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Wednesday, January 02, 2013

I Saw the Future (I Got Depressed)

From the Crystal Ball Dept.: Nothing dates faster (and becomes more risible in retrospect) than playing fortune-teller in print. Which is why this piece from 1987 now reads like your grandfather’s misanthropic mutterings.


QUICK, WHAT’S THE MOST significant event that took place in the last twenty years? What will the histories of a century hence point back to?

It used to be that travel held the world in thrall. Scanning the headlines of 1929, which I spent several hours doing last week, I saw story after story about the aviation pioneers, speeding through the skies by airplane and dirigible.

Forty years later men walked on the moon and the world seemed to get cynical about it. Perhaps it was a cynicism that comes from attaining a goal that for so long seemed unattainable. We did that. What’s next?

That wasn’t the spirit I felt strolling around the 1964 World’s Fair. I raced like a demon through the displays at Flushing Meadow, marvelling at stuff that just seemed too futuristic, too neat to ever wind up in your own house. And yet, except for the tardy picturephone, a lot of it has come to pass.

The future is all around us, and how jaded we’ve become. Look at how matter-of-factly we accept compact discs: this isn’t just a matter of slowing down records or goosing them into stereo – it’s a completely new, difficult-to-fathom technology at work, using a device, the laser, that at one time was the exclusive property of the sci-fi fantasist.

Are you as plagued as I am by the frou-frou catalogues of leisure toys for the bored and wealthy? The Sharper Image catalogue is my favorite piece of toilet reading, yet it depresses me to realize that I no longer get excited over gadgets that would have thrilled me at 13.

And the catalogues keep arriving! Here’s a new one: BRAVO (INNOVATIVE PRODUCTS WITH A STROKE OF GENIUS). The cover sports something kind of sparky that Colin Clive might have had in an old-movie laboratory, but no, it’s a . . . Celestial Fireball. Something to do with rare earth gases getting lit up by electrons and creating colorful patterns within a 7-inch sphere. You can change the pattern by passing your hand over it, or set it to pulsate to music. Neat, huh? Impressively futuristic? Yours for two hundred bucks.

If we skip past the lucite-and-chrome fireplace tools and the digital readout sphygmomanometer, we come to the astonishingly light Pro-Tan unit (weighs only 32 lbs.!), designed to give you a “healthy, golden tan . . . for only pennies per session.” At a cost of $600, you’ll end up resembling the wallet you have to deplete before you get your money’s worth.

And don’t overlook the cordless theses and thoses! If the phone was a marvel (it was, way back before it became a nuisance), the cordless phone is a godsend. And there are cordless speakers for your stereo or cordless headphones if the speakers are too loud.

A little farther and the erector set meets the space age. Remember that collection of angle-irons and plates and nuts and bolts? They’ve added “motorized laser turrets . . . and two motorized laser vehicles” so you can quickly destroy that which you labor to construct. It’s only a hundred bucks, and it prepares your child for a career on the city council.

Souped-up TV sets now include stereo speakers and an interface to plug your computer in. (Add a modem and you’re ready to shop and bank right there in your living room!)

At one time the futuristic goal was for a relaxed home life surrounded by robots to do your bidding. Those robots are coming onto the market, you know, somewhat more primitive than George Jetson’s Rosie, but robots all the same.

It’s getting to the point where you’ll never need to leave the house, and another gadget in this catalogue is a poignant reminder of why you may never want to leave the house: an “Oxygen Rejuvenator.” Take a hit of pure O – it may be your only chance.
Metroland Magazine, 1 October 1987

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BONUS! My restaurant review from the same issue, of a place long since closed. What’s memorable about the visit was that I paid it in the company of a stranger, someone who had won the privilege of a review meal with me at some arts auction to which I foolishly agreed to donate the event, and we had absolutely nothing to talk about during the course of the meal. My revenge was to mention her not at all, an obvious contrast to my typical chattiness. Chef-owner Rene Facchette sold the business a year after this review appeared, his successors didn’t seem to get more than a couple of years out of it, and it became Capitol House and the Patroon House before getting repurposed into a business office.


