The Fine Line

 

By D.R.E. James

I imagine my demeanor to be something like Drake’s on the cover of his magnum opus Take Care. Head down, by his lonesome in the corner of Joso’s dining room.

Except at Henrietta’s, I’m not in Toronto. I’m on the wickered, patioed Parisian-feeling patio of Henrietta’s. My waiter greets me; his hair is braided into cornrows and his name is Anwar. I get all giddy like he’s a kid from my neighborhood that I played sandlot football with who I hadn’t seen in a month of Sundays. I’m anxious to partake in wholesome barbershop banter with Anwar.

Ask him if he thinks Duke will win another championship; who’d he wife: Nia Long or Erykah Badu? And finally, who does his top 5 comprise of; in fact, I’m so glad to see them I don’t even care if Kendrick doesn’t make the list.  I’m just elated that he’s here, but I’m also aware that he has Bloody Mary’s to dole out. A dream deterred.

The very first time I witnessed Christopher Wallace boast about escargot, lounging, shotgun of a cherry red BMW 328i droptop in the “Hypnotize” video, I was hypnotized. That tidbit of gastro-braggadocio assured me that there were more lavish pastures, beyond Red Lobster for me to nosh in. I was 10 years old at the time. By 8th grade I swapped red ringed bologna for translucent ribbons of prosciutto and cheese doodles for lumps of Chevre cheese. By high school I went M.I.A at each prom, spending that tuxedo rental loot on Spicy Tuna Rolls and carafes runneth over with lukewarm Honjozo instead. By 21 years old I discredited the notion that for blacks to enjoy fine dining we were surely lawyers, Wall Street Journal subscribers, or in the business of entertaining people for a living.

Safe in the womb of familiarity, we handicap our social and cultural expansion. A weekend playing spades or a pickup basketball game at the local park is familiar, while a sailing jaunt or an afternoon enjoying the idiosyncratic brilliance of Basquiat at an exhibit seem like far-flung pursuits.  If we continue to revile the idea of a filet mignon that isn’t cooked to a leathery crisp, how will we ever enjoy the pleasures of steak tartare?

We love the extra scoop, the dollar menu and the good ole 2-for-1 deal . It’s understandable to want your money’s worth but to have a condition called “the itis” which refers to post-meal nap is absurd. The mindset is: Why would I pay $10 for crispy, smoked sweet potatoes at Butcher and Bee when I can pay the same price for cavity-inducing candied yams at Bertha’s that’s accompanied with collard greens, macaroni & cheese and porkchops smothered in gravy?

As a matter of fact, what’s up with that preserved lemon aioli? What’s harissa? I refer to it as the miseducation of the black palate. So what if you don’t know  “a la carte” means you have pay for that creamed spinach separately? Stick around and you’ll learn that crudo means “raw” and spritzy prosecco and fried calamari are as fine a tandem as a Jay-Z verse off one of Ski’s Beatz. I love the feeling of knowing that I can ride my bike to the same restaurant someone drove their German-engineered sedan to, but we’re both there, elbow to elbow with the same linear goal of indulging in delicious food and drinks.  

So what if we get the stank eye from the waiters? It’s essential that we snip that mental barbwire on the way to that bowl of Cacio e pepe. I’ve for sure walked into restaurants and got that “who invited you?” stare. We don’t need an invitation. Do you think our elders were ridiculed for sit-ins at lunch counters with police dogs snapping and snarling their ankles over a 40 cent hamburger for me not to be picking charred octopus from the crevice of my molars?

Traditionally, the neighborhoods we dwell have failed the hungry. Corner stores packed with cans of Vienna sausages and jugs of quarter water, greasy soul food “joints” and Chinese takeout are all ubiquitous. Finding anything substantial outside this realm is like finding a jar of pickled pig feet in Mecca. The beautiful thing about Charleston is that even if you happen to reside in the Gadsden Green Public Houses, which many may consider “the hood”, you’re only two miles from the Charleston Place Hotel. You’re even closer to the clubby vibe of Hall’s Chophouse, but don’t be lured into that Gospel Brunch, the Plantation Singers perform there and I can’t get jiggy with that or the fact Hall’s Chophouse is in cahoots with another restaurant called High Cotton.

Sisters, I advise you to take your brunching to the breeziness of The Palmetto Cafe and order the Huevos Rancheros. It’s like $25 less than that acrylic french tip manicure. Brothers, before you drop $200 dollars on that pair of Jordan 3’s, the ones with the faux elephant print wrapped around around the heels and toes, (that will be scuffed within a week and no amount of toothbrush scrubbing will restore the initial luster) make Drake proud, order the sea scallops and you’ll still have money left for a bubbly punctuation to the evening with a flute or two of Moet & Chandon.

 

2 Comments

  1. Rebel on April 4, 2018 at 10:00 am

    Another fine article wonderfully woven with information, entertainment and enlightenment!!!

  2. Goddess of Gumbo on April 13, 2018 at 10:41 am

    Nice to read something “different” in the Chronicle, but I SO don’t agree with what you’ve written. I learned to cook from women who *created* the lowcountry cuisine that Sean Brock and his merry brand of appropriators are shoving out to the cast of Southern Charm like it’s something new. I learned about service and fine dining from men who *created* that fine dining experience at places like The Colony House, the Yacht Club, and Hibernian Hall–before it was legal for them to eat there themselves. Given that heritage–and the truly impressive inheritance of silver flatware, English china, and French enameled cookware left to me by my mom and uncle–I’ve been producing food that easily surpasses 85% of what’s for sale in the Holy City. Indeed, there are very few restaurants in Charleston where the food is as good as what I dish up out of my own kitchen on a daily basis for my family and friends and pets (yeah, it’s cheaper and healthier to make their food from scratch, too.) And if there’s ever a special occasion meal for which I’d choose to venture out, then I would not willingly go someplace where I’d have to endure “stank eye” from other diners or wait staff — nor would I support an establishment with no visible black (or brown) front of house staff or ownership. Charleston seems determined to turn itself into a Travel & Leisure lifestyle ad. Well, it can do so without my participation or my money. The dining experiences I prize are not the kind that are bought and sold in those establishments, so you may be seeing me downtown on my birthday–or my dad’s–but more than likely not. There’s good food to be found everywhere in Charleston now, including in places that have parking. And you don’t get that sauce of “pretentiousness” served with it that makes the food so hard to choke down.

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