In mid September (10-16) of this year (2011) I made a trip to Virginia Beach to spend some time with my best friend – whom I have known for a very, very long time. Proof by way of return tickets:
Since I spend a lot of time talking about restaurants and food, if you are on a harsh diet, treat the following as high-class culinary porn: if you are under 18, or if such material offends you or the standards of you community, you must leave now!
I commence with a few words about the airlines thing? Well, everything went very smoothly, and only at one point did I permit myself to get irritated. The flight from Norfolk to Chicago disgorged its passengers far out at the end of concourse F, and my flight from Chicago to Cedar Rapids would leave from far out at the end of concourse B. And, as advised by the flight attendant, I did check the screens immediately upon disembarking to make sure the gates number she had read for my flight was still operational as it were. Yes, it was. So I set off trudging through the topographic nightmare that is Chicago’s milling O’Hare to a distant gate for the final trip to Cedar Rapids, several times along the way checking to see that the gate was indeed still ‘good’ (one has to understand that when I travel I always work on the assumption that a lot of things can go wrong and sometimes some of them do go wrong). Well, wouldn’t you know it: just as I got to within sighting distance of the gate I gave the screen a final look – just to make sure! And sure enough, now there was a blinking yellow thing by my flight stating that there had been a gate change! So now I am scrambling (I had less than an hour between landing and take-off) along a different spoke radiating towards a far gate on concourse C … and do arrive just as the boarding is getting under way.
As I say, nothing to get excited about, and I should have held on to my proverbial cool when I saw that flashing gate change way back on concourse B. At least my pessimistic expectations were not disappointed!
But – in fairness — this unpleasantness should be balanced against the out-trip: the flight from Cedar Rapids to Chicago unloaded at Gate F-22; Gate F-22 was the departure gate for the flight to Norfolk. How often does that happen?
So, I got back to Cedar Rapids a few minutes before schedule, my bag arrived on the same plane, and I was quickly whisked off in the shuttle to MM.
And Virginia Beach?
Couldn’t have had better luck with the weather. Except for a brief period late Thursday (when there was a substantial downpout), it was all sunshine and warmth. Still, summer, really!
Never have I been any place where I have so consistently had superb food: each of the six dinners we had was outstandingly pleasurable – not cheap, no, but I never travel in order to save money!
Saturday, the day of my arrival, we ate at a Thai restaurant called Bangkok Garden — tastefully appointed and very good food (as you can tell from the full menu) – I had shrimp fried rice and Mongolian Beef, and I can fault neither dish. Since Thai cuisine tends to be a bit on the spicy side, I avoided purely Thai dishes and went more for the larger regional (i.e., Chinese) side of things. The beef was crisply edged and a stellar version of this popular dish. And while the rice was very well prepared and certainly tasty, it was not up to what I consider the Platonic form of ‘fried rice’ — what you get when you order that dish at Benihana’s, one of — if not the — finest Japanese restaurants I know of (but lacking a presence in Virginia Beach).
The next morning, late, we ate at a Village Inn, always a safe bet, especially for breakfast. And on a personal note I was quite pleased to see that there still are places that take you quite seriously when you when you order (two pieces – I was, after all, on vacation, and did not travel all the way to Virginia Beach to go on a diet! — of)
dry ‘black’ toast, and that you can get an egg-white-only omelet along with your crisp bacon and coffee (that, again, being on vacation, I put cream in!). Utterly satisfying, and fueled until dinner.
In fact, we ate at Village Inn every morning except one, when we did IHOP. Village Inn is Village Inn, in Virginia Beach just as in Iowa City. And I guess the same goes for iHop, too. Of the two, I have to say I prefer the former – roomier, cheerier staff, swifter execution. And at the iHop I did send the toast back, just as I had advised the lady waiting on us that I would do. I make this observation not in explanation of my preference for Village Inn, but merely in the interest of validating the fact that Iowa City is not the only place on the planet where people ‘hear’ the phrase ‘black toast’ as ‘regular toast’. An odd stubbornness that!
