Tuesday, 23 June 2020

More than a meal

When we lost restaurants this spring — when their doors closed and many of their workers were sent home — we didn’t just lose places to be fed. We lost a theater of experience. Here, several renowned writers recount some of their most memorable meals out.



Our New Friends

by Ruth Reichl


“Do we have to?”


My 8-year-old son, Nick, was tired of traveling. By the time we got to Paris — our last stop — all he wanted to do was go home. He missed his friends, he missed his room and he missed familiar food.


He frowned as he watched me dance around our hotel room, thrilled that I had managed to snag an impossible last-minute reservation at L’Ami Louis — a restaurant I’d been vainly trying to get into for years. Michael, my husband, was only moderately more enthusiastic. “Another overpriced French meal,” he grumbled, making it clear that this was his idea of hell.


In the end, they grudgingly agreed to come along.

L’Ami Louis is a famous paean to the past. Since 1924, the restaurant has steadfastly resisted change; even the waiters looked as if they’d been there since the beginning. Nick edged in, sniffed the oak-scented air and watched a golden heap of French fries make its way across the dining room.


“It might be OK,” he admitted, looking around the small, crowded room with coats piled on racks above the tables. The waiter studied him for a moment and disappeared. He returned bearing a huge plate of those airy fried potatoes and a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. “You look ’ungry,” he said as he set the plate in front of Nick.


“I think I’m going to like it here,” my son announced.


“Isn’t that Carole Bouquet?” Michael pointed across the room to a family seated with a boy about Nick’s age. I thought it probably was the famous French actress, but in the dark, smoky restaurant it was hard to tell. “Could be,” I said. “Film people love this place.”


“I do, too.” Nick stuffed a fry into his mouth.


The waiter appeared with sizzling snails, sending a cloud of garlic and butter floating across the table. Setting the platter down, he whispered something in Nick’s ear. He pointed, and Nick followed the boy from Carole Bouquet’s table out the door. “Do not worry, Madam,” said the waiter solemnly. “It is only the maître d’ organizing games for neighborhood children.”


While we tucked into a plump chicken with crackling skin, Nick ran in to say the woman upstairs had shouted out the window. “She’s calling the gendarmes!” he said, thrilled, before dashing out the door.


The boys were not seen again until the waiter conjured up a whole chocolate cake. They sat together, old friends now, reluctant to join the grown-ups. That was fine with us; we were sipping Cognac strolling from table to table, making friends.


The waiters stood on the sidelines, watching us with fond eyes. The entire restaurant had turned into a dinner party.


It was late when the evening ended. “That,” my son announced as we made our way back to the hotel, “is a very fine restaurant.”


“But all you ate was French fries and chocolate cake,” I pointed out.


“C’mon, Mom,” he replied. “You know restaurants aren’t really about the food. Can we go back tomorrow?”


Ruth Reichl was the restaurant critic of The New York Times from 1993 to 1999, when she left to become editor in chief of Gourmet magazine.


What Is the Wait?

by Samantha Irby


How about: I went to the fancy mall 53 miles away, ostensibly, for a bar of fancy soap. I mean, it wasn’t about the soap as much as it was about needing an excuse to spend a Saturday morning any place other than my house. But an overpriced chunk of glycerin was as good a reason as any.


I dragged my friend Emily with me because looking at stuff I can’t afford alone makes me depressed. The mall parking lot was surprisingly packed for a non-last-minute-holiday-shopping day, and I cursed my poor planning as I was forced to park several miles away from the closest door.


I locked the car, and was nearly mowed down by a horde of people rushing toward the gleaming mall doors — just dozens and dozens of people clawing at and climbing over one another to get to the entrance first. I stopped a man as he threatened to knock the walker out of a woman’s hands and said, “Dude? What in the world is going on here today?” He looked at me as if I’d sprouted a second head, then dove to his left to avoid a pair of sprinting college kids. “We finally got a Cheesecake Factory!” he shouted. “And today is the grand opening!”

