“That’s because I’m from Norwalk.”

Last week, I redeemed a gift card to receive my first-ever professional massage and facial.

When I told the guys at work, they giggled like a gaggle of girls. They mocked me, “Oh yeah, Gina?”, with a smirk, “How was your facial?” I just looked at them blankly, silently protesting the sexual definitions our culture creates to taint once-innocent words…

…I digress.

My aunt had given me a giftcard for my birthday back on January 8th; but because all my days consist of work, school, or school and work, I hadn’t had the chance to use it until just last week…the 24th of April. Thankfully, the gift cards don’t expire.

It was well worth the wait. I had a glorious day. It started with two hours of pure, unadulterated relaxation. At one point, the facial lady, after asking if I was cold, said that she would physically lift my limp arms and gently place them under the blanket so I wouldn’t have to.

After it was all over and I had given the spa back their robe, changed into my own clothes and exited the Massage Envy in a haze, I took a short stroll in the 60 and sunny weather to the other end of the shopping center plaza for lunch. Amongst four generations of blonde westportees chatting about nothing, I sat alone and ate my grilled cheese sandwich with bacon and truffle oil – the one who’s picture has reached 34 likes on Instagram. I then casually sipped an iced cappuccino and not so casually delved into a fudgy magic (seven layer) bar. The ladies pretended not to see me.

It was a glorious day. But what I’ll remember most about that day was the conversation I had with a fellow dark-haired woman sitting across from me in the waiting room of the Westport Massage Envy.

Now, as a newbie, I wasn’t quite aware of proper waiting room etiquette. When she walked in, I had been sitting in the chair against the far wall and directly next to the water bottle fridge, head down and eyes glued to my phone reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I was pretty engrossed, not showing any signs of movement or friendliness, except for the occasional outburst of laughter cracking through the silence.

Then, a girl from the front desk – who I recognized as one of my many Facebook friends and high school acquaintances – came by to get a water bottle from the fridge. We exchanged awkward, but genuine “hey!”s, to which I cordially continued with, “I am so looking forward to this massage.” She laughed and told me I’d enjoy it, then went back through the double doors in the hallway to the front desk.

The dark-haired middle-aged woman in a robe and slippers sitting across from me took my strange social interaction with the girl as an invitation for conversation. I can tell she’s an extrovert and wants to talk – and I’ve learned that if you come across a fellow human who needs someone to talk to, you must be that someone.

“I’m so glad you’re excited for your massage! You know, you hope that everyone who comes here is in a good mood, because it is so relaxing. But I heard you laughing on your phone so I didn’t want to bother you!”

I laughed. “Yes, I’m sorry for being anti social – I’m reading this book and it’s just so good, I can’t put it down!”

She looked surprised.
“What book?” She asked.

“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, I answered. “I just watched the movie last night and forgot how funny it was!” She smiles and nods her approval. I continued to blab of my love for Hunter S. Thompson and how badly this millennial generation needs their own social media + black out culture + whatever-kids-are-doing-these-days infused Gonzo journalism to capture these crazy times in which the Internet rules our lives.

Her face was beaming. “I can’t tell you how nice it is to meet a young woman with substance in Westport!”

I smiled and said, “That’s because I’m from Norwalk.”

She laughed and told me she was originally from Brooklyn, a fact made evident now that I’d heard her speak. I told her that I’m originally from Astoria; we became fast friends. Her name is Laura.

Laura and I have a lot in common. We’re old world. We’re fellow Italian – American New Yorkers, too busy not worrying about the amount of calories in a grilled cheese to let our superficial surroundings affect us.

A short man appeared and quietly asked to no one in particular, “Laura?”

“That’s me!” She exclaimed. She stood up, swung her pocketbook over her right shoulder and before letting him escort her to her massage, she turned towards me, “Keep laughing, Gina!” she said. “it’s infectious!”

