Ariel isn’t a mermaid, she’s a rock-star sushi chef in Denver

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Regular readers already know that I am a dance snob. And a pho snob. But I am also a sushi snob. A little ironic given that the idea of eating raw fish repulsed me well into my 30’s. That’s when I met my husband and started traveling to film shoots in Asia. He coached me through the easy stuff at first, California rolls and the like, and soon I was drooling over live mackerel still quivering on the skewers that brought it to my table. I realized I’d become a sushi snob when I couldn’t convince a client to even try sushi on Kyoto’s famous Pontocho street and it stuck me as tragic.

photo by Gary Geboy, with Ariel Bilyeu's permission
photo by Gary Geboy, with Ariel Bilyeu’s permission

So given my hard-earned expertise (that’s a euphemism for conceit) I did not expect to be wowed by sushi on a recent shoot in Denver. Frankly, I picked the place because the white leather booths at Epernay Lounge looked kinda swank and the name (@EpernayLounge) sounded like it would at least have good champagne. That and it wasn’t a chain stuffed with tourists along 16th Avenue.

epernay

We sat at the bar, as all sushi snobs do and discovered that the twenty-something wielding the knives was executive chef Ariel Bilyeu. As in girl power in a traditionally male arena. This was already interesting. And then we opened her menu. Anyone who comes up with names like the Pablo Escolar roll is onto something. And forget the champagne. There was a haberno-infused tequila cocktail called the Ex Lover that even a happily married woman can’t resist.

Ariel, training her staff
Ariel, training her staff

We over-ordered and then watched as she sliced, plucked and shaped our meal. I’ve never seen someone so enthusiastic about micro-greens. She wasn’t gentle with them either – one leafy herb needed a little roughing up to release its incredible aroma. We got the full before-and-after taste test, courtesy of Ariel’s latest obsession.

She’s one of those people who grew up multi-tasking and happily answered my questions as she worked. Yes, she learned how to make sushi in straight-up Asian style. No, the work ethic depicted in Jiro Dreams of Sushi is not an exaggeration. Yes, she takes liberties with the genre to spice things up but still loves the classics.

“I spent a year learning how to roll rice,” she said. “It was awesome. I got screamed at every day.”

Executive Chef Ariel Bilyeu
Executive Chef Ariel Bilyeu

Luckily there was none of that at Epernay. Hipster electronica piped through the sound system while black-light, body-painted dancers prepared for a late-night performance. Ariel patiently showed the chefs working under her how to prep the plates. Maybe it was the Ex-Lover but the best part of the show was watching men who were as awed by her precision and presentation as I was.

Oh, back to the sushi. The Pablo Escolar yellowtail roll was creamy heaven. The baby octopus in wasabi vinaigrette melted on my tongue. And the avocado-and-eel caterpillar roll I ordered had micro-green ears and caviar eyes.

I couldn’t eat here just once. So I scooped up a stack of Ariel Bilyeu’s business cards to take back to the hotel lobby. Pushy? Maybe. But I am a sushi snob and visitors to Denver deserve better than Maggiano’s Little Italy and the Hard Rock Cafe. Epernay Lounge is going to make the concierge’s reputation.

Pho snob eats her words in Atlantic City

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I am the least logical travel blogger to write about Atlantic City. I’m that person you shouldn’t stand next to at a slot machine because my eyes are glazed over and I exude buzz-kill vibes. It’s not a judgment thing, exactly. Just being inside a casino bombarded by flashing lights and incessant mechanical noises makes me feel like an epileptic seizure is imminent. Which is not entirely unfounded — if you’ve read my memoir you’ll know why.

But I’ve found myself in this neon-throbbing, cash-flashing city twice in the past year, doing PR and media for sporting events. This time I head straight for the sushi bar with cell phone in hand to distract myself and earbuds ready to block out the noise. But Lady Luck is with me because I meet a chatty, handsome barkeep named T.J.

He’s a recent veteran and an Atlantic City native who was trained as a chef but should run for Mayor or at least Cheerleader-in-Chief for behind-the-scenes Atlantic City. He immediately confesses that the best food in the city is not to be found in casinos, which is why I am not naming the casino where this conversation is happening.
hutheu

Instead he googles the address of a Vietnamese dive called Hu Tieu Mien Tay that he swears was written up in The New York Times as having the best pho on the East Coast. I look it up. He’s not exaggerating.

