Saturday, August 22, 2009

LOCAL COLOR: BIG BEER FROM A SMALL ROOM




A few doors down from the almost barren corner of Adeline and 40th in Emeryville, California, stands the Café Biere, a friendly gleam of Europe that livens up the neighborhood and may be the next mecca for the Bay Area’s large swarm of serious beer connoisseurs. Its cozy room serves up one of the largest and most eccentric beer menus I’ve seen.

Ivan Hernandez, the café’s owner-operator, wasn’t even a beer lover when he arrived in the Bay Area in 2000. Born in Chihuahua, Mexico (where his mother, Rosa, sagely advised him, “If you want to meet nice girls, learn how to cook.”) Ivan immigrated to Toronto, Canada, in the 1990s. There he started in the restaurant business as a dishwasher in a Mexican restaurant and joined a group of friends who made regular tours of Toronto’s restaurant scene.

Over time, Ivan evolved into a restaurant manager and troubleshooter. Upon his arrival in the Bay Area, he became a restaurant consultant and eventually took over his first restaurant, Café Cacao, in December 2007, a breakfast-lunch spot in Berkeley (on Heinz Street, right around the corner from the newly opened Berkeley Bowl West grocery store).

“I started out not liking beer at all,” Ivan confesses. But then a friend poured him a light, sweet brew called Duchesse de Bourgogne--it was love at first taste. By the time he downed the last cool drop of the Duchesse, he’d become a convert equal in passion to readers of the Wine Enthusiast.

He next toured the Bay Area’s numerous beer bars. From conversion to café took him only three to four weeks. He opened his new place in 2008 at the former site of a Pacific-Asian tapas place that had previously been an Emeryville institution, Moon’s Chinese, for almost 60 years.

The café’s interior is European in atmosphere, with illustrated yellow-gold and copper-plated walls intended, according to Ivan “to turn non-beer drinkers into beer drinkers.” It doesn’t look big enough to hold everything on its menu, but somehow it manages quite well.

The Café Biere’s menu (“Our Little Beer List”) reads like the wine list at a four-star restaurant. All the beers are artisanal and each is described with the kind of loving caressive detail that might cause snobby swill-loving egalitarians to take offense. If it reminds you of the fanatical obsession you encounter with wine connoisseurs, you’re right. (A New Yorker article from November 2008 describes brewing good beer--not the modern industrial product--as a bigger challenge than wine-making.) Indeed, quite a few of the brews on the café menu rise to the high side, a glass costing as much as $40.



But the cafe more than makes up the high prices on some of its brew with many moderately priced varieties and a happy hour featuring a selection of tap beers from 3—7 PM, Monday thru Friday. Free beer tastings are held every Wednesday night around 8:30.



Ivan originally planned to feature only around 50 beers, but the list is now foaming up toward 150. The café stocks beers from Eastern and Western Europe, a large number of U.S. microbrews, plus a number from Canada, Mexico, and Japan. While the Czech selection is small, the Belgium selection dominates (including the crisp, addictive Duchesse de Bourgogne).

Smaller, but equally impressive, are the Trappist ales. These beers are all brewed by, or under the direct control, of Trappist monasteries. European monasteries have been brewing beer since the Middle Ages. Today, only seven Trappist breweries remain. All five of the Trappist ales served by Cafe Biere originate from Belgium.

In the future, Ivan plans to expand Café Cacao’s hours into the evening as a Latin lounge and is mulling over expanding Café Biere’s space into the building’s second floor. “Maybe I’ll start a brewery, or open the kind of place where local brewers can bring their own beers.” An impish look enters his soft brown eyes: “When I get good at brewing, maybe I’ll brew something with chipotle and balsamic vinegar. It sounds weird, but it could turn out tasty.”

The café also serves a light dinner menu designed to compliment the beer menu. The joint fills up quickly, especially on Friday and Saturday, so you’d better call ahead or arrive early. I’ve found it SRO more than once. Not surprising The café gives a genuine lift to a neighborhood in bad need of one.




Monday, August 17, 2009

Friends? We Got Friends . . . .



“Is George Clooney the Hottest Guy in Hollywood? Seems Everyone Wants to Be his Bud.”--Headline on Yahoo! News.

