Monday, January 29, 2007


I was watching The Beatles Anthology DVD box set a few years ago. Paul was presumably saying something profound to the interviewer.

But then...George, my favorite Beatle, suddenly whipped out a ukulele and proceeded to drown-out Paul with a tune that sounded like the fruit of a coital relationship between Don Ho and Muddy Waters.

I was excited! George seemed to be having such fun with his uke, that I felt a great urge to waste $50 on one for myself.

So, I did a bit a research--which unearthed both good news and bad.

The good news was that I found nearly universal agreement that the uke is the world's easiest instrument to play. Or, if it's not quite the easiest, then it's at least easy to the point of absurdity.

The bad news, however, was that the uke not only looks like a guitar...but is played like one. It requires memorization of chord patterns; which, presumably, involves the "P-word."


This was disheartening. I played the cello between the ages 10-14, and played it badly. I also played guitar for two years in the 1990's, and played it badly.

Of course...if you were to combine the total hours of practice that I dedicated to those two instruments over that six year span, the sum total of those hours would be somewhere in the low two-digits. In fact, I believe that each of those digits would be the number "1."

And so--acknowledging the reality that if I were to buy a new ukulele, it would quickly join my dust-laden, Spanish-made, Aria concert guitar in "The Closet of Ever More"--I purged the idea from my mind and turned my attention to the equally preposterous topic of BBQ smokers.

Purged, that is, until I met "Pam the Nerdy."

Pam's "Nerd's Eye View" blog featured a number of posts detailing her passion for playing her uke. Correction: Her *five* ukes.

So, I shot Pam an email explaining that I, too, would like to start down the path to uke-phoria...but believed in my heart of hearts that the path would surely lead me over the edge of a cliff before my credit card billed had even arrived.

Then, my worst nightmare then came true. Pam responded.

Worse yet, she responded with a lengthy, comprehensive and [OH NOOOO!!!] *supportive* response.

In essence (and I'm paraphrasing here), Pam said the following: "Don't be such a sniveling, spineless, pessimistic wimp! Ukes are cheap, fun, and even a lobster can play one. You have nothing to lose. And besides, I'll help you."

Oh, damn! Thirty seconds later, I logged onto and bought an Oscar Schmidt OU2 Concert Uke. I also bought a copy of Jumpin' Jim's Ukulele Tips n' Tunes. You know...just in case I should someday have an insatiable urge to play "She'll be Coming 'Round the Mountain."

I named my new uke "Felix"--which seemed appropriate, given that it was manufactured by someone named "Oscar." I took it to a music shop and had the factory-issued strings removed and replaced with better ones.

Then--unable to think of any further stalling tactics--I sat down with a sigh and succumbed to the inevitable. I would have to play Felix.

And, so--in honor of George--I downloaded the chord transcription for "My Sweet Lord," made sure that nobody was around to hear me, took a deep breath...and just let it fly.

What happened next shocked me to the core. My attempt to play "My Sweet Lord" sounded"My Sweet Lord!!!" In fact, it sounded great! Felix and I were kickin' ass!

What a revelation! The uke *is* ridiculously easy to play. It may look like a guitar, but it doesn't frustrate like one. Granted, it's not nearly as cool as the accordion, but it is the perfect instrument for music lovers with no musical talent.

I am therefore throwing down the gauntlet. I must humbly demand that everyone reading this VTB go out and buy a uke. Christina already has, and now you must, too.

Why? Because we are going to start a new New Year's tradition just eleven short months from now. On December 31, 2007, all 61,465 VTB readers are going to record and post a uke-o-fied version of The Beatles' "In My Life" on their respective blogs.

Now, won't that be cool?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


It's January, and that means one thing: Acme Low Carb Tongue Depressors, Inc.'s annual EMEA Sales Conference.

This year's edition wasn't in Scotland. It was in London; from where I've just returned.

Pictured above is your Virtual Tapas Bartender and his [strictly platonic] friend, Lisa Marie, taking part in the Conference's most important session--a game of cricket at the historic Lord's Cricket Ground.

Unfortunately, our game of cricket--and please, don't ask me to explain the rules...because they remain incomprehensible even after the Lord's staff's patient explanation--and planned post-game guided tour were interrupted when that well-publicized wind storm swept in and literally blew the roof off of much of the facility.

Pity, indeed. But at least I walked away with a sporty, new sweater.

Next stop was a round-trip journey--complete with Champagne and...well, more Champagne!--on the absurdly enormous London Eye ferris wheel.

Although the damn thing is 443 feet high, I felt surprisingly calm throughout much of the journey.

Unfortunately...around the time when our glass-encased cabin had reached an altitude of 441 feet, it suddenly occurred to me that London (i.e., *this* London...not London, Ontario) has been on the receiving end of an uncomfortably ambitious streak of hardcore terrorism lately.