We spent a lot of time just driving around, and I enjoyed the different scenery and the feel of a big metropolis with its laid-back feel. Lots of talk about this and that, the past, the present, the future, the state of the world, the decline of education in America (we were both teachers before retiring), the sense of entitlement among the young, and lots of luck to them in the coming years … What else do people our age talk about?
In the evening we went to Rudee’s on the Inlet, one of the many docks/harbors that dot the Virginia Beach area, all filled with pleasure yachts some of which no doubt cost a fortune to dock, maintain and run, and even more to buy. But it presents a very attractive view while you eat. The parking lot was jammed, and fortunately there were people about whose job it was to squeeze cars into every cranny in the crowded real estate where Rudy’s sat. Once we ordered and ate it became more than obvious why this restaurant is so hugely popular down here – and you’ve just got to check out the menu! Why is there no fish restaurant in Iowa City? In any event, I had a small Caesar’s salad with blackened tuna (in place of my usual chicken, as here in IC), and it was truly outstanding – and I know my Caesar’s salads! For the main dish I elected to try the catch of the day, which was swordfish. And ordered it “Chesapeake Style – Topped with crabmeat, Smithfield Ham & Béarnaise Sauce”. Sinful, just sinful! But I happily indulged my venial failings with gustatory abandon and nary a trace of caloric guilt … . On the way back home we stopped off at a grocery-cum-bakery store and picked up some dessert for our postprandial coffee later in the evening.
Yes, all in all, a magnificent dinner!
Monday we drove to Norfolk (like going from Iowa City to Coralville) and, more specifically, the Macarthur Center (named, yes, for Truman’s nemesis, who grew up in Norfolk and lies buried in a large structure right next to the great mall). That mall is indeed something to behold. It reminded me quite emphatically of the mall at Tysons Corner Center in McLean, right next to the Ritz-Carlton where I stayed last May when I visited my daughter and her family in the D.C. area. I’m convinced both malls were designed by the same interesting mind! In any event, we were headed to the Apple store ‘just to look around’ – and by the end of our third visit there later in the week we had dropped enough loot to help explain the nice 25-point spike in APPL during that one week!
Well, I bought an iPad, something I had been planning to do, and where better to buy it than in an Apple store (I genuinely wish there was one in IC – shopping for Apple computer stuff in an Apple store by striking comparison puts another well-known electronics outlet to shame). The young lady who worked with us was ever helpful and patient in setting it up for me with my passwords and credit card for access to that vast hinterland of Apple ‘apps’ that iTunes enables! It’s not an entirely intuitive machine, especially if you come from a PC world as I do, but it’s already quite apparent that this is a different order of computing and living on the web. Of course we stopped off at a big Barnes & Noble so that I could – in my typical fashion when entering unknown waters – load up on manuals, book and magazines. I realized I could not possibly fly all that stuff home with me, so I settled for one thick book and a couple of thinner items listing a kind of best of ‘app.’ Of course, by the next day I had figured out the iPad well enough to get into my email and the internet (Apple’s Safari browser ~ Microsoft Express), and naturally headed over to Amazon-dot-com and ordered all those books I’d returned to the shelves in the Barnes & Noble – and a few more! They arrived early the following week and I was here to welcome them all into the fold. I’ve become so enamored of the iPad I’m seriously thinking of buying an iPhone and a Mac Air – thus integrating all my computing/telephony into a fully compatible system. The fact is that my PC is getting a bit old, and sooner or later I’m going to have to replace it: and now the question is do I continue with the PC or do switch platforms? The latter is now an alluring option.
And then there’s dinner: tonight it was Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in the classy Town Center area right downtown in a tony section of Virginia Beach with lots of high-end bars, foot traffic, up-scale stores, fabulous restaurants. Ruth’s Chris should require no introduction, for the Virginia Beach instantiation of that famed template owes apologies to no other Ruth’s Chris I’ve been at nor, for that matter, any other steak restaurant period! Here – check it out for yourself, as well as the standard and spectacular menu.
The place is decorated in a darkish masculine style, and a soft susurrus of contented diners hovers in the muted ambience of the large dining room.
