Full Complement

Cafe L’aube: “I have learnt how to live…How to be in the world and of the world.”

ELEGANCE is hard to find in a city of over 1.4 million people.  It’s harder to find on a Sunday morning, bleary from the night before’s festivities (or, in my case, bleary from working till 2AM).  But elegance is exactly what Dan and I found, tucked quietly into a small cafe on South Street, awash in the  sunny glow that seemed to fill the entire city with joy and a sense of spring-like satisfaction.

What happened, February?  I woke up this morning to the sound of water sloughing off the roof; I stepped outside into a brave new city, resplendent in sunlight and proud of its amazingly brilliant buildings.  Today was a gift; it sparkled and sang, and it reminded me of how much I love this city and how much I love this year.  This is the year of hope, of personal change, of stepping up and realizing dreams and taking those opportunities and turning them into something larger and wilder than you ever could have imagined.

Already, 2009 is shaping up into something spectacular.  I’m writing again, small poems that don’t delve too deeply but that make my breath come just a bit quicker, my voice thicken as I move the words around in the air.  I’m taking Italian at Temple, as part of their non-credit “personal enrichment” program.  Am I ever going to get to use this Italian?  I have no idea!  But I feel as though my mind is coming alive again, and that’s what I was aching for.  My library card for the Free Library of Philadelphia finally came in, and I’ve already put about a dozen books on reserve and brought Henry Miller‘s Tropic of Cancer home with me.  I’m only about 20 pages in, but I can feel the first faint stirrings: there’s another poem, a few pages of prose, something in me that’s itching to get out.  I’ve reconnected with some of my far-flung friends (California seems to be claiming more than wanderers these days), made new friends, and have settled into a routine of Thursday night quizo.

All of which, taken separately, don’t indicate very much.  But together, as one unit, all of these collected little bits (and the dozens of other little moments too small to name, but too important to overlook) add up to a swell, swell spring, if not year.  That’s my personal manifesto for 2009: I am going to make it spectacular.

And what better way to usher in this new regime of living than brunch?  Because of the College’s winter break, Dan and I hadn’t seen each other in, oh, something horrendous like a month and a half.  A meal seemed like the perfect way to catch up, to lay down plans, and to wax poetic on our current projects.  (His are much more poetic than mine.)

And the city of Philadelphia gave us its blessing, melting the snow and gilding the morning with such auspicious brilliance.  Today was a day for dreams–how could one not be inspired in today’s sunlight?  Everything was new; every street was an enchanted safe haven; every passing block seemed somehow more alive, more vibrant.  I forgot how much of a spring person I am, how the way light falls on a building can reduce me to raptures; how the lengthened shadows between buildings can inspire my imagination.

Cafe L’Aube is the perfect place to go when the city has captured your fancy.  L’aube means dawn in French, and the cafe  itself is painted in the bright colors of a dawning new world.  According to the website, Cafe L’Aube‘s mantra is “Every day should be fresh and full of promise,” which is an accurate (uncanny?) reflection of my current state of mind.  As Sabrina Fairchild wrote to her father, “Paris is for … throwing open the windows and letting in la vie en rose” –and that is the aesthetic that Cafe L’Aube holds to, offering gorgeous crepes, French sandwiches, fair trade coffee and sumptuous hot chocolate.  It’s the aesthetic reflected not only in the logo of the cafe, but also in the French music that sifts through the air and creates an atmosphere of quiet finesse.

Dan and I began with the savory crepes, but found that the longer we sat, the more we had to say–and the more we had to say, the more we desired to eat.  So savory crepe became crepe à sucre; from “ham, egg and cheese” crepe to the “nutella and strawberries” crepe for Dan, and from “mozarella, tomatoes, and fresh basil” to “nutella and bananas” for me.  Each bite was a surprise, a gift; and when the nutella crepes arrived, I nearly swooned from pure pleasure–not from just the lovely scent of lingering chocolate warmth, but also the presentation and delicate wash of confectioner’s sugar.

This, this shall be my new home within the city; I thought Beau Monde was the central hub for crepes in Philadelphia, but I was misinformed.  Here, at Cafe L’Aube, you are invited to sit, to sip, to experience.  You are invited to dream among the amber and green walls, to concoct plans and whisper recipes for new adventures.  It’s quiet and casual, with minimal distractions and the lovely sense of being at once in the world and of the world.  Balancing mugs and glasses and plates on round cafe tables, you are invited to partake of a small moment of elegance in an otherwise inelegant world.


