A Mojito? Ya Betcha!
Isaw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, / starving hysterical naked," wrote Allen Ginsberg in the opening line of his 1956 poem Howl. The poem goes on for many, many lines after that, detailing how those minds were destroyed. In one stanza about midway through, Ginsberg cites those "who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison / Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter / of the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks / of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister/ intelligent editors...."
What they were doing on Madison Avenue in 1956, of course, was writing advertising copy for the largest American corporations of the time. Where the poet pointed the way, academicians such as David Reisman followed, writing treatises on the soul-deadening, corrupting, conformist world of the corporate wage slave.
For what could be termed the "American intelligentsia" of the 1960s, people who read poetry and knew who Charlie Parker was, the words "corporate" and "corporation" were dire epithets. Working for a corporation had considerably less status than working for a Mafia-owned pornographic magazine. Any corporation would do as a villain, though the larger ones such as IBM or AT&T had the more sinister reputations. Working for a corporation that was connected to the military was simply criminal. Four decades later, most of that onus has evaporated.
Perceptions have changed, and perhaps corporations have changed. Computer-related corporations are where the best minds of this generation are flocking and roosting these days, as secure in their political correctness and hipness as Joan Baez or a member of the Rolling Stones was in 1967.
For most of the 20th century, a renowned restaurant or hotel was the product of a single driven individual. Corporations produced steel or oil or automobiles. Cesar Ritz created hotels that are still synonymous with the high life. Sherman Billingsley created and personally ran the Stork Club for its entire history. Hollywood celebrities frequented Mike Romanoff's restaurant, Romanoff's, and Dave Chasen's chili parlor for millionaires, Chasen's.
On September 15, a Latin American-themed restaurant and lounge opened at 610 Main Street, across Texas Street from the Rice Lofts. Named Bossa, after the Brazilian pop music style made famous in the 1960s by Antonio Carlos Jobim, and serving a Latin fusion cuisine "designed" by 28-year-old chef Phil Butler, the place is intended to be a hipster hangout for the best minds of this Houston generation. Built out at a cost estimated by local restaurant professionals to be between $2 million and $2.5 million, the spot has curvy "'60s Bossa Nova Jet Set" decor, a giant back-of-the-bar mural by Cuban-American artist Rolando Diaz, and an elaborate sound system playing a Latin mix put together for the restaurant. (The only place where the decor misses is in the men's room, where a large poster-portrait of Che Guevara has been hung. Displaying a portrait of Che in a Cuban-American restaurant is very much like hanging a photograph of Lester Maddox in a soul food emporium.)
The food at the opening was, for the most part, excellent and novel. The menu lists such previously arcane-in-Houston items as plantain chips, fried yucca and an original presentation of a whole red snapper. The bar produces hitherto-unknown-in-Houston drinks such as the mojito, a juleplike mix of sugarcane juice, Bacardi rum, fresh mint leaves and a squeeze of lime over ice. Overall, pretty gosh-darned hip, tasty and au courant.
The zinger is, Bossa is the brainchild of a group of executives working for a company-within-a-company named E-Brands, for "emerging brands." That, in turn, is part of a recently NYSE-listed company, Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, which according to company information operates 604 restaurants in 49 countries. (With Bossa, it's now at least 605.) About 500 of those restaurants are T.G.I. Friday's. Carlson Restaurants was started by Carlson Companies Inc., a privately held corporation headquartered in Minnesota that reported gross systemwide sales in 1999 of $31.4 billion. Other enterprises belonging to Carlson include Regent International Hotels, Radisson Hotels Worldwide, Country Inns and Suites By Carlson, Carlson Wagonlit Travel and Carlson Marketing Group.
This behemoth was founded in 1938 by the son of a Minnesota grocer, Curtis Carlson, as the Gold Bond Stamp Company. That's the company that helped create one of the defining rituals of middle-class unhipness in the 1950s: sitting around the dining-room table and gluing your Gold Stamps into booklets, wondering when you would have enough to get that nifty toaster or meat grinder. Gold Stamps have gone the way of the tail fin. Carlson himself passed away last year, and his daughter Marilyn Carlson Nelson is now the chairwoman of the board and CEO, making her one of the wealthiest businesswomen in the United States. (In June Working Woman magazine ranked her business third in a list of "Top 500 Women-Owned Businesses." Oprah Winfrey was ranked 86th.)
A Minneapolis woman in her sixties has opened a trendy restaurant in Houston serving Cuban food? Her executive on the scene sports the sort of beard and moustache that in 1956 could only have been worn by an unemployable beatnik poet? Nobody collects Gold Stamps anymore? We're not living in an Orwellian nightmare, a techo-fascist state? Gosh, none of the best minds of 1956 predicted this would happen.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.