Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Phil Austin goes to a better world

  "There are some people, and I'm one of them, who suspect that there is no better world than this lousy and crooked one we see all around us." So begins Phil Austin's radioplay Down Under Danger. He acted the cynic well. Hell, he was a great actor, who often complained to me about the infernal acting he was observing.
  In this picture, Phil is recording lines for my radioplay Neal Amid. Of the 4 members of the Firesign Theatre, I think Phil Austin had the least interest in the Beat generation, but volunteered to star as the dying Neal Cassady in this play. I don't know how much he sounds like the Beat muse, but Caroline Cassady told me Phil captured Neal's real intelligence, and didn't portray him as a hick. Phil gave me a lot of direction on this play, and his insistence on a narrative envelope, with the Beat-like typing creator was a stroke of genius. If I live a million years, I can't imagine ever creating something as good as Neal Amid again. Thanks, Phil.
  If there is a better world, it is one brought into existence by people like Phil Austin. People who inspire us to see beyond a heaven/hell dichotomy made lyrical in Phil's album Roller Maidens from Outer Space. "If you can laugh at it, it has no power over you," Phil told an interviewer in 1970. I asked him if he still believed that in a Q&A on Whidbey Island in 2010, the last time I'd see the 4 of them. He said he had forgotten his long ago eloquence but it was still true for him. He said those were perilous times, and as Bergman often bragged, the Firesigns brought a lot of laughter to places where it was desperately needed.
  "There's only one thing that can be truly said. And, hell, I've forgotten what it is."
Down Under Danger. Evoking Elvis, Phil's death was reported as Nick Danger has left the building. Yes, Nick was an Austin creation that resonated deeply within our civilization, but Phil was a detective of a higher sort. He looked for and helped create spaces of refuge, places of imagination that can be built beyond imagination, where no Sgt. Bradshaw can tell us what to do and dogs will always help us out. Lucky are we for the vast offerings of those visions courtesy Phil Austin. We must be sad, but we are sad in a higher place. Nick Danger has left the building, but it is a much taller, grander building. A great spirit has been breathed into it.
  Love is a rare topic in Firesign works, but more than any of his colleague's solo work, Phil Austin's stories are infused with love. Love bursts forth like a blond bombshell from his words. Tales of the Old Detective is an engine powered by the trans-formative energy of love. It is a state you want to experience. If you've never been in love or been loved, this is what you want to listen to. This is what you need to learn. Dogs don't need to learn, but people do. Phil's love for the Blond Bombshell, his dogs and the humans that crossed his path is a visit from a higher consciousness, one we can aspire to.  
  When asked where he got his great ideas, Isaac Newton said he was standing on the shoulders of giants. I feel the same about Phil Austin. Phil and his fellow Firesigns show us a better world through a better use of our brains, a less clouded awareness, a fertility of spirit. We don't have to dwell in the depths. There are ladders.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Father's Day at Bauhaus restaurant

 Father's Day was always about my daughter  Bit taking me out to a restaurant. I continue this tradition in her absence. I'd heard about a new German restaurant in the old Boneta space. Somewhat ambivalent about German food, the fact that the chef had a Michelin star and was considered a culinary star in Deutchland made me choose  Bauhaus  as the place I would have my father's day dinner this year.
  After walking around taking pictures and working up a good (by my standards) appetite, I appeared at Bauhaus. The doors were open but the restaurant was not. I was told to come back in "half an hour, or 40 minutes." This did not bode well. When I finally consulted my watch buried in the bowels of my bag, I discovered it was 5:20 and my reservation was for 5:30. Oh well, I'll just take some more pictures. They'll be in another blog post. When I returned at 5:50 I was finally welcomed. The vast thirst I'd worked up with all that walking on a summer afternoon was relieved by prompt ice water and then a gin basil cocktail, a bit too sweet to be thirst-quenching but it paired well with the onslaught of wondrous food.
  To amuse my bouche, a tiny (my Favourite size) dish of mushrooms in various incarnations. They began crunchy, then gelatinous and finally creamy ending on a final ethereal ascent that spoke of all the mushroom would wish to tell us, if we could but hear. A sip of the basily beverage. Bliss.
  The two best dishes I've had in Vancouver have both been soups. Young Saskatchewan chef Dale McKay did wonders in Daniel Boulud's upscale Vancouver eatery Lumiere and when he opened his own restaurant, Ensemble, he kept winning awards for his cuisine. I commented on it on my blog at that time. After describing an appetizer of melon and crab which Fumiyo and I had seen Chef McKay make on TV, I wrote this about his soup:

Next up, another award winner, the black cod in BBQ pork broth. Heavy on the Asian influences- bak choy being the main solid in the soup, and yet, it spoke more to my palate of what Joel Robuchon has been able to achieve with Asian synthesized French food, thus earning him the title Chef of the Century. Vancouver food as good as Vegas? I didn't think it was possible, but once again, I was wrong. As I told my server, this wasn't a broth you sipped, it was something you dived into. This is what I was expecting from Guy Savoy's famous truffled artichoke soup. This was something worth getting on a plane and traveling from the other side of the world to taste.