It is admittedly by no means an inexpensive place to eat, but one does not go there to budget. The food is outstanding, and my filet was done just right, impeccably, beyond reproach – as was the Caesar’s salad (what else!) before the steak. Indeed, this Caesar’s was one of the best in a long and ever lengthening line of Caesar’s salads I’ve been happy and fortunate enough over the years to explore from La Jolla and Las Vegas to Lower Manhattan and Long Island — with more succulent samples in little old Iowa City than you might at first have imagined possible. (Some day I shall have to do a blog or two on the Caesar’s salad – a kind of inchoate design to Caesar-salad myself from coast to coast!)
On the way back from this marvelously satisfying repast we stop at a Harris Teeter venue – previously unknown to me but a kind of specialty grocery store that, though much larger, in its numerous varieties of comestibles on display reminded me of our own Pioneer Coops in Coralville and Iowa City – a store I find dangerously attractive. We buy some pastries for the day’s fifty-eleventh cup of coffee we will take at home.
Now it is Tuesday, and this morning we do the IHOP before setting out on our appointed rounds, one of which takes us back to the Apple Store in Macarthur Center in Norfolk. Again, it is the one morning when I have to send back to the kitchen the warmish, light-ochre bread trying with high presumption to masquerade as ‘black toast’. But the waitress is good-natured about it and eventually she brings back toast in all its tenebrous glory.
As usual, I leave a big tip. I know I do this, consistently, and my friend asks me about that practice. As for why I do this, I offer a kind of explanation here.
Tuesday evening we are back at the Town Center. Today it will be P. F. Chang’s, about half a block from Ruth’s Chris. From time to time I’ve come across articles about Chang’s and its elegant Chinese cuisine. It’s a franchise, with locations all over America, and even abroad. I have always wanted to try it. Here is my chance. We should, as always, begin with the mouth-watering menu and its entirely attractive offerings. Although it is a Tuesday evening, the place is almost full – families, singles, couples, friends. A foolish consistency being at times a hobgoblin of my small mind, I once more order Mongolian beef and fried rice (with shrimp). Both are outstanding, the beef being probably just a tad better than what I had three nights ago at Bangkok Garden. We eat at leisure, and decline dessert.
Dessert, we had decided, we would do across the street at The Cheesecake Factory, a restaurant in its own right but one obviously specializing in desserts. And wow! For someone who is into desserts (like moi!), the menu is to die for … and in particular do check out the dessert section … with the eponymous cheesecake specialties … and weep! Well, I checked it all out, and I came up with a personal favorite: Key Lime pie … er … Key Lime cheesecake – but only one slice, and that one had a lot more whipped cream on top than the photo indicates. Add coffee with cream, and you’ve got nectar for your ambrosia. This word, incidentally, lifted out of ancient Greet mythology, harbors an etymological sense of ‘immortality’ – I guess you eat The Factory’s key lime cheesecake, and then you can die and go to heaven happy, or something like that. Need I point out that this slice was sort of divine?
Wednesday morning we have our breakfast and then head back over to the Apple Store in Norfolk, where we ogle and then touch, try, talk, and once more do our patriotic share to help the economy. On the way back we stop at a Best Buy so I can buy myself a small video camera. After poking around and chatting up a knowledgeable sales rep I settle for a KODAK PlaySport, and also get some extra ‘cards’ to hold my sequences. It is very handy, a nifty toy, and one I immediately deploy by trying to capture everything in sight – discreetly, of course, holding the camera in my hand low at the side and seeming to aim at nothing in particular. It also takes still photos, so I snap away. Both video and stills show up crisply on the little screen, and while the photos transfer easily to my iPad and display grandly, I have trouble getting the videos to transfer. I still have not fully figured that one out, but I’m stumbling around – and the service contract I got for the iPad now proves to be of great use for a novice like myself. Sooo, I’m working on that little difficulty.
It would be quite natural for readers to wonder why I don’t say anything about my friend whom I am visiting while all this buying and eating is going on. He eats and buys right alongside me, but is kind of a private person, and what we talk about is dubiously of interest to others. Since he is fairly private with respect to the internet, it seemed both prudent and polite on my part to restrict commentary on what I eat and buy – but he is right in the thick of things doing his share. Indeed, the stay with him proves to be inordinately relaxing and enjoyable, and I must make a point to visit him and the marvelous city of Virginia Beach more often.
