Wednesday, October 26, 2011

I ate at Carrabba's Italian Grill, and survived, just barely

I’m not a big fan of chain restaurants because, as I see it, you are playing to the lowest common denominator.  It has to taste the same in Alabama as well as Connecticut. It also doesn’t allow for regional tastes or the creativity of the chefs.  You are locked into a finite set of ingredients and menu items.  The “specials” are whatever the corporate office deems special.  So it was with much trepidation that my wife and I went to Carrabba’s Italian Grill   Well Barr, why did you go in the first place?  Good question.  My wonderful niece and nephew gave us a restaurant gift card.  It had a fish place, The Salty Bonefish or some such nonsense that didn’t have a place near us.  The Outback and Fleming Steakhouse were out because I had made an amazing T-Bone with Bleu Cheese sauce two nights before.  That left Italian. 

I Googled Carrabba’s for some reviews and they were written by a bunch of crybabies!  Too salty(boo-hoo!), raw garlic in my pasta (wah!) and my favorite, not a good vegetarian place.   Really, pasta is not vegetarian?  What world do you live in?   I found a half-dozen veggie dishes without even breaking a sweat.  Anyway, off we went. 

We got there late-ish and the place was packed.  They seem to be set up for larger parties, as the booths for two were limited.  The décor was what you would expect of Tuscany.  Tuscany, New Jersey that is.  Faux plaster accented with shades of soft orange and ochre along with dark accented wood beams.  After waiting about twenty minutes we were seated in the bar area.  Not ideal, because there was this VERY shrill, VERY drunk girl loudly laughing at the next table.  Mercifully they soon left.  More annoying than that was that neither TV had the Bruins game on.  I was checking the score throughout the night much to the displeasure of my wife.  Anyway on to the food.

The waiter introduced himself and asked us if we had ever been here, NO, what the specials are, NOT INTERESTED, and they had a scratch kitchen.  That piqued my interest. Fresh, local food versus frozen corporate pap.  I’m in!  He took our drink orders and returned with some fresh bread.  He took about a tablespoon of mixed herbs and spices, dropped them on a dish and added some olive oil.  The bread was to die for, hot, crusty and fresh.  The herb mixture was excellent.   Lots of garlic, basil, oregano and I might have caught a whiff of lavender to boot.  So far so good.  For appetizers we ordered the Fried Calamari with both the marinara and spicy Italian pepper and lemon butter sauces.  For entrees my wife ordered the Mezzaluna; which is half moon shaped ravioli with chicken, ricotta and spinach in tomato cream sauce.  I go for the Seafood Cannelloni; which is lobster, shrimp and scallops, blended with roasted garlic and chives, topped with a light tomato cream sauce and crabmeat (taken word for word from the menu). We both ordered the Caesar salad.

After crushing the bread and dip, and having a nice conversation with my wife, while checking on the Bruins game, the appetizer arrives.  Big disappointment.  The coating was excellent, the sauces were good but the calamari itself was too chewy.  Way too overcooked. All right, maybe they can make it up on the entrees.   A few minutes later our salads arrive.  Good creamy dressing, freshly shaved Parmigianino, and fresh croutons atop crisp lettuce.  Very good.

We are waiting and waiting and finally the waiter comes to our table and apologizes that the kitchen is backed up and our meals will be out in a couple of minutes.  Not a problem because I cannot stand when you are not even finished with one course and the other one is put on your table.  I like to wait a while between courses.  But I am puzzled by the fact that if the kitchen is too busy, how in the world can they OVERCOOK the calamari?  Hold that thought.

Finally our meals arrive.  By current American standards of the food falling off of the plate, these entrees were a little on the skimpy side.  I took one look at mine and knew I was in trouble.  There were burn marks on the pasta and crabmeat.  Mine was overcooked, in a kitchen that was busy.  Go figure.  I couldn’t detect the individual pieces of seafood, it more of a puree.  The sauce was pretty good, but nothing that would stand out.  There also wasn’t that much; perhaps the light cream sauce referred to the amount.  I would have sent it back, but it was getting late and I was very hungry.  I gazed longingly at my wife’s entrée. She kindly gave me a few pieces, which I eagerly ate.  It was delicious.  The pasta was cooked perfectly.  The filling was delicious.  A ton of flavor.

