend of Old New Orleans Cajun Spiced Rum, Old Overholt rye whiskey, Punt E Mes…an Italian vermouth..and Burlesque bitters ), the Tailwind (10 Cane rum, green chartreuse, lychee and lime) and the Pendergast (Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Dolin Rouge, Benedictine and bitters).  Exhausting to describe; sublime to sip.  Our nibbles were quite jelly themselves…the Artisanal Cheese Board with some killer artichoke truffle puree and some ridiculously yummy Cuban sliders featuring braised pork belly, Serrano ham, grain mustard, Swiss cheese and the chef’s housemade, marvelous spicy pickles.   We reveled in the entertainment, particularly piano wizard and his soulful take on the Thong Song.  

My colleagues and I achieved some well-deserved relaxation and agreed we wanted to make this a more regular thing…in fact, the Hotel Philips and the Kill Devil Club were so enjoyable, we just might make them a regular part of that thing as well. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Birthday Boy Gets His Castle

For lo these many moons, the K-Man has dreamt of castles.  He has admired them from afar for many a year and as true castles are bit out of our financial reach at the moment, I arranged a night at the next best local thing for his birthday this year....Renee Kelly's Harvest.

A brief little aside regarding Keith's birthday: the past few birthday celebrations have not been very...celebratory.  There was the year in the private room at the Melting Pot where the savory fondue seemed decidedly less appetizing in the presence of my wretched head cold.  Another year saw the perfect set-up of dinner at the Savoy and a room at the Intercontinental overlooking the Plaza Lights that kicked off with a flat tire in freezing rain and crawled downhill from there.  I would prefer not to even remember, let alone recount, that birthday eve of gingerly walking down an icy sidewalk toward the Sprint Center only to see Keith take a header on the sidewalk.  Brief unconsciousness resulted in an ambulance ride to the Truman Hospital emergency room where we would spend the night before he would be released so that I could drive us home in an ice storm.

So, to say the very least, I tend to approach K's birthday with a bit of trepidation.  And sure enough, when the day approached, the first snowstorm of the winter was bearing down on us.  He and I drove to work the morning of his birthday in the aftermath of the fresh and frozen new snowfall.  The near-blizzard conditions resulted in the roads being a sparkly sheet of ice and we essentially held our breath for most of the commute.  When we left work that evening to head to the restaurant, we had yet another 30 minute haul and the roads, while improved, were still dicey.  I left it up to Keith and as we were going to be joined by friends for dinner, we very nearly cancelled.  We, along with our friends, decided to press on and in the end, were so happy we did.

Renee Kelly's is located in stately Caenan Castle in Shawnee, KS.  Caenan Castle was built in 1907 and the interior where the restaurant is located is intricately gorgeous....all soft lighting and roaring fireplaces and dramatic tapestries with a towering staircase as the grand centerpiece.  We were seated in a cozy corner at a round trestle table in the turret-like corner where several of the local menu sources were listed above the mantle.  Cocktails like the Caramel Apple (amaretto, Stoli apple and Apple Pucker) were soon being sipped and starters like the pickle platter featuring some tangy pickled okra were sampled.  We savored our hearty farm-to-table entrees: Keith loved the Happy Chicken (roasted with balsamic reduction and served with wild rice and quinoa pilaf) and I savored every bite of the fabulous Mustard and Sage Pork Chop (lightly breaded, finished with a red wine and honey reduction, topped with beets and served with killer greens sauteed in molasses) that I paired with a Tallgrass Velvet Rooster; a seriously smooth Belgian-style Tripel with a Champagne-like effervescence.  The fantastic finishing touch was a wicked S'mores dessert of housemade toasted marshamallows served between warm chocolate-chunk cookies with chocolate ganache and toasted pecans.

Our group was treated to a walk about the castle to see the patio that must be a hotspot in the summer as well as the downright medieval wine cellar where one would truly feel like royalty to dine there.  Renee Kelly's has enjoyed a great reputation as a private even venue and has just recently taken on the restaurant adding Harvest to its name and aren't we all lucky they did - it'a a must-visit little wonder of a destination.  In the end, all were more than satisfied and we were all new fans of the excellent Renee Kelly's Harvest.  The K-Man got his castle and had a wonderful birthday tp boot. 

Whew.  Thank you, Renee Kelly's. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Christmas Spirit

I worked over the weekend on holiday payroll and the work pressure amongst the rest of the surrounding holiday madness was a tad annoying, I'd have to say.  We also got our first snow of the winter a couple of days ago and we got enough snow and ice to be just dangerous enough and make for some dicey driving.  Despite the many lovely personal moments over the past month, I wasn't quite feeling the Christmas spirit, as it were.

