Christmas in Boulder Ch. 02byBluepen451©
It was past midnight when we landed in Denver, but the airport was surprisingly full of people for the late hour. Apparently we weren't the only ones stranded in Denver on what was now officially Christmas Eve. We moved through the airport efficiently, and twenty minutes later my wife and I, and her newfound friend Lisa, were standing outside the terminal with our two roller bags and briefcases and a mountain of luggage belonging to Lisa and her husband, Misha, waiting for Misha to bring up the car to take us to their place in Boulder. Since we couldn't get home to San Francisco, Gina and I had agreed to be Lisa and Misha's guests for Christmas at their Boulder condo. It was cold, and the wind was blowing hard. Thank God we weren't waiting upstairs on the departures deck.
Mercifully, Misha showed up promptly, and he and I loaded the bags into the back of a shiny black Hummer while the girls hopped in the back seat. I never cared much for the look of a Hummer, but I was feeling more charitable towards the vehicle as we drove out from under the cover of the departures deck and were hit by a wall of blowing snow. The area around the terminal was well lit, so the visibility wasn't too bad, but I expected things to get worse quickly, and they did. DIA is built out on the plains, well to the east of urban Denver, so when a snowstorm like this one hits, there is nothing to soften the force of the wind.
I could hear the girls giggling in the back seat. After a minute or two Lisa spoke up. "Misha, is this like driving a sleigh in the winter in Siberia, when you were young? It feels like we are in a Russian novel—like Doctor Zhivago."
"No. This Hummer is a lot warmer than a sleigh, but the weather is very similar."
I could detect a Russian accent beneath Misha's cultivated English.
Fifteen minutes later, we were grinding our way up the toll road, E-470, that gets you from DIA to Boulder without having to go through urban Denver. The back seat was silent, as the girls had fallen asleep. The wind was blowing hard from the west, pushing a wall of snow across the headlights. When we turned to the west as we crossed I-76, the snow was blowing straight into our face. Everything to the sides was darkness and the headlights illuminated a white wall before us. We just tried to follow a track made by a snowplow sometime in the last half hour or so.
"Tough ride," I said after about twenty minutes of silence from Misha.
"Lisa's right. I've seen worse. I grew up near Arkhangelsk, the big Russian naval base in Northern Russia. The port may have been ice free, but nothing else was. My father was a naval officer. Submarines."
"It's a small world," I said. "My mother was Swedish, but my father was an American naval officer. I grew up in Trømso, in northern Norway, where the Americans listened to your father as he drove his submarine out into the North Atlantic, but that's all history," I said.
"Do you miss Scandinavia?" he asked, changing the subject somewhat.
"Hah. What's to miss? Lutefisk and Aquavit? Ice and snow?" I laughed. "When my father was recalled to duty at the Pentagon, I finished high school in Virginia and then went to Stanford for college and stayed for law school. California is just fine with me."
"Tell me that you at least miss the Norwegian blondes?" he asked.
"California has plenty of blondes," I responded. "You know what the Beach Boys had to say about that." In case he didn't immediately get the reference, I whistled a few bars from California Girls.
"How about you?" I asked. "How did you get out of Arkhangelsk?"
"Well, by the time I was finishing high school, the Soviet Union was falling apart, literally. I had an uncle who was, how do you say in English, an oligarch. Not a gangster, just a very successful businessman, although I must say, I had some doubts about some of his associates. Apparently he did too, because he used some of his money to get me, and the rest of my family, to Paris. I tried college, but I wasn't very good at it—too busy chasing French girls and drinking French wine, I think. Eventually, my father and my uncle explained that I better find a useful skill. My uncle can be very persuasive, you understand, so for no particularly good reason, I chose to go to the cooking school at Cordon Bleu."
"So you learned to cook?"
"Yes, I learned to cook, and it's something I still enjoy doing at home. More importantly, I learned to run a restaurant. Now I own five of them, including one in New York, where we live most of the time, and one here in Boulder. I haven't cooked in a restaurant kitchen in five years."
"And Lisa, did she come from Russia too?"
"God no," he laughed. "She was born and raised in Connecticut. I think her family arrived in America with the pilgrims. She is as close as America comes to a blue blood, without being named Kennedy. I met her when I opened my first restaurant in New York. Now we've sold the restaurants in Paris and London, and we just own the ones I started in the States."
