I’m without a central theme typing here for only the second time this year.
My final big installment of vacay ended this week. Vacation definitely beats working – especially with a two in the morning subway commute that’s been stalling unpredictably – often on Saturday mornings.
Next year will be my 30th year on the job which means I’ll get an extra week of time off – the contractual max of six weeks paid vacation. On top of that, the employer lets us “buy” an extra week and allows the worker to “defer” holiday pay in the form of even more days off. In sum, I’ll be off eight weeks plus. It’s generous for sure. Almost Euro-like.
I went to France in September for three weeks. I did a week in Marseille and two weeks in Toulouse. I took the nonstop from Newark to Nice. My checked suitcase somehow got left off the flight – so I blew a full day retrieving it when it finally reached Nice. I ate incredible grilled octopus on successive afternoons at La Tête de Chou and made my first visit to Hippodrome Marseille Borély. The turf course and small grandstand across the street from the sea presented all my favorite elements of horse racing (outside of the wagering part) perfectly. I ́́́sipped glasses of cheap red while watching all the action on the track and in the paddock with just a railing in between me and the horses. A public bus from the city center dropped me at the doorstep.
In Toulouse, the clear highlight of my stay was eating at L’été indien, the new restaurant launched by my friend Jacques inside the cinema/arts space la Forêt Electrique. Jacques walked away from his long, steady and safe career in aerospace to take formal, state-supported training to be a chef. And so now – after apprenticeships in kitchens run by respected players in the culinary arts just outside Toulouse – and in Marseille – the big life decision is real for Jacques in the form of great, friendly and creative cuisine at L’été indien.
Merlu was on indien’s menu my first week in Toulouse. A large chunk of the fresh white fish was plated with mashed potatoes, small cooked tomatoes and a grilled leek stalk. The entrèe (or opening dish) was small spaetzle-like pasta on a bed of pureed eggplant. Incredible.
Eggplant was back on the menu the next week. A veggie stew – or ratatouille was built into a small tower/cylinder-like shape alongside meatballs and mini gnocchis (pictured above). The dessert was memorable, too. Jacques made a heavy pistachio-flavored cake and served a small triangular slice of it alongside a piece of watermelon gel and a swirl of sweet lime paste.
Lunch service was Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Dinner only on Thursday and Friday. It was fifteen euros for lunch (not including wine) and twenty for dinner. I ate there on each of the six days the restaurant was open over the two week stay. Jacques limited capacity to about 20 or so diners per service. His nine week run ended in mid-November. He’ll reopen in April.
The restaurant’s location (inside a large, unfinished industrial cinder block building in the up and coming Bonnefoy neighborhood near the main train station) and association with la Forêt is unconventional. But it’s a great fit. The kitchen was built/customized by Jacques from scratch. It’s adjacent to the large cinema / gathering spot floor that converts to a dining room during mealtime. During big weekend film events, Jacques works with la Forêt’s leader Agnès to conceive ideas that supplement the bar’s offerings with special homemade snacks like pizza or doughnuts or iced-treat creations.
Jacques found a farm south of Toulouse to procure the restaurant’s fresh veggies each week. He bought the meat and fish at one of a couple great open markets in the city.
At night, I often found my way over to see Djilali at his bar Le Pretexte. I really enjoy seeing him open up and organize the bar. He says hello to passersby on the busy pedestrianized street in front. He arrives at 5 PM by bike with a backpack carrying unopened bottles of booze to replenish what ran out the night before. I order a basic lager with a few squirts of Picon mixed in. “Picon bière.” About an hour in, Dji sets out small ceramic dishes with salted peanuts for each patron. If you stay long enough, he’ll break out a plastic bottle containing a special brew he concocted. It’s a celebratory shot designed I think to keep you around a little longer.
The local rock and roller Michel Cloup played a show at the 200 capacity, smaller of two performance spaces inside Le Metronum on the outskirts of Toulouse. It was my first time seeing Cloup after hearing much about him and his music while visiting France over the years. It was great to finally see him live. Fronting a trio, Cloup played a 25-minute extended jam version of Lâcher prise off his record Backflip that came out last year. He closed with a rousing version of De la neige en été, a tune released way back in 1996 by a now-defunct project he was in called Diabologum.
