I have this pair of Kenneth Cole loafers I love. They’re a classic black polished leather with hard heels the kind you’d imagine were pounded into place by some Italian cobbler who’s been doing it for decades—let’s just say I wear them all the time. And if you can believe it, I’ve had them for over fifteen years. With the occasional buff they look as good as new. I bought them at the mall when I was sixteen, because I wasn’t about to go to my high school prom wearing Simple sneakers no matter what my frugal father suggested. Left to his own devices I would have gone to that dance in sweats and a pair of his old college wrestling shoes. Thanks but no thanks dad. I may not have been out of the closet yet, justifying the need for high fashion wing-tips as a “genetic disposition,” but Greco-Roman lace-ups would have been a quick death to what little teenage street-cred I had. If I had to go to prom in my awkward teenage body—best described as a cross between an emperor penguin and that crazy midget psychic from the Poltergeist movies—I wasn’t about to add to the spectacle with anything less than a fierce pair of loafers.
I remember the purchase as if it were yesterday. The Kenneth Cole shop was a few doors down from the Nordstroms at Fashion Valley mall. The floor to ceiling glass windows had a few scantily clad mannequins inside with bulging crotches I couldn’t help but notice. The glossy white acrylic walls were covered in the sleekest shoes, weekend duffels, and accessories; all of which I couldn’t afford. The $500 motorcycle jackets near the entrance were padlocked to their rack, making them that much more enticing, elusive and all the more desirable. With absolutely no intention of buying one, I asked to try one on, just to put the guy behind the counter to work and feel like I was a shopper who belonged.
The shoes were all amazing. The kind an Herb Ritts model would wear home from a photo shoot and then out for a night out to the most trendy Manhattan spots. And there I was, a young chubby closeted gay who couldn’t wait to free myself from the shackles of a conservative San Diego. Couldn’t be further from that metropolitan heartthrob I so desperately wanted to be. I tried on a pair of the Darryl Shoeberry’s (yes I remember the name of the shoe style) and they were perfect. They were one of the few styles without laces or some flashy metal buckle—perfectly understated and timeless. Those shoes were gonna be my first step (literally) towards becoming the sophisticated man I so hoped to become. A ticket from my world of convention and practicality…aka “dad’s house, post divorce.”
“I’ll take’em!” I said, without even looking at the sole for a price, because that’s what a rich person would do. “They’re perfect!”
They were $189, which was the 50% off final sale price, and about $150 more than I was allowed to spend, but I just had to have them. While they rang them up at the register I was just excited about the shopping bag, a beacon to the world that I was somebody, because I had expensive material things. I thought about what excuse I could give my father. ‘These were the only shoes that fit me,’ I’d say, ‘yes in the entire mall!’ or ‘everything else was double the price’ or I could play up the age difference with ‘I don’t know when you last bought a pair of shoes dad, but…. This is what they cost these days.‘
Knowing my father, he was just gonna put down his foot and tell me to take them back the next day. Which normally would have been fine since I was always looking for an excuse to go to the mall, but in this case I would have been no closer to having my prom outfit.
“I just want to point out that these are on final sale,” the clerk said, “store credit is available but absolutely no refunds.”
I waved the pimply college kid off as if I had so much money I’d rather throw them away than go through the hassle of “a return” and I signed the credit card slip. Then they stamped the itemized receipt with a startling red FINAL SALE in all caps and my fate was sealed. No matter how much dad was going to dissent and disapprove,–this papa had a brand new bag….of shoes.
Later that day my father and I had it out as expected. “Who the hell do you think you are?” he yelled, “who spends that kind of money on a pair of shoes?” He paced back and forth and rubbed his bald head like he did when he was frustrated and frothing at the mouth. “I don’t even buy shoes that cost this much!”
As predicted he said I had to take them back and then I showed him the receipt.
“I wish I could, but look.”
He read the FINAL SALE stamp and held his hand out for his credit card. “Well you’re gonna pay for those,” he said. Those were words I didn’t really understand, especially since I didn’t have money for anything but comic books and magic tricks from the Seaport Village magic shop I used to go to with Barry Friedman and his dad. “Your allowance for the next year should cover it and you can work at my office over the summer…NOW GO TO YOUR ROOM!”
He garnered my allowance for six months, I had to wash his car more than four times, and spent three weeks of the summer filing patient folders at his optometry practice to earn enough money to finally pay off the shoes. And to be honest, it was almost all worth it just for the large white Kenneth Cole shopping bag that I neatly folded and kept in the closet to remind myself of the high fashion wardrobe I was starting to amass.
A few shoe polishes and more than a decade later; when I’m around my father I lift the cuff of my pants and show off my Kenneth Coles. “Remember how you thought those shoes were a big waste of money?” I say, “admit it dad, sometimes when you spend a little extra, you really do get a better value…”
Thank God my feet haven’t grown since high school!
Alexander’s Steakhouse San Francisco
Now I’m not saying you have to spend a ton of money to get a good meal. In fact I pride myself on finding bargain bites whenever I can, and if you ever have to pay more than a few bucks for a taco, then that’s a few bucks too much. But after being fortunate enough to have dined at some of the best restaurants in the world (Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, Joel Robuchon, Guy Savoy, etc.), like some material goods, there is (or can be) a correlation between the price of a meal and the overall experience. [Please hold while I adjust my snob-crown…these get so heavy sometimes]
Case in point—Alexander’s Steakhouse in San Francisco. The experience is top notch. The restaurant’s modern industrial décor is pleasing and the wall of wine is impressive; the kind of place you wouldn’t mind getting trapped inside with a bottle opener. We sat down at our booth in back and were greeted by one of several team members serving us that evening. They started us off with a carrot gelee palette cleanser, a special touch that always makes me feel extra special.
