Dinner at Azia
So, another dinner with Lizzie.
We needed to talk, to spend some time alone and in a fairly quiet, undisturbed location so we could discuss a mutual friend who had gotten into some very serious trouble. We needed to find out where we each were on the issue, about our respective mutual states; we needed to compare notes and remember details covering several years of time; we needed to talk about what had to happen next. And given our schedules, we needed to eat. Which is fortunate, because it was time for me to write another restaurant review.
It was Lizzie’s birthday. Well, two days before, but close enough. We’re close enough friends, Lizzie and me, but we don’t travel or live in the same social circuit. I’d never be at her birthday party. (Though actually she came to mine…which was only the second birthday party I’d ever had in my life, now that I think about it. But that’s another story.) Anyway, I said, “I want to take you someplace nice because it is your birthday,” and we went to one of my favorite places, Azia.
We’d been there before, and there is a reason this fact is rather strange when I contemplate it. A few years ago, Amanda and I went to dinner with Lizzie and the very same mutual friend I mention above. That fact was not on my mind when I proposed Azia (not consciously, anyway). What was on my mind was the char. We’ll get to that. That dinner, or more exactly our memory of it, would become part of this night’s conversation, because we both struggled to remember exactly why we four got together for dinner that night to begin with and where in the course of our various relationships we all were. Were we all friends like we are now? Or were we just getting to know our mutual friend? Was it a get acquainted dinner or a good-bye dinner? Eventually we figured out that it was a good-bye dinner. Which when I look back at it is rather sad. I’ll get to that too.
Azia is a fusion Asian joint once described as “Sacred Asian art meets James Bond Chic,” owned by Thom Pham. Thom opened this Eat Street restaurant a few years back on the local Corner of Restaurant Death. A sequence of restaurants had previously opened and closed at the corner of Nicollet and 26th, across from the Black Forest. Despite the poor luck earlier establishments had suffered, Azia ended up having great success.
We showed up early in the evening, and the place was pretty empty. I thought about telling the maître d’ that we’d like a quiet corner, that we didn’t want to be disturbed, that we were here to talk privately and eat a simple dinner. But since she was already steering us towards the ideal quiet corner, I kept my mouth shut and accepted the out-of-the-way booth. That made what happened next a little funny.
I should say that the service at Azia is usually super-excellent and sometimes not, but when it is not, it is never, ever bad. It is just sometimes a little quirky. This is a big place in a nomadic market, so while there is always a core group of servers, there is a certain amount of variation around the edges. Tonight’s server was a woman I had not seen before, who clearly knew the menu and demonstrated her experience quite nicely with the char. I’ll get to that in a moment.
But her style was not what we were looking for. From the moment we were seated, Lizzie and I engaged in our vitally important conversation. We had a mutual friend who had suddenly found himself in very very deep trouble with the law, and we had just heard about it. I knew he and Lizzie knew each other, but I did not know how well. I did not know if this was going to be a rough blow, a bewildering moment, or a case of serious annoyance for her. And I don’t think Lizzie could have known that for me either. So we needed to assess our states of mind and heart in relation to this important matter. And while we engaged in this opening round of discussion, I’m pretty sure the waitress came by four or five times to see whether we needed anything.
“Okay, we’d better make one decision, don’t you think? Do you want wine? What kind, how much? Okay, may I suggest the Faustino Rioja?”
Now we were ready. Our waitress came back and we ordered the wine. She checked both of our IDs and it was brought to us. I was grinning about having my ID checked when she walked away, and so was Lizzie.
“I think it was my sweater.”
We both laughed at the prospect that my simple black Woolrich sweater (purchased, by the way, in 1988, so the sweater itself was almost old enough to have a cocktail) would make me look decades younger, and then we returned to our conversation.
By this time we had firmly established the details and found much agreement about the basics of all the relationships. Both of us thought well of our friend, and we were very saddened by the current situation. He was going to go to prison for a long time, there was no way around that. And while we knew that it could have been worse, we still wanted it to be better than it was.
But that was not enough. We had to do more than order the wine because we were now on visit nine from our server. Now, you have to understand that we did not find this annoying. She was not being annoying. She was just being very, very helpful, and perhaps a bit lonely, because we were the only table seated at her station. Also, since I’m one of his oldest customers, Thom sometimes gives the secret hand signal to his staff to be extra nice. I think this night Thom may have had a fly buzzing around his head and accidentally gave the secret hand signal five or six times. So we made an important decision.
Pot stickers. Lizzie said pot stickers, and I asked her whether the details mattered, and she said no. So when our server came by, I ordered them pork and sautéed. These are the best pot stickers in town bar none, by the way.
Which reminds me. For one year, not long after Azia opened, I lived three or four blocks to the north of Azia, and almost every week, Julia and I would have lunch here. That was just after I had broken up with my sig-oth, who also lived a few blocks away but to the south. She (I’ll call her Georgia) had said to me “Hey, if you ever go eat at Azia or anywhere else in the neighborhood, let me know so we can avoid the embarrassment of running into each other. Especially if you’re with a girl or something.”
So the first time we were heading over to Azia, Julia (then about 9 years old) and I, I mentioned this to Julia and said, “Here, take my cell phone and call Georgia and tell her we’re eating at Azia. Don’t worry, she won’t answer the phone; just leave a message. We have this prearranged.”