Brunch · Full Complement

Salt ‘n Pepper Diner, Chicago: “I sure could go for a Tang.”

STEVE inherited a phone earlier this summer, and it came with the most incredible ring-tone. We call it just to hear that familiar riff from Push It, and wait (nearly breathless) for the yeaaahh in the middle. To myself, and occasionally not privately at all, I’ve been lamenting the lack of a really good ring-tone on my own phone. It’s a cute phone that fulfills all my requirements for a communication tool: it flips, it’s red, it makes and receives calls, and it can text. Basically, that’s all I want. Until now. Now, I want a truly awesome ring-tone.

Poor Lexxy put up with my moaning over my phone whenever my mother called me this past weekend (which was surprisingly often, considering the long-distance bills): “Man, if it just rang to U Can’t Touch This or, I dunno, Donna Summer. Wouldn’t that just make me want to answer the phone?” And so on.

I guess it finally got to her. Because, when we got into her cute Toyota Scion (why isn’t it a hybrid? it ought to be a hybrid!) to drive into the city for brunch, she told me the place was going to have “meaning.” Now, I’ve known this girl since 8th grade. So saying that something has “meaning” usually indicates that it has some random middle-school-esque significance. I was prepared for a music medley of Mariah Carey, Boyz II Men, and TLC; I was steadying myself for waiters in saggy pants and too-large T-shirts. But what she picked–what she hand-picked–just for this occasion was so much greater, and ended up being significant on a multitude of layers.

Let me break it down. First, it was a light slap-on-the-wrist. The diner’s name? Salt ‘N Pepper Diner, which was (obviously) an allusion to Salt-n-Peppa, the group that made the amazingly ring-tone-adaptable Push It. French toast? Check, though Lexxy ended up being the one to order it. And theme? Oyez, 1950s.

‘Course, when Lexxy read an online review of the place, she figured the 1950s theme was going to be so in-your-face as to be completely unavoidable, and was understandably frantic to get there. (The girl likes her drama, and her themed diners even more.)

Truth be told, the decor was a little watered down. Though there was the stainless steel backdrop behind the bar and a poster of a 50’s Chevy, it was a little underwhelming. Especially since we were expecting waitresses in poodle skirts and horn-rimmed glasses. And at least a jukebox. Alas! We didn’t get that (though they do have an exceptionally 50s-esque clock), but we did get fed.

Lexxy went for the french toast, Bogarting my initial gut-choice. Back in our middle school days, she’d come panting around my kitchen for my daddy’s french toast and then end up staying the weekend. This rendition of the breakfast classic, covered in bananas and cream and nuts, was a close contender to my daddy’s own, and was certainly filling and beautifully presented. (My dad is a closet banana-phobe and won’t garnish anything with bananas, let alone nuts; purist he is, confectioner’s sugar “will just have to suffice.”)

Ousted from my french toast quest, I fell back on a new favorite. Since I’d been on a burrito theme (Chipotle, anyone?) already in Chicago, I ordered the breakfast burrito: hash browns on the side, but the burrito itself packed with eggs, guacamole, sour cream, pico de gallo, and various other tasty brunch-appropriate fare. Yeah, it made my belly hurt. But once doused with ketchup and cut into, it was heavenly. McDonald’s, you leave a heck of a lot to be desired.

We talked, naturally, about the fact that we’ve been friends for over a decade. We’ve been locked in together, and had to be busted out by locksmiths and a very capable carpenter. We’ve eaten sand, climbed inside the pyramids, and jumped on moving mini-buses. We’ve changed diapers together (Justine, you so owe us). We’ve snorkeled together. (Her sister almost drowned me that time, too.) We’ve been through three different continents together, a series of serious boyfriends (none of them shared; we’re not that close), one stage show (hers), one gallery show (also hers), and a variety of other life-changing times together. It’s been more than a decade, and we’re looking forward to a lifetime more.

Which, in essence, was why the Salt ‘n Pepper Diner was so perfect: we love the 1950s (the style! the cars! the music! the Hepburns!) and we love food, and the combination of the two–albeit a little questionable–was delicious. But as we looked around, we had to admit: the Salt ‘N Pepper is a poser. It has the sense and idea of the 50s, but not the execution. It’s so close, though; and, really, who’s keeping score? Just like Down With Love, sometimes it’s just better to sit back and enjoy the product than nitpick the little details. After all, it’s on the good times that solid friendships are built, and it’s the good times that keep them alive.