By Larry Levine –
I wonder where they are, the four men whose combined years may total one-third of a millennium. They were there so many days, regulars at a table in the back corner of Angelini Osteria on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. With the cork extracted and the wine poured, the cards were dealt and the food ordered.
Angelini Osteria is my favorite L.A. lunch spot. Always with a friend, maybe Rod or Alice or Larry D. We’d order three or four plates to share and sip a glass or two of Gavi. We’d chat about the world of politics, or baseball, or just recall meals and travels past. We haven’t been able to do that for nearly a year. I’ve wondered where those four men moved their card games. Are they staying healthy? What are they doing for lunch? And for company? Will they be back when we reach the other side of this pandemic? They are so much a part of the ambiance of this great restaurant and the fabric of the city.
I’ve been thinking things like this frequently as we near the one-year anniversary of the cancellation of our 50th wedding anniversary party. We had no idea it would go on this long. As Jennifer and I persevere and talk of missing our grandchildren and itching for new travels, we remain among the responsible majority. We wear masks, avoid crowds, keep safe distances from others when we must go out, cancel short trips when a shutdown is ordered and watch in frustration and anger as others act as if none of this matters. They are arrogant Americans who resent the intrusion of this thing called COVID-19 into their lives. America doesn’t fight wars on her home soil; Americans cross oceans to fight on other nations’ land. But this isn’t happening just here. Anti-masker mobs are seen in streets, bars and restaurants around the world and where ever they are the numbers surge again.
Did it have to be this way? Yes and no. Yes, the world was not prepared to battle this invisible invader. People were going to become ill and die no matter what we did because there were no weapons to slay this enemy. No, it probably didn’t have to be this bad. Had the federal administration treated the threat with appropriate seriousness and rallied the nation to a common purpose the number of infections, hospitalizations and deaths and the disruption of the economy might have been far less. Had America called together the world community for a coordinated and united defense against the virus, the irresponsible hoards might have felt less socially empowered to act out their defiance. If, if, if … But none of those things happened and we suffered harsh consequences. We look ahead, our hopes invested in still not wholly proven vaccines as we contemplate the threats of super-spreading, self-indulgent crowds gathering at the turn of various calendar pages – Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, the Super Bowl, Memorial Day.
I wonder how they’re doing, Magda and Massimo. They manage Panzanella, our favorite local Italian restaurant, where we’ve invited friends and family for birthday and anniversary celebrations, or just to share a pleasant dinner. Where Jennifer and I would sit by the window and sip glasses of pinot grigio and Barolo several times each month, always with the warmth of the welcome of Magda and Massimo. They made do with outdoor dining for a short time, then they had to get by on take out. Now they can do outdoor again and keep a nervous eye on the weather. Maybe someday soon, after we receive our second vaccination and achieve some level of immunity, we’ll order some rollini de melanzane, mozzarella di bufala alla caprese, or osso bucco to go. But not yet. The lingering risk is not worth the reward.
The clack of the Mahjong tiles being mixed between hands at the food court of the Fashion Square Mall took me back to the weekly games my mother hosted at home. Jennifer and I would be at the food court most Wednesday mornings to get out of the way while Consuelo cleaned our house. And the four Mahjong women would be there, too. I wondered if they were there other days, or just Wednesdays. I would grab a bagel and cream cheese and coffee from Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. For Jennifer it was oat meal from Starbucks downstairs and a decaf soy latte from Coffee Bean. The Mahjong women focused on the game, just as mom and her friends did at home. At the mall, the women had pastries and coffee, tea or juice. Mahjong is serious business. No small talk except when the tiles were being mixed between hands.
Jennifer and I changed our Wednesday morning routine when the pandemic shutdown the food court seating area. Now, it’s a lox and cream cheese sandwich for me and a bialy with lox spread for Jennifer. We pick it up along with coffee from the Western Bagel plant near our home and we head for the park. We unpack our beach chairs, sit in the sun bundled against the morning chill, eat our sandwiches, and enjoy the birds. Red tailed hawks in their graceful glides. Birds of beautiful blues, greens, reds. A woodpecker tapping on a tree. Mourning doves. Starlings. Large flocks of black birds pecking at the ground. Tiny grey birds that could fit two or three at a time in the palm of my hand.
Jennifer does five crossword puzzles and I read the newspapers or pencil edit something I’m writing. We shed layers of coats and sweaters as the temperature inches up. Someday we’ll have to decide: return to the food court and see if the Mahjong women are back or stick to our new Wednesday-in-the-park routine.
Allan, Kuni, Koji, Kenji and all the gang. Friday nights at Asanebo in Studio City were like Cheers and my sushi bar buddy Allan was Norm. Some forty-five Friday nights a year Allan was perched on a stool at seat number seven at the bar. Two or three times a months I sat next to him at seat number eight. Each of us with name plates designating our frequent patronage. Celebrities from the nearby studios were there often. But it was Allan who everyone knew and wanted to greet.
I hope you and the family are doing well, Mark Okuda. Seventeen months after you bought, renovated and opened The Brothers Sushi in Woodland Hills, the pandemic slammed your doors closed. I’ve seen the strong reviews you received recently in the L.A. Times and Westways for your takeout offerings. Good job. Once we get our second vaccine shot later this month and I feel a bit safer, I’ll be by.
