By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
I miss Leon a little already. Don't get me wrong: I'm glad to be back from my East Coast adventure -- but he was something special. To lift a line from the good doctor (Hunter Thompson, that is), Leon was "one of God's own prototypes -- a high-powered mutant of some kind who was never even considered for mass production." And without his grounding influence, New York City wouldn't have seemed right to me.
As it was, being spat out of the Lincoln Tunnel and into the thrum and rush of Manhattan was a little like one of those Twilight Zone episodes where everything is the same, only somehow oddly changed. Coming in, Jersey City still smelled like it always has -- like Sinatra's underpants after a long night out with Dean and the boys -- and navigating the tunnel was still a dystopic nightmare of Soylent Green proportions, but Manhattan proper was different. It wasn't like the hydrants were spouting champagne or anything, but there was no longer that overtly hostile, xenophobic, heads-down vibe I'd come to expect. Fer chrissakes, a New York cabbie stopped in traffic to let me through -- actually waving me in ahead of him rather than merrily bashing in the nose of my rental, then circling back around the block to finish me off like I expected. Blame 9/11 or ex-mayor Rudy Giuliani's Machiavellian dictums for chasing all the hookers and smut shops off 42nd Street. Blame whoever or whatever you want, but the city's changed in the six years since I last visited, and without Leon there to ugly things up, I would have thought that I'd actually died in a plane crash on my way into the Philly airport and that this kinder, gentler New York was my heavenly reward. Leon was my 300-pound Samoan, and without him, the trip would have been altogether too calm and weirdly sterile.
But enough about Leon. As those of you who read the latest "Jason Sheehan's a stupid asshole" installment in last week's Letters section already know, I wasn't in New York just to sniff around and get a slice of pizza. I was there for the James Beard Foundation journalism awards and all of their attendant hoopla. And while the short version of the story goes something like this -- the awards went fine, and I won the category of Newspaper Restaurant Review or Critique, bringing back the gold for the home team -- when have I ever gone with a short story when a long one would be more fun?
The event kicked off with a cocktail party reception at the Grand Hyatt New York, which might have been great had the wife and I known one single person other than ourselves. Unfortunately, we didn't, so instead we hung out near the bar -- me wearing a dorky red nominee ribbon like the third-place hog at the county fair, she looking fabulous and well above my station -- and were shut pretty effectively out of the shmoozing and elbow-rubbing. Trying to appear aloof and at ease in this crowd got tiresome after about twenty minutes, so we skipped out and headed across the street to Daikichi Sushi, which I can wholeheartedly recommend as a fine alternative for anyone stuck at a Manhattan cocktail-party set piece and in need of a quick escape.
Two orders of assorted nigiri and one veggie sampler later, we were back in the swing of things just in time to see Swoosie Kurtz (which was rather strange) and her majesty Ruth Reichl (not weird at all -- the Gourmet editor is queen of this business and welcome at all the best parties) making their entrances. The awards ceremony followed, and it was, I'll admit, mostly a blur. The food (all products of Oregon, home state of food legend James Beard, and cooked by Oregon chefs in tribute to what would have been the man's hundredth birthday) was fantastic. I remember the spring-run Chinook salmon tartare cut with coarse-grain mustard and radishes because it was the first course, and the steamed cabbage stuffed with American Kobe short-rib meat, potatoes and foie gras because it was so good, but much as it pains me to admit it, the food was really wasted on me. I didn't think I'd be nervous -- honestly figuring that my loss was a foregone conclusion -- but I would've thrown up butterflies had anyone poked me in the stomach. And then, the way things worked out, I didn't lose, and my return to the table (after a very brief and mumbled acceptance speech where I believe I thanked my cats in addition to everyone else on the planet) was attended by the delivery of glasses of grappa, making it an iron-clad lock that I wasn't going to remember the rest of the night, either.
But of greater importance than my winning was the fact that my fellow finalists (Robb Walsh of the Houston Press and Jill Posey-Smith of the Riverfront Times in St. Louis) came from sibling papers. In blind voting overseen by the accounting firm of Lutz and Carr, three ink-stained alternative-weekly wretches kicked the collective ass of every big-time paper out there. San Francisco Chronicle reviewers? Smoked 'em. Washington Post? Them, too. New York Times? Whooped 'em on their home turf. And am I being a bit too proud of us when humility might better serve? Probably. But we done good, and Christ only knows if it'll ever happen again.