The bill wasn’t that bad, more so because I had a gift card.  I made the waiter’s night by accidentally over tipping him.   That’s okay, he was just a kid trying to make a buck.  On the way home we were toying with the idea of going back.  We decided not to.  There are way too many good Italian places in the area to waste our money on a standardized, one size fits all restaurant.  

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Simchat Torah, yet another Jewish holiday, May the force be with you

Last night at our synagogue we celebrated the holiday of Simchat Torah.  This holiday marks the end of the annual cycle of reading the Torah (Old Testament) and begins a new one. It is a happy holiday marked with joy and celebration, unlike the solemn Yom Kippur, which is a day of prayer, fasting and reflection. Trained scribes using special ink and quills carefully handwrite the Torahs, which are scrolls made of parchment. They are checked and double-checked for their accuracy.  Finally, the panels are sewn together with sinew and rolled onto staves called etz hayyim, or tree of life.  The Torah is covered with elaborate dressings, crowns and breastplates.  It is the foundation of Jewish life and law. 

We paraded the Torahs around the synagogue and sang songs.  The culmination of this celebration was to completely unroll the Torah and display it in the sanctuary.  That job fell to yours truly.  I had to hold the Torah and carefully unfurl it while people stationed strategically around the schul (Yiddish for synagogue) held it.  The Torah weighed about thirty pounds. It took about ten minutes to completely unfurl.  I estimate that is was well over one hundred feet long.  Then, we had to carefully roll it back up, again conducted by yours truly, with the congregation shouting encouragements such as, tighter, looser, this way, more slack, less slack, left, up!  I’ve always said that if you have two Jews in a room, you get three opinions.  The Torah is not something that you want to mess around with.  Even though my shoulder was screaming in pain, I had to make sure that it never touched the ground.  The penalty for dropping a Torah is fasting for forty days.  Yeah.  That’s right, forty.  I call it the Disgraced Jew Diet.  In some synagogues the entire congregation has to fast because of your clumsiness.  Not an effective way of keeping friends. 

How did this honor happen to be bestowed upon yours truly?  You probably know that I have a lot of hobbies and interests.  Drumming, photography, cooking, attempting to write and blog, pretending to garden, mountain biking, and target shooting are among my many interests.   My latest undertaking is, along with my wife, president of a synagogue.  What? Slow down there sport.  Did you just say president of a synagogue? Yes I did.  Here is the story.

A few years ago, my former synagogue refused to renew the Rabbi’s contract. This was nothing new because this schul (Yiddish for synagogue in case you didn’t get it he first time) went through Rabbis constantly. In the twenty years that I attended the old synagogue, we had four.  Some years we had substitute rabbis.  Just when you started getting comfortable with the Rabbi, BAM, Gone. Rabbi Seth is very different. He is very smart, insightful, articulate, friendly and makes going to services actually tolerable. I don’t know how it is going to church, but I’m sure that some of you wish you were doing something, anything, other than spending a perfectly good morning being one with the Supreme Being. 

So we said, Gai tren zich (Yiddish for well, a certain word in the English language that can be a noun, verb, adjective, and adverb, sometimes simultaneously) left the schul, and followed him to a new one. This was particularly painful because we had great seats. It was like giving up season tickets on the fifty-yard line to the Giants.

Anyway, this little schul is located in the heart of downtown Old Wethersfield. The building is a charming, well over a hundred-year-old converted church. But, here is the kicker; filled with some of the most wonderful people I have ever met. Friendly, warm, tolerant, literate, accepting, I mean, what else can you ask of people?

Here is an example; In the twenty years that I had gone to my other schul, I was never once asked to come up on the bima (stage) to open or close the ark where the Torahs are kept. In the Jewish religion, this is considered a big honor.  The first day I was there, I was asked if I would be willing to carry the Torah around the schul during the Rosh Hashanah (New Year) services.  I’m not sure what a Christian equivalent is but, in my neck of the woods, it’s like carrying around the Stanley Cup.