“I’m really white trash.”—George Clooney

E-Mail from: The Lipinskis
To: George Clooney

Dear George Clooney:

Trudi and I wish to thank you very much for the free dinner and drinks the other night at your new Las Vegas resort. It’s not every day an everyday Nebraska couple like us gets yanked off the street by a big restaurant owner for free eats! Trudi
really loved telling you all about her collection of your Aunt Rosemary’s records and had no idea she had such a smart and handsome nephew. And such a good cook!

We apologize for not knowing who you (or Brad Pitz) are, but we don’t go to the movies at all because they’re too expensive, and Trudi can’t drive, and I don’t drive too well myself because of night vision. Maybe they will show one of your movies on
the Hallmark or Western channels or the Turner movie station (as soon as we can afford the satellite adjuster box) and we can catch up then!

My wife and I were happy to add a touch of everyday normal America to the grand opening of your new resort. It made us feel very special—especially since we were the only ones there! (Maybe if you add White Castle to the menu, you’d get more customers hint hint!)

We wish you the best of luck with your new restaurant.

Sincerely Yours

Fred and Trudi

PS: Trudi knows of an excellent hand cream you can use if washing all those dishes turns out to be too hard on your hands!


Dear George:

Thank you very much for all those movie disks. As soon as we can afford one of those players, we’ll be sure to watch them, but our trusty Betamax still has plenty of mileage on it so we’ll stick with it for now. Until then, those disks will make great beer coasters!

From all those movies, we can see you’re a real busy guy! Could you really afford all that postage? We can hardly afford Christmas cards and have to send e-mail greetings from the computer at the meatpacking plant. We’re down to one gift a year
for each of us. Last year my wife gave me that yellow-purple Hawaiian-plaid shirt I wore that time we ate at your restaurant. Who knows? This Christmas I might get a new one! We’ll see what Santa has in store for this year!

Trudi wants to know, when you guys are short-staffed at your restaurant, do you have to fill in yourself? It’s a BIG problem where Trudi works. Some days she has to work a double and then her boss has to fill in and boy, I tell you, some guys should just stay the heck out of the kitchen!

Bon appetite!

Dear George:

Thanks a million for the clothes. Unfortunately, I guess you forgot I’m on the short and heavy side, so the pants are a little tight around the waist. I can have the legs shortened, but I don’t know if I can lose all that weight. I can have the shirtsleeves shortened too (as soon as we can afford it). I wore the tuxedo jacket to bowling the other night and all the guys got real excited, especially when they saw the “Ocean’s Eleven” label.

By that way, is that “Ocean’s Eleven” on one of those movie disks you sent us? It’s funny, because Trudi and I saw it the other night on that Turner channel and while we saw Frank and we saw Dino and we saw Sammy, we’re darned if we could see you!

You’ll have to tell us which scenes you are in, so we can see them and tell our friends how we know somebody who knew Frank and Dino and Sammy!

One other thing: the dresses you sent don’t fit Trudi at all. Do you have any with thicker straps that aren’t so low cut? (She caused quite a stir when she wore one of them to work the other day.) Who’s that Julia Roberts on the label? Is she one
of your restaurant’s waitresses? Trudi says they oughta cover themselves more!

Take care!

Dear George Clooney:

Thank you very much for dropping by with the disk player and your tailor. I will get the rest of the clothes out of storage for the next time your tailor comes by. (You don’t have to come though if it’s too much trouble!)

We hope you found our couch to be comfortable sleeping. I very much enjoyed hearing you talk about golf! We didn’t know there was so much to hear about the subject! Have you really golfed everywhere? I didn’t know there were that many golf courses!

Sorry I fell asleep toward the end there. Shouldn’t have had that last beer!

Bye for now!

Dear Mr. Clooney:

We’re very sorry we couldn’t take up on your invitation to vacation at your house on Lake Como, but Trudi has mosquito allergies and Minnesota mosquitoes are real WHOPPERS!

It was nice of you to stop by on your way. Your visit sure set trailer court tongues wagging (especially after the wind from the helicopter knocked over our neighbor’s trailer!) We were fascinated by your stories about how loud, shallow, and boring
Hollywood people are and how everybody there wants to use you or sleep with you—though Trudi wonders if adding an extra bedroom in your house might solve that problem—and how you wish you could find some real friends in the real world.