Big Plans for Westport’s Reopened Luxe Wine Bar

Have you been to Luxe Wine Bar in Westport recently? Yes, the doors shut for a spell, devastating the late night crowd of oenophiles and restaurant industry employees – for in its short run, Luxe quickly became the default post-dinner service destination. As a local restaurant manager, I identify with this crowd, and I can vividly remember the moment I first read of the bar’s closing on its Facebook page. Immediately, I felt a sad sense of nostalgia, reminiscing on the many after work trapezoidal-shaped glasses of Vouvray I had swirled and sipped served alongside a cutting board of various local salami, prosciutto, jamon, and cheese – particularly, the triple cream…that sweet, sensuous triple cream. One night, after finishing our assortment of charcuterie, a friend and I very naturally ordered it exactly the same once more, simply realizing it had ended too soon.

But, alas – good news! Luxe has reopened under new ownership after undergoing a stylized facelift. Lipstick red cushions now cover both the barstools and the silver chairs from the original location, perched invitingly alongside candlelit silver tables and beside windows draped with romantic curtains of the same bold red.

“What are you in the mood for?” the bartender Chris asks with a head tilt of sincerity as I mount a barstool and he pours me a glass of water. My answer, upon breathing in the bar’s evocative dim lighting and sultry songs of The Black Keys, was red wine and chocolate. With Chris’ help, I ordered an assortment of five Knipschilt’s chocolates and a wine to pair.

The chocolates, all which were featured in Chocopologie Chef Knipschilt’s chocolate-inspired Valentine’s Day dinner, each boast rich personalities and saucy women’s names to match. They vary from Cecilia, the caramel and lavender-infused white chocolate, to Ana Carlota, the green peppercorn white chocolate ganache topped with Cyprus black lava salt; all perfectly complemented by the wine – a fruity, dry Cotes du Roussillon with a soft finish and pleasant mouth feel.

As I indulge in one chocolate to the next, starting at the bottom of the dish and, abiding by Chris’s suggestion, continuing clockwise as to end with the spiciest variation, I begin chatting with David Morton, the new owner. He had recently declared an interest in purchasing a business; and upon his first visit to Luxe, immediately recognized its potential. Having obtained a unique professional background ranging from marketing to aerodynamic product purchasing, Morton brings a refreshing perspective to the bar and restaurant culture of Fairfield County.

“Owners sort of fall in love with themselves,” he said. “I’m most concerned with customer satisfaction and people falling in love with the place. People aren’t coming to Luxe to see me; they’re coming to enjoy a cocktail and conversation.”

Conversation is one of Morton’s pillars in his philosophy of developing Luxe’s identity. In regards to the decision to provide strictly finger foods on the ever-evolving menu, “A fork and knife is too intrusive – it inhibits conversation.”

You’ll also never see a television mounted on the walls, as televisions tend to isolate the individual and remove him or her from the collective conversation that tends to occur organically among customers in such an intimate setting, Morton explains.

However, you will see many dramatic changes to the setting in the coming months; Morton has big plans for the evolving atmosphere of Luxe – including a name change. He recently got a motion approved to take advantage of their downtown location by building French doors that will open to an outdoor patio and a fire pit. He hopes that as the warm weather approaches, Luxe will attract a weekday afternoon crowd with the occasional live musical performance. “We’d like to be a place where shoppers can take a break and relax with us over a glass of wine,” he says.

He also stresses that these changes will occur gradually, as to encourage curiosity and mystery so that every visit will be new and exciting.

And, the employees admit, every visit to Luxe is exciting. The collective conversational culture among customers encouraged by the comfortable atmosphere has become what makes Luxe so special. Unlike many nightlife spots in Fairfield county that tend to attract a specific crowd, the Luxe clientele varies from young to old, student to professional, singles to couples. Chris shared a scene of simpatico from a few nights before when two separate couples and a homeless man – who had mistaken the bar for a liquor store – effortlessly formed a friendship, sharing stories and shots while sitting together at the bar.

On my Tuesday night visit, I happened to join this collective conversation, meeting a pair of ladies, one who openly professed her frustration of her life as a foodie married to a vegetarian who refuses to eat vegetables. “He eats pizza and French fries and has a cat,” she exclaimed. “Thanks for telling me that, eHarmony!”

Her frustration was met with good company of empathy, as foodies often frequent Luxe for its impeccable assortment of local meat and cheese, ranging from Coach Farms goat cheese to Bayley Hazen Blue, as well as a selection of fresh vegetables and hummus. And with the promise of an expanding kitchen and a newly hired chef, Renee Silva, the menu will soon grow to include Panini’s and other well-crafted finger foods.