Recently, several work cohorts and I adopted a family that included several young children who needed a little Christmas help.  We gathered and wrapped gifts and gave them to the family last week.  Today, as I was shuffling about work, grumbling for having to be there on a Sunday afternoon, I checked my mailbox and found several handwritten letters of gratitude from the kids of the family-in need "to Santa".  They had enjoyed a wonderful Christmas. I stood there, eyes welling up, and all of that selfish stress just melted away.

As we age, many of us find ourselves uttering a grumble of how kids today have it so much easier than we did, but the recent tragedy in Newtown, CT is just further proof that kids today are faced with realities we never dreamt of.  I'd be the last person to tell anyone how to parent, but as I was preparing to go visit our two favorite kids for Christmas, I got to thinking about how this holiday really is about the young ones and how it felt more necessary than ever to help our kids feel some of that patented magic of Christmas this year. I suddenly couldn't wait to see Sierra and Tanner and celebrate my regained holiday spirit with them.

Ann Curry of NBC News started an extraordinary effort to honor the victims of the Sandy Hook tragedy in Newtown, CT.  She started a Twitter campaign that has gone viral called #26acts, suggesting that everyone go out and do 26 random acts of kindness in honor of each of the Newtown victims.  It has grown by leaps and bounds.  One could even click here and  make one of those random acts a donation to benefit the victim's families.  The link connects to a Huff Post article that outlines various donation sources that are reliable organizations.

Merry Christmas, everyone.  Love on your loved ones; especially the young ones. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Jane's Christmas Dinner: Stop Your Jibber-Jabber!

The holidays are a head-spinning whirlwind of lip-smacking grub and quality time with family and friends and for me, one of the most cherished of those is Jane's annual Christmas dinner.  The usual suspects gathered once again at darling Jane's cozy homestead on Thursday night to celebrate the holidays together.
The setting was what we hope for every year; both familiar and welcoming.... Jane and Jo waving from beside the Christmas tree on the deck; Jake the pup barking a welcome to us, the enticing aromas of food simmering on the stove as we walk in.  We all embrace, pour wine from various bottles (Chronic Cellar's Dead Nuts Zinfandel from me; a wedding gift from Cassie and Abs), and settle in around samples of the evening's appetizers, Boursin and creamy Saint-andre cheeses.  The gifts were once again suitably foodie: gourmet Rossi pasta from us, loaves of bread locally made at Bloom Bakery from Jo, baskets of spices bought from Planter's (Greek and and an amazing garlic-roasted red pepper included) by Linda, cutlery from culinary Wonderland Pryde's Kitchen from Jane and wonderful jars of homemade pickled onions from Jeff and Ronnie. Ronnie also once again brought the Christmas crackers for some Euro-flavored fun with little prizes and paper crowns that we all wore during dinner.

Soon, we gathered around the table and swooned over the wonderful food.  We brought the asparagus bundles that we made at Thanksgiving (recipe here).  Jane made a delicious Chicken Piccata with mushrooms over rice and a light salad of greens and berries and Jo provided the loaf of crusty Bloom bread with garlic-herb butter.  The perfect ending was Linda's chocolate-coffee cake beautifully paired with a glass of that red wine she also brought. 

The other characteristic of this get-together that I believe we all crave is the inevitable gales of laughter that permeate the evening.  The subjects were as wide-ranging and ridiculous as ever: bat-shit crazy mothers; choosing a dog that would enjoy watching Downton Abbey; the Vulture article that said Zooey Deschanel looks like she just pooped a Smurf.  The most titters might have come from Linda's new favorite Christmas present...a pocket Mr. T.  Press a button on this little plastic wonder and hear that familiar growl," I pity the fool!  Stop that jibber-jabber!" Those beloved convulsions of tearful guffaws these evenings always create, that lift and heal us and make the rest of the world go away are the best tonic for all of us.  After all, less than 24 hours later, we along with the rest of the world, would be gutted by a cold, hard dose of reality in the national news...the kind of reality that makes me treasure nights with loved ones like this all the more.

And yes, there remained an underlying current of watchful concern we all in attendance possess where our precious Jane is concerned...her health woes may be foremost in our mind, but even Jane herself turned that into a chuckle and a toast to Christmas miracles.  Jane's annual Christmas dinner is a indeed a treasure.  Much like Jane herself.  

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Go West, Part III: Les Miz and Westport Café

On Sunday, we embarked on the final leg of the Kiko Birthday Tour: a matinee of the national touring production of Les Miserables at the venerable Music Hall and an early dinner at Westport Café.    The combination of the two made for a French tickler of an afternoon.

