Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On rugby, service, and Bloomberg at Bill's Bar & Burger

October 20

Blain Howard played rugby in college.

That explains a lot about Blain, because Americans who play rugby are a little bit weird.

Normal people, mainstream people, play football or baseball or basketball. If they just want some exercise they play soccer or tennis, or they might swim. Hockey's fine in the northern states, Lacrosse is cool if you're a particular breed of white, upper-middle-class future doctor, lawyer or investment banker, or the future spouse of one.

But rugby?

Rugby players have chosen a sport that no one (in the United States) cares about but them, but it requires serious physical conditioning and is an intense, full-contact sport played without the sissy padding of football. Rugby games, I’m told, are played with brutal aggression, followed by pretty much mandatory consumption of alcohol with the other team.

In American Rugby, from what I gather, it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how much you can drink.

But unlike other niche tribes — the computer geeks, the science fiction nerds, the comic book dorks, Red Sox Nation — rugby players are diverse and have many interests. Sure, they use their bodies as weapons and shields and then drink until they fall down, but then they’re in punk rock bands or lock themselves in their rooms to play with their new computers, or go out and socialize like mainstream people might. I met a rugby player in culinary school, I knew a few in college.

My parents were friends with one who was a special ops military guy in Cambodia in the early 1970s. His wife introduced me to the Maryland crab boil, which is still probably my favorite way to eat anything, ever.

I’ve never met one who was boring or predictable.

Which explains Blain, who used to do mixed martial arts — he's 6'4", slim but solid — and now is a publicist for video games. He thinks he's a nerd because he likes comic books (excuse me, graphic novels) and science fiction and video games. His boss told him he wasn't smart enough to be a geek.

Or maybe he thinks he’s a dork because he’s not smart enough to be a nerd. I forget.

But he’s also friends with the Los Angeles reality TV star set and socializes and dates women and knows how to carry on a conversation at a dinner table.

He’s also smart as a whip, by the way.

And he’s a willing dinner companion, and someone with whom I can have serious discussions about zombie literature (he mentioned Socrates in there at some point — something about mankind's most raw desires and how zombies exemplify them).

Blain and I have broken bread twice in the past week-and-a-half, once at 48 and, last night, at Steve Hanson’s newest restaurant, Bill’s Bar & Burger.

Forty-Eight’s a new lounge on the ground floor of the McGraw Hill Building. That’s 6th Avenue and 48th Street, which is sort of no man's land for nightlife. West of Rockefeller Center, East of Times Square, where tourists fear to tread and locals wouldn’t bother. But many New Yorkers work there, and they could use a place to drink, and 48’s open until 2 a.m. during the week and 4 a.m. on weekends — something to remember if you ever need a nightcap after partying with a bunch of Midtown investment bankers.

Its owners had invited me in to check it out.

We had a terrific waitress — professionally chatty and alert, but she didn’t hover — and then we had all of the owners and management.

Individually, they were lovely, nice people who wanted to make sure we enjoyed ourselves, but as a group it seemed like one of them came by every 45 seconds to ask us something.

“Would you like a drink?”
“I just ordered one."

"Something to eat?”
“Yes, let me take a look at the menu.”

“How’s your drink?”
“I just got it, but it looks great.”

“How's the pizza?”
“I'm in the middle of my first bite right now, but I’ll keep you posted.”

Really, that’s the main theme of this entire blog — isn’t it? — where I eat and how I’m treated differently from the average diner. But it’s usually not quite as intense as that. Usually Blain and I have time to finish our reminiscences about Firefly or to assess the development of the Starbuck character in the last episodes of Battlestar Galactica without being interrupted with questions about how our bourbon is.

So I thought it was just an unusual fluke from overenthusiastic management on a relatively quiet Wednesday night in a lounge in a paradoxically remote part of central Midtown Manhattan.