That evening we want steak, so we take in a place close to his condo and one that is certainly familiar by now to inhabitants of Coralville/Iowa City: Texas Roadhouse. As part of a franchise, the Virginia Beach version is pretty much identical to the one here – and that includes not only the menu but also the raucously unseemly decibel level. One goes here not for soft and lengthy conversation on weighty topics, but to eat. And we are not disappointed: you know what you are getting, and you get just that. I do my Caesar’s thing – excellent, by the way – and order the 8 oz filet mignon with veggies and fries. Too, too good! But I should have taken the 6 oz portion, for there is so much to eat, so little time — before I go back home and will have to (try to) reinstate the rigid discipline I aim for on a daily non-vacation basis. Alas. Anyway, I persevere, and we are out of there just in time to take in something postprandial of a sweeter nature. We head for a Coldstone Creamery (familiar enough, again, for people in my part of the world), and there again we get what we know we shall get, as is the welcome case with franchise operations. What is available is a given, and I opt for two scoops, one of which is always their heavenly coffee ice cream; for the second one, the green mint-flavored baby looks really inviting. How can I resist, especially after I add walnuts, sprinkles, almonds?
Back at the condo we finish the day off with strong coffee (for me) and good conversation.
We vary our routine somewhat on Thursday (15 September), my last day there – it will be off to the Norfolk airport tomorrow morning at seven. So, today it is the famous beach.
The weather is absolutely spot-on perfect: sunny, warm, a mild breeze and scudding puffs of cloud. Although the tourist season is over and done with as of Labor Day, there are still plenty of people loafing and lounging on the beach, and out comes my video camera. Before we walk up and down the cement sidewalk that runs next to the beach we stop in at a bistro-type eatery called Angelo’s by the Sea. It sits conveniently located right by the ‘boardwalk’. My friend orders some clam chowder and I make do with a cherry coke, which the kidding waitress says she’ll make “especially for you” when I ask her if I can get one there. We linger over the table that is under a roofed-over enclosed area fanned by pleasant breezes. The silence is broken only by the soft surf and the whooshing of F-18s overhead on take-offs and landing runs at the nearby Naval Air Station Oceana. It is a lazy, indolent day, and I savor everything about it. Our subsequent walk along the beach culminates at a large statue of Triton sitting atop a pedestal covered in various fish. I exercise my camera. And then it is back to the car and time for a nap so we shall be alert and hungry for our final dinner together.
And that happy event takes place in Rockafeller’s Restaurant – located sort of across the way from Rudee’s on the Inlet, where we dined Sunday night. The menu is as seductive to the gustatory sensorium as it is delighting to the sadistic sensibilities of that cursed calorie accountant who has taken up permanent and aggressive residence somewhere within me. But, hey, I’m still on vacation!
Unfailingly true to my custom in my fashion, I have (as should by now be beyond obvious) a Caesar’s salad with seared tuna for appetizer and then the grilled salmon with veggies and ‘waffle potatoes’ – better than fries for the simple reason that the grille work on the potato slices exposes much more surface area to be affected by the preparation – and don’t ever let anybody tell you that ‘surface area’ is not one of the more important considerations when it come to preparing food of just about any kind in just about any style! The waitress is cheery, helpful, and full of smiles. She allows me to tape her with my new toy, but since I have not figured out how to make a video work in this blogging program she is stuck on my computer – as is the visual circuit I make of the harbor and our meals.
I honestly can’t recall if we went some place for dessert afterwards, but I have the feeling that by now we are both so full of outstanding food and showing its visible consequences that we may well – for once — simply have skipped it.
Friday morning we drive out to the airport, and everything works rather smoothly, and by just before three I am back in my apartment. It was a great trip for all the right reasons and it was also great to bet back home for all the right reasons.
My sole whine is that the traffic signals in Virginia Beach are unconscionably long — which is psychologically unsound, making as it does for an impatience drivers have no need of! But if that is my only gripe I’d have to say it was a totally successful and memorable trip!
All that now remains is for me to map out the next journey – a cruise around the tip of South America, a week in La Jolla, time in Uruguay’s Punta del Este, Singapore, Dallas, … .