At the risk of having my gay membership card revoked, I will first offer full disclosure…I had never seen Les Miz before this.  Often touted as the greatest musical of all time, it has somehow managed to elude me all of these years.  Apropos that I would finally make a show just as the film version was about to descend.  Kiko, on the other hand, had seen the production some 17 times and her brother, twice that.  Kiko and Deb were so excited to see it again; it was a struggle for them to keep from loudly singing along.  The production took place at the Music Hall, a still-stunning Art Deco theater built in 1936 in the Municipal Auditorium.  While we’ve been enjoying the new state-of-the-art luxury of the Kauffman Center, it was good to get back to this historic jewel and once again take in that amazing Grand Staircase and those way-cool lighting fixtures that inspired the Sky Stations atop Bartle Hall’s giant pylons.   As for the production itself, I was moved and mesmerized and made a new fan by this breathtaking show that more than made up for the hype.   I’m now anticipating the flick even more!

What better way to follow up this little slice of theatrical magic than with a little Parisian-style café that weaves a certain spell itself?  Westport Café and Bar is a cozy little bistro in the former Blanc Burgers spot on Westport Road.  I was told prior to our visit to hit up the cocktail list, and after one sip of my Winter Smash (Buffalo Trace Bourbon, peach, lemon juice and spiced honey syrup), I was so pleased that I did.  Kiko sipped on a steaming mug of hot buttered rum and I will admit that I was relatively dubious about this drink before and after one sip of this one, quickly realized I hadn’t tasted one made correctly before.  This one had just the right touch of buttery richness and was very satisfying.  Andrea’s cocktail was also quite nice…the Yellow House consisted of Maison Rouge VSOP cognac, honey, lemon, baked apple bitters...How does one get those?....and egg white.  A lovely sip.

The French- influenced American grub was most assuredly the highlight, though.   Many of the entrees eaten were simple sandwiches and salads, prepared with delicious elegance.  Keith and Deb enjoyed their tasty chicken sandwiches (Chicken Paillard –paillard meaning pounded thin and grilled) with arugula, spinach and tomato dressing).  I was positively romanced by the mussels with bacon and bleu cheese hors d’ouerve and my sumptuous Croque Monsieur with arugula and parmesan salad with fresh lemon on the side.  The light and airy salad was the perfect pairing with that filling and fabulous inside-out grilled ham and cheese sandwich.  Made with thick slices of ham, melted gruyere, delectable béchamel sauce and hearty, flavorful bread, it’s one of the most deeply satisfying sandwiches I’ve had in an age.  And those mussels were not only perfectly delicious, we lapped up the remaining sauce with our crusty bread afterward.  As the day faded to dark outside, the WCB was lovingly lit with twinkle lights and I felt utterly enchanted by Westport Cafe.  I could’ve leaned back, ordered another cocktail and hung out for the duration, but alas, Monday still marches in.  Still, what a charmer of a day.

Kiko’s birthday was celebrated in grand style this year.  I’m about to start looking as forward to her birthday as I do my own.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Go West Young Posse, Part II: Westside Local

The celebration of all things Kiko gravitated on to a happenin' little joint in KC called the Westside Local.  Fifteen of us gathered to fete our little filly.  Posse bro Carl even took the yet-to-be-specified "west" theme to his head, by sporting a jaunty cowboy hat to the proceedings.  The place was rockin' and needed us out by 8 for another party, so rock us on they did.

The WL is known for its eclectic beer list, but they also feature fine wine offerings and an impressive cocktail menu as well.  I went for a mix of two and ordered a Boulevard Shandy; a refreshing, citrussy brew that included locally made Boulevard beer.  This drink might have made more sense at the outdoor beer garden during summer, but one can pretend (and Lord knows I do dream summer all winter long).  K and I apparently felt as if dairy had been lacking in our life, as cheese became a bit of a theme in our ordering.  We began with an appetizer cheese plate of fresh manchego, brie and rosemary goat cheese, pungent and yummy roasted garlic and pumpkin hummus.  We then split an order of the house macaroni and cheese.  Dubbed the Westside Mac & Cheese and consisting of cavatappi, parmesan, local white cheddar, garlic and Farm-to-Market sourdough bread crumbs, it's an indulgent delight.  We dined on the dish as advertised, but the menu suggested interesting additions such as bacon, Brussels sprouts and cranberries or bacon and sweet potatoes.  He and me also split (caps alert!) The Best Pulled Pork Sandwich I've Ever Had.  The Pale Ale Pulled Pork Sandwich features Boulevard Pale Ale braised pork, cinnamon sweet pickle ribbons, pink peppercorn pickled red onions, white cheddar and tangy housemade BBQ sauce on a toasted Farm-to-Market pretzel bun and it is a wonder of flavor.  Paired with a Bell's Winter White Ale ....just the best.

Kiko thoroughly enjoyed her own vegetarian birthday repast; the hearty Autumn Quinoa including Brussels sprouts, sweet onion, roasted cranberries, pecans, sauteed kale greens and that creamy and fabulous rosemary goat cheese.  After a devilish cappuccino brownie, we soon all rolled out into the chilly, starry night and headed home but one last portion of the birthday weekend was yet to come...