One Saturday as we were leaving the Bat Mitzvah reception of the Rabbi’s daughter, just as we were about to leave, a member of the Executive Committee approached us.  She has the unusual ability; some call it a Jedi mind trick, to make your mouth say yes to something when your brain says no.  She asked if my wife and I would like to join the Membership Committee.  As my wife was vigorously shaking her head no, I heard myself say, “Of course, we would be honored.”  With a broad smile, and twinkle in her eye she said, “I knew you would!”  Jedi mind trick! 

After spending some time on the Executive Board, we heard rumors that, the current co-presidents, were about to give up the position.  They had done a wonderful job of keeping our little congregation thriving.  Money is always scarce; the building always needs work, bills need to be paid.  They managed to keep it all together with wisdom, grace, and aplomb.  Tough shoes to fill, but that was someone else’s problem.  Until, I heard rumors about my wife and I being considered for the role of Co-Vice Presidents.  Then it turned to us being the Presidents.  Talk about a fast career track.  One day I’m a simple congregant, next thing I’m running the joint.  Oi Vai iz mir! (Yiddish for Woe is me!)

As I nurse this sore shoulder with an ice bag, I think about my life’s journey.  A rabbi moves to a new synagogue and my wife and I become responsible for a small family of remarkable people. I can’t wait to see what happens next! 

 L’shana  Tovah  Tikatevu   – May all your names be inscribed and sealed for a joyous new year.

Yehi  hako'ah  imahem  —May the Force Be With You!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Wide right, or spending the day teasing your child unmercifully is priceless

Wide right.  Two words that either delight New York Giants fans or greatly upset, to the point of apoplexy, Buffalo Bills fans. On January 27, 1991, with eight seconds left in Super bowl XXV, Scott Norwood, kicker for the Bills, lined up to kick a forty-seven yard field goal to win the game.  The kick had the distance, but sailed wide right, thus ensuring the Giants an upset victory over the Bills.  And bragging rights forever. 

I come from a long line of New York Giants fans and my older son, Todd, follows with this tradition.  Aaron, my younger son, broke rank, and for some inexplicable reason, became a fan of the Buffalo Bills.  I know what you are thinking.  The shame and humiliation must be unbearable for me.  You are right.  Groundings, banishment, and years of therapy neither dissuaded him, nor allowed him to see the error of his ways.  He remains a fan of a team that has an unprecedented record of going to the Super Bowl four years in a row and losing each and every one them.  A fact that is always brought up whenever we talk about whose team is better. 

Aaron had never been to a professional football game, so my son Todd and his friend Mike thought it would be a cool idea to take him to the new Giants Stadium.  The line-up?  Bills at Giants. It was a gorgeous, sunny, fall day and we made good time getting to the stadium.  We parked, and set up the grill.  But not before cracking open a few cool ones. At nine-thirty in the morning.  All around us, people were throwing the ball around, playing bag toss games and having a great time.  We were all trash talking, boasting who will win, what team rules, what team sucks and teasing each other unmercifully.  We had a lot of food and gallons of beer so we were getting quite rowdy.  After demolishing a couple of sandwiches, a sausage ring, a few handfuls of pretzels and mass quantities of beer, it was showtime. 

We walk into the new, gorgeous, Giants stadium, now named MetLife Stadium and find our seats. We were in the second row, field level.  I’ve never been that close to the players.  It was as if the game was being played in my backyard.  You could hear all of the hits, grunts, taunts and calls.  It was amazing.  The crowd was noisy and excited.  After all, these are the Giants, our heroes.  The team we live vicariously through, endlessly argue about, simultaneously love and hate.   We revel in the glory when they win and feel the sting of defeat when they lose. 

We are pretty lit up by the time we find our seats.  First order of business is to get some more beer.  I’m buying the beer, four cups, forty dollars.  I brought three hundred bucks to cover the day, but I’m already thinking about an emergency second mortgage on my house to cover the rest of the refreshments.  Oi vai!  