A realization that, perhaps, goes a long way toward explaining why the photos below seem a wee bit unsteady.

But the boondoggle wasn't all fun and games. We focused--and focused intently--on a number of presentations discussing the present state of the low carb tongue depressor market and its projected trends.

At least, some of "we" focused intently on the market information. Others of "we" were more on the lookout for new and amusing corporate buzzwords. And, I'm pleased to announce, my favorite of the bunch was the following:


Noun or verb? I vote for verb...which would indeed describe, with frightening accuracy, how many Finance Departments throughout the world manage their companies' coffers. [But certainly not Acme's.]

And so, with yet another EMEA Sales Conference under my belt, I've returned to my home office for eleven more months of dotting "i's"...crossing "t's"...and lovingly running my fingertips over Felix's G-string.

Who or what is "Felix?"

My next post will tell all. ;-)


It's kinda nice to have an ex-father-in-law who is a talented painter. He sprung this latest work on an unsuspecting me last month.

How could I resist buying it?

I couldn't.

Saturday, January 13, 2007


...but some times, you just gotta sin a little.

Regular readers of this blog know that my trips to Chicago mean one thing--gluttony!

Indeed, it's amazing that I'm not clinically obese, given the typical itinerary of my visits to the new world.

My Christmas 2006 visit was no exception. I ate so many things from so many different restaurants, stands and greasy spoons that I'd surely bore my readership to tears if I attempted to describe these exploits in detail.

So, I'll just mention the two highlights (i.e., those above and beyond my already well-documented Christmas and New Years Eve pig-outs).

The first highlight involved--quite predictably--Q.

My law school roommate, Tony Soju, and I pillaged my favorite of all Chicago Q joints--The Smoke Daddy, at 1804 W. Division Street. [TBF...take note!!!]

Pictured above are the two protagonsists seated at a booth in Smoke Daddy.

And here's what we ate!

On the left, we have a Ribs Sampler--containing equal parts baby backs, spares and rib tips. Sides were cole slaw and baked beans. On the right, we have The BBQ Sampler--which proudly sports brisket, pulled pork, cole slaw and sweet potato fries. We split both plates between us and--with some pain and to our waitress's amazement--ate everything!

That was highlight #1. Here is #2.

Tony, Jai (my longtime high school and weight-lifting buddy) and I went to Sushi Station in Rolling Meadows, IL to snarf an ocean of raw fish. [TBF...take note!!!]

Behind us you can see Sushi Station's conveyor belt of sushi. It's pretty much an oval track running the length of a long, narrow, three-sided bar. The conveyor belt is covered with a plastic encasement. Each seat at the bar has its own door to the conveyor belt. When the sushi of your dreams is passing before your eyes, just lift the door, pull out your plate, and close the door.

Here we see Tony and Jai. I had to take the picture, because the waiter never returned as promised to take it for us. He must've been Spanish.

Each time you take a plate of sushi, you stack it. Plates are color-coated by price. Pink plates hold $2 sushi, blue plates $3, etc. At the end of the night, the waitress comes, counts your plates and calculates your tab. It's a task that would require me 45 minutes and a Kray supercomputer.

BTW...what you see above is around $100 worth of sushi plates. Boys will be boys.

Tony informed that a sushi meal should end with a bowl of noodles. He should know these things. He is, after all, married to a Japanese woman. So, I had no choice but to toe the Nippon line.

And boy-oh-boy, am I glad that I did! Why? Because of all Japanese dishes, noodles are my favorite.

I've had a special affinity for Japanese noodle dishes (not to mention, raw eggs!) since I first watched the movie "Tampopo"--which is a surreal, 1985 Japanese film about the search for the perfect bowl of Ramen noodles.

There were no Ramen at Sushi Station. Ramen, after all, is for truck drivers.

But Sushi Station does have Udon noodles. And the photo above shows the bowl of Udon noodles--with an outrageously flavorful bonito broth, a slice of fish cake and a tempura shrimp--that met a quick and violent demise just minutes after I grabbed hold of that spoon.

The sushi was great, but the Udon was the highlight for me.

And, now...I'm back in Spain. Wondering what, where and how much I'll eat during my next trip to Chicago.

I don't know the answer, but you'll be the first to find out.

Sunday, January 07, 2007


Now that you’ve all recovered from the shock of my Christmas Eve, I feel that you’re ready to learn about New Years Eve. As you might’ve expected, it involved another big family meal.

FrankenFeet and my sister had other plans, so the family unit was somewhat reduced that night. However, Arm and Butt made a triumphant return to my parent’s party palace for the event. And, courtesy of Amtrak because she's afraid to fly, so did my Grandmother.

We started off with crab cakes--using the left-over crab meat from Christmas Eve. The recipe is from Cooks Illustrated, and is a keeper. I've made it for each of the last several years. It is accompanied by a sauce of mayo, chipotle peppers, lime juice and garlic. I went heavy on the chipotle this year. Why? Because there ain’t much chipotle in Spain.

