Friday, November 10, 2006

Birthday Weekend: Day 1 of 4 ...

I am poised on the brink of my "late 30s." On Monday, I will be 37. You cannot call 37 "mid"; 37 is "late."

Not that I mind. I'm not one of those people who freaks out over their age for the simple fact that the alternative to having another birthday is to have no birthdays at all. I rather like living. I hope to do it for a long time to come. Birthdays, bring 'em on.

Every year, I take a group of friends out for lunch for my birthday. I want to celebrate my birthday with them, but I'm not the kind of person who can say, "OK, take me out to lunch!" So I pick up the tab. Every year, we go to a different place. Well, technically, today's location was a repeat, but the last time I was there with friends for a birthday lunch was the year I created this tradition, and there were only three of us. So I wanted to return with a larger group.

Where?, you ask. Allen's: The New American Cafe.

I love Allen's. I love it. I love, love, love it. If you've never been, and you live within a 100-mile radius of 217 W. Huron, you need to go. Make a special trip. You won't be disappointed. The lunch menu knocks my socks off.

Brian, who had to leave early to go to a closing, had the mushroom starter before he left. We were mushroom twins.

Kelley surely started with a salad, though I can't see it in front of her right now, and had duck for lunch. The server forgot to put her order in, so hers came up late, but he covered nicely by bringing her another glass of wine on the house.

Doreen must have had a salad, too, and the burger, sans bun, and the "trifecta" of condiments. Doreen likes the word "trifecta." Her fries looked fabulous.

Jay had a salad to start, I'm sure of that, and short rib-filled ravioli. Yep, short-rib filled ravioli. He insisted I try the last one. I thought the pasta was too tough, but the sauce was outstanding.

Dave had the arugula salad (which I encouraged him to get, so I could have a bite, but I never did reach over and stab any) and the fish duo, swordfish and something else. Dave always orders fish.

I started with the foraged wild mushrooms sauteed with brandy and finished with herb butter and then continued the mushroom theme with seared diver scallops with butter-poached oyster mushrooms and hand-rolled gnocchi.

Dave fairly devoured his lunch. "How is it?" I asked. He looked at his plate.

"You mean because I'm almost finished?" And then Dave, being Dave, apologized for not offering some to me.

"That's OK," I said. "I'm really not a big fan of fish. Shellfish, yes. Fish, not so much." Dave looked at my scallops.

"And I'm not really a fan of shellfish," he said.

"So if we always dined together ("dine" is a Dave word; you don't "eat" with Dave, you "dine"), we'd never run the risk of overfishing the ocean," I said.

"Yes," he said, laughing. "We'd balance each other out."

We finished with coffees and cappuccinos and desserts. Kelley and I each ordered the lemon-scented panna cotta. Kelley and I have a lot in common. I didn't realize we also shared the panna cotta wavelength. Doreen ordered the creme brulee. Jay was behaving and Dave had stepped out to take a call. I knew he'd have some of mine. Dave is the kind of guy who doesn't tend to order dessert, but he's happy to share, which is perfect, because I usually don't want more than a couple bites. I also ordered a decaf cap for him, like me, and when he returned, he reached for the Splenda. Kelley, Doreen, and I all made him stop. "Use the sugar instead," we urged. Allen's serves rustic lumps of sugar. Dave, I kid you not, excavated at least five out of the sugar holder with his spoon. He must have noticed our astonished expressions. "That's why I always use Equal," he said. I've known Dave for nearly 12 years, and today was the first time I've seen the actual volume of sugar he uses. He's a sugar addict, at least when it comes to coffee. I always thought his two packets of Equal was too much for a grande latte, but then, I don't use the stuff. I'm a "one packet of Sugar in the Raw" kind of gal. My dessert arrived with a pink candle in it on a rectangular plate (platter?) with "Happy Birthday, Beth!" written in chocolate on the rims. I don't normally do the restaurant birthday singing thing, but everyone sang, which was sweet.

Allen's is all about the food (and the service, if you don't count the Duck Mishap) and the space (we had the private dining space at the back of the restaurant, and I was thrilled that the table for 8 was set so spaciously; too many restaurants set a six-top and stick a chair at each end which is too crowded; this table easily could have seated 10), but the best part, of course, was having my friends with me.

