Kyle Ate Here - The second anniversary edition

Two years ago, July turned into perhaps the most important month of my year. My birthday's in May, and October holds a lot of value for Kristine and I (her birthday, and our dating anniversary). But July 18th, 2009, was the day July trumped them all. We married after 11 years of dating, and suddenly July was anchored in our own little firmament as a Big Deal.

This July's dining calendar was dominated in one respect by Jimmy's American Tavern, my most recent review for Isthmus--it's linked in the sidebar to the right. But while some new experiences in Madison and beyond certainly made July noteworthy, there was one dining experience that quite simply destroys the curve.


L'Etoile

Five years ago, there's no way I'd have guessed that Kristine and I would be one of the couples who returns to L'Etoile for an anniversary dinner each year. But after last year's amazing experience at the end of 25 North Pinckney, we couldn't resist. Four courses later, we're hooked for sure.

An amuse bouche of slightly deconstructed gazpacho was playful and vibrant--it's always nice to start a meal with a laugh. Salade Lyonnaise for her (the smoked mushrooms a pleasant surprise), beef carpaccio with pea vine and equally outspoken pickled mushrooms for me. The midcourse was an easy choice for Kristine; a delicious reprise of her favorite dish from our honeymoon, tempura-battered squash blossoms. I loved the drunken Gulf shrimp in a Tyranena Three Beaches Blonde Ale and XO butter sauce; the hunk of soft pretzel was an absurdly glorious addition.

The fruits of the seas/oceans/lakes were the order of the day on this particular menu. Corvina done in a Mediterranean style and a bucatini di mare both sounded tremendous, but Kristine chose the rockfish with two treatments of cauliflower (truffled purée and caramelized); it was lovely, atop garlic-braised collards. I continued my roughly Asian through-line with a Chinese takeout-style feast: rare seared duck breast, radish pods, broccoli, snow peas, sweet onion fried rice topped with a hen egg, braised bok choy, and a tart cherry sweet-and-sour sauce. It was unparalleled in the world of Column A/Column B Chinese food, and yet entirely reminiscent. Every bite was another little celebration of Chef Miller's imagination.

Three courses of professionally unimpeachable wine pairings were the icing on the cake, and the desserts, coffee, and complimentary petit fours wound the meal down in all the right ways. Whenever we think of this meal, we wonder if it would cheapen the anniversary experience to find other reasons to treat ourselves. We're beginning to think it'd be a shame not to.


The rest of July

Barbecue at Papa Bear's on Independence Day (glad to discover they were open on maybe the perfect holiday for BBQ), and first visits to Bea's Bonnet (holy sandwich cookie!), Harold's Chicken Shack (an over-cooked letdown), Restaurant El Pastor (acceptable), Habanero's (will likely replace 60-80% of my Chipotle trips), and China Inn (forgettable but for the fried sweet biscuits) made for a very educational July. The pulled pork at Brickhouse was an imposing mountain of meat; it generated three meals. The Old Fashioned has a couple new burgers since our last visit; the spicy burger is indeed hot, and any burger from the Old Fashioned kitchen will satisfy, ultimately.

Venturing out of state for the first time in a long while, Kristine and I visited friends and took in a couple meals in the Windy City. Sunday brunch at Kitsch'n was crowded (though not as much as previous visits to Toast were); the bloody Mary was far blander than a chipotle bloody Mary has any right to be, and my chicken and waffles (appropriate for a diner on Roscoe) were okay, but that's about it. Dinner at the recently-reviewed Owen & Engine (three stars from the Tribune's Phil Vettel) was much more successful. Reminiscent of the charms of Underground Kitchen, O&E's British-tinged pub fare was dark and hearty, the ginger beered house Pimm's Cup bright and enlivening. There was a funeral home next door with a truly gorgeous front door; I wanted to open a lounge in there just to sop off Owen & Engine's happy excesses.


