Thursday, June 28, 2012


So I went to The Varnish, a much lauded bar in downtown LA, located in the back of Cole’s Restaurant at 118 East 6th Street.  The Varnish allegedly has a “speakeasy vibe” which means there’s an unmarked door that you have to pass through in order to enter a room that’s quite a lot like the restaurant itself, only much darker. 

And while Cole’s is a (arguably THE) place for a French Dip sandwich, The Varnish is the place for “classic craft cocktails.”  Sure there’s a cocktail list but they also offer on-the-spot cocktail therapy, finding the very drink that suits your personality. Basically you tell the waiter you like gin, vermouth and bitters, and he says, “I know we’ll add some Benedictine to that and we’ll have a Poet’s Dream.”  So why not?  I also had a Hillside – that’s gin, dry vermouth along 
with “Amaro Nonino” and “Elixir Vegetal de la Grande Chartreuse”  - it tasted not entirely unlike a Poet’s Dream.

Anyway the booze was fine, the atmosphere was nice enough, the waiter took himself seriously, but not too seriously.  Given how long it took for the drinks to arrive on a quiet Wednesday evening – (we were a party of five – and the only people in the place when we arrived) it does seem you might really go thirsty on a busy Friday, but perhaps they get in a crew of speed-mixologists.  I hope so.  Oh, and the very best part – and so effin’ rare in any bar in America - no TV. Glory!

Sometimes of course the journey is the whole point of the exercise.  These days everyone is looking for fusion, and downtown LA is currently a place where the swanky rubs shoulders with the rough and ready.  On the way to The Varnish I passed this Japanese restaurant that’s obviously taken over the premises of a former doughnut shop. 

They’ve had the wisdom to keep the old sign, but I do wish they hadn’t painted over the neon.  And on the same block there’s a Mexican take out named Margarita’s Place, which (if the painting on the window is to be believed) has recently been taken over by rather smug-faced Zombies. 

Incidentally, The Varnish does its own variation on the Zombie cocktail, called 28 Days Later.  You can find the recipe here:

Monday, June 18, 2012


You know me, I could eat potato chips all day, and if there’s beer as well I could eat them all night as well.  In fact, sometimes I feel I’m so addicted to them that I look for a salty snack that I like less, just so I eat less.  Salted nuts don’t work because I can actually eat just as many nuts as I can chips, and they’re higher calorie, higher fat, and at least as high salt.  Pretzels work to an extent: there’s a limit to how many I want to eat, but that’s only because I don’t really like them at all.

So when I was in downtown Los Angeles last week, I went to the Nijiya Market in Little Tokyo and bought a bag of amiyaki surume.  Now that’s a sentence you don’t get to write every day.

For the uninitiated, such as myself, amiyaki translates as seasoned, and surume as squid, so what I bought was just a bag of seasoned squid.  I love a good squid and I like dried fish, and you see the picture on the packaging of a little man with a squid hat, and what looks like a tankard of beer.  Worth a try, no?  Worth a try, yes. 

I fact I looked at other squid snacks in the supermarket and many of them involved a lot of sugar, which I didn’t like the sound of.  The top three ingredients in the pack I bought were squid, salt and monosodium glutamate, which would seem to guarantee something suitably savory.  And although many of the ingredients sound pretty inscrutable “glycerin esters of fatty acids,” for instance, there was also citric acid.  What could go wrong?

Well, in fact nothing went wrong at all.  The seasoned squid was very good in its way.  The seasoning was subtle, if perhaps too subtle.  The overall effect was of eating a slightly salty, and (despite everything) a very slightly sweet, piece of fishy rubber: the tentacles were tastier than the body.   True, the Loved One had a taste and began a mime of uncontrollable wretching but she is a sensitive and dramatic soul.