CHEZ RENE, Route 9W, Glenmont, 463-5130. Full bar, nice wine list; dinner served 5-10 Tuesday-Saturday. Reservations required. AE, personal checks.

Nero Wolfe, the detective of literature who combined investigative genius with a passion for fine food, never permitted talk of business at table. It’s a splendid policy and one that should be easy to follow when you sit down to dinner as a celebration.

It’s probably the most ritualized activity of the day and deserves whatever fanfare can be invited around it. You mad microwavers, you who are “too busy too cook” – you’re too busy to dine.

Chez Rene is a lovely home in Glenmont, little altered save for the large professional kitchen added onto the back. Seating is in one of many small rooms for a truly intimate feel; service is discreet and ever watchful.

On a rainy weekday evening I met a guest under the awning and entered this wonderful embassy of old-fashioned France; our hostess was costumed in the colorful garb of that country.

Chef Rene has been running the restaurant for over twelve years. “I was born in Brittany,” he explains, “and I trained there and in Paris. I’ve worked on the Riviera and the Cote Basque, among other places.”

His voice has the accent of his native country; it was his wife, an American, who brought him here. “She was born in Schenectady and raised in the area. But she got a Fulbright scholarship to study art at the Sorbonne. I met her while she was spending some time in Paris, we got married, and we moved to this country.”

It was easy to leave the rain outside and pretend that we were dining in a Brittany village, although I may have spoiled the illusion somewhat by ordering an American wine, Konstantin Frank’s Pinot Chardonnay.

The bill of fare lets you know that you’re in the land of richly-dressed meats and delicious sauces. As we studied the menu the waiter told us about the day’s specials. I made up my mind from there.

Rene has a traditional grounding in his culinary approach, but adds, “I try to be a little bit contemporary. I always have four or five additional items on the menu every night, like veal kidneys, sweetbreads, rack of lamb.” And calves’ liver, sauce picante, which I demanded.

But we started the meal with two of Nature’s four best vehicles for garlic: shrimp and escargot (the other two are frog’s legs, which I’m too cowardly to eat, and pizza, which I eat much too often).

Nothing bashful about the garlic in each; nor were either of us bashful about drenching the dinner bread in the remains.

Ah, but this was a full-course meal; appetizers were quickly followed by a pair of soups. Traditional French onion, a crock of it, croutons and Gruyere dripping into the sturdy brown liquid.

The lobster bisque is creamy and rich with the crustacean – fresh, too, as certified by the couple of bits of shell I encountered.

Tomatoes, fresh from Rene’s garden, were the centerpiece of the salade du jour, dressed with a piquant Dijonnaise.

“I have lots of spices in my garden, too,” the chef says. “This morning I picked some fresh radishes which I ate myself. And I got a ton of fresh basil, which I put in the green beans.”

Use of the freshest food is obviously important to him. He describes the preparation of the sauce picante as follows: “I put some Bordelaise sauce in it, and I put a little vinegar in it. I mix some white wine vinegar with Balsamic vinegar from Italy. Then I add some fresh mushrooms, scallions, and shallots and thicken it.”

It was an astonishingly wonderful complement to a thick slice of tender liver, fresh and gristle-free. The plump mushrooms exploded in my mouth as I made my way through a generous helping.

On the other side of the table, a sauteed cutlet of veal topped with fresh asparagus and a Hollandaise, complemented by a serving of ratatouille that was out of this world.

That’s a traditional mixture of eggplant, zucchini and peppers in a light tomato sauce; the secret is in the use of herbs, which here blended into a delectable, mouth-filling bouquet.

The unlikely choice of potato I ordered, French fries, were just that: a plate of golden steak fries. Why not? Might as well let a real French chef try his hand at them and make the adjective, for once, appropriate.

You don’t tuck away every morsel of a meal like that. I didn’t. And I’m usually good at that sort of thing. I had this suspicion that dessert would be every bit the equal of the entree, and I’d glimpsed notice of a chocolate rum cake with which I polished off a splendid repast.

Dinner for two, with tax, tip and beverage, was $115. Metroland restaurant reviews are based on one unannounced visit; your experiences may differ.

Metroland Magazine, 1 October 1987

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