The Giants strike first with a touchdown and the crowd is roaring.  My normally run-at-the mouth son Aaron is strangely quiet.  We are giving him a non-stop barrage of trash talk.  Four more beers and the Bills get a break in the form of an amazing 80 yard scamper to tie the score.  Aaron comes alive and now we are strangely quiet.  And that is how it went all day. It was a close game with the Bills taking the lead at one point.  The Giants had a touchdown taken away after review, and had a field goal attempt blocked.   The Giants had a three point lead in the final minutes of the fourth quarter.  The Bills have possession, but are finally stopped when they go for it on fourth down and the pass is batted away, thus sealing victory for our beloved warriors.  The crowd is going insane and we are mocking Aaron and his defeated Bills.

Todd and I follow Aaron into the men's rooms and Todd yells out, “Hey Kelly! (Aaron is wearing a Jim Kelly jersey) Wide right!”  The entire men's room erupts with laughter, and those waiting in line or holding their junk peeing, begin to chant, “wide right, wide right, wide right!”  Aaron goes to the urinal and no one goes to the urinal on his right in case he goes wide right too!  It was a thing of beauty. 

The ride home was long and we re-lived every, play, run, catch, and of course, tease Aaron unmercifully.  Despite his team losing, he had a fantastic time.  I had the time of my life spending a wonderful afternoon with my two guys.  Another priceless event in the Scott family lore. 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

What I did on my summer vacation, fifty years ago.

As a typical family we used to take typical summer vacations.  We would pile into the car and off we’d go.  My brother and I would naturally fight like crazy defending our back seat turf.  We would establish an imaginary line down the middle of the back seat. A sort of Chevrolet no mans land.  Since he was my older brother he never honored the boundary.   Being unimpeded by such ridiculous things as seat belts, he would stray over the line and smack me.  I would of course retaliate and he would complain to my parents. My father would yell at both of us. “He started it!” I would whine.  “Both of you stop it!” He would yell. That worked for about five minutes until my brother started in again.  We would do this until my father would stop yelling and start trying to swat us. It made for some very interesting driving as we barreled down the highway going seventy miles an hour; one arm swinging at us, the other trying to hold onto the steering wheel. As we were swaying all over the road a motorcycle cop sees this and pulls us over. We are in deep shit now!  We sit there like two choirboys with our hands clasped and staring straight ahead while the cop gets off his bike and saunters over to the car.  My father tells the officer that we were out of control.  The cop poked his helmeted head into the car and told us if we didn’t behave he will haul us to jail.  Whoa! That chilled us out. My brother and I declare a temporary truce. 

In the fifties and sixties, air conditioning in cars was strictly for the rich.  Needless to say our car did not have air conditioning or even a working fan.  We had four open windows blowing hot, humid air into the car. Combine that with warm, sticky, vinyl seats and a brother who was using me as a sparring partner and what fun we had as we plied the interstate. One of the more interesting things on the highways were the Burma Shave signs.  Burma Shave was a company that sold shaving cream.  They created an advertising campaign of humorous road signs that were placed every mile or so.  My favorite was “Don’t  stick/ your elbow out/ too far/ it might go home/ in another car /Burma Shave.”  To this day I rarely drive with the windows open. 

We once went to of all places New London.  Not real London, but New London, CT.  We lived in Bridgeport, CT.  New London was about an hour away. It took us three hours to get there because my father somehow got lost and we went over the same toll bridge a half a dozen times.  This was particularly irksome because he had to pay every time we went over.  We were teasing him unmercifully and he was swearing and threatening to leave us on the side of the road.    When we finally arrived in New London my parents naturally tried to find the cheapest motel possible.  We found a dump of a motel that advertised that it was air conditioned with stylized ice cube letters and a continental breakfast.  Now remember; we were four bumpkins from Bridgeport.  We had no idea what a continental breakfast was.  It sounded very sophisticated so we checked in.  All evening long we imagined what a continental breakfast was.  “It must have a lot of fruit,” my brother said, as he punched me in the arm.  “I think it has those creep things, you know French pancakes.” My father said knowingly.  My mother was convinced  we would have omelets.  I just wanted Cocoa Puffs. 