The best thing I ate

This is a little unfair. Pitting China Inn's sweet fried biscuits--simple, but the Platonic ideal of fairgrounds-style fried bread, served at 10 for $4--against anything from one of the country's 50 best restaurants would be a challenge to even the judges at Westminster. And what of the No. 6 lazy Susan at The Old Fashioned? Braunschweiger, pickles, two Widmer's cheese spreads, smoked trout, creamed herring, and sausage? Ye gods, yes. Even the sausages from Brickhouse hold some electors in their sway. The compromise inherent in marriage tells me that I should choose L'Etoile's zucchini blossoms; Kristine loved them, and truthfully so did I. But dangit, I'm still my own man! I choose beer and pretzels! The drunken shrimp were rich, hot and even though there were no heads to suck, they were still a little naughty. Sopping one's plate with a piece of bread feels more than a little gauche at such a fine restaurant, but damned if I didn't do it anyway.

Bein' sick stinks

I'm sick. Well, I was sick; I'm mostly over it now. It's my second cold of 2010, which is pretty obnoxious when you consider the fact that I've been known for an otherwise sturdy immune system. My wife, though? Not so much. If I get sick, she gets sicker. She gets mad when I give her my colds; she'd positively kill me if I gave her the flu or something really nasty.

These infectious tête-à-têtes (head colds-to-head colds?) between the two of us makes me think about social biology and genetics. Humans are social animals and we tend to find ways to smudge the edges of individuality just a little when we're in packs. Menstrual cycles sync up between women who live together for long periods of time. (Ahem. Pun not intended.) (EDIT: Or not. See comments.) And our immune systems, long thought of strictly in that sense, turn out to play a key role in the way we pair off for romantic relationships.

I think the connection between these pseudo-pheromones is fascinating. I love that there really is a basis for Fabienne telling Butch in Pulp Fiction, "I like the way you stink." And even if my immune system isn't a lock-and-key fit with my wife's, she still likes to wear my t-shirts to bed. They smell like me, and she's cool with that.

So it'd be nice and warm-fuzzy if our immune systems dovetailed neatly, the way they're "supposed to" if two people are a "match" for one another. One gets sick, the other doesn't, and vice versa--and the offspring get the best of both parents' immunities. Personally, I'd bet that very few couples match up that way. And I think that those whose immune profiles are less than mirror images--like mine and my wife's--slowly start to sync up over time. One person plots out the course of the illness, and then gives it to the other. How generous! What's mine is yours, honey.

So I'm just about done with my cold, I've run the marathon; meanwhile, the wife is just coming to the 13-mile mark. But babe, I'm right here at the finish line, and I'm rooting for you! And I stink.

What do you mean, honey? Of COURSE I love our kids.

Perhaps you saw these commercials during yesterday's football-ganza.

They're from Jared--you know, the Galleria of Jewelry. It appears to be some kind of bracelet that the enterprising husband can customize with baubles, spacers, gems, and charms. The charms shown on the commercial include a suitcase, perhaps if your wife is an avid traveler. There's also a stroller, which I can only assume is to represent the wonderful child(ren) you've had with your wife.

So you design this bracelet, you select all these charms that signify important moments in your life with the woman you love, and Jared puts it in a box for you to give to her. The name of this line of charm jewelry in that box?

Pandora.

As in, the mythological first woman who opened the box (jar, actually, but who's quibbling with modern colloquialisms?) that had contained all the world's ills, thus releasing them to wreak havoc on humanity. So now that, and a kinda cheap looking bracelet. Jared must not expect a lot of literate wives to get these or see the commercial and ask for one.

Something tells me, though, that this is meant to be a gift outlet for the creatively-bulletless American male. Brother, you better have a back-up plan in case your wife remembers any of her Greek history from college.

Climbing the mountain: my meal at Au Pied de Cochon

You may have heard that I got married back in July. It was pretty cool, if maybe a little predictable. I mean, we'd been dating for over 11 years at that point.

So anyway, for our honeymoon, we didn't want to do something with a big production value. Rome, Tahiti, Hawaii, New York...these were all out of the picture because a lot of the wedding had been DIY (well, more like DIH: Do-It-Herself) and we didn't want to have to plan a big trip. Nor did we want to feel compelled to do stuff once there. Thus, Montreal.

Montreal offered a good combination of a vibrant food scene (me, duh), and the ability to just laze around town, stop at cafés, and windowshop (Kristine, not that the two couldn't be switched to a certain degree). Plus, it's another station of the Anthony Bourdain cross.