And then we went to Bill’s Bar & Burger.
Bill's is in a very accessible part of the Meatpacking District and, although it just officially opened last Thursday, has already been the subject of much adulation.

A word about Steve Hanson and the restaurants in his BR Guest group: These are places like Blue Fin and Dos Caminos and Ruby Foo's — places that are good, but you don’t go there for the food (Fiamma, now closed, was an exception). You go because of the service and the drinks and the general vibe of the place. I think it was in one of Steve Hanson’s places that I realized what’s important to most guests in a restaurant. The most important part of a meal is who you eat with, next most important is the Steve Hanson stuff — service, ambience, vibe. Then, as long as the food is good enough, as long as it meets expectations, the customers will have a good time.

That’s not to say that BR Guest food isn’t good — and some of it’s terrific — it’s just not the point of those restaurants. Service and vibe are paramount.

So Blain and I were at a crowded but not packed BR Guest restaurant at 8 p.m. I was there a few minutes earlier and had already decided what I wanted, but the minute Blain sat down we were beset with questions about our drink order, which is, you know, reasonable and even desirable in a restaurant, and Blain, being a grown man and rugby player and thus capable of quickly scanning a beer menu, settled on the Ommegang, and I ordered an IPA.

“Are you ready to order your food?” our server asked.

I suggested that we might take a couple of minutes to do that.

Our server was great, and just like at 48, everyone else was gracious, but we had at least two managers covering for our server, who seemed perfectly capable of doing it himself.

I started to think maybe they just wanted to hang out with Blain, too, or perhaps they wanted to have an intellectual conversation about zombies as well. I mean, who doesn’t?

Or maybe they were particularly attentive because the man, Steve Hanson, was in the restaurant.

I didn’t notice him at first, or maybe he arrived later. But he was pretty low-key. I think I'd only seen him in a sharp business suit before. But he was casual last night, wandering around, fiddling with thermostats and such.

And then Michael Bloomberg walked in.

I’m usually not taken aback when celebrities walk into a restaurant. Well, okay, I’m a little taken aback, but there’s something thrilling and odd about having the mayor of New York come into the burger bar where you’re eating. He and Steve Hanson hugged and sat down to talk, and everyone else, being New Yorkers, went on enjoying their meal.
Although I couldn't help but tweet about it. Nor could this kid.

Blain, being a rugby player, had the good sense to take a picture

The mayor is the gray-haired guy in the window. Steve Hanson's to the left. The people in the foreground are probably perfectly nice people, but not germane to this blog entry.

What we ate and drank:

at 48,
meatballs with honey and pineapple glaze
seared skirt steak skewers with roasted red onion, grilled portobello, romaine lettuce and goat cheese vinaigrette
mini Cuban sandwiches (roasted pork, fontina, cotto ham, pickles, mustard and mayonnaise)
mini grilled cheese sandwiches (fontina and manchego with tomato and roasted tomato mayonnaise on challah)
mini pesto pizza with fresh mozzarella and Roma tomato
Bread pudding with almonds and cranberries
French Forty Eight (Hendrick's Gin, Canton ginger liqueur, lemon juice, sparkling wine, rosewater and strawberries)
St. Zipang (St. Germain elderflower liqueur, sparkling sake and yuzu)
Steve Collins (a sugar-free Tom Collins made with Bombay Sapphire, stevia, lemon juice, lime juice and ginger)
assorted whiskys

At Bill's,
French fries
Disco fries (smothered with gravy and melted cheese)
beer battered onion rings
The Bobcat (Bill's classic burger topped with New Mexico green chile and jack cheese)
The Fat Cat (a hamburger with caramelized onion and American cheese on an English muffin with lettuce, tomato and pickles on the side)
Key Lime Pie
assorted beers
Oreo (a milkshake of vanilla ice cream with Oreos chocolate syrup and a shot of Amaretto)
Peanut Butter Fluff (a milkshake of vanilla ice cream, peanut butter and banana with a shot of Frangelico)

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