Then Robert Buckley (our waiter) stopped by and changed our world. He went into the specials of the night, highlighting the premium meats Alexander’s Steakhouse is known for. Being the inquisitive bunch that we are, we peppered him with questions about Wagyu beef; where it comes from, what qualifies it as Wagyu, do they really feed the cows beer and massage their testicles while they graze the frozen tundra? A beef expert if I’ve ever seen one (the man has his own business cards!), Robert explained the many nuances of the Wagyu beef industry. We learned that Wagyu beef comes from specific species of Japanese cow—usually Japanese black. That specie’s is predisposed to good marbling and an even distribution of fat to muscle, which is what produces that silky soft melt-in-your-mouth texture when you bite into a piece of premium beef. It’s the actual marbling pattern, meat color and brightness, firmness and texture, and color, luster and quality of fat that determines the “yield” and “quality” score of the meat. The A in A5 is the “yield score”. A is above standard: B is standard and C is below standard. The grade or “BMS number” is a number score that corresponds to the lowest score of the various quality score metrics. On a scale of 1-10 meat’s color is given a value (10 being the best), and the firmness and texture, brightness, etc. are all given scores too. A score of five (5) means the meat scored at least a 5 or higher across all quality score values. We learned there’s only one certified Wagyu beef rancher in North America. The rest of Wagyu beef pretty much comes from Japan where the industry is highly regulated. The biggest surprise was how often the term “Wagyu beef” is misused, and when you see it on a restaurant menu it’s probably not real Wagyu.
The best way to tell is to ask the establishment to show you the cow’s snout print. It’s like a fingerprint but for the snout of the cow. When certified Wagyu cows are born they get their snout printed on a birth certificate. And believe me, if a restaurant is paying thousands of dollars for the Wagyu beef, there gonna have the birth certificate so they can justify the few hundred bucks they charge for a few ounces of the product. Here’s a copy of the birth certificate for the cow we ordered. It lists the carcass number, the weight of the cow when it was butchered, the grade (yeah A5), the date it was killed, the age at harvest, the region where it was raised, the feedlot cooperative, the sex, the owner, the breed, the name (yeah, that was a little much, but I guess someone named the poor thing), and the paternal and maternal names of the cow’s parents. All the details are listed in English and Japanese.
Thoroughly impressed with the exclusivity of the product, and an understanding of how meticulous and careful the ranchers are when trying to produce some of the best beef in the world….we jumped on the opportunity. And “yes” it was worth it.
Here’s what we ate.
Edamame with warm truffle butter and Hawaiian black sea salt.
Some jamon serrano which was our first taste of premium pork. It was smoky, buttery, and scrumptious.
Charred octopus with pumpkin seed romesco, chilled kale, mezcal vinaigrette and cilantro
The broken beet salad with dungeness crab, fizzy camperi, and caramelized almond-miso butter.
The flavors of autumn salad quince, candied apple, burrata, pomegranate, toasted grains and chicories.
The butternut squash soup, which was probably the best I’ve ever had. It was actually more broth than pulp—thin—and yet there was tons of umami nutty buttery squash goodness with a dollop of crème fraîche on top.
The butterfish was beautiful as it was first served dry, and then dressed with a red cabbage nage (broth) tableside. The brussels sprouts in black truffle with honey mustard and pieces of oxtail were amazing.
Before we transitioned to the main event “the beef course” we were given another palette cleanser—a gelee of cassis.
We got a side of the brussels sprouts with yama gobo, barrel-aged nuoc mắm and garlic. (sorry didn’t take a pic)
French fries, because you’ve gotta when you’re at a steakhouse.
The wood baked yukon gold potatoes were amazing, served with roasted garlic crème fraîche, olive oil, green onion and bits of pancetta
And this is where spending a little extra money made all the difference. My brother couldn’t pass up some of the best beef on earth, and the moment our waiter said, “we have a special tonight,” he was hooked. The special was called the 5A5, which was described as 5 pieces of A5 grade Japanese Wagyu beef. Robert briefly described the terroir of each piece as the placed the plate down in front of us.
Miyazaki Japan A5: warm mild climate, ideal conditions for raising cattle. Then there was the Gunma Japan A5: one of the few land locked prefectures where early ranching began. The Saga Japan A5: a mild climate with clean air and excellent water. The Kagoshima Japan A5: a well balanced marbled texture beef and the Omi Japan A5….and I can’t remember the description. All were pieces from of cap roast and all were melt-in-your-mouth delicious.
The beef was served with a platter of 12 different flavored salts, some volcanic and black from Hawaii, and others pink from Himalaya and 18 more somewhere in between…see the list below. Each bite of meat was a new party in our mouths as we tried the different salts; each plucking a different heartstring from the dead cow’s offering.
The twenty different salts were:
- Hawaiian Red-USA
- Jurrassic Salt-USA
- Soy Salt-Japan
- Kala Namak Sulpher Salt-India
- Pangasinan White-Philippines
- Black Lava Salt-USA
- Peruvian Pink-Peru
- Smoked Brittany Sea Salt-France
- Black Cypress Sea Salt-Greece
- Murray River-Australia
- Grey Seaweed Salt-France
- Himalayan Pink-Pakistan
Unlike my Kenneth Coles, the 5A5 special was not a clearance item. At $500 I’d expect most vegetarians to cringe, but since I wasn’t paying for dinner…well let’s just say it was the best wagyu beef someone else’s money could buy.
For dessert we ordered the persimmon bread pudding with gooseberries and pomegranate.
And Alexander’s take on pineapple upside down cake.
And of course the complimentary cotton candy they’re known for.
And for fun….and probably because we spent $500 on a plate of beef, we got a few cinnamon flavored macarons, homemade marshmallows, and some peanut butter bars with chocolate ganache.