A freshly constructed Cheesecake Factory, the ruler of the reheated, prepackaged mall chains, opening only an hourlong car ride and a half a tank of gas away from where I live? Incredible! I fought my way through the throngs of people in sensible gym shoes clustered around the door and made my way to the host stand, where I was informed that there could be a wait of “several hours” between me and a plate of Roadside Sliders.


I watched frustrated packs of tweens sighing and grimacing at their watches, angrily punching orders like “mom get me NOW, k?” into their phones as they stormed away from the host in a huff. Adults pressed their impatient faces against the brand-new cold cases housing the “more than 30 legendary cheesecakes” as their toddlers wailed and tugged at their pant legs, begging them to just feed them the bag of Cheerios they’d left behind in the car.


Was I really going to waste three-plus hours in the middle of a perfectly acceptable weekend outside a restaurant entrance crammed next to a cellphone-case kiosk with your aunts and uncles, waiting to get food I’d already eaten before? I mean, have you ever had that warm brown bread? YES, I WAS.


Good fortune such as this simply doesn’t happen to me, and now all of a sudden I’d accidentally stumbled across the grand opening of the luxurious, wicker-chaired faux-Egyptian-mall-restaurant fantasy of my dreams? There was absolutely no way Emily and I couldn’t put our names in.


My love affair with the Cheesecake Factory had begun much like everyone else’s: A girl in my suburban high school took me there for my 17th birthday, and it was the most glamorous, luxurious place I had ever been, I was genuinely in awe of the 72-page menu, couldn’t believe they bring you a literal goblet of ice water and refill it every 30 seconds — 10-out-of-10, would go again. And I did. Dozens of times. And, OK, maybe I exaggerated the number of menu pages, but you could easily go there once a week for the rest of your life and never get the same thing twice. Try to beat that. You can’t!


Nestled inside a booth the size of a midpriced sedan, backs and knees sore from pacing back and forth in front of Ann Taylor and the North Face while trying not to think about the unhinged ridiculousness of spending an entire day waiting to order something called a SkinnyLicious Caesar Salad, we clinked the bucket-size glasses of our margaritas and sighed. It was worth the wait.


Samantha Irby is the author of the essay collection “Wow, No Thank You.”


The Lunch Rush

by Alexander Chee


In the fall of 1994, one of America’s most famous faces tossed her silverware at me, turning her face away as she did so. “These are filthy,” she said.


I was her lunch waiter at Sfuzzi, a pre-theater Italian restaurant across from Lincoln Center that doubled as a kind of canteen for ABC News, which was around the corner.


I was new and hadn’t waited tables like this before. In these days, someone would hire you just because they liked you, no reference check, and you had to learn everything on the job and make it look like you already knew how to do it. This was my lesson that my section had been seated before I’d polished the table, and it never happened again. We always tried to take special care of this particular celeb, not because she was famous — lots of our customers were — but because she personally had paid to return a murdered busser’s body to Bangladesh after hearing he’d been killed. I still regret my failure whenever her face flashes onscreen.

Working in a restaurant in this part of New York is like starring in a film about yourself where the extras are all stars. I waited on Diane Sawyer, Connie Chung, Barbara Walters, Greg Louganis and Conan O’Brien, among others. One electrifying night, as I picked up the signed check from the table, I saw the name Madeleine L’Engle — the author of a favorite childhood novel — and looked up, but she was already gone, whisking herself across the street to the opera, and universes beyond.


I didn’t usually work lunch. A pre-theater restaurant in New York is the opera before the opera, and the waiters make their money from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. We needed the nerves of a marksman and the steady cheer of a courtesan as we turned two, possibly three seatings of our sections in those three hours. Failing meant only one seating before curtain, or diners’ missing their shows — both unforgivable outcomes. We all worked lunches as something of a favor to the restaurant, as there wasn’t as much money in it as dinner. Most of us were cut once the theater crowd left; I usually arrived at 4:30 and walked home at 9. But I made enough to live on while writing my first novel.


