For Valentine's Day, well, actually the day before, I wanted to take Steph to a restaurant I hadn't been to since college.
I had originally planned to go there as a surprise for her birthday almost a year before, but friends got a hold of us last minute and we went out with them instead. It's a good thing our plans changed. To have eaten dinner at this restaurant on her birthday would've been a slap in her face.
"Happy birthday. Here's
The first time I went there, I was a junior or senior in college. This is what I remember:
The lighting was dim, therefore casting elegant shadows. Paintings of flowers, old things, and Victorian drama hung from the walls, which were painted green, the color of dewy leaves. The full bar was a glossy brown under the light, reaching all the way to the ceiling, which was treasured in tin ceiling panels. Opening the menu, the prices were steep. Diners were doling out $30-plus dollars for a single meal.
They dabbed the corners of their mouths after they took a bite and held pinkies in the air. To read the menu, gentleman pulled out their monocles, while the ladies held their spectacles on a stick.
I think my boss (I worked at the journalism education office at the time) was paying the tab, but I felt guilty even looking at the expensive food. Lamb for $32? Jambalaya-stuffed quail for $32? Peach-bacon New York Strip for $27? Pork Medallion Diane for the cost of your first born?
On the next page were more pedestrian options, so I opted for the chicken brie raspberry for half the price of the lamb. After I ordered, I remember sitting in the restaurant feeling so fancy. Which fork do I use? How do I hold my water glass? Oops, did I just bump your elbow? The General will be joining us in the study for brandy and Cuban cigars?
Once the plate was delivered (was that a flock of angels accompanying the waiter?), I cut into the chicken and light poured out of it. I made sure each bite of chicken had a nugget of melted brie, a drizzle of raspberry reduction, and some crunch of pine nuts. That adventurous first bite entered my palate and my senses exploded with the most exotic food I had ever eaten.
What is this cheese called brie you speak of? Where has it been all my life?
Why wouldn't I want to surprise my wife for her birthday/Valentine's Day with such extravagance?
Stand down diamond rings and flowers and chocolates!
Over ten years later, I found myself sitting at the restaurant, my vision tarnished.
Before we entered the restaurant, it took me 10 minutes just to parallel park the giant Ford Taurus station wagon I call my car. It was so bad that some dude taking a smoking break outside the bar down from the restaurant came to our aid and tried to help by rotating his hands this way and that. It didn't help. I should've just gotten out of the car and had him do it.
Once we got into the restaurant (we had reservations), we had to wait a good 10 minutes. We looked up and down the room to find that the constituency was all over 55 years of age. Sure, the other room had a few younger couples, but most of the people were wrinkled, wearing tweed and walking slow.
Finally, we were seated at our table all the way toward the back. Where it was cold.
Steph wore her coat the entire dinner. She opened the menu and gazed at the choices, and didn't know what to order -- not because it all sounded so good, but because it all sounded so, well, meh.
We ordered the Cremini Crostini as our appetizer. They were toasted baguettes topped with sassy cheese, mushrooms, and boredom with a drizzle of sherry reduction. They weren't terrible. They weren't warm. It was something we could've easily dished up on our own without even consulting Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."
After placing all that pity in our mouths, I didn't feel like riding into the realm of $30 dinners.
Reading the menu was like watching the play "Our Town."
We settled on the chicken brie raspberry.
After we ordered, it was decided that our waitress, the food, the order, and the attempt at being a good restaurant were all lost in time. Steph's teeth were practically chattering. She hunched over, holding herself she was so cold, and we sat and watched all the tables around us get their food.
Finally, after we named that passing glacier, our swollen breasts of chicken arrived. I cut off the tip, smeared it in the raspberry reduction and made sure to have that glorious chunk of brie ready for my taste buds. We both placed these bites into our mouths. I hoped for a flavor explosion that would knock us back, reigniting our dinner with renewed vigor.
We chewed. We swallowed. A horn in the restaurant went "wah wah."
We continued to cut the chicken, smear it in reduction, grab some brie and chew, yawning.
We were uninspired, especially since the chicken wasn't seasoned.
I mean, c'mon! There was brie! There was raspberry reduction! But, where was the flavor?
We ate and ate, and we weren't really full, but we were so bored with the dinner that we gave up. We both tied our napkins to our knives and waved them in the air.
Later, I tried to understand what had happened. How could a restaurant that was once so divine become something so vanilla?
Because my palate has grown more sophisticated. Since college, I have become more adventurous in my eating. Steph and I are adventurous in our cooking. We are adventurous in our ingredients. Cooking and trying out new flavors, going to restaurants that have an eclectic menu has become a sort of hobby for us.
We consider ourselves amateur foodies.
The reason dinner was so bad is because we both could've cooked it better.
And we have.