It was the best thing I'd eaten in Vancouver up until that time, and that was 2011, after I'd discovered the great French (etc) chefs of Las Vegas. Previously, the best food I'd consumed here was another soup at a, sort of food Olympics in 2008. Gold medal went to a chef whose restaurant Cioppino's has been my go-to restaurant to take to out of town guests who want to know how good food is in this city. This is how a food expert described this soup:

The gold medal for our Vancouver event this year was awarded to Chef Pino Posteraro of Cioppino’s. The banner above his station described the dish simply as a “porcini mushroom and chestnut soup” – and indeed it was, served in a coffee cup like some kind of cappuccino. But the texure was profoundly enriched and the layers of mushroom flavour were dramatically deepened by melted foie gras and a scattering of crunchy truffled brioche croutons. In a ceramic spoon set on the saucer of the “coffee cup” was the other element of the dish – a square of chilled mushroom jelly and a roasted mushroom salad served at room temperature, the supple textures and contrasting temperatures working beautifully in the mouth. The judges were unanimous in awarding the dish maximum “wow factor”. As an accompanying wine, Posteraro chose a Niagara Chardonnay that proved an inspired match – Pillitteri Estates Winery Chardonnay Sur Lie 2006.

James Chatto, National Culinary Advisor, Gold Medal Plates.

Ok? We're talking of some serious soups here. The mushrooms had a Michelin star twinkle, let's see what chef Stefan Hartmann can do with asparagus soup. It was advertised as featuring Spot Prawns, a local delicacy I cook as soon as they appear and look forward to see what local chefs can do with them. Alas, the season is over, so lobster instead. My expectations sink.

And then the soup arrives. It is one of the wonders of the world.

When I'm thinking anywhere east of France, I'm thinking creamy soups. Dale McKay's soup was brothy and Asian, Pino's was thick. I love all kinds of soup but most of the great ones have been thick. Not long ago, there was a local Czech restaurant that had pretty boring food but fantastic take-out soups. So I've had some good ones. My Ukranian grandmother would always insist I fill my bowl of borscht with "smetana," sour cream. She was right. My Austrian grandmother died when I was 7 so I don't recall her cuisine, but my Germanic relatives liked thick things. Soup too.

A thick asparagus soup just makes sense in itself. Though it can be enjoyed refreshingly as Fumiyo and I discovered in Barcelona, I normally think of asparagus smothered in hollandaise, a soup clone. Hartmann's asparagus soup is essentially herbs in cream sauce, er, soup. The fact that there's lobster is in it instead of spot prawns really doesn't matter. It is herb-lore as keen as an elf's. One can't stop eating it. Normally I avoid bread in restaurants, but this time I was delighted to have some bread to soak up the last molecules of Hartmann's soupy nirvana. As I said of McKay's soup, it's really something you want to dive into. The last thing I ate, a tiny morsel of asparagus floods me with all the goodness I've ever gotten from this vegetable, long a fave. "Look how delicious I am," it screams and coos at the same time. I feel like Charlie Parker discovering a new groove. I sense Bit would enjoy this just as much.
Thanks, soup.

Halibut and restaurants have not gone well with me recently. Although I had the best halibut ever at Rob Clark's Fish Counter last year, when I went back for the same fish and chips a few days ago, it was nowhere near as good. I dined with my cousin at Chin Chin a few weeks ago. One of the city's best Italian. Had the halibut. It was good. But that's the point. Halibut is good enough by itself, it kinda defeats cheffery. You don't need to do anything to it. After numerous great lunches (all except the first) at Hawksworth, I finally went there for dinner last autumn and had the olive-encrusted halibut. It was good too. You'll notice I use the word good a lot in this paragraph. That's not a good thing in a blog about food. If my greatest appreciation of a dish is to describe it as "good," maybe I should be reviewing something else. And then Hartmann's halibut swims onto my plate.
Halibut is thick and dry. Those are good things. But they aren't the whole universe of
halibut. Hartmann brought the liquid realms that are the halibut's natural environment right into my palate. Again with the textures. The caper crust gives you the same introduction as the crunchy mushroom in the amuse, then blends seamlessly into the fish and its surrounding textural/aesthetic levels. Pureed beans function as a ladder into the sauce vierge like a salmon swimming upstream to spawn. I'm thinking of Alain Ducasse wondrously layered sauces for so much subtle yet necessary invention. Why does halibut always have to be  solid? Why not weave it back into its oceanic identity? An Ocean Wise lesson for the mind. Best father's day meal since Bit was alive.

 halibut,caper crust / bean puree/lemon butter