I never understood the magic of the place, but I knew it was durable. The faux-Tuscan yellow pillars, the wicker furniture, the lights on wires and that ridiculous zigzag of raspberry coulis on way too many plates — all of it somehow worked, night after night. The restaurant was a chain out of Texas, and the house cocktail, a frozen Bellini called the Sfuzzi, was allegedly fresh peach, peach schnapps and Prosecco, though the bartenders assured us it was also spiked with vodka.


We delivered to just one customer — Madonna — and our assistant manager took her order and brought it to her personally. I signed my first confidentiality agreement there, so I won’t say what she ordered, but each time I saw the assistant manager leave for her building on Central Park West, I imagined him handing it off to her assistant with the lovelorn smile he made every time someone said her name.


In the year I worked there, each table I served was a lesson on how to live in New York, a strange finishing school. At the end of my time there, I felt as if I understood the city — and maybe even life — in a way that nothing else was going to teach me.


The magic did confer a gift to me, eventually. My brother came to see me at work one night after finishing up at his first finance job. He wasn’t making much money yet. I bought him a glass of Chianti, a Solaia, to surprise him with — a truly fine glass of wine. I don’t recall the year, but I remember his face as he sat and drank it, in his new suit, just happy and lit up from the inside out.


It was a glass of wine that changed his life, he told me many years later, after he became a wine connoisseur. He has a cellar now in Los Angeles, and sometimes, when I visit him and he offers me a glass of wine, I remember, it is an old game between us, one that began that night at Sfuzzi.


Alexander Chee is most recently the author of the essay collection “How To Write An Autobiographical Novel.”


Sunday Dinner

by Adam Platt


When my large, hungry brothers and I were of a young, impressionable eating age, my father, who was working for the United States Foreign Service at the time, would make a point of taking us out to restaurants in the far-off places where we lived.


Growing up in New York, both of my parents viewed restaurants as a window into the buzzing life of any city or culture. They also had a big-city devotion to the idea of cultivating a regular spot for casual breakfasts, or family Sunday dinner. So as we rambled from one place to the other, we became regulars at Hong Kong dim sum palaces, Tokyo yakitori shops, and the assorted dumpling joints and Peking duck restaurants that used to do a brisk business around Beijing, where we lived back in the 1970s.

The first of this great cavalcade of these restaurants the Platt family frequented was a Mongolian barbecue on the outskirts of Taichung, a small city on the western coast of Taiwan, where my parents moved in the 1960s to study Mandarin Chinese. 


In those days, Taiwan was flooded with cooks and restaurateurs who’d lost their livelihood after Mao’s revolution, and the country was a hotbed for classic regional Chinese cooking, as well as culinary innovation. Soup dumplings were popularized there during the ’60s, along with General Tso’s chicken, and Mongolian barbecue joints — which are a kind of hybrid between Japanese tepanyaki and the barbecue traditions of northwest China — were popping up all over the country.


Our favorite Mongolian barbecue was the first restaurant I remember visiting, and I still recall our family dinners there, the way a theater buff remembers the pageantry and wonder of that first Broadway play. We lived in an old Japanese house on the outskirts of the city, and in the early evening, we’d drive out to our favorite barbecue through rice paddies and fields of sugar cane.


I’ve heard that all the Mongolian barbecues in Taiwan are gas operations now, but in those early days, great braziers were heated with wood and charcoal, and as you got closer, you could smell the wood smoke in the air and the faint sweet, sizzling smells of burning lamb and chicken and beef, the way you sometimes do at the great old barbecue joints around the United States.


As with all regulars, we had our little rituals at the Mongolian barbecue, which, as connoisseurs of the genre will know, is a kind of buffet operation that involves choosing your dinner from a variety of marinated meat, vegetable and sauce options, and watching as chefs cook it up on the grill in clouds of smoke and steam. I tasted fresh scallions for the first time at that long-ago restaurant, and sprigs of coriander that I still associate in a small, Proustian way, with that long-ago time back in Taiwan. I tasted lamb marinated in soy and sugar, and cubes of sizzled beef that we’d eat — before we’d ever enjoyed American hamburgers — between freshly made shao bing buns, which were warm out of the oven and dappled with sesame seeds.


