Brave new world

Styxx’s management sets an oddly pleasant menu
By BRIAN DUFF  |  October 28, 2009

THROUGH A LIGHT FOG Styxx, and its food, are often seen this way.

How many marriages are born or nursed in our city’s bars? Probably very few in Styxx, one of Portland’s only gay bars, which recently reopened under new management with a new menu. That could change soon. Last spring the Maine Legislature decided, at long last, to make marriage laws fair to gay people. But next week we voters, awash in a dismal amalgam of old-school homophobia and petty direct democracy, might yank it away. It is depressing to consider. If the repeal happens we will swallow it better with a cheap, stiff drink like the ones they serve at Styxx, and if it doesn’t there will be no better place to celebrate.

But if we do the right thing — if we are merely fair — let’s not congratulate ourselves too much. In expanding the possibility of marriage to relationships that start in gay-friendly bars like Styxx, let us not lose sight of the liberating possibilities of marriage’s absence. Lee Edelman suggests we embrace the idea that “queerness names the side outside the consensus which confirms the absolute value of reproductive futurism.” The “queer,” according to Edelman, should symbolize the experience of jouissance in which the present in enthralling enough to let the future fall away. Styxx is all about jouissance. If marriage is about striving toward posterity and forever, Styxx is a place to appreciate the present and the now.

The primacy of immediate satisfactions over lasting virtues is reflected in the new “tapas” menu at Styxx. The great charm of this menu is that it is prepared, according to our server, exclusively in a toaster oven. Some other establishment might have taken up this constraint as a challenge to spur creative genius. I have heard that dorm-room epicures at the nation’s fanciest colleges make world-class cuisine with toaster ovens and perhaps a hot plate. Those clever youngsters’ culinary skills will surely help make them attractive spouses one day. They might become one half of the sort of marriage, recently excoriated by Sandra Tsing Loh, in which the partners are more passionate about their meals than their sex life.

There is little chance of that at Styxx. The toaster-oven limitation is not overcome but rather accepted as benign. The result is a menu reminiscent of juvenile after-school-with-no-parents-home culinary satisfactions in the modes of crispy, mushy, gooey, greasy, and sweet. The presentations on long rectangular plates, often with a modish drizzle of sauce, are sort of elegant.

The best choice is the fried green beans. Their dark breading had a realistic semblance of fried greasy-crunch that soaked up the sweet wasabi-ranch dipping sauce. The squishy bean within offered more of an ambiguous vegetal sensation than actual green-bean flavor. Spring rolls were a crispy and attractive golden brown. Inside was a mushy and undifferentiated blend of chicken and vegetables. Crab cakes were pale and puckish and too dense, with breading that was too light.

Turning their toaster-oven weakness into a strength, the menu points out that the mozzarella cheese sticks are “baked” for the health-conscious. These squared logs are precisely like the ones you enjoyed as a kid. All juvenile satisfactions are not equal, however, and the quesadilla should be avoided. It was like two stale tortillas smeared with yellowish grease.

What is best about these snacks is that they remind you that what mattered when you last ate like this was not “cuisine,” but rather friends, flirting, experimentation, and the moment. That is what matters at Styxx. The dark-industrial look reminds you that you are not there for the décor. The drinks are affordable and civilized, which reminds you that you are there to have a few and hit the dance floor and lose yourself in the moment and the crowd. If we do democratize marriage next week, let’s also remember the appeal of its opposite — the jouissance that cares nothing for commitments and building a future. Promises have their place, but they also bind and constrain and they are all too often a dismal lie. In calling its toaster-oven cuisine “tapas” Styxx might mislead us a bit, but in this case the lie is liberating.

Brian Duff can be reached at

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