I still have my doubts. Maquest tells me it’s in a strip mall 10 miles from the casinos in a suburb called Pleasantville. And then there’s T.J.’s credibility. He claims to love Poutine so much he’s plotting a food-truck empire built around the slimiest of hangover food. But I’m a pho snob and I can’t resist comparing this reportedly authentic version to the best I’ve ever had. Which also happens to be in a strip mall on 185th street in Aloha, Oregon. So there.

mallmarket

The ambience might put off some. But for me, walking through a Walmart-sized Asian supermarket full of fresh green vegetables next to Hello Kitty clocks and weird Japanese candy is a good sign. The chef doesn’t have to go far for ingredients.

rolls

I order summer shrimp rolls, just in case I’m disappointed in the pho. And they’re spectacular. We grow basil in our backyard and catch shrimp from the creek out front in South Carolina but still haven’t mastered the art of rolling them together with noodles and coming out with something presentable.

cilantro

When the herb plate piled with bean sprouts, mint, jalapenos and lime wedges comes out, I understand what most visitors to Atlantic City feel when they rattle the roulette dice in their hands: anticipation, bordering on immoral. This plate comes with a strange, long, ragged green herb the waiter says is tall Vietnamese cilantro. I think. That’s how authentic the accent is. He warns me it’s spicy, but I wad some into my mouth anyway. How could cilantro hurt?

phoselfie

Let’s just say I am relieved to cool off my mouth and lips with the steaming hot pho broth. Which is revelatory. The old man at the table in front of mine is spoon-twirling it into his mouth with much less slobber than I can muster, but he looks like he eats here everyday. I don’t get much pho practice in Beaufort. So forgive my runny chin.

And my runny eyes. I’m not going to lie. It is so good I’m crying a little. Which I’m going to blame on that weird cilantro since otherwise I’d seem like some pathetic white woman sitting alone under a vinyl painting of the Great Wall moaning to herself.

My faith in T.J. is restored. I’m never going to try the stuff but if YOU visit Atlantic City and get bored of gambling, take a chance on T.J.’s future poutine food truck. If it’s half as good as his palette and referral service, it’ll be worth the chance.

Stop already. My grief can’t keep up with your outrage.

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My heart hasn’t stopped spinning, squeezing, wringing and pounding since Thursday morning, when I woke up to the news of nine innocent people murdered in their Charleston church. “Police searching for the suspect, a white male….”

It didn’t seem real then, or now. I thought it was a misprint. Some other Charleston. Some other Wednesday night than the one when I was swimming in the creek under a moonless sky so beautiful and warm, blissfully unaware of the atrocity unfolding just up the Intracoastal waterway from Beaufort.

I know it shouldn’t make a difference that it happened so close to home but when it happens in your backyard it does. I wanted the familiar distance that has separated me from all the other shooting rampages that have broken my heart. I wanted to feel sorry but not scared. But this young killer was on the loose and there are people I love within blocks of his killing grounds. Before the victims became named human beings I ran down the mental list of acquaintances who might have worshipped at Emanuel. Might have been there. Might be no more.

Like our senator, born in Beaufort, the unfailingly cheerful, civility-exuding Clementa Pinckney. A man younger than I am with two daughters who can’t possibly know how to react to their daddy’s death.

I am filled with sorrow and uselessness, feeling vaguely guilty about continuing on with work and the daily sameness of life when nothing will be the same for those girls or any of the families in Charleston. I arrived in Atlantic City last night for work and yet I’m not really here. I can’t put what happened behind me, nor can I summon any reaction other than sadness. Close-to-spilling-over tears are still, days later, all that there is room for in my head and in my heart.

And yet I glimpse snippets of “coverage” and “reactions” on TVs I wish were not blaring in the airport, in the hotel lobby, reposted on my Facebook and Twitter feed. Because then I am confronted what I have done the other times when these shootings were not in my backyard. I’ve blamed. Snapped back with all my liberal, gun-control fervor and spewed my anger at politicians who say things like nice people with guns are the only defense against bad people with guns. Like the NRA who blamed our slain senator for not advocating concealed weapons in churches.

Now I “get” why the families of victims are not usually the ones in front of the camera blaming anyone or demanding the death penalty. They are still dealing with actual grief, still too stunned to contribute to the outrage. In Charleston they are praying for the soul of the man who destroyed the lives of those they love. They understand that he is only 21 years old and that someone so young would even know such thoughts, let alone act on them, is tragedy enough.

Yet the first person I speak to here in Atlantic City wants to rant about it. Barely have the words “how is everyone holding up?” left his lips when he leaps to disparaging President Obama for “making it political” by blaming guns. And this is a nice person who probably thinks he’s making me feel better, in his own way. I open the Press of Atlantic City and read the “world” reaction story — foreigners judging us in exactly the opposite way – shocked at our continual gun culture of violence and inaction.