Since, in my mind’s eye, it was always summertime at our favorite Mongolian barbecue, we would eat our dinner outside at communal tables that were set up under the trees. My parents would drink beer and we’d drink soda, and if you were still hungry, you could return to the all-you-can-eat buffet for more shao bing and another bowl or two of barbecue. As it got dark, the sounds of crickets and frogs used to fill the air, and you could see fireflies playing high up in the trees. Then, after we’d finished dinner, as a kind of grand finale, my brothers and I would unwrap packets of bottle rockets that we’d purchased earlier in the day, stick them into empty bottles and shoot them out over the rice paddies into the evening sky.


Adam Platt is a longtime restaurant critic for New York magazine and the author of “The Book of Eating: Adventures in Professional Gluttony.”


Send One Over

by Sloane Crosley


It’s a strange thing in New York, to have your favorite local restaurant share the dimensions, if not the cuisine, of an Olive Garden. But so it is with Morandi, in the West Village. Morandi is home to my comfort meal (blistered shishito peppers, cacio e pepe, Negroni). It’s also where I went to work whenever there was construction on my building. If the manager saw me walk in at 8 a.m., he’d wave and turn down the Italian opera music.


In early March, I was having dinner there with a friend, when she nodded over her shoulder and said, “Oh God, that’s Amy Poehler.” I surveyed the cavernous space and sure enough, there was Amy Poehler, also having dinner with a friend.


“What do we do?” asked my friend.

“Do? Are we the kind of people who do anything?”


New York restaurants have never been lacking in celebrity patrons. Part of the magic of eating out here is being in proximity to these people and feeling smug about ignoring them. But Amy Poehler is the exact right brand of fame to compel people like us to make contact, a cross I’m sure she bears with great charm. Still, did we have to be the ones to make her demonstrate this skill?


Two glasses of wine later and yes, absolutely we did. We decided the perfect thing to do would be to send her a dessert. It was an unobtrusive move. Our plates had already been cleared. We would probably be gone by the time she got it.


“What should I tell her?” asked our waiter, once we selected the tiramisù.


“Just tell her we love her,” I said, satisfied, my biggest concern being Amy Poehler’s tolerance for lactose.


That tiramisù came out of the kitchen like a Frisbee. I miss Morandi, I do, but apparently they keep their desserts in a vending machine. The waiter pointed in our direction. Amy smiled and stood. She gestured at us with both hands, which sobered us into the realization that we had no actual desire for this interaction. Still, we gathered our things and wove through the tables only to find: not Amy Poehler. Barely the size and shape of Amy Poehler.


This is a story about the importance of getting one’s vision checked as much as it’s a story about a restaurant.


I stared at this woman’s delighted face, desperately trying to remold her features into Amy Poehler’s. In a stroke of luck, my friend, who also lives in the neighborhood, recognized Blondie’s dinner companion. They’d worked together years ago. So instead of fessing up, we latched onto the coattails of this parallel truth. We explained that in lieu of saying hello like normal people, we thought we’d send over a dessert.


Eager to dispose of my own body, I blocked out most of what was said next. I do remember throwing some abstract “women supporting other women” rhetoric on top like a sprinkling of cocoa powder. I will now remind the ladies and gentlemen of the jury that this tiramisù came with a declaration of love.


The women, confused by the gesture but game to accept it, invited us to sit. They were gracious. They did a banner job of ignoring the demonstrably psychotic elephant in the living room. As the minutes ticked by, the possibility of telling them the truth slipped further away. We couldn’t do it without embarrassing them. During a lull, we announced that we’d leave them to it.


When we got out on the street, my friend and I doubled over laughing, tears in our eyes. Later that night, I texted a friend who sometimes works with Amy Poehler. I don’t know if he ever relayed the story. I hope he did. I wrote: “You tell her some chick ate her tiramisù.”