Just then the road veered a bit to the north, and we caught a blast of wind that wanted to push us off the side of the road. God, it was a damnable night out.
We finally rolled into Boulder about 3:00 a.m. Their condo was on the third and fourth floors of a building in the heart of Boulder, near its commercial center. It took awhile to haul their mountain of luggage up to the third floor and, by the time I got to our room, Gina was in bed and sound asleep. I shucked off my clothes and joined her. She felt so warm as I spooned against her naked back, and then I quickly drifted off to sleep. The next thing I knew, it was late morning, and Gina was gone. She always rose before me unless our wake-up was being dictated by the tyranny of an airplane departure schedule.
It was warm beneath the down comforter, and I wasn't in any particular hurry to rise, especially since a glance out the window to my left told me that it was still snowing hard outside. "Yep, it is going to be a White Christmas," I thought. But after a few minutes, I decided that sleep was done for the night, so I stretched my lanky frame and then tossed off the blanket. There was a bath to my left, that, it turned out, had a luxurious shower that quickly killed the chill that came from crawling naked from beneath the down comforter.
I shaved and dressed in a pair of jeans and old Stanford T-shirt I had in my carry-on. Then I walked barefoot down the stairs and into the main part of the condo.
It was what designers call a great room I guess—kind of like a Soho loft, but with floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides. One side looked to the northeast towards the plains. It was more or less a wall of white, unless you looked down at the town three stories below us. Even much of that shifted in and out of focus as the snow swirled by. The view to the southwest was of a piece of the Front Range known to the locals as the Flatirons—a series of steep parallel rock faces that jutted up from the earth at an angle about fifteen to twenty degrees off vertical. The swirling snow made them look a little like an impressionist painting.
In front of the window facing the Flatirons there was a long, rough, farmhouse style table that could probably seat at least twelve. The room included a large fireplace in which a wood fire burned merrily. The floor was wood planking of some exotic species (teak, I wondered?) covered with thick throw rugs here and there, including a large one immediately before the fireplace. There were a couple of couches and several armchairs strategically scattered about the room. There wasn't a lot of room for artwork, but on each side of the fireplace there was a nice tapestry. They were abstracts in muted colors and soft yarns that did not distract from the rest of the room and the view.
What really grabbed my attention was on the back side of the room. There I found an extremely well-appointed kitchen, with pots and pans hanging from an overhead rack, a variety of knives glued to a magnetic rack and an oversized refrigerator. The pots and pans were clean but showed stains from regular use. There was an island with a large food prep area, including a butcher block and a professional grade gas range and oven with a hood above it. Four stools were lined up on my side of the island. The sinks, dishwasher, and more counter space were against the wall behind the counter, along with a Cuisinart and a couple of other appliances. Misha's kitchen away from home, I assumed.
"Ah, you're finally up," I heard Misha say as he stepped out from behind the open door of the refrigerator. "The girls have gone shopping, but I am charged with fixing you breakfast. Gina said you get cranky if you don't eat. As it happens, there are few things I enjoy as much in life as fixing breakfast for myself or others."
"I believe that Gina said something about a shopping trip last night," I said as I padded across the floor and pulled up a stool to sit on. Notwithstanding the shower, I was still sleepy. I am one of those people who really don't function well without their first cup of coffee in the morning.
"Coffee?" he asked, handing me a steaming mug, presuming my answer.
"Yes, thanks," I said warming my hands on the mug.
"Are you warm enough?" he asked as I took a sip from the mug.
"Oh, fine," I said. "Hmmmm. That's good coffee."
"Good, we try to keep the heat up when we are here. Lisa likes to wander around naked or near naked a lot."
"Interesting," I thought, as I continued to sip the coffee in silence. "Something she has in common with Gina. No wonder those two hit it off so well last night." It really was good coffee.
"Now, breakfast. What'll it be? You're a Californian. Is it granola and fruit? But you were raised a Scan, so is it meat and eggs? Unfortunately we don't have any herring."
I laughed. "You certainly do have your stereotypes down. Eggs sound good."
