“I wanted to live deep, and suck out all the marrow of life…” Henry David Thoreau
For the past few years, a group of friends have gathered to watch the annual Canadian Football League championship game, known in these parts as the Grey Cup. Instead of rotating from living room to living room each year, we would meet in the lounge of this divey pizza joint. I think the location was chosen because it was within walking distance of guy who organized the gathering’s house, so he could drink as much as he wanted.
The pizza was great: they did this thing where they put full garlic cloves into the crust and so when it baked all you could smell was roasted garlic in the air. Not the best choice if you were trying to impress a lady, but at these gatherings, of between 5 and 10 dudes, the way you made an impression was seeing how long you could go before you had to leave to pee.
The pizza was great, and the wings were cheap, and the beer was cold. That was pretty much all you could say about the place, because the actual place was kind of sad. The “lounge” was this little room off the main restaurant, and there was a drafty door that lead out to a patio. It was always closed in late November, of course, but if you were unlucky enough to sit with your back at this door, you had to keep your coat on. The leather furniture was worn, and the two flat screens looked ancient, like the kinds they had when “projection TVs” were all the rage. They were the kinds of TVs where, if you weren’t sitting exactly in front of it, the picture looked all wavy and the colour would be off.
But all that was fine, because the main thing was getting together with the guys and laughing and joking and carrying on and eating good pizza and having a night out. The game was secondary: still is.
Well, when the email came ’round suggesting a gathering for this year’s event, a new location was suggested. I puzzled at this, until I realized the reason was because the beloved old pizza joint had CLOSED over the summer. I wasn’t actually surprised, because the place never seemed all that busy, even at the best of times. Often on Grey Cup nights we would be the only group in the place.
So it was time yesterday to check out this “new place” with the old gang and see what’s what. I think it’s safe to say that if you get a group of guys together and there is access to beer and pizza, you’re good.
Upon entry, my first impression was that this place was WAY classier than our old haunt, and I kinda wondered if this decor would be reflected in the prices. I was the second person to arrive, and the first person was already beaming.
“They have Half Pints on Tap!” he announced as I sat down. I could and probably should do a whole separate post on the”HPBC”, a local brewery that makes four regular varieties of beer that are available year round. The cool thing about this company is that the brewmaster is always experimenting with limited run varieties that have special launch days throughout the year. It’s become so popular that if you’re not in line at 9 am when the brewery opens on launch day, there’s an excellent chance you won’t get any at all. That’s actually happened to me more than once: pulling up to the brewery full of expectation only to see the hand-drawn sign in the window announcing that they were “all out”.
So not only did they have the four “regulars” on tap, they had something called “The Isolater”, one of the limited run beers. I hadn’t even HEARD of this one; I guess I’m out of the beer loop. Of course, without thinking we both ordered one. It’s a Bock, which means it’s very heavy and malty. Traditionally it was brewed in monasteries and whenever the monks were fasting, they were allowed to drink Bock to keep them going. It’s the type of beer for which the phrase “liquid bread” was coined. It was incredible. If a beer could be described as “chewy” this would be the one. I could actually see how it would sustain you in times of fasting, but lucky for me, this was not one of those times.
When the rest of the guys arrived, it was time to look at the menu. Apparently this place is a TAPAS bar. I had never been to one before, but I knew the general idea: you get little plates of a variety of things and you nibble on them. Not exactly “football watching fare”, but that was okay. I was so happy to have found the Isolator. As the night moved on, I couldn’t remember the proper name for it: “Invigorator?” “Instigator?” “Invigilator?” Even in my stupor I knew that last one had to be wrong.
Well they did NOT have pizza, but they did have wings. Not your usual “honey garlics” or “BBQs”. No sir my friends. Something called “Maple Habanero” and another thing called “Ginger Sunrise” or something. We took two orders of both!
A second Isolator made it to the table for me, and it was time to order some “real food”. No such thing here, apparently. We ordered a plate of mussels, although split between 5 hungry dudes, I was lucky to get one shell and lucky enough there was a wee bit of mussel inside! It was delicious but I could have eaten about 40 of those guys!