Sloane Crosley is the author, most recently, of the essay collection “Look Alive Out There.”


Order the Menu

by Bill Buford


For five years, I lived with my family in Lyon, France. And, for five years, we routinely ate at the city’s many bouchons. A bouchon is a unique local venue. It is informal and noisy and a crazy good value, and diners, especially the regulars, tend to change the moment they step inside, as though leaving their inhibitions and their formal Lyonnais reserve in a heap by the door. At a bouchon, you eat and drink without inhibition. You talk to people at the next table. You shout. You sweat. You laugh hard.


One rainy wintry night during our first year in Lyon, when my wife was in London, I arranged a sitter for our children and went on my own to a favorite, le Café Comptoir Abel. Without realizing it, I was participating in another feature of bouchon dining: It is where you go to leave concerns — troubles, drudgeries, duties, worries — behind you. It is like a vacation from yourself. 


I was seated at a small table by the door, with a happy view of a crowded and happy dining space. Abel, which has been serving food since 1726 (and there are few, if any, older eating establishments in the world), was a jumble of oddly configured rooms — I’ve counted at least five, on two floors, but there might well be more — low-ceilinged, a fireplace in each, history nailed on every wall space. On the ground floor was the smallest of kitchens, a chef, two cooks, bumping into each other all night long. There was a three-foot-in-diameter crispy-crusted apple tart on a random table because there was no other place to put it.

I asked for some Beaujolais, and ordered from a menu written on a chalkboard. I was surrounded by diners in a condition of high voracious appetite — a family of eight, four professional women on a night out, a group of 10 (which turned out to be an amateur dining club of bouchon eaters), couples, the very young and the very old. Plates arrived, first courses (foie gras and artichokes, or a salade lyonnaise), more wine and then the plat principal (various chickens, kidneys, a blood sausage called boudin noir, quenelles made from the local lake fish, sweetbreads, tripe), cheese (a fromage blanc, the first “fresh” cheese, often from the Alps, or a Saint-Marcellin, Brie-like and a Lyonnais favorite), more wine, dessert (that apple tart, baba au rhum, fondant au chocolat — no one in the room saying “no” to dessert), and an after-dinner spirit made by the monks of Chartreuse. Everybody had everything.


How can they eat like that? I eat a lot, really a lot, and I can’t eat like that. And yet, on this particular night, no one in the restaurant — the diners, the servers, the kitchen crew — was in the least overweight. We would see this over and over: No one goes out to eat with more relish, more abandon, with higher expectations of sheer outsize pleasure than these skinny Lyonnais.


At one time, nutritionists described the phenomenon as the French Paradox — in effect, a population’s determination to scarf artery-clogging quantities of animal fats, and its surprising ability not to be adversely affected by it. The theory is not a French one, if only because the French know that how we think they eat is not how they eat normally at all. And their normal is pretty much how most of us are eating lately: at home.


In Lyon, we found ourselves surrounded by the sensory messengers of people making food. Around 11:30, noon, we would smell one — usually meat roasting — as we climbed the stairs to our fourth-floor apartment. On evenings in the summer, our kitchen windows open, we heard another in families’ sitting down to their dinners, the soft percussion of cutlery on plates.


On Sunday mornings, we saw still another in the bounty of farmers’ produce (cherries, sausages, tomatoes and translucent, just-picked lettuces) acquired at the market on the quay of the river Saône and blossoming, like an unruly bouquet of flowers, from their hand-pulled caddies.


Like us, of late, the Lyonnais buy their ingredients, make their food, eat it at home, clean up afterward. Lunch is more important than dinner, dairy at the end of the meal (cheese, yogurt), a slice of ham in the evenings, a salad, an omelet and especially soups, arising out of a frugal culture’s resolve to waste nothing (broth-making from the chicken bones, jam from the summer’s bounty). But what they make is basically not so different from what we are doing now, feeding our families, every day.