"Okay. Got it," he said as he reached for a big chef's knife from the magnetic strip on the back wall. Here's what I can do. I've got a bit of pork sausage from a local farm—at least I don't think the girls ate it all this morning, and I can put together an omelet with a bit of Gruyere and some minced shallots. Simple, but tasty."
"Great," I said as I finished another sip of the coffee.
I stood and wandered about the room as Misha puttered in the kitchen. It really was a beautiful room. Some serious money had been spent on it. I could hear Misha's knife banging at the butcher block as he minced a shallot. Then I heard the pop of a burner igniting on the gas stove. I looked back and saw him ladle a tablespoon or two of oil into an omelet pan to warm on the burner. As I turned to study one of the tapestries, I heard eggs crack, followed promptly by the sound of a whisk banging against a metal bowl.
"No luck on the sausage," I heard him say. "The girls really did eat it all up, so I put an extra egg in your omelet."
"Fine. This coffee is really good," I said.
"Oh, thanks. We buy it from a local roaster for our restaurant here. Whenever, we are coming out, our head chef makes sure my kitchen is freshly stocked with the basics, plus anything special I have requested. I always eat a meal or two at the restaurant, of course, but I do like to use this kitchen while I'm here. By the way, you and I are charged with cooking dinner tonight."
"Really," I said. "How nice that the girls have our day planned out for us before I even got out of bed," I laughed. "I am not sure I am in your league as a cook. They don't teach anything more sophisticated at Stanford than how to open a Top Ramen package."
"Can you run a cork screw?"
"Yes," I smiled. "The two most valuable things I learned at Stanford were enough law to pass a bar exam and how to run a cork screw. At Harvard, I don't think you get the part about the cork screw, but Stanford is in California, and that's wine country."
"Good," he said as he slid a plate with a steaming omelet on it in front of me. "We're going to need that skill tonight. I'll take you downstairs and show you the wine cellar after you finish eating." He poured himself a cup of coffee, refreshed mine, and pulled up a stool next to me as I ate.
"So how come the two of you aren't in Connecticut with Lisa's family?" I asked.
"Well, her Dad passed away a few years back, and her Mum remarried and let's just say we don't get along with that branch of the family since her stepdad arrived on the scene. He doesn't approve of her acting career, and he doesn't approve of Lisa's decision to marry a 'Russian cook,' as he calls me."
"That's too bad," I said. "He sounds a little narrow minded."
He laughed. "That's an understatement, but we make it work. Lisa sees her mother regularly. She comes down to the City, and they have lunch in our restaurant and see a play or go shopping."
"I understand from Gina that you gather all your European relatives in the Caribbean for a February Christmas each year?" Misha asked, changing the subject.
"Yep. We'll be at St. Kits in February," I laughed. "It's utter chaos. The Italians all talk like mad, right over the top of each other and anyone else who tries to get a word in, while the Swedes just stand there and watch in silence, awed by the noise. Then we all go to the beach, and the Swedes get naked and the Italians go 'tsk, tsk' or however you say that in Italian. It's hilarious. I used to think my Swedish relatives would be upset by all of it, but when I occasionally see them alone, they just laugh about it. I think it is the most entertaining thing that happens to them all year."
"Well, they come from a culture that produced Ibsen and Munch. No wonder they are entertained by Italians."
I laughed. "Those guys were Norwegians, I'll note for the record, as we say in court."
"Thin distinction to the rest of the world."
I laughed again.
"What about the Italians?" he asked.
"Well, I don't think they even notice the Swedes are there until we get to the beach and they take off their clothes. They pretend, among themselves, to be scandalized by that, but Gina reminds me that there is nothing Italians love more than a scandal, and I have noticed that they all keep showing up every year, so . . . it works."
"What about your family?" I asked.
"Well, they all live in Paris now, except for my oligarch uncle, who is still in Moscow doing God knows what. Lisa and I decided that we would visit them once a year in May. Paris is so much nicer in the spring. It works. Hell, even Uncle Oligarch flies out from Moscow for that gathering. No nudity though. Russians are damn near as puritanical about that as the Yanks."