We both wish you luck in your search!

PS: Could we ask a small favor? Could you leave your pet pig at home next time? He was a very fun, energetic pet, but our dog

Schotzie was a lot happier when she had both eyes and all four legs!

Dear George Clooney:

Sorry about the dictated letter, but they don’t have e-mail at the hospital and my own handwriting won’t be legible again until the cast comes off. The neurosurgeon says there isn’t any permanent damage, but they likely won’t get all the dents out of my skull.

Maybe going out for a round of golf wasn’t such a great idea. We probably should have gone right in when the thunderstorm started and maybe it wasn’t too smart of you to pop that wheelie on your golf cart. (I guess the docs didn’t like it when you
took over the ER either, especially after you broke my ribs with the defibrillator)

Anyhow, we won’t be able to make it to the Oscars ceremonies because my skin grafts haven’t healed yet. (Are you catering that by any chance? We sure hope so! You seem like a guy who really needs to stay busy!)

And you don’t need to come visit again, if it’s too much trouble. Trudi and I found the screaming a bit much. Do nurses always tear their clothes off when you come around? Trudi’s still blushing!

We really, truly hope you find the friends you are looking for.

Good luck!

E-Mail from: Ed Vendetta, Esq. Law Firm of Skurvy, Vendetta and Capone.

To: George Clooney

Re: Lipinskis v. Clooney—Restraining Order

Dear Mr. Clooney:

Attached as a .pdf please find the restraining order in the above case Lipinski (“Plaintiff”) v. Clooney (“Defendant”).

To briefly reiterate the conditions as follows:

The Defendant shall stay a minimum of one hundred miles from the Plaintiffs, their persons and their properties at all times.

Nor is the Defendant under any circumstances to repeat his visit to the Plaintiff during the remainder of Plaintiff’s

hospital stay.

The Defendant shall make no attempt to contact Plaintiffs in any matter whatsoever, including postal mail, e-mail, chain

mail, phone, fax, teletype, telegram, Morse code, semaphore code, strung-together tin cans, rocks through windows or airborne

advertising banners saying: “FRED AND TRUDI! I’M SORRY! PLEASE FORGIVE ME!”

The Defendant shall not mail gifts or any other packages to plaintiffs, including free meals, DVDs, DVD players, second-hand

clothing, invitations to red carpet premiers, Oscar and other award ceremonies, resort openings, airline tickets to

Switzerland, or golf outings.

The Defendant shall not hold additional pet funerals in the Plaintiff’s yard.

“Oceans 14—Rascals in Nebraska” will not be filmed.

Finally, the Defendant shall not mention the Plaintiffs, both directly and indirectly, in any of his public utterances,

including references to them as “my real-life down-home All-American friends.”

Please download the document, sign and return to our office immediately (and you would mind throwing in an autographed

picture of yourself? Make it out to “Ed!” Thanks!).


Sincerely,

Ed Vendetta, ESQ.


Monday, August 10, 2009

I Think About Stupid Things


Last week, the Red Room Web site held a blogging contest. The object was to answer the following question: “What are your obsessions? Your passions? Your fixations?”

My first, impulsive answer was “You don’t want to know.” Number Two: “Ask my wife.”

And then there’s that old favorite: “None of your damn business.”

I oscillate between resistance to answer the question and the sweet impish desire to tell flattering—but flat-out—lies: “Ohhhh, I obsess all day about the Founders and how their legacy has at last borne fruit with Presidency of Barack Obama, while I nobly fix my gaze upon the distant horizon.”

Truth-telling is a deadly business so I’m better off joking about checking off all the movies I’ve seen in Leonard Maltin’s guide; wondering why movie villain Lee Van Cleef was never cast as a vampire (he would’ve been great); or finessing my Niles Crane impersonation.

As a man suffering from ALS once told an interviewer digging for great pearls of wisdom from a dying man: “I think about stupid things.”

The Red Room invitation was inspired by a comment author Joyce Maynard made about obsession and writing. I’ve not read Maynard’s work but I understand she’s written some classic memoirs, including one about her time with Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger. I guess you would categorize her work as “memoir’ or “confessional literature.”

Not one that applies to me.