I don't really apologize for being a bit of a Bourdain-chaser--any chance I can get to go to a place he's featured on No Reservations, I take. I don't see anything wrong or dorky or fanboyish about taking the lead of someone who's been everywhere and eaten everything. (Okay, maybe a little fanboyish, but it's not like I'm shopping at the place he buys his slightly-inadvisable horizontal striped thermals.)

The centerpiece of the Montreal episode of No Reservations was Tony's trip to Au Pied de Cochon, and his time spent with chef Martin Picard. Please to enjoy the video clip below.



Now, a smart food guy would see that he'd be in a city with a great restaurant like this, and maybe take the initiative to make a reservation a few weeks in advance. I would not be that guy.

We arrived in Montreal on Monday afternoon. On Tuesday night, I figured it would probably be a good idea to actually call and see if we could get a table. (To be fair, Kristine didn't think to make an advance reservation either.) APDC is somewhat notorious as a hard table to get, and a tough call to make; they don't spend a lot of energy on customer coddling or pretense. Or answering the phone during business hours.

So there I am, Tuesday around dinner hour, listening to an outgoing voicemail messag for perhaps the best restaurant in Montreal...and it's entirely in French. I don't speak French. Kristine couldn't forget her high school French fast enough. We're kinda boned.

I know, however, that they have an email address for reservations, and that their website offers a bilingual toggle. Fingers crossed, I send off an email that starts "Je suis désolé," and then tell them that I wasn't sure if leaving reservation requests on the voicemail was de rigeur, and we don't get cell phone service in Canada, and this is our room number at our hotel, and we're on our honeymoon, and could we possibly get a table any time between Wednesday and Friday night? I hit send, and I waited.

It was to our great relief, then, that about 24 hours later, we received a call from a lovely lady at APDC. Turned out, it was extremely fortunate that she called back as soon as she did; there was a misunderstanding that resulted in her thinking that we wanted a reservation after that coming Saturday, rather than before. But wouldn't you know, there was an available seating at 9:30 on Thursday. We're Eurotrash, we regularly eat dinner late--this was perfect! Yes please, merci, hang up, done.

We took the metro (this trip was both of our first subway rides, incidentally), walked a bit, and hovered outside the restaurant until closer to our reservation. Restaurants in Montreal all generally have wide-open facades, so that in good weather the dining space is totally open to the sidewalk. It's pretty cool, and creates a palpable atmosphere that washes out into the street.

Our table turned out to be directly behind the chair at which Tony Bourdain sat during his visit; Fanboy would have made a point of touching it or sitting in it for a picture, and I did no such thing.

Service was a little slow after our first beverage order, but we received multiple apologies from someone who carried himself with an air of authority, and actually got a couple beers on the house. The beers, by the way, were okay. St. Ambroise Pale Ale and a cream ale. Craft beer in Montreal appears to be a weak point.

Kristine and I were torn between going balls-out and ordering everything that looked good--and in turn feeling like sweet hell by the end of the night--or sparing our wallets and waistlines by picking winners and staying reasonably sensible. In the end, improbably, sensibility won.

Our order: tomato tartlet, fried zucchini blossoms, and the cochonnailles platter to start. The tartlet, about the circumference of your average melon, was buttery, hot and wonderful. The zucchini blossoms were lightly fried, like tempura, and crunchy. The star, however, was the cochonnailles platter, basically a cold-cut charcuterie plate of patês, boudin sausage, boudin noir, terrines, a zingy tomato chutney, and pigs' blood gelée. Kristine, taking a big step for her Fringe Foods-writing hubby, took an affirmative position on trying it given the esteemed surroundings.

Neither of us liked it.

Shocker, I know. Surprisingly, though, it wasn't because of any metallic taste, but rather the extreme saltiness. Moisture started seeping out of my brain to compensate.

Picking from all the main dishes is like Sophie's Choice, but only if Sophie had about twelve conjoined siblings. The namesake dish--a huge, stuffed pork hock--looks great, the sausage looks great, the pork chop looks great, even the house signature salad looks great (and from what I've heard, it is).