It’s too much. Please, just hold off on the judgment and the blaming. Let our hearts catch up with our mouths. Let the reality of what we’ve lost sink in, hurt and burn. To move on so quickly does dishonor to the value of those nine lives. Maybe it’s only because it happened in my own backyard, not some school or shopping mall far away, but this time I can’t bury this grief with outrage. Particularly if nothing is really over but the shouting.

My Portlandia Pilgrimage

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voodoo

line

Thirty minutes into the line for Voodoo Donuts, it occurred to me that the Portland I grew up in wasn’t nearly as edgy, earthy or hipster as it is today. I texted my sister, who also grew up in the Rose City and then lived most of her adult life on the East Coast.

“Why wasn’t Portland cool when we were growing up?” I asked.

My attention wandered as I waited for her reply. A witty Millennial functioning as line motivator/donut huckster was describing how one uses the pretzel extruding from the trademark voodoo doll-shaped donuts to stab its belly until raspberry goo oozes forth, ensuring a tasty curse.

“Because we lived there,” my sister texted back. Touché. A response worthy of an ad-libbed line from the fame-inducing series Portlandia.

coolbar

She’s right, of course. But when I was in high school the town was still in the awkward, pre-pubescent stage long before its voice dropped to sexy. Nobody bragged about being from Portland, except maybe Tonya Harding before she reached for her tire iron.

images-1It still rained, but no Grimm TV series had turned the slick street gloom into glam. Athleta and Lululemon hadn’t yet invented attractive outdoor fitness fashion so our galoshes and parkas made us look like lumpy fourth-graders.

Men still wore flannel shirts and sported beefy beards. But those men were your dads. Not confident Lumbersexuals effortlessly lifting their mountain bikes onto electric street trams.

People were still glow-in-the-dark pale when I lived in Portland. But back then Goth wasn’t in and we were embarrassed by our ethereal skin tones. The joke was Portlanders didn’t tan; they rusted.

beer

We still had coffee and beer but they came from jars of Folgers in your mom’s kitchen and from cartons at the back of gas station convenience stores.

The Portland of today is Darwinian in its greatness. People like me and my sister left and only the hippest have survived. There is evidence everywhere that Portlandia has captured the zeitgeist of a new culture.

If you eat out in Portland you will be told the birthplace of every ingredient. On my Saturday morning hike through one of Portland’s forests I passed ferns and wild orchids whose cousins I ate the night before.

pokfernorchidmeinwoods

house

When I stopped to see what the asking price was on this cute little cottage in the Northwest quadrant I realized the owner wasn’t displaying real estate brochures but poetry.

poem

Look closely at this mom’s stroller. It’s attached to a skateboard. I looked around, expecting to see Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen.

skate

portlandia

In this hometown I barely recognize I’m not sure if life is imitating art or the other way around. If anything, Portlandia overemphasizes the “keep Portland weird” vibe and underplays the city’s friendly sophistication.

weird

We were there, for example, for a major fine-art photography portfolio review and month-long celebration of the art form called Photo Lucida. In my day, a photo exhibit in Portland meant landscapes of neighboring Mount Hood printed on canvas. But so many in-the-know Portlanders turned out for the night the photo review was open to the public that the fire marshal had to shut down the Portland Art Museum.

photowalk

I live in the South now, a region heralded for its hospitality. But it was in Portland that a parking lot attendant saw me wadding the wrapper from my messy, trendy food cart lunch into my backpack and abandoned drivers to show me the nearest garbage can. Then he ducked into his little key shed and reappeared with a roll of paper towels and hand sanitizer.

dolldonot

I knew I was developing a major crush on my new old hometown when I finally reached the end of the line at Voodoo Donuts. The sweet yeasty smell from my freshly baked, over-frosted voodoo doll wafted up to my cold red nose and I must have swooned. I suddenly couldn’t think of anyone to curse. I was so put-a-bird-on-it, tree hugging, never-shaving again happy that I forgot why I was holding the tiny stabbing pretzel in my fist.

Luckily my aunt Ronell, an old-fashioned kind of Oregonian who still drinks beer out of a can and thinks skateboards are for little kids, was by my side. She put down her traditional maple bar and whispered a name into my ear. It was just the spell-breaker I needed and I plunged the pretzel into the jelly-filled belly of the innocent donut. My sister was right. I’m not chill enough to be born-again Portlander yet.