I deliberately cast myself a genre writer. One thing that sets genre writers (or, maybe, “writers of action fiction”) apart from mainstream literary writers is a seeming rejection of personal revelation. For example, while you learn a whole lot of about spy work and spy life from John LeCarré’s spy fiction, you learn little about LeCarré’s actual life when he worked for British intelligence (though he wrote a brilliant true-life portrait of his con man father in The New Yorker some years back).

I attempted confessional pieces when I was quite young and, frankly, regret every word. Revealing (and obsessing over) the intimate treasures buried in my psychic sock drawer is so much less appealing to me at fifty-four than it was at twenty-four when I had the peculiar idea I’d somehow alchemize tragedian Eugene O’Neill with farceur Joe Orton and conjure something brilliant. (Yes, you're right. It was a bad idea.)

I do obliquely use my life and very infrequently my private obsessions in my tales, but not to “share myself.” Embarrassment aside, once I’ve shown my secret obsessive self to a reader, what are they supposed to do with it? Whether they actually see me in a protagonist or not doesn’t matter.

What matters is how lost you get in the world I’ve created and the adventures that take place in it. My life is the spackled cement. You should hardly see it.

Back to obsession and writing. I don’t see that writing a book is as an obsessive act, unless you suffer from graphomania; in that case, the writer might never finish, only vanish behind slowly rising white towers of unread paper.

In life, it seems, though obsessives very often occupy books, they seldom write them, or at least successfully completed ones. An obsessive can, say, build a bridge, but he must delegate the overwhelming multitude of complex tasks to others to focus his obsessive laser-like vision--building that bridge as he envisions it in his mind. Here, obsession can actually work to the good.

A novel writer, though he needs some outside help, writes his books alone. Fiction and nonfiction alike, book are large complex projects, riddled with uncertainties and requiring a thought-out, nuanced, rather wide-minded approach. Passion (or “flow” as I sometimes think of it) surely plays a prime, but intermittent, role. But even a story aflame with passion on every page is simultaneously the product of a cool, detached and unobsessed eye. The writer has to consider and weave together a
multitude of details; he doesn’t need a laser vision so much as eyes and ears wrapped around his skull like jeweled headbands, seeing and hearing from all directions; and a fine filter to synthesize everything he absorbs.

At his most concentrated (and psychotic), the obsessive is tyrannized by one single thought, to the brute exclusion of all else, even—and especially—his own well being. He’s a closed-off beam of light, shooting through the blackness all around. His obsession imprisons him. He’s unable to stand outside his hot thin wire to see and work with the shape of it, the nuance and the context of the events he’s burning through; he might be likened to an extreme singularity or a kind of black hole.

The difference between an obsessive like Jack Torrance, the protagonist in The Shining and author Stephen King is the difference between “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” typed out countless times and Stephen King’s finished rounded masterpiece.

Sometimes I see the word “obsessive” used by critics to describe the relationship of an artist to his themes or techniques, but this seems an exaggeration. If Thomas Pynchon was as “obsessed” by paranoia as critics claim, he couldn’t leave his apartment (which he does quite often, or so I’ve read), much less write a book. If Alfred Hitchcock was as “obsessed” in his films with blondes as is said, he’d be a mere crazed girly photographer like Irving Klaw (though Hitch did suffer from
episodes of obsession in his life, as blond Tippi Hedren well knew; obsession did both her and Hitchcock’s art little good).

As I finish this, I’m certainly “focused.” I’m also “concentrated,” “fascinated”, “concerned with” and even “intensely thoughtful.”

But every day, I reach a point where I'm outside of myself and see that I'm no longer Master of the Universe I'm trying to put up on the screen. The words, the scenes, start to stumble and slow, my thoughts turn to slow-pouring mud, while my stomach growls and I realize I’m thirsty for a beer or some top shelf scotch. I have several other pieces to write and my wife calls from downstairs: Time to go watch Frasier.

(Photo of author's eye by author)

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Aroma of Wet Blanket


At last, you’ve typed “The End.” Your novel A Million Little Pieces with Vampires is finished.