It's a good thing Kristine and I scoped out the menu in advance, because otherwise we'd have been those obnoxious tourist newlyweds who just volley "what are you having?" off of each other for an hour. Kristine chose the plogue à Champlain, a shameless example of vertical excess comprised of a buckwheat pancake, potatoes, cheese, bacon, foie gras, and a maple syrup and duck jus reduction. It's not a huge dish in terms of proportion, but try finishing it without being consciously gluttonous. I shudder to consider the calorie count.

There are many must-haves on the APDC menu, but the one that stuck out to me was the Duck in a Can. A duck breast, a thick slice of foie gras, veggies, herbs, and balsamic all get canned in the usual manner. It's about the size of a Chunky soup can. Your plate arrives dressed with a simple disc of buttered crouton topped with the house mashed potatoes impregnated with cheese curds--basically mashed poutine. The can arrives intact. The waiter opens your can, which has been pressure-cooked, and plops the contents onto your awaiting mashed potatoes. Fat and jus and veggies spill out across the plate, like a pyroclastic flow of decadence. Almost embarrassingly erect stand the duck breast and foie gras, perched jauntily in the potatoes. You're forced to gasp, but that's all right because the very air is thick with flavor.

Yeah, the duck is maybe a little tough. The foie gras, I'm kind of happy to say, isn't really my thing. But the overall flavor is immense, and the experience is a surreal combination of tacky and regal. Worth doing once, and any number of times over. At least, it would be if there weren't so many other dishes that merit ordering.

To say nothing of dessert, which sadly we just couldn't fit into our torsoes. But the real kicker is the bill. After tip, we ended up paying about $160 Canadian. Considering the source, the reputation, the portion, and the quality, you could expect to pay twice that amount for a similar meal in the States. An unbelievable bargain, even with two free beers.

I've since said that eating at a place like Au Pied de Cochon seems not unlike climing a mountain. It's not an easy place to experience, but from the top it's simple to see why it was so rewarding. We both loved it.

All my pictures are on Facebook, but I'll see about getting them onto Flickr to share with all y'all. You can always send me a friend request on FB, though--just attach a note to tell me you're a blog reader. In the meantime, you can take a look at our broader adventures in Montreal on my annotated travel map.

The day TIME called me back

No, this is not some esoteric riff on metaphysics or overwrought romantic sci-fi concepts. I mean literally, I got a call back from TIME--as in, the magazine.

Specifically, I came back from my honeymoon to find a voicemail from the Caitlin Flanagan of my recent post on how marriage is doing, and how much it matters to the state of our nation. Ms. Flanagan is the author of the piece titled, "Why Marriage Matters."

Now, I need to say something right off the bat. Two somethings, actually. The first is a basic assumption that the woman who left the voicemail actually is Caitlin Flanagan. The second is that, agree/disagree/miss the point entirely, Flanagan deserves credit and respect for making a call to a fairly insignificant voice in the blogosphere and responding both subtantively and convivially. She could have gotten a wild hair up her ass like my anonymous commenter did on the first post, but she didn't. And I respect her for having the integrity to interact with me on a higher road.

However, she misses my point entirely.

"You're exactly right that marriage is really in excellent health," she says. I agree that the institution of marriage is not teetering on the brink, but my point was not so much that marriage is alive and well but that it's not the culture-crushing causation of "hardship and human misery" that Flanagan thinks it is.

She pins the bleakness of her statistics on "repeat divorcers" skewing the curve. Okay. That might be true. You know what can't hurt, then? Standing up and saying that every American couple should have the right to establish a legally-recognized union. But Flanagan didn't mention the affect gay marriage would have on her assessment of the State of Our Unions, and she didn't mention it in her message to me.

To bemoan this perceived "ambivalence" toward marriage and not discuss the scores of gay couples in the United States wishing they could have a recognized relationship is like wishing more people visited your house while you have a barbed wire fence around the perimeter of your yard.

And I'd be fine, by the way, in legally divorcing the term "marriage" from whatever federal name someone wants to apply to the legal act of coupledom. Marriage is for the churches to handle, and if they want to have a No Coloreds/No Jews/No Queers policy, then go right ahead.