I worked most of October and then went out to Los Angeles for nine days. I met Jeff D on Halloween night in Torrance where we started a mission to sip LA’s best haze at probably the world’s best maker of NE style IPA’s: Monkish. Over the course of the trip, we also stopped in at some of the area’s other great breweries: Highland Park, Homage, Green Cheek and Riip. We especially like the vibe, service and scene at the beer bar The Hermosillo in Highland Park and we also checked in at the famous Glendale Tap. The trip was built around the two-day Breeders’ Cup event at Santa Anita. The Cup is loosely described by some as the unofficial world series of horse racing. It’s the season-ending set of championship races for horses broken down by age, gender, distance and surface. We’ve been going off and on to many of the Cups staged at big venues and we normally love going to the Cup when it’s at Santa Anita. But it was different at this Cup – the 40th edition. We were priced out of the market for seats – which we knew going in – but then got confronted with a shockingly stiff $60 parking fee pulling into the big main lot on the first day of Cup races. Inside the plant, a good chunk of the apron along the rail on the main stretch was cordoned off for people who paid hundreds for exclusive access. The infield was shut off. Food and drink prices were exorbitant. It’s one thing for the horseplayer to take swings and misses on the betting side. That’s a manageable gamble. That’s tradition. But the event’s move to so dramatically monetize the experience from a subset of fans who will pay anything, pick a number and wear a funny hat without a shred of regard for the broken down player supporting the sport forever is hostile and wrong. The people managing the Cup have lost their way. The parking fee for Saturday’s Cup card was $80 ! – so we found a spot a mile away on a stretch of road in an industrial area in Arcadia. Walking into the track that day without paying for parking felt like a triumph. And then we hit the admission gate and paid $75 just to get in the door. No seat. I won’t be going back unless the Cup returns to Belmont here in New York. The last time the Cup was staged at Belmont was 2005.
Wedged in between Cup cards was a Friday night concert by Palehound at the Lodge Room in Highland Park. The opener Alexalone from Austin, TX was fantastic. Palehound was in great form – at the halfway point of a month-long national tour in support of their excellent new record Eye on the Bat.
For me, the most memorable meal of the LA trip came at Sunday morning breakfast in Pasadena at a popular diner called The Reyn. We had to wait a half-hour to get a table. When our name was called, we were greeted by the super-pleasant and experienced server Maria who patiently interacted with diners while holding an electronic tablet to record orders. She kept the coffee cups full, moved confidently around the crowded room and had a quick wit. The buttered banana bread was warm, maybe just out of the oven. Delicious.
After parting ways with Jeff D the Monday after the Cup, I took a public bus operated by the Orange County Transportation Authority from Sunset Beach to Corona Del Mar. The #1 bus route runs all the way from Long Beach to San Clemente along the Pacific Coast Highway. The fare is just $2. I spent two nights with my Aunt and Uncle, mainly just hanging out, catching up, taking walks to the ocean.
I somehow got really comfortable in a middle seat and returned home on a non-stop flight from Orange County to Newark on the 8th of November. Since then, I’ve seen two great New York bands on separate nights. One old, one kinda new. I saw Onieda at The Broadway in Bushwick on the 10th. And then, with great excitement and anticipation, I saw Purr at the new Knitting Factory space on Avenue A on the 16th. Both shows were great. Oneida has been active locally my entire time in New York, going back 25 years. And Purr’s 2023 record Who is Afraid of Blue is my favorite LP of the year. Purr doesn’t play a lot of shows so I was really excited to see them for the first time. The band played a good chunk of the new record with both Eliza and Jack conveying solid, intense vocals in front of a great band. Blaming Lexapro for a steady stream of sweat from his head in the chilly room, Jack performed Blue’s first song “Honey” to perfection. He said it was the first time the band played it live.
On the sports front, I caught the Madison Square Garden debut of Rick Pitino as head basketball coach of St. John’s last week. It was a blowout loss to Michigan. I sat way up high with a ticket bought on the resale market for under 50 bucks. Pitino has talked a lot about what he plans and hopes to do to revive the Johnnies program. He’ll need some time. St. John’s fans are excited about Pitino’s aim-for-the-sky rhetoric. We’ll see. One really odd aspect for me of the current college hoops landscape is the crass solicitation of cash via the new name, image and likeness exemption. Approaching tipoff at the Garden, a recorded video message read by Johnnies AD Mike Cragg was played on the big video scoreboard. Cragg was reading a script that came off as crudely invasive as the kinda shakedown plea you used to get at dinnertime from the FOP on a landline phone. During a timeout with 2:44 left in the first half, Pitino appeared on the video board with his hand out: “In this ever-changing landscape…” yada, yada, yada… Basically, write us a check so we can funnel it to our next five-star recruit from Brooklyn via the NIL free-for-all and we’ll send you a lousy t-shirt.
Once you get into the flow of the game, you’re enjoying the great sport we know and love. And I can’t object to the notion athletes generating revenue for university athletic programs deserve a cut beyond the free education they may or may not choose to be enriched by. But it is a little jarring to go to the game and see the top figures associated with the athletic program asking fans to chip in to what amounts to a college player’s salary.