no future for us

This last weekend, I made a small trip to the ancestral stomping grounds of Philadelphia, along with a whole mess of friends (Miranda; Adam, John Romkey and Michael Burg from Boston; Adam’s girlfriend Kate from Philly; and from DC) to see The Future We Were Promised, an exhibition of recently discovered works by A.C. Radebaugh, a 1950s illustrator who specialized in the chrome-and-big-tailfins style of futurism, and to spend a little time with my mom for, er, Mother’s Day.

Alas, it was not to be. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Adam somehow managed to get a reservation for the seven of us at Morimoto’s on Friday night, so after meeting up with at 30th Street Station, we were picked up by Adam and Kate (who were driving down from Boston), and met up with Romkey and Michael for some serious gustatory excess.

Morimotos with a group of seven is a very different experience than as a couple. Because several of us ordered off the menu while Michael and I got the omakase (the 8-small-course tasting menu), dishes seemed to be arriving at every moment, and there was a sort of constant clatter as we passed forks and plates around the table to let people on opposite ends sample interesting dishes. The restaurant staff handled what could have been a confusing mess with perfect aplomb: every dish ordered arrived, and was quickly brought to the correct person.

The next time I visit Morimotos, I am going to remember to bring a small notebook, because between the sheer number of dishes floating around and the fact that I’d started off the evening with one of their greet tea martinis (and then finished John’s when he decided he didn’t care for it), I don’t think I can recall more than about a third of what we ordered. The standout dishes were Miranda’s “beggar’s purse” of smoked salmon, Siva’s sashimi salad (notable not only for being really, really good, but also probably the best value dish on the menu: an enormous salad with a not-at-all-parismonious helping of excellent tuna sashimi for the same price as a number of much smaller dishes), and John’s fresh-made tofu, which had an excellent high-school-science-project aspect to it: they actually made it at the table. (Apparently to make tofu, you pour saltwater into hot soy milk, stir, and cover. Five minutes later: tofu.) Oh, and the “roast pork belly in rice porridge” appetizer was a great example of convergent evolution: the slow-roasted pork tasted nothing so much like excellent american BBQ.

Also noteworthy: the waitress asked if I’d had the omakase before, which turned out to be significant. Since I answered in the affirmative, they brought me seven entirely different dishes from the ones I’d had the last time. (This compares well to Nobu, where the tasting menu is essentially set save for seasonal changes.)

Somewhere around midnight, the seven of us staggered outside, extremely happy. Adam was kind enough to give Miranda and I a lift to my mom’s place, where we promptly collapsed.

Day Two: Into..the Future! We dragged ourselves out of bed around 10:30am in order to meet up at John’s hotel room downtown to walk over to the Radebaugh exhibit. After everyone had straggled in, we headed up Market street to old city, stopping at the Reading Terminal Market for fresh pretzels from the amish bakery. East Market Street has been trying for years to turn itself into a glittery tourist mecca, but it’s sort of emblematic of Philadelphia’s deeper economic/structural problems: directly across the street from the shiny new Marriott and convention center are pretty much the same pawn shops, ripoff check-cashing places, fast food joints and seedy sex-toy stores as were there throughout my whole adolescence. Contrasts like that are why I’ll always love Philadelphia, but it must give the local chamber of commerce heartburn.

We arrived at the Institute around 2 o’clock, and were all excited to commune with the shiny futuriffic goodness, except that…the Future was Closed. A small, hand-lettered sign was taped to the door, reading “Closed due to emergency. We will re-open this Monday.” No Future for us! Disappointing, but somehow entirely fitting.

With the rest of the afternoon suddenly free to kill, we took a bus over to the Mutter Museum, one of Philadelphia’s less-well-known delights. The Mutter is a collection of 19th-centrury medical instruments, specimens and oddities, housed at the Philadelphia College of Physicians. Some of the exhibits are fascinating, some creepy, some weird, and some just downright disgusting: terrifying specimens of smallpox- and gangrene-infected limbs rub elbows (as it were) with Grover Cleveland’s secretly removed cancerous jawbone, and the soap lady. The Museum is a quiet little place, usually filled half and half with serious medical students and greasy punks there for shock value.

We wandered back from the Museum to John’s hotel for tea, which was a surprisingly tea-free affair: due to some internal miscommunication among the hotel staff, the tea didn’t arrive until we’d finished all of our food. Afterward, Miranda took off to hang out with her friend Charlotte, and everyone else sacked out for a nap, so I took off to go tour ‘s new house and catch up over coffee.

For dinner, all of us save Miranda, plus my mom (because, apparently, I trust my friends more than might be rational to behave themselves), headed over to University City to try POD, which was supposed to hook into the “Into the Future” theme of the trip, but had to stand on its own merits, what with the Future being Closed. Pod certainly would have complemented the chrome-and-tailfins motif well: it’s designed like a head-on collision between the Korova Milk Bar in “A Clockwork Orange” and an Austin Powers set. The restaurant’s lights shift color ever few minutes, any furniture that isn’t shock white is covered in bright orange vinyl, and large groups can eat in “Pods” — enclosed circular tables with a set of buttons on the wall that change the color filters in the booth’s overhead lights. Hipper-than-thou trip-hoppy music is piped in, and the pods (and the bathroom stalls!) have adjustable volume controls.

The only problem with Pod was the food. Not that it wasn’t good: it was uniformly good-to-excellent. Nor were the portions in adequate: we ended up taking several large bags of leftovers home with us. The problem was that Pod is a “pan-asian fusion” restaurant, and after eating at Morimotos the night before, it was just a little too much, and really difficult to evaluate it on its own merits. The only two dishes that really stood out for me were the Kobe Beef dim sum, which they cook on a heated stone on the table, and the “eel wrap” of “charred eel, asparagus, avocado and shiso”. Still, if the worst thing you can say about a meal is that you find it difficult to evaluate compared to the best restaurant you’ve ever been to, you’re probably doing well.

Despite the high potential for total disaster, my mom and my friends (most of whom she’d never met) got along well, and when they asked her to tell embarrassing stories about me, she couldn’t come up with any that I hadn’t already told to at least some of them. Having no shame has its advantages, and my mom rocks, thank you.

Sunday was spent doing what every geeky child does when he returns to the family “estate”: catching up on neighborhood gossip (they finally tore down the abandoned crackhouse down the street; sad to think that yet another vacant lot can be considered to be an improvement, but there you go) and…fixing mom’s computer. What began as a small project to cut down a bit on the amount of spam for viagra and sex-with-horses-porn that gets sent to my mother and baby sister quickly escalated into a 5-hour nightmare involving multiple version of Netscape and Outlook Express and a frantic call to Verizon tech support. This, I do for love. Finally, several hours later than I’d intended, we caught a train back home.

It’s strange really: I haven’t lived in Philadelphia for over a decade, but I can still navigate it blindfolded. Every corner downtown has some sort of association for me: the one where I got hit by a taxi, the one where the sandwich-board preacher lady ambushed me; all the cafes and stores I used to haunt. I don’t think I could ever live there again, but I still like to visit, and I think I’ll have to go back again soon: maybe the Future will be open this time.

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