There are some fixtures (Dave has been to every one; Jay and Doreen have been to most) but I try to add new people to the roster every year. Of course, I run the risk of having a crazy-big party if everyone accepts (this year's party could have been 14), but invariably, there are those who send their regrets. Today's group was planned for seven (I had the restaurant set for 8 because I had a couple people from whom I hadn't heard, and if either of them showed up, I wanted a place waiting for them), but ended up being six, and once Brian left for his closing, five, which is such a good number for lunch. Not that I don't love having more people around, but five is a perfect number for conversation. Everyone can be engaged at the same time, instead of conducting smaller side conversations.

This year, Kelley and Brian were brilliant additions. Kelley is very pretty and poised and says interesting things, but can also insert quirky, illuminating details into a story or say something completely hysterical. Brian is brilliant, a philosopher and architect by training, living off his investments presently. He was in top form today, telling his stories of volunteering at Children's Memorial (he plays games with the kids) and inserting some rather blue comments into one conversation that nearly had me spitting out my food I was laughing so hard. When he left, Dave immediately commented on how great Brian is, and Dave is an exceedingly good judge of character.

I tell everyone in the lunch invite that they should bring nothing but themselves, but some show up with gifts in tow anyway.

Jay, with whom I went to see Shawn Colvin on Tuesday, brought me Shawn's "Cover Girl" album, one I've been lacking for years, and the eponymous "Clap Your Hands Say Yeah." I popped it in earlier tonight, but I think I need to score some LSD and try to give it another listen.

Doreen brought me "Going for the Bronze: Still Bitter, More Baggage," the sequel to "Bitter with Baggage Seeks Same: The Life and Times of Some Chickens." If you haven't seen these books, you must find them. She also brought me a beautiful pewter-colored frame containing a photo of George Clooney. When I wrote this post about George, I told her that I wanted a date with him for my birthday. She told me to start visualizing. And then she ensured that I'd have my "date" with George by framing a lovely photo from his recent Vanity Fair spread. George was part of my placesetting today, sitting just above my bread plate.

It was a lovely lunch. It started off a bit harried. I got stuck in some traffic and was running late. I called the restaurant to ask them to take care of my guests and let them know I'd be there as soon as possible. And then I struck on a fabulous time-saving idea: I parked in a no-parking zone, threw on my flashers, ran into the restaurant, said hello to the people waiting for me by the bar, and thrust my keys at Dave and said, "Would you do me a favor? There's a $20 in the console. Would you go park my car?" And off he went so I could receive the rest of my guests. Who cares if the restaurant doesn't have valet parking at lunch when you have a friend who will be your personal valet? Turns out, Dave paid for the parking himself. He's that kind of guy.

But it was lovely, a long and leisurely lunch. I love that I have friends who can steal away for more than two hours on a Friday afternoon. And hey, how often do I have an Absolut Mandarin on the rocks at 12:30? Whew! I got a little tipsy. I'm sure everything today was as funny as it was, but I'm sure the Absolut made it even funnier for me.

My birthday is Monday, yes, but I didn't like the feel of a Monday birthday lunch. Friday seemed much more apropos. And so after stopping at KP to drop off CDs for those who couldn't break away for lunch (every year, starting last year, I make a compilation CD for my birthday lunch; on the cover is a message to my friends and their name in big type; it's a favor, but it's also a placecard; brilliant, no?!), I headed to the lot where Dave had put my car. The attendant had the keys. I walked up to his booth and pointed out my car. He looked at me and said, "A guy parked it, though, right?"

Oh, right! I forgot to mention that. Nothing like walking into a parking lot and saying, "Hi, I think I'll take that black Impala!"

But he was good about it once I described Dave, pulled my car out for me, held the door and closed it when I was settled in.

And to top off a fabulous day, I arrived home to a package tucked between my front doors. L.A. Dave sent me the 2007 George W. Bush The Out of Office Countdown calendar. "Two years and counting!" is says on the cover, with Bushisms for every month, such as this gem for February:

"I like my buddies from West Texas. I liked them when I was young, I liked them when I was middle-aged, I like them before I was president, and I like them during president, and I like them after president." (Apparently, in the reality in which George lives, time is defined as B.P. and A.P.)

Tomorrow night is dinner with the family, since my brother has to travel for work next week. Sunday, lunch with friends who weren't able to make it to today's fete, and Monday, the actual day, who knows!

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