Morning comes and we race to the restaurant.  We find a table amid all of the other cheapskates and sit down.  My father takes command and in his best fake French accent orders, four continental breakfasts.  We are quivering with delight.  The waitress brings out four stale rolls and a pot of tepid coffee.  We thank her and tear into the rolls.  We sit and wait for the waitress to return to take our order.  And wait, and wait.  Finally my mother spies the waitress and asks her to take our order.  “What order?” Asks the waitress.  “The continental breakfast,” replies my mother. “You just had it,” the waitress replies.  “Had what?” asks my mom.  “The continental breakfast,” says the waitress who is starting to get annoyed.  “We just had four stale rolls and lukewarm coffee,” my mother says.  And on it went as if it were an Abbott and Costello routine until it finally dawned on us that the continental breakfast was just that.  A roll and coffee.  Not fruit.  Not an omelet.  Not a French crepe.  Not even Cocoa Puffs. A roll and coffee.  I  wished that the cop would had brought me to jail, at least the food would have been better. 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Rocky the Chemo Dog, RAW diet, Rabbit Chaser

When we took Rocky back to the surgeon to have his stitches removed, the oncologist discovered another lump on the other anal sac!  What?  How could this happen?  Was it missed the first time around?  The surgeon assured us that he examined and palpated the other sac and found no evidence of a tumor.  This cancer is a fast mover.  He immediately prepped Rocky, and performed the surgery the same day.  As a courtesy, we were only charged the surgical fee. We still have to eat Ramen noodles though.

When we took him back after the second surgery, he was examined and pronounced tumor free.  We now had to make the decision on what to do next.  Radiation, chemotherapy, diet, all had to be considered.  Rocky is an older dog.  We think he is between 10 and 12 years old.  The foster parents weren’t too sure as to his actual birthday.  Anyway, he is, actuarially speaking, getting up there.  We have to realistically consider how many years he would otherwise have left.  For a dog of his breed and size, life expectancy is 12-14 years. 

We decided against radiation for a number of reasons. Because he is starting to get to the everyday is a gift stage, we did not want him to have to go through more pain and agony.  There would be sores and burns as a consequence of the radiation. The next reason is that there is no radiation facility in Connecticut. That means a long trip to Massachusetts or Long Island.  Everyday for three weeks!  Tufts had a special hotel package where the dog stays there for the duration of the treatment.   The next reason is cost.  One quote was $3-5K without boarding.  For us, it was out of the question. 

We decided on chemotherapy for Rocky.  Most dogs tolerate it well and have minimal side effects.  There are oncologists in Connecticut and Massachusetts.  We were referred to a newly minted oncologist straight out of Tufts.  Not only is she up to date on all of the latest advances in medicine, she was in a rock band.  Works for me.  She did a metastasis test and confirmed that the tumor was a fast growing one.  Her rates were very competitive too.  We started treatment that same day. 

We plan on boosting his immune system by changing what he eats.  We started him on the RAW diet.  The RAW diet consists of fresh foods that contain vital vitamins and nutrients.  Kibble and canned food all contain meat by-products.  Do you even what to know what a meat by-product is?  I Googled it and it ain’t pretty.  For the RAW diet we mixed ground beef, chicken and salmon with steamed vegetables, cottage cheese and cooked steel oats, with some minced fresh blackberries and parsley. I took a bite; it was terrific.  We gave it to him and he didn’t come up for air until he was done. 

So far, Rocky has shown no side effects from the chemo.  He barked at the garbage men, chased the cats and ran after a rabbit.  He still jumps on the bed and begs for treats.  Other than having a shaved baboon butt, he looks pretty good.  I was playing with him on the rug in the foyer when he jumped up and leaped across the room.  I think he is feeling pretty good.  We can only keep our fingers crossed and pray.