A Luminous Halo

"Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." --Virginia Woolf

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Location: Springfield, Massachusetts, United States

Smith ’69, Purdue ’75. Anarchist; agnostic. Writer. Steward of the Pascal Emory house, an 1871 Second-Empire Victorian; of Sylvie, a 1974 Mercedes-Benz 450SL; and of Taz, a purebred Cockador who sets the standard for her breed. Happy enough for the present in Massachusetts, but always looking East.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Bela Bravissimo

Northampton screenwriting group met tonight, on a Thursday for a change. I was excited about the shift from Mondays, because many of my favorite NoHo restaurants are closed on that day. This was my chance to have dinner at Bela before the meeting.

To call Bela "unprepossessing" is to put it kindly. A hole in the wall on a side street in town, twelve tables (most of them for two), rickety chairs, mismatched dishes, "decor" consisting of kindergarten colors on the walls and a few small photographs. Menu on a whiteboard. Mostly vegan food, with a bit of dairy and honey (always noted). Looks and sounds depressing, I know, I know.

In fact, I'd put Bela up against any restaurant, anywhere. I had a better meal there tonight than I had at Paul Bocuse's temple of hoity-toity gourmet cooking in Lyon last year. Lily Olpindo, owner and chef, is a lady who really respects food. Everything's fresh, made to order, sizzling hot, and delicious.

Lily is Philipino, but doesn't cook her native dishes in the restaurant because they just don't taste right over here. And she's not even a vegetarian herself (but her partner is). Still, limiting herself to veg cooking in a tiny kitchen with ingredients she can find nearby, Lily has evolved a distinctive fusion cuisine that's all her own. I'm still dreaming about a dish of polenta with kale in gorgonzola sauce I ate at Bela several years ago.

I was almost relieved tonight that nothing on the specials board tempted me. I'm always in the mood for her standard vegetable stirfry with tofu, but end up getting waylaid by something else. Tonight, I had the stirfry.

"Stirfry" sounds so ordinary, but at Bela it's perfection. Maybe it's the black sesame seeds sprinkled in, or the splash of lemon juice that wakes everything up, or the brand of soy sauce (I think it's Silver Swan), or the nuttiness of the brown rice, or the tofu that's been sizzled at about 600 degrees. Taste, texture, temperature, everything just right. And a lovely cup of tea, prepared correctly, as well.

Afterward, I had only to walk next door to the Media Education Foundation for the meeting. I was mellow and sated, prepared to look kindly on Matthew Wright's screenwriting efforts. If I can learn to write the way Lily Olpindo cooks, I'll be up for an Oscar in a couple of years.

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