The wine list is long and fabulous, if price is no object. For the first course I chose a Santa Barbara Roussanne (Consilience) for a "mere" $45 -- lively, slightly sweet, an easy pleasure. For the entrées, James was jazzed to find a Rhone-like red Meritage blend called "the Prisoner" ($65) that proved wonderful drinking -- just enough tannin for depth, but smooth and bright. Over the course of the evening, it never faded.
Meanwhile, the band played to a semiattentive audience. Jason Weber is a dark-eyed, balding, intense-looking guy, maybe in his 30s. A few numbers into the first set, he launched into a sad-happy flowing melody that tore my mind away from my plate and left my heart in little pieces. Suddenly: A cloudy Manhattan afternoon, early fall, no money for subway fare, trekking two miles down desolate 11th Avenue for a few minutes of solitude overlooking the Hudson River at Gansevoort Pier (then derelict with rotting wooden planks, not the chic spot it is today), from whence I'd later turn eastward to the Village to commune with my kind.
Jazz like that will outpower any food. Nothing you can eat -- be it chilies, wasabi, or the sourest yuzu fruit -- hurts as deeply as good jazz, and no dessert is as sweet. The only sensual art that has a chance against such music is the best sex you ever had -- preferably accompanied by 'Trane, or maybe Mingus's "Good-bye, Porkpie Hat." (Do NOT attempt this activity to the tune of Monk's "Little Rootie Tootie.") The next day I Googled Jason Weber. Found his website. Discovered in "Reviews" a roaring all-out rave from 2006 by the late, great (sucks that he's dead) Buddy Blue, who was apparently as surprised and as knocked out as I was. It seems that when jazz lovers write about Jason Weber, they end up writing love songs.
Breath of relief when the band struck up a Thelonious Monk number, all playfulness and mathematical structure, releasing me from the capture of my senti/mental movie to get back to the entrées. "Clam chowder--style" seared Maine diver scallops (with bacon and crispy clams) were okay but a trifle overcooked. At an earlier visit, Samurai Jim had hung out at the bar and gathered food recommendations from his fellow drinkers. A peckerwood-
type with a Southern accent had recommended the fried chicken: "It's real down-home cooking." Well, it was all white meat -- mighty white and rather dry, as breast usually is. The gravy was also white -- it seemed to be a mustard cream -- as were "Mom's coleslaw" and a little heap of potato salad. A ramekin of corn pudding was yellow. Not terrible, but all in all, when I want mind-blowing fried chicken, I go to Magnolias at the mall behind the Euclid transit interchange and order the dark meat option (I find it moister and more flavorful) or the wings. THAT is down-home cooking.
Braised prime short-rib risotto was nice -- just nice -- with veggies from Be Wise Farms and Parmesan broth. An avant-garde honking sax solo sounded something like Rahsaan Roland Kirk when he was playing with Mingus, and it mopped the floor with the "nice" food.
We ordered naturally raised Brandt beef hanger steak to compare with the version we'd enjoyed so thoroughly at Starlite Lounge. This was good, but not as good as Starlite's. The cut seemed a bit thinner and the meat less tender. James talked about a young woman chef he'd trained when he was working as head chef at a resort in Fiji. "I could recognize that she had the talent to be a chef -- not just from the head but from the heart. Anybody can follow a recipe, but the best chefs cook from the heart," he said.
In the latening evening, Jason Weber and his sidemen were also cooking from the heart, another fluid, happy-melancholy melody, math and passion, drawn out in a long sinuous sax line that reeled my mind in like a hooked marlin. (Back to the derelict pier with a 16-year-old's vague heartache, watching the great gray river flow.) Food is an easy physical pleasure, whereas good jazz is often difficult and complex and apt to steal your soul. Sensual, too, but in a sneakier way. An image came to mind of an old cheap paperback of the sort published in the late '40s and early '50s. On its cover, a tawdry-looking hotel room, where a long-haired brunette lies on the bed, wearing a white satin slip and an ankle bracelet, smoking a cigarette, legs slightly spread, while a dark-eyed balding saxophonist kneels on the bed between her ankles and plays.
"You're right," I told James. "It's a great first-date destination. If she loves jazz, she'll be all yours."
We still had to try some desserts, pro forma. The dark-chocolate mousse was all gone, so the guys chose a trio of crème brulées and a tapioca pudding. All sweet pabulum, to my palate. James spotted the most interesting choice, a Port tasting -- ages 20, 30, and 40. Their personalities proved much like people of those same ages: the 20-year-old lively but callow, the 30 ripe and vibrant, the 40 mellowed and just starting to fade.
Then the band went off and we finished and paid and left. "The food is kind of middling," all the guys said on the car ride home. "Not bad, just not very exciting." "I've never found Brad Ogden's food exciting," I said. "It's good, but it's risk-free, background music for the mouth. And Jim Phillips is very skillful and reliable but -- well -- not really known for creative breakthroughs, no insult intended." "Yeah, I'd go to Anthology on a first date," said Jim, "and have the soufflés and the salad, and after the show we'd go up to Starlite for the rest of dinner. But the music was great!" "Yes, the music -- oh," I said, wrung out from it and still hungry for more.