But essentially, Luxe is a bar, not a restaurant. Moving forward, Morton hopes to attract a tasteful weekday crowd. As a newcomer to the restaurant industry, he comes with a set of morals and business ethics obtained from other professional fields that he believes will prevent Luxe from falling into the trap of pretentiousness and earning the dreadful reputation of an overrated bar.

“We aren’t charging $14 a glass to be pretentious. We only want to offer really great wine,” he says.

Although their wine list is great, it is their progressive cocktail menu that alienates and exalts Luxe above other area bars; the menu an ever-evolving experiment created by their renowned beverage director, Jeff Marron. Later that week, after a grueling 10-hour Saturday shift, I revisited Luxe and had the pleasure of meeting this cocktail connoisseur.

“Here’s a Hanky Panky – made with two years of love,” Jeff admits while painstakingly placing a martini glass filled with a caramel-colored liquid before me, as if confessing an admiration. The “Hanky Panky” is a seamless blend of equal parts gin and sweet vermouth with a dash of Frenet Branca; topped with a lemon peel. It drinks easily, as almost straight liquor, an effervescent smoky blend of sweetness, pine, and herbs.

Jeff, a pioneer in the art of drink, barrel ages his own concoctions over a period of several months until they marry and become one. His first experiment came as an accident, a few years back, when a Long Island Iced Tea mixture, sans cola and sour mix, fermented in an oak barrel for 13 months. The result?

“We couldn’t stop drinking it,” says Jeff. “We had parties around it. It had blended into one.”

He began experimenting with this newfound method, combining a wide variety of alcohols, all the while abstaining from adding organic liquids. Soon enough, his repertoire grew. Now, Jeff often holds press dinners, bringing barrels of Negroni’s or Manhattans for wide-eyed patrons, and thoroughly enjoys witnessing their reactions.

My reaction was no different. I was in awe of Jeff’s talent, his sheer ability to use his sense of scent to judge the consistency of drinks shaken by his assistant bartender, who would extend drinks still in their mixing glass towards him, in hopes of a blessing from this demigod of drink. Sometimes he’d shake his head, saying, “Stir it a bit more,” or “It just needs a touch more of this…” until the drink lived up to his impeccable standard.

While Marron works his magic, Morton stands by, offering assistance any way he can. They make a great team; each one complements the other. Together, they plan on infusing barrel-aged cocktails into the heart of Luxe; eagerly envisioning oak casks filled with aged liquors stacked alongside the bar. The new barrels will represent Luxe’s revitalized character and serve many purposes – drink storage, decoration, and most importantly, to spark conversation.

Letter Home (Childish Gambino Cover)

So, if you know me, you probably know that I’m a pretty big Donald Glover fan. Last Saturday, a friend and I went to his show at Hammerstein Ballroom and unlike the hundreds of brace-faced 18-year-olds on their iPhones recording the entire show, I chose to leave my phone in my purse (although I had promised my friends I’d take pictures…sorry…) and instead, JAM OUT – so. hard. Luckily for me, those kids seemed to have captured the essence of almost every song, and now I have the opportunity to relive my experience through their Instagram accounts. Sweet.

In any case, the concert was 4 days ago, and I’m still listening and singing his stuff religiously. Like, all day long. Subsequently, I had a realization yesterday…

I’m often frustrated by what I like to call female “hip pop” music – (i.e., Jhene Aiko, Rihanna) because as much as I want to sing it, the songs just don’t vibe well with my voice. I’ve been trained in musical theatre and jazz, hence I’ve got a little too much vibrato and depth to sing clear and simple melodies. I thought all hope of doing a cover of any female verse on a Childish song was lost…until…..it dawned on me….

“Letter Home” from Gambino’s album Camp. More than anything, this song is a musical number! You know – the dramatic last song that comes at the end of the first act or the beginning of the second; something like an “On my Own” from Les Miz. Something I can sing! Additionally, I think Letter Home, just like everything Donald Glover does, was purposefully written. It’s really powerful, and it provides an insight into the potential future of Donald Glover’s career – yes, I’m talking musicals. Why not!? He can write words, stories, music. It’ll be a new, fantastic brand of musical theatre. And golly, when it does happen, I’ll make it my life’s goal to be cast in them. Just wait.