During a business trip to New York, I sniff out some luxurious dining at my brother's restaurant.
Due to the threat of wind, my flight to New York was delayed by almost two hours. Had it been a vacation, I might not have minded, but this was business. So the only thing I had to look forward to once I arrived was dinner at the restaurant where my brother works, and the way the night was going, I’d be cutting it close; the kitchen would close at midnight.
I cabbed it directly from LaGuardia to Hearth, a restaurant where my brother had recently taken a job as a manager. In addition to my three-ounce liquids and gels in my luggage, I was also carrying a meatball sandwich from lunch in my stomach and the weight of the world on my shoulders. I finally freed myself from the clogged arteries of Manhattan and walked in the door, exhausted and sad.
Almost immediately, I spotted my brother. He sprang forward in a suit and tie and greeted me with a smile. The first thing he did was relieve me of my bag. Second, he sat me at the bar and told the bartender to fix me a cocktail.
My brother had worked as a waiter at Hearth years ago. He’d been offered a management position there three times but, Caesar-like, he kept turning it down, until frustrations with previous jobs finally left him open to a change. From my perch at the bar, I watched him make his rounds through the dining room, glad-handing diners and generally looking like he was in his element, when the cocktail was set in front of me.
It was dark orange, and from it emerged a long wooden skewer on which was impaled a gnarled object, about the size of a tortellini.
“How did you describe this drink?” I asked the bartender.
“An ‘aperitif,’” he replied. “It’s a pre-dinner drink to stimulate the appetite–”
“No, I mean what’s in it?”
The drink contained red vermouth and Campari. The object on the skewer was a charred onion. The oil from the onion commingled itself among the other ingredients to create the oddly refreshing sensation of drinking grilled orange juice. It performed its function as an aperitif; the meatball sandwich was barely a memory.
• • •
The next thing I knew, I was chasing a tiny wedge of artichoke around a plate with my fork. “C’mere, you!” I caught myself thinking. What was making me so playful, when mere hours (and hours) earlier I was glowering at a ticket counter at O’Hare?
Maybe it was the French chardonnay, my second drink of the night. The bartender informed me that it was not aged in oak, like a lot of California chardonnays are. It was cleaner tasting, more citrus-y, and free of the creamy overtones that tend to give me a mild hangover before I’ve even swallowed my first sip.
A dark brown liquid had been drizzled over the artichoke salad, bringing an earthy, almost smoky flavor. “Is it some kind of mole sauce?” I asked the bartender.
“No,” he replied. “It’s… Hey Matt, what’s the brown sauce on the salad?”
“Black truffle vinaigrette,” my brother answered.
I see. Yes, I see.
I’ve never had a truffle, and I have no idea how many steps removed from an actual truffle this vinaigrette was, but I think I caught a bit of their mystique. No more than a splash managed to inform the whole dish with depth, and maybe even a little exoticism.
While I waited for the next course, I spoke with Matt about his new job. After some frustrations from the worlds of acting, waiting tables, and convincing bars to sell Czech beer, he’d discovered new satisfaction in a job that combined his knowledge of how restaurants work with his background in performance and salesmanship. We commiserated about how difficult it is to change directions when you’re disenchanted with how your life is going, then he left to have some animated, happy interactions with some of his staff.
“So you’re here on business?” the bartender asked me. “What do you do?”
It was a good question. At the moment, I could not remember.
Luckily, that’s when my entrée arrived. Along with a small serving of gnocchi so tender it vanished upon contact with my tongue, I got monkfish wrapped in speck. “Speck” is cold-smoked prosciutto, the Platonic ideal of bacon, and it played perfectly with the sweet, plump medallions of fish. It was served on a bed of lentils that soaked up the salt and sea to complement everything.
With it came a glass of bold, spicy Australian red that was so dry it sucked all the saliva out of my head.
This was shaping up to be one of those meals that make all your joints sag with happiness.
“Shampoo, to answer your question,” I told the bartender. “I’m trying to get people to buy more shampoo.”
“Oh!” he said.
• • •
As I cloistered away the last of the monkfish, my brother stopped by to ask if I was up for dessert. In truth, I was not, but what kind of jerk would I have to be to refuse to glance at the menu?
Eureka. Peanut butter chocolate tart. Served with caramel ice cream.
My lower lip trembled. I pretended I had something in my eye.
It emerged from the kitchen, a gorgeous, richly brown disc of decadence. I put my faith in the bartender for one last drink, and he poured me some sherry that was two years older than me. It trickled into the glass, dark and thick like Karo syrup.
“Have you ever had a Coke and a Snickers bar?” he asked. (Add French fries, and you have my lunch through my freshman year of high school.) “The Snickers bar makes the Coke taste like soda water. Coke isn’t sweet enough. This sherry is about the only thing we have that stands up to this dessert.”
I tried. Oh, how I tried. Bacchanalian though it was, I could not finish it. I admitted defeat with an eighth of a tart left on my plate. My brain, usually such a lenient authority figure in these situations, finally stepped in and intervened.
So I set down my fork, reclaimed my luggage, bid my brother goodbye, and floated into the warm Manhattan autumn to hail a cab to my hotel.
• • •
In my room, ironically, there was no shampoo. The next morning, before my meeting, I had to wash my hair with hotel soap.
The Banquet of Life is a bi-weekly look at one man's life through the food he eats.