The main course was a rack of lamb, and a bunch of lamb chops as thick as my thigh. I grilled them rare. Big Mamma and Butt sent theirs back to the Weber (as they do every year) because they don't like their meat "raw."

Grandma had pork chops. She doesn't like lamb. It's too "spicy."

Here we see the dinner guests, sans Arm.

Here we see Arm...the Cajun.

Here we see the entire layout. Clockwise from top--(a) grilled portobello mushrooms; (b) lamb (“raw!!!”); (c) Trader Joe's risotto with asparagus; (d) white beans with tomatoes, garlic, scallions and thyme (I winged that one); (e) sauteed grape tomatoes with garlic and parsely; (f) asparagus; and (g) fennel bulb braised in white wine.

Big Mamma made apple pie for dessert. At midnight NY time, we ate twelve grapes in twelve seconds (a tradition in Spain) and got toasted--I mean, we toasted--with glasses of Sambuca and coffee beans.

Our next big holiday meal will be Groundhog Day. Believe me, you DON'T want to know.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


On the one hand...this photo might imply that I had one too many glasses of wine that night.

On the other hand...I doubt that this pose would be possible on one too many glasses of wine.

You be the judge...

Monday, January 01, 2007

CHRISTMAS EVE, VTB-STYLE.'re probably wondering what I did for Christmas Eve.

In a word, "EATING!"

My parents always host Christmas Eve, and it's not exactly a somber affair.

This year, the debauchery started at 4pm and ended at 11:30pm. We were sixteen for dinner; nineteen for appetizers. Aside from my parents and I, there were my brother FrankenFeet and his family, my sister and hers, FrankenFeet's step-daughter and her fiance, family friends "Arm & Butt" from my parents' ski club, Arm's daughter, and a few other drop-in's and drop-out's.

The night typically starts with drinks when the guests start arriving. We then slide into the appetizers. Above, we see a shrimp-based ceviche that my mother made. We usually have one new dish each year or so, and this was it for 2006.

Also on the appetizer table was a mountain of chilled shrimp, with two cocktail sauces. One was a standard cocktail sauce with horseradish, and the other was a mixture of wasabi mayo and ketchup. I tried, but Mom wouldn't let me add cilantro.

Smelt-o-rama! Smelt is probably the most important dish of the night. It has *always* been on the Christmas Eve menu. It has special meaning, because my Grandfather was the smelt chef when Christmas Eve was at their house during the 70's. For the last decade or so, I've taken over that job.

We treat smelt as an appetizer now--because they soften if left sitting around. I fry them up on "The Runway" (i.e., a section of my Mom's countertop that may only be used for food all other times, it must--under penalty of death--remain 100% free of clutter) while others inhale the shrimp and tortillas and salsa and dips.

Another appetizer (which somehow managed to escape my camera) were clams. Five dozen clams--most of which were snarfed by my nephew Nicky-baby.

Smelt-frying is a two man job, so I recruited my sister as my assistant--an assistant who was far too overdressed for such a messy task. She dredged the smelt in flour, dipped in egg and dredged in flour a second time while I manned the fryer. We did a split batch last night: half the smelt done the traditional way, the other half with Cajun spice spiking the flour. Most preferred the latter. Sorry, Grandpa.

Pardon the cheesy smile, but smelt brings out the nut in me.

More smelt-induced cheesiness; this time, with the help of Arm's daughter.

In between the appetizers and the sit-down meal, Santa always stops by with gifts for the kids. None of the kids ever questions why Arm has mysteriously disappeared during each of Santa's visits during the past ten years. Perhaps he's Santa-phobic?

After Santa leaves and Arm re-appears, we move into the dining room for the sit-down meal.

Which features spaghetti with oil/garlic/anchovy sauce, and spaghetti with red calamari sauce.

And also, Cajun crawfish and scallops.

BTW...If you're wondering why there's such an encroachment of Cajun food in our otherwise traditional Italo-American menu, the answer is simple. Arm is from Louisiana.

And also, an endless supply of crab legs. FrankenFeet and Dad boiled them on the deck, using the turkey deep-fryer to speed things along.

After dinner, we do the Secret Santa gift exchange. We each draw names from a hat in November, and buy a Secret Santa gift for that person. The tradition quickly turned into a contest to see who comes up with the cleverest (or most raunchy) gag gift.

This year, I drew my mother's name. I bought her a rather large, jolly, terra cotta Buddha for The Runway--whose belly Mom rubbed for about twenty minutes.

And finally, FrankenFeet's step-daughter (who is a pretty talented baker) brought dessert. I am proud of this girl, because it was I who began giving her baking and dessert cookbooks for Christmas since she was thirteen years old.

And that, my friends, was my Christmas Eve. Any celebration that combines Italian food, Cajun food and Buddha seems a night worth telling others about.