But they are different from us in this one regard: When they then go to a restaurant, it is a high moment in their month.

What I saw that night as I ate alone at Abel — the electric-seeming thrill that lit up every diner there — was a feeling of privilege, among the greatest privileges of life, unifying appetite and desire and thirst and aesthetics and culture and the profound need for community, of being served food that someone else has made for us to enjoy. The diners insisted on missing nothing.


Bill Buford is the author of the just-published “Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking.”


Seafood Two Ways

by Carmen Maria Machado


When I was a child, my family went to Red Lobster exactly once, but I have no memory of it. I only know that the experience was terrible because for the rest of my young life, every time we drove past the hated location, my mother would sneer, “Red Lobster” under her breath, as if she were recounting the true name of a cherished enemy.


I pleaded for it — I’d heard so many good things about the Cheddar bay biscuits, and I loved shrimp, and every time the Endless Shrimp commercial came on, my whole body went electric — but my mother comes from a long line of Midwestern grudge-holders, which she could wield against corporations as easily as people; I knew in my heart of hearts that she would not darken the threshold of a Red Lobster if it were the last restaurant at the tail end of the apocalypse. The kind of seafood I wanted — shellfish in huge, heaping mouthfuls — felt as far away from me as adulthood.

And then I was an adult. I was 19, in college in Washington, D.C. One evening, some friends invited me to join them in Georgetown, and then — halfway through a two-bus journey to get there — bailed. When I arrived at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street, I stood in the early evening light trying to figure out what to do with myself. This was before smartphones, and so when I decided I would get something to eat, I had to simply walk from storefront to storefront, glancing at the menus in the windows. I made the mistake of asking one hostess why the menu had no prices; I couldn’t bring myself to go much further after that.


I turned onto a side street, where there was a small seafood bistro on the C & O Canal. I went inside and was seated at a table next to the water. Sitting there, I realized with a small jolt that I had never dined alone before, and drunk with a sudden sense of time’s terrifying advancement, ordered the most adult thing on the menu: a bowl of mussels, clams and oysters, swimming in a milky, buttery broth, with a bright wedge of lemon tucked on the side of the plate.


I had never eaten oysters or mussels before; my only experience with clams was at a clambake when I was 12. My childhood dentist pressured me into trying one. I did, and hated it — it felt like swallowing another person’s tongue. But as I sat in the bistro, I thought: I am an adult now. I am eating dinner next to the water. I eat bivalves.


I thought these things in the same way you put on a new hat, tilting your chin before the mirror to see if you like who you’re looking at. I folded the spine of the lemon over the dish. I cracked shell after shell against their hinges, soaking thick bread in the broth when I noticed another patron — an older woman, looking as content as I felt — doing the same.


When the meal was over, I walked for a while, because it seemed that adults who dined alone also sometimes walked for a while, with no destination in particular. The last thing I remember of the evening is standing in front of the Swedish Embassy; an elegant, minimalistic Scandinavian monolith on the banks of the Potomac. How I got back to my dorm is anyone’s guess.


Last year, in the middle of the book tour for my memoir, “In the Dream House,” I found myself staying in a hotel in a mall. I was 33, too tired to walk anywhere, too jet-lagged and weary from travel to get myself to a bistro of any kind. The nearest restaurant, as it turned out, was a Red Lobster, a few hundred feet from the hotel’s back door.


I ordered an old-fashioned, a Caesar salad — my old book-tour standby — and a shrimp cocktail. I tried a biscuit, and for the first time in my life understood why my grandmother used to stuff the contents of complimentary bread baskets into her foil-lined purse. And the shrimp! They circled a martini glass full of ice; each one was massive, practically a small lobster. In this pandemic era, I cannot help but think: What a miracle! To choose a restaurant and get there on your own steam and order a meal and pay for it with your money and then to eat every single bite.


Carmen Maria Machado is the author of “In the Dream House” and “Her Body and Other Parties.”


(Source: NYT)


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