I can't recall where I read this recently, but there's a bon mot from Napoleon that goes, "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake." If the churches want to be bigoted and closed-minded, let them make that bed and lie in it. Meanwhile, churches like the United Church of Christ can stand up and announce that all are welcome, and look very intelligent and compassionate for doing so.

I'm happy to see, by the way, that TIME's readers got the same itchy feeling I did when they read Flanagan's article. While the unfortunately-named Mandi Mangler "applaud[s] TIME and Caitlin Flanagan for highlighting the strong case for marriage" (another one who doesn't get it), five the other seven letters express different facets of the same argument I made.

George Kalmar, Pacific Palisades, CA: "Flanagan grossly understates the complexity of the causes of infidelity and divorce in the U.S." Irene Burkhard in Becket, MA, and Shannon Sawicki of San Francisco were insulted that Flanagan would be so dismissive of childless marriages. Clifton Snider from Long Beach and Karen Baker from Cottage Grove, WI (yeah, home state!) brought up the glaring omission of gay marriage. Clifton says it pretty succinctly: "Once again, I notice a major story that reads as if I, a gay man, do not exist. Today such an omission is inexcusable."

So thanks, Caitlin, for the call, the politeness, and the well-wishes for the future health of my new marriage. But please read my posts again, and understand that pinning the health of marriage in America on just us staights stickin' it out and makin' babies is becoming more and more antiquated every day.

...

ADDED: And hey, look at that. Today, news has reached The Advocate that Jerry Nadler (D-NY8), Jared Polis (D-CO2), and our gal Tammy Baldwin (D-WI2) will be introducing a bill aimed at repealing the "Defense of Marriage" Act. One of the more disappointing aspects of the Clinton presidency, DOMA looks to be opposed by 50 or more congresspeople when it is officially circulated for co-sponsorship.

TIME Magazine and Caitlin Flanagan: a shameful take on marriage

I know TIME can be a little conservative sometimes. The whole Matthew Cooper/Valerie Plame thing was kind of the exception that proves the rule, to a certain extent. So I don't expect them to be Newsweek. Newsweek's Newsweek, and TIME is TIME.

But what I didn't expect is for TIME to publish a cover story on the allegedly sorry state of the institution of marriage, and to call it "our most sacred institution" ON THE COVER. Thanks, guys, but let's leave that to GOP.com. How about just being journalists?

No, author Caitlin Flanagan--who, I'm relieved to discover, is no stranger to controversy--goes that far and farther. She writes, "There is no other single force causing as much measurable hardship and human misery in this country as the collapse of marriage." People without health care, education, or affordable housing might beg to differ if they weren't busy begging for those other things right now.

She begins the article by relating a scene wherein she remarks to her father at the dinner table that it's amazing he and his wife (her mother) have been married for fifty years and he's never cheated on her. (It's all a build-up to a very lame payoff, the punchline delivered by Dear Old Dad: "I can't drive.")

Who says to his or her father, "I can't believe you haven't cheated on Mom yet!"? Who does this?

I don't want to come across as a firebrand for marriage just because I'm about to buy membership in that club in a few days. But please. Marriage is fine. Fascination with Jon and Kate + 8 doesn't equal an "ambivalence" toward marriage. It indicates the same thing as our fascination with the O.J. Simpson trial, the Michael Jackson memorial, and Winona Ryder getting caugh shoplifting: modern Americans like to see trainwrecks, scandal, ceremony, and comeuppance. We're gawkers. It ain't good, but it ain't a mystery.

The whole article is an absurdist take on love, family, and romance, and it's no better highlighted than by this little factoid: not once does Flanagan mention "gay marriage." Not once. So while pointing out Jonathan Edwards and Mark Sanford as symptoms of a disease rather than the disease itself, she conveniently leaves out the scores of couples across the nation, yearning for the right to be legally recognized as families.

No, instead Flanagan flogs us with "man and wife," "man and wife," "man and wife." Fertility, Cialis, procreation, and the failing of the heterosexual male to keep it in his own yard. Not only shamefully one-sided and misrepresentative, but BORING AS FUCK.

Do better, TIME.