The geek selfie -- me with the about-to-be-replaced carpet at PDX
The geek selfie — me with the about-to-be-replaced carpet at PDX

The Bookclub Reveal that Floored Me

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Meet the ladies of Ex Libris
Meet the ladies of Ex Libris

Beaufort’s Ex Libris bookclub has been meeting for the last twenty-one years – the young mothers who started it as a sanity-saving break from infants and toddlers now swap stories of their children’s weddings and plans for grandchildren. They’ve been each other’s other mothers and other mothers to each other’s children. They pick their books a year in advance and the menu for their monthly meetings is always the same: M&M’s, bags of popcorn and many, many bottles of wine. But they still have the capacity to surprise each other.

Take this month’s meeting, for example. One of the founding members, Vicki Mix, nominated “The Other Mother: a rememoir” because back in the 90s she used to help Byrne Miller archive programs, press clippings and photographs into giant scrapbooks. We didn’t know each other then, but we both count ourselves among the last generation “collected” by the modern dancer who turned the South on its head. So I wasn’t surprised that another sister-by-Byrne would ask me to talk to Ex Libris.

 

Thats Deborah, second row, second from the right
Thats Deborah, second row, second from the right

I never expected what happened next. One of the longstanding members brought a guest to the meeting, someone who had once worked as a designer at WJWJ-TV, and when we went around the room doing introductions she shyly said her name: Deborah Martin. She was holding an 8×10 black and white photo of a group of dancers and pointed to herself, thirty-years ago. The group was the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre and she was one of Byrne’s original dancers!

 

Deborah's costume designs for the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre
Deborah’s costume designs for the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre

 

Byrne at the wedding of two of her collected children in 1990
Byrne at the wedding of two of her collected children in 1990

It gets even better. Not only did Deborah dance for Byrne in the days before the BMDT became purely a presenter of modern dance, she designed costumes for the company.

 

Byrne was so theatrical, always bedecked in outlandish fashions, that I can only imagine how she must have treasured Deborah’s talents. The sketches she passed around felt like heirlooms – graceful reminders that Byrne’s story was once present tense and active. And that even though Byrne was the star of her own remarkable story there was always a supporting cast. Which included Duncan – Byrne’s husband of 60 years.


 

 

The man I was assigned to “cover” as a news story about Alzheimers struggled for the strength to shake my hand and the breath to speak. But Deborah knew a much younger, vibrant Duncan who never missed a single rehearsal.

Duncan, in rehearsal
Duncan, in rehearsal


“He was always there, in his little leotards,” she said. “He absolutely adored dance and had this delightful giggle I’ll never forget.”

 

The joyous, ebullient Byrne
The joyous, ebullient Byrne

 

 

Back cover of "The Other Mother: a rememoir" courtesy of Beaufort County Library
Back cover of “The Other Mother: a rememoir” courtesy of Beaufort County Library

 

Deborah knew a different side of Byrne than I would ever encounter – the tough, demanding taskmaster never satisfied until a dance was stage-ready. She wasn’t always the wise, tactful other mother she was by the time I found her. Feelings got hurt but always mended. “We went through a lot together, Byrne and I.”

Deborah left Beaufort and WJWJ long before I arrived to take a job at the same TV station, and she lost track of Byrne’s story. It was only decades later, after she had returned to live on St. Helena Island, that she found out about Byrne’s papers at the Beaufort County Library. But even the giant scrapbooks Vicki Mix had helped archive couldn’t restore a presence as pivotal as Byrne Miller.

“When I saw the newspaper pages, all yellowed and faded, it was just so sad. I couldn’t believe that a life like hers was reduced to artifact.”

I know exactly how she felt. I too, studied those scrapbooks in the research phase of the memoir of my relationship with Byrne. I was never trying to bring Byrne back to life; just to share the greatest love story I have ever known.

 

Byrne and Duncan Miller
Byrne and Duncan Miller

Each bookclub that reads “The Other Mother: a rememoir” interprets it in a new way. Ex Libris members shared the perspective of mothers astounded at the selfless love it took for Byrne to nudge me out of her protective nest to start my own career. They loved the ending – the scene where Byrne and I danced a duet of hand shadows in a dark room.

Deborah clutched the book to her chest, close to tears and thanked me for bringing Byrne back to her. And that’s when I realized that for other mothers, there are no endings. Ours are stories that will shape future lives.

Me with Deborah, a sister-by-Byrne I never knew I had.
Me with Deborah, a sister-by-Byrne I never knew I had.