The streak is broken after 320 consecutive home cooked dinners. It began in March 2020. I cooked dinner for Jennifer and me as I usually do. With no restaurants open to break the string, and our own predilection toward caution, I kept on going, night after joyful night. We each are in a vulnerable age group and Jennifer has a few serious underlying conditions. So we opted not to bring in dinners, even from places we had trusted in the past. The consequences of even one slip up were too great a risk. It became a game and several friends tallied the days with me. 100 consecutive home cooked dinners. 200, 300. Then I became ill. Not with COVID but with some thing that made me want to sleep and not cook or eat. And the streak ended for one night.
Someone suggested I start a new streak but the thought that it would require 10 more months of this just to tie the current record was not a happy one. The novelty is over. If it happens, then it will just happen and I’ll see it in the rear view mirror at the end of the year. We won’t be doing anything stupid after receiving our second shot. We’ll continue to be diligent about masks and keeping a safe distance from others. We won’t be going to restaurants, theaters, or other gathering places until safety is secured with certainty. We’ll continue to rail against those fools whose behavior prolongs the pandemic’s burdens and we’ll hope-upon-hope the Biden administration can pull us out of the hole they inherited. But we very well may relax a bit about bringing in an occasional dinner from places that earned our trust before this all started.
Duck l’orange from Le Sanglier in Encino. I haven’t had roast duck in a year. The smell of roasting duck upsets Jennifer, so I made Rock Cornish game hen l’orange at home one night and I continue to dream of frogs’ legs or escargot and the glorious, deep flavor of half a roasted duck shimmering on my plate.
Todd Murakami, I think about you often. You’ve been cutting fish for me at various sushi bars for more some 35 years. You taught me so much of what I know about sushi and you’re the only one who knows how to make the white fish handroll you invented for me. Your latest restaurant in Hollywood, Murakami, on Melrose west of La Brea, is out of reach for take out for me, so we’ll have to wait for the all-clear.
Kebab Halebi, Kinnara, Fernanda’s New York Pizza, Mom’s B.B.Q. … Lule kababs with buttery rice pilaf. Dumpling Delight and cashew chicken. Sausage pizza with extra cheese and sausage. Fried chicken with baked beans. These standbys are within a mile or two of home. I drive by with a satisfied smile that they have survived and await our next takeout order.
But what about Biba in Sacramento and Patina in Downtown L.A.? The cruel double blows of Biba’s death and then the pandemic shuttered my favorite restaurant. After more than 30 years of knowing the glow of a warm welcome, they’re gone – the petit woman and the restaurant that bore her name. And the throwback elegance of Patina in the Disney Hall of the L.A. Music Center complex, where I could conjure memories of the history of earlier fine dining palaces – Scandia, Perino’s, The Windsor. Patina was to cater our anniversary dinner March 14. Then we cancelled, the theaters closed and Patina was gone. Maybe, just maybe, when we emerge from the pandemic and the theaters re-open there will be a new lease and the restaurant will return. I’ll be at the front of the line.
It’s been a long slog for a food writer and restaurant devotee but one I’ve faced with resolve. At dinner recently I said to Jennifer, “When this is over we probably won’t eat at home for at least a month, maybe two. There’s that much catching up to do.”
The siren calls of valet parking attendants and familiar hosts at reservation desks whisper in the corners of my mind. A burger at Barney’s, a visit to Josiah Citrin’s new Melisse, the ocean view from One Pico, a lamb sandwich at Phillipe, a perfect Manhattan and liver and onions at Musso and Frank Grill, pastrami on double baked rye at Brent’s, a lox and cod fish plate at Art’s, blood sausage and skirt steak at LaLa’s, shaved truffles on a steaming fillet of white fish at Providence, crispy spinach and lobster at Chinois on Main, a whole fried branzino at Lukshon, a platter of oysters at Connie and Ted’s, the electric hum of the bar as we wait to be seated at The Lobster, a rack of St. Louis ribs at Gus’s Barbeque … see what I mean. And that’s just in L.A.
In San Diego there’s a Cesar salad waiting to be made table side at de’ Medici Cucina Italiana. In Cambria, a steaming bowl of mussels at the Sea Chest. A long-overdo return to Chez Panisse Restaurant and Café in Berkeley. Fried shrimp at Brophy Brothers in Santa Barbara or house made salumi at Buona Tavola in San Luis Obispo. Centro in Sacramento for tamales. Vivace at the Park Hyatt Four Seasons in Carlsbad for an elegant Italian dinner. A gloriously crusted and marbled ribeye steak at the Stillwater Bar & Grill overlooking the 18th green at Pebble Beach, perhaps after a round of seaside golf.
We can’t know when, but of this I’m sure: we’ll smile again, hopefully across dining tables with friends and family up and down the state and beyond. The lure of the places and the people bolsters our resolve. So many have fallen in the past year, large restaurants and small, and we will remember and miss them. Yet many others have endured and still others wait to be born. It’s that knowledge that helps sustain us.