Misha refilled our coffees from the bottom of the pot, and we went downstairs to see the wine cellar. It was a room in the basement of the condo project that was maybe twelve by twelve with a climate control that appeared to be set at about fifty-five degrees. Brrrrrr. There were floor to ceiling racks on all of the walls, filled with bottles, and wooden boxes stacked everywhere containing more wine. I looked at a few bottles and was more than a little impressed. Some of the best names from California were represented as were the Grand Cru wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux. Not just recent vintages either. Some of these bottles were ten and fifteen year old vintages.
'Very impressive," I said.
"Hell, we'll never drink all of this in two lifetimes, but I rotate this stock out into our Boulder restaurant. When we're here, we have a nice stock to choose from."
He handed me his coffee mug and began to put bottles into an empty box.
"We won't drink this much, but Lisa will want to have some input. She hates to come down here because it's too cold. I think that may have something to do with how close to naked she frequently is," he said with a laugh.
"This may be an interesting dinner," I thought to myself.
Misha looked at his watch as he finished filling the case. "Two o'clock. Let's get back upstairs and start cooking," he said.
He hustled up the stairs with a case of wine under his arm. I followed with the empty coffee cups. When we got back upstairs he set the case of wine down in an out of the way spot and rubbed his hands together as if to say, "Ahhhh, now I get to cook." I smiled to myself. It was always nice to watch someone who was enjoying his work—as long as it wasn't another trial lawyer picking my witness apart on cross examination.
So what's on the menu?" I asked.
"Right. Here is what we are going to do," he said, as he turned to the fridge. First the protein—a beef tenderloin. Local and grass fed, of course, but it will be good, I promise. There is grass fed and there is grass fed. You need to know who your supplier is and what he is doing. The tenderloin will be easy, we just grill it on the big Weber on the deck out there," he said, referring to a grill on the deck out side the window facing east, ignoring four inches of snow that had accumulated on top of the grill and the deck.
Of course, we are going to need a really good reduction sauce to go with that, but I am going to fudge a bit on that, since I don't have two days to make it starting with the bones and meat scraps. My guys from the restaurant have given me a sauce that is about half way there. You know you can buy this completely pre-made, but that is just not the right way to run a restaurant—a pathway to McDonalds," he said as he trailed off into mumbling.
I couldn't resist. I said, "They make a lot of money at McDonalds." It was hard to do with a straight face.
He grabbed a ten-inch chef's knife off the wall and waived it at me in a threatening fashion. "McDonald's is a feed lot, not a restaurant!"
"Okay, just joking," I said, holding up both hands. "What else is for dinner?"
Honor restored, he returned to the menu. "Well for a starch, I think, potatoes Gruyere. It is basically a gratin recipe made with a lot of really tasty Gruyere cheese, and of course heavy cream. We serve it at our New York restaurant. If the mayor ever tasted it, he would call it 'potatoes cardiac' and start a campaign against us. Fortunately he is focused on the 'Big Gulp,' instead of us."
I laughed and said, "And . . .?"
"Well, fresh string beans, of course." Not exactly a locavore dish, since they are flown in from Chile. Locavore string beans in Colorado in December is a joke among chefs, but we all serve these Chilean beans. These are really nice, too, he said as he tossed a string bean at me. See, small. Snap it." Which I did. "See really fresh." Which it was.
"And . . .?"
Oh yes, for an hors d'oeuvre, we have the best triple creme cheese I can get from all of France. I don't even serve this in my restaurants. Too hard to get." He paused for a minute and looked around the room as if someone might be listening. Then he looked at me with a smirk and said, "I'll tell you, the really best way to eat it, is to smear it on Lisa's tits and then lick it off."
I totally lost it. This guy was manic. When I finally stopped laughing, I said, "Okay, I believe you, but I think I should try it on Gina's tits, if that is okay with you."
"Oh, yeah, sure, sure," he said.
"And for dessert . . ." he said followed, by a long theatrical pause.
I raised my eyebrows and looked at him expectantly.
"Nothing!" he said. "If we have done a good job with the rest of the meal, we eat the girls."
I laughed until my sides hurt. Finally, I said with tears running from my eyes, "Oh, I like your style, Misha. I like your style."
"What?" he asked. "Sex and cooking! Can you think of a better combination?"
Still laughing, I said "No. Now what can I do to help . . . besides run a cork screw?"
"What?" he said. "I told you, the screwing comes after dinner." I was in hysterics. I could tell this was going to be a memorable Christmas.