There was this thing on the menu simply labeled “Bacon: peppery, saucy and with a SURPRISE!”. Now how could any red-blooded male pass up an invitation like that? Reader, we didn’t. The waitress, who I think kind of got a kick out of us “fishes out of water” as it very much were, said. “So you want a thing of bacon?” and off she went. In her absence we discussed the ambiguity of her statement, but when she came back to the table, a “thing of bacon” was exactly what she brought. Imagine a stainless steel cylinder with a meshy side, not unlike the type of thing that might hold forks, spoons and knives at a diner or a cafeteria checkout. Now imagine it lined with thin paper and STUFFED full of bacon! There much have been 15 rashers in that damn thing and I can tell you that we didn’t waste any time passing the “thing” around and digging in. Delicious, but what a weird thing to have on the menu. I can’t imagine going out for supper with my wife and saying, “Well well, why don’t we share a ‘thing of bacon’ before our main course comes out? Oh, you’d prefer a tossed salad? Well, maybe I’ll just get this bacon for myself.” But in this setting, nothing could have been better. I even thought of ordering a second round, but we were on to bigger things.
And by bigger things, I mean more small things. We did a double order of shrimp that came in a cheesy, oniony sauce, and none of us really knew how to eat it. It was almost like shrimp risotto, which, ironically, I had the night before at a friend’s house. Some of us grabbed it with our hands and got hot cheese everywhere, while others (like me) got right in there with their forks and pulled a few of them onto my plate. This was followed up by a “meat and cheese” board. The masterpiece of the night, actually. In fact, after that came out, none of us had the will to order anything else, even though most of us were still hungry.
This meat and cheese board was huge. It was a wooden board that could hardly fit on our table. And things were arranged on it, sushi style. There was a little tipi of pepper salami, across from a blob of dijon mustard, just sitting there. A wee dish with four unpitted green olives (you’d think that with five of us, the chef could have tossed an extra olive on there, but there you have it). There were 3 little triangles of brie arranged nicely next to a Guinness cheddar, which I’m guessing tasted like Guinness, but I can’t confirm that because I never got a taste. A wee cube of what I think was black current jelly was sitting in the middle next to a ramekin of what turned out to be something called “Duck Confit”. I think that was my favourite thing on the meat and cheese board. I may have relinquished my rights to the Guinness cheddar, but hands off my confit!It was warm and spread really well on crackers. Oh yeah, there were crackers, too. But not like a ton of crackers, more like 3 or 4 of 6 different kinds. Water crackers, rice crackers, you name it. And a couple of pieces of baguette that were eaten right away before anything else happened. The weirdest thing on the board was a bone, sliced in half longways. “That’s the marrow!” our waitress exclaimed with a bit of disgust in her voice. “It’s an acquired taste,” she tossed out as she walked away. It looked really awful, but I thought to myself, “How many chances will I have in this life to eat bone marrow?” and I took a cracker and ran it along the inside of this bone. I’m not sure if I did it right, because all I got on my cracker was some grease and goop, but I think the grease and goop WAS the marrow, so I popped it into my mouth.
I suppose there’s a certain etiquette that comes with tapas culture, like what cracker one should eat with this type of cheese and whatnot. I think I chose poorly, because my cracker was one of those herbed deals, and all I could taste was dill or oregano or whatever was baked into the cracker. So world, I can say I’ve had marrow, but I can’t honestly tell you if I liked it or not, because I don’t think I actually tasted it. I can tell you that I felt weird eating it, because it felt like something that in nature we probably normally wouldn’t be eating. It’s the part of the animal that we would throw away, yes? It would be as if on the menu there was an item called “half eaten pizza crusts” and they would bring out the remnants of somebody’s pizza and all that was left was the hard crusty edges no one wanted to finish. It felt like that.
But above all that, we had a good time, and drank some fantastic beer, and even kept one eye on the TVs. It was the Grey Cup, after all. I probably shouldn’t mention that I hit the Burger King Drive-Thru on the way home, should I?