Go on . . . go ahead . . . relax! Fall lazily into that barcalounger and never lift another finger
in dismal labor ever again. Years of effort and hardship are reaching their final happy payoff. As
happened when we elected Obama, angels will parachute from on high bearing empty shot glasses, full scotch bottles, and a new 100-inch flat screen TV that will always be tuned to Turner Classic Movies, which will only only show movies you like (Up Goes Maisie), while you eat all the free gourmet pizza you want (delivered the micro-instant your mid-section emits the teensiest gurgle) and collect every single remaining Ennio Morricone CD--

“Not so fast, bubs.”

Oh-oh. That’s Reality, standing over the lounger, wearing an upside down face and a fire-freezing stare (may also be known as Skeptical Spouse, Your Mom, or the junior high student counselor who said you’d never be a history teacher because you didn’t know what Big Bertha was).

“You still gotta find an agent who’ll hook you up with a publisher and pray that the publisher will
(or can afford to) hook you up with an alert, talented editor who doesn’t wish he were editing
Turnips! The Tuber That Saved the World instead.

“And then you’d better pray the publisher doesn’t get bought out in a hostile takeover by Worldwide Widgets who’ll then fire your editor out the nearest cannon and replace him with an editor whose last book was Why Supernatural Novels Always Suck (and That Means Stephen King, Too).

“Oh, and while the agent’s searching for that publisher and also scraping his gluteus derma off for his other equally beloved and likely more profitable clients, he’ll probably have more than a few suggestions to help improve your book and make it more readable and saleable, (such as ‘it’s
spelled C-A-T’ and ‘Superheroes who wear Depends have limited commercial appeal.’)

“And while we interrupt your fantasies of palling around with Peter Straub in the West Eighties or fulminating with Alan Furst about the lousy scotch they serve in the south of France, consider how you may wind up doing most all of your own hollering and chest-thumping, buster. That advance you’ve been dreaming of? Consider yourself parked in dreamland if it’s $9,999.99 (minus 15% to the agent) and also remember this: many publishers these days may clip a little note to that check:

“’HERE’S YOUR MARKETING BUDGET! SEE YOU AT BOOKEXPO!’

“Yuuuup! You design, place and buy the ads; you arrange the readings (if you can find any
bookstores left); you purchase the airline tickets and hotel and cab fare to the readings; you call
up Oprah (“No, really! It’s not a novel! It’s fact: Dracula lives in California! Just think of it! I’m the next James Frey!”) You mail it to the reviewers (and no paying book rate. You’ll die by the time it gets there).

“Meanwhile, you’re erecting platforms all over, like a fifty-band, rap-rock-hiphop mega-concert.
You got your weekly postings (those bits of B.S. you call ‘essays’ ‘cause you’re too much a goddamn fancy-pantsed Frasier to call them ‘blogs’) and now you have do them every . . . single . . . DAY, even if you don’t have anything more to say than “Best Western Keokuk, Iowa is the best darn hotel that ever was . . . superior to Best Western Weyawauga!”

“It’s back to posting ‘Me too!’ reactions to every Keith Olbermann-related article aggregated by
Huffington Post, even though you haven’t watched him since Obama won because he reminds you of your dad pitching a fit in a crowded restaurant.

“And while you’re posing proudly with your Pulitzer Prize in one hand, your World Fantasy Award in the other while the National Book Award wobbles on your bald skull ('I'm accepting my award and take THAT Mr. Pynchon!'), don’t forget: You Must Tweet.

“Yeah, you heard me. Tweet like the most fucking irritating songbird ever. Yes, your bathroom
behavior really is fascinating to the wider world. Count on it!

“’But Conan Doyle never tweeted about vacuuming cat hair off his carpet!” doesn’t mean you
shouldn’t. Go ahead. Google “Vacuuming cat hair carpet.” How many hits do you get? 522,000! If even one of those losers wants to read your novel, it’ll be damn well worth it, especially once you find your novel Portnoy’s Complaint with Alien Invaders sitting at the 4 million ranking on Amazon.

As for getting reviews of your own book, you'll do so much log rolling, consider yourself a lumberjack if you get the author of Spelunking for Claustrophobics to blurb you: ‘Boy, if I liked this kind of book, I might actually read it! Every page is numbered!’”

In return, of course, you have to blurb his latest tome: Penis: The Other Organ That Made the World. And you’ll call that the best book you ever read, too.

“Oh and before you haul yourself out of that chair, one more thing . . .

“‘Dog’ has only one ‘g.’”

(Photo and Bad Fake Web Page by Author)