So Julia speed dials Georgia and blurts out, and I was not expecting this, “We are going to Azia. You must not go there. Repeat. We are going to Azia,” like she was calling in an airstrike. So ever since then, whenever I went to Azia with a girl (Julia) I gave her the phone and she made the call.
Anyhow, I mention this only because of the pot stickers. Julia and I had pot stickers for lunch every week, and if we were hungry, we’d split an order of the Bow Tie Pasta, which can be ordered with any of several different “proteins” (as we seem to refer to animal tissue or tofu these days), which is perfect for two people to share.
To continue: Lizzie and I now moved on in our conversation to the more philosophical issues of why our friend would have done what he did. I wanted to know Lizzie’s personal feeling about this sort of thing. Our friend was going to prison for over political activities that would clearly be labeled by any court in the land, or any FBI agent, as terroristic. I hate that word, terroristic. But many people would take such an individual and write them off entirely because anybody who engages in any violent activities that can be labeled as terroristic equals Osama bin Laden, and there are no exceptions. I myself believe that life is more complex than that, and people are more complex than that. So does Lizzie. It turns out that we both feel that our mutual friend should very much not have done what he did, but that did not make us not care about him as a person, or love him less as our friend.
But that was not enough. It would never be enough to merely order pot stickers. Things were getting dicey. Visit fourteen was imminent, and I felt we had to do something about it. Now again, I say we were not annoyed. Our waitress was just trying to do a good job. We understand these things. Lizzie herself has been a server, and in fact for much of the time I’ve known her, she’s had at least a part time job in a restaurant. I’ve done that kind of work too, but not nearly as much and a very long time ago. Suffice it to say that we were far more amused, even endeared, than annoyed. But we had to act, so we did.
We consulted the menu, or should I say Lizzie consulted the menu (I have it in my head pretty much), and she was interested in the char the server had mentioned. So I urged us on in that direction. Lizzie also liked the looks of the Hot and Spicy Lemongrass Grilled with Field Vegetables. She wanted it with Tofu. She likes Tofu. This is a person I love and admire and think very highly of. So I overlooked the Tofu thing and agreed that this would be good. It turns out that Thom makes tofu taste good somehow. Who knew it was even possible?
With the pot stickers delivered and consumed, we made our order on the next pass of the server. Just then Lizzie excused herself to visit the ladies’. By the way, when you eat at Azia, the men’s is on the left, ladies’ on the right. It is hard to tell, so now you know and won’t be confused.
While Lizzie was gone, the server came by and folded her napkin for her.
The next step in our conversation was remembering details. For reasons I will not elaborate on here, I needed to have a pretty good picture of what everyone was doing, where, and when over the last six or seven years. It was helpful to speak with Lizzie about this. I became pretty certain that I knew each of them before they knew each other and learned how they initially became acquainted. I was very interested to hear that Lizzie had had dinner with our friend and his parents. In reconstructing events, I remembered that I was supposed to have dinner with him and his parents one day, and they called it off a the last minute. This was the same parental trip, so I guess I was jilted in favor of Lizzie Well, I can’t say that I blame them. I’d rather have dinner with Lizzie than myself too.
So the char came, and this is a big deal. The server is required to fillet the fish right there at the table. There are servers as Azia who do this in seconds, and it is brilliant to watch. Our server did not do it quickly, but she did it very skillfully. Everybody takes off the head and tail first.
“Do you want the head?”
“Of course. Best part, really.”
So she does not put the head in the discard pile. Other servers slice the top half off the fish clean off, then take out the bones, then fold the top half back on. Instead, our server opened the fish like the hood of a car and pulled the bone out. Interesting, and well done. Then the fish gets chopped sagittally into chunks.
At this point, most servers are done. They check whether you want anything else, and move off. Not our server! No. She placed some char on Lizzie’s plate. Then joined that with the excellent Wok fried veggies that come with the char, and applied the absolutely incredible to die for glaze. Then she opened the bamboo box that the Lemongrass was in and served some of that to Lizzie, opened the bottom of the bamboo steamer and gave her some rice. Then she gave me some rice, some lemongrass, some wok veggies, and my piece of char, thus reversing the order and making the mirror image of the two plates, on each side of the table, work perfectly. For the next several minutes, we ate and ate and ate. Lizzie quite literally dived into her food, she was clearly starving. That was fun to watch for a while, then I ate the eyeballs out of the fish head and started into my plate.
The rest of the meal, the rest of the conversation, was more mundane. We talked about other matters, we heaped more food on our plates, we got the check, we were introduced to a second server who had just come on duty, just in case we needed him, and as always, Thom came by to see if all was well. And we said, of course it was.
One of the nicer meals I’ve had. It turns out that the char and the lemongrass is a perfect combination. One of the saddest evenings I’ve had. It is not pleasant to contemplate a decade in prison for a person you care for. But all my time with Lizzie is good. I’m lucky to have her as a friend, and I bothered to tell her so that night.
Azia is on Eat Street in South Minneapolis. It is also the home of the Caterpillar Lounge and the Anemoni Sushi and Oyster Bar. Here is the web site.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 1st, 2009 at 5:59 am and is filed under Food, Greg Laden, Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.