Seasoned squid goes down very well with a beer – and yes, there’s a real limit to how many I’d want to eat at one session.  On the other hand it did kind of leave me craving some real potato chips, preferably salt and vinegar.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


I realize I’m rather late in discovering the details of Whitney Houston’s last meal.  According to TMZ she ordered a hamburger, fries, a turkey sandwich and jalapenos.  Pictures (below) show the remains of the burger on a table in her hotel room, along with a Heineken can and an empty champagne glass.  Even if she consumed all this herself it hardly strikes me as living la vida loca, though I suppose there are those who would consider it a “binge.”

In any case, the turkey sandwich and jalapenos aren’t there on the hotel room table.  They’re to be seen in another photograph, on a tray on the bathroom floor (below).

To quote TMZ, “Family sources say Whitney ate the burger and fries and took the turkey sandwich and jalapenos into the bathroom where she planned on eating both items after (my italics) her bath.”  This strikes me as very unlikely.  Surely you only take a sandwich into the bathroom if you’re going to eat it during the bath, not after.  Unless the family was wrong and she was taking a shower: I guess nobody eats a sandwich during a shower.

Thomas Demand, generally a serious photographer, has recreated the scene for reasons that remain, to me at least, opaque.  He says, “The proliferation of that kind of image at the time when she was not even in the coffin amazed me. It amazed me that it would ever have been released." Well yes, Thomas but … Also I don't think it would be entirely Philistine to point out that's it's a pretty piss poor and largely inaccurate representation, unless that's the whole point.  Who knows?  

Things are much simpler with blues guitar great Buddy Guy, who has an autobiography out, titled When I Left Home.  It contains a story that he’s told before elsewhere, about his first meeting with Muddy Waters.  This version comes from an interview in Rolling and Tumbling, a book edited by Jas Obrecht.

“I was going on my third day without eating in Chicago, trying to borrow a dime to call my mom to get back to Louisiana. And Muddy Waters bought me a salami sandwich and put me in the back of his 1958 Chevy station wagon. He said, ‘You’re hungry, and I know it.’ And talking to Muddy Waters, I wasn’t hungry anymore; I was full just for him to say, ‘Hey.’ I was so overjoyed about it, my stomach wasn’t cramping anymore. I told him that, and Muddy said, ‘Get in the goddam car … yes I wish he were here now.  I thanked him many times before he passed away, and told him how much better I felt after he … made me eat that sandwich that night.” He tells the story a little differently in the autobiography, but you’ll just have to seek that out for yourself. 

All of which, inevitably got me thinking about Warren Zevon, he of the song, album, and eventually catchphrase “Enjoy Every Sandwich.”  Well, why not?  After he’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer he appeared on the David Letterman Show, and Letterman asked him if his attitude to life and music had changed. Zevon said, “You put more value on every minute ... You know I always kinda thought I did that. I really always enjoyed myself. But it’s more valuable now. You’re reminded to enjoy every sandwich and every minute.”

Well, Buddy Guy certainly enjoyed his salami sandwich, though it was by no means his last, and poor Whitney never got to enjoy her last turkey sandwich, though I realize it was hardly the most tragic aspect of the event.  Now, of course, some sandwiches are easier to enjoy than others, but heck, as Mr. Zevon would have told you, you might as well try to enjoy every last one of them, don’t you think?  Even, perhaps especially, if you eat them in the bath.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


Henry James, writing in 1888, on the difficulties of eating out in London:

A day or two later, in the afternoon, I found myself staring at my fire, in a lodging of which I had taken possession on foreseeing that I should spend some weeks in London … The uproar of Piccadilly hummed away at the end of the street, and the rattle of a heartless hansom passed close to my ears. A sudden horror of the whole place came over me, like a tiger-pounce of homesickness which had been watching its moment. London was hideous, vicious, cruel, and, above all, overwhelming; whether or no she was "careful of the type," she was as indifferent as Nature herself to the single life. In the course of an hour I should have to go out to my dinner, which was not supplied on the premises, and that effort assumed the form of a desperate and dangerous quest. It appeared to me that I would rather remain dinnerless, would rather even starve, than sally forth into the infernal town, where the natural fate of an obscure stranger would be to be trampled to death in Piccadilly and his carcass thrown into the Thames.”